Questions for Egypt’s Christian Community

Concerned with the standing of minorities and the under-represented in the new Egypt, Amador Square has followed events relevant to the Egyptian Christian community through a number of blogs, including, “A Sense of Belonging.” The blogger, Jayson Casper, is an American writer with Christianity Today, Lapido Media, and Arab West Report, living in Egypt. A professed Christian himself, Jayson’s approach is to build understanding between cultures and religions, even as he wears the hat of a journalist.

Jayson Casper, American writer living in Egypt.

Two of Jayson’s recent posts alternated between bold analysis—“Islamo-Fascism”–and straight reporting—“Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt.” Jayson’s balancing act prompted me to invite him to a Q&A, and I am privileged to share his thoughtful insights today—along with some wrong assumptions on my part. Before our Q&A, a quick—assumedly narrow—introduction to the history of Christians in Egypt and review of recent events is in order.

The majority of Egypt’s Christians are part of the Coptic Church and make up about 10 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. Their history began with the arrival of gospel-writer and Apostle Mark in Alexandria, during the Roman occupation in the first century. Even after the Arab conquest in 641 A.D., Egypt remained largely Christian for another four centuries; Muslim dominance was not fully established until the 12th century.

A long history of persecution and marginalization of the Copts gave way to greater integration in the 19th century, with the abolition of the Jizya tax and the right to serve in the army. But conditions worsened again during the Nasser regime (1950’s-1960’s) when Pan-Arab policies and nationalism, property confiscations, etc., eroded the Copts’ pre-Arab identity and economic power. Their minority standing continued to be, and remains, threatened by periodic hostilities and violence.

The same month that would bring the revolution to Tahrir Square began with the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, killing 21 worshipers. Eight months after January 25th uprising–in the wake of another church attack—Christians gathered at Maspero-Cairo to demand equal rights and legal treatment–namely the right to build houses of worship without fear of violence and persecution.  Clashes with the military (Daily News Egypt raw video) resulted in 27 deaths and hundreds of injuries (NYT slide show). These violent clashes were portrayed very differently by the military and justified as action against sectarian vandalism.

The potential for sectarian violence is, in fact, very much on the minds of Christians. Strong defenders of the separation of church and state, the plight of Egypt’s Christians is now heightened by the Islamist push for a Constitution article that defines Egypt as a Muslim nation, with laws founded in Islam.

Such is the context that informed the Q&A with Jayson Casper.

Amador Square (AS):
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts were there, at Tahrir Square, demanding the ousting of Mubarak’s regime. What has changed for Copts, a year later?

Jayson Casper (JS):
A couple clarifications, first. Though the Muslim Brotherhood was not there officially when the revolution began, many of their youth were. Furthermore they were there officially after January 28.

Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church was not there in the beginning, or afterwards, though Christians did contribute from the earliest days. Christian activists I know, however, lament that their fellow believers were so few.

But you refer to the changing euphoria that Copts had following the revolution. Simply, they were dealt a huge blow by the military in the events of Maspero, and the other powers which emerged are mainly Islamist. I don’t think Copts want to go back to the old regime – they recognize the limitations and false freedoms of Mubarak. But they would not mind a reformed continuation of what was, though this creates a dissonance that mutes overt support for the revolution.

AS:
When you talk to Egyptian Copts about the community’s future prospects vis a vis Egypt’s political present, what do you hear most? Concern-to-fear; hope-to-optimism? What are some of the concerns and what are some of the opportunities Copts still hope to reap from the advent of the revolution?

JS:
There is the specter of Islamist rule that terrifies many, but it has little to do with the current political discourse and more to do with longstanding mistrust and the weight of sectarian incidents over the years. Even if the near-term political future is bleak, Copts generally still maintain hope that what the revolution has unleashed is good. Yes, Islamists seem to be reaping the fruit, but the revolution was clearly not an Islamist movement, and thus can hold any future government accountable. But there is also the worry that the revolution was Cairo- and elite-driven, and the basic conservatism (though not necessarily Islamism) of the masses may blunt the long term effects of the revolutionary cry.

