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Egyptian Exodus: 100 Christian Families Flee ISIS in Sinai

Fayed El-Geziry/NurPhoto / Sipa USA via AP A Christian who fled ISIS brings belongings into the Evangelical Church in Ismailia.

This article was first published at Christianity Today on February 27, 2017.

As Coptic Christians flee Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in unprecedented numbers, a Protestant church is there to receive them.

“We were the first to respond,” said Atef Samy, associate pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Evangelical Church in Cairo. “Two of those killed were very dear to our church.”

In the last few days, more than 100 families have left their homes in Sinai for the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, 125 miles west.

On February 19, the Egypt chapter of ISIS released a video calling Copts “our priority and our preferred prey.” Three days later, one man was shot and his adult son burned alive.

“This is sheer terrorism,” Samy said. “They want to embarrass the government and claim they can cleanse the Christian presence.”

In recent weeks, seven Copts have been killed. Witnesses say they were murdered in cold blood, with no negotiation, theft, or attempts to convert to Islam.

Hit lists are also reportedly being circulated, warning Christians to leave or die.

“I am not going to wait for death,” Rami Mina, who left Arish on Friday morning, told Reuters. “I shut down my restaurant and got out of there. These people are ruthless.”

Samy declined to name those killed, but identified them as born-again Christians active in ministry. His church quickly mobilized to help others leave, and provided support to the Ismailia church that has assisted dozens. Mattresses, blankets, food, and medical supplies are the most pressing needs.

Adel Shukrallah, responsible for youth ministry in the Evangelical Church of Ismailia, is heading the Protestant relief effort locally.

Please click here to read the full article at Christianity Today.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: US Aid

Flag Cross Quran


Perhaps the United States felt she needed to take a stand. Perhaps this is a new wrinkle in an old story of feigned antagonism. Perhaps she backs the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps she backs democracy.

Perhaps she is against the killing of protestors. Perhaps she is muddled and has little idea of how to engage Egypt.

Whatever the reality, God, she has suspended aid.

Not all, of course, and not permanently. But it is a significant step of disengagement from a nation with which she has an entrenched political and military partnership. What will come of it?

Make Egypt, God, a country that needs no aid. Help her to stand on her feet, supply her own needs, and craft her own policies. May these be wise and righteous; may she be generous and able to aid others instead.

Make Egypt, God, a country free from external leverage. Help her to defend her nation as necessary, stand tall in balance of power, and speak into issues of regional justice. May she be strong and welcoming; may she love peace and pursue it.

But these are ideals, God. And even if achieved, Egypt will remain part of the global community in which none are independent. Within this web, she is more often a fly than a spider; give her reprieve.

US aid is the reality in which she lives. Help Egypt’s leaders to respond correctly. May good relations with America persist, even as they evolve. But may all stipulations be negotiated fairly, from strength to strength, on what is right and proper rather than from interest and pressure.

For Egypt can certainly pressure back. Perhaps you deem America immoral, God, as many Egyptians do. But there are certainly other immoralities to flirt with; may Egypt not run from one lover to the next.

There is a certain stability in the world, filled with injustices but facilitating peace as the absence of war. Egypt, if she wishes, can undo some of this. Suez, Sinai, Israel – her contribution to the web is substantial. Make right the injustices, God, but preserve and enhance any peace that exists.

And God, if American aid and leverage has positive ideals behind it, may a principled stand produce principled results. Domestically, hold leadership accountable to the demands of the people. Grant Egypt consensus and a governmental system that represents it.

The United States may be acting from any number of motivations, so give Egypt discernment. But whether aid is restored, lessened, made conditional, or eliminated, help Egypt also to take a stand.

For Egypt, may there be no wrinkles. May there be no antagonism. May there be no backed political entity. May there be no engineered democracy. May there be no killing. May there be no need for protests.

May there be no muddle. God, engage Egypt, and do not suspend your aid.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Defining 6 October

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Egyptian national holidays seek to honor the deeds of the past. Their value is invested by the state, but the people can sometimes force a redefinition.

The most recent example occurred on January 25, 2011, now celebrated as the birth of the revolution. But the date was chosen to coincide with Police Day, in protest of the brutality for which they were known.

The current example is under contention, taking place October 6, 2013. The date traditionally honors the launch of the surprise attack across the Suez Canal which led eventually to the liberation of Sinai, known more often in the West as the Yom Kippur War.

Now, pro-Morsi supporters have chosen the day to launch massive protests against what they deem was a military coup. As January 25 became a popular rejection of the police state, they hope October 6 will become a popular rejection of the military state, and in particular its head, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The protest weekend kicked off today, leading to sporadic clashes, and an at least initial failure to occupy desired squares such as Tahrir and Rabaa, site of the pro-Morsi sit-in violently dispersed in August.

