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Current Events

Where Credit is Due

fath-bridge

Two years ago I wrote about Egypt and her struggle to return to normal. Protests were still being waged on the streets, as terrorism assaulted the post-Morsi regime.

But that article featured also the mundane. A foot bridge was repaired by local authorities in the Maadi neighborhood of Cairo, but for a long time left uncompleted.

Pedestrians could cross, and it was quite fun to slide down-slope on the dust that gathered on the ironwork base.

But it didn’t feel fully safe, and crass revolutionary graffiti covered the walls.

I’m not sure when exactly it was made right, but crossing the other day reminded me of my earlier criticism. It is now in quite good shape, tiled, relatively clean, secure.

It is covered in crass advertising, but still.

I do miss the sliding, especially if my children are with me. But the bridge is a great improvement over what was.

In the two years that passed Egypt has basically put an end to the demonstrations. But terrorism is still present, and now the economy has taken a downturn. Life is not yet back to normal.

But the bridge is. So are many other minor but essential aspects of life. Stoplights have been installed, and they are generally working.

So as you survey the news from around the world and wonder how everything falls apart, please remember that it also gets put back together. So often this is left unreported, but it is the reality for ordinary millions.

Not that life is necessarily great, nor up to our comparatively wealthy standards in America. But life goes on, life is good, and people make it work.

Credit, where credit is due.

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Current Events

The Pope, in Maadi

Pope Tawadros at St. Mark's Church in Maadi, Cairo
Pope Tawadros at St. Mark’s Church in Maadi, Cairo

Friends in Philadelphia will soon have the privilege of a papal visit. But will Pope Francis preach in your particular church?

His equal in the faith visited us in Maadi.

A Catholic might not consider it so. A Protestant might insist we are all equal. But for Orthodox Christians, Pope Tawadros is patriarch of one of the five ancient sees of the church, in which Rome and Alexandria are equals.

“To advance in the church,” he said, “is not done in the ways of the world. It is to lower yourself beneath the feet of others.”

By holding to equality with Rome, or in serving as a patriarch at all, does the head of the Coptic Orthodox violate his own teaching? His sermon on Wednesday was on the topic of humility. His visit on Wednesday—perhaps—is evidence of it.

Pope Tawadros’ predecessor Pope Shenouda was beloved of the people. Charismatic and witty, his Wednesday sermon at the papal cathedral characterized this bond. To a full house that treated him like a superstar, he took questions from the audience and left them laughing, rebuked, and inspired.

Pope Tawadros is respected as an organized administrator and heady thinker. He is young in his position, but does not seem to have the same level of charisma nor to have won the same level of enthusiasm. Few could.

He initially tried to follow in Shenouda’s footsteps, but when I attended a few weeks ago the hall was only half-full. Furthermore, he replaced the question-and-answer period with the traditional evening prayer. He does have a call-in show on Coptic satellite television, but I have heard Copts complain that this medium is out of reach to many simple believers. Rich and poor alike, all loved Pope Shenouda.

The Coptic Cathedral is now under repair, and Pope Tawadros suspended the Wednesday service. Before this, however, it was interrupted by petitioners seeking resolution for their divorce cases. Speculation wonders if the two are connected, or if the pope feels weighed down by the burden of comparison.

There is no answer that can weigh the motivations of his heart. But the visit to Maadi reflects a new evolution of the Wednesday tradition. Rather than sitting centrally in the cathedral, he will visit his flock.

A full church for the papal visit“To be humble does not mean you are less than others or to deny your gifts, talents, or abilities,” Tawadros said. “It is liberation from the power of the self.”

In order to stay humble Tawadros recommended a checklist of characteristics the Christian should continually review. Never elevate your opinion of yourself, but lower it. Be thankful, and search for the good in all things. Remember the final judgment, and constantly repeat, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Tawadros’ advice centered on the creation of a humble spirit, but two other attributes are necessary, he said. The Christian should also cultivate an open mind and a wide heart. Together these three make it possible to live well and navigate the challenges of life.

After the sermon St. Mark’s Church demonstrated fidelity to Tawadros’ predilection for organized administration, in the form of crowd control. Young people from the scouts program lined the aisles and hallways, channeling all in attendance into a single line to meet the pope. There, he further demonstrated humility as near an hour transpired for each one to receive from his hand a commemorative picture of the occasion.

Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark's Church
Commemorative photo taken in front of St. Mark’s Church

Meanwhile, I chafed. My seat was in the very back row of the balcony. The best seats were already taken, so I judged the next best viewpoint would be to scan the whole assembly. Had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for choosing so lowly a place.

I have had the opportunity to meet Pope Tawadros, briefly. But at the end of a long evening I just wanted to get home. I was quite happy to skip the line and again, had I considered it, I might have believed myself humble for my patience in waiting to leave and allowing others to go ahead.

But patience wears thin. I could see below that the pope was receiving the crowd. What I could not see was the organization. The scouts in the balcony were not letting us go anywhere, and I didn’t know why. Just let us exit, I thought, and as others get in line below, I’ll slip out a side door.

A few fought their way past the scouts, and the balcony crowd started getting restless. We were told many times to sit and wait, but no one was explaining anything.

That might be a mark of deficient organization, as communication is a must. But my entire perspective changed once allowed down the balcony steps. Very efficiently, at each turn in the path stood the scouts. Smoothly and quickly we were ushered to Pope Tawadros.

As it turns out there was no opportunity to leave by another path. I took the picture from the pope, then a mug from the bishop. Just like that, and I was outside. Five minutes later I was home.

It could be said the entire evening was public relations. Rather than continuing in the pattern set by his popular predecessor, Tawadros sets his own terms. He will visit the churches in carefully controlled settings. He will deliver a sermon and distribute memorabilia. Copts love their religious leaders. He will create a desire in each church to receive a future visit.

Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark's Church, following an open sign-up
Invitation distributed to selected parishioners of St. Mark’s Church, following an open sign-up

If it is public relations, is it only PR? And is it wrong? Tawadros blessed the Copts of St. Mark. He both encouraged and demonstrated a humble spirit. He has the open mind to create a new pattern for Wednesday sermons, and the wide heart to check directly in on local congregations.

He has a hard job. If he lacks the charisma that is comfortable with the spotlight, he knows he cannot remove himself from it. Instead he will subject himself even to the scouts of the church.

Only God knows his heart, but God has so far chosen to elevate him to leadership of an ancient see. Many scoundrels have held similar posts in the past, so there is no guarantee. Let both Catholic and Protestant nod heads in sad memory of flawed saints and rank sinners.

Let them both also hold out hope and prayer for Pope Tawadros, to live and lead worthy of his calling.

“I must decrease, he must increase,” Tawadros quoted John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus. Standing long in the apostolic line of Alexandria, may the 118th successor of St. Mark do the same.

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Current Events

Convergence

An Egyptian man reads the Quran while riding the metro (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
An Egyptian man reads the Quran while riding the metro (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

A few days ago I stood in the center of a crowded metro car. It was around 95 degrees, hotter inside. Strangely enough with the open windows and rotating ceiling fans, the temperature was tolerable.

Sometimes it can be preferable in the aisle, rather than squeezed five across a four person bench. But generally it is better to sit, relax, and open a book. Otherwise I stand, keep balance, and open a book.

Save for the few with a Quran, I am often the only one reading.

Sometimes I am sheepish about the content, worried it might offend any one of the strongly held political opinions of the day. On this occasion, sadly somewhat paranoid, I pull it carefully from my bag, turn the cover inward against my body, and then open to read.

There are many Egyptians proficient in English, but generally speaking everyone on the metro minds their own business. Still, who knows if a troublemaker with wandering eyes wants to take issue with a foreigner? Especially when not reading, my eyes often wander as well, curious how others pass the time.

The best way to get a seat in a crowded metro is to move to the center and hope those in front of you get out at a nearby stop. It makes for a fun guessing game. Should I choose the family with small kids, or the young university students? Will it be the old man, or the fully covered lady?

This time I had no choice, and just filed into my spot. In front of me was a Quran reader intoning quietly, sitting next to a similarly aged young man playing Candy Crush on his smartphone.

At that moment a familiar sound emerged from the far left end of the car. “By God, please help me,” called out a medium-sized woman dressed completely in black. “God reward you for your kindness, I need food for my children.”

As she worked her way through the crowded car a few people slipped her a coin. But upon completion of her plea another familiar sound came from the far right. “Four pens for five pounds, and get the fifth one free,” the middle aged, somewhat shabbily dressed salesman belted. “Check them out, the best pens in Cairo.”

One or two people handed him the requested bill, but as they did with the covered lady, most ignored him. The two alternated cries as they moved down the aisle.

In the middle, all converged. The Quran and Candy Crush. Begging and enterprise. Middle class youth, lower class poverty, and foreign wealth.

Each was seeking something: a small profit, a trip downtown. For me the metro is the fastest way from here to there. At thirteen cents, it is also the cheapest.

But it is also a chance to learn in transit. Not just the book. The metro is a microcosm of society, a dose of reality piercing the bubble of a more insular Maadi.

Most travel in silence. But whether in hope or complaint, the face of the nation is witnessed clearly. Within it is a valuable lesson to Egyptian and foreigner alike.

