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How the Egyptian Family House Quells Sectarian Tension

Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos
Sheikh Hassan and Fr. Kyrillos

This article was first published at Arab West Report.

Port Said is known as a revolutionary city, famed positively for its resistance in the wars with Israel, negatively for the February 2012 massacre of soccer fans during the confusing days of the Arab Spring.

But fortunately, Port Said has never been a sectarian city, said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas of St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, one of eight Coptic Orthodox churches serving an integrated Christian population, among fifteen overall. In the past Port Said was a cosmopolitan mélange of different cultures, and the spirit of coexistence continues to this day.

This heritage makes Port Said a natural home for the Egyptian Family House, witnessed in the warm Easter greetings offered to Bishop Tadros. The governor and top officials from the Azhar, police, and local university spoke of the importance of local relations and congratulated the Christians on the occasion of their feast.

And though Port Said has experienced far less sectarian tension than other parts of Egypt, no city is immune. Ordinary struggles, mixed with family pride and factional attitudes, can poison relations even between neighbors. What is necessary is a system of wise men attuned to sense the early warnings, and to engage in early response.

The Family House was established in 2011 as a joint initiative between the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda. Worried over the sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq, they invited the Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans also to work together to preserve national unity in Egypt.

The Egyptian revolution slowed implementation, but over time committees were formed for this religious body to communicate directly with cabinet ministers. And a mandate was received to create local branches at the grassroots level, so that national unity might come to mean more than just the ‘hugs and kisses’ of top level religious dignitaries, interpreted by many as masking a neighborly but latently sectarian people.

This year marks the third year of one of the Family House’s most dynamic projects. Seventy participants – thirty-five imams and thirty-five priests – live together for three days, four times a year, being trained in dialogue and practical partnership.

Each of the previous two years witnessed an additional seventy, some of whom went on to help establish Family House branches in Alexandria, Luxor, Mallawi, and among others, Port Said.

Fr. Ghattas was one of the participants in the year two training with his colleague Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim. Together they are two of the 27 members of the Port Said central committee, among roughly 100 active participants.

Dayim explained part of their work is to visit together in schools, youth centers, hospitals, and conferences. Some sort of public Family House work takes place on average once a week, he said.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Dayim. ‘In this we have the responsibility to help quell problems between families.’

A dispute among teenage boys in May 2014 provided a good example. A Christian youth flirted with a Muslim young woman, and her brothers intervened and began insulting him along with the Christian neighbors who had come to his defense. The situation worsened as a fight broke out and one of the Muslims suffered severe bruises and a broken arm. Such a scene is not uncommon in Egypt, when harassment touches family honor. But involving opposite religions, the situation threatened to escalate and both sides filed reports with the police. One of the Christians was arrested and held in jail. Fearful, the Christians fled, vacating their home for a week.

Fr. Ghattas heard of this issue through neighborhood gossip and consulted with Dayim on how to handle it. When he went to visit the families he found the Muslim home full of knives and bladed weapons. The Christians, meanwhile, called for help from a handful of relatives from Asyut in Upper Egypt who came with guns. The family itself had migrated to Port Said around five years earlier.

Fr. Ghattas pressed upon both families the need for a peaceful solution, speaking in the name of the Family House. But he made use of the Family House status as an approved government institution, warning of the influence he would have also with police. Combining religious and civic responsibilities, Fr. Ghattas led both families to agree this was just a problem between youths which spiraled out of control.

He also helped the Christians to accept that they were primarily at fault, having begun the flirting and causing the bodily harm. From their own initiative the family purchased two sheep for roughly $300 – a substantial sum in their poor neighborhood – and gave it to the offended family. The Muslims slaughtered the sheep, placed their hands in the blood, and pressed the mark against the walls. Afterwards some of the meat was distributed to even poorer neighbors. Through this act reconciliation was achieved, the Christian was released from prison, and the families today continue to live in peace.

Such is a practical demonstration of the value and promise of the Family House, but like the initiative as a whole the fruit is still ripening and not yet fully grown.

