Monday, September 29, 2008

Coptic-Muslim tensions: Egypt's fragile sectarian peace hangs in the balance

-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from The Scotsman (in two parts)


In the shadows of the Moqattam cliffs that tower over Cairo’s eastern fringes, Safwat Nazeem is picking his way through tens of thousands of empty plastic bottles. They arrive on donkey-drawn carts from every corner of the city and beyond, and – after being deftly sorted and shredded by Safwat and his colleagues – will be sold on as raw material to one of the giant Chinese factories dotted across the nearby desert. Safwat, like his father before him, is one of the Zabaleen, Egypt’s invisible army of refuse collectors who gather the urban waste around them and welcome it into their homes. Their neighbourhood, known as Garbage City, overflows with rubbish – piled up in doorways, sprawling over courtyards, balanced precariously on roofs – all waiting to be sifted and recycled. And after a recent spate of national violence and media intrigue, the Zabaleen have become a community on the defensive.

Like the vast majority of Garbage City’s residents, Safwat is a Coptic Christian – part of an eight million-strong religious minority in Egypt that predates the presence of Islam in the country by over 500 years. The degree of social cohesion between the two religions has risen and fallen through the centuries, from the forced conversions visited upon Copts during the Mamluk period to the ‘golden age’ of social harmony in the early 20th century, when Christians and Muslims united behind the nationalist cause. In the past few months, however, the country’s fragile sectarian balance has been rocked by a series of violent clashes, fierce accusations of discrimination on both sides and rumours of murky special interests spreading disruption from abroad. International media outlets have warned of the impending ‘Lebanonisation’ of the Arab World’s biggest country, whilst sceptics insist the upturn in religious fighting is merely a media invention, though one which is fast spiralling into a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The story begins in late May, when four Christians were gunned down in a Cairene jewellery shop. The government dismissed the incident as a common robbery, neglecting to explain why nothing was taken from the store. Pope Shenouda, the ageing patriarch of the Coptic Church, opted to stay quiet following the incident, and maintained his silence even when a similar attack took place on a Coptic jeweller in Alexandria a few days later. But he was finally forced to speak out on May 31st when a serene Coptic outpost, the 1,700 year old monastery of Abo Fana, was besieged by dozens of Muslims following a land dispute with local farmers. “The attacks began 150 metres away from the monastery, and they got closer and closer until they were next to the monastery, where three monks were kidnapped and tortured,” announced the Pope. “They were pressured to renounce their religion and spit on the cross. When they refused they were whipped. The monks were tied to trees and blindfolded during the whipping and one monk had his leg broken.”

Although the Abo Fana controversy occurred 300 miles south of the Egyptian capital, its impact was felt throughout the country, bringing long-simmering resentments to the fore of the public debate. Copts have consistently complained that archaic building regulations hamper the repair or expansion of their churches, strangling the ancient faith with bureaucracy. They also claim they are denied access to key positions in government because of their religion. Muslim commentators have argued that most Copts are better off than their Muslim counterparts, and that the Christian faithful are being manipulated by external forces using the guise of ‘minority rights’ to interfere with Egypt’s internal affairs. Critics on both sides of the divide agree that the potential for sectarian violence is growing as the economic hardship faced by all Egyptians intensifies.

Having finished work for the day, Safwat sits sipping tea in his neatly furnished apartment above the rubbish mound. Although the 31-year-old is not particularly observant – he only attends the nearby St Samaans Church, a huge cave cathedral carved out of the Moqattam hillside, about once a year – he shares the fears of many Christians that the changing political landscape in Egypt is threatening his way of life. “I don’t feel insecure personally,” he says, glancing up at a figurine of the Virgin Mary, “but the government doesn’t do enough to protect our rights.” He bemoans the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest political opposition force. “‘Islam is the solution’ is their slogan,” he sighs, “but there is no place for Christians in that, no place for anyone else.” Safwat is one of the few inhabitants of Garbage City that are willing to speak out on this subject; life here is tightly controlled, both by the ecclesiastical establishment and the rich businessmen who make a fortune from the semi-official waste management process, and residents are consequently afraid of talking publicly. The poverty they live in is often overlooked by the wider Muslim community, who characterise the Copts as a rich, privileged elite, citing individuals like prominent Copt businessman Naguib Sawiris – one of the world’s 100 richest men – as examples.


