Friday Prayers for Egypt: Homeland Future

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Give Egyptians their right representation. May they bear well the concerns of their district.

But in whose name?

Many MPs have publicly signaled their intention to switch parties, and the Future of a Homeland is poised to receive them. Doing so would make them the largest party in parliament.

Some are current independents, leaving a coalition that recently hoped to become the majority party.

Some are rival partisans, leaving parties they deem to be failing and riven by internal disputes.

But all have prompted a legal question. The Constitution and parliament bylaws appear to bar any change in status while seated in office. The penalty is expulsion.

God, guide Egypt in this formative period.

Mergers are sensible. Attrition is natural. Institutions are rebuilding and like will find like.

But are you pleased?

The president has expressed hope that the political scene will coalesce.

Are these movements healthy, or manipulating? Do they serve the people? Do they serve the nation?

God, guide each politician’s heart and conscience. Guide the judges who may have to decide.

But not all representation is inside the parliament.

A number of activists were recently arrested, under a variety of charges. They vary in their opposition, but also aim to speak in the name of the people.

Give voice to that which is healthy. Where charges prove true, hold accountable the manipulative.

Guide each activist to serve the people. Guide each authority to serve the nation.

Guide also the judges who have to discern.

God, Egypt’s future is not yet determined. Choices and foundations lay a path forward.

But if the future is open, the homeland is ancient.

Give Egypt peace, you have preserved her before. Give Egypt hope, you have prospered her prior.

Give her good representation, to multiply both.

In whoever’s name they speak, may your will be done.




Friday Prayers for Egypt: Palestine, Parliament

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To make peace, to make law – men must meet together.

Egypt has played a primary role in fostering unity between Fatah and Hamas. There can be little progress in just peace with Israel when Palestinians are feuding.

And now Egypt’s parliament opens a new session. The first word: Do not defame the body. There can be little progress in stabilizing society in a house divided.

God, keep the unity of spirit through the bond of peace.

There is much bad blood in Palestine, with different visions and different pressures. It will not be easy to make amends, let alone to engage Israel.

And there is much bad blood in parliament, with accusations of subservience and sabotage. It will not be easy to check and balance, let alone to achieve consensus.

God, when men meet together not all is peace. Perhaps it must be so to get there. Give space for all grievance. Give patience with all charity.

Set the Holy Land straight, God. Make Egypt merciful.

May their peoples achieve peace, domestic and foreign, inside and out.

May they argue as necessary but meet together, and love.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Review and Oversight

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As the Egyptian parliament begins its constitutional mandate, provide it the wisdom necessary to serve the country well.

Its first task is the review the dozens of laws passed in its absence. Given the restricted timeframe of fifteen days, they are widely expected to pass the great majority. But particular attention will be given to the controversial protest, health care, and civil service laws.

So God, make this process more than a rubber stamp. Divide the parliamentarians well into committees of their expertise, and give each law its due.

Its second task is the oversight of government performance, of which it has authorized an investigation earlier than expected. The central auditor released a report detailing extensive state corruption, but a presidential committee said he misrepresented figures. Parliament will now weigh between them.

The auditor has been accused of working to bring down the regime on behalf of the Brotherhood. He says he has documents to back up his claims.

So God, divest this case of its political overtones. Open the books to allow full transparency, and call each expenditure to account.

Parliament is a diverse body, God. There are many serious members to be sure; but opening days have been a media circus.

In these early days, knit them together in partnership and divide them effectually over the issues. Give the body its weight as a separate power, to help hold the system in check.

May they lead, and help them serve. Bless Egypt, God, and the representatives of her people.



Middle East Published Articles World Watch Monitor

Dare Egypt Amend, or Even Abolish, Its Blasphemy Law?

This article was first published by World Watch Monitor on January 8, 2016.

Egypt Parliament

Egypt’s Secular Party has called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to support legislation which cancels the blasphemy law, because, in the words of lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, it has “become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”. And, in his experience as a defence lawyer, 90% of charges are filed against Christians. The first session of Egypt’s new parliament is due to open on 10 January.