AS:
For some years already, there has been talk about a decline in numbers and in religious freedom for Christians in the Middle East. Last year, for instance, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Kurdish-region of Iraq was quoted by The Catholic Herald as saying, “Iraq’s ancient Christian community has run out of time and will disappear soon.” DoEgypt’s Copts have reason for a more optimistic outlook than other communities inMiddle East societies under Islamist rule? How and why so? (What makes Egypt different?)

JC:
Egypt is different because there are so many Christians among an already large and still rapidly growing population. Birthrate differences, emigration, and conversions to Islam continue to shrink the population proportionally, but it will still take generations to see a similar dissolving of Copts in Egypt.

Sectarian tension also does not seem to be an essential part of the Egyptian religious identity. In history harsh periods of persecution were few, and generally tied to social instability or foreign pressures. Similarly, for all the incidents that have happened to Copts from Sadat’s presidency onward, most were of limited provenance and tied to specific social factors. While not excusing the real tensions behind and resulting from such attacks, it is wrong to extrapolate these and suggest they represent the core of Muslim-Christian relations.

That said, Egypt is undergoing social instability, and it is not out of the question to imagine Copts paying the price as local scapegoats, with some taking advantage of the situation to enact an extremist understanding of Islamic hegemony. Copts have been immigrating from the villages to the regional capitals, and from there to the big cities. The ease of modern migration enables further mass exodus. The Iraq example is a concern, but it should not be taken as a prediction.

AS:
What are some of the initiatives and organization the Copt community and leadership are undertaking to protect their religious freedom and their identity in the new Egypt? Who are the Copts allies?

JS:
The Coptic community suffers division in terms of who should represent it. Many fear the loss of Pope Shenouda means the church will lose its protective role and desire another strong pope to continue his tradition.

Others believe the strong role of the church damaged the community and its social integration. Some have made Coptic pressure groups and revolutionary organizations like the Maspero Youth Union, while others are simply diving headlong into politics such as the Free Egyptians or the Social Democratic Party. There is even talk of creating an organization similar to the Muslim Brotherhood – a Christian Brotherhood.

But other initiatives are like the one you ask about next.

AS:
One of your recent posts describes a new agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Evangelical Church in Egypt. What significance do you attribute to this document?

JS:
The significance is not in what was agreed; similar statements have been made by the Brotherhood in the past. The significance lies in that Christian groups are seeing the necessity of dialogue and relationship with Islamist forces. Relationships are vital in Egypt; they may not get you what you want, but if you are known, there is a great social bond which cannot be violated. Pope Shenouda is celebrated as having crafted such positive relationships.

It is also significant this agreement was signed by the Evangelicals only, though the stipulations cover all without distinction. But as the Orthodox Church has not entered into such dialogue may indicate they still have their eggs in the basket of old regime/military elements, for good or for ill. That may be too much of a speculation, of course, and as the representative of the vast majority of Egyptian Christians they may simply – and wisely – be refraining from entering too deeply into the vagaries of the current political transition.

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Egypt: MPs, Writers’ Union Demand Consensus Constitution

Citing a lack of representation–for women, youth, religious groups, political movements, geographic regions–fourteen MPs (Members of Parliament) and other secular elements of Egypt’s constitution-writing assembly had withdrawn their participation by Monday afternoon, according to Egypt Independent. The 100-member assembly tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution is dominated by Parliament members from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafi Nour Party.

Egypt's Parliament (AP Image. Accessed at Ahram Online.)

Some resigning members went beyond issues of representation and the urgency of a consensus-based constitution to decry the parliamentary majority’s takeover of the drafting assembly. While recognizing the Islamists’ majority right to broader representation, the independent MP Amr Hamzawy argued that nominations to the committee were influenced by political affiliation over competence and relevant expertise. On Sunday, Hamzawy polled his constituents on facebook on whether he should remain as a representative on the drafting panel–eventually siding with the minority and his conscience. His statement to the assembly specifically rejected “the marginalization of women, youth, Copts and the exclusion of several of Egypt’s competent legal and economic experts.”

