Friday Prayers for Egypt: Base vs. Center


As campaigning continues for president, candidates are seeking their strategy. Two find their path to victory by mobilizing core constituency; two instead seek to claim the Egyptian middle.

On the one hand the Muslim Brotherhood candidate increasingly speaks of applying sharia law, while his handlers go as far to imagine a revived caliphate out of Jerusalem, all the while predicting fraud against them before it happens.

Meanwhile, Mubarak’s last ditch prime minster during the revolution increasingly assails the Brotherhood, warning of all the trouble to befall Egypt if they – or any Islamists – come to power.

On the other hand the former Muslim Brotherhood candidate continues to portray himself as a centrist, the only candidate capable of uniting liberals, revolutionaries, and Islamists.

Meanwhile, Mubarak’s longtime semi-colleague continues to portray himself as the voice of stability and experience, able to navigate the corridors of power while professing both piety and the ability to work with all.

Somewhat on the outside of the main challengers are two revolutionaries/leftists/nationalists. A significant part of their campaign appears to be that they are not the above listed four, attached either to the former regime or political Islam.

God, weigh each of these men and find where they are worthy or wanting. Give discernment to the Egyptian electorate, so they might perceive as you do.

Help each candidate to represent himself honestly, truly, and justly. Keep him from besetting self-deception and empty pandering. May each be a servant to Egypt, and not a purported savior.

In the end, God, make these elections to be real. May the experience and the process be more important than the result. Above all, may people not grow weary, cynical, or disillusioned.

For those who honestly hold to a base, cause them to respect the center and loosen their convictions.

For those who loosely reside in the center, cause them to respect the partisans and honor their convictions.

For the winner, may he unite Egypt and not divide it further. May he honor both supporter and opponent. May he open the arena for all to participate. May he grant the noble demands of the revolution.

May he be a man of upright character. May he lead Egypt well. May he be a good president.

God, please allow this to be.



Church, State, and Revolution in Egypt

His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, Pope of the Co...
Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Many Christians in America are keen on emphasizing that the ‘separation of church and state’ is found nowhere in the constitution. Rather, they state, it was from the personal letters of Thomas Jefferson – his guiding opinion, of course, but never adopted in America’s founding documents.

This is true. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion for the individual, while also keeping government from imposing a religious test for any public office. Many Christians, however, find that the modern interpretation of these clauses – read through Jefferson – squeeze religion from public life.

They don’t know how good they have it.

Coptic Christians in Egypt are currently caught between two relatively good systems. The modern secular state, as in America, allows personal freedoms and independence of religious institutions. This was somewhat the promise of Mubarak, but never really arrived. Especially in light of the Arab Spring, many Copts look to the west and hope for the implementation of such enlightened policy.

Yet on the other hand, also driven by the Arab Spring, is the understanding that Islam-as-state protects a subservient church. This also is enlightened, and for many centuries Christians lived comfortably under the caliphate, participating in society, economy, and government. There were abuses in history, and it is not the equivalent of modern citizenship. Yet many Copts are fearful of such a return, while Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are head-over-heels trying to assure them their fears are baseless.

Unfortunately, Mubarak muddled between the two.

While the church was officially independent, it was not free. Relations between the president and the pope were conducted along the lines of the old caliphal system. No jizia was paid, but in exchange for guaranteeing the subservience of the Christian community, the pope received a direct line to the leader and relative freedom of internal rule. If Christians got out of line, though, or if it was necessary to hold them in line, a measure of sectarian strife was allowed. Some say it was even encouraged, if not promoted.

A few days ago I posted about a controversy in the church, which erupted during Christmas celebrations. With the massacre at Maspero in the background, Pope Shenouda welcomed the military council, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. The church has regularly welcomed representatives of the state, which in the past have been members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

This year, it is members of the military council, and of the triumphant Islamist powers. Though the faces have changed, the pope was following a protocol long established.

Revolutions, however, disrupt protocol. Many young Copts invested themselves heavily in the revolution, seeking greater freedom for society at large. Instead, at Christmas, they find the pope continuing the same pattern. The military, they believe, killed demonstrating Copts at Maspero, and no one has been held accountable. The Muslim Brotherhood is an open question; will they simply continue politics-as-usual, with a democratic face?

If these young Copts desire freedom throughout the society, they desire it on the part of the church as well. It was humiliating, or else cowardly and insulting, to see the pope receive those who shed Coptic blood, as well as Islamists who seem very comfortable with the military.

They want the pope to be revolutionary. They want him to refuse greetings until justice is met. To a large degree, they want a western version of freedom of religion.

They are not alone. Many Egyptians desire this, including many Muslims. The question is: Is it best for the church?

The pope is a man of tradition, and old men are set in their ways. He is also a fountain of wisdom, and he knows his society. He believes the church is safest under the protection of the state.

