As Coptic Christians flee Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in unprecedented numbers, a Protestant church is there to receive them.
“We were the first to respond,” said Atef Samy, associate pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo. “Two of those killed were very dear to our church.”
In the last few days, more than 100 families have left their homes in Sinai for the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, 125 miles west.
On February 19, the Egypt chapter of ISIS released a video calling Copts “our priority and our preferred prey.” Three days later, one man was shot and his adult son burned alive.
“This is sheer terrorism,” Samy said. “They want to embarrass the government and claim they can cleanse the Christian presence.”
In recent weeks, seven Copts have been killed. Witnesses say they were murdered in cold blood, with no negotiation, theft, or attempts to convert to Islam.
Hit lists are also reportedly being circulated, warning Christians to leave or die.
“I am not going to wait for death,” Rami Mina, who left Arish on Friday morning, told Reuters. “I shut down my restaurant and got out of there. These people are ruthless.”
Samy declined to name those killed, but identified them as born-again Christians active in ministry. His church quickly mobilized to help others leave, and provided support to the Ismailia church that has assisted dozens. Mattresses, blankets, food, and medical supplies are the most pressing needs.
Adel Shukrallah, responsible for youth ministry in the Evangelical Church of Ismailia, is heading the Protestant relief effort locally.
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.
Umm Peter stood with dignity in the corner of her simple, cinderblock home. With an appearance weathered over the years, in grandmotherly fashion she spoke of the men of the village and the difficulties of life.
Half, she estimated, work in the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada. There is little opportunity in her all-Christian village of 200 families, a three hour drive south of Cairo in the governorate of Minya.
Umm Peter was speaking to a group of six expats, visiting from Maadi Community Church (MCC). Gathered around were her ten-year-old son, Peter, and his only slightly looking older married sister. Peter is a sponsored child of Healing Grace, a ministry of Kasr el-Dobara, the largest Protestant church in the Middle East, situated at Tahrir Square.
MCC is a partner organization, supporting one of the villages within Healing Grace.
Umm Peter’s own husband is away only half the year, and currently. There is not enough work in the Red Sea either, and he is too old for the rigors of construction.
His age, she was asked. ‘Forty-eight,’ she replied, as if he was already elderly. In village years he might be.
But there is hope Peter might not age as quickly, supported widely through the generosity of donors and the community it helps create.
‘I want Westerners who come here, who live in an expat bubble, to see another side of Egypt and how people live,’ said Rev. Steve Flora, pastor of MCC. ‘Though they barely have electricity or water they are happy, and their lives are being changed for good by the Gospel.’
Flora, who has sponsored a child in the village for the past four years, appreciates Healing Grace for the opportunity to develop a relationship with him. The church arranges visits twice a year; on this occasion twenty expats split into three groups to visit only some of the 49 families who benefit from sponsorship.
Bassel, the sponsorship coordinator for Healing Grace, said the program focuses on three components: Jesus, education, and health.
Every sponsored child is visited weekly by village staff members, who disciples him or her in an age appropriate manner. Healing Grace works with local churches to host an AWANA Club, and sends each child to a weekend retreat once a year. Peter’s favorite Bible story is Joseph and his brothers.
The program pays all school fees, including uniform and supplies, and helps provide private tutoring if necessary. Peter’s ambition is to be a doctor.
Perhaps he has been inspired during his medical checkups, provided free of charge with all necessary medicines. Healing Grace also supplies a monthly package of basic foodstuffs and twice a year outfits Peter and his siblings with new clothes.
‘These kids are different now, the sponsorship gives them health, education, and Christian community,’ said Bassel. ‘Every child deserves a chance, and we want to help transform their lives.’
Since 2009, this has been a reality for 1,275 children in 21 villages. In some Healing Grace has also installed water filtration units in a local church, open to all.
Flora remarked that within Christian denominations Healing Grace is an example and catalyst for unity. In Umm Peter’s village the sponsored children are supported equally through the Orthodox, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches.
‘We thank you for this ministry that provides spiritual and educational needs in this village,’ said Rev. Emil of the Evangelical church, built in 1917. ‘Christianity is not about preaching only, but also serving and helping others.’
Umm Peter served tea to her guests, extending hospitality to those far better off. After praying together the group bid farewell, ready to visit the next family just down the earthen path.
Sponsorship costs $30 a month, all of which goes to support the children. Healing Grace’s overhead costs are raised separately, supporting a staff of 60 with an additional 100 volunteers. For more information about children available for sponsorship, visit healinggraceministry.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘The ministry of Healing Grace is transformative for the villages, and for us who go and see,’ said Flora. ‘We hope the comparatively wealthy expats in our own church can experience even a portion of the life change that goes on in the village.’
This article was first published in Maadi Messenger.
From my article on Christianity Today, co-written with Tim Morgan, published September 18:
Menes Abdul Noor, who served as pastor of Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo, Egypt, for over three decades, died on Monday, September 14, from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.
Under his leadership, the 8,000-plus Presbyterian congregation became the largest Protestant church in the Middle East.
Abdul Noor authored and translated over 100 books, and taught at the Haggai Institute and Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo for more than 25 years. He is survived by his wife, Nadia, his son Farid, and his daughter Violet. He had six grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
His memorial service Wednesday was attended by officials of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches, as well as a representative of Al-Azhar, the foremost Muslim institution in the Sunni world. It was also broadcast live on the SAT-7 Arabic satellite television network.
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, including quotes and anecdotes from an unpublished CT interview with Abdul Noor in 2008.
God’s planning is perfect. In 2008, long before the Arab Spring fixed world attention on the Middle East, the women of the World Day of Prayer International Committee designated Egypt to write the program for their 2014 event, held on March 7. In retrospect, God arranged for the more than 170 member nations to focus on Egypt during this critical time.
