Wednesday 26 December 2012

"Christians in Egypt" and other novelties..

Long-awaited guidelines, intended to help unsuspecting citizens identify members of a newly emerged sect in Egypt called "Christians", have finally been issued. The document describes "Christians" (or "Copts" as they sometimes call themselves) as a monolithic collective of people who have appeared in Egypt recently under very suspicious circumstances. Even though not much is known about this new religious community, the advent of which introduces the concept of "religious diversity" to a historically religiously homogeneous Egypt, scientists and analysts have been able to collect some vital data about them hoping to raise awareness about the dangers they pose to the country.

Christians have been observed to consume disproportionately high quantities of fava beans for long periods of time during the year thereby endangering Egypt's strategic fava bean reserves. Their exact origins are unknown, but they have been said to come from an undiscovered planet called "Diaspora" hoping to raise havoc in the country. They seem to dispense over an unlimited supply of money and weapons which they are known to store inside their houses of worship where they reportedly also keep their pet lions. 

Coptic deacons chanting at the Cathedral

In addition to that, investigations have revealed that they are also in possession of vast areas of land around some of their more remotely located houses of worship where they claim to spend their time in contemplative prayer. These so-called "monasteries", however, are suspected of being no more than a façade for clandestine practices, possibly hiding places for ultra-sophisticated nuclear arms factories. 

In a recent incident where their dangers have become apparent, Christians carried out a diabolical plan by which they led several Armed Personnel Carriers (APC's) to a trap using their own bodies as bait. It has to be mentioned that some insightful media outlets with a heightened sense of responsibility attempted to warn the general populace of the evil nature of that plot, though unfortunately to no avail. This incident has resulted in considerable damage to the wheels of the APC's coupled with high clean-up costs which, in turn, have had dramatic effects on the country's otherwise stable economy. Not to mention the stolen APC's which authorities still haven't been able to recover, they might be found hidden in the monasteries as well.

Although the majority of Christians have succeeded in perfecting their Arabic language skills, an attentive listener can, with a bit of effort, pick up on their distinct Christian accent. This trait has helped to identify them in recent times, permitting experts to determine their exact participation percentages in protests by listening to them chant. Aside from that, they seem to have developed a separate language which they presumably use to communicate with their foreign associates, most likely members of occult organizations.

Even though they have only been in the country for a relatively brief time, they have managed to blend in well to the extent that they were able to partake in the political process by pretending to be regular citizens. Although their numbers are very small, insignificant one might say, they seem to possess a supernatural ability to increase in numbers at public gatherings and protests, but also during presidential elections. It is still unclear whether these are the only supernatural abilities they possess, but there have been unconfirmed reports claiming they also have invisible fingers, which are known internationally to be means of thwarting democratic transitions.

Regulations obliging Christians to wear visible signs identifying themselves as "Christian" are expected soon so as to make it easier to discern between them and normal Egyptians. In the meantime, citizens are strongly advised to exercise extreme caution when dealing with those they suspect of being Christian until more is known about their kind and how to neutralize their threat. 

Disclaimer: This is a satirical piece intended to highlight the disturbing rise of the use of sectarian rhetoric in Egypt. 

Monday 24 December 2012

Who Owns the Revolution?

We're approaching the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution and seeing how we are apparently still stuck with the same "revolutionary - felool" paradigm (felool being a term originally used for old regime remnants but one that has come to mean anyone who opposes revolutionaries and/or the Muslim Brotherhood), it is time to critically evaluate the positions of the different actors on the political stage. Many have claimed that the Egyptian revolution had distinct goals, clear ideals that can function as a way to measure and determine whether someone was revolutionary or not. However, it has become clear that the slogan "bread, freedom and social justice" can hardly fulfill that goal. Under the umbrella of the revolution were united people who hold completely different views about the very basics of political and societal organization. The only thing that united these people was a hatred for the old regime and this for various reasons which aren't all common to all of them. Some, for instance, don't seem to want to change the system as much as the people who were in it, while others hoped for a more thorough change. It is obvious in any case, that once that common enemy fell, the revolutionary movement disintegrated into several groups each holding on to a separate meaning of the revolution and claiming to 'continue the fight' for its sake. 

