Friction inside the National Council for Human Rights

An interesting story today on the front page of Al Misry Al Yom about the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). At its end of the year performance review board members accused the Council's leaders of hindering the NCHR's work, taking unilateral decisions without consulting the rest of the Council, and failing to respond to many human rights issues, such as the recent Coptic demonstrations, or the alleged sweeping human rights abuses that occurred in Sinai in the wake of the Taba bombings. NCHR's president, Boutros Boutros Ghali, its vice-president, Kamel Abu el-Maged, and its general secretary, Mukhlis Qutb, bore the brunt of the criticism. I just spoke with Hafez Abu Saada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and a board member on the National Council for Human Rights. With regards to the NCHR's failure to act on the human rights abuses in Sinai, Abu Saada said:
I asked to invite these human rights organizations [that had reported on the abuses in Sinai] to come to the Council and give us a testimony about their report, to see how we could respond or interact with this report, and take a stand as a council against what was happening. He [Secretary General Mukhlis Qutb] refused to do this. He said that because the [Complaint] Committee's quorum was not complete-- only five out of 13 were present-- it's recommendation was invalid. This is not his decision. This is the decision of the council... He hasn’t the right to intevene.
At yesterday's meeting members also accused the government, specifically the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Justice, and the general prosecutor's office of failing to respond to complaints from the NCHR. Abu Saada said that the Council has sent an estimated 2,500 complaints regarding specific human rights abuses to various government bodies. The government has responded to only 100 of those complaints, and those responses have been casual dismissals of the original complaint. The Interior Ministry, by far the recipient of the most complaints, has yet to respond to a single complaint, according to Abu Saada. Abu Saada said:
If you look at the replies that we’ve received from the government there are no solutions to the problems. All they say is this man has no right to complain, or this man must go to the court. And we haven't received any reply from the Minister of Interior which is the main complaint for violations committed by the police, or regarding illegal detentions, or the situation in the prisons.
As far as trying to gauge the National Council for Human Rights' independence the Sinai case is a telling example. It wouldn't be surprising if Abu Saada is right about the Council's leadership squashing any attempt to broach the issue. The human rights abuses in Sinai, and the alleged large-scale arrests and torturing of Bedouins there, was and continues to be a very sensitive topic. Remember that one of the more popular theories as to why the editor of Al Araby Al Nassery was abducted, beaten and left naked in the desert, was that he had tackled this subject in his weekly column. When I interviewed Nawal al Saadawi a few weeks ago she talked briefly about the National Council for Human Rights and summarized the matter very simply. Said Al Saadawi:
How can the government protect human rights and then violate human rights? The government is violating human rights. So how can the government establish a council to protect human rights. This is a contradiction.
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Copt-Muslim clashes

The plot thickens... Here's the Reuters story.
CAIRO (Reuters) - One man died and two others were injured in uncertain circumstances in southern Egypt, a police source said on Thursday, in the latest in a series of clashes between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
The source said the clash took place on Wednesday when dozens of Muslims threw stones at a private building in Damshaw Hashim village, some 240 km (150 miles) south of Cairo, which they believed a Christian resident was turning into a church without state permission.
Police arrived at the scene and fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd, the source said.
Al Hayat reported that the Musim villagers blamed the Copts for the violence, and the Copts blamed the police officers for the shooting. I haven't been covering this story, but based on assorted conversations I've had with people who have been following it more closely than I, it seems the Copts are not really winning this battle from a public relations perspective. This is a purely anecdotal analysis mind you, but generally there is an inclination on our parts to sympathize with the Copts as the oppressed minority. However, this whole affair, beginning with the conversion of the bishop's wife, and the protests, and her being pressured to convert back, and the pope going into seclusion in protest, and now this... well there doesn't seem to be much public sentiment with the Copts, even among people are inclined to side with the Copts. There is a sense that the pope overreacted, and that, throughout this affair the Copts have shown themselves to be just as fanatical as their Muslim counterparts.
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Gamal Mubarak, the 2005 elections, and the Mufti on QIZs