Is he wrong? Maybe. Jesus was a revolutionary, though of a different kind. But he was willing to sacrifice himself for what was right. If the church challenges the state – currently constituted as the military council – it might rally both Christians and Muslims to continue the revolution until military rule is abolished. Then, with governance in the hands of civilians, even an Islamist parliament would be free to … well, what would it do?

Or, if the church challenged the state, the state might hit back. Would Muslims rally behind it? If so, would they be strong enough? Or would this only push them deeper into Islamism, seeing Coptic comeuppance, ‘those ungrateful Christians’?

One might pragmatically say the church should stay by the side of the military against the Islamists, as under Mubarak. Activists, and most Copts, would now say that Mubarak did not work out so well for them. They were certainly very critical of him before the revolution. But will Islamists be worse?

Pope Shenouda is probably not making bets for one side or the other. In all likelihood, he is simply following protocol. He is not promoting the military council or the Muslim Brotherhood. He is acknowledging their place in the governance of Egypt.

History is riddled with examples of minorities who backed the wrong side. If Pope Shenouda is licking the boots of the powers-that-be, this is beneath the dignity of his position – indeed of any Christian, or of any individual human being. But if he were to thumb his nose, this also is a threat to dignity, and more.

Perhaps unfortunately, revolutions demand one choose a side. This puts Christians in a very difficult position. On the one hand, their religion encourages them to sacrifice themselves for others, for truth, and for the cause of justice. On the other, it encourages fealty to the ruling powers, with prayers offered on their behalf. How, then, should a first loyalty to God drive a Christian in Egypt today? How should it drive the pope?

Perhaps Pope Shenouda leans a bit too much in deference to the state. This is certainly the activists’ charge. Yet it must also be noted this criticism is leveled from the perspective of a western system of religious freedom, or at least from the longing thereof.

It may well be Egypt is moving back to an official caliphal system, where the pope represents his community. Or perhaps the mixed-Mubarak system will stay in place. The future could be very bad, or it might not be bad at all. Activists must continue to labor for what they believe in, and convince others of the same. The pope must be given room to do the same. Indeed, his conduct now may be guaranteeing activists their relative freedom of operation.

Americans, imagining themselves in the middle of all of it, might wish for a little more Jefferson.



Day of Rage 2.0

Translation: May 27; underneath is a list of demands

Tomorrow, May 27, could be a portentous day in the development of Egypt, post-revolution. Or, it could come to nothing. Activists, largely those among the earliest demonstrators at Tahrir Square, have returned to social media to call for a 2ndDay of Rage, in order to protest a slowing pace of reform from the ruling military council and interim government. A Facebook page asking for participation attracted 27,000 supporters, but of which only 5,000 said they would participate.

While there have been protests nearly every day since Mubarak stepped down as president, none have been as controversial as this one. The Muslim Brotherhood has declared it will not take part, and has in fact publically condemned the effort. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, Naguib Siwarus, a wealthy Coptic businessman and founder of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, has also spoken against the demonstration.

At issue is not so much the list of demands; in fact, participants have not exactly put together a unified call. Rather, it is felt that the target of protest is directed at the ruling military council. Many activists have been careful not to directly point their finger at the army, but the understood complaint is reminiscent of the early revolutionary struggle. Protests since the revolution have tended to be about particular issues.

The fear is obvious: The army received unwavering popular support for its role in the revolution, refusing to fire on the people. In light of the violence in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, Egyptians have been very grateful for army neutrality. Yet the 2nd Day of Rage threatens to drive a wedge between the army and the people. In fact, this is the chief accusation against the activists. If we cannot look to the army to guide our transition, to whom will we turn? The conservative Muslim Salafis, in this regard, have returned to their pre-revolutionary rhetoric – demonstrating against the leader is against Islamic sharia. The Muslim Brotherhood has labeled the activists ‘secularists and communists’, terms sure to draw rejection from a God-fearing population. Rumors are about that the hand of Israel and America are driving participation.

The demands of the activists do suggest dissatisfaction with the military council’s governance. They are frustrated with the slow pace of trials against leading regime figures, especially Mubarak, who only two days earlier was referred to prosecution. They condemn the use of military tribunals, of which human rights activists say up to 10,000 citizens have been subject since the revolution, many of which have been protestors. They call for the replacement of the military council with transitional civilian leadership drawn from all segments of society. Furthermore, they ask for the drafting of a new constitution prior to legislative elections, so as to secure a free and democratic society into which new representatives can be chosen.

