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Copts Split over Boycott of Clinton over Support for ‘Islamo-Fascism’ in Middle East

This article was originally published at Lapido Media on August 1, 2012.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared religious freedom in Egypt to be ‘quite tenuous’ following the releaseof the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report. Despite chronicling several instances of sectarian violence against Coptic Christians, their community finds itself increasingly divided over its longstanding support for America.

At issue is Clinton’s alleged support for the nation’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsy.

The Orthodox Church and Coptic politicians boycotted a recent meeting with Clinton as she visited the fledgling democracy. Some Copts, meanwhile, demonstrated at the US Embassy against her visit.

Bishoy Tamry

‘We believe there is an alliance between the Obama administration and the Muslim Brotherhood, which supports fascism in the Middle East,’ said Bishoy Tamry, a leader in the primarily Coptic Maspero Youth Union, formed following post-revolution attacks on Cairo churches.

‘The US thinks the Brotherhood will protect their interests in the region but it will be over our bodies as minorities.’

President Morsy won a highly contested election rife with rumors of fraud and behind the scenes negotiation between the Brotherhood, Egypt’s military council, and the United States.

‘We knew the next president must have US support,’ said Tamry, ‘because the military council rules Egypt and the US pays the military council.’

Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually in US military aid, compared with $250 million in economic assistance.

Yet, according to Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, Copts have been disproportionately affected by these rumours.

‘Copts fell victim to the conspiracy theory that said Morsy did not win and Shafik [his opponent] was in the lead. I found no compelling evidence of this conspiracy.’

Nevertheless, Copts find reason to believe the US is taking sides in an Egyptian political question. Muslim Brotherhood deputy leader Khairat al-Shater stated his group’s priority is a ‘strategic partnership’ with the United States.

Clinton, meanwhile, urged President Morsy to assert the ‘full authority’ of his office. Egypt is currently undergoing a struggle between the Brotherhood and the military council over the political transition to democracy.

Bishop Thomas

Bishop Thomas of the Coptic Orthodox Church told Lapido Media, ‘We did not meet with Clinton because of the unclear relationship with the Brotherhood and the support they have given it.

‘Things are not settled in Egypt,’ he said. ‘Why was she in such a hurry to come?

‘The current administration does not understand the agenda of the Brotherhood which has been clear for decades – to revive the caliphate and apply shariah law.’

Emad Gad is one of two Copts elected to the now dissolved parliament. He received an invitation to meet with Clinton, but refused.

‘In exchange for Morsy’s being named president,’ he said, ‘the Brotherhood is expected to protect Israel’s security by pressuring Hamas – the Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine – not to launch military attacks against Israel, and even accept a peace agreement with Tel Aviv.’

Sameh Makram Ebeid

Sameh Makram Ebeid, the second Coptic parliamentarian, gives a different emphasis. Though not invited to the meeting with Clinton, he agreed with the refusal of Gad and other Coptic politicians.

He told Lapido: ‘There are two objections to her visit. The liberal forces say – true or false I don’t know – the Americans were in cahoots with the Brotherhood and handed them the country.

‘The second is that you should not meet with the Copts as Copts, but as part of the liberal movement, as the third way between military and Islamist.

‘She wanted to meet with individual liberal politicians, but they were all Christians,’ he said. ‘If you start segregating the country you’re making a big mistake.’

Segregating and dividing the country was also a concern of Revd. Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Council of Churches. In an interview with Lapido, he said the Orthodox clergy withdrew from the meeting only one hour before it started, but that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox laity attended.

Baiady told Clinton of Coptic fears of a repetition of Iraq, where Christians fled the country following American interference. He also spoke of Egyptian concerns the US would divide Egypt, especially the Sinai, using it as a solution for the problem of Hamas.

‘She is a good listener and took many notes,’ said Mr Baiady.

‘Clinton said we have to back the winners and those who lead the country. They have the best organization and power on the ground, based on the parliamentary elections.

