Lapido Media Middle East Published Articles

Martin Luther King’s Legacy Lives On – Among Egypt’s Battered Liberals

MLK Arabic
Translation: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story; how 5000 black men found a way to end racial discrimination

Egypt’s centre-left secularist party has an unlikely mascot: America’s most famous Baptist preacher, Dr Martin Luther King.

King is the inspiration behind a revival of liberalism in a country where prison awaits street protest of almost any kind.

Selma was the surprise choice of film to launch a new cultural moment in post-revolution Egypt.

The 2014 film chronicles King’s march from a backwater hamlet to the statehouse in Alabama.

‘We chose Selma because it shows how civil rights movements can proceed peacefully,’ said Islam Amin, founder of the Egyptian Cinema Club.

‘We also have suffered crackdowns and violence in the streets. The situation of Selma is like Egypt today.’

[Turning to culture: President of the centre-left ESDP AbulGhar (R), with the father of Egyptian cinema’s ‘new realism’ school, Daoud Abdel Sayed. Photo: ESDP]

Leading politicians attended the screening. One – Mohammed Abul Ghar – believes that as in King’s America only the President can make a difference to Egypt’s oppressive politics, as thinkers, writers, and ‘blasphemers’ find themselves facing lengthy prison sentences.

‘We are clearly against these laws, but the situation is very dangerous,’ said Ghar, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP).

‘It must be the president who will take the step to change them; it is the only way.’

Martin Luther King suffered abuse from citizens and police alike, but his efforts mobilized a nation and culminated in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ESDP, which won only four seats in the 596-member parliament, is frustrated with the path politics is taking.

Following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, ESDP members occupied top posts in government, including prime minister.

But now, says Ghar, there is no government, only ministry heads he calls ‘secretaries to the president’.

So instead politicians are turning to culture.

‘It is hard to play politics these days, but we can still play culture,’ Amin, the ECC founder, said. ‘Culture, philosophy, and art spread tolerance and justice, where fascists and Islamists spread only lies and hate.’

[Logo of the Egyptian Cinema Club. Photo: ESDP]

But coming off the back of Egypt’s experience of political Islam, what chance is there for a Baptist preacher’s example?

Bassem Kamel, head of the political training department in the ESDP, drew three lessons from Selma and the life of King: change requires a long and sustained effort; violence is counter-productive, and to win you must win the people.

Selma also highlights King’s deftness with the media – something the new wave of liberals emulates. They invite popular culture-makers to maximize the attention they get, launching the film club cannily on the UN-designated World Day of Social Justice.

‘Culture and politics have a clear influence on each other,’ said Daoud Abdel Sayed, whose 40-year career in Egyptian cinema was honoured at the screening.

His school of ‘new realism’ emphasizes the modern struggles of ordinary Egyptians. ‘But the problem is the state has transformed culture into something only for élites,’ he says.


The ESDP’s film club is not the only Egyptian effort to use the memory of Dr King. In 2009, activist Dalia Ziada translated the obscure, 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story into Arabic.

Two years later in 2011 she found herself distributing thousands of copies in Tahrir Square.

‘The book was being smuggled like drugs,’ she told Lapido. ‘The real challenge we are facing now is how to keep the momentum going.

‘But there is no Selma in Muslim Egypt.’

The problem has been a 40-year process of importing a foreign Wahhabi ideology, says Ziada. A moderate, Sufi-style Islam had declined as culture and state turned conservative.

Earlier sheikhs had looked to Europe for inspiration, she said, now they looked to Arabia.

[‘No Selma in Muslim Egypt’: Dalia Ziada. Photo: Andres Alonso Photography]

‘God knows how many years we will have to wait until a 2011 revolutionary comes to power,’ said Ziada, now director of the Liberal Democracy Institute of Egypt.

‘But even if it takes forty years, I am sure this day will come,’ she adds, recalling the four-decade interlude between Selma and the election of US President Barack Obama.


Beyond the comic book there are only eight books in Arabic on the life of Martin Luther King, according to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole. But in 2012 he added another: a translation of King’s biography, published by the London-Beirut-based company Dar al-Saqi.

Others agree with Ziada that there is no comparable figure to King in contemporary Egypt. American University in Cairo professor of Arab and Islamic Civilization Mohamed Serag cites nineteenth-century Al Azhar scholar Muhammad Abduh as a  possible model.

One of the founding fathers of Islamic Modernism, Abduh’s students pioneered reforms in politics, economy, and gender equality.

But today, Serag said, poor education and state policy combine to keep another Abduh, let alone a King, from emerging. ‘Despotism is the reason,’ he said. ‘Since 1952 our régimes have controlled society and do not let it prosper.’