Reviewing the incident, Dayim emphasized that ideal Muslim reconciliation should not require compensation. Furthermore he recognized that though marking the wall is a common cultural practice, the blood is unclean and should not have been touched.

Fr. Ghattas reflected that it might appear the Christians ‘purchased’ the reconciliation, and though the Muslim elders rebuked their children for the insults, there was no apology for the lesser share of their family’s guilt. Fr. Ghattas believed the Muslims felt they were only slightly at fault, and were doing enough by forgiving the offense and returning to live in neighborly peace. But both sides withdrew their complaints with the police immediately after the reconciliation session, and through several visits afterwards Fr. Ghattas can testify that peace has indeed prevailed.

‘This is what the culture says to do to solve these types of problems,’ said Fr. Ghattas. ‘It is not altogether right, but it is the right solution in this case.’

Much about the Family House seems all right. But privately some imams and priests express less than conciliatory attitudes about the other. Though some cities have witnessed continuing cooperation, others have not yet been able to translate budding relationships into joint work on the streets.

But even where there is success, after three years there will be only 210 religious leaders who have been actively trained in the program. Surely the same spirit exists among hundreds more, but what is this among millions of Egyptians?

‘Sowing the values and morals of citizenship is like a drop in the desert,’ said Lubna Abdel Rahim, a trainer in the program and unit leader in the Ministry of Education, speaking of her ministry’s efforts.

‘But if we cooperate in all our institutions this drop can become a garden.’

Such is the promise of the Family House, still awaiting the nourishment to flower further. Port Said is a worthy place to begin and if the Easter visit is any indication, the effort is well under way.

Middle East Published Articles The Tablet

Where Tolerance is at Home

Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son
Priests and imams celebrate the second birthday of Fr Kyrillos’ son

A scant eighty feet from St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church in Port Said, two small bombs exploded last month. Despite the second detonation being delayed until after a crowd had gathered and police were summoned, no one was killed. Even so, it is one more mark of an insurgency aiming to destabilize Egypt.

‘It is a psychological message that terrorism is near you,’ said Fr. Kyrillos Ghattas, the local priest.

Fortunately, despite the hundreds killed in the waves of protest and violence in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt has not suffered the horrors witnessed in Syria and Iraq. But throughout the region struggles over political power are mixed with sectarian rhetoric that targets religious minorities.

‘Some people try to stoke the flames of hate,’ said Ghattas of his otherwise idyllic Mediterranean city, ‘to turn them against their Christian neighbour and get them to leave their homes.’

But unlike Syria and Iraq, Egypt has an antidote. It is embryonic in development, but carries promise to resist the regional trends. It is the Egyptian Family House, created by Al-Azhar University and Coptic Orthodox Church to resist the sectarian pull and preserve national unity between Muslims and Christians. Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches are also included.

Egypt’s Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib and then-Coptic Pope Shenouda were distraught after the 2010 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, and worried when extremists declared they were coming for Egypt next. In 2011 the Family House received official approval, though the 25 January revolution delayed much of the work of setting it up.

‘National unity’ has long been a rally cry of the Government, which paraded imams and priests in official ceremonies, exchanging hugs and kisses at the highest levels. But on the street ordinary Egyptians would grumble. Neighbourly relations were ample and interreligious friendships not uncommon, but a sectarian spirit was latent in many and easily exploited.

By contrast, the Family House was authorised to extend national unity in two directions. First, it was given authority to interact directly with cabinet ministers to address policies that result in division. Committees were created to tackle religious discourse, educational curriculum, media coverage, and youth affairs, among others.

But second, the Family House has authority to replicate itself in branches throughout the country at the grassroots level. One of the most dynamic early initiatives aims to supply the raw materials in this effort.

January 2012 witnessed the launching of a three-year programme to bring together imams and priests in common cause. Paired off, they live together for three days, four times a year, while as a group of 70 they receive training in dialogue and practical partnership. The programme takes them to historic religious sites, churches, and mosques, which for many represents the first time to step foot in a house of worship of a religion not their own.