The Cairo metro is home to all.

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Current Events

A Color (Printed) Revolution?

With decent regularity pro-Morsi supporters have conducted small protest marches around our Maadi neighborhood since his removal from office in July 2013. They do not tend to be violent but usually result in ugly graffiti insulting now-President Sisi.

Recently, new graffiti has emerged, calling the people to ‘man up’ and protest on January 25, the anniversary of the original revolution. And this past week I noticed posters – on the ground – calling for a new uprising.

New January 25 ProtestsThe translation reads: Together for liberation and purging; The people want the fall of the regime; and 25 January, Egypt speaks revolution.

I do not yet have a good feel for whether or not people will respond. A recent effort to rally an Islamic revolution failed dramatically to attract numbers.

But what is significant to me about this poster is that it is printed in color. This means there is money behind the effort. Another version was even more colorful, but was in poorer condition.

Also significant is that it was on the ground, stomped upon. I did not see any such posters anywhere on the walls. Were they torn down? Did residents or police prevent their hanging?

January 25 is a week away. It will be interesting to monitor developments.

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Current Events

Yalla Maadi Clean-Up Day

Following the success of the January 25, 2011 revolution, Egypt witnessed a great wave of civic activism. One of the most popular manifestations was in campaigns to clean the city streets, often accompanied by vibrant artwork and pro-Egypt graffiti. But as the enthusiasm waned and the political situation became more and more polarized, citizens went back to their lives as normal. Worse, the official public services of police and trash collection broke down as main streets were transformed into garbage dumps. Every now and again a faithful public servant or enterprising resident might try to clean things up, but it was a losing battle nationwide.

So it is with encouragement we joined a group of Maadi ladies on a local clean-up campaign they advertised on Facebook. Among many Egyptians the mood is brighter following the removal of President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, and the anticipated presidency of army general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Others, of course, are horrified at the turn the nation has taken, due either to their approval of the Islamist agenda or their advocacy of liberal principles violated in the crackdown against it. But for a great number, after the chaos and disintegration of the past three years, they just want things to go back to normal. With this hope dawning, the spark of civic activism returned.

But only a spark. The Facebook page yielded a few volunteers, but did animate the local municipality. The mayor made a public appearance and authorized the use of heavy equipment to remove built-up dust and trash along street curbs in our few block section of the neighborhood. At least for these past few days, since March 22, the spark of the ladies’ initiative has resulted in the sparkle of a clean community.

But that sparkle may only be in our eyes who now wish to see things more beautiful than they were. Likely, things will go back to normal once again, though there is hope that police and trash collectors are now providing more faithful service. But the normal was never beautiful in and of itself; if there was beauty it was because neighbors had a stake in the uniqueness of the Maadi area. Trash is still thrown on the street, and worse, building code violations continue as highrises impinge upon the villas and family apartments mixed in with tree-lined sidewalks. Maadi benefits from its upper-class standing, so few real complaints can be issued when poorer sectors push against the posh.

But whether upper or lower class, the beauty of a neighborhood is in the eyes of its residents, and how they collectively view and tend to their immediate area. The ladies of Maadi were encouraged by their opening salvo; there is talk of continuing the practice once a month. Yalla Maadi, let’s have more join in next time. God knows where the revolution will take Egypt next, but ownership of the streets never rests with a political power beyond the imagination, or apathy, of those who walk them.

It just depends on initiative. Here are a few pictures to honor those who got us moving.

Getting ready, from the Facebook page.
Getting ready (from the Facebook page)
Perhaps more effective than the children, but less inspiring (from Facebook)
Perhaps more effective than the children, but less inspiring (from Facebook)
But first the streets needed to be swept
First the streets needed to be swept
Hannah Clean-Up Day
Then the curbs of Road 73 were painted
Others painted over recent graffiti sprayed on the walls of local residences
Others painted over recent graffiti sprayed on the walls of local residences
The local trash collectors lent their aid (from Facebook)
The local trash collectors lent their aid (from Facebook)
Then we walked down the street to start again
Then we walked down the street to start again

Please click here to like the Yalla Maadi Facebook page, and for fellow locals, get notification for future events. Hope to see you there.

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Current Events

Poetry on the Third Anniversary of the Alexandria Church Bombing

Blood on the church wall in Alexandria (L); Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (R)
Blood on the church wall in Alexandria (L); Poet Ahmed Fouad Negm (R)

At midnight of New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Two Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, a bomb exploded as the crowd began to exit, killing 23. The horrific event birthed a tremendous display of Muslim-Christian unity, as a week later on Coptic Christmas churches were packed with Muslims showing solidarity, willing to die with their Christian friends should a similar attack happen again. The local priest in Maadi said that Christmas was the ‘happiest of his life‘.

The unity following the bombing spilled over into the January 25 revolution, giving a power to the demonstrations that has long since dissipated. But at the time it was contagious, capturing domestic and world attention alike, launching the Arab Spring after its birth in Tunisia.

One of the celebrants was Ahmed Fouad Negm, known in Egypt as ‘the poet of the people’ and a firm revolutionary supporter. He died this month on December 3, but is mentioned here for his poem lamenting the Alexandria attack. Thanks to Paul Attallah for bringing this beautiful work to my attention:

These people say God is love

And we all know how dangerous love is.

So, victorious hero, you had to murder helpless women,

Unarmed pensioners and innocent children to save us all

From the terrible possibility of love.

Botros and Mina should be killed.

Their brothers are already dead in Sinai

And their sons danced at your wedding

And offered their condolences at the funerals.

Marie and Aunt Thérèse deserve to die.

They are people of little virtue.

They always smile in a certain way

And say: Welcome. We value your visit.

And what about your Uncle Hanna?

Whatever the dispute, he intervenes to defend you.

He is so keen on reconciliation

That he cannot be admitted into paradise

You had better murder Sami Nagui Nagib too.

To be honest, I have my doubts about him.

He might be one of them.

He might even have a cross tattooed on his arm.

No, even better, bomb Shubra;

The Kit Kat and Opera House Squares;

Make a grave of the crater in each of these places.

The locals can take it as a warning.

Our God is called The Generous One.

One day you may appear before Him.

You will stand in His presence

And He will ask: What did these people do to you?

For what crime did you kill them who and how and why?

So tell me, hero, how will you respond, what will you say?

May God comfort the families of the victims, bring to justice the culprits, and protect Egypt from similar violence this Christmas season.

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Current Events

Unintended Recipients of Generosity

Generosity

‘Make sure your kids come to Sunday School tomorrow,’ their teacher told Julie. Snug in bed, my wife ignored her first call at 10:45pm, but then picked up on her second effort at 11:00. Egyptians are well known as night owls, though they don’t usually call us so late.

‘There will be special visitors,’ she told Julie in Arabic, but the key word to follow was in an unclear English. ‘They will give each child books.’

Great, we thought. Emma and Hannah both have been making progress in their Arabic reading, and now they would be receiving additional age-appropriate materials we could use at home. Only we weren’t sure she said books. It might have been boox.

Regardless, it was nice to be invited. She didn’t want our children to miss out.

Upon our arrival in Egypt four years ago we began attending the Coptic Orthodox Church, which we discovered had a wonderful Sunday School program. Coptic laity is required to complete a year-and-a-half long training course before they serve officially in any capacity. We kept a close eye on content, especially early on, as we were still learning the intricacies of Orthodoxy. But we appreciated the spirit and love with which they teach, and our kids’ participation helped us as parents feel part of the community. Besides, David and Goliath is the same in any tradition, and on the occasions they taught about specific saints it was a learning process for us, too.

But this teacher was calling from the Arabic Evangelical Church. Her earnestness was in part due to the fact our kids hadn’t gone there since we came back to Egypt after a summer in America. This wasn’t the first time she called to inquire.

The Evangelical Church is more akin to our American heritage, but consistent with the night owl nature of Egyptians, their services don’t begin until after our kids go to bed. So we never became part of that community, though we discovered their Sunday School program began right after the one at the Orthodox Church ended. The two are about ten minutes away walking distance, and our kids are not the only ones who attend both.

They, and we, appreciate this Sunday School also, but churches across Egypt changed over the summer. President Morsi was deposed, hundreds of his supporters were killed when their protest site was cleared, and the next day dozens of churches across the nation were attacked. Nearly every Friday since then, Morsi supporters have marched through the streets. Many have been peaceful, a few have been involved in unclear violence, but all have sprayed graffiti on every nearby wall or sign. Anti-Christian slogans have been commonplace, blaming them for siding with the popular revolt against the Islamist president.

As a result, many churches have moved up their service times so that people can get home before Friday demonstrations begin, just in case sectarian violence rears its ugly head. And here it is necessary to clarify that in Christian Egypt, Sunday School takes place on Friday. The weekend is Friday and Saturday, and most churches hold their main services coinciding with the Muslim day of prayer, when everyone is off.

This meant the Evangelical Church now held its Sunday School at the same time as the Orthodox Church. We had to choose, and our Egypt roots were stronger in the latter. The teacher called us regularly to invite us back, and we apologetically explained our situation.

But this time there were boox.

The teacher assured we just had to get there before a certain time, so we booked out of the Orthodox Church and made our way. Hannah, especially, led the charge pushing the stroller beside me. When we arrived we noticed a few other new faces, perhaps like our own.

