Egypt’s uprising has provided fuel for the fundamentalists

Egypt's fundamentalist Salafis have become increasingly vocal

 

Originially published at majalla.com, July 11 2011

The sheikh sat in a slick office on the ninth floor of a tower block and twiddled with his mobile phone. Bathed in bright light from the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Nile, he outlined what kind of punishments Egyptians could expect under his ideal judicial system.

“In Shari’a law we have sharp sentences for every crime,” he said. “Whipping the back, cutting off hands. Shari’a involves big punishments for any people who do wrong things.”

Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, a preacher who follows the increasingly high-profile strand of fundamentalist Salafi Islam, continued by saying that most people in post-revolutionary Egypt agree with his vision—they just don’t know it yet.

“In the end, Salafis will not oblige communities to use Shari’a if they don’t understand it,” he said. “But with explanation, all the Muslim people will accept it.”

Sheikh Abdel Moneim, a podgy, roly-poly preacher with the kind of Fidel Castro-style beard sported by many of his followers, is a prominent spokesman for the Salafi movement in Egypt.

Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged in underground political activity despite being banned for more than half a century, the Salafist movement—which first emerged in the mid-1800s from an intellectual base at Cairo’s long-established Al-Azhar University—has traditionally shied away from politics.

Yet, during the race to grab a toehold in the chaotic post-Mubarak period, some Salafis are abandoning their previous aversion to the political limelight. The Political Parties Affairs Committee gave the Al-Nour party permission to form on 13 June 2011, while a second fledgling party, Al-Fadila, is also scrambling around for support. A number of others are said to be in the pipelines.

This comes at a time of heightened tension between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, which many have blamed on the supposedly baleful influence of Salafism.

A total of 12 people were killed this month when violent clashes broke out in the Cairo slum of Imbaba. The riots were triggered by rumors that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held captive in a church, and most reports the following day focused on the large group of Salafi men who were present during the trouble.

The incident came after a flurry of other Salafist scare stories hit Egyptian newsstands, with reports about off-licenses being closed following demonstrations by Salafis, and protests over other alleged kidnappings or killings of female Muslim converts. After one incident, the Associated Press even went so far as to say that Salafism was “a few shades away” from Al-Qaeda—a sloppy comparison at best.

There is no doubt that some of Egypt’s liberals and secularists are not particularly fond of Salafism. As Ramy El-Swissy, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement, put it: “I like religion but I don’t like that kind of religion. There is a difference between Islam and extremism.”

Moreover, it seems understandable that Christians might be concerned about their influence given the intransigence many Salafis have often shown to accommodating them. Speaking recently, another Salafi preacher, by the name of Sheikh Khalid Abdullah, explained how he thought that Egypt’s Copts were guilty of treason for establishing contacts with the West.

“It’s very sad when the Christians here go to the US and Europe and say, ‘Come to us and save our souls.’ They are betraying us. They don’t understand what the US did in Iraq and Pakistan.

“The Christians are against the Muslims now. They don’t want Egypt to be Islamic.”

But others believe that the Egyptian media and political elite are guilty of scare mongering. In March, Egyptian voters decided overwhelmingly to approve a referendum on constitutional amendments—a result that paved the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

The result was a blow to many liberals who wanted a longer transitional period to help develop a more robust body politic. Many blamed the Salafis.

Gamal Sultan, editor of the Al-Masryoon news website and himself a Salafi, said: “It was probably during the referendum on the constitutional amendments when the political forces realized the huge ability of Salafis to mobilize and vote yes.

“That’s what got to the other political parties in Egypt. They got really mad at the Salafis when they realized their political abilities.”

According to Professor Stephane Lacroix of Sciences Po, who has spent many years studying fundamentalist Islamic movements, the main Egyptian sheikhs have publicly denounced the violence between Muslims and Christians that took place after the fall of Mubarak.

He said: “If you look at the statements from the majority of sheikhs, they have all condemned the violence. They have said it is to the detriment of Salafism.”

Mr. Lacroix added that Salafism has no over-arching structure or rigid top-down leadership, and that the Salafis who went to Imbaba were probably bad apples under the guidance of rogue “neighborhood sheikhs.” He also said that it would probably be a while before any of their political parties made a splash.