The project was run through Al Azhar. Hailed as a bastion of moderate Islamic thought, it aimed to counter sectarian trends in Egypt and coordinated the supply of imams. The Orthodox offered the largest percentage of priests, and each other denomination chose their multiple participants.

Midway through the first year the Family House received sizeable psychological encouragement from the highest levels. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew President Morsi following widespread demonstrations, began publicly speaking of the need to address sectarianism.

‘I pledge to implement mechanisms that will reform religious discourse,’ said Sisi, ‘so that Egyptians don’t witness any more violence.

‘I personally have lived and grown up in a town where problems between Muslims and Christians were nonexistent, but radical extremism has caused division.’

This division was not easily overcome. One Christian participant accused the Muslims of lack of hospitality – a great insult in the Arab world – as he accused them of hoarding welcoming food and drinks intended for the whole group. Some said that a priest would never be welcome in a mosque, nor an imam in a church.

‘It is very hard work,’ said Saleem Wassef, the project director. ‘They can be very hardheaded, as everyone thinks they are right.’

Slowly attitudes began to change. Bishop Yohanna Gulta of the Coptic Catholic church gave an address on the Trinity, demonstrating its essential monotheism. This message was confirmed by a respected Muslim scholar, after which some of the more sceptical imams began to mellow, Wassef said.

Particularly pleased was Fr. Mikhail Thabit, a Coptic Catholic priest in 6 October City outside of Cairo. Before relocating north he served 23 years in Hegaza, 570 kilometres deep in the often sectarian-laden provinces of Upper Egypt.

‘It was a Judas kiss,’ he said of his previous official gatherings with sheikhs, which he described as playacting. But with participants in this exchange he felt a real warmth develop as they joked together.

‘Just because we are different it is not the end of the world,’ he said. ‘Instead, the differences enrich us if we get to know each other.’

Between official meetings, many participants did. For some this involved only the phone calls offered for religious holidays, though the recognition of Christmas and Easter even as social occasions was often a great challenge. But Sheikh Ali Abdel Rahman of Fayoum welcomed Orthodox priest Fr. Mityas to his home to visit his sick wife. For many conservative Muslims female members of the household are strictly off limits to anyone but relatives.

‘God bless all of your work for the sake of our country and our children,’ lectured the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Ishak, who welcomed the imams and priests to the cathedral for one of the sessions.

‘But it is very important that this reaches the people so that they can see it, be influenced by it, and be changed.’

One of the most revolutionary acts of the group was simply to walk the streets together. Some priests complained when they walk alone some will curse and even spit upon them. But as they strolled the streets of Cairo in a group, onlookers gaped in astonishment, and seeming admiration. At the Coptic Museum a school group ran up to greet the imams and priests together, and demanded a picture.

‘Egyptians love men of religion,’ said Fr. Arsanious Murid, a Coptic Catholic priest in Fayoum, ‘and if they see a priest and an imam together it influences them to work together and overcome fanaticism.

‘These displays of love are like the leaven that spreads through the whole community.’ He hopes a Family House branch will soon be established in his city.

Bishop Mouneer Hanna of the Anglican Church in Egypt urged at the close of the second year of Family House sessions that this would not be the last meeting between participants. Sheikh Muhi al-Din Afifi, head of the Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, asked the same.

And if year one is any indication, it is a developing project. Regional branches of the Family House were created in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Luxor, among others, though many cities have yet to show interest.

One city that did, however, is Port Said. There, Fr. Ghattas was able to directly intervene and prevent a Coptic family from being forced from their home.

A neighborhood scuffle between teenagers led to the hurling of insults and broken arms. The Muslim family’s home was full of knives, while the Christians – after fleeing for a week – called on relatives who brought guns.

But the potentially explosive situation was diffused when Ghattas pressed upon both families in the name of the Family House. The Christian family was primarily at fault, he judged, and led both in the acceptance of a reconciliation sacrifice. Two sheep were slaughtered and peace prevailed.