‘We have to support the people, she said, and not oppose them.’

Raed Sharqawi, a reporter present at the Coptic demonstration, agrees with Clinton.

‘America has relations with every nation in the world,’ he said. ‘The US is also the shield for the Copts, and always will be. This protest is foolish.’

As Egypt’s transition muddles forward, there is ample room for confusion. The military and the Brotherhood emerged as the two strongest forces, making Copts wonder about their future. Within this mix, Clinton’s visit in support of Morsy has led to this near unprecedented rupture in Coptic-American relations.

‘The US will make us into another Pakistan,’ said Tamry as the protest continued. ‘We have come to say don’t interfere in our business.’

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Sameh Makram Ebeid: On the Wafd, Hillary Clinton, and Current Conspiracies

Sameh Makram Ebeid

Sameh Makram Ebeid handed me his business card with the words, ‘I hope I get to use this again.’ Underneath his name it spelled out ‘Member of Parliament’. He took it back momentarily and penciled in an additional word in Arabic: ‘Dissolved’.

‘I don’t have the right to disagree with a court ruling. We were never MPs; this is what the court said. But I will run again for parliament and make a fight for my district.’

Ebeid is one of two elected Coptic parliamentarians, and won his seat from the Red Sea district under the banner of the Egyptian Bloc. The choice of the Red Sea was personal – he owns a home there and likes the region – but also political. Ebeid estimates 75% of governorate residents hail from Qena in Upper Egypt, which is his family home.

The choice of the Egyptian Bloc as a liberal coalition was natural, as Egyptian politics post-revolution evolved into a secular-Islamist confrontation.

The Bloc is a coalition consisting of the Free Egyptian Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the Tagammu’ Party. Under Egyptian law, however, Ebeid does not have to belong to any of these parties. Though his official parliament membership papers list him as a member of the Bloc he ran with them as an independent candidate.

Perhaps this is fitting. Ebeid hails from the historic Egyptian family associated with the Wafd Party in opposition to British colonialism. Saad Zaghloul, a Muslim, and Makram Ebeid, a Copt and Ebeid’s ancestor, contributed to the founding of modern Egyptian politics along nationalist lines without any religious distinction. The party’s logo depicts both the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent.

‘The Wafd is the secular party of Egypt.’

Ebeid had previously served as the Wafd Party’s assistant secretary general and member of the political bureau, but resigned during the chairmanship of Sayyid el-Badawi, who won party elections in 2010.

‘He became very autocratic and wanted to run the party the way he wanted. He was vengeful against everyone who was there before him. He never represented the true Wafd Party which I belonged to.’

Ebeid’s major source of contention was Badawi’s cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. He brought on prominent Islamist Suad Salah, and sought to place her on the religion and human rights committee. Compromises such as these turned the Wafd, he said, into a typical ‘wishy-washy’ party.

After the revolution Badawi entered the Wafd into a coalition with the Brotherhood, though they withdrew at the last minute.

Badawi’s election was ‘clean’, states Ebeid, but like the parliamentary and presidential elections, this does not mean they were not manipulated.

‘The elections were not rigged but the road to the ballot was unfair; if you promise people heaven or buy their votes, this is not fair.’

Ebeid is critical of the electoral machinery of the Muslim Brotherhood which distributed food packages in poor areas before elections. Similarly, many Salafi sheikhs stated voting for Islamists was part of obeying God’s will.

Yet Ebeid testifies that in his election monitoring he did not discover fraud; certainly not in comparison to past elections. For this he puts no stock in the conspiracies which say Ahmed Shafiq was the actual winner of presidential elections over Mohamed Morsy.

‘As long as Shafiq did not contest the election, I have to accept it as correct.

‘If he knew the elections were rigged and he did not voice this, it is treason and he should be court-martialed.

‘There were 13,000 polling stations; did he not have this many volunteers to count the vote as the Brotherhood did?’