“All around the world people are praying for us today, and this should fill us with serenity and thanks,” announced Rev. Emil Nabil to the 300 mostly middle aged women at the main gathering in Cairo, one of over twenty locations hosting a WDP event. But off the podium the assistant pastor of the Heliopolis Evangelical Church, affiliated with the Presbyterian Synod of the Nile, had a somewhat different take.
“This event is not very well known here, even among Christians,” he said. “It has a following among women, but needs better communication.” Meanwhile at the English language service across town, Rev. Chris Chorlton announced tongue-in-cheek, “I asked ten Egyptian friends about the World Day of Prayer, and no one knew anything about it.”
The first World Day of Prayer was held in 1928, and even at that early date Egypt was among the participants. The local Presbyterian church led the efforts, with other denominations joining thereafter. By 1970 the WDP committee of Egypt drew from all national churches, but outside of individual participation the majority Orthodox – 90 percent of Egyptian Christians – remained largely aloof.
“Not many people are ecumenical, especially in the past,” stated Dalia Hanna, one of the younger Presbyterian WDP organizers. “It is getting better now, but there is some fanaticism in all denominations.”
Hannah was raised Orthodox but had a born-again conversion experience in her church sponsored Bible study group. But as her priests bickered over the legitimacy of their small fellowship, she decided to worship near her work at the American University in Cairo, at the famed Kasr el-Dobara, the largest Protestant Church in the Middle East. “The more I got involved the more the Lord led me back to build bridges with other denominations,” she said.
In the process Hanna was challenged with her own inner fanaticism. She traveled with the Egypt delegation to the June 2012 WDP quadrennial meeting in New York City, engaging with women from around the world about the Samaritan woman, the devotional prepared by her team. Hanna was shocked to find that not everyone present considered the object of Jesus’ attention to be a sinner. Similar debate about the nature of Islam confounded her.
“We had cultural differences that could lead to conflict,” she said, “but when you are exposed to such an environment you have to learn to be tolerant of others, even though your first reaction is to say, ‘You are wrong.’”
Similar, if easier transformations were witnessed back in Egypt as the working committees planned the program and the order of service. Mervet Akhnoukh, chairperson of the board of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Service, cherished how Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox women found common purpose.
“We prayed that our work would be of God, and we became friends,” she said. “The committee was a great ecumenical example, we became like one in the process of working together.”
Her committee included many Orthodox women, but the key toward wider knowledge of the World Day of Prayer rests with the clergy. In preparation for the yearly WDP, organizers hold monthly meetings to plan and pray, rotating through the different denominations. Orthodox priests welcome the group into their halls, but look to the pope for official sanction to be a part of a non-Orthodox service.
Hanna commended the recently deceased Pope Shenouda as a man of God, but described how doctrinal issues sometimes made Orthodox church leadership wary of the other denominations. But the new pope has brought a spirit of openness, she said, and this year it paid dividends.
The WDP committee presented their program to Pope Tawadros at the one year anniversary celebration of the Egypt Council of Churches (ECC), a landmark achievement he inaugurated with the other denominations. The pope gave his blessing, communicated publicly on the ECC Facebook page. And for the first time in many years, an Orthodox priest attended the main gathering, bringing along thirty women from his church, most of them from the younger generation.
“There is more cooperation and more unity among the churches, there is a new spirit to share with one another,” said Fr. Bishouy Helmy, general secretary of the ECC. “If the invitation was received earlier we could have done more, and hopefully next year we can host it in an Orthodox church.”
If Orthodox participation is poised to increase, this will go a long way in fulfilling the longstanding goals of these dedicated prayer activists.
“We want every woman to know she is a member of the body of Jesus and should serve him as much as she can, fully integrated in her family, her church, and her society,” said Nadia Menis, who personally won the papal endorsement and has been involved with the World Day of Prayer since 1967. “We want to uplift women concerning her health, her creation in the image of God, and her equality with men – creating awareness throughout the world.”
The World Day of Prayer is dedicated to such awareness, but this year as a byproduct helped make the world more aware of Egypt. Cinda, a PCUSA staff member working with the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo, joined a WDP event in Canfield, Ohio by Skype video, and related her personal experiences in Egypt. She noted the official program told only of the revolution of 2011, and wanted the church in America to be up-to-date. She focused on the Christian example given after churches were burned throughout the country this past summer.
“These brave Egyptian Christians,” Cinda told them, “it was as if the biggest, meanest bully on the playground smacked that wiry kid with the glasses in the face and the playground monitor looked the other way. The victim just stood up with his bloody nose and his broken glasses and stared back at the bully. No raised fists. No running away.” She related how Pope Tawadros declared the buildings could be considered a burnt offering, if it was necessary for Egyptian freedom.
The troubled national situation dominated the prayers of Egyptian WDP participants. Egyptian Christians have joined the government in condemning the popularly deposed president’s Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and deplore Western opinion that calls his removal a coup d’etat. They ask God now for a good president in the upcoming elections, for stability, and for improved economic conditions. They pray for the educational system, and against fanaticism and corruption. They pray for regional peace, the return of tourism, and for all Egyptians to know God’s love. And as appropriate for an ecumenical gathering, they pray for unity and the favor of God.
“Give us wisdom to know how to go through this difficult period,” prayed Fr. Bishouy to close the service. “Fulfill your promise: ‘Blessed be Egypt, my people’, where Jesus drank from our River Nile.”
The situation for refugees in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq is dire. I was pleased to be able to convey this perspective in a recent article for Lapido Media, highlighting the relief efforts of a local Cairo church, Kasr el-Dobara.