Monday’s committee resignations were preceded on Sunday by the Union of Egyptian Writers’ (UEW) strong condemnation of the election process to the constituent committee. According to Ahram Online, 50 percent of members were chosen from the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly and Shura Council, and 50 percent from outside parliament.  The UEW contended that—as per the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) Constitutional Declaration, approved by referendum in a March 2011–MPs should choose from representatives nominated by civil society organizations, such as unions.  The MP’s job is to elect, not nominate representatives. The UEW had thus submitted 10 names to the committee, including honored Egyptian intellectuals, but the list was ignored.

Ironically enough, the  UEW’s list of nominees was itself controversial. Union member Fares Khedr said the list was not compiled through public discussion, and was based more on the writers fame than real expertise.

Among writers’ predictions of troubled times for the ongoing revolution, novelist Gamal El-Ghitany told Ahram Online that the Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament “stands against writers and literature.” He also expressed surprise for the lack of reaction by liberal factions—that was Sunday. Monday, the reaction was growing.

While acknowledging divisions in the intellectual movement against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and a dim future ahead, El-Ghitany still believes that “Egypt will not become an Islamic country.”

Novelist Mekkawi Said saw the exclusion of academics as more extreme that than the former regime’s appeasing pretenses, and predicted an impoverishment of the people’s political consciousness as a result.

But lawyer and writer Ahmed Zaghloul El-Shaity expressed a different view to  Ahram Online saying the constitutional battle has been fought and settled: by an “unofficial coalition of the ruling military council, Islamists and ex-members of the Mubarak administration.” And if Kehdr is right—“We have idiots for politicians that do not read daily newspapers”—the revolution is stalling.

UPDATE–March 28, 2012
Some insightful analysis at “The Arabist“:

If there is a sizeable number of people who think the constitution is illegitimate and the consensus around is weak, there is a risk down the line that this would make a coup (soft or hard) easier. Egypt will be naturally coup-prone in the next few years, and while the Brothers say they want consensus, the Salafists have a more winner-takes-all approach and want to nominate figures such as Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, a popular preacher, who will push for a very strict interpretation of Sharia

UPDATE–March 29, 2012
Egypt Independent reported that following today’s withdrawal of Al-Ahzar‘s sole representative from the constituent assembly, the FJP yielded 10 of its own seats to liberal appointees. Speaking to Egypt Independent, Moety Bayoumy, a member of the university’s Islamic Research Academy, had admonishing words for the Muslim Brotherhood:

It should not be at all that one trend dominates the constituent assembly as it violates the principles of Islam. […] I have said from the beginning that the constituent assembly is invalid for so many reasons […] I say to these Islamists, you represent certain people, because the true Islamists who understand Islam, and its position on the civil state, seek directly by virtue of their culture and their knowledge of Islam to include all the effective elements in the Muslim community to develop a new constitution. This is the true Islamic society.

Egypt: Compromise or a Second Wave of Revolution?

RT.com (Russian Today, TV Network in English) devoted some airtime to Egypt today under the title, “Permanent Revolution: Resistance lives among disillusioned Egyptians.”

Among the disillusioned interviewed by the network was Khaled Telema, an activist with the Coalition of the Youth Revolution:

We weren’t against Mubarak as a person; we were against the whole system, against oppression and injustice. Although the SCAF [the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] said they were pro-revolution, their actions show they’re applying the same techniques used by him [Mubarak].

As reported by Human Rights Watch in September of 2011, in roughly 8 months of military rule, over 12,000 Egyptians had already faced military tribunals, a distant record against Mubarak’s 30-year ruling. Speaking to RT, journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy said that more than 13,000 Egyptians have been processed through military courts in the last year, including labor strikers–formerly tried in ordinary courts–and the rubber bullets that dispersed demonstrators in the past have been replaced by live ammunition.