Celebrations in Tahrir Square after Mubarak stepped down

One of the accusations hurled at the Muslim Brotherhood was that they 'stole' the revolution (a variation has them 'riding' the revolutionary wave). This rhetoric, though comforting for revolutionaries who feel frustrated they couldn't transform their ideas into reality, must be viewed with scrutiny. For what does it mean to 'steal the revolution'? Regardless of when they joined the street protests, the Muslim Brotherhood at one point also stood in the squares and also screamed for bread, freedom and social justice, also demanding that Mubarak step down. Why would their interpretation of the revolution be considered inferior to that of the (other) 'revolutionaries'? Why can't the Islamists claim that the establishment of a theocratic state is in fact a way of fulfilling the demands of the revolution as they understand them? 

Similarly, as Maikel Nabil was talking at a university in Israel, some have taken it upon themselves to deprive him of the 'revolutionary' label. He has no right to call himself a revolutionary, according to them, because his beliefs aren't in accordance with theirs. And this regardless of whether he was in the squares like them, screaming the same words and calling for the downfall of Mubarak as well. 

What many fail to understand is that the only thing the people in the square had in common was a hatred for the Mubarak regime and a desire for change. What direction that change would go and what exactly it would entail wasn't something they all agreed on, not by far. There were different factions from the beginning, people who have little in common. Most well-known pictures of Tahrir square which were spread on the media show the full square from afar, even most videos show the same image of a unified collective screaming loudly with one voice. But zoom in and you see the true picture, with all its political colors and nuances. A Salafi, a revolutionary socialist and a classical liberal all stood together, but their unity would end once their common goal was achieved, their visions about the post-Mubarak Egypt diverge in an extreme way. An important side note here is that not all those who hated the corruption of the Mubarak regime were in the squares. The so-called "Kanaba party", people who didn't really join in street action, aren't all one block either. The reality is much more complicated than the simplified black and white version many are advocating. There were those who, while reviling the system and the way things were going, didn't believe a revolution would bring any relief. Yes, there were those who believed slow, piecemeal reform would eventually yield better results than what they considered an uncalculated, risky regime change. 

When the second round of the presidential elections was held, many dubbed it the ultimate test to determine someone's revolutionary score. Nevermind the fact that there is no such thing as a "unified political program for the revolution" upon which a so-called "unified candidate" can get all the revolutionary votes. And indeed, Morsi, Sabbahi and Abul Fotouh were all considered revolutionary candidates by their followers, even though their respective political programs differed greatly. In the end, Morsi was dubbed "the revolutionary candidate" even though his plans for the country were fundamentally and completely different from those of a liberal revolutionary or a socialist revolutionary. And that same "revolution" which was used to usher in the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, was later on used to justify the way they ruled the country. It was somehow expected that all revolutionaries accept this in silence or be dubbed felool, remnants of the old regime, supporters of corruption. They fell victims to the dichotomy they created wereby one is either a revolutionary who stand for justice or a felooli who supports corruption and nepotism. 

Well, it is time to let go of naive simplifications of reality and start realizing the complexity and diversity that exists in the Egyptian case. In the end, what counts should be the actual ideological opinions and concrete plans for the country the person or group in question has. This is the divide we should focus on, this is the divide upon which parties and coalitions should be built, not the empty revolutionary - felool dichotomy! It is outrageous that those who didn't support the revolution or who supported Shafik should be treated as morally inferior to the so-called revolutionaries. Not after it became clear that some revolutionaries would in fact use that revolution to usher in a new age of dictatorship, this time in the form of a totalitarian theocracy. Some of those who opposed the revolution from the beginning and who voted for Shafik later on did so exactly because they had predicted this scenario. The vast majority of those Egyptians aren't criminals, nor people who approve of corruption, they are simply people who disagreed with the 'revolutionaries' on how this country should be run and how its problems should be solved. Try and punish the criminals of the old regime, but don't alienate those who did what they thought was best for their country and continue to do so. They don't need to justify themselves or apologize for breaching the "revolutionary" code in order to be accepted among the ranks of those legitimately opposing the current regime.