Yet despite the mud-slinging, there is a growing backlash against the intense media focus on Copt-Muslim relations at home and abroad. “What is happening is that people are now turning normal day-to-day clashes into religious disputes,” argues Sameh Fawzy, a political analyst. He believes that marginalised social groups are increasingly using the mask of sectarian tension as a means of getting the authorities to meet their demands. In a political system riddled with corruption and nepotism, colouring local grievances with a religious hue is proving to be a sure-fire way of ensuring national attention. “The government decided a long time ago to put the law on hold when a sectarian problem takes place, trying to solve it instead by reconciliation between both groups,” says Fawzy. “The result is that people use sectarianism to try and circumvent the law.”

The tensions are multiplied by the actions of √©migr√© Copts, especially in the United States where Coptic groups recently held large protests outside the Egyptian embassy. The US Copts Association lists on its website 19 ‘undeniable and documented acts of aggression and practices of discrimination. These acts are the products of intentional and/or neglectful practices of both the Egyptian government and various groups of misguided and misinformed Muslims.’ Some believe expatriate criticisms of the Egyptian regime are fuelling domestic charges of disloyalty against Copts such as Safwat, who sees himself as a ‘Christian first and an Egyptian second’. “I am not on the side of those Copts marching outside Egypt, because they are not here, we are,” he says. “These disputes have always been present, but now because of satellite television and the media they are being made more of.” Fawzy agrees: “I don’t think the demonstrations abroad will help our problems. My concern is that this kind of behaviour makes ordinary Muslims on the street more suspicious, more sceptical and will create more difficulties between the communities at a grass-roots level.”

And it is not just Copts who are wary of the way in which sectarian disputes have been hyped up by the press, particularly Western media outlets documenting the growing isolation of Copts from mainstream Egyptian society. “Foreign influences will always try to attack the weakest point in a country to poison it, and one of our weakest points is the religious divide,” claims Sanaa Khalil, a 41-year-old Muslim rent broker who lives in the mixed Muslim-Christian neighbourhood of Shubra in Cairo. “Weakening Egypt is part of a wider agenda that the West has for the Middle East. There is nothing new about clashes between Muslims and Christians here, so why so much attention now?”

After myriad protests and a 1,000 strong monastic sit-in following events at Abo Fana, the violence has, for now, receded. An uneasy calm prevails, much to the relief of Christians like Safwat. Like countless others, he recently headed into town to see the new film ‘Hassan and Morcos’, a box-office smash which makes comic mileage out of social strains between Egypt’s Christian and Muslim communities. Some groups have accused one of the stars, veteran Muslim actor Adel Imam, of apostasy following his decision to portray a Christian on the big screen. Yet despite the controversies, Sameh Fawzy views the film’s success is a positive development. “People now realise that to keep society harmonious and integrated, we must address such problems, instead of denying their existence,” he says.

He is also optimistic that, as they have done in the past, the two religions can overcome their differences by focusing on a shared battle, inextricably linking the Coptic issue with the national agenda of political reform in this volatile state. “When Egyptians speak about democracy and political reform they forget sectarian incidents because they find a common project, without excluding anybody,” he insists. “But when Egyptians forget or put aside the common project, they start thinking about religious division. That’s what we have to avoid.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The crunch hits Cairo


In Egypt, the economic shocks rippling out from Wall Street will shake an already fragile political landscape.


-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'


The world is just emerging from a week of financial turmoil which has dissolved old certainties about the economic system structuring our lives. Yet despite the fact that commentators regularly assure us that we have just witnessed a meltdown of truly global proportions, we've been treated to more pictures of bedraggled London bankers clutching cardboard boxes than we have to any concrete analysis of how the events of past few days are perceived beyond the west.