That is, in the sense of ‘not regular attenders’ rather than ‘foreigners’. The open area outside the church was filled with Egyptian mothers dressed in the traditional village garb of a long robe and head covering. Granted, we haven’t attended for a while, but this Evangelical Church is more generally frequented by the middle-to-upper class residents of Maadi, the upscale Cairo district where we live. Not far away are lower-to-middle class areas, too, but village dress is not the norm for this church. Maybe they were there also for the boox?

Now, Egypt unfortunately is not known for its love of literacy. We began to suspect the teacher was not promising books, but a box. As the first few children left their classes, we saw we were right.

We didn’t know how right, though Julie started to wonder. Were these boxes from Samaritan’s Purse?

Operation Christmas Child

Samaritan’s Purse is an American based Christian charity, and one of their signature campaigns is Operation Christmas Child. Kindhearted people in churches across the country fill shoeboxes with toys for underprivileged children around the world, who might not otherwise receive anything for Christmas.

And out marched our three girls with huge smiles.

I’m sure Samaritan’s Purse orchestrates with churches throughout the country, distributing many boxes in poor areas. 40 percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, so there are certainly many needy. But dollar store type toys are readily available in Egypt, and the Orthodox Church does a very good job of making Christmas special, here celebrated on January 7. Toys and treats are given freely even in rural village churches, and families sacrifice to make sure their kids have new clothes for the holidays.

I’m not saying the charity is unnecessary, but it was odd to see Samaritan’s Purse in Maadi. And it was fully ironic that a generous Florida mother sent her shoebox across the ocean to be received by our five year old daughter. Her toys were not even the made-in-China variety; Hannah got an electronic battle hamster that darts across the floor.

Perhaps God’s generosity is similar. He makes his rain fall on the just and the unjust. He gives full wage to those who work but a few hours, while praising others for contentment with the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.

We can trouble ourselves – and perhaps we should more often – why God’s generosity seems instead withheld from those who need it most. Or, we can take the lesson and apply it with whatever we have, to whoever we meet. When we visited that poor, rural church, our children were honored also. There is a similar ministry here in Cairo that gives Christmas gifts to the children of local Sudanese refugees. Perhaps the value of the Florida mother’s gift was to prompt imitation in our family to them.

In one sense we are to bless those we know in need; in another, we are to cast our bread upon the waters. We were unintended recipients of generosity, and while laughable, it is humbling. Therefore, let us be generous also, by nature, so that blessing comes to all who cross our path, many of whom will be unintended.

 Girls with OCC Gifts

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Current Events

Our Little Ones Watch a Protest

Rabaa Child
From a protest elsewhere in Maadi

The other day Emma’s best friend, Karoleen, and her younger brother, Boula, came over to play at our home following church. As the kids were gathered around the table working on crafts, I heard the familiar sounds of a protest approaching. A fair number have passed near the house in recent months, although they usually go down the main street perpendicular to ours. Since we live on the ground floor, we usually don’t get a good look despite the noise, but this time they turned and came in full view.

We had been looking for an opportunity to film a protest for a recent video we made about the changes in our neighborhood since we returned from a summer in America. So I dropped the construction paper I was cutting up for one of my daughters, grabbed the camera and ran to our play room, which is a glass-enclosed porch. This gave me the best view I could get of the marchers.

I opened the window and screen, just enough to stick the camera out, but I still felt conspicuous. I didn’t really want to attract any attention from the protesters, but I was willing to risk a bit for a decent line of sight. As they marched, I noticed that some of them looked at our house, but not, as best I could tell, in my direction.

But it was then I heard the shouts and screams from my own kids and their friends in the other room, as they watched the protest go by from our living room windows. That’s why they were looking our way.

Two weeks earlier a protest had gone past Karoleen’s house, about ten streets away from our home, while Emma and Hannah were playing there. Her mom told me afterward that it made Emma concerned, even for us in case the protest came towards our home. But Karoleen’s family lives on the 7th floor of her apartment building, far above the action.

So as I was filming, I was simultaneously hoping the kids weren’t too afraid now that they were outside our window. As it turns out I had nothing to worry about. The kids loved it.

They noticed the bright yellow hand signs, though they didn’t know what they meant. They especially took interest in the kids who were marching along in the protest. There were balloons and chanting, which sounded more like cheering to them. In this particular march, there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a friendly, jovial atmosphere.

When I returned to the table the kids talked excitedly about what they had seen. The planned craft was abandoned as they used the construction paper to make protest banners. Theirs, however, bore the name ‘Sisi’ as opposed to ‘Morsi’, in favor of the current military leader who many see as a hero. They teased each other about being ‘for Morsi’ as they bantered around the table. I didn’t realize what fun it would be for them to have political discussions, though this was not the first time our children had taken sides.

In the end, I got the video we had been looking for, and the kids received some unexpected entertainment. We appreciated the peacefulness of the protest, and wound up happy they turned down our street.

It wasn’t until later we were less pleased, noticing the graffiti they had sprayed on our walls. ‘Sisi is a killer,’ they wrote, and, ‘Against Oppression.’ The latter is a message we won’t mind our children seeing every day, but the first one is not so nice. Of course, neither was the explanation we had to give about the yellow signs, commemorating the hundreds of pro-Morsi protestors who were killed when their campsite was cleared.

Our kids, of course, pay little attention to the graffiti. It will be the image of the protest that will stay in their mind, which we invite you to share in also.

'Sisi is a Killer'
‘Sisi is a Killer’
'Against Oppression'
‘Against Oppression’
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Current Events

Changes in the Neighborhood

Maadi Street

We spent a good part of this past summer in the United States, far away from the explosive political situation. As we prepared to return, nearly everyone asked a similar question: Is it safe?

It was a fair question. Hundreds of supporters of the deposed president were killed while security dispersed their sit-in. Dozens of churches across the country were attacked, with many burned. It was a volatile situation.

But it was also a geographically limited situation. As we inquired about our own neighborhood of Maadi, we were constantly assured that things were safe and that violence was taking place in known locations.

After several weeks back, we made this video showing local slices of life. There have been changes, and we note them. But we also hope you get the idea that life moves as normal. We’re glad also you get a small window into this our normal life, and can rest assured we are doing well.

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Personal

A Family Errand through Tahrir

Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad
Application for Consular Report of Birth Abroad

My life in Cairo is spent mostly in our house and the surrounding area of Maadi, which is about half an hour from the famous Tahrir Square.  Friends and family in the states get nervous when they see the violence and flare-ups in Egypt, but the reality for me is generally far removed.  Last week, however, we needed to take a family trip through the heart of the uprising.

Our destination was the American Embassy in Garden City, normally only a five-minute walk from the Square.  Our son, Alexander, was born in Cairo three months ago, and it has taken us this long to secure an appointment with the embassy for his “Certificate of Birth Abroad” (the equivalent of a US birth certificate) and his first passport.  We originally had an appointment at the embassy on the 29th of January, but that was a particularly unstable week around the embassy due to ongoing clashes, and so it closed for several days. All appointments were postponed.  We were hoping for calm now, so we could get this process started.  I didn’t like not having a passport for our baby, as I wasn’t sure what would happen if we were forced to travel.

Since our two oldest girls were still on school break, we ended up taking the whole family downtown for our adventure.  We left our house around 8am with the hopes of arriving in time for our 9am appointment.  Of course, when you are two adults accompanied by three smaller walkers, plus a baby slung snuggly on your chest, it takes a bit longer than normal to get places.  We had an uneventful walk from our house to the closest metro station.

Unfortunately we were traveling during rush hour which meant the metro was packed.  Emma, our oldest, gets a little nervous getting on and off the metro.  She seems to have a fear of our family being split up as some of us get on the train, and others get shut out behind the door.  This has never happened to us, but I understand her fear considering getting on and off the metro can be a real battle due to the sheer number of people.

As we saw the train approach, we noticed that the cars were all quite full.  When the train stopped and the doors opened, we quickly pushed our way in, crowding together with those already in the car.  The trip from our station to downtown is about 20 minutes, and it looked at first, like we would all be standing for that whole time.  But as is common in Egypt, others in the car noticed our small children, and offered me and my baby-in-carrier a seat.  I put Layla on one knee and Hannah on the other until a few minutes later, another seat was offered to Emma and Hannah.

As we rode along, I looked around me and realized there were no other women that I could see in this particular car.  In fact, I was totally surrounded by men.  I was really glad my husband was among them.  Not only was I surrounded, though, but the men had made a barrier of space between me with my kids and everyone on the train.  That was much appreciated considering that where we were standing earlier, there was no space around anyone.  My thoughts went to the many articles I have been reading of violent attacks on women in Tahrir Square.  They sound awful, and the men involved sound like barbarians.  This, on the other hand, was an example of what my family usually experiences: considerate people who look out for the sick, elderly, and moms with young children.

When we arrived at Sadat station, the metro stop under Tahrir Square, I was glad to notice the absence of tear gas.  I have never actually experienced tear gas, but Jayson has on several occasions, and so have some other family members when he has taken them to visit the Square.  I had heard that over the last week, the tear gas was quite palatable in the station, and I was most concerned for our three-month old son if there were any lingering fumes.  I was glad not to notice any.