Gamal Mubarak is quoted in the December 25 Al Hayat as saying that the Fall parliamentary elections would be "important and decisive." He said they would be "different" and added that "it is unimaginable to conduct the new elections in an air of suspicion as happened during the past elections." The Gamal quotes in Al Hayat came from a meeting with 400 agricultural union leaders in the Delta governorate of Daqahliya. The December 25 Al Misry Al Yom has a related article quoting assorted analysts describing the young Mubarak's recent tour of the Egyptian countryside as "propaganda and self promotion, especially given the uncertainty of the succession issue." One parliament member, Adel Eid, (I'm assuming he's opposition but it doesn't say in the article) said, "The decrease in Gamal Mubarak's support among the grassroots of the Egyptian people pushed him to convene these meetings with different segments of Egyptian society, like students, youth, workers, and peasants. This is after he has presented himself to foreign circles, especially America, to guarantee popular support and the support of the west when he steps forward to be President of the Republic." Abu Alaa Al Maadi, the outspoken head of the new Al Wasat Party has some good quotes in the article to the same effect, basically that Gamal Mubarak has realized that his coterie of intellectuals and businessmen does not necessarily translate into popular support. As a result he has begun directing his attentions to the peasants and the workers. It is stated as a given by some of those interviewed in the article that Gamal's support is waning. I'm wondering is Gamal really losing support among the Egyptian masses? Did he ever really have that support in the first place? And does he even need that support? (Where's Stacher when you need him?) Meanwhile, the leftist Tegammu Party, whose leader Rafaat Al Said came under fire recently after he met with the American Ambassador David Welch, announced that it is prepared to compete in the coming parliamentary elections. However the Tegammu party warned that it is still considering how to deal with the presidential referendum. It will either vote against Hosni Mubarak, or will boycott the presidential referendum all together in protest against the single candidate referendum. Saad Eddin Ibrahim has announced that his Ibn Khaldun Center will be monitoring the 2005 parliamentary and presidential elections. Recall that many say that his monitoring and subsequent criticism of the 1995 and 2000 elections was the primary cause for his differences with the regime that ultimately led to a series of trials and retrials and his spending the better part of three years in jail. A spokesperson for the Egyptian cabinet said on December 23 that the new political laws go to Parliament next month. The new laws will include the formation of a high committee for elections in order to ensure that they are fair and transparent, and the abolishing of prison sentences for journalists. (Are we repeating reforms here? Weren't prison sentences for journalists abolished last February?) The Mufti on QIZs: Al Masry Al Yom reported on December 24 that the Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, has declared that the QIZ agreement with Israel is simply a matter of free trade similar to any international agreement. And added that there is no need to fear trade with Israel. He stressed that the QIZs are good for the public interests of Egypt. And pointed out that Muslims traded with the Jews during the time of the Prophet.
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Al Qaradawi, Tantawi and the Mufti on Women

Al Misry Al Yom reported last Sunday that the Sheikh of Al Azhar, Muhammad Sayid Tantawi, issued a fatwa declaring that a woman could be president of Egypt, but could not become a sheikh at Al Azhar. According to the article the fatwa was a response to Nawal Al Saadawi's announcement that she would be a candidate for the 2005 presidential elections in Egypt:
Tantawi told Al Masry Al Yom following the announcement that Dr. Nawal Al Saadawi had declared her candidacy in the upcoming presidential elections: It is the right of a woman to become president of any state in the world, as long as that is compatible with her special nature, because the Islamic Sharia does not deny the woman the right to hold any specific positions or employment. It only stipulates that the work must be appropriate to her nature.
The following day, last Monday, Al Masry Al Yom reported that Ali Gomaa, the Mufti of Egypt, and Yussuf Al Qaradawi had rejected Tantawi's fatwa. Here is a translation of their response as reported by Al Masry Al Yom:
Gomaa said: Reality reflects the ability of the man to be president of the state effectively, and to make difficult decisions.
Qaradawi said: It is not acceptable for a woman to be president of the state at all, because her nature does not allow her to carry out the tasks of the presidency, or to adminster the affairs of the country, or to oversee the needs of the people. A woman's emotions overcome her mind, and this is why her testimony in Islam is only half that of a man's testimony, as evident in the saying of the prophet: "If there are not two men available, then bring one man and two women."
Qaradawi added: The pain and the physical tiring that a woman suffers from during her monthly period prevent her from carrying out her duties and following the affairs of her subjects.
To stress his opinion rejecting Tantawi's fatwa Qaradawi cited the prophet as saying: "A people will not succeed if their leader is a woman."
Gomaa and Qaradawi agreed on rejecting the candidacy of Dr. Nawal Al Saadawi, and indicated that if it was okay for a woman to be presdient, it wouldn't be Nawal Saadawi.
Defending these people as moderates is a disservice to Islam. When people who have no exposure to Islam except what they read in the Western media see people like Qaradawi repeatedly deemed a moderate, they conclude that the backward ideas mentioned above are really what Islam is about. Of course Qaradawi does not deserve to be in the same category as a Zarqawi or a Zawahiri, but I cannot bring myself to consider him a moderate. I also want to respond to Tantawi's fatwa. He said that it is acceptable for a woman to be the president, but not a sheikh at Al Azhar. In other words, a woman can be the political leader of Muslims, but cannot be their spiritual leader. But from it's earliest days Islam endowed its political leader with spiritual authority. The political leader and the spiritual leader were one and the same. The early caliphs had both temporal authority and spiritual authority.
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What's a moderate?