On Wednesday last week, the Guardian featured a selection of quotes from prominent leftwingers on whether capitalism has had its day, a worthy contribution to the debate at a time when the Telegraph is heralding the end of the world as we know it and Times readers are quoting Marx on the newspaper's online message-boards. But although the demise of the free market may appear a somewhat jarring prospect over cornflakes in Kent, in many parts of the world the ideological spectrum of mainstream political and economic thinking extends far beyond blind faith in the markets – leaving those governments who have staked their credibility on IMF and World Bank-led neoliberal reforms vulnerable to social unrest.

One such country is Egypt, where the long process of reversing Nasser's socialist economic policies of the 1950s and 1960s that was begun under President Sadat and intensified by the current regime, has produced strong growth rates in recent years. However, these percentage points have come at the cost of destroying social welfare institutions and have fuelled spiralling inflation and unemployment. Despite the presence of an ostentatious middle-class enjoying the fruits of economic liberalisation, capitalism is not accepted as an inevitability by many on the ground facing bloodshed in the subsidised bread queues that have lengthened as the government's free-market programmes begin to bite. In this context, the latest round of financial chaos threatens to tip an already volatile political situation over the edge.

So how will chaos on Wall Street shape political and economic developments in the Arab world's largest country? I spoke to figures from across the political divide and asked them how they thought the financial meltdown would impact upon them and their country.

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Rania al-Malky, editor of the independent newspaper Daily News Egypt. The state-controlled press is being increasingly challenged by a new wave of independent media outlets which have been vociferous in their criticism of the government's economic policies:

The impact of the meltdown on Egypt may not be felt by the average Egyptian right now, but it will certainly take its toll within months, especially if the Egyptian pound continues its devaluation against the dollar. A lopsided foreign exchange rate is detrimental to an economy like Egypt, which is service-oriented rather than industry and production-based. Although our exports have increased significantly over the past two years, we still rely almost entirely on imports to support our industries and for agricultural staples like wheat. So with a weakening Egyptian pound, both prices and inflation are bound to keep shooting up, ultimately to the detriment of the struggling Egyptian masses.

Inflamed social sentiment against the ruling regime will naturally ensue, especially at a time when news of the corruption of businessmen and politicians is exposed daily in the media and displays of negligence and the utter lack of competence of bodies like the civil defence authority have revealed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the current administration is incapable of dealing with emergencies.

As for the effect of an economic recession on the opposition, we must distinguish between the generally impotent official opposition parties and the increasingly effective and powerful civil-society based movements that have been able to kick up a lot of dust to lobby for workers' rights and against rising prices. Any serious economic downturn in Egypt will boost the appeal of such grassroots movements and banned Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hossam el-Hamalawy, a dissident blogger and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists. The web has become a vibrant outlet for many in Egypt for criticising government's policies and exposing economic corruption:

Neoliberal theorists and apologists have never been on the defensive as they are today. Economic crises have already hit several countries marked as distinguished 'reformers' by international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, whose victims were generally workers and the urban poor. Here in Egypt, our economy on paper is booming, with a 7.1% GDP growth rate, yet inflation has already hit 25% and basic commodities have either disappeared from the local market or increased over 50% in price. Two popular uprisings have already taken place this year and this is happening on the back of the biggest strike wave in the country since the end of the second world war. We know panic travels at the speed of light through stock markets, and of course Egypt will not be immune from an economic collapse in the west, because our economy is integrated into the global market and is subject to its fluctuations. I think we can also expect a significant drop in Egypt's tourism revenues, with less people in the US and elsewhere affording vacations.

Professor Abdelaziz EzzelArab, director of the Economic and Business History Research Centre at the American University in Cairo:

Capitalism has proven resilient and adaptable in its history of dealing with crises, and although it will not collapse overnight, it will gradually evolve into an increasingly regulated market and ultimately some form of market socialism. How will this be perceived by Egyptians? Probably with a shrug of the shoulder, if not with a sense of content. Two broad factors contributed in recent years to a dramatic reversal in the public mood towards capitalism, which followed the initial excitement surrounding the hesitant steps towards a free market taken from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s. One factor comes from abroad: the attitude, policies, and actions of the US which have earned it the popular image of an "evil empire". The other is domestic: the bitter record of the market in the past 17 years since the adoption of free market mechanisms through 'economic reform and structural adjustment policies'.