This last notion in particular can be judged as somewhat partisan politics. One reason the Muslim Brotherhood is understood to oppose the march is that they are due to fare well in the legislative elections, and will have superior representation from which will constitute the body to craft a new constitution afterwards. Some activists have gone as far to suspect background deals between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, but this is denied by both parties. Indeed, the Brotherhood seeks to assure Egyptians they seek participation with all political forces, to achieve a civil state. Yet figures from the Brotherhood periodically mention phrases such as ‘sharia law’, and make many wonder if their openness is a temporary strategy rather than a democratic commitment. The Brotherhood, for its part, states there is a media campaign to discredit them and twist words out of context.

With ‘only’ 5,000 people committed to the demonstration, however, will there be much ado at all? Egyptians are tired of protest, focused on the ongoing security lapses and deteriorating economy. If left alone, will the efforts of the activists simply fizzle out?

Perhaps. Yet some activists have been stating that the security lapses and an overemphasis on economy issues is part of the military strategy to slow down revolutionary gains. Youth activists complain they have been squeezed out of the decision making process, as most government pronouncements are issued from behind closed doors. A recent national dialogue has begun, in which many youth were invited. Upon arrival, however, they found senior representation including figures from the disgraced Mubarak regime. Most left in protest, and the dialogue ended abruptly.

Some steam may have been gained today, as four activists were arrested by the military police for distributing flyers calling for participation in the 2nd Day of Rage. The activists’ twitter campaigns went on high alert, mobilizing people immediately to go to their place of detention. They were released later in the day, but individual tweets proclaimed the arrests did the greatest favor for the call to demonstrate. Links to pictures of the flyers rapidly filled cyberspace.

Yet so did a foreboding sense of dread. One activist feared May 27 would come to represent the day the revolution died. Others tried to bring levity by calling on protestors to use humor, as they did so effectively in the beginning. Given the expected high temperatures, some wished to turn Tahrir Square into a beach scene.

On its official Facebook page, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces stated clearly it would not fire on protestors. Yet it warned that certain shadowy groups might try to infiltrate and bring trouble. The message concluded by stating the army would not be present during the demonstrations, but would be guarding other essential government institutions.

Activists took this as a message that they would be left on their own. One of the young revolutionary groups, the April 6 Movement, declared it would take responsibility for securing the peaceful nature of the demonstration, to prevent any violent infiltrators from sabotage. Yet with the prevalence of ‘thugs’ who have attacked demonstrators previously, might these descend upon activists?

On the one hand, it is feared. On the other, it is feared as a scare tactic to limit participation. Tomorrow has the air of uncertainty that existed on January 24, when Police Day demonstrations were expected. Some of the same questions exist: Will this only be an expression of young, middle to upper class frustration? Will the street care, let alone join in? Regardless, for that protest 80,000 Facebook users committed to participate; the 2nd Day of Rage pales in comparison to previous mobilization.

No one is expecting a 2nd Revolution, though some activists are using that language. What is their expectation, however? How will they know if they win? If their fears are true, and the revolution is being thwarted, can this effort reverse the tide?

My guess is that the 2nd Day of Rage will make a loud protest, but eventually fizzle out. If there is bloodshed, however, will that change the equation? Or, will the popular perception be that they turned against the army, are working against the necessary stabilization of the economy, and will deserve what they get? The former regime tried such a strategy during the infamous ‘Battle of the Camel’; it failed miserably. Conditions are different now; most are still positive about the revolution and thankful for the army. Public relations are probably against the activists.

Does it deserve to be? It has only been four months since the revolution began. Former figures, including Mubarak’s sons, have been sent to prison. Elections are promised, and most analysts believe the military has absolutely no intention of staying in power long term. Meanwhile, security is weakened, as is the economy. The military proved itself trustworthy during the revolution; should it be given the benefit of the doubt during the transition? After all, it has undertaken governance and policing – two tasks absolutely necessary but for which it is ill equipped.

Tomorrow we will see. Yet positions appear to be hardening, creating fissures in the widespread revolutionary unity. Perhaps it was inevitable; it is also dangerous. No one accounts the revolution to be completed yet; might it derail as groups begin to fight for their own vision of success?

It is a very difficult balance fighting for what you believe in, holding others accountable, and maintaining unity at the same time. Perhaps it is too herculean to expect, but it can be pleaded for. May prayers be directed toward safety, sense of partnership, and ultimate freedom and justice to come to Egypt. The nation is still in need.


‘Smelling the Breeze’ – In, and of, Tahrir

Yesterday was the ancient Egyptian holiday of Shem al-Naseem, translated ‘smelling the breeze’, which is a national observance the day after Orthodox Easter. It is the custom for all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, to eat raw, salty fish, and go out and about, enjoying the pleasant spring weather. We decided to join the festivities, choosing Tahrir Square as our location of picnic.