A few quick thoughts on the Tariq Ramadan controversy. The debate is largely one of definitions. What defines a moderate Muslim? Is Tariq Ramadan, or anyone for that matter, moderate simply because he doesn't support suicide bombers, and isn't calling for armed confrontation with the West, or infidel regimes, or whatever other looming entities are perceived as threats to Islam? This is a tangible measure of moderation for many, especially today, when the specter of global terrorism carried out by Islamic radicals is frankly the only reason we're discussing this in the first place. Abu Aardvark defined a moderate as those who "embrace dialogue as a core political value." However, in terms of really understanding what these people are saying, these are marginal issues. Many "moderates" like Ramadan and Qaradawi, may not be calling for armed confrontation and may be engaging in open dialog, but they do have a way of reading the texts, and of interpreting Islam that I, and my liberal secular standards, feel is decidedly immoderate. Their critics argue that whether or not they themselves are encouraging violence, their way of thinking is ultimately the same as those extremists who are. Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid, in his book "A Critique of Religious Discourse," argues that the premises that Qaradawi and others are basing their discourse on, are the same premises that the extremists are basing their rhetoric on. It's a matter of applying the principle and when to apply the principle, not a matter of the principle itself. Let's take the example of the takfiri movements that plagued Egypt though much of the 1990s. Al Gamaa Al Islamiya would release a statement saying the regime of Hosni Mubarak is an infidel regime and therefore we must resort to violence and do away with it. And then the "moderates" from Al Azhar, or elsewhere, would release a statement in response saying, the regime is not an infidel regime. So the debate is not, is it acceptable to violently attack an infidel regime? But rather, is the regime an infidel regime? It's an argument over details, not principles. The reason this debate continues to rage, and the reason it won't end any time soon, is because while Qaradawi and Ramadan are moderates by the standards of a place like Cairo, by our more secular Westernized standards they are about as moderate as, I don't know, say Billy Graham or Ralph Reed (Neither Reed nor Graham are calling for armed struggle, but both are trying to achieve immoderate ends through moderate means.) Those who say Ramadan is not moderate can find plenty to support their argument, meanwhile, in the context of time and place (ie the Islamic world today), Ramadan is a moderate. Which brings us back to the game of definitions. We need to make a distinction between moderate and reformist. Too often, when people slam an Islamic thinker as not moderate, it is clear that they were expecting a reformist. Reformists view the Koran as a historical text, as a series of solutions to a series of a specific problems faced by a specific society in a specific time. It provides a general framework that is applicable throughout the ages, but just because four wives was a reasonable thing in seventh century Saudi Arabia, doesn't mean it's reasonable today. Such talk is considered blasphemous by Al Azhar, by Qaradawi, and I would imagine by Ramadan too. Unfortunately, the truly reform movement in Islam, as embodied by thinkers like Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid, Gamal al Banna and others, is still insignificant in the Muslim world. They are perceived (perhaps rightly) as a bunch of Westernized secular intellectuals. So, while we should continue to encourage the true reformists, we must also engage Ramadan and those of his ilk. (A quick sidenote: This is all unrelated to whether or not Ramdan should be allowed to teach in the US. I can think of dozens of University professors of all political and ideological stripes who are hardly moderate. Issandr is right, Ramdan doesn't present a threat to US security, even if he does pose a threat to progressive, liberal thought. Of course, all those crusading against Ramadan pose an even bigger threat to progressive, liberal thought. I guess the answer is to let him in, and then, if necessary, discredit him on the merits of his ideas. Silencing him or keeping him out is no better than Azhar confiscating books.)
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Egyptian PM addresses parliament