Questioned on the controversy surrounding the mostly-Islamist composition of the panel charged with drafting Egypt’s constitution, Dr. Jamal Sultan of the Al-Ahram Center of Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, warned that this lack of representation of other views would intensify political struggle and instability. However, when pressed about the West’s expectations for Egypt’s transition to democracy versus the prospect of an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law, Dr. Sultan defined the “name of the game” as being about “governance and stability”–not about human rights:

I believe that if the Islamist government in Egypt will be able to provide governance and stability and won’t be a cause for instability at the regional level […] perhaps the West will at least remain silent if there are things that they might not like, in terms of civil liberties or human rights in the country.

Clearly the West has remained silent before, for decades at a time. But Dr. Sultan goes further:

The problem with the Mubarak regime was that it wasn’t effective in providing for this stability, and I think that if an Islamist government would do it, I think the West would live with that.

Put this way, Dr. Sultan himself appears ready to “live with that,” which would ring contrary to his warnings about a one-world-view constitution.

But while some might hope for stability at any cost, others, such political activist Nahla Salem (also interviewed by RT), see the growing compromises as fuel for a “second wave of the revolution”:

The economic situation is really getting worse, and I believe [the] people who are suffering nowadays, because they can’t afford to feed their families they are going to lead […] a second wave of the revolution, but it’s going to be really, really aggressive, and really, really violent and bloody.”

Unfortunately for Egypt’s poor, revolutions don’t have an history of improving economic conditions for everyday citizens.

Egypt: Where are the women?

“Where are the men?” was the cry of some 3,000 women textile workers striking at a Mahallah factory in December of 2006. With those words they shamed the men into action, growing the demonstration to 10,000. That cry is the title to a chapter in Marwan Bishara’s new book, “The Invisible Arab.” As he and others have noted, women activists played a decisive role in ushering the Egyptian revolution, and, at Tahirir Square, they were seen as equals—“There was no harassment, no ridicule, no intimidation, only appreciation for their courage and determination,” wrote Bishara, the senior political analyst for Al Jazeera English.

But they were also preyed upon and brutalized by security forces. When 18 women were arrested last March, seven of them endured virginity tests, allegedly as a way to ward off claims of sexual harassment while in police custody. The patriarchal rationale being…virgins can’t claim rape, and only rape constitutes harassment and/or assault.

So, where are the women, now?

A week ago, Ahmed Adel, the army doctor accused of performing so-called “virginity tests” on seven female protesters last Spring was acquitted by his own—a military tribunal. As reported by The New York Times, the trial and its verdict defy the rights of women, as well as the power of civilian authority—demonstrating, once again, the impunity and entitlement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (S.C.A.F.). In fact, since the fall of Mubarak, and under SCAF rule, 12,000 civilians have been tried by military courts for exercising freedom of expression and association. While numerous complaints have been filed with military prosecutors against the army’s abuses of power, they have failed to make it to the courtroom—the Adel case being one-of-two rare exceptions, according to the same NYT article.

Where women are concerned, the virginity-tests in military prisons, along with the army’s brutalization of “the blue bra girl,” have come to epitomize the oppression of women in post-Mubarak Egypt. The latter, gave rise to a demonstration of historic proportions; the virginity-tests case—lead by Samira Ibrahim, the first victim to sue the military–exposed sexual harassment as more than the cancer of a patriarchal society: it is, has been, a government practice.

"The Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim at a protest in Cairo on Tuesday." Source: Nasser Nasser/Associated Press, published in The New York Times, March 15, 2012

The Status of Egyptian Women in 2011,” a press release by The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) contrasts the world’s hopes for Egyptian women versus reality on the ground by pitting the image of “the blue bra girl” against Western media coverage of influential women activists. As an example, the agency cites Dr. Nawal El-Sa’adawy, ranked 16th in “The Guardian’s” most-important 100 female activists, in the world (a list put together in 2011 to mark the centennial of International Women’s Day).