But there are other interesting stories to be told, more than could be honored in a reasonable word limit. Here then are a few other anecdotes that had to be cut in the editing:
Coordinated with US airstrikes, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have begun to reclaim villages overrun by ISIS. But many displaced Christians in Erbil, the Kurdish Iraqi city which has received hundreds of thousands of refugees, have little confidence to return.
‘I don’t want to go back to the same neighbors who betrayed me,’ a roughly 60 year old blind man from Nineveh told Revd. Fawzi Khalil. ‘They surrendered me to the terrorists.’
Khalil is the director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, Egypt, and is part of the church’s efforts to deliver much needed aid. He has spoken to dozens of individuals with similar stories; names and faces begin to blend together.
The man in the photo above is the blind man, supplied by Rev. Khalil. It is amazing to have met so many with such terrible stories.
Khalil explained that the majority Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes roughly 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in their religious brethren.
As a consequence Erbil’s churches are packed, and the Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in a church itself, and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.
The photo above, also from Khalil, pictures what these campgrounds are like. People and their scant belongings sit around idly. I was surprised by how green the area is. But from another photo, not all refugees are so fortunate:
This photo is from SAT-7, whose Ehab el-Kharrat was quoted extensively in the original article. Many campgrounds are located in the desert, and according to Eva Boutros, who was also interviewed, many have inadequate water supplies. Dozens of children gathered around a sole faucet, she witnessed, trying to get clean.
But Boutros also told a story of other children, who enjoyed with her relief team a special break from the agony of refugee life:
One of the Christian refugees is named Soha. Age 22, she graduated from university and was looking forward to her new job in Mosul before the ISIS onslaught. Now she must care for her brother’s three children who have been separated from their mother.
‘Now, all I have is a mattress, a donated plate of food, and two pairs of clothing,’ she told Eva Boutros. ‘This is the end of my youth.’
Boutros is the director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, but accompanied a joint Orthodox-Catholic-Protestant team organized by the Chaldean Church in Heliopolis, Cairo.
This team brought tents, medical supplies, blankets, and children’s underwear, all donated by Egyptian companies.
But Boutros recognized many of the refugees needed something more, and took 280 young women, including Soha, shopping at the local mall.
‘It was fun for us, and fun for them,’ she said, describing a moment of happiness amid a desperate situation.
Perhaps her woman’s touch gives her greater memory for personal detail, as opposed to Khalil. But she praises a different source.
‘I remember each person, their face and their story,’ she said. ‘The Lord sent us to tell them, we are suffering with you.
‘They need you to hug them, stay with them, and listen, listen, listen.’ Kasr el-Dobara’s team included a professional psychiatrist, who spent hours counseling women and children in their trauma. Childcare specialists did their best to entertain the kids each evening.
Finally, here is an amateur video made by the Kasr el-Dobara team, showing their team in action and giving thanks to those who have donated.
A former Egyptian member of parliament whose church is distributing aid to Iraqi refugees has spoken out about the gaps in humanitarian provision as the country heads into winter.
He expressed concern about underfunded UN campsites and thousands living on the streets.
Ehab el-Kharrat visited Erbil, a city in the Kurdistan region of Iraq that has attracted thousands of people fleeing conflict in the region.
His church, Kasr el-Dobara church in Cairo, works among relief heavyweights such as the UNHCR, Caritas, and Samaritan’s Purse.
It has sent a delegation to Iraq every ten days for the past two months, trying to stem the humanitarian tide. The congregation, which is made up of the middle and upper classes, has donated $180,000 to the relief effort with a further $120,000 from a fundraising trip to the United States.
So far it has distributed 2,500 mattresses with pillows and blankets, and it supports a network of 2,200 families that receive a food basket every two weeks.
This network is run in coordination with churches of Ankawa, a Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Ninety per cent of recipients are non-Christian – either Sunni Muslims also fleeing Islamic State, or else from the Yazidi minority.
Revd Fawzi Khalil is director of relief ministries at Kasr el-Dobara church.
He explained that the Chaldean Catholic Church of Ankawa has done an excellent job of caring for Christian refugees. Erbil’s population includes 160,000 Christians, and many have taken in fellow Christians.
As a consequence Erbil’s church grouds are packed. The Mar Eliya refugee camp is located on the grounds of the church-run school. Nearby Mar Yousef camp is in the church itself and hosts mostly Muslims and Yazidis.
Kharrat, a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, described a pecking order of beneficiaries. After refugees living in camps in church grounds, the next most fortunate group is those taken in by Kurdish families, he said, followed by those in unfinished buildings but under the sponsorship of church groups. Kasr el-Dobara’s efforts are toward this group, primarily.
But thousands of Iraqis remain on the streets and in underfunded UN campsites in the desert. Kharrat noticed most tents were recycled from an earlier Syrian refugee camp, and are of deteriorating quality.
Erbil has a permanent population of 1.5m people, and UN figures show there are 1.8m displaced Iraqis. But according to UN-Iraq, the three established UN camps can host only eight per cent of the refugees.
Local families and churches take in the rest, but thousands sleep on the streets, under bridges, or in partially completed buildings, said Khalil.
In speaking to Kurdish officials, he related their complaint that under the Maliki government, Baghdad ‘failed’ to send Erbil its constitutionally guaranteed share of the budget. The new government, formed on 8 September, has promised to do so ‘but not yet delivered’, he said.
This has left the Kurdish regional government in a bind, as the UNHCR is a refugee agency, but those fleeing are technically considered internally displaced persons. With no agency possessing a clear mandate, the UN looks toward the government to lead.
Even so, UN documents detail over 346,000 people who have been reached to some degree, with Saudi Arabia touted as a particularly generous donor.
