Diocese of Egypt (Anglican) Middle East Published Articles

Tragedy Strikes Sudanese Church in Heliopolis

Members and friends of the St. Michael’s Church congregation gather to pray.
Members and friends of the St. Michael’s Church congregation gather to pray.

One child is dead and eight women are hospitalized following the Sunday explosion of three gas bottles, sparking a fire in the Kilo 4.5 neighborhood of Nasr City in Cairo. The group of ladies were preparing a meal for a meeting at the St. Gabriel Center, a Sudanese social center and ministry of St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Heliopolis.

Youssef Attiya, a nine-month-old infant, succumbed to smoke inhalation and died this morning. His mother Mona Ismail remains in critical condition in the Galaa Hospital of Nasr City.

Ikhlas Ali is also in critical condition, suffering burns over 90 percent of her body. She is two months pregnant and the wife of Rev. Hassan Jemes, associate pastor of St. Michael’s in charge of the Sudanese congregation. Hospital staff at the Nile Emergency Center in Nasr City said she has little chance to survive, according to Rev. Jos Strengholt, dean of East Cairo Anglican churches and priest-in-charge at St. Michael’s.

Another child, nine-year-old Sonita Musa, suffered a bad head wound but was discharged this morning. Her mother Aziza Ibrahim remains hospitalized but is in stable condition. According to Shawgi Kori, director of St. Gabriel’s Center, Ibrahim helped around eight other women and children escape the fire, pushing several through a window, before being injured herself.

The meal was to be in commemoration of a child relative of one of the church members who recently died in Sudan. The explosion blasted pots of boiling oil to the ceiling, which then sprayed onto several women. The church community is now organizing rounds of visitation to care for the injured and the needs of their families.

The St. Gabriel’s Center serves the large Sudanese refugee population of Nasr City without discrimination. It runs a clinic, a vocational training program, English lessons, and provides a social outlet especially for women and youth in the neighborhood. One of the injured women is a Muslim.

“These are women associated with our church,” said Rev. Strengholt, stating only two have medical insurance. “We are committed to helping them whatever we need to do.”

Prayers are requested for the injured at this time. For more and updated information please contact Rev. Strengholt through the church website.

This article was first published at the Anglican diocese website.


Clarity in the Midst of Mud: Taking Stock of Egypt’s Situation

Clarity in the Midst of Mud

I wish I was able to succinctly summarize what is happening in Egypt these days. Instead, I am a victim of information overload and competing media narratives. Bear with me and I’ll do my best.

On one side, the president and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters have claimed a conspiracy against them. On the other, liberals see the working of an Islamist plot to seize control of the state and enforce a religious agenda through their flawed constitution.

But if understood only this way, it enforces the narrative that Egypt is witnessing a struggle between Islamists and liberals. Supporters of democracy around the world might say, ‘Didn’t the Islamists win? Don’t they deserve their agenda? It appears they are not nearly the bogeymen we thought them to be.’

Yes and no. Morsi won the election by the smallest of margins, and many of his supporters did so mainly to oppose the other candidate, of whom they feared a return to the former regime. The main youth movement of the revolution, called April 6, and his primary Islamist competitor for the presidency, Aboul Fotouh, now campaign against him and this constitution, after earlier lending their support.

One major complaint is the constitution and its formation. Liberals withdrew from the writing process, believing it was dominated by Islamists. Morsi then preached conspiracy to assume (allegedly temporary) dictatorial powers to preempt the courts from striking it down before a referendum. Amid the outrage Morsi gave up these powers but kept in place all decisions he took while possessing them. Among them was control over public prosecution and immunizing the constitution from judicial review.

The other major complaint is the conduct of Islamists during the protests against Morsi’s decisions. Though the Brotherhood swears innocence, they sent pro-Morsi demonstrators to an area occupied by the opposition. When violence erupted, they claimed to be the victims. Certainly their headquarters were attacked across the country, and they assert members of their group were killed. But testimony and video is plentiful that during the clashes they apprehended their opponents and, well, extracted confessions.