We exited the metro, Jayson carrying Hannah and Layla, Alexander strapped to me, and Emma holding tightly to my hand.  We quickly escaped the traffic that was exiting with us, regrouped in an open space, and walked toward the turnstiles.  We then followed the crowd through the narrow door, up the steps, and into the open air.

I looked around and saw the white tents covering the center of the traffic circle.  We considered taking a family picture, but, being that we were an American couple with three blonde daughters and a new baby, we didn’t want to linger and attract any more attention than we naturally do wherever we go in Cairo.  We headed toward the embassy.

Embassy Plea
Photo from a few months ago; no cars dare park in the area now.

Normally this walk would take us only 5 minutes, even with the little ones in tow.  However, due to the recent fighting, several walls have been constructed over the last few weeks.  These walls are made of large concrete blocks, each one is probably 3 feet by 3 feet.  The blocks are then stacked 3 or 4 high, and they cover the entrance to streets, blocking the thoroughfares to cars and people.  This meant we had to walk out to the road which runs along the Nile, past the Semiramsis Hotel, which was sadly boarded up at every door and window due to the attacks from last week.

We walked two more blocks until we finally came to a road without a wall.  Turning left, we walked another block to the road the embassy is on.  People were milling about normally, and we noticed several police trucks and tens of riot police walking around, perhaps preparing for coming protests.  The line at the embassy, on the non-American services side, was perhaps slightly shorter than normal, but long, as always.  On the American services side, however, we got right inside once we showed the guard our appointment paper.

The embassy is a comfortable place to sit as you first wait for your number to be called, and then for the staff to get your paperwork started once you’ve submitted it.  The girls enjoyed playing various games in the spacious waiting area.  It is one of the few places in Cairo that I have seen a water fountain … the kind you drink from.  The embassy also had done a good job preparing us for exactly what forms we would need to get the birth certificate and passport.  We were able to submit the papers without any trouble, and look forward to seeing Alexander’s passport in a couple weeks.

Once the work was done, we headed back outside after grabbing our cell phones from security, and decided to walk back to a different metro stop since the Tahrir stop wasn’t as close as it used to be.  Jayson is much more familiar with downtown than I am, so he led the way and eventually we found the stop were looking for.

The ride back home on the metro was a lot less-crowded.  The whole family got a seat and we were glad to have accomplished what we set out to do.  It even included a glimpse of the downtown scene.

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Photos from the Aftermath of Tahrir Clashes

Cornish Tree
An uprooted tree on the Nile Cornish, just outside of Tahrir Square. Muslim rules of war forbid the wanton destruction of nature.

Egypt has just witnessed some of the fiercest clashes in the revolutionary era, as many protestors appear radicalized. There are still peaceful demonstrations, to be sure, but even these appear to be violently resisted by police. It is hard to blame the police, though, as the lines are blurred.

I missed out on the latest battles. I spent January 25 in Helwan, a city to the south of Cairo at the end of the Metro line. The Muslim Brotherhood was conducting an outreach campaign to counter-program the message of demonstrations and unrest offered in Tahrir. I planned to take the Metro downtown to see these protestors, but on the way the car stopped and sat for five minutes – at the very stop nearest our home in Maadi.

Demonstrators in Tahrir had cut the tracks, causing a backup. Rather than waiting what could be an hour or more, based on previous examples, I left and went home, seeking to catch up on the news of the day, and perhaps go down after a bit.

A minute later, before I was able to exit the station, the Metro started up again. Perhaps it was propitious I had left.

These pictures taken this morning are from my first visit back to Tahrir. The worst clashes occurred in the Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez, where a state of emergency has been declared. It is hard to know precisely what happened anywhere – the consequence of sitting home and following news updates and Twitter bylines. But the pictures to follow give a disturbing indication of where Egypt stands at the moment.

Is this the last gasp of resistance to a new order, or a sign of worse things yet to come? Please pray for Egypt, either way.

The worst clashes took place on the Nile Cornish. This rock pile is on the road leading there from Tahrir, where protestors would retreat to reload in the volleys against the police.
The worst clashes took place on the Nile Cornish. This rock pile is on the road leading there from Tahrir, where protestors would retreat to reload for their volleys against the police.
At one point during the fighting, armed criminals broke in to the Semiramsis Hotel, smashing this door. According to reports, protestors intervened and beat them off.
At one point during the fighting, armed criminals broke in to the Semiramsis Hotel, smashing this door. According to reports, protestors intervened and beat them off.
Outside on the Cornish clean up crews were hard at work collecting the debris, preparing the road for traffic
Outside on the Cornish clean up crews were hard at work collecting the debris, preparing the road for traffic.
Traffic into Tahrir, however, was blocked by these makeshift barricades.
Traffic into Tahrir, however, was blocked by these makeshift barricades.
And on the bridge across the Nile leading into Tahrir, group of protestors were trying to block traffic, as they had over the previous few days. This attempt petered out after about five minutes.
And on the bridge across the Nile leading into Tahrir, group of protestors were trying to block traffic, as they had over the previous few days. This attempt petered out after about five minutes.
Meanwhile, camera crews were already in place, awaiting the next round of violence.
Meanwhile, camera crews were already in place, awaiting the next round of violence.
Back in Tahrir, things were calm, as protestors celebrated their previous night's capture off a police van.
Back in Tahrir, things were calm, as protestors celebrated their previous night’s capture off a police van.
Even the local Pizza Hut was open for business - sort of.
Even the local Pizza Hut was open for business – sort of.
Protestors opened their very own Tahrir Museum in the center circle of the roundabout.
Protestors opened their very own Revolution Museum in the center circle of the Tahrir roundabout.
The celebrated statue of Omar Makram had a new round of graffiti.
The celebrated statue of Omar Makram had a new round of graffiti.
And the walls were updated with the pictures of the latest martyrs and targets of political rejection. Here, the Muslim Brotherhood's General Guide hovers behind a split image of Mubarak and former army General Tantawi.
And the walls were updated with the pictures of the latest martyrs and targets of political rejection. Here, the Muslim Brotherhood’s General Guide hovers behind a split image of Mubarak and former army head General Tantawi. A plaque has been affixed bearing a verse from the Quran.
But at some point since my last visit a huge Egyptian flag had been draped on the side of this building. Perhaps it can be read as a sign of hope.
But at some point since my last visit a huge Egyptian flag had been draped on the side of this building. Perhaps it can be read as a sign of hope.

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Little Pink Chicks

We had not noticed it in years past, somehow, but apparently it is the season for pink chicks in Egypt. Really, they are hard to miss.

Mixed among the cutlery, shoes, and fruit offered by illegal street vendors up and down the road leading to the local Maadi metro station are tiny little chicks crowded into plastic boxes. They sell for a pound apiece, the equivalent of eighteen US pennies. They fit snuggly into the palm of a hand.

Many are also painted pink. Demonstrated by the interest taken by our children, this serves to attract customers.

Street vendors have proliferated since the revolution as police have stopped enforcing whatever codes prevented them from being there. They crowd the sidewalk, spill over into the street, and generally increase pedestrian and vehicular traffic. It is practically bedlam in front of the metro station, as taxis congregate as well, awaiting customers.

The vendors are nice enough and do not impose or shout out prices. Elsewhere, tourist market peddlers are notorious for calling out their wares, hoping to prey on naïve foreigners and help separate them from their money. Most seek to be funny, but the economic situation forces the hand of both groups of aspiring entrepreneurs. It is hard not to be sympathetic when the poverty rate exceeds 40%.

A friend tells us, though, that chicks-as-gifts have been popular since she was a girl. The pink seems to be a recent novelty, but Egyptian kids have always loved having an alive toy. Most die after a few days; lack of proper care is certainly a contributing factor.

Laugh, cry, or shrug it off? How would you respond?

Update: My friend tells me that sometimes street vendors will place the chicks on a heated surface, then market them as dancing chicks from Tanzania. But she also tells me that many Egyptians will raise these chicks, and eventually benefit from either a mature rotisserie or egg-laying hen.

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Beauty and Women Celebrated at Inter-Faith Art Exhibition

‘We came here today to satisfy our soul for its need of beauty.’ With these words Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Gamia addressed the crowd at the Caravan Festival of Arts, hosted by St. John the Baptist Church in Maadi, Egypt.

But then he continued, rather surprisingly given the oft-assumed perspectives of Muslim scholars.

‘When you look to the heavens, you see beauty and love. When you look to the kingdom of earth, you see beauty and love. When you look in the faces of people, you see beauty and love…

‘And when you look at the form of a woman, you see beauty and love.’

Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler

The rector of St. John’s is Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler who stated, ‘Art is one of the best means for encouraging friendship among those with differences.’

From left: Dr. Azab, Bishop Mouneer, and Sheikh Gamia

This evening, these differences were in short supply. In addition to Gamia mentioned above, Chandler introduced Bishop Mouneer, head of the Anglican diocese of Egypt, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa, and Dr. Mahmoud Azab, head of the Azhar committee for interfaith dialogue.

Bishop Mouneer declared, ‘Many things divide us, but love, the love of God, brings us together. When we love God truly, we love each other also.

‘Art also serves a role in bringing us together.’