We headed out early by Egyptian standards, hoping to avoid anticipated throngs of breeze-smellers, mostly sure they were not scheduled to be joined by demonstrators. On our way down in the metro we saw evidence of the popular campaign to remove the mark of Mubarak from public display, extended in this example also to his predecessor:

Tahrir Square is located at the metro station named ‘Sadat’, which in this graffiti artist’s conception is to be renamed ‘Martyrs’. Mubarak station, meanwhile, is poignantly rechristened ‘Blood of the Martyrs’. Nasser station escaped his erasure.

Our arrival at the square coincided with the end of a military band performance, followed by the dispersal of gifts. By the time we arrived the scene was somewhat chaotic, and a later report stated the effort fell flat, and that people tried to abscond with extra gifts. Still, there were several military personnel lingering around the central grassy circle, shaking hands and taking pictures with passers-by. In the background of the photo below is also seen the Egyptian Museum to the right, site of the fierce Battle of the Camel, and to the right is the burned out remains of the headquarters of the now disbanded National Democratic Party:

We were correct that the holiday would pass without demonstrations. The biggest crowd seemed to be a gathered remnant from the military musical performance, gathered around two banners. The first extols the current military and interim government leadership, while the second, to the right, provides a long list of former government figures ‘for sale’, in reference to ongoing corruption investigations against them:

As we noted in a previous post, there were many examples of revolutionary graffiti. Here is a sampling:

(translation: Live the Revolution)

(translation: I love my country. The blue writing seems to list the names of those who died in the uprising.)

(translation: Lift your head high, you are an Egyptian!)

(translation: Oh God, protector of he who reforms. Smaller print in blue: God, make this country safe.)

(translation: Martyrs Square)

Walking around the square it was clear there was a new normalcy, rather than a return to normalcy. While some iconic restaurants had been restored and reopened following the looting of the revolution:

Others remained boarded up:

Meanwhile there were new business ventures of all varieties:

Including a mobile face painter:

After our tour of the square we settled down for our picnic, but Emma was still troubled by the attention her Egyptian-ness received:

Hannah, meanwhile, was less affected, and simply enjoyed her Oreos:

Our Shem al-Naseem celebration continued that afternoon, as we were invited to join with a family we know from the Coptic Church. Though details would be good to verify, I learned that eating fish served as a reminder of Jesus’ post-Easter meal with his disciples, mentioned in Luke 24:42, verifying the reality of his physical resurrection. That the fish is raw and salty is in continuance with the Pharaohnic practice, before modern refrigeration. The fish is actually from a catch three months old, for if they heavily salted the more recent supply, they would all get sick.

Fortunately, for foreigners, those with high blood pressure, and others of broader taste, the spread also included selections leftover from the Easter meal the day before. Many, however, chose to eat nothing but the fish. Go figure.

As I spoke with those there, one person in particular showed me photos he had taken from the revolution, many of which were of phenomenal quality depicting both the violence and the celebration. He did so not as a paid photographer, but as an involved citizen, wishing to know the reality of what was happening in his country. What he saw, at least in his interpretation, contradicted the standard narrative.

During the aforementioned Battle of the Camel, news outlets depicted the demonstrators as recipients of violence against a sizeable, but clearly outnumbered group of pro-Mubarak ‘thugs’. His pictures, however, showed thousands of Mubarak supporters, consisting of what appeared to be ordinary people, without weapons. Across the way, aside the Egyptian Museum, stood a small crowd of demonstrators, many with rocks or cement chunks in their hands. He stated that the violence was initiated by the demonstrators, some of whom then went up to the roofs and threw stones down on the pro-Mubarak crowd. Official implications had pro-government forces on the roofs, hurling stones on the demonstrators. Indeed, some of his pictures were of individual protestors, wearing makeshift helmets of plastic, towels, and even bread.

In another photo he captured a tank, with graffiti etched upon, reading, ‘Down with Mubarak’. The image was from the first days in which the army occupied the square, and was welcomed exuberantly by the crowds. This gentleman enters the slogan as evidence that the army was not neutral, but was with the protestors from the beginning. Early worries were that the army, while not killing protestors, was still biased toward the government, as they stood idly by when the ‘thugs’ attacked. Yet as this individual alters the narrative of violence, he also believes that had the army been neutral, they would not have allowed government equipment to be turned into the canvas of the revolution.

This person states that he is neither with one side or the other, seeing both as suspect, even though there were good people involved in the demonstrations. He finds that their early successes were subsequently hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and others, who have conducted secret deals with the military. Further evidence of this alliance is found in the number of sectarian incidents which have taken place since the revolution, in which the military has not prosecuted Muslim offenders, but continues the Mubarak era practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’.

Aspects of this testimony were disputed by others there, especially the point about the rooftop attacks. Most, however, did not contradict the concern about the intentions of the military. As I proffered other explanations, stating that a confluence of interests does not necessarily imply an alliance, and furthermore, the co-religious sentiment from the Alexandria bombing onward still carries over and offers hope of a better future, I was gently rebuked. I have been here less than two years; we Christians, however, have been here during fourteen centuries of Islam. My hope is not echoed.