I suppose it's worth noting that Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif gave his first address to Parliament today (Sunday) since assuming office in July. It provides us an opportunity to reflect on the progress of the new government. In terms of political reform, I don't think there is really much to say, because nothing has really happened. Nazif's most visible achievement so far has been taking on customs procedures, which tended to be investors' number one gripe with Egypt. And I think the business community is generally pleased with the direction Nazif is heading so far. Issandr will have a more nuanced view of this I imagine. Nazif himself cited customs and tax reforms, and improving the investment climate in Egypt among his principle achievements to date. His government is streamlining processes for foreign investors, opening new markets, increasing exports, and signing new agreements with international companies... or so says Nazif.
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The Islamic Satellite

Who says Islam and modernity can't go hand and hand? Al Masry Al Yom reported yesterday that Cairo University announced at a press conference last friday that it will begin work in January on the Islamic Satellite. Due to be launched in mid-2006, the satellite will unify the lunar calendar throughout the Islamic world. For those of you unfamiliar with this, basically because the Islamic calendar is based on the moon, the beginning of each month is determined by the sighting (by a human eye) of the new moon. So you have situations where, say, Ramadan begins on one day in Saudi Arabia, but begins a day later in Egypt because, for reasons such as weather, the optical properties of the atmosphere, or the location of the observer, the new moon isn't visible here. So that problem will now be solved... and it will only cost $8 million.
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Saadawi's platform