Furthermore, Islamists are camped outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, leading judges to suspend work at the offense toward and interference in the judiciary. They also surround Media Production City, where satellite channels and their popular talk shows are produced. They demand the media be cleansed for spreading lies about them, but so far, both Islamist sit-ins have been peaceful. They state, however, they are ready to act if Morsi is unseated.

Is there an effort to do so? Demonstrators have certainly chanted for his regime to fall like Mubarak’s, but political leaders say they wish only to delay or cancel the referendum and achieve a consensual constitution. For the reasons given above though, they claim his legitimacy is either gone or hanging by a thread. And, it is evident some in the liberal media speak with extreme hyperbole and perhaps manipulate the narrative in their favor.

So today, two rival, thousands-strong demonstrations are set to square off within a distance of several city blocks. Protestors will march to and encamp at the presidential palace in Heliopolis; supporters will gather in nearby Nasr City. Both sides assure their intentions are peaceful and will keep separate to avoid sparking violence. Yet just this morning the ongoing sit-in protest at Tahrir was attacked by unknown assailants.

Islamists insist the protests against the constitution are manufactured and reflective of a small minority of Egyptians. Morsi shows no sign of backing down, insisting to hold the referendum in four days. Indeed, no matter their numbers, it seems opponents can do little to stop what they believe to be an illegitimate process. Unless the army intervenes or social strife erupts, their only recourse will be to vote ‘no’.

It is hard to imagine good liberals justifying either military intervention or national riots to achieve their goals. It is also hard to imagine what Islamists have to gain by assaulting their opponents, as they own the status quo momentum. Perhaps the hardcore and corrupt old regime supporters have had a hand. Islamists certainly claim this, as they paint with broad strokes accusing them of collusion with the liberals. Presented evidence, meanwhile, is scant.

But despite the assurances of all, the threat of violence is in the air. Each side warns of violence if Egypt continues down this path, yet Egypt continues all the same. Perhaps nothing will come of today’s events but passionate demonstrations. Maybe there is only a narrative of violence, either to scare others from participation or tarnish reputations. Or, perhaps, further turmoil will soon ensue.

Above I warned about interpreting events as a continuing contest between liberals and Islamists. Taking much from the analysis that followed, many others prefer the description as a struggle between the cultures of democracy and authoritarianism.

But here is where you start to drown. Each event has so many subplots and possible interpretations. Narratives come through media, or experts, or partisans – all tinged, if not outright colored, by bias, unnamed sources, and simply lack of complete information. Throw in the strategic importance of Egypt in world politics, and the story is complicated even further.

So is it all a mess? Well, that is another proposed narrative. Is it a power struggle? There is another. Is it a fight for freedom? Take your pick.

But as you pick, I advise you to pick according to what is right and good, with all humility. As much as I struggle to define this, I excuse you from the certainty necessary to speak in these terms. The following days may change Egypt for years to come; let us pray that which is best for her people prevails.

Related Posts:


The Political Education of a Sandmonkey

Mahmoud Salem, the Sandmonkey

As a result of the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak, Egypt is witnessing a surge in political participation as young revolutionaries enroll in the political process. One such figure is Mahmoud Salem, otherwise known from his blog as ‘Sandmonkey’. Salem was an early activist against Mubarak, using social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in which he tongue-in-cheek labeled himself a ‘micro-celebrity’. Since then his fame has grown electronically, having over 50,000 followers. By contrast, NBA superstar Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets has only 33,000.

As the democratic transition has stuttered in Egypt, Salem realized the necessary commitment now was not activism alone but political and civil society participation. Though discouraged by current post-revolutionary conditions, he decided to run for office in the People’s Assembly, from his home district of Heliopolis, seeking to do something good for his son for the future of Egypt. This remark came from a political stump speech delivered in Heliopolis on November 3. The invitation was issued to the Sandmonkey, fittingly, through Twitter.

Disappointingly, nowhere near the 50,000 followers of Salem attended. By my count there were only twenty-six Egyptians, joined by fifteen foreigners. Salem spoke for about twenty minutes, answered questions for another twenty, and then left quickly at 9pm to get to another meeting.

