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Photos: Easter Greetings at the Coptic Cathedral

The following pictures show a lot of handshakes, but the message should not be lost in the repetition. Government officials, most of them Muslim, congratulate Copts for their holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.

Similar pictures could be seen on Christmas, but Easter is a far bigger deal. In Egypt, Christmas is an official holiday, and there is no Muslim religious objection to the birth of the Messiah. Muslims agree with Christians that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and though they object to the interpretation of incarnation, there are few reasons not to celebrate a common prophet.

Easter is different. In Islam, Jesus die not die on the cross so therefore he cannot have been raised again. There are real theological barriers, and less if any common ground. Some conservative Muslims are vocal about the inadmissibility of congratulating Christians on their holidays, but especially Easter.

The Muslim governmental and religious officials of the current Egyptian regime do not agree. Certainly they would not share the spiritual meaning of Easter, but they are keen to demonstrate congratulations to Copts in recognition of the importance of their holiday.

In these contested times in the Middle East, a handshake communicates much.

(More reflection to follow after the pictures)

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab
Shiekh Mohamed Abu Hashim, representing the Azhar
Shiekh Mohamed Abu Hashim, representing the Azhar
Sheikh Mohamed Gamia, representing the Egyptian Family House
Sheikh Mohamed Gamia, representing the Egyptian Family House
Amr Moussa, head of the constitutional committee and longstanding diplomat
Amr Moussa, head of the constitutional committee and former head of the Arab League
Nabil al-Arabi, head of the Arab League
Nabil al-Arabi, head of the Arab League
Labor Minister Nahed al-Ashari
Labor Minister Nahed al-Ashari
Planning Minister Ashraf al-Arabi
Planning Minister Ashraf al-Arabi
Culture Minister Abd al-Wahid al-Nabawi
Culture Minister Abd al-Wahid al-Nabawi

Easter greetings were also extended in the governorates.

Bishop Thomas of Qusia received Asyut governor Yassir al-Desouki
Bishop Thomas of Qusia received Asyut governor Yassir al-Desouki
Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi received Sohag governor Gen. Abd al-Hamid al-Hegan
Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi received Sohag governor Gen. Abd al-Hamid al-Hegan
Bishop Bisada of Akhmim received Sohag governor Ayman Abd al-Munam
Bishop Bisada of Akhmim received Sohag governor Ayman Abd al-Munam
Bishop Maqar of Sharqia received Sharqia governor Rida Abd al-Salam
Bishop Maqar of Sharqia received Sharqia governor Rida Abd al-Salam
A military designation visited the St. Mina Monastery outside Alexandria
A military designation visited the St. Mina Monastery outside Alexandria

Just as at Christmas great importance was given to the visit of President Sisi to the papal mass, the first ever honor bestowed by an Egyptian president, perhaps meaning should also be taken from his absence at Easter services.

Religious relations remain tricky in Egypt, and the president may not have wanted to alienate conservative Muslims with such a symbolic endorsement. But his government was not shy to risk it.

America is a secular state; Egypt is less so. When President Obama frequents a Muslim Iftar, it is an honorable recognition of the place of Islam within a nation that constitutionally guarantees the non-establishment of a religion and the freedom of all.

In Egypt it is a bit different, for Islam is the state religion and its law is the source of legislation. While the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, Islam retains a priority of place in interpretation.

The gesture in Cairo, then, is weightier than that offered in Washington. It is greater still in the more conservative governorates. It is not just that Copts have freedom, it is that as a government we honor even their Islam-challenging Easter holiday.

Of course the reality is not yet complete, and a cynic is excused if he accuses the government of insincerity. It is the practical demonstration of executive enforcement of law that speaks far louder than a handshake, and in this many parts of Egypt are still lacking.

But a handshake still speaks, and it speaks in relationship. Far more handshakes are needed, but let the message resonate.

Egypt honors the Copts at Easter.

(All photos courtesy of the Coptic Orthodox Church)

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Current Events

The Face of the Former NDP

Suleiman al-Hout (L), with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab. (via New Republic)
Suleiman al-Hout (L), with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab. (via New Republic)

Much has been speculated about the coming Egyptian parliament being dominated by figures who used to belong to the National Democratic Party of former President Hosni Mubarak. Given the favor conveyed to the January 25 activists, this proposition scares many.

Perhaps it should. The understanding of the old parliamentary system was that it was a non-ideological patronage network, living off corruption while extending government, business, and other services. It certainly was neither clean nor efficient.

But it was human. Unfortunately, few carry the stories of such figures beyond their ugly caricature. Fortunately, this article from New Republic does, profiling Suleiman al-Hout.

In 2007, Suleiman al-Hout had a problem. Local officials in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia refused to license the food-cart from which he sold kebda, or fried liver, a common Egyptian street food. At first he asked a relative who sat on Ismailia’s local council to intercede on his behalf, but to no avail. So Hout took matters into his own hands. He walked into the local headquarters of then-President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) with one simple question: “How can I vote for you?”