The modern history of Salafism in Egypt dates back to the 1970s—a time where campus activism was at its height and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU, first made its appearance.

Initially there were tensions between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, with both trying to attract followers and spread their message to a wider public. In an effort to co-ordinate more affectively, during the 1980s Egypt’s Salafis began to develop strong grassroots networks spreading across the country. With a base in Alexandria, the fundamentalist movement began to grow in popularity.

Analysts have divided the Salafi movement into a number of different sub-groups—most of which eschewed political participation up until the January 25 revolution.

One such group, sometimes referred to as the “activist Salafis,” trace their origins to the 1970s university movements and operated under the tutelage of sheikhs who preached that a ruler is heretical if he does not govern by divine decrees.

These Salafis have always refused to partake in democratic elections, viewing them as heretical and a departure from God’s law. Yet a number have since undergone a volte face, embracing the concept of democracy and using their vote to full effect when preachers called on their followers to go and vote in favor of constitutional amendments in the recent Egyptian referendum.

The establishment of Al-Nour is testament to this latest trend in Salafi thinking. As a result, and despite in the past being wholly opposed to any kind of political participation, the Salafis now have the first political party in their history.

There has, of course, been one particular brand of Salafism that has never shied away from making its political voice heard. Salafist jihadism, the strand of ultra-regressive Islam that counts Al-Qaeda members as some of its most strident adherents, holds that Muslims are duty-bound to fight any government s which do not apply Islamic law.

It came to the fore in the 1990s when the traditional Salafi aversion to politics morphed into the most absolute form of activist rejectionism. Yet this kind of “Semtex Salafism,” though adept at making headlines, never constituted more than a fraction of the overall movement’s followers.

You could make a similar case for Egypt’s Salafis when compared to the rest of the country’s Muslims today. Although Sheikh Abdel Moneim El-Shahat claimed that there were “millions” across the whole of the country, Stephane Lacroix said the number of is more likely to be around 200,000—though he conceded that the figure is not accurate , given how difficult it is to determine who exactly is a Salafi.

Yet, despite this, it seems clear that many Salafis have already permeated deep into Egyptian society. The movement is named after the al-salaf al-salih, or so-called pious predecessors of the early Muslim community.

Followers believe that only the early disciples of Mohammed practiced Islam correctly, and can often be identified by their short galabiyas, which are worn to comply with an early Islamic teaching that long clothing is a sign of vanity.

But such stereotypes are as unhelpful as they are misleading, according to Gamal Sultan. “The West is more concerned with looks: the beard, the clothes and the way they live,” he said. “But Salafism is a large phenomenon. You can see them in the poor neighborhoods, but it also reaches the higher classes. You see them as street vendors and professors or soccer players. They are everywhere.”

Mr Lacroix said that the movement has definitely grown in the past 10 years—in large part because of the Salafi televangelists who were licensed by the Mubarak regime in order to counter the Muslim Brotherhood. However, he added that Egypt was unlikely to see any kind of serious political Salafism for a while.

Many ordinary Egyptians seem to agree. If you speak to liberal voters—the kind of people who are meant to be tearing their hair out with anxiety over the supposed Salafi threat—most seem unperturbed, preferring to dismiss the movement at an irritating irrelevance rather than a sinister force to be reckoned with.

The real influence, as Stephane Lacroix points out, seems cultural more than electoral—though perhaps this should worry the liberal elite just as much. “If you take a taxi, very often the driver seems to think the niqab is the correct form of Islamic dress. He will say something like, ‘My wife doesn’t wear it. She should, but we’re weak.’ You never heard that in Egypt 50 years ago.”

If you believe the likes of Sheikh Abdel Moneim and Shekih Khalid Abdullah, every Muslim is a Salafi even if he or she thinks otherwise. The forthcoming elections will prove just how far this theory goes.

Surveillance state

Hundreds of CCTV cameras have been installed across Egypt over the past two years

 

Originally published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, June 8 2011

Despite being one of the most celebrated cities of the ancient world, Luxor could soon fall prey to one of the modern era’s least celebrated innovations – the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera.

The city, which more than 3000 years ago was the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom, is due to be fitted out with 100 cameras under a plan to improve security in the area. They will monitor everything from tourists hopping off their cruise boats in the harbor to visitors walking into the city’s temples.

