Friday, December 24, 2010

'Strangers in our own country': Egypt's Copts look back on dismal year

Clashes with security forces over church construction in Giza cap a depressing twelve months for the Middle East's largest Christian population

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - December 2010

Christmas is approaching in the Al-Talbiyya district of Giza, but the road to St Mary’s, the neighbourhood’s half-built church, is a bleak one. Lined by a small row of windswept shops on one side and a deserted, faded-neon set of children’s funfair rides on the other, the ground is scattered with giant clumps of concrete – all torn from the four-lane highway that towers above. It was from this highway late last month that security forces launched a barrage of tear gas, live ammunition and handheld rocks upon thousands of Coptic Christians demonstrating below.

“Imagine for a moment how it feels to be standing in your own country with your own people, as the agents of your own government begin hurling bullets at you and your children,” recalls Ayed Gad, a local pharmacy worker who was on the scene. The clashes, triggered when local authorities halted construction at St Mary’s, left two young Copts dead; at the time a local priest described the government’s actions as ‘barbaric’. “The police acted as if they were Israel and we were Hamas,” Father Mina Zarif told a local newspaper.

It’s been a dire year for Egypt’s estimated eight million Copts, the largest Christian community in the Middle East. 2010 began with an Upper Egyptian drive-by massacre of churchgoers leaving a Coptic Christmas midnight mass; it has ended with the deadly violence in Al-Talbiyya, along with election results that leave Copts with less than 1% representation in parliament. In between there has been a bitter row over the alleged kidnapping of a priest’s wife who wanted to convert to Islam, accusations by Muslim clerics that Christian places of worship are being used to stockpile weapons, and a high-profile spat between the Coptic pope and the Egyptian government over the Church’s right to regulate ‘personal status’ issues among its members.

“Sectarian polarisation of Christians and Muslims stretches back over the centuries, but the problem of sectarian violence as we know it today is a modern phenomenon,” says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a prominent human rights activist. “This year we’ve seen Muslim protesters shouting anti-Christian slogans after the Friday sermon, which is a very new and worrying development.”

Bahgat’s campaign work concentrates on two areas: communal violence between Muslims and Christians, and the more humdrum problem of daily prejudice. “The issue in Egypt is not just the torching of homes and attacks on monasteries, but also the everyday examples of employment discrimination and other non-violent manifestations of sectarianism,” he claims. Egypt’s Copts complain of being shut out of the higher echelons of business, politics and academia; despite notable exceptions like finance minister Youssef Boutros Ghali or telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris, most Christians believe they are denied opportunities for social advancement because of their religion – a state of psychological insecurity that has in turn fuelled an entrenchment of sectarian identities.

“Egyptians have become increasingly embedded in their religious institutions and the consequence of that is a growing sense of polarisation,” adds Bahgat. “We’re trying to tell people that it’s equally bad to only do your grocery shopping from a Christian vendor because you’re Christian, or if you only go to a Muslim dentist because you’re Muslim. These are the seeds of sectarianism that eventually escalate into neighbourhoods being set aflame.”

Just down the road from the disputed St Mary’s – now clad in scaffolding and guarded day and night by state security officers – the neighbouring church of St Paul’s is tucked away down a dimly-lit side alley. Here, in a third-floor chapel and beneath the glow of energy-saving chandeliers, festive worshippers are engaging in the traditional Coptic fast – abstaining from animal products for 43 days in preparation for the Advent – and pondering another institutional challenge to their community. Every pew is packed solid, and it’s been standing room only for evening services throughout the run-up to Coptic Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7th.

“Things have been getting more crowded since the late 1980s; to keep up with the growing size of our community we’d need at least three or four new churches in the area – but of course they can’t be built” says Nabil Girgis, a senior member of the congregation. Egypt’s Christians have played as big a part in the country’s recent demographic explosion as their fellow Muslims, but whereas new mosques are built and renovated freely throughout the country, Christians have to navigate a bewilderingly web of bureaucracy in order to secure permission for church construction; there are an estimated 2,000 churches in Egypt today, alongside 93,000 mosques.