God, what is Egypt’s history? In all nations it is part fact and part construct, defining what it means to be a citizen. Only in Egypt there is plenty to choose from, simply pick your millennium. Which is more honorable in your eyes: distilled data or cherished myth? As Egypt faces her future, give an accounting of her past. Help her self-improvement to be based on self-reflection.

But what of today, God? In one sense it is more of the same. Protests of diminished size seek to keep alive the hope of reinstating a president and returning achieved legitimacy. But they also appear to further antagonize a tired population which – at least in the cities – had largely rejected the president even before he was deposed.

The difference is twofold in possibility. First, they aim this time for the squares, which if occupied bring great symbolic value. Second, they call for numbers and have built up the hype, which if fulfilled can redefine the struggle.

God, success and failure are in your hands. Many Egyptians pray you grant them success, while many others praise you for thwarting their ambition. In a polarized nation, God, make clear the facts. Reveal all offenses and manipulations, so that culprits are exposed for all to see.

A new Egypt was born on January 25, God, but such a venerable nation can never be truly new. A part of that nation was recovered on October 6, and some hope to claim – or reclaim – her again this week. Be sovereign in Egypt, God, and give sovereignty to the people. Protect them and Egypt together.

But redefine them according to your will, that peace, justice, transparency, and love might define the nation entire.




Worrisome Indications of Egypt’s Future

Most people I have interacted with since our return to Cairo are very positive about the nation’s future. They are glad to see Morsi go, the Brotherhood discredited, and though they anticipate a few hiccups from disgruntled Islamists, they expect a return to stability and normalcy within a few months.

Here are two voices which suggest otherwise.

The first is from the Daily News, from Mahmoud Salem, aka Sandmonkey, a liberal blogger who does not have rosy glasses, though he once did. Quite the opposite, in fact:

The “returning” police state is an illusion; the police can’t even protect their own stations. Anyone can see that there is no state, only people who believe they have power, enforceable by guns, against a population that is hungry, armed, and has grown desensitised from violence amidst an economic situation that borders on catastrophic. Throw Islamists in the mix, a military curfew that just got extended for two more months, vanishing tourism for the third year running, and the financial and economic repercussions of the “war on terror,” and anyone can tell you that this won’t end well economically. On a separate but related note, locally manufactured cigarettes are already disappearing and reappearing in the black market.
Every activist I know fears the return of the police state. Every non-activist I know is wondering where the police are.

The other illusion is the return of Mubarak’s “feloul” to power, which won’t happen. You see, the businessmen feloul, the face of the NDP for years, will not be able to take over this time, because at the end of the day they are not “true feloul,” but rather, the elites who utilised the NDP for power and  were used by the NDP political leadership as a front. They were in power because the NDP leadership forced them upon local leaders, had them run for office in areas where they could never win on their own; if you followed the parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2010, it already wasn’t working, with the NDP sometimes fielding four candidates against each other in every district. This used to happen when the NDP was in full operation, with a politburo and a state behind it. Now, there is no politburo, no party, no leadership or symbols, with every man for himself, and the “true feloul,” the drug dealers, arms traders and big family criminals who have armed gangs, are about to become the true rulers of the country,  since they will be the only force capable of ruling the streets that are void of state control. Only the most brutal of them will end up winning a parliamentary seat in a full individual seat election.


The disintegration of the state will lead to the rise of “local leadership” as a street stabilising force, which means that our streets will be gang-controlled. The state’s ability to provide security in such conditions will become rather limited or, to be more accurate, impossible. The bad security will lead to a worse economy, which means that the corrupt government officials will become more vicious with their bribe demands, which would serve as their source of income, as their actual one begins drying up. Infighting will ensue amongst different branches of the government over patronage, because a contracting economy will equal less stealing, and consequently, more ruthless infighting.

His article is lengthy and worth reading, and actually gets to some, gulp, good news. The above state of affairs will continue for three years or so, and then the exhausted powers that be will eventually run out of partners with whom to divide up the pie that is Egypt.

On the brink of becoming another Somalia, they will finally yield to the principles and goals of the January 25 revolution. It’s advocates may be the only ones to desire reforming the mess that Egypt will be by then.

Speaking of Somalia, here is a more journalistic account of this process set in motion, by Foreign Policy:

In the Sinai Peninsula, where government buildings and checkpoints have been bombarded by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and car bombs on a near-daily basis in recent weeks, the Egyptian state is losing ground to ultraconservative Islamists with an alternative vision for rule of law. The growing influence of self-taught sharia judges who uphold the Quran over Egyptian law reflects an alarming erosion of state sovereignty in the Sinai Peninsula. In late August, state courts in North Sinai were forced to transfer all of their cases to the comparatively stable jurisdiction of Ismailiya, in the face of escalating attacks by armed extremists targeting government buildings and security personnel. This week, two prominent sharia judges were among 15 hard-line Salafis arrested on charges of inciting terrorist attacks, as the Egyptian government struggles to contain rising extremism. But despite the current crackdown, it is clear that the deeply entrenched sharia courts of North Sinai are here to stay.