But this effort has not impressed the Kurds, says Kharrat.
‘Kurds are grateful to the US in particular and the West in general,’ he said, ‘but are wondering why the Arabs are so slow – in both humanitarian and military aid.’
Khalil and Kharrat stated they were busy with their own work in the area but neither recalled seeing any Muslim groups among the refugees.
Islamic Relief, however, has been working in the Anbar province to the west of Baghdad. It also distributed food parcels to 1,500 Christian families displaced in Nineveh.
According to Eva Boutros, director of volunteer ministry for Kasr el-Dobara, the fact that Egyptian Christians have been present has made an impression on many.
‘Muslims and Yazidis appreciate very much that they are cared for,’ she said. ‘They know it is the church that is doing this in Iraq.’
But whether Christians, Muslims, or the UN, no one is doing enough. By December if no solution is found, the already tragic situation will turn catastrophic.
‘Hundreds of thousands are unprepared for winter,’ Kharrat said, anticipating average lows of three degrees Celsius.
‘Conditions are horrible. They survived the summer – the heat did not kill, but the freezing snow might.’
More than 175 Christian leaders crossed denominational and political divides this week to urge the United States government to do more to help the rapidly diminishing, historic Christian populations of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.
The solidarity pledge—signed by National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Leith Anderson, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, and Samaritan’s Purse president Franklin Graham, among other prominent names—presented on Capitol Hill asks for the appointment of a special envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities, a review of foreign aid, and refugee and reconstruction assistance.
“These defenseless religious communities are facing an existential crisis, which threatens their very survival in the lands they have inhabited for centuries,” said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a longtime religious freedom advocate who helped create the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 1998. “The faith leaders … recognize that unless the American church begins to champion this cause, the foreign policy establishment will hardly lead the way. They are committing to be their ‘brother’s keeper,’ whether in Nineveh, Cairo or Homs.”
But Egyptian Christians have a longstanding reticence about outside help:
“We value so much the prayers and concerns of our Christian brethren around the world, and in the U.S. especially,” said Fawzi Khalil, pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East. “But we don’t believe outside pressure would be best for our daily life with our Muslim friends. The government of Egypt with local Christian leaders are best suited to fix our problems.”
Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today, including testimony from other Egyptian Christians and one US Copt who is a signatory.
The title is a little bit much (to be explained below), but it is a nice scene. The video is taken from a Christmas celebration in Kasr el-Dobara Church in downtown Cairo, right behind Tahrir Square. The imam of Tahrir’s mosque pays a visit to wish his Christmas greetings to a congregation that shared with him the trials and courage of the revolution. The video is 15 minutes long, and subtitled, but you don’t have to watch the whole thing to get the gist.
The gesture is very important in contemporary Egypt, as the Salafi current of Islam has forbidden Muslims to wish Christians a merry Christmas. On one hand this is fine – why should they honor a supposed incarnation they reject?
On the other hand it is horrible – it strikes at the fabric of national unity which has been nurtured in Egypt over generations, amid instances of sectarian tension. Every Egyptian knows their religions are not the same, but they greet each other warmly nonetheless.
But if there is one comment against the video, its production (not its content) strikes too much as propaganda in the other direction. ‘My Jihad’ is an English language campaign designed to redefine the American understanding of jihad.
Again, this is well and good. Jihad does encompass the meaning of warfare for the cause of Islam. But it also, and for most Muslims around the world who are at war with no one, signifies the struggle to improve one’s soul and the world around them. It would serve many Americans well to be more aware of this.
But using Egypt as an example to restore faith in humanity? Directly after a campaign for their constitution laden with religious rhetoric, much of which labeled their opponents – and sometimes Christians – as unbelievers and the enemy? As the war cry ‘Allahu Akbar’ rang out from podiums urging the triumph of God’s religion?
Do not make these worrisome developments out to be more than they are, but do not make this appearance of a sheikh in a church out to be more than it is, either. Yes, it is a necessary and valuable gesture, received to great applause by the Christian audience.
But if one wishes to be cynical, after Islamists used religion to divide Egypt and get their constitution, may they now want to use religion (and religious unity) to govern from the center amid expected economic difficulties? Even if not, forgive the nation’s Christians and non-Islamist Muslims for feeling rather jaded.
These events are far removed from the American consciousness, which is generally ready to move on from Egypt after being consumed with its transition for the past two years. It is hoped the My Jihad campaign, as necessary as it must be, is not painting a purposefully imprecise picture to take advantage.
As an American Christian in Egypt I find that I instinctively view events here through the following lens: Liberals are the good guys, Islamists are the bad guys, and the army is somewhere in between, perhaps neutral, perhaps not. Complicated times beg for simplistic narratives, and this one suffices. Other groups maintain their favorites, but for most rooting interests become established, even if objectivity is sought. In crucial times such as these, witnessed in the recent clashes in Tahrir Square less than one week before scheduled legislative elections, complexity is overwhelming, and a lens is not only a false crutch, but a dangerous one. This text will aim to set the scene as honestly as possible, admitting its unfortunate bias from the beginning.
The lens is dangerous because so much is at stake, with interests colliding from numerous directions as lives fall in the process. Yet all lenses have criteria, and mine is this: Manipulation. No matter who is confined where in the ‘good guy – bad guy’ evaluation, a place is assigned by the degree to which self- or group interest is sought on less than transparent terms. All have a right to seek their interest, and politics in essence is a mutually accepted game of manipulation – none of this is rejected. What colors the lens is the favor or disfavor granted to a particular outcome of the process, even if legitimately won.