It’s a state of affairs that has left some feeling like their very identity as Egyptians is being purposely eroded by the state, particularly when set alongside the government’s apparent reluctance to prosecute Muslim perpetrators of communal violence – a tactic, says Bahgat, which leaves Christian victims feeling “assaulted twice, once by their Muslim neighbours and then again when the powers-that-be side with the attackers.”

“We are treated as second-class citizens in every way; the only interaction we have with the government leaves us feeling like failures, and of course that makes us feel like we don’t belong,” says Peter Gobrayel, a worshipper at St Paul’s. “I fought for Egypt in the 1967 and 1973 wars, and was a PoW in Israel; you could say that I’ve spent the whole of my life on the frontline for my country. Now, speaking honestly, when I see the nation burning I just want to add petrol. I am an Egyptian first and foremost, and yet my country seems to want to eradicate me.”

The greatest difficulty in assessing the extent of anti-Copt discrimination in Egypt is picking out which grievances are motivated foremost by sectarian tensions, and which are merely the product of a wider breakdown in state-society relations; many of the complaints raised by Copts, from mistreatment at the hands of police to being passed over for civil service promotion due to a lack of wasta (connections or influence) are common to all Egyptian citizens, be they Muslim or Christian.

Long-term corruption and political malaise has left the government’s role as neutral social arbiter fatally weakened, and the concurrent growth of visibly Islamic symbols and discourse in public life since the 1970s, when the Muslim Brotherhood largely abandoned its attempts to overthrow the regime and instead concentrated its efforts on ‘Islamising’ society from below, has created an environment where sub-state religious affiliations increasingly trump any sense of national identity, and where normal community disputes can quickly take on a dangerously sectarian hue.

For Hossam Bahgat, Copt-Muslim tensions will only be resolved when the government ends its security-driven response to sectarian violence, and begins implementing the rule of law. “The reaction of the state to sectarian trouble is always motivated primarily by their desire to impose ‘quiet’; hence it is directed by the security services in a typically heavy-handed way,” he argues. In the aftermath of the Al- Talbiyya fighting, over 150 local Copts have been taken to jail, prompting Pope Shenouda to withdraw to a rural monastery in protest.

“When you look at the big picture, it’s so clear that the security apparatus is at the heart of the problem,” says Bahgat. “Their tactics are bad not only for democracy and human rights, but for long-terms security too.” Peter Gobrayel agrees. “We just want to be treated like Egyptians, with our rights respected and our voices heard. These days it’s hard to find anyone, Christian or Muslim, who gets treated like that.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

ElBaradei launches comeback quest with call to boycott presidential poll

Former UN nuclear inspectorate chief signals return to opposition with warning of civil unrest

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - December 2010

The former UN nuclear inspectorate chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said he will not run in next year's Egyptian presidential elections, after dismissing the country's recent parliamentary poll as a "farce" and warning of dire consequences if the government continues to suppress peaceful protests.

In a wide-ranging video message released today, the Nobel laureate urged all Egyptians to boycott the 2011 vote and warned President Hosni Mubarak's government there would be violence on the streets if the authorities tried to close down every avenue of public dissent.

ElBaradei's intervention came as a coalition of independent election monitoring groups called on the president to dissolve Egypt's new parliament, saying that systematic ballot violations had set Egypt "at least 15 years back". "Rigging and forging the citizens' will has become the 'law' regulating this election," they claimed.

Final results from last week's vote indicated that opposition parties secured 14 seats in the 508-strong people's assembly, with Mubarak's ruling NDP party now enjoying complete dominance of the legislature.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest organised opposition force, was left without a single representative in parliament after withdrawing from the contest, citing "blatant" electoral fraud.