Even so, Ebeid took issue with the recent visit of Hillary Clinton to Egypt. His critique was not about clandestine US support for the Brotherhood, as many liberals and Copts advanced. On the contrary, in coming to Egypt the secretary of state was just doing her job.

‘I don’t see any reason why Clinton should not visit the president of Egypt; these are the true forces of Egypt. Did they push SCAF to accept Morsy? I don’t know and nobody knows. But it is actually her job and duty to come.

‘I think we should meet with the Americans and tell them what we think right to their face.’

As a politician Ebeid has the right to be frank. His criticism of Clinton, conversely, is in her conduct as a diplomat.

‘There has been a lack of tact on the part of Clinton and her team.’

The failure in tact concerned the nature of her visits to political forces. It was right for her to meet Morsy and the Brotherhood, Ebeid believed. It was right for her to meet with Salafis. It was right for her to meet with the military. But it was not right for her to meet with ‘Copts’.

‘You should not meet with the Copts as Copts, but as part of the liberal movement, as the third way between military and Islamist, and bring in non-Christians.

‘If you start segregating the country you’re making a big mistake.

‘She wanted to meet with individual politicians, but they were all Christians.’

For this reason, Ebeid believes it was correct for liberal and Coptic forces to boycott the meeting with Clinton. He himself did not receive an invitation, but he supported the decision of those who did.

As for the current political situation in Egypt, especially on President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, Ebeid is critical as well.

‘There is no such thing as the Freedom and Justice Party. They call themselves the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the real force.

‘So far I have not seen Morsy act as the president of Egypt. We have to see if he will elevate himself above parties to be the president of all Egypt. I hope he will do this.

‘The Brothers have a special agenda and we have a different agenda. If he is representing the Brotherhood then he is not my president, he’s the president of the Muslim Brotherhood. He should be the president of everyone.’

Though Morsy is not directly involved in the crucial issue of the constitution, Ebeid witnesses the Brotherhood special agenda here especially.

‘The constituent assembly [which will write the constitution] was a trick. It was agreed to be a 50-50 Islamist-secular split, but they did not go into the details about parties or people.

‘The Wasat Party and the Reform and Development Party of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya are Islamist parties, are they not? They must be counted as part of the Islamists. But what the Brotherhood is saying is that we never said it, we said 50% for MB and Salafis. As the Americans say, the devil is in the details.’

Ebeid’s criticism is not just of the Brotherhood, but of the process itself.

‘The whole process was flawed. We should have gone through the list person by person; defining by position means nothing. We could stipulate the selection of a judge of a court, but if he is an Islamist this makes the difference.’

As media reports the progress the constituent assembly makes on the constitution, Ebeid prefers not to comment on details until he sees an official text. Yet he is not reticent to make his views known on certain issues.

‘The first three articles are most important as they define the identity of Egypt. What are we, a secular country or an Islamic country?

‘What does the word shura [‘consultative’, proposed by Islamists as part of the definition of the state] mean? It has been debated for the last fourteen centuries. Putting the word there is not just semantics, it means something.

‘As for the right of Christians and Jews to refer to their own sharia: What about non-believers, what if we have an Egyptian Buddhist?

‘We should have a presidential system for the first two terms, and then move into a semi-presidential like the French. We’re not ready for a semi-presidential system yet.’

Within the debate of these issues, Ebeid was careful never to assert, or even speculate, secret deal-making between political powers. The accusation that someone was an agent of America, for example, has been a political tactic for the last thirty or forty years, he stated. He wanted nothing to do with this pattern.

Yet there was one area where he opened the door just a little. It is the crucial error which resulted in the muddled transition Egypt is experiencing.

‘If there was a deal, the deal that harmed Egypt was made in March of last year in the national referendum. This reversed everything, putting parliament first, then president, then constitution.

‘Deal, negotiation, agreement, whatever; this is what destroyed the whole eighteen month process.

‘The whole thing is a series of errors, whether intentional errors or a lack of knowledge I’m not sure.’

 

 

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