Within two years, Hout was a card-carrying NDP activist with excellent government and business connections, which he put to good use by “solving problems” for others. He frequently acted as an intermediary between local businessmen and the poor, between his neighbors and the electricity ministry, and, of course, between food-cart owners and the registration bureau. If your mother-in-law needed special medical care, he could get you into the top government-run hospital. If you had a problem at a nearby police station, he knew the officers. If there was a street fight, his “men”about 30–40 toughs, depending on the eveningtook care of it. And if street combatants didn’t accept his intervention? Well, that never happened. “They know that if they don’t respect me, I’ll take it personally,” he darkly boasts.

The author, Eric Trager, compares Hout to a different fruit cart vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who launched the Arab Spring when he set himself on fire to protest inability to obtain a license. But the question is fair: Whose reaction was superior?

Trager continues to chronicle Hout’s political activity during the revolution and throughout the period of Brotherhood rule. It is insightful and comical, a precious insight to how life was actually lived on the streets during this time, far from the rhetoric issued by both sides.

But Hout himself allows Trager to conclude with the common ‘ugly caricature’ that so infuriates many Egyptians, and certainly those who desire a transparent, non-patronage system:

But four months after Sisi’s inauguration, Hout feels let down. “I was among the first to call for Sisi to run for president,” he told me. “And I still haven’t made my money back yet. I have no job, no position, and it makes me angry. … He didn’t give us our rights.”

By “rights,” Hout means a high-level governmental appointment, such as serving as an assistant to a minister or governor. Hout was sure that this would be his reward for mobilizing his patronage network to support Sisi, since this is the way things have historically worked in Ismailia. “I deserve it!” Hout, who has a high school education, insisted. “I served this country. I am an eyewitness against the Brotherhood in two [court] cases. And I returned that vehicle to the police, which costs 450,000 Egyptian pounds.”

Instead, Hout is living off of the local businessmen who fund his patronage network, and growing more frustrated by the day. “[Sisi’s] chance is, maximum, one month,” Hout told me. “If he doesn’t give us our rights, it’s thank you, goodbye. … If I don’t take my rights, I will be very angry and you never know what my reaction might be.”

In lieu of a governmental appointment, Hout intends to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. “I think I deserve to go [to parliament], and I wish to go,” he told me. “But it depends on the arrangements.” Hout explained that he’s still waiting for businessmen to back his campaign. “A businessman will pay, and I’ll be his face in the parliament,” Hout said. “This is normal.”

And apparently, this is normal Egyptian politics. It is also human.

Reform is necessary, and entrenched inertia is no excuse to refuse it. But have patience, and be sympathetic. This is life on the streets.

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Friday Prayers for Egypt: Old and New

Flag Cross Quran

God,

Egypt served up surprises this week, of both old and new variety. A new government is now an old practice, and some new politicians are decidedly old. But age, experience, and freshness matter little compared to competency and vision. God, give them the latter.

The new government is headed by a technocrat from the old regime. Three years beyond the 2011 revolution against Mubarak, there is little outrage. The new prime minister was the successful manager of one of the largest construction firms in the Middle East, so many people are hoping he gets similar results with the government.

But God, this is now the sixth government since the revolution began. Egypt needs stability and expertise, but it is uncertain if even this one will last. Presidential elections will be held shortly and parliamentary after that; another new government may soon be necessary. But if they are caretakers, replacing previous caretakers, well, help Egypt to care.

For Egypt is fixated not on the government, but the speculation whether its defense minister will run for president. Sisi has still not declared.

For each and every minister, God, burden them with a sense of responsibility to their nation. Whatever time you have for them, help them to work to the fullest of their ability. Help them to motivate their bureaucracies to do the same. Help them to root out any corruption they find.

For an old auditor is releasing new accusations. A veteran judge, the head of the Central Auditing Agency was appointed by Morsi but only new makes public his findings. They mostly exonerate the recent administration, but scathe the institutions of state. Sentiment is divided if he is serving the public trust, or undermining it.

God, only you know his heart, but his figures can be analyzed. His position is of paramount importance in this transitional phase. Clean the state with an impartial head of an impartial institution. May transparency judge between disputants, with men of integrity courageously empowered to hold entrenched interests accountable. But where there is manipulation, God, expose it.

But recently in civil institutions, perhaps you have now chosen a time of honor. A leading secular party voted in the nation’s first woman and first Christian head. Recently the Doctors’ Syndicate did the same, and this week she retracted her earlier resignation. Both face deep internal challenges, but were awarded the validation of their peers. Both are veteran leftist activists, but their leadership is entirely new.

With them, God, make all things new in their respective spheres. Give them a steadfastness of spirit to unite diverse opinions and do what is right for their constituencies. Help them to develop their institutions rather than raise their profiles. Give them humility amidst their honor, that they may diligently serve. And help them to have cooperative colleagues dedicated to the success of all, and of Egypt.

God, you are the ancient of days who is ever present. You guided the Pharaohs as you guided the revolutionaries. Guide now the politicians to whom you have entrusted Egypt. Guide the people to judge well between them.

Renew Egypt, God. Age her in wisdom. Shape her in fulfillment of your everlasting principles.

Amen.