Testimony has been gathered from the confessions of pro-Mubarak thugs, which I have written about before. Yet it is true that a number of the initial pro-Mubarak demonstrations did consist of ordinary people. It is also true that members of the Muslim Brotherhood were credited with the primary defense of Tahrir Square. Their ‘expertise’ had been forged in numbers of confrontations with the government, while the majority of common protestors had never seen violence. As for the military, they have stated they will not allow sectarian tensions to divide the people. Their role, as is obvious, is vital in determining the coming political realities. Their makeup is generally stated as secular, and equally obvious is their reliance on and training by the United States military. Will they then lean Islamist? Democratic Islamic transformation in Turkey has not jeopardized their US-NATO alliance, and the Muslim Brotherhood has pointed to Turkey as a model for the coming Egyptian state. Claims and counterclaims abound. Where does reality lie?

It is good to be back in Egypt. While news can be followed from anywhere, contact with people is essential for comprehension. The tea leaves multiply with alternate testimonies; smelling them correctly, amidst the breezes of Egypt, is the task at hand.


American Interest in Egypt

A surefire way to determine a person’s priorities is to look at his or her budget and expenditures. The necessities of life demand their share, to be sure, but what becomes of disposable income? Check your own most recent bank statement, and take stock of the results. Are they what you would wish, or did you stumble into a situation you would like to revise?

Can the same test hold true for nations? If so, do the results reflect determined policy or simple inertia?

Many Egyptian activists have criticized the decision of President Obama’s administration to cut funding for the promotion of democracy by $5 million. Furthermore, these funds must be directed to NGOs and civil society organizations registered and approved by the government. On one hand this seems only natural – should the US government allow foreign donations to be received by quasi-legitimate Islamic charities, for example, which may or may not have ties to terrorist agencies?

On the other hand these same Egyptian activists would flip this comparison in their favor, stating that the government views ‘civil society’ as a threat in the same manner the US would look at these under-the-radar charities. Though this is a stretch, they maintain that Mubarak’s government only admits registration to those organizations which will not contest its rule. By funding only registered NGOs, it is said, the US ‘promotion of democracy’ only further entrenches the effective one party system which has existed since the military revolution of 1952.

The $5 million reduction is a full one-fifth decline from the previous allotment of $25 million. For all the grief President Bush received in Egypt for his policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, many of these activists will praise him for the pressure he placed on the Mubarak government which, they say, genuinely opened the civil society field and resulted in greater freedoms across the board. Conversely, President Obama stands accused, at least by one prominent activist, as returning to the days in which the US openly ‘coddled dictators’.

When one discusses numbers in the millions a sense of precision can be lost. I live here; I have a general sense of what civil society organizations do. I have no idea, however, where even a reduced figure of $20 million is being expended. Though I don’t know who does or does not receive US aid, there are good organizations doing good work. $20 million is a staggering sum; add it up here and there and surely it can be found. It would be a fair question to research, though: However defined, does the investment result in $20 million of ‘good’?

This discussion is interesting enough, but the opening thought begged a look at priorities. A $5 million reduction suggests the Obama administration is less interested in the promotion of democracy than his predecessor. ‘Less interested’ is found to be a matter of degree, however, when the rest of US government aid to Egypt is considered:

$20 million – promotion of democracy

$35 million – education ($10 million of which is for Egyptians studying in the US)

$250 million – economic aid

Now wait…

$1.3 billion – military aid

Suddenly, $5 million becomes a drop in the bucket.

Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyp...
Image via Wikipedia

Egypt solidified its status as a close ally of the US with the signings of the Camp David accords, resulting in the reception of such aid packages every year thereafter. Since that time Egypt has fought no wars, with Israel or anyone else; why is this aid necessary?

While the Obama administration has been accused in the US as favoring Arab interests over Israeli, longstanding American policy, Obama’s rhetoric notwithstanding, has given Israel almost free reign to extend its will in the Palestinian territories. Those who push the envelope, however, suggesting Israel to be America’s 51st state, or more cynically, America’s boss, do not realize the significance of this military aid.

A strong Egyptian military is a necessary counterbalance to the weight of Israeli forces. Both are bankrolled by the US, of course, but if there was not a readiness in Cairo to engage in military combat, Israel would have to pay no attention whatsoever to international (including US) cries for a just settlement of the Palestinian issue. US military aid to Egypt maintains at least a semblance of regional balance of power.

Returning to cynicism, however, there can be another deduction from the breakdown of US aid to Egypt. Where are US priorities? Promotion of democracy? Yes. Education and economics? Yes.