‘Jesus and Mohamed both call [for us] to be united, to build society and keep it from harm,’ said Sheikh Hassan Abdel Dayim, Ghattas’ close collaborator in Port Said.

In a region torn by strife and religious intolerance, the Family House has accepted this challenge, to keep this harm from Egypt.


This article was originally published in the 13 December, 2014 print edition of The Tablet, but is currently behind an online paywall. It is reproduced here with permission.


The Police as Part of the January 25 Revolution

From Ahram Online, reporting President Morsi’s visit to the central security force headquarters, in what must surely be a typo:

“You are the protectors of the country’s inside and outside safety [said Morsi]. The police were part of the successful crossing of the Suez Canal in the 1973 war and also part of the January 25 Revolution,” he added.

The initial demands of Egypt’s 25 January uprising, intentionally organised on the same day as the annual police day, included an end to police brutality and the State Security apparatus run by the Mubarak regime.

Much of the speech was commendable, encouraging them during difficult times:

“Any obstacles you’re facing, we will get through them – together,” he stressed.

He continued: “You are the watchful eye of the homeland. The country’s best interest needs your efforts and sacrifices.”

“You all know that our Egypt is going through a critical period, but with the aid of God and cooperation of the police and military, we will be able to pass through this phase.”

But he included also a reference to foreign interference – an old tactic of Mubarak, unless, of course, it is actually true:

“Beware, our outside enemy is seeking to create division among us, and we must not allow it,” President Morsi said in his opening speech.

One recent tweet criticized Morsi, saying he promised to visit Port Said, then only addressed them on TV, and the next day honored the institution which shot them.

Morsi’s job with the police is incredibly complex, but the January 25 comment is over the top. The revolution’s initial central focus was the end of the police state. Perhaps Morsi will get to this eventually, but here, he calls them heroes.

I can only imagine the rest of the speech gave more context, but the revision of history is not a firm foundation for social and institutional change. Yes, summon forth their better natures, but clean the skeletons in the closet, too.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Police, Protest

Flag Cross Quran


The dynamic is changing in Egypt, but it is happening outside of Cairo. Violence and civil disobedience characterize Delta and Suez Canal cities, while police themselves go on strike throughout the nation. In fact in Port Said they were ordered of the street.

There is little to commend here, God. Surely the grievances are many, and perhaps many are just. But as protestors attack police, the police demand better weapons. Some of the latter protest against ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the police force; others to be allowed to grow their beards.

In much of Egypt life carries on, but it is as if the state is breaking. Why is the presidential palace covered in graffiti? Why are major roads shut down for hours by rowdy youth? Why is the best solution for popular anger against police abuse to stop policing a city entirely?

These are questions for the administration, God, and give them wisdom to handle their many challenges. But the issues are deeper. Egypt was a police state, and the revolution broke it. Perhaps the police are ill equipped to do their job otherwise. Perhaps freedom and human rights have entered the equation, but without experience in balancing with law and order.

If so, God, there are lessons to be learned. May they be learned quickly. Give the Ministry of the Interior a wise and strong figure to reform from within, and facilitate accountability from the outside.

But if not, God, the conspiracies speak. Are the police ignoring the president and working to undermine him? Or have they yielded their old tools to a new regime more than willing to repress? Is the counterrevolution drawing Egypt into more and more chaos to kill revolutionary ideals and garnish popular support for the return of an iron hand? Or is the Islamist idea to secure their project on the ashes of the republican system?

May these be far from the truth, God, however much they are whispered. But fix the country, though only with righteousness. Remove those who retard her, though only with justice.

Give Egypt leaders who can do this; equip the people to ensure it.

God, sponsor their work, and bring it to completion. Keep Egypt safe, secure, and free.



Photos from the Aftermath of Tahrir Clashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brotherhood Revisionism on Maspero and Transitional Governance?