Bishop Mouneer is also a participant in the exhibition, supplying one of his photographs. Referring to it, he stated, ‘The road ahead in the revolution is to realize we are all in one boat.

‘All in the Same Boat’ – Rev. Dr. Mouneer Anis, Egypt

‘We must take care of this boat, which is Egypt.

‘We must also row in the same direction.’

Dr. Azab declared, ‘Religion as a sign of civilization is an inspiration to scholars and artists alike.

‘Christianity is the religion of love, Islam is the religion of mercy, and Egypt is in dire need of both.’

The Caravan Festival of the Arts also featured two prominent Egyptian performers.

Yousra

Yousra is a famous Egyptian actress, and has also been honored by the United Nations as an advocate for the oppressed. She stated, ‘The arts are one of the most powerful ways to bring society together.

‘This is true even though those who wish to restrict freedom also often wish to restrict art.

‘Art unites us, it is a language of love, a language of peace; it goes straight to your heart.’

Yet Yousra expressed concern for the future as well.

‘One year after the revolution we are starting to hear voices that threaten our freedom.

‘This scares me, but it also makes me want to fight harder for it.

‘You can never negotiate a person’s freedom.’

Rula Zaki

Rula Zaki is a popular Egyptian singer. Though she offered no remarks, she captivated the crowd through her beautiful rendition of ‘People of the Book’, celebrating the unity of Muslim and Christian in Egypt.

Click here for a YouTube link of her performance with English subtitles.

The Caravan Festival of the Arts exhibition was entitled ‘The Road Ahead’, contemplating the future direction of the Egyptian revolution. It featured 45 artists from both the East and the West. All pieces are available for purchase, with 20% of all proceeds going to charities aiding the poor of Egypt.

The following are a few selected works of art. Remembering Sheikh Gamia’s praise, take note of the prominence of women:

‘She is our Mirror’ – Khalil al-Hakim, Lebanon; the portrait is of Alia al-Mahdi, who caused caused great controversy in Egypt by posting nude artistic images of herself online, in defense of revolutionary freedoms
‘He Holds the Future’ – Dr. Faris Fadel, Egypt; the image suggests an emergence from the desert in full faith in God to guide the road ahead
‘Unraveling’ – Julia Moran-Leamon, USA; a careful look will reveal this to be a woman’s dress, upon which is written the word ‘freedom’ in Arabic
‘Motherhood and the Future’ – Dr. Ahmed Salim, Egypt; Hailing from Aswan, this image depicts the Nubian people of Egypt and their hope for the future

In addition to these, two canvases bore particularly revolutionary images:

‘Colours of Hope’ – Renee van Lille-Demetroudes, South Africa; note the iconic revolutionary scenes of priests and imams embracing, under the banners of Facebook and Twitter
‘Bread’ – Julie Klimenton, UK; the text reads: By the year 2050 the population will increase to 60 million

This last painting is a reminder that no matter how beautiful is creativity, or how uniting is art, humanity must eat, and revolutions much achieve social justice. If not, all such celebrations are in vain.

Like many questions in Egypt, this one is still unanswered. The Caravan Festival is right to focus on ‘The Road Ahead.’

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On Expat Life and a Sense of Belonging

A little while ago the expat facilitation site InterNations featured our blog to help their readers adjust in advance to life in Cairo. Please click on the link to see their article for yourself, but here is the content. It describes a little of our philosophy in living overseas.

1.      Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Egypt, etc.

I am an American writer living in Egypt with my family, having arrived in the summer of 2009. I write primarily with Arab West Report, but also with other outlets on a freelance basis.

2.      When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?

My editor at Arab West Report encouraged me to keep a blog for several reasons. One, it would be a permanent record of our experiences, to draw back upon for all future writings. Two, it would expand awareness for our publication. Third, and most important, it would share our experiences from Egypt in service of increased understanding between cultures.

3.      Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?

The first post ever is probably the most useful in describing our hopes in expat living and writing. It explains the title of our blog – A Sense of Belonging. Here is the link: http://asenseofbelonging.org/2009/10/04/a-sense-of-belonging/

4.      Tell us about the ways your new life in Cairo differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?

Life in Cairo is not our first overseas experience, but it did come with significant differences from other Arab nations we have lived in. Due to the great population, it is challenging to deal with pollution, trash, and the pinch on traditional Arab hospitality caused by people already having a wealth of relationships. These are often family, but with other expats as well. Egyptians are extraordinarily friendly, but it has been harder to make friends here than in other nations.

5.      Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Egypt? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?

Well, we weren’t prepared for a revolution! Fortunately, we feel our attitude toward belonging equipped us to adapt, sympathize, and celebrate with the people both then and in their continuing difficult situation, amidst so much hope.

6.      Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?

The Cairo metro provides women-only cars in the middle of the train. In my early days I was rushing to catch the metro before it left the station and inadvertently boarded the wrong car. Immediately I was hit by a gamut of angry glares. I nodded, touched my head in apology, and switched cars at the next stop.

7.      Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Egypt?

First, realize there are many amenities for the expat community, so not everything of the old lifestyle must be left behind. Second, open your mind and heart to the new lifestyle, because there will be so many differences it can drive you crazy if you don’t aim to embrace it. Third, especially in the beginning, consciously limit making friends among expats, or else the natural bonds of community will squeeze you from making Egyptian friends and entering Egyptian life. If you aim to speak Arabic, do the same and avoid English speaking relationships as much as possible.

8.      How is the expat community in Cairo? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?

The expat community is wonderful. There are several social groups, service organizations, churches, and clubs to meet every relational need. Our daughter has especially enjoyed the local (mostly) expat soccer league, as it is difficult for girls to otherwise play sports publicly.

9.      How would you summarize your expat life in Egypt in a single, catchy sentence?

We don’t belong, but we aim to – and in the end we somewhat do.

 

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A Salafi Speaks in Church on Shenouda

Fatima Naout and a surprise Salafi guest

The evening was supposed to be about Fatima Naout and Pope Shenouda. It turned out to be so much more.

That it included Fatima Naout is semi-exceptional in itself. St. Mark’s  Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi invited her to be the keynote presenter for a memorial service for Pope Shenouda. Naout is a Muslim.

Yet she is well known in Egypt – and celebrated by Copts – as a staunch defender of citizenship, liberal principles, and Coptic rights. There are many Muslims like her, of course, but she goes further. She has memorized many verses of the Bible and lauds Christians over the sublime teachings of their religion.

She stated she loves to go to church because she is jealous of Christians. She finds much in Islam to be their antithesis.

During her presentation Naout made many beautiful remarks about Pope Shenouda, and was received warmly. It was not until the end, however, that the evening got really interesting.

Mahmoud arrived, complete with the full length beard marking a Muslim of Salafi persuasion.

He was noticed quickly, and must have explained himself sufficiently, for before too long he was brought to the front to speak. He apologized for being late, and offered his condolences over the death of Pope Shenouda, offering kind words about their spiritual leader.

The church was electrified. In the days after Pope Shenouda’s death a popular Salafi preacher forbade Muslims from saying the common cultural expression over a death, ‘God have mercy on him.’ Shenouda was an infidel, and the head of the infidels, and God would not have mercy on an infidel, especially one who brought such sectarian tension to Egypt and wished to create an independent Coptic state.

In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood speaker Saad al-Katatni paused proceedings and asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence out of respect for Pope Shenouda. The Salafi members stayed in their seats, except for those who chose to walk out.

The entrance of a Salafi into a memorial for Pope Shenouda, then, caused quite a stir. Later on Naout’s Christian secretary apologized to Mahmoud publically. When she saw him come in she immediately feared he was going to blow himself up in the church.

Mahmoud stated he was afraid himself. Before coming in he thought he would be searched rudely, if not barred at the gate. Instead, he was astounded at his welcome.

These confessions came later. After his two minute offer of condolences the service ended with a final hymn, and all exited. Mahmoud, however, had a crowd around him outside.

Naout and Mahmoud

Some wanted to get a point across, though were friendly in doing so. It was certainly an opportunity to address a Salafi on their own turf, with numbers in their favor. Mahmoud was gracious and didn’t seem to be bothered by his instant celebrity.

Most of those present, however, simply offered their welcome, and thanked him for coming. He was invited back, so that he might see how Christians pray and get a fuller picture of the faith and the community. He appeared willing to do so.

The whole while Naout was still inside speaking with the organizers of the service, but made a point to speak to Mahmoud. When she exited and found him, the crowd around them doubled in size.

Eventually it led to a spontaneous second seminar. Naout and Mahmoud sat at a quickly arranged table and simply talked about their understandings of religion. Several in the crowd asked questions.

By this time Mahmoud’s story was known, though he repeated it for those who did not hear. He came only to hear Naout speak.

After the revolution the Muslim Brotherhood launched a campaign entitled, ‘Listen to us, don’t listen about us.’ Aware of their poor reputation in the press and their late entry into the revolution, the Brotherhood enjoined people to learn directly from the organization about its principles and values.

Mahmoud wanted to do the same, in reverse.

Given that Naout has such a poor reputation among Salafis, he heard about her presentation and came to the church to listen. Unfortunately, he was late and missed most of it. Yet the swell of attention and the interest of Naout to engage with such an open attitude led to his invitation to speak directly to the whole assembly.