As Issandr mentioned a few days ago, Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi has announced herself as a candidate for the 2005 presidential elections. Here's her platform. It seems pretty reasonable.
The aim she wishes to attain in presenting herself as a candidate for the presidency is not to become President. The constitution of Egypt has been formulated in such a way as to make it impossible to be a candidate unless he or she obtains two thirds of the parliamentary vote before taking this step. Instead her aim is to play a role in strengthening the movement of people aimed at achieving a real democtratic change in the present system. Her electoral program is founded on broad based intellectual, political, economic and cultural themes and can be summarized under the following points:
1 - The educational system should be founded on free discussion, on breaking down the barriers and destroying the shackles which surround the mind, on a continuous encouragement of creative work in every field. It should seek to link the different streams of thought, to connect the private with the public to develop a capacity for understanding the reality of society, its problems and how to solve them. It should aim at bridging the gap between fields of knowledge, restore the connection between art and science, between law, the social sciences, history, philosophy, medicine and literature, between internal and international affairs, between the local and the global. The creation of critical free thought is the basis of progress in the sciences, in the arts and in all areas of life.
2 - The ideological outlook of the ruling system must be changed to become decentralized and collective in its essence, and undergo continued renewal. It should not be based on a pyramidal, rigid structuring with an individual leader, enthroned at the top, a leader who is never wrong, and cannot be brought to account, he is almost sacred. With greater power there should be greater accountability and not the opposite. The law of Immunity should be abolished so that all authorities including the highest are held responsible for their actions and are subjected to supervision and democratic control, whether it be the head of state , or the head of Al Azhar, or a minister, or a member of parliament, or the president of an institution or any other responsible person. All authorities should be subject to the same laws including the law which permits an examination of the sources from which their money or their properties have been drawn. Systems built on appointment rather than election to responsible office especially to the legislature (Parliament) to juridical institutions and to the executive governmental bodies must be abolished. This should include the post of Sheikh Al Azhar, heads of university departments, deans, rectors, directors and presidents in colleges and universities, professors in the academic institutions, chairpersons of national councils in different areas including those dealing with human rights, women etc.
3 - Laws and legislation which permits discrimination against citizens on the basis of religion, gender, class, race, party or family affiliation should be abolished. Candidature to elections for all posts in the state apparatus including that of the President must be open to all men and women without exception, to ensure that they are occupied by those who are the best fitted for them and not by those who wield the most power and influence. Laws which are promulgated must be free of all religious affiliation including personal and family laws. They should become a part of civil legislation, built on justice and equality between men and women, between husbands and wives, and between fathers and mothers. All children should enjoy the same personal and public rights and none of them is to be discriminated against because born inside or outside wedlock. The rights of women and children are universal human rights and should not be violated under any pretext related to national or religious identity or local tradition or cultural relativism or other.
4 - All laws restricting the exercise of freedom of thought, expression of opinion, organization and political and social action are to be abolished. This includes martial law, and all financial or other restrictions to the establishment of newspapers, magazines, film companies, radio stations, and television channels, as well as other cultural or informational institutions and organizations. Financial or other restrictions to the establishment of political parties, trade unions, cooperatives, associations in civil society active in the social and cultural fields should also be abolished.
5 - It is necessary to ensure the independent development of the national economy , its freedom from subjugation by the neo colonial alliance between the United States, Europe, and Israel to encourage and promote industrial and agricultural production instead of financial speculation, to build an economy which caters to the needs of our people and not to those of the multinationals and therefore geared to export. We need an agrarian reform, a ceiling to land ownership, the reduction of agricultural rents, a return to cooperatives in agricultural activities and in small or middle industrial and trading establishments. Taxes should be levied on the richer sectors of the population rather than the poor and those who earn a fixed income, corruption should be fought starting with the higher levels of society and black marketers , and luxury importation should be abolished. The systems of social security and insurance are to be ministered and controlled by its beneficiaries under a separate independent administration to prevent its funds from being plundered by government administrations and utilized for other purposes.
6 - It is vital to build up solidarity and cooperation with the world people's movement against war, corporate capitalist exploitation and globalization, neo colonial plunder and aggression from the United States, Europe and Israel. Efforts should be made to develop new and more creative ways of people's resistance to these forces at the local, Arab, and international levels, to free ourselves from the shackles of economic, political, military, cultural and mediatic hegemony exercised by the most rich and powerful corporations, to reinforce cooperation with the people of Palestine and Iraq in their struggle against foreign occupation and aggression, as well as with the other Arab people`s in order to overcome the plunder of our resources , in water, oil, and the treasures of our cultural heritage.
The six points mentioned above are the foundations of Nawal El Saadwi's electoral program. They are broad lines which illustrate the way in which she envisages the most important aspects of reform in society , but need further concrete and detailed development . Her main aim however in formulating this preliminary program is to open up a political and intellectual debate and discussion in a situation characterized by political stagnation , rigidity and decay, where people have been driven to apathy and loss of hope. The constitution of Egypt as it is now stands an obstacle to free Presidential election since no one can be a candidate without the prior approval of two thirds of a Parliament largely hand picked and controlled by the ruling National Democratic Party, to which 90 % of the members of the parliament belong. There are candidates who are waiting until a constitutional change takes place. They do not wish to waste time and effort in what is to them a battle destined to be lost. But Nawal El Saadawi does not think in these terms. To her all creative endeavours are worth whatever efforts go into them. To her creativity is an aim in itself because through it our lives are changed.
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Fallujah on the silver screen

The Guardian reports:
Hollywood has joined the war. Universal Pictures announced yesterday that it is to make The Battle for Falluja. To prove it is serious, it has enlisted Indiana Jones himself, actor Harrison Ford, to help defeat the insurgency.
The article goes on to say that the movie will tell the story of the Battle of Fallujah from the point of view of US Marines and US politicians.
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"The dogs of Ibn Saud"