“There has been a case each month,” he said at the launch of his new book, Blasphemy in Egypt. “If I have gotten any detail wrong, let me be judged accordingly, but everything is taken from judicial rulings.”

The research confirms the Egyptian lawyer’s claim. World Watch Monitor readers might have read the cases of Gamal Abdou, Gad Younan, and Bishoy Garas, each a Christian who has been tried for insulting Islam. But Muslims who question traditional interpretations of Islam are also targeted, as seen in the recent one-year prison sentence given to Islam al-Beheiry.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), alleged blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012. Thirteen cases were recorded in 2013, and of 42 defendants during that time, 27 were convicted. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told World Watch Monitor that 17 new cases were filed in 2015.

Hamdy al-Assyouti
Egyptian lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, author of ‘Blasphemy in Egypt’

Assyouti’s book, which he believes is the first Arabic language book of its kind to be published in Egypt, details 23 cases. But in only two cases did he say the defendants expressed actual contempt for Islam. Oftentimes social media postings provided an excuse for extremists to file charges against local Christians. Then either mob pressure in court, or a judge’s own religious conservatism, resulted in a guilty verdict.

“I try to turn the judge’s focus from religion to the law,” Assyouti told World Watch Monitor, “or else he will bypass legitimate reasons to dismiss the case.”

Law 98(f) of the penal code, he said, was originally passed by parliament in 1981 following deadly riots between Muslims and Christians at al-Zawiya al-Hamra in Cairo. The text of the law designates a fine or jail term “against any person who exploits religion to propagate … extremist thoughts with intent to inflame civil strife, defame or show contempt for a revealed religion … or harm national unity”.

But since then, he said, “it has reversed application and become a tool in the hands of extremists against minorities, thinkers, and the creative impulse”.

Articles 64 and 65 of the constitution declare freedom of belief to be “absolute” and freedom of thought and opinion to be “guaranteed”, inclusive of the right to express and publish. In their legal representation, both Assyouti and EIPR’s Ibrahim aim to convince a judge to refer a blasphemy case to the Supreme Constitutional Court.

But because of the difficulty in persuading a judge to do so, some rights advocates argue for a change in the law itself, if not its outright cancellation. In advance of the first session of Egypt’s new parliament, the Secular Party called on President Sisi to support such legislation.

Blasphemy in Egypt
‘Blasphemy in Egypt’, by Hamdi al-Assyouti

Assyouti expressed hope his book might result in the issue being tackled in parliament, but gradually: first the law should be amended to lessen the penalties, and only thereafter should cancellation be discussed. “Otherwise it will shock the population,” he said. “Even those who are not overly religious will cling to their religion during a controversy.”

But Ibrahim was cautious, wishing to focus on freedom of expression in general, with blasphemy included under the umbrella. “If we request this article be cancelled, it will result in an increase of the punishment,” he said, fearing a reversal. “No parliamentarians have the courage to raise this issue in parliament.”

Perhaps Anwar Esmat al-Sadat, nephew of the late president, will prove him wrong. Last year, during an open session in the upscale Cairo suburb of Maadi, he spoke boldly to the gathered assembly of foreigners and upper-class Egyptians.

“We are not in agreement with the blasphemy law,” said the president of the Reform and Development Party, recently elected from his district of Menoufiya in the Nile Delta. “Everyone has the right of expression, but it has to be organised. We will work on these laws in the coming parliament.”

But will he? Mahmoud Farouk, head of one of Egypt’s leading liberal lobby groups, is doubtful the new parliament will take on the challenge. His Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies advocates not only to cancel Article 98(f), but also to remove the religion marker from national ID cards.

In 2014, Farouk presented his centre’s paper on freedom of belief to most of Egypt’s leading political parties. At the time he estimated that 30 per cent of party members believe in cancelling the blasphemy law. But in a follow-up conversation with World Watch Monitor, he said he thought only five per cent of the elected parliament would be brave enough to speak on this issue.

