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The Decline of Coptic Activism in Egypt

Coptic activism in decline

From my new article at the Middle East Institute:

During and immediately following the 2011 Egyptian uprising, Coptic activism reached new heights. Copts organized and came together to call for protection for their communities and rights more generally. However, particularly since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and the election of President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, such activism has declined. Today, the number of active, effective Coptic movements can be counted on one hand. This leaves the church carrying the mantle of Coptic identity, allowing the pope to decide whether or not to engage in politics. Thus far, Pope Tawadros has opted to back the new government, and Coptic citizens are following his example.

The article recounts Coptic activism since the revolution, and then introduces the remaining players:

But in terms of traditional political activism, the landscape is quite barren. There are two primary movements that remain: the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts (CEC) and the Maspero Youth Union (MYU). Both are small, with 88 and 40 voting members, respectively. At the height of the Maspero protests before the massacre, the MYU laid claim to the support of over ten thousand, judged unofficially via Facebook conversations and attendance at demonstrations. Today it counts only a few hundred active members.

The article describes the former as aligned with the state, the latter as supportive but wary while clinging to revolutionary ideals.

From the conclusion:

But if the MYU leads, will anyone follow? Copts other than MYU members and supporters view Coptic activism to be negligible in influence and advocate for transcending Coptic concerns. Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani, speaks for many when he says that the Coptic community must move on from sectarian labels and evolve in two directions. At the grassroots level, he says, activists must transform into community leaders and aid their neighborhood constituencies. And at the national level, they must emerge as politicians and address issues beyond the Coptic cause. While Coptic activists had their moment during the uprisings, Sidhom points to parliament as the coming and enduring challenge in which Copts must legislate rights to support full citizenship and demonstrate leadership on the national stage.

But almost by definition, activists operate outside the sphere of formal power and put pressure on it. Few activists have space to operate these days, as the state has greatly limited the scope of civil society. Time will tell if the CEC or the MYU can muster the influence to capture the favor of the Coptic community—and more importantly, of Egypt as a whole.

Please click here to read the full article at the Middle East Institute.

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Salafyo Costa: Egyptian Inclusivity

Mohamed Tolba, Salafi Muslim (L) and Bassem Victor, Coptic Christian (R)
Mohamed Tolba, Salafi Muslim (L) and Bassem Victor, Coptic Christian (R)

From my recent article at the Middle East Institute:

Salafyo Costa were once the darlings of the media. Featured both in Egyptian outlets and foreign publications such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post, the groundbreaking youth movement founded in April 2011 brought together ultraconservative Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, political liberals and leftists, and Coptic Christians. Together they forged a common identity promoting both the goals of the January 25 revolution and the necessity of unity in an increasingly polarized society.

They implemented this vision through fun. Salafyo Costa organized a soccer match pitting Salafis against Copts, they produced films satirizing political and religious divisions, and they went on field trips to Upper Egypt for charity campaigns. And they lived the life of street demonstrations against military rule. Throughout it all, the 120 members raised suspicions in their original communities, accustomed as these communities generally were to non-interaction with the religious or political “other.”

Salafyo Costa continued on relatively seamlessly until the Tamarod campaign against Mohamed Morsi. During the campaign, the group made the controversial decision to support the call for early elections. The liberal media heralded their courage, while Islamists hurled criticism, finding confirmation of earlier suspicions about the group. Following Morsi’s July 3 ouster, the media forgot them. And then they began to break rank.

The article continues by explaining how they came back together. From the conclusion:

“We revolted on January 25 to create our own manual, to write the rules of the game,” says Tolba. “But since February 11, every regime has imposed its own manual.”

Yet Salafyo Costa has stayed true to their ideals. Despite difficulties, growing pains, and losses, they continue the struggle to break down the barriers separating diverse groups. Maintaining a common commitment is obviously easier among dozens of members than millions of citizens, but in Salafyo Costa, Egypt is not without an example of inclusivity.

Please click here to read the rest of the article at the Middle East Institute.

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Who are Egypt’s Salafi-Jihadis?

Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader
Ahmed Ashoush, Salafi-Jihadi leader

From my article at Middle East Institute, analyzing Egypt’s Salafi-Jihadis, but from before the recent deposing of President Morsi:

The Egyptian Islamist Mohamed al-Zawahiri is most famous for being the brother of al-Qaeda front man Ayman, but his story is also a gripping one. Zawahiri was arrested in 1999 for his alleged participation in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. He spent 13 years in Cairo’s Tora prison, where he was tortured by the mukhabarat and did a five-year stint in solitary confinement. He was released in March 2012 when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who ruled after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, issued a general pardon for scores of political prisoners.

Just six months later, Zawahiri sent a message of peace when he offered to mediate a truce between the West and Islamists through his connections with al-Qaeda, promising cessation of global terrorist activity in exchange for non-interference in Muslim nations.

But Zawahiri’s doings aren’t limited to such an offer. As a leader of an Islamist organization called the Salafist-Jihadists, he is often in the public eye. Yet it is difficult to determine who he leads and what ideology the group espouses—and whether the United States and others should worry about the organization’s activities in post-uprising Egypt.

The group appears to thrive on such ambiguity. Ahmed Ashoush, a fellow leader, claims that the organization does not, in a sense, exist, as it has neither a leadership structure nor a membership count. “We know how wide our support is on the street,” he says, “but we don’t want to talk about it. We want you to see it, in the coming days, if God wills.”

As of yet, Egypt has not seen it. And as strong as the demonstrations in support of Morsi have been, they are far short of the ‘Islamic Revolution’ some predicted as a response to the Rebel Campaign collection of signatures for early elections.

Even so, this group of Islamists who graft ‘jihad’ onto their name bear watching for Egypt’s future. Please click here to read the rest of the article at Middle East Institute.

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A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part Two, Non-Violence

Hany Nour Eddin 1

For Part One of this conversation, discussing Hani Nour Eddin’s background, please click here. For the full interview on Middle East Institute, please click here. Part Two explores Nour Eddin’s views on violence, and here is an excerpt from the published interview:

Al-Gama`a al-Islamiya is committed to nonviolence and has apologized for its past. In fact, you organized a demonstration recently to condemn political violence. 

We saw that others had taken over the streets and were now using them to express their views. People might thinkthat they are the voice of Egypt. We wanted to say that the Egyptian street is not about violence and sexual harassment. Unfortunately, beautiful Tahrir Square has lost its symbolism. So we [demonstrated in] another place to avoid any contact with them. Our demonstration invited all to come and express their opinions, whether for or against the Islamist project, but with a commitment to nonviolence.

I noticed many of the speeches and chants were very Islamic, and quite severe. Instead of “no to violence,” the demonstration became about “yes to political Islam.” 

Our demonstrations often take the color of the people who attend. Maybe this is because of our weakness in usingthe media; we use a strident voice to make our point and show we are strong. We are Islamists, and we do not accept separating religion from anything else, and the street welcomes this. And so they chant, “Egypt will remain Islamic!”

The protest also honored Khaled al-Islambouli [Sadat’s assassin].

Islambouli is considered one of the symbols of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya when it was in a period of resistance to the regime. We all saw Sadat as a dictator, especially in his last years when he used oppression and closed mosques. Islambouli has an honored place among us.

Even if you now confess that what he did was wrong.

If we could go back in history and reevaluate, perhaps we would not have chosen the path of violence. But what happened was necessary due to the situation. Unfortunately, the circumstances demanded it.

But this is the test of your principles. If nonviolence is a principle—not a means, not a strategy—you must commit to it. 

Yes, this is right. It is a principle.

Unfortunately, for space issues Middle East Institute had to cut the conclusion, which seeks to test their commitment to non-violence through recent domestic and international examples. This part is posted here:

A few weeks earlier than your ‘No to Political Violence’ protest, Mohamed al-Zawahiri demonstrated at the French Embassy in Cairo against their military intervention in Mali. There, Ezzet al-Salamony, a leader in GI, spoke saying, “Why are they fighting us in our lands? It is we who should be fighting them in our lands!”

There are two issues here: One, Islamist support for the rebels in Mali, and two, the statement of Salamony itself. Do these violate your non-violent commitment?