I stated my natural predisposition above; I set forth my conviction here: I am a foreigner in Egypt, and neither have nor seek a stake in the outcome of events. I wish the best for this country in accordance with the will of its people, and will honor both winners and losers of the current political struggle. What I hope is that the struggle will be transparent, and in this spirit, for the benefit of readers I will narrate events according to my best observation and judgment. Please remember that much is uncertain, and in the end, I have little idea where Egypt is headed. It is far too premature to label anyone good or bad.
The Basic Story
At his resignation following the protests beginning on January 25, President Mubarak ceded power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Field Marshall Tantawi. Riding a wave of popular acclaim for their decision not to violently suppress the protests, the military council assumed legitimacy to head the democratic transition process as the only undamaged institution remaining in Egypt. This legitimacy was validated in a national referendum on March 19, endorsing the military transitional vision. It called for legislative elections to determine a parliament, whose members would choose a constituent body to write a new constitution. Following a referendum to approve the constitution, presidential elections would be held. The entire process envisioned the military returning authority to the people within six months.
Ten months later, the transitional process has been very uneven. The economy has faltered as the security vacuum has expanded. The military has stood accused of violating basic human rights, and sectarian attacks have afflicted Muslim-Christian relations. The military’s impartiality has been called into question vis-à-vis the other political powers, and a specter of ‘hidden hands’ has been blamed for many ongoing troubles. After much political wrangling, legislative elections have been set to take place in three stages, beginning November 28.
Roughly three weeks before elections, Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi introduced a supra-constitutional document meant to bind the future constituent assembly in shaping the future constitution. This document resurrected a dispute from months earlier, which divided liberals and Islamists over the guarantees necessary to preserve Egypt as a civil state. Islamists are generally believed to be the dominant plurality, if not majority, following elections, and liberals feared they might write a constitution leading to an Islamic state. Islamists and others, meanwhile, decried the process as being ‘against the will of the people’, since the national referendum gave parliament alone the right to craft the constitution. The earlier crisis was averted through the intervention of the Azhar, the chief institution of Sunni Islamic learning, in which all sides pledged to preserve basic human rights in a civil state – in a non-binding document.
Al-Selmi, with elections looming, sought to gain binding approval. His document mirrored the Azhar’s, but included clauses that gave the military privileges to guarantee the constitutional nature of the state, as well as be exempted from legislative financial oversight. Furthermore, it imposed stipulations on the makeup of the constituent assembly to draft the constitution, drawing the majority of members away from legislative designation. It imposed a timeline to complete the draft, which if transgressed would reset the whole process through a new assembly chosen entirely by the military. Lastly, it ruled that if the final constitution violated any provision of the supra-constitutional document, it would be annulled.
All Islamists fumed at al-Selmi’s initiative, and though many liberals appreciated aspects of it, most balked at the privileges given to the military. Negotiations continued, with Islamists especially threatening massive protests if the document was not withdrawn. Though al-Selmi yielded by amending objectionable sections and removing its binding nature, the protest had gained too much momentum, and went forward anyway, on November 18, ten days before scheduled elections.
Friday, November 18
Principally organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and more conservative Salafi Muslim groups, the demonstration also witnessed substantial youthful revolutionary participation, including leftists and liberals, with some Copts as well. Most liberal political parties refrained, however, believing the protest to be threatening to public stability or just being too Islamist. Yet the turnout was massive, demanding not only the withdrawal of the al-Selmi document, but also a defined timetable for military transfer of power to civilians after presidential elections in April 2012. Many political forces threatened to turn the demonstration into an ongoing sit-in protest. By the end of the day, however, most organized parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, withdrew by nightfall. A handful of Salafi and revolutionary groups camped out overnight in tents in the central Tahrir Square garden. Their numbers vary, but top estimates equal around a couple hundred.
The next morning security forces dispersed the remaining protestors, as they have done with lingering protestors previously. On this occasion, however, something triggered a wide response among the activist and revolutionary community. By afternoon, many began descending to Tahrir Square to protest at, and clash against, the violent dispersal. These were also met by force, and rapidly thereafter the numbers began to swell. By nightfall, Tahrir was re-occupied by several thousand.
Saturday – Monday, November 19-21
These thousands encamped in the square rather peacefully, but on a side street to Tahrir a pitched, violent struggle was taking place. While over a thousand people crowded into Mohamed Mahmoud St., several hundred engaged the police force with rocks and Molotov cocktails, while police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and alleged live ammunition. The street led eventually to the Ministry of Interior, though the battle was as of yet a ways removed. Hundreds of injured began to multiply, along with the death of one or two. These were scurried to makeshift field clinics hosted in various parts of the square. As the frontline protestors tired or fell injured, others would surge forward to take their place.
This scene continued almost nonstop for all of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, not only in Cairo but also in Alexandria and multiple other cities of Egypt. Official figures now list thirty-five dead and 3,256 injured. Most of the dead are from Tahrir Square.
Inside the square was a different story. Numbers multiplied but did not fill it, and all remained peaceful. That is, until sunset on Sunday, when a joint police – army initiative stormed the square, violently dispersed thousands of protestors, and burned their tents and banners. Rather than securing the area and preventing further occupation, however, they withdrew after an hour, apparently content with destroying the sit-in preparations. As they pulled back, protestors returned, and even more descended following the operation.
Noteworthy is the makeup of the protesting crowd. Most were the leaderless masses resembling the initial January uprising – youthful, middle and lower class together, along with the oft-violent soccer hooligan bands. Yet it also included the prominent Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismaeel, who called on his followers to join them. Though in January the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the uprising, Salafis did not, as their doctrine generally requires obedience to the ruling leader. In this case, the Brotherhood was making equivocal statements as per their participation, but eventually decided not to come, though some of their youth, especially, were undoubtedly there. Other Salafi groups distanced themselves, but Abu Ismaeel brought along with him a substantial religiously-oriented minority. It is not clear who made up those fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud St., but it appears they were both youth and hardcore activists.