Mahmoud Ghozlan, official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood

In recent weeks the Muslim Brotherhood has been engaged in public squabbles with the military council over formation of the government. According to most interpretations of the constitutional declaration which guides the transition in Egypt, the presidency – here the military council – has the right to appoint members of the administrative cabinet.

At first the Muslim Brotherhood requested to form a new government, but the military council refused. More recently they are stating they will field a vote of no confidence in the parliament against the Ganzouri government. Though it does not appear this will lead to its fall constitutionally, it may put pressure on the military council to sack it. The Brotherhood may then be poised to inherit this mantle given the legitimacy of its electoral gains.

A major question to be put to the Brotherhood is this: Why now? Ever since the Ganzouri government was appointed in November revolutionary forces have rejected it. The Brotherhood line has been one of patient support, fueling suspicion of a ‘deal’ between them and the military council. Yet their logic was sound; the government is only transitional.

Would their logic be even more true now, with three months remaining until a new president takes office, and with it the right of appointing a cabinet. That is, if such a right remains after drafting a new constitution.

Mahmoud Ghozlan, official spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, put it this way in a statement to Ahram Online:

We initially accepted this government as a replacement for the [previous] cabinet of Essam Sharaf, believing that Ganzouri had considerable experience, especially given that the most pressing issues were security and the economy. Today, however, we realize that the incumbent government is no different from its predecessor. No one was arrested for the massacres at Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and Qasr Al-Aini under the Sharaf government, which insisted on blaming all the problems on a ‘third party’.

His mention of Maspero, however, brought back to mind previous statements of the Brotherhood at the time of the massacre, when 28 people were killed during a mostly Coptic demonstration.

At the time, Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie told al-Masry al-Youm he suspected former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party were behind the massacre. Furthermore, he rejected the widespread calls for the resignation of the government, saying, ‘Sharaf’s cabinet is a transitional one.’

In addition, ‘We must be a little patient and when there is an elected parliament that monitors the ministers and cabinet elected by the people, it will certainly set in place a long-term plan to solve all problems.’

Why is there no longer any patience? There is an elected parliament, and it is monitoring the ministers and cabinet. Speculation is possible: Was the Brotherhood confident it would capture the legislature but is less sure about the executive branch?

A more revealing memory comes from the official website of the Muslim Brotherhood, IkhwanWeb. Their statement following Maspero also urged patience for the current Sharaf government, but then ended in this manner:

Finally, we remind those who have already forgotten what General Amos Yadlin, former Director of Israeli Military Intelligence, said and published in newspapers on 2/November/2010, before the revolution:

“Egypt represents the biggest playing field for Israeli military intelligence activity. This activity has developed according to plan since 1979. We have penetrated Egypt in many areas, including the political, security, economic, and military spheres. We have succeeded in promoting sectarian and social tension there so as to create a permanent atmosphere of turmoil, in order to deepen the discord between Egyptian society and the government and make it difficult for any regime following that of Hosni Mubarak to alleviate this discord”.

Is it time to wake up?

So while Ghozlan criticizes the Sharaf and Ganzouri governments for blaming a ‘third party’, this was exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood did at the time. Who is a better third party than Israel?

Essentially, the Muslim Brotherhood is correct. No one has yet been held accountable for the massacre at Maspero, though three security personnel are currently submitted to prosecution. Certainly the Ganzouri government, as Sharaf before him, are to be held accountable for this and other as yet prosecuted offenses.

Mahmoud Ghozlan explained the perspective of the Brotherhood in a telephone interview.

The third party in these cases is still unknown, and we are unable to say who it is. It could be remnants of the NDP, corrupt businessmen who have lost their access to power, former regime members now in Tora Prison, or foreign powers.

But the role of the government is to find the culprit and keep security, and they have not done so.

In the days of Sharaf we gave him lots of opportunity, but he failed. This is the same of Ganzouri, who had much more experience for the job. But he has made the same mistakes as Sharaf, especially in terms of the Port Said massacre and the economic situation. Additionally his statement before parliament failed to impress many members, not just from the Brotherhood.