Since the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the already fragile government in Sinai has been further crippled by a wave of armed attacks, ambushes, and car bombings by militants equipped with increasingly sophisticated weaponry stolen from police stations or smuggled across Egypt’s borders with Libya and Sudan. The escalation of violence has forced the closure of a critical police station in Arish and the evacuation of other government buildings, creating an institutional vacuum that sharia courts are opportunistically exploiting.

The outsourcing of traditional law enforcement functions to non-state actors is reminiscent of a pattern seen in failed states like Somalia, where powerful Islamic courts with their own private militias and ties to al Qaeda seized control over vast swaths of the country in 2006. While the sharia courts of Sinai are nowhere near as institutionalized as those in Somalia, they similarly aspire to absorb the functions of state institutions that are failing to govern.

These courts are not run by radical extremists, as the author makes clear, but some might not find much shade of difference in their end game:

Sharia judges, eager to disassociate themselves from more radical Islamists, are quick to enumerate their moderate credentials and tolerance of religious minorities. Beik insisted that the courts operate on a purely voluntary basis and would never forcibly impose Islamic law on non-Muslims without their consent. To illustrate this point, he proudly informed me that the House of Sharia Judgment has heard three cases involving claims by Christian litigants against Muslim adversaries since the revolution, and in all three cases, the Christian party prevailed — a fact he cited as evidence of the courts’ neutrality.

But although the sharia judges of North Sinai pay lip service to liberal democratic principles of inclusion and equality, they ultimately aspire to establish a parallel state governed not by Egypt’s constitution, but by a retrograde interpretation of sharia that relegates women and religious minorities to second-class citizenship. For now, their rulings are purely advisory and non-binding. But Abu Faisal predicts that his court’s decisions will one day carry the force of law in the Islamic emirate he hopes to see established in the Sinai. “Sharia is already the law of the land here,” he said. “God willing, someday it will be the law of the state.”

I maintain optimism for Egypt’s future. Prognosis, however, is currently beyond my confidence to assert.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Authority and Margin

Flag Cross QuranGod,

The official space has been claimed. First, in response to massive protests the military removed Morsi from power and installed a transitional civilian government. Second, they closed down media sympathetic to a Brotherhood viewpoint. Third, they removed the standing pro-Morsi protests with much resulting bloodshed. And fourth, they jailed many Islamist leaders who stand accused of promoting violence. Each step of the way negotiations failed.

In each of these steps the transitional government has claimed both popular authority and that of the state, forcing Brotherhood sympathizers to the margins.

From there the response has been varied. In Sinai armed rebellion rages. In Upper Egypt churches were attacked. In various villages police stations were assaulted. And in many streets throughout the nation, small peaceful protests continue.

God, you care for those in authority and those in the margins. But those occupying each choose to struggle against each other.

The police recently reclaimed two margins; a sustained assault returned state authority to villages in Upper Egypt and Giza. The Brotherhood called them an attack against the people, who oppose the coup.

The ongoing rallies are a response from the margin; a sustained assault on state authority emerges as Islamists lay claim to the mantle of the youthful revolution. So far, the state permits them.

There is much to sort, God, and too much to decipher. Where do your principles direct?

You install leaders, God, which never implies your endorsement. But you do grant them authority to govern and maintain order.

In this time of crisis, God, give them wisdom with this rod. Your concerns go beyond governance and order; you care for compassion and justice. Help them to rule not simply with might, but also with heart. May the state ensure a society of opportunity and freedom.

But from the perspective of Islamists, this now only exists in the margins. As they push back against authority they risk – or rather actively disobey – the stability of the state. The margins are distant from official power, but they can choke it. With state authority weakened since the revolution, how much of Egypt is margin altogether?

Your prophets, God, have generally come from the margins. They call out against an improper order which has turned away from your principles. They have marshalled your power, God, and not sought their own.

In this time of crisis, God, give Islamists wisdom with this heritage. Your concerns go beyond criticism and protest; you care for vision and righteousness. Help them to demonstrate not simply from frustration, but also with reflection. May their movement serve the building of a better Egypt.

God, you possess all authority and power, and yet you choose to dwell in the margins. Reveal yourself to those in both places, that the fabric which binds them together may not be torn irreparably.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Preaching, Sinai

Flag Cross Quran


Rarely do men try to speak in your name, but there are many burdened to represent what they believe you have spoken. Now, in Egypt, some of these will be denied.

Give them wisdom in responding to this development.

The government has taken new steps to ensure only licensed imams may preach on Friday. They are also preparing to close the small neighborhood mosques which populate most city streets. They feel this combination is ripe for extremist messaging. Others complain it is only extremist in rejection of a current military order.

Likely, both arguments have merit. The Azhar, the centuries old mosque and institute of learning, is a state-backed organization with a history of moderation. Often, the vitriol issued against Copts, Israel, the West, or the Egyptian establishment come from self-studied scholars specializing in Wahhabi thought. That is, if they specialize at all.