Egypt now stands before a difficult struggle. A struggle for freedom from state oppression, a struggle against a government that wishes to put itself above the law, a regime that would trample basic rights under the pretext of 'purging' state and society from 'evil elements'. In this fight, the distinction shouldn't be based on the meaningless revolutionary - felool divide, but on something more pertinent in face of the current threats.  As I write this, a quote by George Orwell comes to mind, one that seems to have been written exactly for the situation we're in today: "The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians."

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Constitutional Highway to Theocracy

It is no secret that the Egyptian Islamists (most importantly represented in the Constitional Assembly by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Da'awa Salafiya) who, together with clear sympathizers, possessed more than half the seats in the Constitutional Assembly, all want a religious state, a theocracy of sorts, a system where purely religious rules are enforced using state power. This demand has been at the heart of their chants in protests, their parties' political programs and their members' words whenever they appear in the media. In fact, during the discussions in the Constitutional Assembly, some members of that group wanted to remove the word "democratic" from the draft altogether, because it would imply putting the people's will above that of God (cf. infra).

In this article, I shall discuss some of the constitutional loopholes and mines through which the drafters wished to implement their plans of having the government play a big, intrusive role in the lives of citizens by invoking religion. Let it be clear that this article does not aim to belittle the role of religion in both private and public life in any way nor is the point to discuss a particular religion in se. I simply mean to clarify what the draft constitution entails and how it will be interpreted so as to counter claims by some so-called experts claiming it is not very controversial or that protests against it are exaggerated. It is therefore that I would like to discuss Dr. Yasser el Borhamy's words (AR), published by "Ana El Salafy" (I, the Salafi)*, a famous Salafi website. After having finished the constitutional draft, El Borhamy, who is a prominent Salafi member of the Constitutional Assembly, is seen in the video defending and explaining the draft to fellow Salafi sheikhs, among whom the prominent Sheikh Mohammed Hassan. The reason for this, was that there were some attacks on the draft from within the Islamist front itself.

Dr. Yasser El Borhami, member of the Constituent Assembly

El Borhamy starts off by stating the importance of article 2 of the constitution which proclaims that Islam is the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic law (Shariah) are the main source of legislation. It is important to note that Salafis believe the article, as it was interpreted in the past by the Supreme Consitutional Court (SCC), had a range that was too narrow for their wishes.

El Borhamy then clarifies that although only 50% of the Assembly were Islamists (while mentioning that Islamists should have had more than 70% but agreed to 50% in the end in order to avoid problems with SCAF and the SCC), many members from the "non-Islamist" group were in fact also "religious" and supported the "Islamist project". He concludes that there was thus a majority for Islamists in the end.

He continues by saying that they wished to replace the word "democratic" in article 1 of the draft with the word "shura". The word "citizenship" was also considered a problem by some Islamists, because, just like "democracy", it was suspected of being unislamic. However, since the SCC had interpreted "citizenship" to mean that citizens feel they belong to one nation and that their interests are interlinked, El Borhamy explains that it contains nothing that goes against religion per se. In the end, they decided to keep the word "democratic" in the first article, but define it by adding "shura" to its explanation in article 6. The reason for this addition was to make clear that democracy in Egypt would have a "ceiling", that there would be primacy for God's law (of course, always as interpreted by humans) over the will of the people.

The next article discussed is the controversial article 2. According to Salafis, the article had been void of meaning and was merely "decor" in the past. It is therefore that they wished to rewrite the article so as to make its range broader. In the end and after much discussion, the Islamists suggested  adding article 219 which defines the words "principles of shariah". It is this article, which is contained in the final draft, which the Salafis consider a "red line" as they feel it is the article that defines the entire constitution. El Borhamy even stated that adding article 219 is better than cancelling the word "principles" in article 2 (which was a previous Islamist demand) so that it becomes "Shariah (and not just its principles) is the main source of legislation".