As for the difference between patience with Sharaf and eagerness now to form a government, Ghozlan clarified,

With Sharaf there was no evidence as to the political balance of power. But now after elections we see it distributed in parliament. Therefore, it is logical that these powers be left to represent the people.

Concerning the right of parliament to form a government according to the constitutional declaration, which most experts deny, Ghozlan explained,

The constitutional declaration was only temporary. In fact, the military council stated in the beginning they would only govern for six months and then return to their barracks.

It is known that any parliament in the world is responsible for oversight over the executive branch. Furthermore, we are like any other parliament with the right of legislation. Therefore, it is necessary we exercise these rights and hold them accountable.

Ghozlan was unaware if a date for a vote of no confidence has yet been set by the parliament. This is a matter in the hands of the speaker, Saad al-Katatni.

With these additional comments Ghozlan makes clearer the case of Brotherhood legitimacy. Yet however legitimate the complaint, are they operating under false pretenses? Observers must answer this for themselves, for who can know the heart of those involved. The only evidence available is their words and deeds, past and present.

But still, why now?


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Walls All Around

The disturbances in and around Tahrir Square in recent weeks have resulted in the erection of several walls cutting across downtown streets. These were built at the time to separate demonstrators from security forces as they battled in the streets. Additionally, some were built to provide additional protection from sensitive government facilities, especially the Ministry of the Interior, which runs the police. Some of these walls – namely near the Parliament building – are barbed wire allowing for foot traffic to flow while preventing mass demonstrations. The majority, however, are massive cement blocks which make Cairo begin to resemble an apocalyptic scene.

Julie’s parents have been visiting us, and the other day I accompanied them downtown to the Egyptian Museum, in the heart of Tahrir Square. I took advantage of the time to check out the scene. Many areas are too sensitive to photograph, but in and around the places of confrontation there were dozens of cameras – mainly for demonstrators seeking documentation – so I was more comfortable.

Fortunately I made my tour during a comparative lull in the conflict, but not without a reminder of how terrible tear gas is.

The most recent clashes occurred when angry protestors gathered near the Ministry of the Interior following the deaths of near eighty soccer fans in Port Said. While this may have been the result of hooliganism gone amuck, many people feel the tensions were deliberately stoked and facilitated by the security forces. The hardcore soccer fans then took to the streets, joined by other hardcore protestors who believe the police – the target of widespread anger in the January revolution – still reflects and works on behalf of the former regime.

In these street battles there is often little fighting. Usually a handful of protestors advances to the front lines, and will often throw rocks or Molotov cocktails. The police respond with tear gas, and there is a no man’s land in between the two sides. In addition, the police stand accused of using shotguns which fire pellets that scatter, resulting in small, but multiple wounds on a body. At times these have been fatal, or caused protestors to lose their eyes.

These clashes appear to have been different, though it is hard to verify. With all the walls downtown the Ministry of the Interior is effectively sealed off. Police could simply remain behind the walls, but some reports claim they have driven around the streets in their vehicles chasing after protestors. Whether or not this is true, other reports suggest the police have been the ones under pressure. One of the stone barriers has been destroyed as demonstrators filled the streets en masse. It also appears some demonstrators have fired similar shotgun pellets at police, resulting in many injuries. Whoever the aggressor is, to date around fifteen people have died in clashes over the past few days.

This picture is of a historic French research center housing many old documents. It was the scene of earlier clashes, in which an errant (or intentional) Molotov cocktail landed inside and destroyed the building with much of its content. Following the street to the right will lead to the largest Protestant Church in the Middle East, which has doubled in function as a field hospital during clashes over the past few months.

The next picture shows the street – Mohamed Mahmoud – which was also a scene of earlier clashes, described here and here. Not much was happening but many were gathered, and I wandered down to get a feel for the atmosphere. About halfway in the crowd turned and ran in my direction, but many at my level were calm and stationary. I turned to walk out with them, and soon knew why. The police had launched another round of tear gas.