Yet like a number of other surveillance projects in the works – including a US$4 million plan to install 350 CCTV cameras on Cairo’s metro system – the idea is currently on ice as the post-Mubarak government deals with the chaos caused by the 25 January revolution.

Emad Adly, chairman of one of the companies that applied for the metro CCTV project tender, said he had heard “rumors” that the whole thing might be canceled.

“The last thing I heard from the Ministry of Transport was that the whole thing was on hold,” said Adly, also the chairman of Audio Technology.

The same goes for the Luxor CCTV project, according to CSI Egypt, one of the companies that applied to the tender.

Although the disruption caused to these wide-ranging surveillance projects is proving to be a headache for company shareholders, it is a welcome relief for those who feel that Egypt’s authorities are in danger of turning their country into an Orwellian nightmare.

In the past two years, the number of street-level security cameras across the country has increased rapidly through government-sponsored projects.

Since late 2009, nearly 300 cameras have been installed in Alexandria and Cairo’s Al-Azhar area of at a cost of more than US$7.5 million – with all of the cameras being supplied by Audio Technology.

The same company also has a contract to provide an additional 100 cameras in Hurghada, where lenses that can zoom up to 400 meters and swivel around full circle could soon be operational.

Audio Technology’s partner in all of its projects has been Orascom, the telecommunications firm owned by billionaire businessman-turned-politician Naguib Sawiris. While Audio Technology provides the cameras used for the CCTV systems, Orascom installs the wireless technology and control rooms required to monitor the images.

The spread of CCTV across Egypt mirrors a wider trend in the region. A report by IMS Research last year estimated that the Middle East market for video surveillance equipment would grow by 10 percent in 2010 and continue its upward trend strongly toward 2013.

Steve Batt, Middle East sales manager for video equipment firm Vicon, said it was true that the use of surveillance CCTV in Egypt was widening, but that the development was only following a global pattern.

“What’s happening in Egypt is not very different to what’s happening elsewhere,” he said.

According to Emad Adly, the spread of CCTV technology is essential for securing businesses across Egypt.

“Security is one of the most important things for investors,” Adly said.

Mohamed Ezzeldin, managing director of Egypt’s division of the security services company G4S, agreed. His own company pitched to secure the recent contracts in Hurghada and Alexandria and is also in the running to provide the proposed CCTV network on Cairo’s metro system.

“The country needs the CCTV,” he said. “If there is an incident, then you can find someone to blame. I think it’s really important.”

Yet Steve Batt warned there was a possibility that the technology could be abused by authoritarian governments – particularly in the Middle East.

He said that the Interior Ministry, which controls all of the government street surveillance projects through its Technical Research Department, would be responsible for all of the control rooms used in CCTV operation.

“The Interior Ministry has to approve the operators and run the system,” he said.

“In the United Arab Emirates, if you are building a new Ritz Carlton, in order to get the hotel open and get a license you have to install a security system in accordance with Interior Ministry guidelines.

“If that system has to conform to the same standard, it makes it simple for the Interior Ministry to access it,” Batt said.

However, he questioned how valuable CCTV really was for a police state hoping to monitor its citizens.

“It’s very easy to sensationalize what you can do with a blurry image of a person in the street next to 15,000 other people,” he said.

Wherever you look in Egypt, it seems the CCTV industry is booming. Private demand for cameras and security systems has skyrocketed in many sectors because of the uncertainty caused by the uprising. Mohamed Ezzeldin said that he reached his company’s US$4 million sales target four months earlier than he did last year due to a hike in orders from oil companies and industrial firms.

For now, the uprising has stalled the boom in government CCTV surveillance. But if the projects which were in the works prior to 25 January get back on track, then the trend of increasing surveillance will continue unabated.

What next for Egypt’s peace with Israel?

Anwar Sadat, left, and Menachem Begin with Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1979

 

Originally published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, May 31 2011

Before President Anwar Sadat signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and won back the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s eye patch-wearing foreign minister, had no doubt about what the deal would mean for his nation’s security.

“If a wheel is removed,” he reportedly said, “the car will not run again.” In other words, if Egypt was taken away from the field of battle, the Arab world could never again pose a threat to the Jewish state.