The “social cancer” of sexual harassment in Egypt—as described by the ECWR—was brought to Western light when female journalists were sexually assaulted on Tahrir Square by mobs as well as security forces, but it came as no news to Egyptian women. According to a 2008 study conducted by the same agency, 98 percent of foreign female visitors and 83 percent of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment. Sixty-two percent of men admitted to harassing women, and 53 percent blamed women for encouraging it. Some male respondents used even “boredom” as an excuse for harassing women; one respondent assaulted a woman wearing the “niqab” on the suspicion that she was hiding something desirable.

Thus, contrary to a popular belief—held by men and women, and often used to explain violence against women—the study also showed that the majority of victims dressed modestly and wore traditional headscarves. Perhaps most revealing, while Western women participating in the study had strong expectations of personal safety and freedom of movement, female Egyptian respondents did not—and many blamed themselves for the abuse. Reporting on the ECWR’s study, a BBC News article quoted:

No-one spoke about freedom of choice, freedom of movement or the right to legal protection. No-one showed any awareness that the harasser was a criminal, regardless of what clothes the victim was wearing.

Or, as Rasha Hassan, a researcher involved in the study, told Egypt Independent in 2011, “When we were working on our field study, people didn’t know what sexual harassment meant, and they thought it meant sexual assault.”

In this environment, attempts to criminalize sexual harassment—by NGO’s, such as the ECWR, and women activists, such as Samira Ibrahim—face more than the resistance of military rulers or the rise of religion-based politics. Significant numbers of secular and religious Egyptians, men and women, continue to align themselves with the oppressors, and to engage in the oppression of women.

While the beating of “the blue bra girl” caught on video drew what some historians called the largest, most unified demonstration of women—and men—to the streets, the acquittal of the army doctor has drawn relatively small demonstrations of mostly women. Following the trial, Samira Ibrahim took to Twitter and placed the burden for women’s rights squarely on Egyptians: “No one stained my honor. The one that had her honor stained is Egypt. I will carry on until I restore Egypt’s rights.”

As reported by The New York Times’ “Latitude” blogger, Sarah A. Topol—a Cairo-based journalist who experienced sexual harassment first-hand at Tharir Square—Egyptian women are indeed fighting back, at times with the support of men. Topol mentions a male cordon used to protect a women’s march last December, and Web sites to report harassment. But with a mere 9 women among 498 members in the newly elected Parliament, what are the chances that Egypt’s new constitution will protect such basic women’s rights?

The odds notwithstanding, according to Egypt Independent the controversial NGO, National Council for Women (NCW)—first established under Mubarak in 2000 and once headed by former first-lady, Suzan Mubarak—held a press conference on Wednesday, March 14, to demand that specific women’s rights be protected in the new constitution:

[…] guaranteed gender equality, criminalization of gender discrimination, criminalizing the incitement of hatred or contempt of women by all political parties and religious institutions and the adoption of temporary measures of affirmative action, such as women’s quotas, to ensure equitable representation of women.

On the issue of gender roles, one of the outlined demands called for recognizing motherhood as a social function rather than an exclusive responsibility of women.

Not surprisingly, the NCW has been under fire by Islamist Members of Parliament (MP’s), namely for the agency’s suggested amendments to family laws involving divorce and custody rights for women. Azza al-Garf, a female MP, has criticized the council for defending a Western model that violates Islamic Sharia.

The NCW also faced public protest at a recent lecture on the status of Egyptian women, attended by large numbers from the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom Justice Party. The FJP has criticized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ for its February decision to reinstate the women’s council, excluding Islamic representation. An FJC report has accused the council of implementing laws that have devastated family and social life in Egypt. The NCW’s new head, Mervat al-Talawy, challenged the accusations and defended the council’s policies. Farkhonda Hassan, a former secretary general of the NCW, also insisted the role of the council was to propose laws, not to implement them, and that the opinion of Al-Azhar Islamic scholars had been solicited and informed the council’s proposals.