Mahmoud Farouk
Mahmoud Farouk, head of the Egyptian Centre for Public Policy Studies

The problem lies in his estimate of only 10 per cent of the population being in favour of such a change. To spread the message, he invited Paul Marshall, author of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, to a public lecture, and promoted the Arabic version of his book online. But similar translation efforts, such as Brian Whitaker’s Arabs without God, can reach only a limited segment of Egypt’s population.

For this reason, Farouk wants to lobby directly, but quietly. Of the major political parties, he sees the Free Egyptians Party (FEP) as one of the few ideologically inclined to support changes to the blasphemy law. Osama al-Ghazali Harb, one of their leading figures, who only recently resigned, penned an article in Egypt’s largest daily calling the law a “disgrace”. But though the FEP is the largest party in parliament, with 65 seats, they are dwarfed by the non-ideological independents that make up just over half of the 596-member body.

But even among these, Farouk sees possibility. Given the current depoliticised playing field, many might not actively stand in the way of greater religious freedom if it does not cost them.

“The majority of people are not politically aware,” he said, “and if the atmosphere is right, legal reforms can be enacted without causing offense.”

Given President Sisi’s many statements about the need to reform religious discourse, rights advocates wonder if the atmosphere has ever been better. Farouk said the issue must be kept before parliamentarians in committee, urging them to take a stand, but like William Wilberforce, who won his fight against slavery in the early 1800s by slowly cobbling together a coalition, Farouk knows the challenges ahead.

“We have to find people who will work with us while keeping good relationships with the parties and their leaders,” he said.

“But to change the climate of ideas in Egypt, we need a politician who will stand and lead the charge, and right now we don’t have him.”

Until one emerges, Farouk, Ibrahim, and Assyouti labour on through each challenge. Even Blasphemy in Egypt has to fight to win a hearing, having been apparently subjected to an informal ban. Nevertheless, its back cover makes clear the stakes: Freedom of religion and belief is the first freedom, from which every other freedom emanates – speech, assembly, press, and the supreme right to life.

Please click here for my later article that provides an alternate take on the blasphemy law.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Roadmap Concluding

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It has been a long road, but it is almost over. But then the real journey begins.

Following the ouster of Morsi, Egypt has ratified a constitution, elected a president, and now stands ready to seat a parliament.

The end has not been easy, nor celebrated. Terrorists have killed candidates and assassinated judges. Turnout has been low.

Many still oppose the process. Many are disinterested. Many are more concerned over food and security. But millions have voted, finding either meaning or benefit.

Turn them all, God, to build their society. If the road has been paved, may they walk upon it.

For parliament in particular, may the final selections be worthy. May the whole represent the people, and hold accountable the government.

And with democratic institutions complete, may Egypt function democratically. May violence cease; may economy grow. May the people be free to run their country well.

God, in the months and years to come, give Egypt precious stability. Give her good governance. Give her a will to address root issues. Give her a hope of compounding success.

This journey, God, does not end. May the map forward be clear, and easier to follow.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Parliament, Police

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News this week prompted both a sigh and a gasp. The Supreme Constitutional Court struck down provisions of the law to elect parliament, further delaying the process. And a cabinet reshuffle appointed a new minister of the interior, with speculations on the impact.

The parliament delay was almost expected, as there appears little political or popular will to complete the democratic roadmap. Some politicians accused the state of such, as the president holds the right of legislation until parliament sits.

The new police chief was quite unexpected. A number of non-Islamist revolutionary forces demanded his dismissal over ongoing violence and neglect of human rights. The new head has a background in combatting religious extremism and is tasked as new blood in the fight against terrorism.

God, set the state right. It has shuffled and wobbled for four years now, in desperate need of stability.

As parliament laws are redrafted, make the process inclusive and legal. When a parliament sits – and may it be soon – may it be representative and effective.