All were chanting no longer about the al-Selmi document or a timetable for elections. Instead, it mirrored that of January: The people want the fall of the regime, or more specifically, the fall of the field marshal. Such chanting – as well as the fighting – went on all day Monday, and on Tuesday the demonstrators called for a million man march the next day.
During this period speculation became rampant that the solution to the crisis might lie in forming a national unity government. The possible presidential candidate Mohamed el-Baradei has been advocating for months a reset button, in which a civilian presidential council would be formed, a constituent constitutional assembly, and following their work and a referendum, elections would be held for president and parliament based upon the new system. Yet only a day before the large Friday Islamist dominated protest Baradei re-proposed his idea in the form of a national unity government. Then, on the night of the million man march he appeared on a popular satellite program to make his case to the nation.
He made it, however, with Abdel Munim Abul Futouh, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was kicked out of the party when he declared his intentions to run for president, while the group insisted it would not field a candidate for the post. They spoke of their willingness to work together for the sake of the nation, a liberal and an Islamist, to guide the transition through. Meanwhile, the April 6 Movement, a key organizing figure for the ongoing protests, also issued a call for a national unity government, naming Hazem Abu Ismail, the Salafi, as another member, a prominent judge, and leaving a space for the military to add one from its ranks.
Media reports circulated meanwhile that the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was tendering its resignation, and that the military council was in deliberation over appointing Baradei as the new head. All the while, the numbers of protestors increased, and the fighting continued in the side streets.
Tuesday, September 22
The day of the million man march resembled the uprising in January. Every corner of Tahrir Square was full, and every segment of society was represented – men, women, and children. Only one party was absent – the Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier in the day Mohammed el-Beltagi, one of the leaders of their political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, announced his support for the protestors against the brutality of the police, and visited the square. Frustrated with the Brotherhood reticence to come earlier, and perhaps also with the fact he arrived with a small group and not hundreds of supporters, the protestors kicked him out and sent him away. A short while later the Brotherhood announced it would not participate, preferring not to add to the instability of the situation, and compound traffic. Other figures stated they feared a trap from the army.
Such fear did not prevent the Brotherhood from negotiating with the military council that day, joining in with other political parties. They and other Islamist currents joined the liberal Wafd Party, a longstanding member of the faithful opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Others joined in, but the liberal Free Egyptian Party boycotted until all violence stopped against protestors. The liberal Social Democratic Party, their election coalition partners did participate, but later issued a public apology for doing so, following the events of the next few hours. Oddly enough, this included the defection of two army officers into the crowd of protestors, shouting against Tantawi, arguing that much of the military was against him. One was Captian Ahmad Shoman, who joined demonstrators in Tahrir in January as well.
Around 7pm Field Marshal Tantawi delivered a taped message addressing the nation, an act which had been generally handled by other officers. He painted a picture of the great efforts the military council has expended to bring about a democratic transition under difficult circumstance. He mentioned the faltering economy and differentiated between the army and the police. Then, to a degree, he offered the concessions.
Some minor ones were significant. He declared the investigations surrounding the deaths of protestors in Tahrir would be investigated by the general prosecutor, not the military. Additionally he transferred investigations surrounding the death of twenty-seven mostly Coptic protestors at Maspero, allegedly at the hand of the army, though some believe third-party thugs were involved. There has been much criticism that a case involving the military had received military jurisdiction.
As for the most substantial concession, he made it toward the political demonstration of Friday, not toward the mass popular demonstrations since then. He announced the military council would cede power following presidential elections no later than July 2012. He also announced the acceptance of the government’s resignation, but not until the formation of a new government, but made no mention of personnel or timetable. He did, however, declare the elections would be held according to their scheduled date, now only six days away.
Finally, he added a clever wrinkle. He stated the welcome of the military council to leave power immediately, if that was demonstrated as the will of the people through a referendum. As such, he widened the question beyond Tahrir Square to all of Egypt, where substantial support for the army remains.
As for Tahrir Square, it was furious. Protestors compared it to the first speech of Mubarak, offering meager concessions. They held up their shoes in protest. They chanted for the immediate transfer of power. They were confident the events of January were replaying themselves, and they smelled triumph. Soon they smelled something else.
All during Tantawi’s speech the fighting raged on Mohamed Mahmoud St., including the constant use of tear gas. Veterans of this struggle against the regime have been subject to tear gas for months, but in these past few days they noticed it was of a stronger makeup. Some believed it to be CR gas, which is a banned chemical weapon in the US, as opposed to regular CS gas.
Those fighting in the side streets were pushed back near to Tahrir Square, and the tear gas began to fall on its periphery. Some said it was launched into the square itself. Others stated the gas now in the square was colorless – unlike the white plumes from the regular issue – and incapacitating. Rumors stated the people were under chemical attack, even coming up from the metro ducts, to drive them from the square to make it look like Tantawi’s speech was convincing. Others stated it was only the waft from the side streets, yet recognizing how painful ordinary tear gas is. Baradei, however, tweeted it was nerve gas, and Abul Futouh concurred some sort of gas dispersal effort was underway. Many left Tahrir, but it was clear that many thousands remained as well. Confusion reigned, and protestors vowed to continue their sit-in until their demands were met, yet fearful a military crackdown might come at any minute. As the night passed, it did not.