ESDP president Abul Ghar cannot envision a change until the collapse of Saudi Arabia and its petrodollar sponsorship of religious conservatism.

‘Egypt is completely polarized,’ he added, ‘and with Islam as a religion it is very difficult. Either you become a radical salafi or you separate Islam from politics completely.’

But pushing pessimism aside, the secular party highlights a Christian minister and continues the grassroots work.

‘Yes, Martin Luther King was a pastor, and we do not have this type of figure in Egypt,’ said Kamel, the political trainer.

‘But I will not wait until we do.’

This article was first published at Lapido Media.


MLK for Egyptian Revolutionaries

Translation: Martin Luther King; the Montgomery Story; how 5000 black men found a way to end racial discrimination
Translation: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story; how 5000 black men found a way to end racial discrimination

A day late, but in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. day in the United States, here is a list of principles to which he had his fellow non-violent activists commit.

I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

2. Remember always that the non—violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation — not victory.

3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.

5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.

6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.

8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.

10.Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.

Let us pass on the first commandment, given the primary makeup of Egyptian revolutionaries as Muslim. Some Christians might argue that without the first, however, those following are devoid of their power and without foundation.

Whatever the merits of this argument, it certainly seems like many could be adopted by anyone. On some counts many Egyptians measure up well. On others, not so much.

The Egyptian revolution was largely peaceful. But not entirely. Many protests witnessed low-level violence such as the throwing of Molotov cocktails. This was front line action, though, and the masses of protesters remained behind.

But of #2: All were focused on justice, but some let the pursuit of victory get in the way. Few prioritized reconciliation.

#3: Love was almost never put forward as a theme. Most large protests were labeled ‘day of rage’ and themes of this sort.

#6: Courtesy was in short supply. Slogans tended to demonize the opponent, and graffiti was often insulting.

#8: Islam has a similar listing. A tradition of Muhammad states that if one sees a wrong that must be put right, he should strive to do so first with his hand, then with his tongue, and then if these are not possible, with his heart. Different schools of interpretation have allowed different levels of violence in this effort, or specified who can take this action under what circumstances. In any case, while most protestors avoided the violence of the hand, violence of the tongue and heart was plentiful.

#10: The Egyptian revolution had no leader, and certainly no commanding and inspiring figure like Martin Luther King. Many have identified this as a reason for the rapid divisions that dissipated its power after the fall of Mubarak.

The issues of the civil rights movement and the January 25 revolution were certainly different. But whereas American evils have largely (though not entirely) been put right and social peace achieved, the ills of Egyptian society and state threaten to continue.

Perhaps if Egypt’s peaceful protesters had adopted the spirit and convictions of MLK and not just his methodology, things would have been different. Then again, perhaps not. Your thoughts on the differences are welcome.

Americas Arab West Report Published Articles

Legality, Appropriateness, and Engagement

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his "I Have...
Image via Wikipedia

Today Glen Beck led a rally in Washington, DC on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. In fact, today was the anniversary of that speech, which came to symbolize the struggle and eventual triumph of the civil rights movement. Beck denied he knew about the congruity of dates until after he planned the rally, but this denial has not stopped many from labeling this rally as an offense to the legacy of King.

I will confess to not following this issue too closely. I understand Beck to be a conservative and religion-friendly newscaster, but do not know exactly what he does or does not support in detail, outside of the fairly obvious battle lines in American politics. Furthermore, I have no insight as to whether or not he is playing games with the civil rights history of our nation, but I do also see what appears to be a highly symbolic convergence of imagery. Is he honoring the legacy, exploiting and redefining it, or just, as he confessed, ignorant of the whole matter?

Perhaps given that I have not closely followed this controversy, I can easily connect it to another controversy I have not followed closely: the Ground Zero mosque. (It is an advantage of living overseas that the headline dominating news stories in the US are received with considerably fewer decibels.)

In both cases it is clear that those engaged in the controversial activity have the right to do so. Glen Beck obtained the necessary permits to conduct a rally on national property, and the mosque/community center organizers own the land on which they seek to build and have received zoning clearance to do so.

It is also clear that those who are protesting do not challenge the legality of these endeavors, but their appropriateness. Many African-Americans and their then-liberal supporters in the civil rights struggle do not share the conservative worldview of Glen Beck. They find it offensive that he advance his agenda on the same day, at the very spot that their hero’s dream is most enshrined.

Meanwhile, many New Yorkers and Americans of all stripes have defined Ground Zero as sacred ground, after the devastating attacks perpetrated there in the name of Islam. Most of these would not oppose a mosque being built elsewhere, regardless of what they think of Islam as a religion. Why, however, build it there? Even if the mosque represents Islam of another stripe, why plant its flag at the gate of such an atrocity?