As the police reconfigure, make the process professional and reformist. When the chief sets his agenda, may he train, educate, hold accountable – and stamp out the violent menace that threatens Egypt.

God, in time, reverse the reaction to these institutions. May the workings of parliament produce the gasp of achievement. May the conduct of police produce a sigh of relief.

Bring peace to Egypt, God. Bring a functioning government. Through both law and order, may the country breathe normally.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: National List

Flag Cross QuranGod,

What value is there in praying over the squabbling of politicians?

President Sisi gathered representatives of the political parties and asked them to agree on one national list to present to the people for upcoming parliamentary elections. Many have met to discuss, but so far they have fully failed.

But does it matter to you? Is the request valid? Is their unity desired?

At present there are four main blocs. One consists of politicians and businessmen related to the old regime. Another comes from old school opposition figures. A third gathers newer parties born after the revolution.

The final bloc is the Salafi Nour, currently awaiting judicial rulings on its continuing legality as a ‘religious’ party. To date, they have been ignored in the efforts of the first three to negotiate a common non-Islamist list.

But the first three blocs are fluid, and in the background is the success of Tunisia’s non-Islamists to squeeze out the Brotherhood-like Nahda.

If only for the prayers of Egypt’s non-Islamists, should newer revolutionaries ally with old regime figures? Is this betrayal of their birthright, or recognition of greater threat?

Guide all negotiations to what is right and best, God. But for all the bickering, these parties fight over a twenty percent slice of parliament. The rest goes to independents who may receive support of different parties, but lie outside their sphere.

God, you inhabit messy spaces. You concern yourself with man’s foibles. However often the manner is outside your preference, it is here your will is made known.

Parliament may determine a lot.

At the least it is necessary for Egypt’s stability. Therefore, God, let it come. As for its members, give Egypt good men who will serve – both constituencies and principles.

Whatever share the parties have in this measurement, honor them accordingly. If they unite over a consensual national list, honor their sacrificed interests. If they divide over core issues, honor their commitment to platform.

And if anything else, may they bear the consequences of selfish ambition.

Squabble they may, and it may be necessary. But guide each one’s concern to be part of your list, their names found in the Book of Life.

Here there is no bloc, no negotiation, no election – only grace. May every politician act accordingly.



Who Will Run Egypt’s Parliament?

A soldier stands guard outside the parliament building during a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Egyptian Prime Minister Sharaf in Cairo

Ahram Online recently reported that Egypt’s minister of transitional justice appointed a military official as secretary-general of the parliament, now renamed the House of Representatives.

The news surprised me on different levels, most notably in that Egypt does not yet have a parliament. How can it then have a secretary-general? Whatever the position is, shouldn’t it be chosen by the parliament itself?

Eventually, it will be.

According to the executive regulations of the House of Representatives, issued in 1979, the speaker and his two deputies are entrusted with naming the House’s Secretary-general, but only under approval of two thirds of deputies.

“When a new parliament is formed in the first half of next year, the new speaker and his deputies will have the right to keep Al-Sadr in his position or name a new one,” said a legal expert with the House.

Much is open for debate about the composition of the coming parliament, but it may prove difficult to reach a consensus threshold, which may result in everyone agreeing to keep the acting secretary-general.

In a recent article, Nathan Brown argues that a similar pattern is emerging in which the executive branch issues laws which will eventually be subject to parliamentary review:

In the absence of a parliament, article 156 of the constitution gives the president the right to issue laws by decree provided that they concern emergency matters that do not permit delay and are submitted to the parliament for approval once that body has been elected and can meet.

Regardless of when parliamentary elections are held, the new body is unlikely to have either the coherence or the will to strike down legislation regarding purported emergency matters.