Perhaps it served as a dry run. It is not an easy thing to run for office, or to become a politician. Until learning of the reasons for his quick exit, I figured he was either disappointed by the turnout or else reticent to ‘press the flesh’ and interact with potential voters, however few. At least he had one more notch on his belt in making campaign speeches, imagined to be much more difficult than writing an engaging blog post.

During his presentation Salem spoke of his hopes for Egypt as well as his focus on the local district of Heliopolis. The chief problem the country faces, on both the national and local level, is poor administration of work. This is seen currently in three areas: security, economy, and transparency.

In terms of security, Salem spoke of his efforts to interact with local policemen, though as a unit the police force is widely despised. They told him there has not been a great increase in crime, as popularly believed, but that the police feel impotent after the revolution to police as before. They requested, and Salem supports, an effort to equip them with cameras so that their interactions with the people are recorded. Such evidence would keep police from abusing their position, as well as protect from the abuse of false accusation. Salem also spoke of the popular committees which defended their neighborhoods during the revolution. These must continue and expand their work, representing positive community participation upon which the new Egypt should be built.

In terms of economy, Salem concentrated on the local needs of Heliopolis. Though the district is comparatively well off, it suffers as the money to pay government services throughout Egypt is collected almost entirely from the tax base of Cairo and Alexandria. More money must be retained locally, as garbage collection and hospital care in Heliopolis stands in need of improvement.

In terms of transparency, Salem spoke of the problems of bureaucracy, in which he like many hates going to government offices. The people are underpaid, and thus seek bribes, as the labyrinth-like process scuttles confused applicants from one line to the next. Instead, a simple 1-2-3-4 order should be established everywhere, to streamline movement and pay only at the end.

The question and answer period was dominated with concerns about the sectarian tensions in Egypt. Salem spoke of the role of the state, especially in the 70s when President Sadat gave a religious veneer to government that continued, to a lesser degree, under Mubarak. But he also spoke of the role of society, lamenting the poor integration of Muslims and Christians, as well as the poor understanding Muslims have of Christianity – a problem generally not reciprocated, he believed. His general advice was to encourage Copts to participate in society and politics, stating they would achieve their rights if only they properly mobilized. There are an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Muslim Brothers in Egypt, he stated, if their extended family members are counted. By contrast, he counts twelve million Copts.

I attended this event curious to see what an activist looked like. Young, middle class, social media friendly Egyptians are credited with driving the revolution, but are increasingly marginalized and accused of serving foreign agendas. What is the reality with Sandmonkey? I have read his blog in the past and been impressed by his analysis; it was hoped a face to face encounter would be more telling.

I was surprised by his appearance. I had assumed an ‘activist’ would be a grizzled combatant. Instead, he appeared more akin to a teddy bear. His normalcy was appreciated, as was his speaking demeanor. Salem was comfortable addressing the room, but not polished, and certainly not charismatic. While admitting the difficulty in addressing a handful of people, there was little that was magnetic in his presentation. Void of rhetoric, he simply spoke what he believed, and of what he was doing to study and improve the lot of his country. He was very much a non-politician.

Conversation after the event mirrored my appreciation for his style and person, but added a resignation that he was likely to fail. I was more hopeful, if only from faith. It is true that he does not speak the language of the street and would be hard pressed to win over large crowds. Yet if he met the person on the street, could he not win him over through sincerity of heart? Can he do so sufficiently to win Heliopolis? That is the art of politics.

It is an art that surely Salem is learning on the fly. Sandmonkey has 50,000 votes won in Egypt and abroad, but the tens of thousands of Heliopolis residents need much more than a Twitter account. Salem knows this, and has thrown his hat in the ring to pursue the transformation. He, and many activists like him will soon discover if they have what it takes – experiencing now what may only pay off in the future. Win or lose, it is a necessary process for Egypt, but also a test for the revolutionary generation. They overcame their apathy and political restraints in January 2011; can they mobilize and strengthen civil society in November, in 2012, and beyond? Mahmoud Salem is among those leading the charge.

Also see: Optimism from an Egyptian Sandmonkey, written following one of his blog posts from June 2011.