Afterwards El Borhamy addresses some complaints he has heard about article 43 which guarantees freedom of belief. He points out that article 81 which concludes the chapter about "Rights and Freedoms" in the draft is the solution to the problem. This article stipulates that the exercise of rights and freedoms contained in the constitution must be in accordance with basic principles laid down in the chapter about "State and Society", which, as he explains, entail the principles of shariah contained in article 2 and explained in article 219. He mentions that Christians had objected to adding that article, but that it passed despite that. He exclaims that Anba Bola (the church representative) had the audacity to object to the article just because it refers to the shariah. An important quote that I'd like to make the reader aware of is El Borhamy saying "This constitution has restrictions [on rights and freedoms] that have never been included in any Egyptian constitution before."

When it comes to Bahai's, El Borhamy mentions that they will be able to legally exclude them from the application of the constitutional articles related to rights and freedoms.

Another essential point of discussion was an article El Borhamy found to be a most terrible article, namely article 76. The wording of this article in the old constitution is one most jurists in the world are familiar with, "nullum crimen, nulla poena sine lege" or "no crime and no punishment without a law". These words are considered fundamental safeguards of freedom and rule of law and are included in most constitutions in the world. El Borhamy explains that this article is dangerous because it would mean that consensual adultery, bank interests and sodomy wouldn't be considered crimes. Because all jurists in the Assembly were adamant on including that article in the constitution, according to El Borhamy, they were forced to include it. However, with the help of Dr. Selim El Awa (a former candidate for the presidency), they managed to change the wording. The altered article states "no crime, no punishment without a provision in the law or the constitution". El Borhamy explains that this alteration will enable them to include article 2 of the constitution and its explanation in article 219 as grounds for incrimination, making it possible to try and punish citizens for crimes not expressly mentioned in the law!

Finally, El Borhamy repeats something he had said quite a few times before, namely that article 219 which explains the meaning of the "principles of shariah" as mentioned in article 2, is a "red line", not open to discussion. He adds that this article was accepted by the "Committee for Senior Scholars".

I would like to point out that the "Committe for Senior Scholars" which is part of Al Azhar, is mentioned in an article El Borhamy didn't address in the video. Article 4 stipulates that it is obligatory to ask the opinion of the "Committee for Senior Scholars" in Al Azhar in all things related to the shariah. The importance of this article cannot be overestimated. If a judge is presented with a case in which someone is tried for an act which isn't punishable by law, but which (according to the altered article 76) may be punishable by purely religious rules, a judge would be forced to ask the opinion of the Committee. Now, although article 4 doesn't expressly say that the opinion of the Committee is binding, it will be so de facto since it is unimaginable that many judges would go against the decision of a body of Al Azhar (considered one of the most respected religious institutions in the Arab world) when it comes to religious matters. This is merely one example of the possible effects of this article.

This constitution puts the power to interpret things related to the shariah with the "Committe for Senior Scholars" thereby putting them not only above the courts, but also above the legislator. A group of religious men from Al Azhar will have a say in how the country is run and how laws are applied and those who claim to be for the independence of Al Azhar must be aware that no such thing can exist when they are so close to power. So both religious texts (including human interpretations thereof, obviously) and certain religious scholars are intentionally placed above the law and the constitution. Now, call me alarmist for saying that this constitution paves the way for theocracy...

This article doesn't contain all the reasons why this constitutional draft should be rejected, the draft contains many dangers in other chapters about private property, the separation of powers and judicial independence for instance. However, I hope it does give a clearer view on the actual meaning of this draft and its possible consequences. It may also be necessary to note that, in this context, it might not be those protesting the draft and the referendum who are against democracy.

*I'd like to thank Samuel Tadros for bringing that video to my attention.