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Jostling for Position before Presidential Elections

Eleven dead after attacks in Abbasiyya Square.

The condition of Egypt is quietly very concerning these days. I say quietly for two reasons. First, in terms of the Western audience, most is slipping under the radar. Second, in terms of Egypt, the nation waits for presidential elections, and the areas of concern are easily ignored if no attention is paid to news headlines and their fascination with politics.

Yet it is in the realm of politics that power is often determined. Often, I say, because once again this struggle has been taken into the street.

Reminiscent of clashes prior to the legislative elections, eleven people at least were killed recently while demonstrating against the military council. Still, the odd quiet continues as these protests are near the Ministry of Defense in Abbasiyya, not in the iconic Tahrir Square.

Furthermore, they are characterized as ‘Salafi’ protests, as the initial gathering was by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. The long-bearded presidential candidate was barred from competing at the last moment when it was determined his mother held American nationality. Current law requires candidates and their parents to hold Egyptian nationality alone.

Abu Ismail claimed fraud and conspiracy, and his followers took first to Tahrir, and then to Abbasiyya. There, they had been joined by many of traditional revolutionary spirit, looking to end military rule completely. The size of the sit-in was substantial without being overwhelming. Most in Egypt were just ignoring it.

But nothing in Egypt can be simple or straightforward. Repeatedly over the last week ‘thugs’ attacked the sit-in around midnight through the hours until dawn. As usual, the thugs are not identifiable with any particular party, but most assume some connection with either the military council or the old regime elements still clinging to their positions.

Yet this has been seen before, and the pattern is predictable. The best way to escalate a protest is to attack it. True to form, protestors have been increasing since then, and political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are calling for massive protests tomorrow on Friday.

In past writing I have sought to dive into all of the different conspiracy theories to try to make sense of the senseless violence and loss of life. Perhaps reflective of the odd quiet is that my mind is boggled sufficiently after fifteen months of conspiracy that I am unable to do so and reluctant to try. Instead, the task requires description of the politics preceding the street fighting.

For months, the aforementioned Muslim Brotherhood has escalated its rhetoric against both the ruling government cabinet and the military council which stands behind it. Both prior to and following the disqualification of their own primary candidate for president – Khairat al-Shater – the MB has called for this cabinet to be sacked. In its place they ask to form the government themselves, as they reflect the majority will of the people in parliament.

The military council has refused, as is appropriate, even according to previous MB logic. During the run-up to parliamentary elections many liberal and revolutionary forces objected to the roadmap laid out by the military council. Rightly, the MB insisted on the ‘will of the people’ as represented in the results of the March popular referendum, which endorsed the military roadmap.

Yet this roadmap also made it clear the parliament had limited responsibilities which do not include executive authority. The MB recognizes this, but now translates the ‘will of the people’ into parliament composition, in which they are chief. The MB speaker of parliament took the unilateral step of suspending parliament activity as a pressure tool – since they cannot sack the cabinet themselves – and this was without any consensus from the larger body. It is not clear if he even called a full vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood is running a candidate for president, but he was the backup to al-Shater, and does not appear to enjoy wide popularity. The race – barring more surprises – has shaped into a choice between a former MB member, Abdel Munim Abul Futuh, and a former member of Mubarak’s cabinet, Amr Moussa.

Abul Futuh was expelled from the MB when he early on declared his intention to run for president while the group denied ambition to the post. He is an Islamist, but within this spectrum he is widely credited as a liberal.

Moussa, meanwhile, does not suffer unduly from the stain of Mubarak’s legacy as he enjoyed a lengthy tenure in the Arab League, away from the running, and corruption, of government. At the same time, due to his connections with government he benefits from the desire on the street to see a return to stability and is a somewhat anti-revolutionary figure, as opposed to the necessity of reform.

Some conspiracies say Abul Futuh is the secret MB candidate, and that his expulsion is theater. Others say Moussa is the candidate of the old regime, with the military seeking its re-formation through him.

And then there are the conspiracies which abound over the recent violence. Do some powers not want the issue of power decided in presidential elections? Is this the last final push before executive authority – of any stripe – is reasserted?