Stability of a regional player? Absolutely. The US maintains genuine interest in political reform and expansion of freedoms. Why else would it invest millions of dollars otherwise available to domestic interests? Cynicism may respond that when differentiation is lost in the understanding of ‘millions and billions’, even the drop in the bucket can appear as a sizeable investment. This number can be paraded to US voters who view America as the city upon a hill with missionary mandate to make the world safe for democracy. At the same time, the other (larger) number can assure the establishment that such idealism will only go so far.

I wish never to surrender to cynicism. Accounting, however, is another matter. As an idealistic American, I do not wish to believe our pangs for worldwide freedom are insincere. A brief look at our foreign policy, however, makes hopeful belief difficult. How do idealism and the pursuit of national interests mix in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen? The world is a complex place, and realpolitik is the mastery of complexity.

If, however, these international engagements have been completely devoid of pure motivation underneath its justifying rhetoric, faith in our system, this great experiment, is severely tested. Let us then surrender to the ways of the world, the quest for empire, and ultimately, a few pages in the textbook of history for the coming centuries.

No, America is good. I will hold this like a tenet of faith. When faith is measured, though, will it be found to equal $20 million? Slightly more (if adding in education funding), or slightly less (after accounting for inefficiency and corruption)?

What does this mean for Egypt? I’m sure this is not a revelation to experts in the field who have followed US-Egyptian relations for years, but it can be disheartening for the idealistic neophyte wishing good for all. America does care (I trust) for the gradual political reform of Egypt, but it cares far more deeply for the preservation of the existing state of affairs. President Mubarak is aging, there is no clear successor, and no viable opposition. The only candidate currently attracting attention (legitimately mobilizing a popular longing for change) is constitutionally bound from running for president unless he joins an existing political party, which he has stated he will not do. What is coming next?

There is no need for fear, or hope. The ruling system stems from the power of the military, whose strongest ally is the US government. A radical departure from the status quo is highly unlikely.

Simply balance the checkbook and see.

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Mubarak, Shenouda, and Jesus: Remarriage on Whose Authority?

In the latest escalation of the crisis between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the national judiciary, Pope Shenouda yesterday convened a press conference in opposition to the Supreme Administrative Court ruling compelling the church to validate second marriages following divorce in all circumstances. Stating clearly the church’s respect for Egyptian law, it will nevertheless not execute any order which violates Biblical teaching or the consciences of church leadership.

Pope Shenouda delivered his statement, signed after an emergency meeting of the Holy Synod in which 83 bishops signaled their support, from his papal residence at St. Mark’s Church in Abbasia, Cairo. He delivered his remarks against a background of images ripe with symbolic meaning. On the Pope’s left was his own portrait, representing his authority as leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. On his right was a portrait of President Mubarak, representing the authority of the Egyptian state. Above his head, central and lifted above the other two pictures, was Jesus Christ, seated on his heavenly throne, with the Coptic phrase ‘Our Lord is present’ over his head. Placed especially for this occasion were three Bible verses on which the church makes its case:

But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Luke 21:33)

We must obey God rather than men! (Acts 5:29)

Framing the issue furthermore was a headline in the Egyptian independent newspaper al-Dustur, which asked if this legal crisis would become the first clash between Pope Shenouda and President Mubarak. President Mubarak famously lifted the ban on Pope Shenouda placed by President Sadat, restoring him to the papacy and ushering in a period characterized in the large by cordial relations between the two leaders. While there have been rocky moments to be sure, Zachariah Ramzi of the Coptic newspaper Call of the Country stated that this is the first instance of government interference in the church that touches upon issues of Biblical ordinance. He added that whereas the Pope had been tolerant and forgiving over offenses committed against Christians in Egypt, in this issue involving doctrine he was both accurate and firm. Involving Holy Writ, must there inevitably be a clash?

In answering questions after this almost unheard of papal press conference, Pope Shenouda clearly stated that church refusal to implement this judicial ruling did not mean the church considered itself an independent state within a state. He also indicated, however, that marriage is a holy sacrament and not an administrative matter, and furthermore, he as pope is not a government employee. Pope Shenouda stated that he did not want to embarrass or put President Mubarak in a compromising position, but spoke also that while the president must be concerned with the independence of the judiciary, he must also be concerned with the millions of Copts who speak out against this ruling. Tellingly, throughout his remarks Pope Shenouda challenged the legal system, not the president. He spoke of Islamic sharia, from which Egyptian law is principally drawn according to the Constitution, stating it guarantees Christians freedom in managing their internal affairs. Additionally, the pope listed multiple civil laws and precedents which enshrine this dictate especially in the personal status codes. If a clash is coming, it is aimed at the judiciary; the government, but not the president.