After the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) permanently opened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza on Saturday, many in Israel are wondering if the Arab car might have found its throttle again.

“I think many people here are nervous,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University. “There was a lot of admiration when people saw civilians going out and asking for better lives, but also concern about what was going to come.”

The SCAF’s decision to permanently open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which has been closed as part of a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege on the Palestinian territory since Hamas took power there in 2007, drew sharp criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for people in Egypt, it was a hopeful sign of new relations with Israel.

Ever since Sadat signed the peace deal – a move he calculated would help him emerge from the shadow of his wildly popular predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser – Cairo’s relations with Tel Aviv have been out of step with popular Egyptian feelings.

A 2007 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes project found that 80 percent of Egyptians felt that Palestinian needs could not be met while the state of Israel existed. Only 18 percent believed the two states could co-exist on an even keel.

What will substantively change as a result of the January 25 uprising? Not much, according to Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert from Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“I think the same Egyptian-Israeli relationship will continue as before without any significant changes in strategy,” he said.

In common with most analysts who spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm – and in stark contrast to much of the fevered speculation that characterized Western coverage of the Egyptian uprising – Abdel Fattah predicted that the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was not in any danger.

“Even the Muslim Brotherhood will respect the treaty,” he said. “This is in the national interest, and they know that if they finish the peace treaty, then the reaction around the world will be negative.”

Despite the SCAF saying soon after the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak that it would “respect all treaties” signed by previous presidents, the Muslim Brotherhood – which many expect will be the biggest winner in elections scheduled for September – has not been so specific, contenting itself with issuing vague statements about respecting the will of the people.

Many believe that tearing up the peace treaty would be a fool’s errand. Though public attitudes towards Tel Aviv are undeniably icy, a recent poll by the Dubai-based marketing research firm YouGovSiraj also found that 60 percent of Egyptians are in favor of maintaining the status quo. Only 27 percent think that severing ties would be a good idea, according to the survey.

“Nobody is going to risk changing the balance,” said Imam Hamdy, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations at the American University of Cairo. “Nobody can afford it.”

There will, of course, be change, said Hamdy, but it will be characterized by a subtle shift away from the warm cordiality which existed under Mubarak.

But what Israel and the West might view as an alarming disengagement from the spirit of the Camp David Accords, others should see as a return to a more normal, less imbalanced relationship, she added.

“Before 25 January there was an exceptional relationship,” she said. “The Egyptian regime was too accommodating and generous to Israel, even at the expense sometimes of Egyptian and Arab interests.”

As an example Hamdy cited the controversial 20-year deal signed in 2005 in which Egypt agreed to export cheap gas to Israel, triggering anger among some Egyptians who said the fuel was being bought at below-inflation rates.

“Now I think it’s going to be a more normal relationship. I think Egypt will distance itself a bit,” Hamdy said.

Her views were backed up by Abdel Fattah, who added: “The majority of the Egyptian people criticized the regime of Hosni Mubarak because he accepted many violations [against] the Palestinian people.”

“I think the revolutionary uprising is a message to America and Israel saying, ‘You must respect us as a country.’”

If the new government that comes to power after this year’s elections hopes to reflect the will of the people, then a change in Egypt’s attitude toward the issue of the Palestinians would probably be a vote-winner. Indeed, many of the presidential candidates have already started touting their tough-on-Israel credentials as they launch their campaigns.

The SCAF has already got the ball rolling, both by opening the Rafah crossing on Saturday and also by helping to broker a deal between Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions, on forming a unity government. Its next test will be how it deals with Israel’s reaction to a planned UN vote in September on Palestinian statehood.

But a much more permanent change in tact will would required to shift away from Mubarak’s cozy relationship with Israel and the US.

Internal memos recently leaked to Al Jazeera shed light on the duplicity of the Egyptians in their dealings with the Palestinians.

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right hand man on intelligence issues, was cast in a particularly bad light. He was accused by one European diplomat of “discouraging” a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah after the 2006 elections, while negotiators trying to break the siege of Gaza reported that although Suleiman and Mubarak were promising in public to deliver supplies, no goods were actually getting through from the Egyptian side of the border.

“Egypt’s relationship with the Palestinians was very complex,” Hamdy said. “On the one hand Mubarak wanted to establish peace for the sake of Egypt. He believed that Egypt had a stake in peace – that stake was world leadership.

“In public, it has been very supportive of a two-state solution and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. But how far does it go when it comes to the details? That is the issue.”

The merits of drastically altering Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel – and thus endangering approximately US$2 billion of mostly military aid which Cairo receives every year from Washington as a result of the peace treaty – also seems uncertain when one considers whether it is likely to have any serious effect on changing the Israelis.

“It is hard to say whether Egypt will now have leverage on Israeli domestic policy,” said Maddy-Weitzman, the Tel Aviv University professor.

He said that Egyptian impotence in the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held prisoner in the Gaza Strip by Hamas since 2006, was an example of how Cairo’s powers are limited.

Yet he also said the recent deal between Hamas and Fatah, brokered in Cairo, showed how Egypt’s influence has potential to grow.

“If Egypt could have a hand in bringing about a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians which is seen as acceptable then it would send a nice message to the Israeli public,” he added.

Whatever direction Egypt takes after parliamentary and presidential elections this year, there seems to be no possibility of returning to full-scale hostilities with Israel.

According to Mohamed Abdel Salam, an expert on Egypt’s military and editor of World Politics magazine, even if a new government did want to rip up the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt would be in no position to fight a war if it wanted to.

“The balance of forces would have to be 3-to-1 if Egypt wanted to attack Israel,” he said. “I don’t think the balance of power is 3-to-1.”

He added that there was absolutely no incentive whatsoever for either country to break its peace.

“There are regional realities,” he said. “There aren’t any vital interests in going to war.”

Christians and Muslims on a knife-edge in Egypt

Fire ravages a church in the district of Imbaba

Originally published in the Independent, May 9th, 2011

Just a few yards away from the alter in Saint Menas Church, and not far from a large painting depicting the resurrection of Christ hanging on a nearby wall, the floor was sticky with blood.

“They were putting injured people inside the church,” said Awatef Saad, a 44-year-old nurse. “There must have been 100 people in total. We were trying to stitch all the wounds but there were so many injuries.”

Some of the dead were also brought here. One was a middle-aged man called Medhat Magdy, according to Ms Saad. “He was shot in the neck,” she said. “I found his body at the alter when I arrived at the church.”

He was just one of 12 people who were killed during violent clashes between Muslims and Christians which flared up on Saturday night in Imbaba, a dirt-poor district of western Cairo.

The pitched street battles continued into the early hours of yesterday, and two Coptic churches were set ablaze in a night of unrest which also left 200 people injured. The trouble began on Saturday after a rumour spread around the neighbourhood that a woman was being held against her will in the Saint Menas Church because she had married a Muslim man and wanted to convert.

The claim was denied by Christians at the church and never substantiated, but by nightfall several hundred members of the Salafi movement – a hardline branch of Islam which has become increasingly vocal since the fall of the former president Hosni Mubarak in February – had gathered in the street outside.

After barricading themselves inside the church, the Christians were attacked by Salafists, who hurled petrol bombs at homes and shops and torched the front of the church building.

Gunfire rang out around the area as the two sides hurled stones and bricks at each other. Riot police and soldiers arrived later and fired tear gas to try to disperse the crowds, while another nearby church, the Virgin Mary Church, was also torched. “The people who did this were from outside the area. But we have nothing but love to give and we don’t want anybody killed in return,” said Misak Gameel, a priest who works at the Saint Menas Church. “The gates of hell themselves couldn’t destroy this church. We blame the army and the police. They didn’t deal with the Salafis and thugs as required.”

George Ishak, a prominent Christian pro-democracy activist who visited Saint Menas Church yesterday, said: “There is a very tense atmosphere in our country between the Muslims and the Christians. What happened on Saturday was a very bad thing. We don’t accept it. Why is there so much anger? Where is it coming from? It’s unbelievable how people can treat each other.”

Speaking from a nearby tea-house as he sat smoking a shisha pipe, an elderly resident called Abdul Rahman said he had seen large groups pf Salafists gathering in the area on Saturday night. He added: “The Salafists don’t even like me, and I’m a Muslim. They don’t like the revolution because they think we will end up like Lebanon.”

Egypt’s government moved swiftly to try to quell the unrest, with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelling a tour of Gulf Arab states to chair a cabinet meeting where it was decided to deploy more security forces near religious sites and toughen laws criminalising attacks on places of worship. The military, struggling to maintain security and public support in the aftermath of protests earlier this year, said that 190 people would be tried in military courts over Saturday’s violence.

Bloodshed returns to Tahrir Square

The aftermath of the weekend violence

 

Originally published at majalla.com, April 12, 2011

It was one of the chants which defined the Egyptian uprising—“The army and the people on one hand.”

Not any more it seems. At the very least, if the military and the masses ever did fit into one glove then the relationship will need some serious work after this weekend’s violence.

On Friday, central Cairo played host to the biggest demonstration since former president Hosni Mubarak’s ousting in February.

A few thousand protesters lingered on in Tahrir Square after the main rally, but the army was not in a particularly tolerant mood.

At least one person died in the crackdown that followed. Protestors put the tally at three—including, they said, some of the rebel officers who had joined the demonstration in spite of threats by the top brass to court martial any soldiers who attended the march.

The daytime rally, which drew tens of thousands after midday prayers, was intended to pile pressure on the ruling military council, which some believe has been too sluggish in its pursuit of former regime criminals.

But it descended into violence as hundreds of soldiers moved in on the square soon after 2am, peppering the night sky with shots and rounding-up protesters.

A spent cartridge I picked up in Tahrir the following morning is currently perched on my mantelpiece. The military said it was not fired by them as no live rounds were used during the operation.

Nonsense, according to many of the demonstrators who were in central Cairo on Friday night.

“I saw bullets ricocheting up from the ground,” said 47-year-old filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout. “I feel betrayed. The army’s job is not to shoot at us.”

Another demonstrator held a spent round in his palm as he recounted what happened during the night. “The army surrounded the square at around 3am,” said PhD researcher Mohammed Nabeel. “Then they started firing. I feel awful.”

Amal Sharaf, a spokesperson for the April 6th Youth Movement, one of Egypt’s most influential activist groups, said that many Egyptians were unhappy with the sluggish pace of the prosecution process.

She said: “People don’t trust the army anymore. The longer we leave these prosecutions the more time we give Mubarak to escape from his crimes.”

Sali Moore, a senior member of presidential contender Mohamed El-Baradei’s campaign team, agreed that people were disgruntled with the “illegitimate” ruling military council.

But she added it was important to distinguish between the council and the rest of the army.

“In the streets we said ‘the army and the people on one hand’,” she said. “We still believe that because we see the difference between the army and the council.”

The ruling military council will be hoping she is right. During Friday’s march chanting protesters made clear their disdain for the military top brass, comparing interim leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi to Hosni Mubarak and calling on him to resign.

If these sentiments gain traction—and morph into a widespread mistrust of the army—then Egypt’s uprising could be in for stormy weather.

Running scared: Egypt’s Christians looking to leave

Egyptian Copts take to the streets

Fears that Egypt’s revolution could be hijacked by increasingly vociferous political Islamists are threatening to cause an exodus of the country’s minority Coptic population.

Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in February, large numbers of Egyptian Christians have been making plans to leave the country if political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood manage to take control in elections scheduled for later this year.

Lawyers who specialise in working with Coptic Egyptians – who account for around 10 per cent of the country’s 80 million citizens – say that in the past few weeks they have received hundreds of calls from Copts wanting to leave Egypt because of the political uncertainty.

Naguib Gabriel, a prominent Coptic lawyer and head of the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, said his office had been receiving at least 70 calls per week from people wanting to know how they can emigrate.

He said: “Every day people come to me and ask how they can get to the American or Canadian embassies. They are insisting on leaving Egypt because the risks of staying here are too great.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he added. “Many Christians are afraid of the future because of the fanatics in the mosques.”

Though much of the focus on Egypt’s uprising has remained upbeat – especially in comparison to the bloody quagmire developing in neighbouring Libya – the period since Mubarak’s ouster has been marred by vicious bouts of sectarian strife.

At least 15 people, Christians and Muslims, were killed last month in a chain of violence which erupted because of a relationship between a Coptic man and Muslim woman in a village south of Cairo.

This led to a hundreds of Christians joining a prolonged demonstration outside Cairo’s state TV building in a bid to secure better protection for the Copts from Egypt’s ruling military council.

In recent days there have also been clashes involving Egypt’s Salafi movement, a fundamentalist Islamic sect which is considered even more conservative than the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to reports in the Daily News Egypt, a Coptic service centre in Cairo was closed down this week after being picketed by Salafis, while in the Fayoum province south of the capital fights broke out after the sect tried to force the closure of a shop selling alcohol.

It all seems a far cry from the days when demonstrators in Tahrir Square were declaring: “Muslims and Christians are on one hand”.

“The issues now are worse now than in the past,” said Mr Gabriel. “In the past there were problems, but there were long periods between them.

“But after the revolution every day we are seeing new things.”

Mamdouh Nakhla, a Coptic lawyer, said his office was speaking to around 150 people per month who were making plans to leave Egypt because of the political situation.

Some were Muslims, he said, but most were Copts who were worried about the prospects of a Brotherhood-dominated government.

He said: “They want to leave to countries where there is freedom of religion.”

According to both Mr Nakhla and Mr Gabriel, most of the people planning to emigrate want to go to Canada, where there is a large Coptic population of around 50,000.

The Canadian embassy in Cairo said it could not reveal how many Egyptians had applied for visas there since the uprising began.

But Sam Fanous, who runs a company helping Egyptians emigrate and settle in Canada, said that over the past month his office had been “bombarded” with requests from Copts who wanted help in leaving the country.

He added: “I have people coming to my Cairo office until midnight. Often I tell my assistant to shut down the phones because we have so many people calling.”

“The majority of people want to emigrate. Some ask about asylum, but I explain they cannot get refugee status from Egypt.”

Mr Fanous said most of the people coming to him were well-off professionals.

“Some want to go and not come back. Some want to take their families and then come back until it becomes time to leave.”

But he also said there was a difference in attitude between older Copts he had spoken to and the younger generations.

“The young want to fight it out. They were in Tahrir Square and they are not as scared as the older generations.”

Nada Rafik, a 21-year-old Copt from Cairo, said that since the revolution her mother had been making plans to move the family to Canada.

She said: “My mother has been trying to get a Canadian passport for the past year, but since the revolution she’s been saying ‘let’s try and get this done quickly’.

“She is taking precautions and saying that the family has to leave.”

Ms Rafik, a financial analyst, said that she would also consider leaving, but only if the situation got much worse.

“The older generation are more scared than us. They have lived with Mubarak for 30 years and are used to him. Now they are afraid because they see the Egyptian media talking about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, but they don’t see the other side really.”

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected later this year after a recent referendum rubber-stamped constitutional changes which the government had argued were necessary for a fair ballot.

Critics have said that holding the polls this year will benefit only the Muslim Brotherhood and formerly-ruling National Democratic Party, as they are the only organisations currently strong enough to fight an election.

But the Muslim Brotherhood has swatted away concerns it will secure too much power, saying it will not contest more than 30 per cent of parliamentary seats and will field no presidential candidate.

What’s left for Egypt’s socialists?

Egypt's socialists are reading the political tea leaves

 

Originally published at almasryalyoum.com

Gehan Shaaban has come a long way since her youthful days as a radical Trotskyite student.

In the early 1990s she joined forces with a small group of far left political activists in Egypt and founded an organization called the Revolutionary Socialists.

They were inspired by radical Palestinian-British politician Tony Cliff, who was born in 1917 to a Jewish family living in the Holy Land and became a fervent anti-Zionist after emigrating to the UK.

In those days, said Shaaban, things were very bad for the left. “There was no movement at all,” she said. “In the 1990s it was a time when you could not say the word “socialism” because it was the era of the new liberalism and the end of the USSR.”

But now things are beginning to change: With the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak a new political left is emerging in Egypt.

The writing was very much on the wall during the leftist Tagammu Party conference last Saturday, when 73 members resigned due to their exasperation with leader Refaat al-Saeed. They feel his closeness to the Mubarak regime and failure to endorse the recent uprising fatally dented his credibility.

Many have joined the Popular Alliance, a recently-created confederation of different movements which is seeking to bring the notoriously fractious elements of Egypt’s left under one umbrella.