Wednesday, November 23
The next day violence continued on the side streets though Tahrir Square remained calm. Truces were brokered to end the fighting, with one effort secured through the intervention of Azhar sheikhs, after which hugs were exchanged and protestors even began cleaning up the street from debris. Yet after each period of peace violence would inevitably flare up again. ‘Who started it?’ is a question almost impossible to demonstrate, but most place the blame on the security forces. Though Tantawi stated the police would be replaced by military personnel, this did not take place.
On Thursday the army itself intervened, separating protestors and police, and erecting a barrier between the two sides. The police were finally withdrawn and the military secured both this road and other side streets in the direction of the ministry of the interior. Furthermore a group of protestors, believed to be the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, formed a human wall where Tahrir Square enters into Mohammed Mahmoud St., preventing passage from either direction. Salafis present in the protest also made sure to condemn the violence. Some stated they shared in the demands of Tahrir, but others insisted they were there only to protect the people.
Thursday, November 24
When calm prevailed I decided to visit the square myself. I went to the field hospital hosted by Kasr el-Dobara Church one street to the south of Tahrir Square. Rev. Fawzi Khalil stated they had even treated three police officers, in addition to the dozens and dozens of injured protestors. Yet he verified the account of strange tear gas, and that it had been directly fired into Tahrir Square for thirty minutes straight following the address of Tantawi. One of their own volunteers, Dr. Safa, had passed out while treating others.
Dr. Muhammad Menessy had been a volunteer at one of the field hospitals within Tahrir Square itself, and as a general surgeon he handled the serious cases. He moved to the church, however, following the deliberate targeting of the hospital by security forces. Though basic clinics remained, all critical injuries were moved to places of worship, here or at Omar Makram Mosque, as their safety was inviolable. He testified he had seen spent canisters of CR gas, as well as numerous cases of people convulsing and losing consciousness in repeated pattern over several hours. Though there had been no fighting at all that morning, I witnessed one patient still in the cycle of symptoms.
Before reading to leave two random events provided more context on events. First, a crowd of people came down the street in front of the church, chanting something. A thief had been caught in Tahrir Square. Apprehended by protestors, they beat him severely, and then brought him to the church for treatment, and safety. Not all were happy at his transfer, though, and some scaled the walls incensed at his delivery. These were calmed by the intervention of a Muslim sheikh who was on the premises, as well as others, and then went away.
Second, a young protestor stumbled into the clinic, fully conscious but bloodied from obvious blows to the head, which were bandaged. Able to interact, I asked if I might speak to him, wishing to discover why these youths were fighting so ferociously in the side streets. As the conversation ensued I learned he was Maged al-Semni, better known by his Twitter name @MagButter, and a member of the Alexandria chapter of the No to Military Trials organization. He was not a fighter, but was on the side streets none the less.
Al-Semni was with fellow renowned Twitter activist Mona el-Tahawy, who he had only met personally that day. They wished to see the side streets where fighting took place, but were blocked by the human wall. Instead they went to see Bab el-Luk Square, where other fighting occurred nearby. After moving in the direction of Mohamed Mahmoud St., they were noticed and fired upon. Bystanders in civilian clothes motioned to a safe place to hide out, but then were beaten there, Mona was sexually harassed, and both were turned over to the police. Maged was transferred to Tora Prison, had his cell phone stolen, spent the night with other detainees, and then released in the morning. He had worked his way back to Tahrir Square, and sought medical attention in the church clinic.
The rest of the square was in waiting mode. Friday was the call for another million-man demonstration, and though there were several thousand people milling about, it was quite easy to navigate. Some were cleaning up trash, others were handing out surgical masks for tear gas defense. I sat with a few Islamist-looking youths due to their long, scraggly beards, and asked their opinion. They were elusive about which religious or political strands they belonged to, emphasizing instead the unity of Islam. Yet one asked why America continued to incarcerate Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted for inciting the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attacks, when he was clearly innocent. Another lauded the youth of Tahrir as akin to the youth of the early Islamic conquests, in whom religious strength resides. They were with the protest 100%, wishing to see the military council give up its power immediately. Yet they would vote in elections for anyone who promoted the good of Egypt – Islamist, socialist, or liberal – and celebrated that ‘the street’ was there with them. They believed the majority of these demonstrators wished Islamic rule. From appearances, though appearances can be deceiving, I disagreed. So did Rev. Khalil, who estimated 90% of protestors were in favor of a civil, non-religious state, however important Islam is to them as a faith.
Friday, November 25
On Friday Tahrir Square was filled as expected. There was no violence, but political wrangling began in earnest. The military council appointed Kamal Ganzouri as the new prime minister, bequeathing him with full powers to form a national salvation government, in accordance with the spoken will of the demonstrators. The square rejected him out of hand, not only was he 78 years old and been Mubarak’s prime minister in the 90s, the protestors had their own desires for a national salvation government. They selected a representative who presented what was described as the will of the square, to name Baradei as prime minister. They asked that fellow presidential candidates Abul Fotouh and Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserist, be his deputies, and also named a prominent economic journalist and reform minded judge to complete the council.
Friday witnessed two other competing protests, and then one more that developed following the political impasse. The International Union for Muslim Scholars called for a demonstration in support of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and the Muslim Brotherhood backed it. Only a handful of people attended that gathering at the Azhar Mosque. Azhar officials, meanwhile, backed the Tahrir protest, and a deputy of the Grand Sheikh spoke during Friday prayers.
The other protest was organized by supporters of the military council, and drew several thousand people. They lauded the efforts of their leaders during difficult times, and opposed the disruption at Tahrir Square. There were fears the two groups might march one toward the other, but each stayed put without confrontation.