I neither heard nor saw anything, but on the way out it became more and more difficult to breathe. My eyes watered and I was grateful to soon be back out in the open air of Tahrir Square. I stayed put for a little while just watching from a distance, but again, little was happening. The tear gas was meant simply to drive people back, keeping the sanctity of no man’s land.

I walked around town a bit to see where other clashes had taken place, as well as the barriers erected here and there. Near the Parliament I passed by about two hundred women who were leading a march to deliver demands to their representatives. They shouted against the military regime, and were viewed by many curious onlookers. Earlier in the day there was news of a larger ‘mother’s march’ which went to the site of the clashes to demand their sons stop being killed. This group, though, was much younger in appearance.

I kept moving and after taking several city blocks to maneuver around the barricades wound up on the other side of the clashes. The police line by this point was very calm, with many pedestrians milling about. This was the site of a great battle the night before, and many shops were damaged and the pavement scarred. All felt well, but it did not seem like the place for pictures.

Continuing the circuit, I wound up parallel to Mohamed Mahmoud looking in at the action from side streets. At the entrance were large crowds, appearing to regulate traffic in and out. It was not quite a human wall, but there were several arguments between people about joining the demonstrations or accusing them of ‘burning Egypt’. After several minutes of just watching, I meant to move through, but one of the group whistled and told me to come back. It was an easy decision to comply.

The next side street down had a similar scene. Again I waited within the crowd to get a sense of the situation. After a while I moved again to go to the main street and this time just sauntered by. It was eerie, as the street was deserted save for the handful of people moving either direction. Once I got back to Mohamed Mahmoud, though, I was back among the demonstrators and the several onlookers, as well as the multiple cameras, and all was well.

There was no conflict, except a philosophical one among those present. Several people rallied in the middle of the street and shouted, ‘To the Square, to the Square, he who goes is not a coward.’ Others adjusted their chant against the military council, shouting against this effort, ‘Down, down with the (Muslim) Brothers.’

There was nothing distinguishing about the effort to lead people away from the areas of conflict, but in the news were the efforts of different parliamentarians, among them the Muslim Brothers, who tried to mediate to end the clashes. The Muslim Brotherhood has positioned itself as the party of stability in the past several months. While this has played well among the electorate at large, it has infuriated the protestors who feel the Brotherhood is betraying the revolution now that they have won their legislative majority. Whether or not this effort was Brotherhood, it brought the anger of several. Most did not leave, even as the group clasped arms across the street and tried to sweep everyone away as they left.

Shortly after this I noticed a large contingent of Azhar sheikhs milling among the people as well. The Azhar has scholars of different persuasions, but is generally understood to be non-Brotherhood though socially conservative. Whoever these sheikhs represented, they were seeking a similar result, urging people to go back to the square.

Azhar Sheikh Holding a Megaphone

At one point a sheikh mounted a wall with a megaphone, but was drowned out by protestors shouting against him. His non-sheikh colleague took the megaphone and tried to gain an audience, beginning with ‘Down, down with military government.’ At this everyone cheered, and at least listened somewhat as they tried to argue the merits of protesting in Tahrir rather than in the streets leading to the Ministry of the Interior. They convinced no one, and after a bit the soccer fan among the protestors grouped together and raised their own cheers, dancing around and waiving their hands. All the while the police looked on from their line right even with the wall on which the Azhar sheikh stood.

By now several hours had passed and I started back to the museum to receive my in-laws. The following pictures show scenes from the center of conflict back out toward Tahrir Square.

A Wall Demolished by Protestors, between Tahrir and the Site of Clashes
The Size of a Single Boulder in the Wall
A Wall on a Side Street from Mohamed Mahmoud; Translation: Down with the Field Marshal, Down with Military Rule

At the end, I offered in-laws a chance to see the action and smell the lingering tear gas. All was calm, and they agreed, coming to the entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud before we found the nearest metro to return home. The following picture shows them in front of a sign accusing the military council figures of being oppressors, condemning them through a quote from the Qur’an.