If so, is it from the frustrated youth who have seen their precious revolution mangled in the halls of politics?

Is it from the frustrated Salafis who have seen their populist candidate barred on the slightest of violations, if not on fraud altogether?

Is it from the frustrated Muslim Brotherhood, who also had a candidate barred and find themselves trapped in a powerless parliament?

Is it from the frustrated old regime, which finds itself on its last legs and is desperately trying to discredit the revolution and its democratic transition?

Is it from the frustrated military council, which desires to hold on to its privileges – if not its rule – while presidential frontrunners cannot necessarily be trusted to play along with it?

It is best, fitting with the lethal quiet, to put aside the conspiracies and simply say yes to all of the above, to whatever degree. There is a deep conflict over power playing out its final acts. This struggle has been rumbling ever since the revolution succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak but failing to decisively result in a change of system. Each actor has a role. As it may not result in one winner-take-all, each is seeking their biggest slice of the pie.

Given there are no deep patterns of democratic succession, it is unsurprising the conflict spills out into other means, even violence.

Yet it is the violence that is most concerning. Weapons have proliferated. Militant attacks occur in the Sinai. Suspicious fires – literal flames – have broken out across Egypt. While they may simply be the work of coincidence, the question of who is ‘burning Egypt’ has been a popular query, even if a manipulated one.

So, eleven Egyptians are dead in Abbasiyya, added to the post-revolutionary toll. Perhaps on Friday their numbers will swell further. Is more violence coming, or was the violence simply a means to increase the crowds?

Last time there was such violence, in November at Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir, it brought about a change in government as the cabinet was sacked. If the conspiracy which posits a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military/old regime is in play, will we see the same soon?

Or, as a leftist presidential candidate with little chance of victory has interpreted this deal, will it result in a military coup? Recall, these protests are not in Tahrir; Abbasiyya hosts the military headquarters.

Perhaps one day Egypt will settle. Perhaps the positive social forces unleashed in the revolution will eventually coalesce into open and transparent governance.

These days are not now. It is likely Egypt must suffer a little while longer. There are three weeks remaining until presidential elections.

Perhaps, only perhaps, these will signal the end of transitional troubles.


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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Candidacy


Give Egypt a good government; give Egypt a good president.

For now there are many choices: At the least, four figures from the former regime, four Islamists, two leftists, and two old school opposition figures. Candidacy has opened, but not yet closed. How many will remain until election day?

Unfortunately, that is part of the drama. Speculation is rife that some candidates only run to drop out later to aid another or secure a deal of some form or another. Then, accusation is rife that certain candidates are ineligible for one reason or another.

The major development is that the Muslim Brotherhood entered the race, despite giving assurances early they would refrain from seeking the presidency. On their heels Mubarak’s spy chief then committed, widely understood as their chief adversary in the former regime.

But God, so much is ‘widely understood’ in different directions. So few seem pleased with their choices save for the dedicated partisans. So many seem afraid these are less elections than national theater. Yet a recent poll suggests 95% of the electorate plans to vote.

Bless the Egyptian people, God. May this exercise represent true democracy. Judge back to the revolution itself – were you pleased? Preserve all that was good; sideline all that was suspect. Build institutions and processes; allow candidates only a secondary importance.

Weigh the motivations of all, God, and humble or elevate accordingly.

In the end, God, give Egypt the one most fitting to your good and righteous aims. You install kings, and take them down. Merge your will with the people’s empowerment. Honor Egypt with her leader.


Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

The Blind Sheikh and the NGO Crisis: Rally at the US Embassy

English: Photo of Omar Abdel-Rahman


One of the interesting subplots to the Egyptian revolution is the fate of Omar Abdel Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, who is incarcerated in America for his role in organizing the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center. His family has maintained a small sit-in protest outside the US Embassy in Cairo since August, convinced of his innocence. They believe he was framed due to pressure from Mubarak to silence him over his harsh criticism of the regime.