That statement is not entirely true. A few hundred demonstrators in Tahrir Square departed and readied for a confrontation – not toward the counter-protest, but toward the prime ministry. They marched several blocks and occupied the space in front of its offices, to deny the now-appointed Ganzouri the ability to enter the building and begin his work. A standoff is in the works, and rival governments are on the horizon. Though neither Baradei nor the others have accepted any official designation, the political situation is tumultuous, with no clear endgame in sight. Meanwhile, elections are only three days away, now extended to two days per round.
There is much in Egypt currently that does not make sense, which opens wide the public discourse for all manner of conspiracies. Were these crowds manipulated into massive demonstrations? If so, by whom, and why? Does the military wish to sabotage elections to stay in power? Has the military struck agreement with Islamists to deliver them an electoral victory? Has the military struck agreement with liberal forces to discredit the otherwise democratic Muslim Brotherhood? Are the protesters minority revolutionaries now seeking power by pressure since they will not win elections? Are the protesters Islamists who fear their popularity might not deliver a clear victory in elections, so they are seeking an alternate route? Aspects of the above narrative can be marshaled to evidence any one of these theories.
Or, are the events just happening? Do they represent genuine anger between protestors and the police force? Do they represent political forces trying to position themselves in light of circumstances? Do they represent the military council seeking balance for the best national outcome, if through soldierly tactics or otherwise? Much is at stake in Egypt, and many wish to grasp at power. Could events simply be the conflation of mutually antagonistic strivings for self-interest, mixed with miscalculations, mistakes, and failures in dialogue?
These questions figure prominently in determination of the original question: Good guys, bad guys, and rooting interests. If all have manipulated, are they all disqualified? Or has the manipulation been within acceptable grounds of politics? Or, if one’s rooting interest is strong, have the ends of a favored party justified their means? Yet as of this writing over thirty people have died, and there is little justification for this, however blame is distributed.
Perhaps events will only be understood in retrospect, or perhaps they never will. Egyptians especially have the responsibility to gauge actions, weigh motivations, and cast their lot with one side or the other. They must do so with partial information and political biases. Through either cooperation or competition their divergent interests will come together in a decision, with winners, losers, or degrees of the same. Yet if one or more parties are manipulated out of the game entirely, they risk all becoming losers. In times of revolution, excluded parties may choose to fight, and fight violently.
I hope for peaceful solutions. I hope for transparency. I hope for an outcome pleasing to the national will, for the good of Egypt. There need not be good guys or bad guys, only sons and daughters of the nation. If there are bad guys, may they be exposed; if there are good guys, may they be successful. Yet may all be honored, and may all see the triumph of their nation, forged anew in this historic time.
 The term ‘million-man’ has become popular since the uprising in January, but more scientific estimates posit that at a number of four people per square meter, Tahrir Square could hold upward of 250,000 people. This is an impressive accumulation of people, but not approaching the literal figure implied.
As clashes and demonstrations have resumed in Cairo and throughout Egypt, I have been closely following information to try and decipher what is going on. I wish soon to be able to publish a helpful summation of events, but things are happening so quickly, and in essence I remain confused about the ‘why’ of everything, as well as where it is going.
In light of this, here instead is a short human interest piece describing a video from al-Masry al-Youm, a local Egyptian newspaper, highlighting the efforts of Kasr al-Dobara Church, a Presbyterian congregation one street removed from Tahrir Square, to treat the injured from the recent clashes.
This work was not unique. There were at least three areas in the square which had field hospitals, and another hosted inside Omar Makram Mosque which is a prominent feature of Tahrir. Yet the church opened its doors all the same, seeking to serve all who were in need. To note, while many churches in Egypt have adjoining clinics, this one does not. All medical supplies, in all locations, came through the donations of protestors or sympathizers with their wounded. The official count from the recent clashes count over twenty dead and over one thousand injured.
The video is a little over two minutes long, and in Arabic only. Below is a translation of both text and audio. Please click here to open the video.
Introductory Text on YouTube:
Maybe it wasn’t expected for the Kasr al-Dobara Church near Tahrir Square to become a temporary headquarters for a field hospital which treated tens of victims who fell during bloody confrontations between security forces and the army and thousands of protestors.
0:09 Caption: Kasr al-Dobara Church, Downtown Cairo, November 21, 2011
0:15 Chanting from a distance: The people want the downfall of the field marshal (Tantawi, de facto head of the ruling military council)
0:18 Caption: Victims of Tahrir in the Hospitality of Kasr al-Dobara Church
Speaker: Fayiz Ishaq
0:22 Have mercy on the tired ones. In the middle of events, this is the idea of the Bible, the idea of the church. In the middle of events we find ourselves invested in them. First of all, the church is downtown, in Tahrir Square, and this is a miracle. The church was built in the late 1940s when it was very difficult to build churches, and perhaps the reason for being here is revealed now, being so close to events.
Speaker not named, female doctor:
1:13 We knew there was pressure in the square, so we came yesterday around seven o’clock and opened the field hospital. For the first two or three hours we mainly distributed supplies. There were lots of people, and if the other field hospitals didn’t have supplies we’d send them out – tools, syringes, bandages. Then people discovered there was a field hospital here and began to come. In the first two or three hours there were about eight cases with simple injuries. By about 2:30 in the morning we heard they attacked the field hospital in the middle of Tahrir, and the doctors came here. They brought all their things and we set up three zones – here we dealt with the cases that were easy to treat, not dangerous. Over there we had two zones for the critical cases which required greater concentration.
It would be very interesting in the days to come to speak to church leaders and those involved to know more. If possible, I will relate these stories later. For now, it is good to see a church involved in its community, however temporary and extraordinary this community was.
 If you click on the link, the page will have a map of the church. Drag the picture down with the curser and you will soon see Tahrir Square to the north, with a large administrative building inbetween.