Translation: And those who have wronged are going to know to what kind of return they will be returned.

There is a much different feel about the protests compared to that experienced last January. While the initial revolution was met with violence, there was a sense of hope and purpose, buttressed by the sheer number of people and the diversity of their backgrounds.

This time there is much revolutionary fatigue, and the revolutionaries are largely on their own. The anniversary of the 25th brought the masses, renewing their vitality, and every bloody incident serves to rally more troops. But for the most part those there now are troublemakers, curious onlookers, hardcore activists, street children, or some combination of the sort. Without commenting on the rightness or wrongness of their continuing struggle against military rule, the hope of earlier days has been replaced by the reality of death and struggle.

The following picture is a beautiful graffiti rendering of a few recent ‘martyrs’ who have perished on this street. Yet above them is written a curious phrase, seen elsewhere on city walls. It translates, ‘Peaceful is completely dead.’  In another place it continued, ‘Now we will take our rights by our own hands.’

In January every time the protestors were met with violence on the part of the police they called out ‘Peaceful, peaceful’. Now, though many still cling to this commitment, others have been induced to let it go. They feel that since Mubarak stepped down they have been increasingly killed during their protests, and must now change tactics. By no means is the situation as in Syria, where armed groups have formed among military defections, but this is a strong indication of the loss of hopeful idealism.

The latest change in tactics serves to take advantage of the final anniversary from the earlier revolution. Last year on February 11 Mubarak stepped down from power as the people celebrated. This year, a broad revolutionary alliance is calling for nationwide civil disobedience and a general labor strike, in addition to a boycott of all consumer products manufactured by the military.

It is unclear how much support this initiative has. The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned it, while several university student groups have indicated their participation. It is not a turn toward violence, but rather an effort to find another avenue toward hope (or chaos) – forcing the military to surrender power to civilians. The demand is that power be given to the Parliament with presidential elections to follow at the earliest moment possible.

The military council is currently weighing its options, and a prominent general has promised ‘good news’ will shortly be issued. What this entails is anyone’s guess.

So is the next phase in the Egyptian revolution.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Soccer


It seems every month more people die. This month is the most inexplicable. Around eighty people were killed at a soccer match in Port Said, when partisans of one team set upon the other. Whether or not this was senseless violence complicates matters all the more. Some say there were signs of a planned attack, with gates strategically locked and opened.

But who can know, God? Almost immediately after the tragedy calls were renewed for the fall of the government, the withdrawal of the military council to their barracks, and the advance of presidential elections. Did some plan the tragedy for some political end? How horrible and evil. Or are some using the tragedy for some political end? How horrible still. The great stakes in the game make determination of the facts almost impossible. Or, are things so clear as to be obvious? God give mercy.

As a response the bereaved soccer fans – always belligerent but never fatal – have gathered at the Ministry of the Interior, their sworn enemy which oversees the police. Both they and security forces have fallen injured, and perhaps they seek to storm the building itself.

Remove all thoughts of revenge from their hearts, God. Give them to mourn, give them to protest, but keep them from returning evil for their hurt. Their nature helped advance the revolution; keep their nature from spoiling it. Perhaps it must also be asked to redeem their nature, God. In many ways their solidarity and fervor are beautiful, but sin crouches at the door, seeking to master. Protect them from themselves, that they might better protect each other, and Egypt.

But what is behind it, God? Who is behind it? Expose them. If it was simply soccer violence then hold all accountable. If there is more, may the culprits be found. Why are some not content with a good life rightly lived? Why must power be so seductive? Month after month people are dying; are these the price of crafting a just order? Or are the players involved in this struggle, if only one of them, rotten to the core?

Give wisdom to the military which governs Egypt, God. Bring justice to the nation and reconciliation among all who have been abused. Rebuke those who do evil, and empower those who do right in honor of your principles. Give repentance and forgiveness; bring transformation beyond punishment. Unite Egypt for the prosperity and freedom of her people.

Help her to play soccer once more in peace.