I see what you’re saying. From what I know GI has abandoned violence and we will not return to it. We also agree we will not interfere in the politics of other nations. But as for that statement, he is the one responsible for it, and must justify himself.

Ok, but tell us about Mali, especially before the French intervention. Do you support the rebels from the north?

To a degree, but we do not have complete information about the nature of the Mali jihadists. Their primary slogan is the application of sharia law and building an Islamic state on the basis of it. Their situation is different; to what extent is there democracy or other means of change? We don’t know.

But we support the idea of an Islamic entity if it is true they are committed to Islam. At times some people will raise the banner of Islam but transgress it in how they behave. But yes, if they live as Muslims and seek to apply the sharia, yes, we support them.

But for the real situation between them and the Malian government, we don’t know.

But should you not condemn their jihad, as it is violent? Even if it is true the political system has not opened up the way it has in Egypt?

Again, we can’t evaluate their experience in jihad because we don’t know enough.

But you don’t know? It is clear to the world their rebellion is armed. They were marching on the Malian capital.

In the beginning it was not like this. They were a number of jihadi groups that gathered together and the government confronted them, but they began expanding their territory and announced themselves as a political entity.

But even this, expanding their territory in the north was at the expense of the legitimacy of the government. What gave them the right to seek autonomy or declare independence?

Yes, but their situation is different from that of Egypt.

But this is the point, we’re talking about a principle. In Egypt there is no necessity for violence – you have won by votes. But there the Islamist is in a position of weakness. Perhaps he is even suffering pressure. Is he allowed to resist violently?

(Laughing) I cannot condemn them before I know the circumstances which drove them to violence. Maybe it is violence in response to a greater violence upon them. What if my life or existence is threatened and there is no other way? But rebelling against a leader by forming militias? No, we must expend all peaceful and preaching means first, before resorting to violence.

Before? But your ‘Revisions’ were a complete condemnation.

The issue of jihad in Islam is legitimate, but it is not something to begin with. In our ‘Revisions’ we defined that jihad has stipulations that prevent it from resulting in even greater harm upon the people, the sharia, and the country. The jurisprudence in measuring jihad in Mali is different than the measure in Egypt.

But how can their situation be seen as worse than what you experienced here? There was a tyrant in Egypt, he oppressed you, he put you in prison, he killed you. He distorted the sharia and laughed about it. And even under all this pressure you condemned your own violent confrontation.

Because it did not result in any fruit.

So forgive me if this isn’t the right word, but does this show your condemnation of violence was opportunistic? You made a deduction violence is not working, so you give it up. You still believe in violence as a possible means of change.  

No, in the reality in which we live it is not a means of change.

But maybe it is in Mali?

It depends on their circumstances; we cannot judge them.

So your commitment to violence…

We commit ourselves. We cannot compel others to be so committed.

So it is not a general interpretation of Islam. It is just your situation?

Jihad is legitimate in Islam; no one can deny this. The question is if you are engaged in it legitimately according to its stipulations.

So what are the domestic stipulations for jihad? The one in Mali is against the ruler.

Will our scholars permit their action? I don’t know. It depends on the type of ruler; it depends on the struggle between him and the various Islamic groups. I don’t have enough information to say.

Ok. Sudan.

Our party sent a delegation to Sudan shortly after it was created, to establish relations. We consider Sudan to be deeply important to Egypt, economically, socially.

What about the status of President Bashir as an international criminal?

No, there are other factors at play in these accusations. We don’t believe the government is complicated in any criminality.

So in a sentence, how do you understand what is happening in Darfur?

It began as a local tribal conflict, and then the government intervened. After that it became somewhat of a separatist movement. It was necessary for the state to preserve its authority.

As in Mali?

(Laughing) For example.

Please click here to read the whole article at Middle East Institute.

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A Conversation with al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s Hani Nour Eddin – Part One, Background

Hani Nour Eddin

A few months ago, before President Morsi was deposed, I had the chance to interview Hani Nour el-Din, a member of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya who was elected to the most recent parliament. His group is still considered a terrorist organization by the United States, but they formally gave up violence as a doctrinal strategy in the early 2000s.

This fact – indeed question – is very important now that Islamists find themselves outside the political spectrum. They gave up violence at a time when there was still no means to enter Egyptian politics. The revolution opened up political space, but now it appears closed. Will the group decide they made a mistake – that the only way to transform Egypt into a political state is through a violent seizing of power?

This is a very necessary question to put to al-Gama’a al-Islamiya now. But in the meanwhile, here is a window into the group’s thinking while they were on the winning side.

The interview was reduced and published by the Middle East Institute. Please click here to read the article.

But here on the blog I will post parts of the interview that had to be trimmed for space. Part One here will concern Nour Eddin’s personal history before his group gave up violence. Part Two, in a few days, will concern his views on violence, whether or not the party truly has abandoned the principle. Please enjoy.

Please introduce yourself to us:

My name is Hany Nour Eddin and I represent the Building and Development Party and serve on its high council, and was a member of parliament in 2011 before it was dissolved. I got to know IG in university, when I joined it and engaged in a number of student activities and preaching campaigns. After university I was arrested and spent many years in prison. This is where I became better acquainted with the group’s leadership.

I have read about this experience, and you maintain your innocence. What happened during this clash with police?

Here in Suez we were giving lectures in opposition to Hosni Mubarak and his remaining in the presidency. It was around 1993 and the GI organized a campaign called ‘No to Mubarak’. The state line was to forbid any opposition to the renewal of his presidency. We organized a large exhibition against him and spoke about the damage he was doing to the country, whether politically, economically, or otherwise. So he gave the order to security to stop the campaign, and to do so forcefully.

A large number of police arrived and we understood we needed to withdraw, but were surprised at the gunfire that began as we were doing so. One the bullets struck an officer accidentally, and a campaign was launched against us accusing us of killing him.

Who did kill him?

Someone from security, as the bullet hit him from behind. Part of their tactic was to disperse the crowd with gunfire, but he was hit from close range. Afterwards we all started getting arrested.

What was your role in GI at this time? Did you organize the exhibition?

Yes, I supervised it, collecting pictures and articles to help educate the people. The level of arrests practically stopped the work of GI in Suez, except for taking care of the families of those incarcerated.

So if you were imprisoned unjustly, why were you released later on?

When we were arrested they wanted to dissolve the Islamist movements, and especially our operations, targeting even our preachers. A violent clash took place between us and the police which became an armed struggle, targeting leaders on both sides, including Mubarak himself on many occasions.

By 1974 we realized the struggle was shedding the blood of the nation in general, and not just of the GI. We wanted to overthrow the state, but our violence was met by greater violence by the regime. We considered that we were defending ourselves, but it resulted in oppression and hostility, which reached even our families and relatives. It was not good.

So we undertook a campaign in the prisons, suggesting a unilateral cease-fire, stopping all violence against the regime, both inside and outside Egypt. It is important to note the whole time, even from outside, we targeted only Egypt and were working on its behalf alone. This is opposed to al-Qaeda, for example; we specified our conflict and goals were only against the regime. By 1979 we launched the non-violent initiative officially, opposing all violence against the regime, whether in the media or with weapons.

For a period of time we tried to send this message to GI members internationally, while we waited for a response from the government. Unfortunately the regime did many things to undermine our credibility, representing us falsely. But by 2000-01 they accepted the initiative. We published our ‘Revisions’, publicizing them first in the prisons and then internationally. They began releasing us from the prisons, and I got out in 2005.

So you found normal work to do?

Yes, after the necessary legal procedures, I returned to my job in the Suez Canal Company. I have a BA in Agriculture but my work with them is administrative.

But you have the time to take off work and talk to me today?

(Laughing) Yes, it’s normal, it’s ok.

So from 2005 until the revolution, what were you doing for GI?

We chose to work in preaching, rather than in organization. We would meet in mosques, talk to the people, and engage in social work – helping the poor, the orphans.

Were you a preacher in the mosque?

Sometimes, but not much. I served on the Shura Council of the GI in our governorate.

Served? But not any more?

Since we started the political party it has taken my priority and I left the Shura Council. Politics is different than preaching and social work. But we agreed to keep the party as the political arm of the GI for about two years until its administration is complete and mature. Then it will become independent, and when the appropriate laws are passed the GI will register legally also.

Please click here to continue reading the interview at Middle East Institute.