But, at times Azhar scholars have either veered off course or played sycophant to the state. And many a self-studied scholar deserves full respect for dedication and erudition.

The new proclamation ensures that all stay within bounds and on message. Part of that message, admitted openly, is to keep politics out of the mosque.

Oh how dangerous, God, are both sides of this coin. Government restricting religion displays empty hypocrisy. Religion seeking government invites empty hypocrisy.

But the argument is fair that the government should protect against incitement to hate and violence. And the role of religion in holding government accountable is worthy of every argument.

Of course, will the government enforce its ruling at all? Is it able to?

God, give discernment to Egypt’s preachers in all religions. Help them to lead the people toward peace, mercy, and righteousness.

Help them to see the injustices in the land, and to speak powerfully against them.

Help them to pray for those who lead the nation, that they might encourage all the above.

Many, God, are sincere but misguided in their ministries. Lead them to the right path. And some, God, manipulate freely and willfully. Rebuke them; silence them if necessary.

But it is not just the now-non-Islamist government that seeks to corral preachers. Pro-Brotherhood Hamas is doing the same, asking imams to tone down their criticism of Egypt. Poor relations with Cairo choke the economic life of Gaza.

As Egypt battles terrorism in the Sinai, it has also moved to close the expansive network of tunnels into Gaza. The transfer point for drugs, weapons, and jihadists, the tunnels also are Palestinians’ black market for everything from basic supplies to luxury goods. Many get rich off the trade.

Here, God, there is much to pray for. Eliminate the threat of those who will use wanton violence to achieve their ends. Hold back those tempted to inflate or exploit this threat. Bring real equity and prosperity to Sinai to curb the attraction of smuggling. And establish peace between Israel and Palestine so that borders may be opened and tunnels obviated.

God, in the desert or elsewhere, may preachers handle your will correctly. Lead them, for the sake of all.




The Burning Bush is Closed

St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai
St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai

From al-Monitor, reporting from Mt. Sinai, where a Greek Orthodox Monastery houses what it claims is the original burning bush:

In the Sinai city of St. Catherine, a few thousand people and around 800 camels have been left struggling since the first week of August, when Egyptian security authorities ordered the total shutdown of the town’s 1,500-year-old monastery. Bedouin residents of the mountainous area were forced to sell their camels, which they cannot feed, to feed their families.

Over the past 50 years, St. Catherine’s Monastery closed its gates twice, in 1977 when former President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, and in 1982 when the Egyptian military entered Sinai after the withdrawal of Israeli forces. This time, the shutdown, which wasn’t explained by any official statements from either the Defense or Interior Ministry, was allegedly ordered after a failed attempt to kidnap a monk traveling in South Sinai in June and rising suspicions of a possible attack on the monastery.

“Despite having more time to pray and practice, our priests live without crowds of visitors, we are suffering a major financial crisis, and we cannot cover the monastery’s expenses and dozens of families that we constantly support,” said Paolos, who wore his farming clothes covered in mud.

St. Catherine’s Monastery employs 400 workers from the surrounding community at its olive groves, grape farms, honey bee farms and several processing facilities including an olive oil press. As of the beginning of September, the monastery reserves decreased to a level that is barely enough to cover two months of expenditure.

“We respect the Egyptian government, and we will continue to close if they require the closure,” said Paolos, “But we will have to drastically cut down salaries and other expenditures. We are saddened to lose the income we shared with the Bedouin community.”

Monasteries making income? Located at the foot of what is purported to be the Biblical Mt. Sinai, streams of tourists come, climbing the mountain at night for a spectacular view of the desert at sunrise. The pious/superstitious/relic-ly-inclined religious tourists also pick leaves from the burning bush – now a towering hedge that drops its branches down just high enough to be reached by tippy-toe.
The Burning Bush at St. Catherine's Monastery
The Burning Bush at St. Catherine’s Monastery
We visited once, several years ago when we could climb without children. We were impressed, even though disappointed that our tour bus whisked us away right afterwards, without much chance to explore the ‘real’ monastery. And of course, being a tourist trap, there was a steady flow of income to match the steady flow of tourists.
The Ascent to Mt. Sinai
The Ascent to Mt. Sinai
We made our trek in the winter; it would be hard to imagine doing now with our children
We made our trek in the winter; it would be hard to imagine doing now with our children. One day…
... but this was our reward.
… but this was our reward.

Since we moved to Egypt, we have learned a great deal more about monasteries. They are wonderfully spiritual places where monks abstain from the world and devote themselves to prayer. But they are also the favorite destination for Copts who frequent them as a weekend get-a-way. The monks’ residences are kept separate from publicly accessible areas, and a handful of monks are assigned the role of facilitation. Some visitors seek spiritual counseling, some seek the blessing of praying in a historic location, and others simply enjoy the time away from the bustle of Cairo.