In recent days this undercurrent has intersected with a major crisis in Egyptian-US relations. The Egyptian judiciary has placed 43 NGO personnel under investigation, including 19 Americans, some of whom have been issued a travel ban. It concerns the post-revolutionary work of these NGOs, which are alleged to have instigated the protests and street fighting in and around Tahrir Square.

The rumors run even deeper. It is alleged the offices of the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute possessed maps of Egypt identifying the location of churches, so as to spark sectarian tension. Other maps pictured Egypt divided into four small states. One would be specifically for Copts, another for Nubians, and a third under Israeli administration.

On Saturday, February 18, the family of Omar Abdel Rahman hosted a rally and press conference outside the embassy at the site of the sit-in. While only around two hundred people attended, speakers included several prominent Islamist and revolutionary figures.

The session was entitled: Americans have sent their agents, so where is parliament in terms of its scholars? Demanding parliament interfere for the return of the Azhar scholar (Omar Abdel Rahman).

Islamist lawyer Muntasir al-Zayyat achieved fame by defending many Islamists against the accusations of the Mubarak government during the years of his crackdown against them. He accused the US of violating its own laws in the detention of Omar Abdel Rahman, and led the call to parliament to sponsor the cause and pressure the military council to demand the US return him to Egypt. He wondered aloud why there were so few people in attendance, while a Salafi scholar detained in Egypt recently mobilized 70,000 people on his behalf.

Mamdouh Ismail is the vice president for the Salafi Asala Party. During an early session of parliament he interrupted proceedings and issued the call to prayer. The Muslim Brotherhood speaker of parliament silenced him and told him to pray in the outside mosque.

Ismail noted that it was Omar Abdel Rahman who taught Egypt the ways of revolution and opposing oppression during his long struggle against Mubarak’s regime. He harshly criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party, as well as the Building and Development Party of the Blind Sheikh’s own al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, for failing to champion his cause. He believed liberals would not oppose the initiative, blaming Islamists for letting him languish in a foreign prison.

Magdy Ahmed Hussein is a leader in the Islamist-leaning Labor Party, and leveled vitriolic criticism against America. He state the United States, like all tyrants, will not submit to any ‘request’ but only to the response of power. He thundered that Egypt could do without US aid, and floated the idea of attacking Israel. He accused Islamists of being weak, catering to the United States and failing to impose sharia law.

One man cried out from the audience, ‘No, it is the Brotherhood only!’

Interestingly, Hussein’s bravado faded as he addressed Egyptian action. We should send from this rally a delegation to parliament – today, but tomorrow would be fine. We should ask them to consider our request, but be sure not to put too much pressure on them since they have a busy agenda. We should also take care not to have a big rally or march, as there is enough of that in Egypt already.

The next speaker was Hany Hanna, known popularly as the Preacher of the Revolution, for leading Christian prayers from the stage in Tahrir Square. He counseled that all Egyptians must be treated without distinction, whether they are Muslim or Christian. He warned that many divide between these citizens – between Islamists and Copts, and even against ‘foreign Copts’.

Furthermore, he stated that the government is now going after liberal NGOs in Egypt in the same manner it previously restricted Islamic organizations, and called for the sympathy of those present. In addition, he chided the conference for consistently calling for the release of the ‘Muslim’ or the ‘scholar’, but not for the release of the ‘Egyptian’. Our hope is in God for the release of Omar Abdel Rahman, he declared, but we must be a state of rights to pursue his cause justly.

To note, a son of the Blind Sheikh told me Hanna has been present at every rally for his father since the sit-in began.

Tarek al-Zumor is a leading member of the Building and Development Party of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya, and is the brother of Abbud al-Zumor who led planning for the assassination of Sadat. He praised the revolution as one of the youth, which included Islamists, liberals, socialists, and all manner of Egyptians. He reminded, then, that though Abdel Rahman is now old, he has pursued an anti-Mubarak revolution since the days of his youth.

He urged effort to be made to free the Blind Sheikh despite US pressure and aid, believing America to be dedicated to extinguishing the fires of the Arab revolutions.