ElBaradei's latest appeal comes at a critical time for the 68-year-old, who has been accused by former supporters of spending too much time abroad and losing precious momentum since making a triumphant return to Cairo in February when he launched a high-profile campaign for democratic change.

"It now seems [ElBaradei's] brief involvement in politics was only half-hearted," wrote columnist Ahmed El-Sawi in the local al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. "As he retreated, so many of the substantial gains he made were wasted. His popularity diminished, along with his credibility."

Grassroots anti-government activists have criticised the "personality cult" surrounding ElBaradei, arguing that far more work is being done by pro-democracy and trade union movements on the ground to mobilise public support and pose a challenge to the Mubarak regime.

Today's video signals ElBaradei's intention to re-enter the fray and establish himself once again as a leading opposition figurehead, just as the Arab world's largest nation enters a period of unprecedented political uncertainty.

The three-decade rule of Mubarak, now 82 and frail, could end with next year's poll and there is growing evidence of a power struggle within the NDP over whether his son, Gamal, should be allowed to succeed him.

In the message, ElBaradei called on Egypt's intellectuals to put aside their differences and seize this moment to effect much-needed historical change, insisting that the status quo must end. "You are not investing in your future," he warned. "You are investing in the end of what you have, in destroying Egypt and in destroying future generations."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Egypt's 'elections' were pure stagecraft, directed by a dictator

Sunday's farce sends a message that the transition from one pharaoh to the next must take place within the regime's autocratic confines

-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is free'
-Cairo - December 2010

Covering Egypt’s parliamentary elections this week was a surreal experience. Like actors in a bad B-movie we dutifully paraded from one cheap set to the next, trotting through our allotted lines and contorting our faces into wild expressions of indignation as and when the plot demanded it.

The problem wasn’t that this studio lacked colour or intrigue. There was, for example, the polling station where security officials cut the power to prevent us seeing stuffed ballot-boxes, only for opposition candidates to light burning torches and lead us self-righteously into the darkness. Later I was at a ballot count – part baladi wedding, part warzone – where lines of riot police held back the crowds as crates of votes tripped and tumbled into a giant tent bathed in gaudily fluorescent strip-light. It almost felt festive, in a tragic sort of way.

So thrills and spills were in plentiful supply behind the 2D props and cardboard cut-outs. The real problem was that at times we seemed to forget this was a studio at all.

The day after the poll, civil society monitors, human rights activists and journalists all swapped examples of egregious violations, from vote-buying to police intimidation – yet how can you violate a circus? At times it felt as if merely using the language of "irregularities" helped to confer a sort of false legitimacy on to these electoral theatrics, however systematic those irregularities were shown to be.

Thankfully, Egypt's high elections commission (HEC) stepped in this morning to clear up any misunderstandings over whether or not the country had just conducted a serious democratic exercise. Announcing first-round results, which hand the ruling NDP party 97% of the seats contested and leave the Muslim Brotherhood – previously the largest opposition force in parliament – with nothing, the commission's spokesperson informed us that "the elections as a whole were conducted properly, and the results … reflect the will of the Egyptian electorate". In Cairo, farce talks with a straight face.

The HEC's statement unshackles us from the burden of pretending that what transpired last Sunday – and will play out again this coming weekend when a run-off ballot is held – constitutes anything resembling an election; instead, it is better described as a (not particularly artful) piece of stagecraft by Egypt's political elite. Stage performances are designed for an audience though, so the question now becomes "who is this performance aimed at, and why?".

With President Hosni Mubarak's three decade-long rule now coming to an end (he is 82 and frail), the various shades of Egypt's self-perpetuating regime now face a year of deep political volatility as rival NDP insiders attempt to manoeuvre themselves into the position of natural successor.