St. Catherine’s monastery is located deep in the Sinai desert, so it is not a favored location for most Copts. But it is only an hour or two drive from the popular Red Sea resorts drawing thousands of tourists every year. Even so, it has evolved in a similar function to many of the monasteries a mile or so into the deserts surrounding the Nile Valley.

They are a hub of economic activity.

The monasteries have turned desert into farmland and cultivate agriculture and livestock. They cooperate with local villagers – usually Muslims – and employ some. They also attract unemployed Copts from throughout the country to live on or near the premises – but not with the monks – and provide labor while receiving training. Many monks will spend half the day in prayer, and the other half supervising a commercial task.

Monks have no worldly possessions, so I am not sure where the money goes. Certainly some is for the upkeep of the monastery, most of which have undergone substantial renovations. Other is for the pay of the labor, which in brief conversations I found to be better than the going rate in the village of origin. I imagine their charitable expenditures are also extensive. But I have not yet discovered the whole story.

Some more extreme Muslims accuse Copts of storing weapons in their monasteries and operating a state within a state. The first claim is baseless by all appearances, but the second has some merit. The monasteries own huge tracts of land and many Copts flock to them not only for blessing but also to purchase internally produced goods. These are also shipped to churches in the cities and sold on their premises. Muslims are welcome in the monasteries and they generally have good relations with their neighbors. But the vast majority of visitors, dare we say customers, are Copts. Their money circulates within their community.

By no means do I wish to overstate the idea of a state within a state or impinge the spiritual reputation of Egyptian monasticism. In my experience most Copts are part of their local communities, interacting with Muslims in employment and commerce, part and parcel of the national fabric. In my experience most Copts visit their monasteries out of a deep respect for their spiritual heritage and in order to take blessing from association with these historic sites and the saints associated with them. In my experience most monks are somewhat annoyed by their inundation with visitors, and wish to spend time with God in both prayer and labor.

But the ‘worldly’ aspects of monastic life exist. At St. Catherine’s, the accrued dependence upon them is threatening the monastic community. The monks, likely, will be able to retreat into their asceticism as in centuries before. The monastic enterprise, however, along with all its local relations, is subject to the whims of economic cycles and security concerns.

Perhaps Egypt’s current troubles are reminding Copts of their necessary dependence on God. Even for monks, this is an ongoing lesson easily forgotten.


Friday Prayers for Egypt: Gaza


Above all, bring peace to Israel and Palestine. Stop rockets, stop killing, stop assassinations, and stop injustice. Allow all sides to argue over who most deserves these accusations, but draw them to a halt.

As for Egypt, where these arguments are few, give wisdom to the president and political leadership on how to intervene for peace. May he stand with victims and against oppression. Help him to mediate between his allies in Hamas and his oft-political targets in Tel Aviv. Help him to encourage the Americans to play a positive role. But guide him to the transcendence of politics to the resolution of conflict. May he do what is right, whatever that is.

Egypt needs unity and solidarity, God, but caution the people about rallying against an enemy. Bless all those who express concern for innocent Palestinians, and who seek to condemn the asymmetry of the strife. But for those who are angling for political gain, cause their efforts to come to naught. Grant Egyptians legitimate outrage over what has befallen their neighbors, and discernment to weigh injustice against propaganda.

And as Israel and Palestine confront their internal issues, limit the repercussions from spilling over into Egypt. Guard the border, God, and keep militancy from spreading to Sinai and beyond. For would-be militants already here, honor their sense of resistance and sacrifice. But direct their devotion to the cause of peace and justice, not to arms and invectives. May they harm no lives, be they Egyptian, Israeli, or their own.

Beat swords into plowshares, God. May those who love you lead the way.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Terrorist Cell?


It is first useful to recall what are understood to be facts. On January 28, the decisive day of the revolution, the prisons were opened. Though many were later apprehended, others are still at large.

During the volatile transition to democracy security was lax and policemen absent. It is understood many weapons entered Egypt through Libya.

Amid the controversial decisions of leadership, both the military council and President Morsy freed many convicted Islamists. Some were released long after their terms expired, others were given outright pardons.

Throughout the post-revolution months the Sinai Peninsula witnessed repeated attacks on the Israeli gas pipeline and police and military checkpoints. The president launched a high profile army crackdown on its criminals and jihadists.

So God, it is fully believable there may be terrorist cells in Egypt. If so, thank you for the discovery and apprehension of the group in Nasr City.

But some allege it is all a sham. Mostly the formerly jailed Islamists, they assert it is an attempt by security to reassert not only its authority, but also its relevance and possibly its need for emergency powers.

God, what can the average Egyptian know of these things? Should any manipulation exist, silence and thwart it. For all of Egypt’s difficulties, such has been the state of terrorism – quiet.