The highlighted speaker, however, was no less a luminary than Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, the Salafi candidate for president of Muslim Brotherhood heritage. He spoke with a calm and dignified demeanor in contrast to the bombast of many others.

He drew a parallel between the case of Omar Abdel Rahman and that of the US NGO personnel in Egypt. Both are judicial matters independent of politics – or – both are issues of national security. Either way, they should be treated the same and Egypt should not bow to US pressure.

In terms of the judicial angle, Abu Ismail criticized the Egyptian government in the case of the alleged US-Israeli spy Ilan Grapel. Charges of espionage were brought against him by the court, but he was later surrendered as part of a prisoner exchange with Israel. The trouble is that the judicial process was not completed, even if only in issuance of an official pardon. The Americans accused in the current NGO dispute must go through the full examination of Egyptian law.

The United States, however, is looking to expedite this process through extra-judicial pressure and threats of withdrawing US aid. He believes the US wishes to solve this crisis during the transitional period of military government.

The Egyptian government – and parliament – has been lax in terms of its pressure on behalf of Omar Abdel Rahman. For them it has been a matter of patience – ‘we have many matters to attend to in the revolution, perhaps just a week or so more’. He believes it is shameful his family has been forced to endure this.

Rather, US pressure must be met by Egyptian pressure, or else the situation will calm and everyone will forget about the Blind Sheikh again. If this threatens to cost Egypt the substantial US aid package, let us call their bluff. He imagines the US is too cowardly to actually withdraw its money.

Why? In reality, he says, it is not ‘aid’ at all. Most of the money is delivered directly to the military establishment and used to purchase US weapons – a American government subsidy, in essence, to the arms industry. The small percentage of money spent on civil society, meanwhile, largely pays the salary of US citizens who run US linked NGO programs.

The United States, furthermore, should not be understood as a ‘righteous’ nation with which to deal. It uses its ‘aid’ to pressure every nation of the region – save Turkey and Iran – into supporting Israel, while paying lip service to principles of democracy, freedom, and rule of law. Then the US turns back home and exports its political prison to Guantanamo so that it can escape its own principles of freedom and rule of law. This is the context in which the struggle to free Omar Abdel Rahman must be waged.

Between speakers an official designate issued chants which the crowd repeated. These included:

  • The people want Omar Abdel Rahman
  • Parliament, parliament, where is Omar Abdel Rahman?
  • Oh military, where is the Azhar scholar?
  • Fight, fight for Islam; rule, rule by the Qur’an
  • Why does America oppress the free? Jailing Abdel Rahman is sinful.
With Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh's Son; Translation: Open Sit-In: To Support the Imprisoned Scholar and to Work to Return him to his Country, with God's Permission

As for the case of Omar Abdel Rahman itself, this requires more investigation.

It is noteworthy, however, that his family claims Mubarak pressured the US administration to jail him out of fear the United States would make of him an Ayatollah Khomeini and return him as a champion to Egypt, as France had done earlier to Iran.

Rumors and rumblings in Egypt suggest a possible solution to the NGO crisis may amount to a trade of the Blind Sheikh for the detained American NGO personnel. The upcoming trial, if the legal system runs its course, anticipates these Americans held in a courtroom cage, as per Egyptian custom. It is an image that will resonate deeply with the American public, and even invoke memories, if not wildly inaccurate comparisons, to the Iranian hostage crisis.

In an atmosphere of charged politics and conspiracy theories, the NGO crisis plays into fears of foreign interference. Among analysts who doubt these NGOs have done anything amiss, they bill the affair either as playacting to buttress the popularity of the military council, or else designed to move Egypt out of the US orbit, by hook or crook.

Is something major brewing geopolitically at the Blind Sheikh sit-in outside the US Embassy in Cairo? Or are these the sincere, devoted efforts of a family to reunite with their father, against an American justice system that will never bend to pressure? Or, finally, is it a simple matter of justice for a man long – and perhaps wrongly – imprisoned?

Revolutionary Egypt holds far more questions than answers. The case of the Blind Sheikh is far below even the local media radar, but bears monitoring all the same.


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