Brown sees this as an effort to preemptively establish authoritarianism, before the legislature can complicate policies:

For Sisi, there is also a temptation to use article 156 now, because it might soon become more difficult to enact authoritarian laws. Egypt’s 2014 constitution, like that of many other countries, often offers vague principles but defers the details to legislation. Aware of the way past rulers interpreted any vagueness in an authoritarian direction, the drafters of Egypt’s constitution inserted a provision (article 121) requiring that such laws giving precise meaning to general clauses—including those governing political parties, elections, the judiciary, and rights and freedoms—obtain a supermajority of two-thirds of the parliament.

The effect of this will be to keep any existing law frozen in place until the new parliament can organize such a vote. But it also gives the president a golden opportunity in the current interregnum to modify any law he likes before the parliament meets, without having to face this threshold. It remains unclear whether the parliament will have to muster such a supermajority to approve the laws when it does sit.

Regardless of the correctness of this opinion, it appears the government’s appointed secretary-general will have a good deal of bureaucratic influence on the workings of parliament. Returning to Ahram Online:

Regulations state that the secretary-general position is fully responsible for running the daily business of parliament, ranging from preparing the daily schedule of parliamentary debates, supervising the performance of 18 parliamentary committees, to managing the daily affairs of parliamentary staff and personnel.

The previous secretary-general held his position for many years, both under Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament. He was a former judge, and may have been little more than an expert functionary.

But if the new expert functionary comes from a military background, what degree of supervision/control/influence will the military have over parliamentary affairs? Will it matter?

I am not an expert in the inner-legislative workings of any nation, and certainly not yet of Egypt. Anyone with more experience is invited to explain if this position is essentially irrelevant, or the lynchpin of efficient political process.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Nearing Normal

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Several hours from now Egypt will have a new president; several weeks more and a parliament is promised. These are the last two steps of the roadmap to rebuild the state, presumably after which it will function again normally.

But God, make normal good. Indications can be read toward either better or worse.

President-elect Sisi has been long discussed, seen alternately as a savior or a devil. Only time will tell, judged not only by his own character and intentions, but by the ability of the people to hold him accountable, or overthrow him entirely.

The latter is the new normal; the former has never been. God, make the presidency work, and make it work for good.

But before Sisi’s inauguration, the outgoing interim president set the rules for the parliamentary contest. The number of seats is increased. The slice for political parties is small. Copts, women, youth, farmers, disabled, and expats all have a mandated share. Some say the law resets a Mubarak-era parliament. Others see better representation and empowerment of local actors.

Some is normal, some is new. God, make the parliament work, and make it work for good.

For parliament, more prayers will come and the law may yet be modified. But for Sisi on the verge of his presidency, make known your will with him as head of state.

Bless him and strengthen him. Increase his wisdom and increase his humility. Hold him accountable; hold him to the right. Bless Egypt through him; bless Egypt despite him.

You have made him important, may he make others so. You have given him power, may he give it to others. You have given him privilege; may he not only privilege his own.

The latter was the normal, God; the former is of the spirit needed. Transform Egypt so that all leaders will serve. May Sisi set the chief example.

But among none, God, is this normal. It takes strong, balanced, and limited institutions. Its takes your character, and your heart.

Rebuild the former, and among all Egyptians, enliven the latter. Egypt is technically close to finishing her roadmap; only you know if she is close to her resurrection. May both come, and soon.


Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

Ideological Distinction in the Coming Parliament

Kharrat (L) and Abadir (R), which is ideologically appropriate if currently politically muddled in their parties.
Kharrat (L) and Abadir (R), which is ideologically appropriate though politically muddled in their current party rivalry.

From my latest article in Egypt Source:

Many have argued that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s likely election as Egypt’s next president is an indication of a return to Hosni Mubarak-era policies. However apt the comparison may or may not be, the analysis overlooks one key advantage Sisi lacks. There is no longer a National Democratic Party (NDP), the party faithful to ousted president Mubarak, through which the presumed President Sisi can enact policy. He is on the record to neither form nor join a party through which to govern.