Keep it so, God. Keep Egypt’s political powers engaged in the peaceful transition process. Cantankerous as it is, threats and frustrations are expressed in the media or on the street. Find some way to unify all, God. May none be forced into the corner of violence, and may those who wind up on the edges of consensus recommit to a social and political struggle, neither armed nor intimidating.

Help the state to both empower and regulate the police. May they perform their duty unencumbered, serving both law and society. May the people partner, hostage to neither fear nor spite.

And of those whose consciences are seared and contemplate violence for political ends, protect the people from them. Speak to them, God, and convict them of their evil schemes. Redeem them, that they may serve not only you but others as well. Widen their vision and enlarge their hearts.

God, so much is uncertain in Egypt, but you have kept her safe. Thank you, and please continue.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: IMF, Sinai, China, Iran


Much of Egypt’s attention turned outside its borders this week, and though Sinai is not foreign, it is almost a separate land. Military operations against Islamic extremists have been underway for some time, but lately there have been religious delegations sent, even from the president. These have involved former jihadists who wish to turn those in Sinai from the error of their ways. Or, at least, to halt operations.

Meanwhile the president has been in personal deliberations with the IMF over a nearly five billion dollar loan to support the economy. Beyond the financial implications lie religious controversies, if Islam permits such interest based credit. Now in power, Islamist seem to be finding it more difficult to forbid, while others – supporters and opponents – accuse them of hypocrisy.

A useful escape and popularity boosting effort was provided by the president’s travels to China and Iran. In the former he reinforced and increased economic ties, while in the latter he stood on the world stage of the Non-Aligned Movement and condemned Syria without wholly offending Tehran. Egypt and Iran have been without ties since 1979. In both nations he demonstrated a desire to move beyond uni-polar dependence on the United States.

These are the matters of governance, God, and bless Egypt in them. Give peace to the Sinai, and convict criminals who use violence in the name of religion. If there is any duplicity involved, as some liken to the political use of the US War on Terror, then expose manipulations, God. And anticipating evolution of the region to touch the Camp David Accords with Israel, may these two nations speak to each other and find ways toward mutually agreeable and just peace. Amid it all, bless the people of Sinai; may they find full citizenship and freedom of opportunity in the new Egypt.

As for the IMF, God, give the president good and honest advisors. May those who know economics well sort through the competing propaganda on the liberating / enslaving nature of IMF monies. Whatever the outcome, may the economy stabilize with sovereignty secured for the Egyptian people. As for the relationship between Islam and interest, preserve the integrity of the religious scholar. May he not bend to political pressure, nor pander for political influence. May he fear you alone as he guides the people.

As for foreign policy, give wisdom among competing interests. May the president serve only that which serves his people. May Chinese investment create jobs and aid infrastructure. May Syrian criticism lead to the cessation of violence and bloodshed and a just solution to popular grievances. May Iranian contact promote dialogue between former enemies and possibly current adversaries.

May the region avoid more war.

God, rebuild Egypt and help her to turn to all the practical matters of governance. Yet while these international issues are of deep importance, provide solutions soon to the domestic problems which plague Egypt. Restore security; lift the economy; help the poor. Build an open, free, and democratic structure to include all. Resist any attempts to close ranks, settle scores, or marginalize.

Give respect among Egypt’s political forces, one to the other. Give respect between poor and rich, and narrow the gap between. Heal wounds; issue justice; promote reconciliation.

God, the solutions to these conundrums are in your hands. Enlighten Egyptians that they may find them as well.



Christians in the Sinai

The Sinai Region

Bishop Cosman is the presiding bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the diocese of North Sinai, consisting of an area 200km long and 127km deep. This roughly stretches from Port Said to Suez along the west (though these cities do not belong his bishopric).

Bishop Cosman states that the population of his bishopric is roughly 400,000-500,000 people, of whom about 3,000 are Christians, represented by 740 families. By contrast, over 2,000 Christian families live in the urban Cairo district of Hadayak al-Maadi. The bishop relates that the low population density makes for a quiet life, and that Christians have good relations, by and large, with their neighbors.

There are two principle cities in North Sinai, Rafah and Arish, each of which has been in the news recently with regularity. Rafah is the site of the crossing into Gaza, which was reopened following the reconciliation of rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. As the reconciliation has sputtered, however, so has the crossing of goods through the border, as many restrictions remain. Illegal tunnels in the area compensate in black market trade, and near here Gaza Palestinians stand accused of crossing the border to infiltrate through Sinai to Eliat, where several Israelis were murdered in a terrorist attack.

Arish, meanwhile, has been the site of internal Egyptian unrest. On Jan. 29 following a massive, peaceful Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi demonstration in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, including Arish, masked gunmen attacked the city police station in a shootout lasting several hours. Flyers were distributed calling for an Islamic emirate in the Sinai, linked to a supposed local al-Qaeda branch. This event that prompted the entry of the Egyptian military, though special agreement had to be secured first with Israel, as much of the area is demilitarized as mandated by the Camp David Accords.