This backlash against the NCW was predicted as inevitable by Aliaa Dawood, a professor at the American University in Cairo, in a November op-ed in Egypt Independent:

Egyptian men are busy planning and implementing another revolution, but this time women will not play any role in it whatsoever. This is because it is a revolution against women’s rights.

Among those rights, she named attempts to abolish the “khula” law (a Muslim woman’s right to seek a divorce), reverse amendments to custody laws, and other women’s rights established by international treaties signed by Egypt. The organizations leading the backlash against the NWC–and the “Suzan Mubarak’s laws,” has they have come to be known–have names that suggest a need to save or protect the family. But one organization is simply called “Egyptian Men’s Revolution.”

Dawood breaks down the inevitability of the backlash:

(i) Suzan Mubarak’s laws were based on the first lady herself; her power was limited, and the media’s interest in the work of the NWC was more about the first lady than about women’s rights;

(ii) the state decided which, when and how women’s rights were to be addressed; Egyptian society was not called to the table, thus laws were seen as just another imposition by the regime and were met with the usual resistance;

(iii) some of the laws were presented as if taking rights from men to give to women; the tables turned when men began talking about being oppressed, and organizations formed to defend the rights of men—before the revolution.

After the revolution, the same men saw the fall of Mubarak as an opportunity to recover lost ground. Last month, the “Egyptian Men’s Revolution” staged a protest in front of the People’s Assembly accusing the NWC of being sexist, hostile toward men, and unconstitutional, on the basis of “discrimination.”

Women’s active participation in revolutions does not guarantee progress in women’s rights—as the Iranian revolution demonstrated. In the case of Egypt, a pertinent alternative to the question,where are the women, now, might be…

How will women define themselves or be defined (by men) in the new Egypt?

This past week, Egypt Independent published a fascinating op-ed by Marwa Sharafeldin, a rights activist and a PhD Candidate in the Law Faculty of Oxford University, titled “The ‘hareem’ of the new Egyptian constitution.”

Marwa Sharafeldin speaking at the Doha Debates, March 2011.

On her way to a recent march, Sharafeldin witnessed a telling exchange between two youths and an elderly woman. In brief, one of the young men cursed the day—and cursed all women—should he ever have to “take money from a woman.” When called on his cursing by a passing elderly woman, the youth set her apart by addressing her as “my mother,” a term used to show respect to older women: “Not all hareem [women] are like you, my mother,” he said. Sharafeldin explains the meaning of hareem, the plural of horma: “it means women, but it holds within it meanings of dependency, weakness and need for protection and concealment.”

The response of the elderly woman was cathartic: “I’m not a horma, I’m a dakar [man].” The author explains, that while the word “dakar” implies superiority, the word “horma” implies subordination. She makes the point that, while women are the main breadwinners in nearly a third of Egyptian households, the episode illustrates that men continue to show aversion to the idea of depending on women, or seeing them as equal. She fears this kind of thinking is particularly dangerous as Egypt’s new constitution begins to be drafted:

If the new constitution only recognizes the full “citizenship” of Egyptian men because they are the strong able citizens of this country, and discriminates against women, denying them full citizenship rights under a pretext of being subordinate hareem, it would be a catastrophe. “

The future law doctor goes on to uncover specific articles and language in the present constitution and discusse some of the pitfalls of such a framework—well worth reading! She ends suggestion a different kind of response to the young man who cursed all self-sufficient, independent hareem:

“I’m not a horma, I’m an Egyptian citizen!”

UPDATE: March 19, 2012

In 1872,  Susan B. Anthony, the co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association and pioneer of the women’s rights movement in the United States, was arrested and convicted of the crime of voting in the 1872 presidential election. The following year, when she was brought to trial, she delivered an historic speech before the court. As I happened to listen to that speech today, Marwa Sharafeldin’s quote came echoing at this point of Anthony’s speech:

The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities.