A day at Cairo’s clashes

Protesters fighting close to the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters

Protesters fighting close to the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters


A little bit late this one – a piece from the excellent Egypt Independent on the worrying clashes which erupted near the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo-based headquarters a week ago last Friday.

It gives a vivid sense of the mutual loathing which often now characterises relations between supporters of the Brotherhood – the organisation to which President Mohamed Morsi belongs – and their opponents.

A similar bout of fighting broke out in November last year close to Mr Morsi’s Presidential Palace. Back then thousands of protesters engaged in an all night battle  after members of the Brotherhood had forcibly evicted a sit-in taking place near the palace.

The clashes in Moqattam took a similar turn, and offers a depressing glimpse of what could potentially unfold if Egyptians fall back on violence in order to fill the current political void.

Egypt’s opposition needs to start playing politics

How will Egypt's opposition face the coming challenges?

A voter casts her ballot during the constitutional referendum


Another thoughtful piece from The Economist on Egypt’s constitutional woes.

The magazine notes the low turnout in the first round of last week’s referendum, and cautions the Muslim Brotherhood against reacting to their apparently waning support by seeking an ever tighter grip on power.

But there are also stern words for the National Salvation Front, the country’s main opposition group:

“The opposition, for its part, should start relying more on negotiation and less on demonstration. Street protests were a force for good before democracy prevailed—they toppled Mr Mubarak, after all—but if they become a routine way to change the law and remove governments, then Egypt will never learn how to reconcile interests and settle disputes through everyday politics.”

“The non-Islamist opposition, which is coming together for the first time in a broad front, should concentrate on preparing for the imminent general election. To compete with Islamists at a local level, they must start tackling the urgent bread-and-butter concerns of poor people.”

It has been a criticism routinely leveled at Egypt’s liberal, secular and leftist opposition since the toppling of Mubarak – that they are out of touch with the concerns of ‘ordinary voters’.

With fresh parliamentary elections rapidly approaching, the Economist argues that now is the time to start undermining that unhelpful perception.

Is the US repeating its mistakes in Egypt?

Mohamed Morsi and Hillary Clinton during a recent meeting


More thoughts on Morsi’s power grab last week, this time from The Big Pharaoh blog.

The post ruminates over America’s influence on Morsi, and asks whether the president felt he could get away with his decree because of the lavish praise heaped on him by Washington following the Gaza ceasefire.



Psychology of a dictatorship

Liberty Leading the People - a bare-breasted depiction you probably won't find at Muslim Brotherhood HQ

Liberty Leading the People – a bare-breasted depiction you probably won’t find at the headquarters of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood


The outsider’s perspective on the crisis enveloping Egypt – from my occasional drinking buddy Koert Debeuf.

He raises the twin spectres of Lenin and and the Jacobins in reference to the problems faced by Mohamed Morsi.

I’m pretty sure we’re not there quite yet, but DeBeuf nevertheless has some interesting points to make about life inside the political goldfish bowl.

Spice Bazaar reopens after a year long hiatus


Spice Bazaar is back again – but with a slight difference.

After a year long break, this site will now attempt to collate some of the most interesting news and writing currently shaping the Middle East.

I hope it will serve as a useful window onto an endlessly fascinating region.

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.

A warning from the Brotherhood: “America must leave the map”

Dr Esam El-Erian, a Muslim Brotherhood Executive Bureau member, left, and Rashad al-Bayoumi, the group's deputy leader

Originally published at thinkafricapress.com, February 16th 2011

After sitting for ten minutes in a comfy lounge area overlooking a leafy tributary of the Nile, a group of nine men in jackets and ties entered the room. Setting down their intricately patterned mats and kneeling down to face south-east – the direction of Mecca – the Muslim Brotherhood members began to pray. More of them entered, and the lounge area began to fill up with midday worshippers. Across Cairo and Egypt, millions more were doing the same.

Perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters, on Roda Island, southern Cairo, has a greater number of pious worshippers than the average Egyptian office. But the scene was not a remarkable one. Despite this, many in the West fear the brand of Islam promulgated by the Brotherhood. Opinion about the organisation ranges from the belief it is a mere fig-leaf for militant Islam, to worries about how robust its latter-day democratic credentials would be if it ever attained power. But in an interview with Think Africa Press, senior Brotherhood members said that one of the main reasons behind these fears was that in the post-Mubarak epoch the West now stands to lose a great deal. Moreover, Dr Esam El-Erian, a member of the Brotherhood’s Executive Bureau, issued a stark warning to Western governments.

“Egypt has changed,” he said. “The Americans and Europe must leave the Middle Eastern map now.”

Sitting in a cramped, bright office next to a mother-of-pearl carving of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Dr El-Erian said Washington should know that it is “not the only power in the world”, and criticised them for being “friends of the Mubarak regime”.

“America has a chance now to deal with the people, not the regime,” he said. “Egypt cannot sell her independence to anyone, and the world cannot buy our dignity.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned in Egypt for much of the past 50 years, was founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1920s. It was initially conceived as an organisation for encouraging the spread of Islamic piety. But al-Banna also crowned himself as the Supreme Guide who would one day lead a purified Muslim state.The European liberal values which informed the constitutional government of the time were considered a cancer on society – and the Brotherhood identified itself as the cure.

The group established a paramilitary wing to fight British rule, and later, during the 1950s and 1960s, the influential Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb wrote works which heavily influenced the radical Islamists of today. Yet the Brotherhood long ago abandoned any pretence of armed struggle against secular rulers or Western influence. According to the organisation’s deputy leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, al-Banna’s initial goal of extending Muslim influence beyond the Middle East was still relevant to the organisation.

“Everyone who has a vision, or concepts or principles, tried to spread these thoughts through peaceful means,” he said. “There are Christian figures who try to peacefully spread Christianity here in Egypt and Islamic countries in the Middle East. Everybody tries to spread their thoughts in a peaceful way. This is normal.

“What is abnormal and dangerous is that people try to spread the word in a violent way. But the Muslim Brotherhood never thinks about trying to spread its ideas in a violent way.”

One of the great fears among Western governments is the possibility that a Brotherhood-led government would decide to rip up the 30-year-old Egypt-Israeli peace treaty – long-considered a bedrock of security in the region. There is no doubting the Brotherhood’s animosity towards the treaty, a feeling in tune with a great many Egyptians.

Historically, even before Israel declared its independence, the Brotherhood called for greater support of the Arabs fighting Zionists in British Mandate Palestine. Al-Bayoumi points out that the initial 1979 peace treaty agreement was made by former president Anwar Sadat “without the approval of the Egyptian people and without being approved directly by special parliamentary councils”. In spite of this, he says that any decision on the treaty would have to be put to a parliamentary vote.

There is also anxiety in the West that the election due to be held this year will usher-in an Iranian style theocracy with the Brotherhood at the vanguard. The organisation itself insists it wants a fully democratic Egypt. El-Erian talks about “the first step on the road to democracy” being the ability of Egyptians to rid themselves of foreign powers. Al-Bayoumi says he wants the military to be true to its word and oversee a transition to a democratic state.

But leaving aside the separate question of whether the army will fully relinquish its current grip on power, many ask whether the Brotherhood would even be capable of winning an openly contested election now. Many of the anti-government protesters – Muslim, Christian, secular or otherwise –scotched the notion of the organisation having enough support to seize power. Others have asked whether the oppression of the Mubarak years intensified the misleadingly bright aura around the Brotherhood. The feelings have been fuelled by suspicions that the organisation was slow to commit itself to the protest movement. It is a suggestion Al-Bayoumi does not take seriously.

He said: “We were worried that people would think the Muslim Brotherhood would try to take control. But many of our senior figures were involved in the demonstrations before the young men.”

The coming months will see whether the Brotherhood remains the force it has often been painted as. Leaders in the West will be waiting with bated breath.