Each of these two cities hosts a Coptic Orthodox Church. Arish is the seat of the bishopric, which was built in 1939 in the neighborhood of Dahya. Rafah, however, hosts the only licensed church, which was built in 1996. This church, however, was destroyed during the lawless initial days of the Egyptian revolution, and has not yet been rebuilt despite promises by the state, according to Bishop Cosman. He states the Christians are waiting patiently to take their rights to pray in Rafah Church. He does not know who committed this crime, as the sixty-plus attackers covered their faces while wielding automatic weapons.

In addition to the two churches the diocese owns three additional ‘service buildings’ that resemble ordinary structures but host regular masses and provide social outlets for the Christian community. Two of these buildings are in Arish itself, with the other in Masa’id, a smaller town roughly 12km to the east. A community of five priests, in addition to Bishop Cosman, serves the Christians of the area.

Only two of these priests, however, stem originally from the diocese of North Sinai. Neither does Bishop Cosman, who hails from Beheira in the Delta region, and was appointed ten years ago from the St. Mina Monastery to the west of Alexandria. That even two priests are local is quite an accomplishment, however, as nearly all of the area Christians originally emigrated from other quarters.

The original inhabitants of the territory of the diocese are native Arishis, some Palestinians, and large Bedouin families which historically roamed the desert. To this number came significant Nile Valley transplants seeking work, beginning in the 19th Century. The Christians of North Sinai belong to this last group, and live mainly in the cities of Arish and Rafah, though some are in the smaller, inland villages of Hassana and Nikhl, and some in temporary worker outposts connected to projects. Like the inhabitants of the area, Christians tend to be poor. They are employed primarily as teachers, employees of government ministries, or in construction.

As stated earlier, Bishop Cosman emphasized the Christians of North Sinai enjoy good relations with all their neighbors, as well as the Bedouins, which is one reason he does not suspect them of involvement in the Rafah church attack. These relations are cemented through mutual visits during holidays and funerals, though the small number of Christians stipulates their reach in the community is not that far.

Yet the real danger in the area comes neither from the Salafis nor the Bedouin, but the lawless and criminal elements hiding in the desert. Even so, the bishop seemed mostly unconcerned. “We trust in God,” was his simple reply.

The region of Sinai is mysterious, beyond the experience of either urban or rural Egyptians. It exists in the nexus of struggle between Egypt and Israel, state and Bedouin, and civilization and tribe. Within this flashpoint is a small community of Christians, mostly imperceptible in each of these conflicts. Yet their faith maintains they are salt and light nonetheless. Further research, including hopeful visits to the area, is necessary to determine if it is true.

Aslan Media Middle East Published Articles

Published on Aslan Media: An American Perspective on the Culture of Conspiracy through the Lens of Sinai

The Sinai peninsula and the present day Israel...
The Sinai Peninsula

In the last day or two I had my first text published by a source outside of Arab West Report. Aslan Media is a new media project from Reza Aslan, an author of several books on Islam such as ‘No God but God’ (read and enjoyed) and ‘How to Win a Cosmic War’ (hope to read soon). The following text was featured on the front page, but has now moved to the sidebar. Click here for the direct link.


As an American, I am used to politics being partisan and even at times vitriolic, but all agree on the rules of the game and the validity of the constitutional system. Moreover, though political opponents criticize their adversaries as being servants of particular agendas, these cries generally do not descend into the realm of conspiracy. Yes, some on the Left believe there is a theocratic effort to take over government, and some on the Right find liberal secular humanism on the prowl to destroy traditional values. Yet on the whole the mantra proves true: Politics is the art of compromise. Following their vitriol, most American politicians do just that, and Americans appreciate it.

In contrast, the American resident in Egypt – if he or she pays attention to local politics – finds the culture awash in conspiracies. Worse, many of them are directed at his or her home shores. The tendency is to be dismissive; it is the response of a paralyzed people seeking to blame others for their problems, and a government actively encouraging the paranoia. Yet as a respected Egyptian journalist friend has said, with experience on both sides of the Mediterranean, foreign hands have been playing in Egypt for centuries. A palpable paranoia is fueled by reality.

The odd thing as an American is that the longer you live here with an open heart to the people, the more the culture of conspiracy can take hold. There are a thousand applications to choose from, but of particular recent concern is the development of threats in the Sinai. Here is found a regional Holy Grail of conspiracy, at the intersection of Israel, Camp David, the ruling Egyptian military council, and Islamic terrorism.

The story in brief is that Palestinian terrorists crossed into southern Israel from Gaza through the demilitarized Sinai, and killed a number of Israeli citizens during an attack on the port city of Eliat. Israel quickly targeted those it accused of responsibility with military retribution, for which Hamas unleashed heretofore largely suspended rocket fire into Israel, until a ceasefire was brokered. Meanwhile Israel also pursued fleeing Palestinians into Sinai, and several Egyptian officers were killed in the process.