The outcome of the reforms was an unholy alliance of political and business magnates, to the benefit of a tiny clique that controls both domains to the detriment of the masses. The scandals, crimes, and failures in 2008 alone are too numerous to recount and have become common talk even among ruling party columnists. The nation's experience with the system is that it lacks compassion, a basic trait in Egypt's social fabric, and it thus becomes perceived negatively. When the system is severely shaken in its global centres, as is happening now, it will likely be seen as a deserved end for capitalism, in a way not dissimilar to the attitude towards the collapse of the USSR – perceived by the public as the expected end of a tyrannical model.

Recurrent scandals eradicated much of the regime's moral foundation in recent months. The current crisis of capitalism is untimely for the regime, inasmuch as it deprives it from the ideological underpinning of its present economic policies. The theoretical soundness of the adopted model is itself doubted and its dilemma is therefore deepened. It may be a ripe moment for the regime to realise the necessity of embracing recent calls for a new constituent assembly that would lay the grounds for an alternative order and a new constitution. But this presumes a sense of political far-sightedness that the regime has not so far displayed.

Dr Abdul Hamid al-Ghazali, consul to the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood and professor of economics at Cairo University. Despite being officially outlawed, the Brotherhood is the strongest parliamentary opposition group to the ruling NDP and the most tightly-organised Islamist political force in Egypt. It has been criticised by other opposition movements for being supportive of free-market capitalism:

We are in a chaotic situation in Egypt by our own making. We are witnessing corruption scandals every day, all of which are symptoms of shocking economic management. Over and above, we now have this international economic chaos which is being reflected in our own financial markets. I don't think foreign investors will be deterred from putting money into our economy, but the foreign and domestic factors together do make the situation very dramatic at a time when the government is already very weak. It has no popular support, no strength, and for the regime this financial crisis is the beginning of the end.

The Muslim Brotherhood has been supportive of the free market and against monopolistic practices, and we continue to maintain that stance. The difference between our economic programme and that of the current regime is that we oppose the corruption and monopolising that has led to key strategic industries like oil and steel being destabilised. But free-market reforms, with strong government safeguards to prevent these kind of practices, remain Egypt's best hope for progress.

Although we have suffered a lot from this government's economic reforms I don't think the Egyptian people have lost faith in the free market altogether. A managed free market that serves the public and provides for fairness and security, instead of capitalism which serves the interests of the regime alone, this is what people want. The crisis gives the whole country an opportunity, a chance for a new constitution and a new choice of government through the ballot box.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Hundreds feared dead in Cairo as rockslide hits slums

-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from the Scotsman


AT LEAST 31 people have died and hundreds more are missing after a massive rockslide hit one of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods on Saturday.

Duwayqa, a shanty town to the east of the Egyptian capital, was hit by eight boulders weighing up to 70 tonnes each.

Local residents have clashed with troops at the scene, accusing the authorities of ignoring numerous warnings that a landslide might be imminent, and claiming that the rescue operation to save those trapped under the rubble has been slow and inefficient.

Witnesses described desperate relatives scrabbling at the rocks with their bare hands to free those buried. Emergency services were hampered by delays in getting cranes and heavy lifting equipment to the site, and rescue workers observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan are working in hot, dusty conditions without food or water.

Duwayqa is a densely populated slum area in the shadows of the limestone Moqattam Hills, which have long been identified by experts as vulnerable to erosion from running sewage waste and badly planned construction projects.

Local media reports suggest that a contractor was doing building work on the plateau above Duwayqa when the rocks were dislodged, crushing the shanties below.

Government officials have ordered a full evacuation of the area.

It has emerged that residents told the authorities more than a year ago that large cracks had formed in the mountainside. A new housing project intended for some of the slum-dwellers was inaugurated by Suzanne Mubarak, the Egyptian first lady, in 2003.

Yet despite this apparent acknowledgement by the government that Duwayqa and surrounding shanties were at risk, the transfer of residents to the new houses had still not taken place when tragedy struck. Critics of the government blame corruption for the delay.