Bishop Agathon of the diocese of Maghagha concurs. He noted that the leaders of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches together formulated a draft for incorporation into the personal status codes, in which the Biblical understanding of divorce is respected. Given to the People’s Assembly in 1979, the issue has been tabled without decision or explanation. Adoption of this proposal, states the bishop, would solve the problem completely. As it is, such judicial activism serves only to disturb all Copts, from leadership to the people.

Nabil Luka Bebawi is a Coptic member of the People’s Assembly. Sometimes criticized by Copts for not taking a firmer stance against perceived government neglect of Coptic affairs, during the press conference he also criticized the judicial ruling. Furthermore, he carried with him a tome, nearly ten centimeters thick, in which he chronicled Coptic difficulties in family law over the past several years. Entitled ‘Personal Status Problems of Christians in Light of the Egyptian Legal System’, he intended to present his study directly to Pope Shenouda. As a highly placed voice of opposition to the ruling, Bebawi nevertheless directs his effort through the church, but again, it is aimed at the judiciary.

What is not yet clear are the stakes in this contest. What does the church risk if it fails to act according to the judicial ruling? Dina Abd al-Karim, host of ‘House on the Rock’, a Coptic television program focusing on family and marriage issues, stated that this was the one item left open from the press conference. Father Ruweis, the patriarchal deputy of Alexandria, speculates that should the government press upon the church, he and his clerical colleagues are ready to go to prison. He clarified, however, that no such threat has been issued, privately or publically.

If the speech of the church is directed upon the judiciary, their eyes are on the president. Expectations, however, are different. Bishop Kyrillos of Nag Hamadi expects the government to do nothing, stating that Copts have no value. Bishop Bisenti of Helwan is more hopeful. The next step, he says, is simply to pray, hoping that President Mubarak will take care of this issue, and do so quickly. Pope Shenouda described the situation thus:

Imagine: This decision by the court has been rejected by the pope, the Holy Synod, by all the clergy, and by all the (Coptic) people. So what does this mean? This has to be reconsidered; otherwise it will mean that the Copts are under duress and suffering pressures concerning their religion.

This statement garnished the loudest applause of anything spoken during the press conference.

Returning to the above image, the symbolism runs deeper. President Mubarak on the right, Pope Shenouda on the left, but Jesus lifted above them both. For church imagery, this is entirely appropriate. Christ is Lord of the church, even as its governmental host and temporal head wrangle over the civil and ecclesiastical matter of divorce and remarriage. Upon closer inspection, however, the horizontal alignment of earthly equality is broken in the hands of Jesus. There, he holds a Bible on whose right hand page is a picture of Pope Shenouda himself. Jesus upholds the authority of the pope as the pope upholds the authority of the Bible. ‘Our Lord is present’ – and with him is Pope Shenouda.

May a clash not occur, but should it be so the press conference provided a clear picture of the church’s position vis-à-vis the government, and upon whose authority this matter must be decided.

If you like, please view a video clip we produced in association with this story.

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A Departing Third Opens an Unclear Future

Yesterday, March 10, 2010, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar died of a heart attack while visiting Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi led the inimitable institution, considered by many if not most Sunni Muslims to be the leading Islamic university in the world, since his appointment by President Mubarak in 1995. Together with President Mubarak and Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Sheikh Tantawi presided over a period of considerable change during his tenure, and their lives, each one in their eighties, spanned epochal changes in Egyptian society. As the first of these three elder statesmen has passed on, Egyptians may wonder about the next generation of leadership, and the directions it may take.

During his career Sheikh Tantawi was a lightning rod of criticism from all corners of Egypt, making rulings considered too liberal or too conservative, depending on the source. Among the chief condemnations made of his tenure was that he was compliant more to the will of the state than to the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. Though a religious figure, he was also a political appointee; such remarks had ample target. For Muslims frustrated with an apparent secular regime he was its worst symbol, as he was attached to the heart of Islamic learning in the Arab world, the chief figure expected to uphold the purity of Islam.

A brief litany of his most controversial rulings includes issues straddling the religious/secular/political divisions which characterize Muslim debates today. In terms of women’s issues he fought against the burka, the full body covering opening only with slits for the eyes. He denied the Islamic foundation of the cultural practice of female genital circumcision. He ruled also that Islamic sharia did not forbid a woman president. In terms of the Western debate on terrorism and jihad he ruled that Islamic jihad must only be a defensive measure. He condemned the attacks of September 11, but wavered on suicide bombings against Israeli targets. Yet he also worked tirelessly as a mediator for peace, both in Israel/Palestine and Iraq. He was also a firm defender of equality between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, and enjoyed a warm relationship with Pope Shenouda. In all of these matters he pleased some but not others, but many were left frustrated that he either went too far, or not far enough, in his rulings. His lasting reputation as a political stooge or a man of principle will be debated long after his death, which marks the end of an era in Egyptian history, and the initiation of an unclear future.