Sunday's performance revealed little about the dynamics of that race, despite featuring several scenes of intra-NDP competition. That's because the internal struggle to win a ruling party nomination for parliamentary seats is generally a parochial one, with wealthy local businessmen looking to consolidate or expand their privileges through entrance to the legislature – which offers legal immunity, access to the higher echelons of the state, and significant opportunities for personal advancement – and hence doesn't really reflect factional divisions at the heart of the NDP.

The latter exist of course, and they are likely to intensify as decisions are made over whether Mubarak should be handed another six-year term when presidential "elections" are called next year, and as his son Gamal confronts an entrenched military harbouring doubts about his ability to step into his father's shoes.

But this show was about something else. It was about sending a message that – whichever elements from within the existing autocracy triumph in the internecine battles to come – the transition from one pharaoh to another will take place wholly within that autocracy, with all other voices excluded.

The significance of that message, at a time when the Arab world's most populous country is witnessing an outburst of labour activism, sporadic street protests and an explosion of forums of dissent – despite the government's efforts to neuter the independent media – can't be underestimated. It is a warning to the Egyptian nation that there will be no public avenues for expressing grievance, no pressure valves – even of the superficial variety – through which those outside the inner sanctum might be able to speak and help shape the direction this country is travelling in. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings thinktank put it: "The regime … is not in the mood to take any chances over its own survival as we enter what will be one of the most challenging periods in Egypt's modern history."

In the short term, that means the Egypt that Mubarak has shaped in his own image will continue to thrive – one where a foreign-funded security apparatus, fuelled by a state-led cessation of the rule of law, is given a free hand to snuff out opposition, and where the nation's commonly held natural resources are pimped out to private profiteers. In the long term, it means uncertainty. Yesterday, a senior Muslim Brotherhood spokesman declared that the government was "destroying any hope of the people for change by peaceful means". But with the social, economic and demographic pressures bearing down on Egypt, maintaining the status quo in perpetuity is not a viable option.

And so all eyes turn to Washington, where the state department – pulling the purse-strings of Mubarak to the tune of $1.3bn a year – put out a mealy-mouthed statement of "dismay" yesterday at the conduct of the parliamentary poll.

As Hamid points out, the Egyptian regime's own statement of intent regarding its unwillingness to countenance any opposition in the run-up to the transfer of presidential power puts the Obama administration in a tricky position, especially when much of the region – Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, for example – is moving in the opposite direction, towards more subtle forms of authoritarianism.

Make no mistake; there is no desire on the part of Egypt's western allies to see the country embrace any genuine form of democratisation – you only have to speak with police torture victims in Alexandria, some of whom have been bound up with American handcuffs while facing the blows of their tormentors, to understand the extent to which the "international community" supports the repression of any dissidents that could potentially upset Mubarak's grip on power.

But the blatant and uncompromising quality of this latest act is problematic for the dictator's cheerleaders, because it peels away the facade and could well be storing up unimaginable problems for the future.

Hamid believes that Sunday's farce will force a debate in western policy circles over the wisdom of sticking so close to Mubarak. "Alarm bells are ringing," he says, "and the election results will really force a discussion; whether or not that discussion will lead to concrete changes in strategy is a different story."

But the real story of Egypt's coming political transition will have to be written elsewhere – outside western diplomatic corridors, and outside the self-serving, self-preserving elite that has dominated the country so pervasively for a generation. The curtain is up – and the drama has just begun.

Egypt's opposition parties pull out of election amid claims of fraud

Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd party to boycott run-off ballot after initial figures show NDP took 97% of seats in Sunday's poll

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - December 2010

Egypt's main opposition groups walked out of the 'democratic process' today after official results indicated the ruling party had captured 97% of seats in the parliamentary elections.

Initial figures from the high elections commission showed that President Hosni Mubarak's NDP had won 209 out of the 221 seats that were settled definitively at last Sunday's vote, while the remaining 287 seats are to be the subject of a run-off ballot this week.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest organised opposition force, had been due to contest 26 of the remaining constituencies, but will now withdraw from the race. "Sunday was marked by fraud, terrorism and violence carried out by police and thugs," said the Islamist group in a statement, in which it announced it would be taking legal measures to invalidate this "pseudo-parliament".