I identified with him, had respect and sympathy for him, but advised him to think twice about doing it. I probably shouldn’t have, but it was my reaction after having been in his shoes. I will never regret wearing them, but I feared he was unprepared, and I feared the Coptic audience.

Several weeks ago I was in Tahrir Square, and I stumbled upon a tent representing the Coalition to Support New Muslims. This was a group that provoked/responded to – depending on perspective – great sectarian tension over the summer concerning a woman named Camilia Shehata. She was the wife of a priest who disappeared, fueling rumors she had been either, one, kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam, or two, converted willingly and was kidnapped by the church to prevent the announcement.

The Coalition to Support New Muslims rallied behind her according to their interpretation, and led multiple marches of thousands of conservative Muslims. On one occasion they marched threateningly past the Coptic Cathedral, the seat of Pope Shenouda.

I had long been curious about this group, but had no idea how to get in contact with them. By this occasion in Tahrir Square the Camilia Shehata issue had long since passed, but here I was at their doorstep.

I was received warmly and learned extensively of their perspectives. Despite the fact that Shehata appeared publically with her husband and child on satellite television and confessed her belief in Christianity, the Coalition held to the fact that she had indeed converted, and the church pressured her to return. Of note, the television station she appeared on was foreign based, and she spoke from abroad.

After a little while, though, the conversation changed. There were ten to fifteen people in the tent, and they began asking accusatory questions about Christianity. The Coalition, incidentally, had begun as individual members identified themselves on Paltalk, a popular chat service that hosts multiple rooms for interfaith, um, dialogue.

In reality it is a place of proselytizing, on all sides. The Muslims of the Coalition were long practiced at combating Christian witness on the site, and doing their best to convince in the other direction.

Unlike Mahmoud, they did not have the attitude of ‘listening to us, not about us’ to learn, but to pick Christianity apart. After finishing the basics about the Coalition and Camilia Shehata, they turned their sights on me.

It was not pleasant. A question would be posed, an answer attempted, and then someone else would jump in from a different direction. They were not rude, just purposed, and in the end, annoying (not all, of course, mostly one in particular). It was as if they had never interacted with a real live Christian before, and certainly not a foreigner.

And now, Mahmoud was in the same place.

He handled himself well, as did the audience. The only challenge came from Naout. She asked him about the difference between Quranic verses composed early in Mecca, which are largely irenic, with those from when he later resided, and ruled, in Medina. This is from where ‘verses of the sword’ issue, and most Muslim exegetes consider later revelation to abrogate the earlier. How could he, a kind and open-minded Muslim, accept such commands to kill and discriminate?

It was the sort of question I feared for him, as Naout is well versed in these matters and a strong personality, while Mahmoud, presumably, just wanted to learn. He ducked deftly enough, and no one was out for blood. The overwhelming sentiment in the audience was gratefulness that a Salafi had joined them. The evening ended with the idea Mahmoud could return with other Salafi colleagues, ones able to answer the question well, and the church could host them in seminars to get to know each other better. Fr. Butrous of St. Mark’s Church even offered to visit a Salafi mosque to do the same on their turf. Mahmoud indicated these were good ideas.

They are, in fact, beautiful ideas. The beauty stems from both sides, though in different manners. Mahmoud made the effort to get to know the other. He risked his own community’s condemnation by offering condolences for the pope. He even risked the chance the police guard outside the church might have misunderstood his intentions and gotten into trouble.

The beauty of the church stems from their reception. Copts feel under tremendous pressure from Islamists in general, and Salafis in particular. By and large, they did not take their unprecedented opportunity to lay into a Salafi who was actually kind hearted enough to listen to what could have been their many legitimate complaints. Instead, they welcomed him, and made certain his visit was appreciated.

It is beautiful, but it is also revealing. The Coptic Church is widely panned as being an insular institution whose people have grown more and more isolated within its walls. Salafis can be understood somewhat similarly. There is very little connection between the two groups, and as such, acrimony is frequent on both sides.

I cannot say what the real Salafi attitude is toward Christians, if it differs from that of many of their high profile leaders. Yet the church attitude demonstrated that even if Christians are isolated, they desire to be known. Most may not desire it enough to be as brave as Mahmoud, but when offered a chance to interact with a Salafi, they jumped at the chance. They are desperate to give a good, and corrective, impression.

Naout closed the impromptu session by referring back to Pope Shenouda. She claimed this evening was ‘one of his miracles’. Indeed, had the pope not died, this memorial service would not have been held, Naout would not have been present, and Mahmoud would never have set foot in a church. Is it a miracle?

The answer is probably dependant on theology. Is it safe to say it is a miracle of the revolution? Is God arranging to bring the diverse strands of Egyptian belief closer and closer together? Is it just a token sociological accident? Or has good already begun to emerge from Pope Shenouda’s death?

Regardless, greater interaction between Copts and Salafis, Islamists and liberals, urbanites and villagers, and all manner of Egyptians is desperately necessary. Tonight, Pope Shenouda, Fatima Naout, and Mahmoud all circumstantially intertwined to begin a small chapter.

Or should it be labeled ‘providentially’?

 

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CNN in Cairo: Ben Wedeman

It is not an Arab Spring, says Ben Wedeman, CNN’s Senior Correspondent in Cairo, as it has lasted through several seasons, and is likely to continue several more. He prefers the term Arab Revolt, and believes there is no going back.

Wedeman spoke at the Abraham Forum hosted by St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Maadi, Egypt on March 22. The forum is directed by church rector Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, and aims to promote dialogue between religions and cultures for the sake of peace and better understanding. The title of Wedeman’s lecture was ‘Reflections on the Current Middle East’.

Wedeman began with a question he is often asked: Did you see it coming? While he said the conventional wisdom on Egypt was that with Mubarak’s looming death a power struggle would soon emerge, no one anticipated Tunisia. Yet with the level of education and demographics of youth, the gains of the Arab Revolt are here to stay, even as the struggle will likely continue for a while to come.

Wedeman’s lecture walked the audience through the harbingers of the revolt in Egypt, stating why there was some evidence discontent was in the air. In 2000 several thousand Cairo University students protested Israeli policy in Palestine and Egyptian complicity. In 2003 there were clashes between police and protestors in Tahrir Square over the US invasion of Iraq.

Shortly thereafter the nation went temporarily silent as Mubarak collapsed while addressing parliament on State TV. Finally, in 2008 the protests at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta witnessed significant anger against Mubarak himself, with demonstrators smashing his picture and stomping upon it.

Still, the January 25 protests caught everyone by surprise. Whereas during even the sizeable protests of the past there were at least five policemen per demonstrator, on this occasion the security forces were overwhelmed. Being on the street, Wedeman noticed as well they were largely new, young conscripts, whose fear was palpable in their visage.

Among the noteworthy anecdotes Wedeman shared was his comment to a fellow journalist following an ‘alternate reality’ speech given by then-speaker of Egypt’s upper house, Safwat el-Sharif at the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, given on January 28.

Wedeman told his colleague to take a picture of this building, as he wasn’t sure it would last much longer. That evening, on the Day of Rage, it burned.

The evening grew even more interesting as Rev. Chandler opened the floor for questions and answers. The following is a capsule of the different topics:

SCAF?

I think the military council will hand over power as they have promised, as they do not want the responsibility of running the country. What they want is to keep their significant perks, as they control between 30-40% of the economy. SCAF will go back to their barracks while they maintain an influence, but their fate will be decided by their coming interactions with the elected parties.

Syria?

I can’t predict anything, but unlike Egypt there is a significant percentage of the population which is truly afraid of what will happen if the regime falls. The consequences could get very nasty. I recently spoke with activists in Jordan and asked if they were planning to push forward. No, they replied, we have been watching Syria and we think it is best to give reform a chance first.

Iran in Syria?

Certainly Iran has a lot at stake in Syria, as it is their main connection to the Arab World. Yet the news that their Quds forces have been operating is not sure, as it is mainly reported by Washington and Tel Aviv, where news should always be taken with a grain of salt. Iran’s interest is comparable to that of the Sunni Gulf states, which are heavily calling for the fall of Assad. It underscores a Sunni-Shia split in which the Gulf States are now retaliating against the interference of the Iranian regime in their region following the Khomeini revolution.

Egypt becoming Pakistan?

This is not a realistic scenario, because the Egyptian character will push back against the extremism which is seen in Pakistan. Yes, Egyptians are very religious, but they have a long history of welcoming foreigners and do not have a deep hatred of the ‘other’. Having a significant percentage of the population as Christians also works against a Pakistan outcome, as seen in the example of the historic Wafd Party.

Saudi Arabia?

Ah, they are the elephant in the room. Even President George Bush’s democracy promotion agenda left Saudi Arabia off the table. Their influence through oil is simply too large to ignore. There have been demonstrations there, which have been met with violence. Yet here we see how the interests of the West trump their principles – and then some. But yes, they definitely need change, especially in the area of women’s rights.

Muslim Brotherhood?

I see the Brotherhood as pragmatic businessmen who know they must compromise to get and stay in power. I’m not worried about them in the short term, as opposed to the Salafis, who are more hardline and seem to have come out of nowhere. But it is always a concern when a political group puts religion as a central focus. Religion is a least common denominator which serves to divide. Take Hizbollah, for example. It means ‘Party of God’. If you are against the party of God, you are against God, and if against God, you are an infidel. Still, many in the Brotherhood refer to the example of Turkey, which is not that bad a model, actually.