Ahmed Salah, a pro-democracy activist, said: "Everyone expected this collapse, and it was a matter of when it would occur, not if. Alternative houses were constructed at the Suzanne Mubarak project but, because of corruption, the people they were built for did not get to move in.

"The authorities want to make more money instead by selling the units on privately."

Egyptian media reported that some people refused to move because the new houses were too far away. Some residents said that they did not believe the houses existed or thought they had to pay a bribe to get one.

Nimah Abdel Tawab, an elderly woman, asked: "We only saw these homes on television. Where are they?"

Mohamed Hassan, another resident, said: "The people with money took these homes. Everything in our country is for money."

Egypt has been criticised for unsafe construction practices, which contribute to the problem of collapsing homes. According to a 2002 report, nearly 60 per cent of Cairo's residents live in under-serviced, illegal dwellings and a quarter of all habitations are in imminent danger of caving in.

Described by a United Nations habitat survey as "the largest squatter, informal area in Cairo", Manshiyet Nasr, the urban district which includes Duwayqa – is particularly exposed to this problem.

It has more than 400 residents per acre, and according to the report,suffers from "poor living qualities, inadequate services, lack of infrastructure, and deteriorated environmental conditions".


BACKGROUND

THIS disaster is the latest in a string of scandals that has provoked widespread anger and scorn at the government of 80-year-old president Hosni Mubarak, one of the Arab world's longest-serving rulers and a key Washington ally.

In 2006, the sinking of a ferry in the Red Sea led to the deaths of more than 1,000 Egyptians, but despite evidence that there had been "serious defects" in the vessel, the ferry's owner – who was a prominent politician and high-ranking member of the ruling NDP party – was this summer acquitted of any responsibility, causing outrage in court.

Earlier this year, a bus crashed into the Nile, killing 19 people, and an accident at a train crossing left a further 40 Egyptians dead.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A tale of money, murder and spin

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
-Cairo - September 2008


The story's ingredients were a tabloid editors' wet dream, and the plot seemed to have been lifted straight out of one of the lurid soap operas that glue Egyptians to their TV sets every Ramadan. The sultry young pop star with a troubled past, the real-estate mogul with close links to the president, and a gruesome murder in a Dubai apartment – this was a drama of glamour, money and betrayal played out by synthetic people in a synthetic world, a million miles away from the lives of ordinary Egyptians.

But the brutal killing of Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim and the subsequent arrest of Egyptian property tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa on murder charges was very real, and shockwaves are already being felt in the corridors of power. Moustafa is a high-ranking government insider, a member of the ruling National Democratic party's "supreme policies council" and a personal friend of President Hosni Mubarak, whose regime has become notorious for its close links with rich businessmen.

Tamim was a 30-year-old singer from Beirut who rose to fame after appearing on a Lebanese talent show in the mid-1990s. Renowned by many for her beauty and her voice – which could tackle modern pop and classical Arabic melodies with equal finesse – Tamim's star rose and then waned as troubles in her personal life escalated. A failed marriage to her manager led her to flee to Cairo and by last year she had faded completely from public view. The name of this once bright young talent was only hauled back from obscurity in June, when her body was found with multiple stab wounds at one of her homes in Dubai. The Arab world was quickly gripped by the murder and Tamim's face stared out of newspaper front pages for weeks on end – except in Egypt, where a judicial ban on media discussion of the case was imposed after a leading opposition paper claimed that a prominent business figure from the government's inner circle was being investigated for homicide.

The attempted information blackout finally collapsed this week when it emerged that Moustafa, said by local newspapers to be a former lover of Tamim's, had been arrested in Egypt in connection with the crime. Prosecutors allege that he paid a former police officer, Mohsen el-Sukkari, $2m to follow Tamim from Egypt to London and finally on to Dubai, where he tricked his way into her house and fatally attacked her. Both men could now face the death penalty.