The response of an individual to the sense of appropriateness may vary, as may the ‘logical’ assessment of these claims. What is disturbing in both cases, however, is that opponents are seeking either to stop or sully the endeavors through loud and distant protest. Consider: If those in favor agreed their efforts were inappropriate, would they have undertaken them? And since they do not, will they be convinced by rancor and misinformed assumptions of intent, cast from afar?

Certainly the masses feel helpless. What can a patriot in Virginia do to influence Imam Faisal in New York? How can an activist in California effect Beck in DC? Let the cry be heard in the media, on the radio, in a blog. None of this, however, has any influence on law. Worse, it has contrary affect on the people involved.

Opposition and controversy, especially when loud and public, generally serves only to cement someone in their opinions. If there is a way forward, however, imagining for a moment that these endeavors are not appropriate, it can only be found in engagement. It is possible to change the mind of a friend. Very little in the public discourse concerning either Glen Beck or Ground Zero, however, is contributing toward bridge building. On the contrary, all seems polarizing.

Here in Egypt there is a similar, though not identical, issue surrounding church building. The law is ambiguous; there is no formal discrimination but the process of gaining approval is universally acknowledged as difficult. In places a church can be constructed quickly and easily; in others the plans labor for years waiting for the governor (the governor!) to give his approval.

Oftentimes Christians decide to go ahead and build anyway (as will Muslims, at times, with a mosque), knowing that if they can get the building up then the government will not knock it down. There is far less public relations damage for a stalled authorization process than for the demolition of a house of worship. The former will languish on the desk of a bureaucrat; the latter may attract international condemnation.

Very few Egyptian Muslims would argue that there is no place for a church in a Muslim nation. It is not uncommon, however, to hear their protest that this church is too close to a mosque, or that the church steeple equals or exceeds the height of the tallest minaret in a village. Frustrated by delays in authorization Christians will often proceed without consulting their Muslim neighbors. Feeling threatened or dishonored, Muslims have sometimes reacted in violence, damaging the building that has been constructed as an affront.

Many Christians and Muslims will argue that the situation must be remedied by law – that is, a clear and impartial system must be created to govern the building of all houses of worship. There is much merit in this discussion. Unfortunately, many of these same advocates for religious freedom stop there. They press the need for legal reform, but do not continue to engage the opposite community on the ground, in real relationships.

For people on the ground, however, the issue of church building is not one of law, but of appropriateness. The law may force their hand, but this only results in furthering community tension. Neither Muslims nor Christians profit from this situation. Yet since few Muslims would oppose the right of Christians to build a church, overcoming the issue of its appropriateness can only be done through engagement.

There are examples in which Christians have taken the sensibilities of Muslims into account and have won full, legal authorization to build churches. There are also examples where they have acted independently, and have stoked the fires of sectarian tension.

The din of struggle and opposition will always be heard over the quiet, dogged pursuit of relationship. In both the cases of Glen Beck and Ground Zero, there may have been extensive efforts at engagement that have gone unreported, since engagement is not conducted in front of cameras.

At the same time, engagement is insincere if it is only seeking its own interest. I might sit down with my opponent once for tea to hear his argument, but if he only repeats his position each and every time, I will no longer invite him over. Engagement is willing to see the other side, validate, and appeals in humility to that which it desires.

Many today, both inside and outside of Egypt believe that sectarian tension is increasing rapidly. This is due to the same phenomena that dominate media coverage of Glen Beck and Ground Zero. These polarizing images ignore the many efforts at racial reconciliation engaged in by both liberals and conservatives. They ignore the fact that most Muslims in America live a normal middle class lifestyle in complete peace and tolerance with their neighbors.

Similarly, most Muslims and Christians in Egypt live together in peace. Where there is tension it must be addressed. Where an issue arises the media must cover it. In the face of real difficulties in certain places, though, the assertion of peace may ring hollow. If so, it does reflect a growing pattern, not of tension, but of disengagement. While percentage-wise the troubles are few, the level of harmonious interaction between Muslims and Christians decreases ever so slightly, but steadily.

This is the risk America now faces in the issues of Glen Beck and Ground Zero. Polarizing voices and opinions only serve to lessen consensus and engagement. On either racial or religious grounds, the genuine peace which exists between all Americans may ring increasingly hollow. If so, it is because these normal Americans have disengaged from their diverse communities, finding fellowship only with their kin.

Though God is often portrayed as the one with the loudest voice of all, silencing his opposition by power of miracle, he is also characterized by stillness and whisper. Jesus spoke of God’s Spirit as a gentle wind, with man knowing not from whence it came or where it is going. Many today in pursuit of their agendas

usurp God’s right of bombastic pronouncement. We would do better to search instead for his whisper, finding places where he is at work, but quietly, and ignored by most of those around.