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi was 81 years old. Currently his Christian religious counterpart Pope Shenouda is 86. President Mubarak, meanwhile, is also 81. Pope Shenouda was selected by lot to fill the patriarchal chair of St. Mark upon the passing of Pope Kyrillos in 1971. Sheikh Tantawi was appointed to fill the post of al-Azhar, being promoted from the position of Grand Mufti, upon the passing of Gad al-Haq, who was known as a conservative Islamic figure, and with whom he had clashed several times. President Mubarak, meanwhile, became president upon the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. None of the three obtained their post by the will of the people, yet all have defined the political, Islamic, and Christian positions for the majority of Egyptian citizens. Their influence has been incalculable.

Now, Sheikh Tantawi has passed on. In some respects he is probably the least significant of the three. Regardless of the prestige of al-Azhar in Islamic history in the modern state it has become an extension of government bureaucracy. This does not imply Sheikh Tantawi was not sincere in his rulings. It is simply a statement that Muslim religion in Egypt is tied to political rule, and in the multiplicity of religious interpretations al-Azhar is no longer inviolable for the Muslim faithful.

This is much less so when it comes to the power of the church. Orthodox Christians in Egypt represent 90-95% of Christianity, and the majority of these look to Pope Shenouda, though without infallibility, as the undisputed leader and example of Christian thought and practice. There is no connection to the state; though President Sadat once banished Pope Shenouda to a monastery he could have no role in selecting a replacement. President Mubarak, interestingly, reestablished him to his papal chair. The pope is a towering figure in Egypt; in recognition of his advanced age the church is wary of decisive policy. Pope Shenouda has set the course; it will be continued until he also passes away, and then God will select by lot another leader. The church, quietly, does have divergent voices; only God knows which one will emerge.

Since the wick of Sheikh Tantawi was consumed before that of President Mubarak there is less apprehension concerning the next appointment of Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. It is anticipated that the president will appoint someone similar, certain not to stray too far from the political perspectives of government. Yet the status of sheikh is not similar to that of pope, though by tradition he maintains the post until his death. As a political appointee it is possible, though unlikely, that the next president may depose the current figure and select his own man. Still, choosing the interpretive head of the Islamic world is not as simple as choosing a minister of agriculture; there will be substantial pressures on the next president to satisfy the demands of every religious interest. The identity of this next president, however, is an open question, perhaps for the first time since the revolution of 1952 introduced military rule to Egypt.

Some observers believe simply that following President Mubarak’s anticipated decision to end his political career—the next elections are in 2011—another general from the military/security sector will be internally selected to continue governance. His presidency will be popularly validated through elections, and the course of Egyptian politics will continue as it has for the past sixty years: Secular in orientation, focused on development, cautious with human rights and freedoms, wary of the power of religion.

This prediction bears a substantial wildcard, however, which has not yet featured in the modern Egyptian state. President Mubarak has a son who is acclaimed by some as a potential successor. Gamal Mubarak, however, is not a military man. While he may (this is debated) enjoy the backing of his father, he is less likely to garnish the behind the scenes support of the military elite. Furthermore, while many Egyptians appreciate the stability of the Mubarak presidency, they are reluctant to witness the instillation of his son, reducing the status of the republic to that of the nepotistic Pharaohs.

One final possibility is that true democracy does emerge, but with what result? While political Islamist interests do not represent a majority of the population they are adept at the political game of campaigning and elections. If allowed to participate they may ride the religious slogan of ‘Islam is the Solution’ into the presidential palace on the backs of a populace frustrated by lack of the secular regime’s advancement of freedom and economy. Or, there are other candidates outside the traditional government sector which command wide respect, but are criticized as candidates for lack of political acumen. The former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad al-Baradi, is one such gentleman. Though he is understandably reluctant to throw his hat into the ring, he represents the hope of many Egyptians longing for civilian, democratic governance.

Though it be said that only God chooses the pope, space can be granted for the behind the scenes maneuvering of Orthodox bishops. Pope Shenouda has created a church bureaucracy similar to that enjoyed by the state by dividing growing bishoprics and appointing bishops loyal to his philosophy of Christianity. The Holy Synod comprises these bishops in their entirety, and with the General Lay Council of the Church is tasked with election of three candidates according to church tradition, which can be variable. Among these three, then, God makes the selection, through a blindfolded child who draws the lot.

Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi’s life spanned the rule of three kings, three presidents, and both war and peace with Israel. He witnessed the transformation of the country from a British colony with Turkish vestiges into a modern bureaucratic state. His passing signals the beginning of an era of change for Egypt, though the direction is yet uncertain. Not until Pope Shenouda and President Mubarak – may God preserve their lives – join him in the world beyond will this direction fully come to light. May their successors receive God’s wisdom for the substantial challenges each will face in filling the shoes of such monumental personalities.