Shaaban joined the alliance with a Trotskyite party she helped form last year, the Socialist Renewal Current.

She said: “This is not the first time people have tried to have a party made up of different leftist groups. But in the past people have only been thinking about their own organizations and how to demand their own ideas. But now we have a different approach. Working together has made people closer. In the past we never had this chance.

“Now if there are differences it will be between real political issues and not just ideology.”

The Popular Alliance is comprised of an assortment of ex-communists, socialists and disaffected Tagammu members.

According to Rabab al-Mahdi, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo, the Popular Alliance has a “lot of potential” for becoming a credible umbrella party for the left.

She said: “It is not like a workers’ party which does not appeal to the intelligentsia. The Popular Alliance has a niche because it can appeal to both.”

Yet in many ways it all sounds too good to be true. Is it realistic to think that such divergent points on the leftist spectrum can ever work together? Shaaban admits that although people are working together now, it might be different once the afterglow of Mubarak’s ouster begins to fade.

“Who can we say what will happen in two year’s time? Two years ago we didn’t see a revolution coming in Egypt. We know we are different, but we know we need each other. That’s why this party is built on freedom and difference.”

They will be helped along their way by Akram Youssef, a 30-year-old former Tagammu member who helped found the Progressive Youth, an organization devoted to promoting the causes of the left around Egypt.

Although not a political party, Akram said his organization is campaigning to raise awareness about activism in communities around Egypt, and then transferring the political know-how into votes for members of the Popular Alliance and other leftist parties.

He said: “There are a lot of militant young people in Egypt now. They want to see Egypt run in a different way and don’t want to accept the Muslim Brotherhood.”

But not everyone is convinced. One man who doesn’t think that a “big tent” for the left is possible is Farid Zahran, who last Friday established his own leftist organization, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

“The Popular Alliance cannot succeed,” he said. “They say one thing and do another thing. What they want to do is get all the groups together with one identity, not for each group to have their own identity.

“It’s not practical and it’s not democratic to think they can stay together. I believe diversity is a good thing. Unity is something imaginary and cannot always be true. We can be together sometimes but not all the time.”

As the name of his party would suggest, Zahran believes the time has come to fuse together socialist principles with market values.

He said that the defining cause of the revolution — freedom, dignity and injustice — could be addressed by acknowledging the importance of the private sector and utilizing its potential value to drive social reforms.

He said: “We want political and economic freedom with social justice. That’s what social democracy is.”

Yet Egypt has never had a strong social democratic movement — the kind of “third way” politics between the unreconstructed left and free-market right which has become the norm in Western leftist thinking — and it is unclear whether the electorate will buy into it.

But Zahran believes people are ready.

“Under Mubarak there was no space for social democracy, because without democratic systems all the movements take radical stances. But I think the space now for social democracy is huge, and I hope that our party can be the one to fill it.”

One party which perhaps isn’t feeling quite so optimistic right now is Tagammu, especially after Saturday’s string of resignations. Those who resigned took the drastic step after failing to pass a motion of no confidence in al-Saeed.

Many among the Tagammu rank and file accuse al-Saeed of not doing enough to endorse the revolution — and perhaps more seriously, of being tucked-up too snugly with the regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Speaking to Al-Masry Al-Youm, al-Saeed rejected the accusation.

He said: “Nobody can dare to say they were more critical of Mubarak than we were. We’re the only party who has demanded from 1981 that the president should only be elected twice.”

He added that Tagammu would continue to criticise the ruling military council for “Islamising the voting process” during the recent referendum.

But according to Talat Sahmy, former Tagammu secretary general of the Giza Governate who quit the party on Saturday, al-Saeed’s continued leadership is destroying the movement’s credibility with the public.

He said that Tagammu has “become a bad name in the street,” citing a number of reasons including al-Saeed’s perceived closeness to Mubarak, his supposed reluctance to demand real reform of the Egyptian political system and his refusal to withdraw Tagammu parliamentarians after the revolution started.

He added: “I know many people who wanted to join the party, but didn’t because it was Tagammu.”

Despite this, al-Saeed said he believes Tagammu is still a credible force. “We have the students, we have the workers. We’re the largest leftist and liberal organisation in Egypt. Nobody can deny this, and we are trying to increase our activities.”

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