In what I assume is a response to Monday's broadcast on Saudi television about the five star treatment inside Saudi penitentiaries, I found this statement on a Saudi Islamist message board today. It is purportedly from prisoners in Alisha Prison in Saudi Arabia, and was posted to Al Qalaa Web site by a group or an individual, called "The Beast of the Peninsula" (Wihish Al Gezira). Here is a partial and very rough translation of their complaints about the conditions inside a Saudi prison, which they say is filled with "oppression, torture, and terror": - Sleep deprivation for periods of up 10 to 20 days. - Prolonged detentions without any investigation, or knowing why they were arrested, or what the charges are against them. - Forcing prisoners to confess to crimes that they have no connection to, and that there is no evidence of, or any witnesses to. Confessions are extracted under the threat or practice of psychological and physical torture, sleep deprivation, denying visitation rights, or any communications with the outside for months and sometimes over a year. - Interrogating the wives of wanted men without her male custodian being present, and using bad manners and behavior with them. - Being beaten, and insulted with dirty words, being bound and blindfolded for upwards of two weeks and not even being allowed to go to the bathroom or pray. - Putting prisoners in a black box 1.85 m x .90 m, bound and blindfolded, forbidden to say a word. Sleep deprivation to the point of insanity where people actually have had to be transported to the hospital as a result. Some people have spent nearly a year in these cages in order to force confessions. - Cameras on the prisoners 24 hours a day. - Bad lighting which hurts the eyesight and causes depression. - Prisoners in bad health are deprived medical attention. - No change of clothes or bed linens for long periods of time. - The prisoner does not get any of his requests no matter how minor unless he carries out prolonged hunger strikes and sit-ins, and then come only empty promises. - If the prisoner asks to have his case reviewed, or requests to contact his family, he is insulted and intimidated. - Inmates are terrified with random transfers to other prisons and solitary confinement. Prisoner Demands: - Taking action on our cases that have stagnated for a long time without any judicial rulings. - Allowing us to contact our families to inform them that we are in prison so they can stop worrying, and to allow visits. - Improve the living and health conditions of the prisoners, and better treatment of the prisoners. - The investigation of those who have not had their cases examined, and no longer ignoring them in a cell without any access to legal procedures. A follow-up comment on the same message board reads: "The prisoners of Tel Aviv are better off and there is more concern for them than the dogs of Ibn Saud."
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A few Gamal quotes from Al Misry Al Yom

Today's Al Misry Al Yom reports that at a press conference yesterday following a meeting of the policies secretariat Gamal Mubarak denied that he spoke on behalf of Egypt during his travels abroad, and insisted he only spoke on behalf of the National Democratic Party. A quick thought: It seems worth noting the existance of the debate around the acceptable parameters of Gamal Mubarak's portfolio. It seems that it is not acceptable for him to speak on behalf of Egypt, although, as head of the Policies Secretariat, he can speak on behalf of the NDP. In practice, is there really a difference between the NDP and the government? Mr. Stacher has an interesting theory about the importance of the foreign policy portfolio to Gamal and gang. Perhaps he'll share it with us. When asked about Monday's demonstration against the President, Gamal is quoted as saying: "Every faction of society has the right to express their opinion, whether in Parliament, or in the street, in accordance with the law, and this is a matter we want to stress to the Egyptian people, whether their opinion agrees with the government and the party, or not." Smooth talking and saying the right things. Gamal also added that there would be a dialog with the opposition before the political reform law is submitted to Parliament and that the party has no intention of opposing any constructive ammendments. So there's definitely going to be a political reform law? As for the dialog with the opposition bit, it seems pretty hackneyed by this point. On Israeli-Egyptian relations he had this to say: "We have a vision about our relationships in the Arab world and the neighboring countries, like Israel and Turkey, which indicates that Egypt is committed to a peace agreement, and it has an active role in the region, that it uses to advance its interests and Arab issues."
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"That young intelligent visionary has my vote"

The editor of Cairo's Campus Magazine has a telling endorsement in this week's issue. For those of you unfamiliar with Campus, it's a free, English language, weekly magazine targetting upper class Egyptian youth. It's almost all fluff, and almost never has anything remotely political. It calls itself "The voice of our generation." Writes the editor in this week's issue: "Anyone who knows me knows that I support Gamal Mubarak, the young, intelligent visionary definitely has my vote... assuming there is a vote." Gamal is winning people over, convincing many in the crucial echelons of Egyptian society that he is the real deal, and the best choice for the future.
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Bishop's wife recants conversion