The twists and turns of Tamim's demise are the subject of endless discussion on the streets of Cairo, but talk of this tragedy goes well beyond the sphere of celebrity gossip. Firstly, the domestic media ban on reporting details of the case proved to be the latest hamfisted attempt by the Egyptian government to control the increasingly vociferous independent newspaper sector. Like other attempts before it to apply stale methods of state censorship to a globalised media environment, the ban only served to heighten interest in what was going on. The previous week taping of a programme featuring democracy activists that was being recorded for American satellite channel al-Hurra was summarily cancelled by the authorities; the week before that, allegations of government deceit in the events surrounding the Egyptian parliament fire were prevented from hitting the streets when the government-owned printing presses halted production of an independent newspaper.

News emerged recently that internet cafes will soon be forced to log the personal details of all their users, whilst a draft law creating a new code of "media ethics" has been dismissed by human rights organisations as a naked bid to strangle the burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

The problem for the government is that after permitting a small degree of freedom into the previously monolithic state-dominated Egyptian media world, it is struggling to get the cat back into the bag as rising discontent at economic hardship and the lack of political reform finds a voice in the new wave of news outlets. The regime is resorting to old-fashioned legal bullying to try and manipulate the information reaching its citizens, but as the Tamim story shows they are doomed to failure. Even as al-Dostour, the paper that originally claimed an NDP bigwig was connected with the murder, was being pulled from newsstands, other pan-Arab newspapers featuring all the gory details – many printed as far afield as London - were flying in to Cairo. And while the staff of al-Dostour were being grilled by security officers, bloggers were spreading the identity of Tamim's alleged murderer on the web, along with detailed updates on al-Dostour's expurgation from the streets. Just like repressive regimes the world over, Egypt's political elite are finding it increasingly difficult to restrict the flow of facts they find uncomfortable.

Perhaps more importantly though, the really shocking detail to surface from Tamim's death wasn't that a prominent businessman had been linked to her murder, but that the government had actually arrested the man in question and even stripped him of his parliamentary immunity (Moustafa sat in the Shura council, the upper house of Egypt's parliament). I have written here before of the series of corruption scandals that have rocked the NDP and fuelled widespread scorn at the government's intimacy with the business world – a self-serving alliance strengthened by the current prime minister's aggressive neoliberal economic reforms, which have earned plaudits from the World Bank but sent inflation spiralling and widened the chasm between rich and poor in this vastly unequal society. The level of government protection afforded to the moneyed elite is so great that Egyptians have grown wearily familiar of the corruption bandwagon, which always seems to end in acquittal for the accused and the resumption of business as usual. "As long as businessmen remain the backbone of the NDP, these scandals will continue," insists the editor of Nasserist newspaper al-Arabi.

So what to make of Moustafa's very public arrest for Tamim's killing, which sent shares in his vast business empire, TMG Holdings, into freefall? Will there be the predictable rigged trial before the charges are dropped, or is the judicial energy expended on the case a sign that something fundamental has changed within this increasingly defensive governing clique? "Moustafa's indictment is clear evidence that the ruling party knows no cronyism and that nobody in Egypt is above the law", declared the NDP's secretary for media affairs grandly. The rapidity with which Moustafa was stripped of parliamentary immunity also took opposition politicians by surprise, with many acknowledging that the NDP seemed to be trying to improve its image.

But anybody who believes the government is really looking to shake off its reputation as the party of business is deluding themselves. Mubarak's coalition of political interests sustains itself through money, a ruling class that enjoys no popular legitimacy but survives by keeping the country's most powerful economic forces in its inner circle, spreading around to them the cash generated by privatisation, the sale of assets to foreign multinationals and the slow dismantling of the welfare state. Cronyism may make it unpopular on the streets, but regardless of what happens to Moustafa the government cannot afford to abandon its wealthy friends.

Amidst all of the political and economic pyrotechnics in the wake of Tamim's death, it would be easy to forget that this too was a very human tragedy. Tamim was not the first Arabic female pop star who ended up dead after suffering from abusive partners and a restless private life, and given the exploitative relationships which dominate the music industry here, she may not be the last.

For the government, however, the real drama lies in the public response to her murder and the growing cynicism on the streets at clumsy media manipulation and the legal sheltering of the president's business allies. It is a story set to be as equally dramatic as the sultry pop singer, the real-estate mogul, and the gruesome murder in a Dubai apartment.