Democracy with Islamists?

It seems clear that the Salafis are not converts to democracy as an end but as a means to power. The Brotherhood is different, as they have struggled for decades to get into politics, even being persecuted. They talk the talk of democracy, but now they will be put to the test. The reality of governance will probably not allow them to descend into extremism.

Salafis?

Salafi success in the elections was surprising, but they out-Brotherhood-ed the Brotherhood. They engaged in social service work both traditionally and with the elections, and pulled on the power of religious allegiance. Yet it should be noted the Salafis have a long relationship with Egyptian intelligence, which sees them as a counter-weight to their ‘archenemy’ the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance the head of the Salafi Asala Party used to be the head of the Mugamma, the central administrative building in Cairo – just without a beard. Many parts of the regime fell with the revolution, but others remained, chief among them the intelligence services.

 

Ben Wedeman has won numerous awards in his journalism career and speaks many languages, even dabbling in classical Mongolian. He is married with three children.

 

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Understanding Egypt’s Elections

Egypt’s first free elections in over thirty years did not err on the side of simplicity. Even so, this did not deter massive national participation and excitement, as 54% of the nation lined up for hours on the street to cast their ballot. Many, however, admitted to having little knowledge about the political process, enabling accusations of fraud and voter manipulation. In this they mirrored many casual Western observers who valued the accomplishment of the elections, but were confused by the mind-boggling complications.

The results were simple: Islamists won a major victory, securing around 70% of the seats. The tale of this victory, and what it means for Egypt, is the subject of this recap.

The Set-Up

Egyptian elections for the People’s Assembly were conducted in three stages over a period of nearly two months. Each of Egypt’s 27 governorates was then subdivided into electoral districts, according to population. Two-thirds of the seats were awarded by proportional representation according to votes cast for their party. The remaining third was chosen by individual ballot for the candidate alone. Of the total representatives chosen, fully one-half were required to be workers or farmers. Together, the People’s Assembly consists of 508 seats, 10 of which were appointed by the military council.

Confused? Naturally. The process did not result from consensus planning or a democratic heritage. Instead it was cut and pasted from a mishmash of Egyptian history through pressure and compromise between political parties and the military council.

The 50-50 division between workers/farmers and professional seats is a holdover from President Nasser. He stipulated a place for the common man in the People’s Assembly in accordance with his Arab nationalist and socialist policies, but in reality the designation was little more than an administrative token. The military council represents a continuation of his legacy, and insisted on keeping the division. Political parties did not raise significant objection.

There was loud protest, however, over the electoral system. The party list format groups candidates together under broad alliances. Citizens then cast one vote for their party of preference, which is awarded seats per district according to the total percentage won. If a district, for example, represents ten seats, every party must field ten candidates. Should the party capture 60% of the vote, its top six candidates would claim seats.

This was the system Egypt utilized for elections in the 1980s, before switching to an individual candidacy format more akin to politics in the United States. The winner was the first to capture 50%+1 of the ballots cast, requiring a run-off for the top two candidates, if necessary. Intentional or not, this allowed for simpler vote-rigging and intimidation of voters, allowing the National Democratic Party to win a sweeping (fraudulent) victory in 2010.

Fearful the remnants of the NDP would claim victory after the revolution through similar methods, political parties argued to return to a party list system. Through subsequent pressure on the military council the percentage of such party list candidates moved from one-third, to one-half, and finally to two-thirds. The military council refused to abandon individual candidacy altogether, leading to fears it would promote old regime fortunes in the election process.

These fears were also buttressed by their refusal to allow international observation of the elections. Instead the military council decreed the nation’s judges would supervise legitimacy, but this created a problem of logistics. In order to guarantee a judge at every ballot box, the elections were divided into three stages. Stage one took place in the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, and others, while stages two and three mixed between the governorates of the Delta and Upper Egypt.

In the end, the military council did allow limited international observation. Former US President Jimmy Carter was prominently involved through his Carter Center, with its longstanding work in democracy promotion. While noting irregularities, he ultimately judged the elections ‘acceptable’.

The Parties

The military council further placated popular demand and issued a law to bar former members of the NDP from participating in elections. Though this law was struck down by the court, it proved to be unnecessary. A number of old regime parties acquired legal registration and ran in elections, but altogether secured only 3.5% of the seats.

The true competition centered on five parties/alliances, though initial efforts sought to maintain one national effort to unite all political forces. This hope quickly degenerated into a liberal-Islamist divide, as fears rose some wished to craft Egypt into a religious state.

Soon greater divisions emerged on both sides. The broad Democratic Alliance was led by the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. It tried to position itself a religious but centrist force, keeping an alliance with the historically liberal Wafd Party. It faltered, however, as conservative Salafi Muslims split to form their own alliance, under the banner of the newly created Nour Party. Eventually, the Wafd also decided it could not align with the Muslim Brotherhood in good faith, and decided to go it alone.

On the liberal side, political parties from both the right and left of the economic spectrum formed the Egyptian Bloc, dedicated to the civil state. Yet the young revolutionaries felt marginalized, and split to form a left-leaning activist alliance named The Revolution Continues. A major factor in the dissolution of all alliances was the placement of candidates on the party list and assignment to favorable individual districts. The interests of party outweighed formation of a common front.

The Results

In the end this hurt the liberal far more than the Islamists, if indeed it was a factor at all. The Democratic Alliance headed by the FJP did slightly better than anticipated, winning 45% of the seats. The surprise of elections was the showing of the Islamist Bloc headed by the Salafi Nour Party. Assumed to be marginal and full of political novices, they captured a solid 25% of the People’s Assembly.

The liberal Egyptian Bloc fared decently in the first stage of elections due to concentrations of upper class and intellectual pockets in the big cities. Their appeal failed to materialize in the rest of the country, however, in the end receiving only 7% of the seats. The Wafd Party captured a slightly higher number, as their name recognition echoed through the rest of the nation winning the allegiance of most non-Islamist-inclined voters. Despite the popular appeal of the revolution, however, the Revolution Continues Alliance faltered miserably, winning only 2% of parliamentary representation.

The Stakes

Though the powers of the People’s Assembly remain undetermined, the military council has bequeathed it full legislative authority. This raises significant questions for the coming period. Will the Islamist forces align to move Egypt in the direction of a religious state? Will liberal forces find common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP to marginalize the Salafis? Will the FJP evolve into a new NDP with the blessing of the military council, to revive the former regime? Or, will they gradually continue the revolution in effort to send the military council back to their barracks?

Not much is clear except the existence of a popularly elected legislative body. This in itself is an achievement of the revolution.

note: This article is a bit dated but has been held until publication in the Maadi Messenger, a monthly magazine for the expatriate community in Cairo.

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Living in Fear

Looting during the revolution

“I haven’t gone out in over a year.”

This was one of the statements my friend said to me the other day in talking about the changes in Egypt recently, particularly the lack of safety.

“I used to go out with my sister-in-law.  I would leave the kids at my mother-in-law’s house, and my sister and I would go downtown and walk around, do some shopping, all of this after 11pm.  We would come back around 1 or 2 in the morning.  Now I won’t even walk around Maadi at night, we are in our own house by 11:00.”

So many of my recent conversations with my Egyptian friends have either revolved around, or at the least, mentioned the lack of safety and the growing fear in everyday life.

Prior to the January 25, 2011 Revolution, the lack of crime in this huge city of Cairo was amazing.  I don’t know the statistics, but people didn’t generally worry about purse-snatching, carjackings, kidnappings, robberies or violent crime.  One of the reasons was the iron-fist of the previous regime, complete with a strong secret police system and the extreme power, and sometime corruption, of the regular police.

In truth, people were afraid of the police, and yet the average law-abiding citizen had nothing to worry about.  In this way, their everyday life was safe.  They could leave their cars running while they grabbed something from a kiosk, or send their children down the street for bread.  They could go out late at night, as Egyptians are known for doing in this city that never sleeps, and walk along the Nile River, without a thought for personal safety.  All this has changed for those I’ve talked with.

“Be very careful of anyone you see on motorcycles.  Two guys on a motorcycle stole my friend’s bag from inside her car while she was sitting behind the wheel!  Another friend’s car was stolen right in front of her apartment.”

Another friend of mine cautioned me as she related these stories of people she knew.  Friends from her old neighborhood or colleagues at work, who live in our Maadi neighborhood, let their guard down for a moment, or perhaps, never had their guard “up” quite enough, and lost a bag and a car.

“Keep your eye on your children.  Don’t let them play outside without you.  People are being kidnapped now for ransom.  It is happening to Egyptians, but they may see you and think you have a lot of money.  Hold onto those kids.”

The same friend who hasn’t gone out for a year told me how when she goes out, she no longer carries a purse.  Rather, she will put some money in her pocket, and only enough for what she needs to buy.

I then shared with her how my wallet was stolen just the other day.  We went to the local Coptic Orthodox church for the worship service, and I was across the street at the church’s coffee area.  I had just been sitting with some Egyptian friends and I went to pick up my daughter from her Sunday School class.  I had my bag on my shoulder with Layla in that same arm.