In its place exist a large number of smaller parties, which are in one sense a result of the revolution and its aim to diffuse presidential power. Sisi will need to work closely with these elected representatives; according to Article 146 of the constitution his choice of prime minister and the cabinet he is tasked to form must meet with legislative approval. Otherwise, the majority party will form the government.

The old NDP did not threaten Mubarak’s choices, for it was less an ideological vehicle than a means of access to executive favor. The coming parliament stands to be different, for most parties have already staked out distinct positions in electoral competition. But the phenomenal pull of Sisi is exposing fault-lines within these parties, blurring the lines of ideological distinction.

This is the joint explanation of the recent defection of thirty-one members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) to the Free Egyptians Party (FEP). Both parties were created after the 2011 revolution. They ran together as the Egyptian Bloc in the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, and were equal partners in the National Salvation Front to overthrow former President Mohamed Morsi.

The article continues to analyze why the defection occurred and what it means for political life and the coming parliament. It quotes extensively from a founding member in each party, and touches also on the Salafi challenge.

From the conclusion:

But until the political situation stabilizes, there is little likelihood of ideology coming to the forefront of campaigns. With the Brotherhood sidelined, the question of religion is largely replaced by the question of Sisi, and his discourse of security and stability. Should he win, the interplay between him parliament may determine whether or not the decay of ideological distinction continues.

Please click here to read the full article at Egypt Source.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Parliament Dissolution and Presidential Run-Off


Tomorrow Egyptians go to the polls to elect their first freely chosen chief executive. Yet they go under a cloud of uncertainty. A judicial decision rendered their chief democratic achievement obsolete: Parliament is dissolved.

The ruling found its composition unconstitutional, following a precedent which dissolved parliaments before. Yet its timing – days before the election – was odd, prompting accusations of a democratic rollback on the part of the military.

Yet the accusations were rather muted. That is, many didn’t mind seeing the parliament go. The biggest victim – the Islamist majority – failed to protest significantly either. On the contrary, they urged people to head to the polls, to continue the revolution with the ballot.

Once there, people face three choices: The candidate of the old regime, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the choice of spoiling the ballot. The third choice will have no impact on elections, but will provide a tally of every voter choosing none of the above.

God, give wisdom to Egypt’s people. First and foremost, should they even go to vote? Many say their participation is an endorsement of the flawed, and perhaps manipulated, process. Yet if your endowed responsibility to support one’s nation demands a vote, guide those who seek your will. Which president will serve Egypt best?

But God, the sad reality is that some might prefer the other candidate to win, only to see him fail before Egypt’s many challenges. Sadder still is that this could be your will as well.

Too much is obscure, God. Did the court rule against parliament on pure legal reasoning or on political considerations? If political, in favor of whom? Does dropping an assembly of Islamists allow a representative committee to draft the constitution? Or does it compromise the concept of representative government no matter which result is actualized?

Are Islamists the best path toward open and civil government, or the embodiment of its opposite?

Is the old regime properly reformed after the revolution to rule justly, or itching for an opportunity to settle scores?

God, how can Egyptians choose? It is not an election about higher vs. lower taxes or the proper scope of guaranteed health care. It is in essence a choice of direction for a nation – but without much certainty over the reality of either candidate. It is not a decision between shades of spin, but between truth and lies – but without much evidence in either direction.

And all the above presupposes there is not a deal between the old regime and the Islamists to divide power regardless.

God, lift Egypt. May these elections be a cause of celebration over the event, if not the outcome. But may the hope be greater: Give cause also to celebrate the outcome, if only months and years later.

Steady Egypt, God. The decisive moment has arrived and signs are not encouraging. From here events may either stabilize or begin to spiral out of control. There is the chance as well the status quo of confusion carries on. Keep Egypt from harm, God. Protect her people. May none choose violence to protest their loss.

But where loss is unjust, God, give ways to continue the struggle. Set right all wrongs. Elevate righteousness and curb manipulation. Create of Egypt a place where your values incarnate. Bless this land and its people.

Prepare them for whatever comes next.