"We're trapped in a vicious cycle if we carry on trying to participate in this charade," said one prominent member, who wanted to remain anonymous as he had not been cleared to speak with the media. "We've gone from 88 seats to nothing, at a time when the political elite have never been more unpopular. Anybody can look at these results and see instantly that they are farcical. We don't want to assist the regime anymore in this ridiculous and tyrannical game."

Meanwhile the liberal Wafd party, which had been widely expected to make gains at the expense of the Brotherhood due to a reported deal with the Mubarak regime, will also boycott this Sunday's vote after winning only two seats in the first round. A spokesperson for the party's ruling committee declared the results to be "scandalous".

Egypt's autocratic leaders are widely believed to be clearing political institutions of all potential opposition before next year's presidential poll, which could end Mubarak's three-decade reign.

Egypt closes beaches over shark attacks

Hunt under way for shark responsible for maiming three Russian tourists at Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - December 2010

-More shark drama here and here

A hunt is under way to track down a shark responsible for maiming three Russian tourists in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, one of whom remains in a critical condition.

Tonight Egyptian officials closed Sharm el-Sheikh's famous beaches and suspended nearly all diving and watersports activities, which attract more than 3 million holidaymakers every year.

Two of the attacks took place within minutes of each other yesterday afternoon, when an oceanic whitetip shark moved close to shore and began snapping at a couple swimming in the Red Sea. The man's legs were torn by the shark and the woman sustained injuries to her legs and back and had to be resuscitated after rescue.

This morning a further attack, believed to be by the same shark, was made on a woman snorkelling on a reef north of the city's Na'ama Bay. Her arms were bitten off, and she was flown to Cairo for emergency treatment. "We are monitoring the situation very closely and working together with all authorities to ensure the safety of all members and visitors in the Red Sea," said Hesham Gabr, chairman of Egypt's chamber of diving and watersports. "Our thoughts are with the victims and their families."

The oceanic whitetip is a common species of shark that can grow up to four metres long, but as its name suggests it is mainly found in deep water. "This event is absolutely extraordinary," Richard Peirce, chairman of the UK-based Shark Trust, told the Guardian. "Since records began in the late 16th century there have been only nine recorded attacks on humans by an oceanic whitetip. It's abnormal behaviour; this shark hasn't just decided to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – there must have been a specific activity or event that brought it there."

Sharks can be sighted frequently in the Red Sea waters around Sharm el-Sheikh, but attacks on humans are rare. There have been some suggestions that fishing vessels have recently started coming closer to the shore.

"Something has brought this animal to the area and made it think dinner, and it's likely that it involves something being put in or on the water," said Peirce. "If fishing vessels have started coming near the beaches and they're discarding unwanted fish over the side, then that's a powerful shark attractant. It could also be camping sites or hotels dumping rubbish, although until further investigations are done none of us can comment intelligently on what the trigger was."

Today a team from the South Sinai national park launched a search for the shark, which they plan to trap and then release in the Gulf of Suez at a safe distance from the shoreline. The Egyptian government will be watching nervously to see whether the incident has any long-term impact on tourism levels, an important source of revenue for the country.

"It won't be just a bump – this is a catastrophe for the local tourism industry," said Ramy Francis, a veteran diver with close knowledge of the area. "Three attacks so swiftly in succession and all of them that aggressive – it will certainly take some time for the hotel and watersports trade to recover."

But Amr Aboulfatah, the owner of a Sharm el-Sheikh dive centre and former chairman of the South Sinai Association for Diving and Marine Activities, disagreed. "Everyone is scared to get in the water right now, but there are concerted efforts going on to resolve the situation and I really don't think we will see any lasting consequences in terms of the tourism industry."