As is common, my bag was too full to zip, since it contained cups for all three girls, plus a water bottle for myself, diapers and wipes, maybe some library books and random other things, and so my wallet was in the bag, laying on top, exposed to the world.  I had to push through people to get to Hannah’s classroom, and then again, push through people to get out the door as her classroom is located in the same place as the cash register and food service counter.

Less crowded than other times, this is church coffee area, with the door to the classroom bottle-necking in the background. Daughter Layla is at the table.

As I was going through the doorway to get to the outside seating area, I felt someone run into me, perhaps a lightening of my bag and I turned to look.  A woman with a child in her arms apologized briefly, and I nodded, understanding how babes in arms often touch people who are close to them, much to a mother’s chagrin.  But something in me made me pause, and after taking a few more steps, I released Hannah’s hand and swung my bag to the front of me so I could check it.

No wallet.

I dug a little deeper to see if it was still in there, but it wasn’t.  I quickly went back to the table I had been at to make sure I hadn’t left it there.  Nope.  I looked around at the tables where people were talking, drinking their coffee, eating their falafel sandwiches.  No one was paying attention to me.  What did that woman look like?  Where did she go?  Could she really have taken my wallet right there, surrounded by church folk, inside the church property?

I cautiously approached a table where I thought she may have gone, but I was trying to figure out how I could ask the people sitting there if they had stolen my wallet?  How do you ask someone if they have seen the wallet that was just in your own bag?  How accusatory is that?  I looked around in vain.

Later, friends informed the staff at the shop who told them this was the third wallet that was stolen in the last month or so. I was kicking myself for putting it right on top with the bag open.  I couldn’t do much about being distracted by my children, one on a hip, the other in hand, but I could have been more careful.  If someone had to unzip my bag to get to my wallet, I probably would have noticed that quicker.  Oh well, add me to the statistics.

My friend, who attends the same church, was sorry to hear the story, and especially that it happened at church.  But she said the priests are often telling people to watch their bags.  Wallets and purses have even been taken from inside the church during mass.  The church is open to all, you can’t implicitly trust all who come in.  I told her that I used to leave my whole bag (minus the money) on a table at the coffee shop to save a spot while I dropped my kids off.  We both agreed that wasn’t a good idea!

“Praise the Lord it was just your stuff, and not your children.  Hold onto them!”  And that is the truth.

Another friend has often told me how scared she is these days, especially as a Christian.  The first time I saw her after the Maspero incident in October, where about 27 Christians died during a peaceful protest, she was visibly nervous.  State TV had turned people against Christians during that night and it left some of the Christians feeling vulnerable.

“I watch the news constantly because I want to know what is going on.  But I am more scared each time I watch it.  I don’t know what is going to happen in Egypt.  But what can I do?  I can’t go anywhere.  I don’t have the means for it.  We can only hope and pray.”

Egyptians are scared, at least the ones I talk to.  Whether they are Christian or Muslim, they have fears now that they didn’t have before.  Some are tired of the protests and just wish things would be stable again, but mostly, they want to be able to live without fear, as they lived before.  They can see the problems with the old regime, and most I’ve talked to are glad that Mubarak is out of power.  However, their personal lives are worse than before because they feel no safety on the streets.

Personally we don’t feel afraid.  We feel our house is secure, and we are careful as we move about, aside from the wallet incident!  We hold onto our kids and take precautions with our money.  We call each other when we are heading home and as a woman, I don’t go out alone in the dark.

I feel for our friends, though, who feel safety has been taken from them.  I don’t know how long it will take before that is restored.  It’s not a quick process, and in the meantime, it makes life uncomfortable.

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Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Christmas with the Brotherhood

MB Delegation Outside a Helwan Church

Following two years of bloody winter holidays, and following also resounding Islamic success in elections, the Muslim Brotherhood coordinated with security forces – and probably Orthodox Church leadership – to stand watch outside church buildings throughout Egypt.

I was able to visit one installation in Helwan, to the south of Cairo. After moving from church to church in the district of Maadi, finding no Brothers present, I happened upon a Christian taxi driver who told me they were at his church, to which he subsequently brought me. It would have been difficult to find on my own.

I wrote about this story for Lapido Media, a British website focusing on telling religious aspects of the news which might be overlooked by other outlets. That the Brotherhood would come and spend Christmas with Copts is a fairly big deal, but many Western news agencies missed it. Not only is the event newsworthy, but so is its undercurrent. Please click here to read the story.

The basic question is this: Is the Brotherhood coming to Christmas celebrations because they love Copts as fellow citizens and Egyptian brothers? If so, this is wonderful.

Or, does their effort to ‘defend’ Christians issue from a place of Islamic superiority which offers protection to religious minorities in exchange for their acceptance of an Islamic system of government? If so, this is concerning.

Read the story for several wonderful quotes which insist upon the former. Yet upon pushing them for their eventual goal – after reestablishing security, economy, and demonstrating the virtues of Islamic government – they deftly skirted the issue. They insisted it was not proper to speak about Christians under dhimmi protection ‘now’.

I don’t necessarily doubt their sincerity. I believe that most Brothers, being Egyptians, have a love of their fellow Copts. It is a laudable feature of Islam that it urges Muslims to defend the rights of (at least Abrahamic) religious minorities.

Every religion has a natural chauvinism with which it imbues believers concerning their own faith. One of the prominent interpretations of Islam insists it has the right to rule – and rule justly – but to accord non-Muslims a special place in subservience to an Islamic order. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood does not have a ‘strategy’ to turn Copts into dhimmis, this aspect of their faith may be bubbling to the surface, no matter their simultaneous sincere expressions of love and equality.

Being a dhimmi may not even be a horrible thing, but neither is it liberal democracy. Currently the Muslim Brotherhood straddles the fence, insisting both on a civil state with equality of citizenship and an Islamic reference to guide legislation. Can they pull it off? Time will tell.

Yet despite the desires of many Muslim Brothers to postpone this question, it is essential it be answered now. Otherwise, the system may take root and produce effects from sources far more deeply rooted than assertions of national unity. These assertions are true, they are even sharia. Yet historically, sharia also often included dhimnitude.

Muslim Brotherhood overtures at Christmas hint in both directions. As one Brother states in the article, he wants Christians to know what is in their heart. This is good, but Copts also deserve to know what is in their vision.


 

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Disappointment with the Brotherhood

Polling Station Info, Handwritten on an FJP Leaflet

The morning of elections, I marveled at the political acumen of the Muslim Brotherhood. By afternoon, I was disappointed.

At polling stations across Egypt the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party volunteers manned tables equipped with laptop computers and logged into the voter registration system to assist confused citizens where their vote must be cast. The volunteers wore yellow FJP hats and wrote down the requisite information on a specially designed party leaflet. It was a beautiful stroke – practical service to create last minute impressions. The only problem, I discovered later in the day, was that it was illegal.

Election law proscribed campaign activity during the final two days before the vote. Many parties violated the law by passing out literature to passers-by as well as those waiting captive in long lines to cast their ballot. The Brotherhood’s violation was simply more creative and effectual than all others. Shame on the rest for not thinking of it first.

But shame on the Brotherhood for doing it at all. Many volunteers denied knowing of the regulation, and likely they were innocent. Party leaders, however, either failed in knowing the law or failed more egregiously by ignoring it. Yet this is politics, which is rarely celebrated as an arena of virtue. Why then should disappointment reign?

I am among those not wishing to dismiss Islamist governance out of hand. A nation’s rulers should reflect the makeup of their people, and there is a place for religion (morality, virtue) in crafting legislation. While politics can corrupt religion – and vice versa – I would, in general, desire a God-fearing man or woman to represent me in office. Religion should promote the humility and other-centered-service required of transparent leadership. I would wish to believe the Muslim Brotherhood, being Muslims, might fit this bill.

The laptop affair violated not only the law, to which believers should submit, but also the ideals of religion. I am most familiar with Christianity, where Jesus says,

Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before me, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven … but when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt. 6:1-4)

Truly the Brotherhood was giving to people in need. Perhaps the reward of electoral victory, having been seen by men, is enough for them.

I must pause before pronouncing anything concerning Islam, but I understand it contains similar sentiments:

If ye disclose (acts of) charity, even so it is well, but if ye conceal them, and make them reach those (really) in need, that is best for you: It will remove from you some of your (stains of) evil. And God is well acquainted with what ye do. (Qur’an, Baqarah, 271)

Seven people will be shaded by Allah under His shade on the day when there will be no shade except His. They are … (#6) A man who gives in charity and hides it, such that his left hand does not know what his right hand gives in charity. (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 2, no. 504)

Islamic morality champions niyyah, or intention, in weighing the value of good works. No man can state what was in the hearts of Brotherhood leaders when they crafted their polling station strategy. Yet they could have worked without their hats, without their leaflets, without ever mentioning their identity, and provided the exact same service.

I wish to believe an Islamist government will root out corruption. I wish to believe it will aim to create a just economic order. I worry about the absolutism of claiming ‘God’s will’ for that interpreted by men, but I wish to believe Islamist leaders are at heart decent, pious Muslims who fear God.

They may be, but early appearances suggest they are also politicians who seek to please men. It is an inauspicious start.