Prior to this tragedy Islamist forces in Egypt conducted a massive rally in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to demand an Islamic government. In the Sinai city of Arish that evening armed bandits purporting to be Islamists attacked the local police stations, engaging in a several hour long firefight with authorities. They allegedly identified themselves as al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, seeking the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the territory. The presence of al-Qaeda in Egypt had been long denied by the government, and was rejected once more. Yet the armed forces in the days to come cooperated with Israel to allow the movement of military personnel into the peninsula – as required by the Camp David Accords – in an effort to clamp down on armed groups. This mission was pursued more urgently following the terrorist attack on Eliat.

During the Egyptian revolution it is said that several prisons were opened, and jailbreaks took place in others. A large number of these escapees remain at large, and it is reasonable to assume many have sought refuge in Sinai. With Camp David regulations limiting military presence, as well as a restive Bedouin population long frustrated with government neglect and resistant to government authority, Sinai has a reputation as a lawless frontier. Furthermore, when police stations were attacked during the revolution the weapons cache was opened. Unrest in Libya has also reportedly contributed to a dramatic increase in arms availability in Egypt. Many neighborhoods have witnessed violence in family feuds, gang activity, or attacks on police. While still small in scale, these incidents forebode what may be an emerging crisis in the Sinai, especially as the doctor of Osama bin Laden, also an explosives expert, has been allegedly identified in the territory.

Or, it is a crisis at all? This is where the power of conspiracy threatens to take over. From the Israeli side the benefits of a crisis are many. Israel has suffered widespread social protests over housing costs this summer. Israel faces a dramatic challenge to its Palestinian policy as the issue of statehood is prepared for submission to the United Nations. One can wonder also if Israel was not averse to testing the nascent Egyptian military authority, to see which way its domestic winds might influence commitment to its international agreements. More wildly, might preparations be underway to retake the Sinai to establish security, or dump responsibility for Gaza onto Egypt, or expand Gaza at Sinai’s expense, or else craft Sinai anew as an independent buffer state?

Conspiracy can take aim at the ruling military council as well. While still overwhelmingly popular with average Egyptians, it has come under severe criticism by revolutionary forces for its handling of the transition to democracy. Reuniting the people against the common enemy of Israel could diffuse attention to these complaints. Moreover, could the specter of terrorism in the Sinai lead to restoration of full Egyptian sovereignty over the territory, through amending the Camp David Accords with Israel? More wildly, might greater Egyptian control of the Sinai pave the way for the threatened million man marches from Cairo to Jerusalem, in support of Palestinian independence, or even eventual Islamist government hostility against Israel?

This is the nature of conspiracy, to delve further and further into the extreme. Conspiracy is built on explanation without information, striving to make sense of confusing events in an absence of transparency. Yet who can deny that the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others exercise influence over Egypt’s affairs? Do recent events represent an attempt to escape from this influence, or a confirmation thereof?

Whether or not Israel intended this as a test for the military council, it has quickly become one. Popular protests quickly surrounded the Israeli Embassy, and were allowed to continue several days. Mixed messages have been sent about recalling the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv. Calls for a joint investigation into the incident have been issued, may have been rebuffed, but are still open. Meanwhile the government is erecting a wall around the building housing the Israeli Embassy, to provide further protection in case of need. Many Egyptian parties and politicians are calling for a harsher response, especially following the example of Turkey. Is the military council treading nimbly between the niceties of diplomatic language and the fury of popular demands? It is too early to tell. After all, it was a full year between the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, and the now enacted diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey. The test is still underway, and its results may be long in coming.

For the American living here such conspiracy musings may be entertaining, but they can summon great passion from involved Egyptians. To make clear, the label of ‘conspiracy’ is dismissive and degrading, reflecting a subtle superiority of ethnocentric origin. Of greater concern, to both Americans resident and Egyptians permanent, is the direction of the story toward greater instability. Al-Qaeda or not, weapons are proliferating, and extremist movements are (likely) in the Sinai. Increased tension between Israel and Egypt can as easily lead to war as to greater mutual respect and sovereignty. Conspiracies of invention and play acting for the benefit of domestic distraction are possible, but could also become self-fulfilling prophecies. Egypt is a peaceful nation; it is likely to remain so. These trends, however, are worrisome.

As to the culture of conspiracy, orientalist bias or not, the world is not the same as it was at America’s independence. George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and succeeding presidencies set the nation on a path of isolation from European politics keeping the colonial powers from interfering in the Americas. It is questionable if this is even a possibility for Egypt today. To hint back at conspiracy, is it even possible in America?

If hope can be found, it is in the establishment of transparent institutions of democratic governance. People must rule, and be able to hold their elected representation accountable. The military council has promised to hand over authority to a civilian government, and this process is still underway. Though a million conspiracies posit why this will not happen, it is yet within the power of Egyptians to see the process through. As one American who still believes in the reality of our independence, I wish the same for Egypt. May she win for her people such an honorable right.