Wafaa Kostantin, the wife of a Coptic priest, has renounced her conversion to Islam and agreed to return to the Christian fold, Al Hayat reports today. The reason for her decision is that she "wanted to end the siege that had been imposed on her." The problem here would be that Islam is an easy religion to join, but not such an easy religion to leave. On paper, the consequence of converting out of Islam is death. The Egyptian public prosecutor, who it seems is responsible for this affair, avoided this problem by saying in his report that she never actually converted to Islam, and therefore she "only retreated from seductive thoughts about converting to Islam." A group of Egyptian intellectuals, "most of them with Islamic leanings," have released a statement criticizing the government for "submitting to the blackmail of Coptic extremists by surrendering her to the church to be detained against her will." The hypocrisy is plain as day here. A few days ago when it was thought that Kostantin had been pressured to convert to Islam by her boss in the civil service, there were protests and outrage in the Coptic community. The government, so as to avoid sectarian tensions, found the lady and handed her over to church officials who kept her under house arrest for 10 days while a team of four priests convinced her to return to the cross. Now who's pressuring who?
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Connecting the dots

Let's connect some dots, specificially yesterday's demonstration, Egypt's recent and rather bold gestures towards Israel, and the Ukrainian presidential elections. The mass' ability to nullify fraudulent elections in Ukraine have surely been noted by Arab leaders and opposition figures. As Egyptian analyst Wahid Abd al-Magid noted on the op-ed pages of Al Hayat on December 5: "It only took a few thousand protesters to impose democratic reforms in the age of the American neo-conservatives... a big internal crisis has put Arab regimes in a historical dilemna, especially in light of the increasing possibility of a foreign role-- namely America-- in supporting internal demonstrations." (He's exagerrating a bit with the "few thousand" number. Later in his article Abd al-Magid claims that the initial demonstrations in Kiev consisted of 20,000 to 30,000 people. I haven't been able to find any numbers on the first demonstrations.) The events in Ukraine were the result of a partnership between internal and external pressure. Were it not for the concerned eyes of the EU and the United States it is likely that the Ukrainian government would have cracked down at the first signs of protests. And were it not for the public display of public will, the millions that eventually turned out to protest in over 30 Ukrainian cities, US and EU concerns would have been irrelevant. (I have found the best on Ukraine) This has been one of the cornerstones of the reform debate in the Arab world as well: what is the role for the United States, or any outsiders for that matter, in pressing for political reform inside Egypt and other Arab countries? Ukraine now provides a formula. If Egypt's opposition hopes to repeat the Ukrainian model here, it will need to pave the way for protests against the President himself. Afterall, that's what will be demanded of the people on election day 2005 if they are going to protest against the reelection of Mubarak in fraudulent elections. Yesterday's demonstration showed that it can be done. Now to Israel-Egyptian relations. On December 5 Egypt released the convicted Israeli spy Azzam Azzam, Egypt is scheduled to sign a trade deal with Israel tomorrow, and rumors have been going around that Egypt will return its ambassador to Tel Aviv. In addition, Israeli Embassy spokesperson Israel Tikochinski appeared on Egyptian television for the first time last week. Egypt's Mubarak is coming up for reelection in Fall 2005. With Mubarak aging, rumors swirling about his son Gamal's ambitions, and expectations for the US to back its democratization rhetoric with its closest Arab ally, the 2005 Egyptian presidential elections promise to be a closely watched affair. Bush publicly called on Egypt to lead the way towards democratization in Fall 2003. It is hard for me to imagine the regime here getting away with the same sort of antics that occurred in the 1995 and the 2000 elections. The opposition is more emboldened than it has ever been, and external pressure is increasing. However, if Mubarak suddenly proves himself willing to make bold moves on the Israel front then that could be the one thing that would convince the Bush administration and "the international peace process industry" to turn a blind eye to another sham election in Egypt, even if the opposition plays the Ukraine gambit and manages to mobilize thousands of protesters.
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Site selection key to yesterday's protest

The recently completed renovations to Cairo's central downtown square, Midan Tahrir, have made the gathering of protesters there very difficult. A series of chest high fences now surround the once-open area that was a favorite for protesters. Cairo's largest anti-war protests at the outbreak of the war in Iraq began in Midan Tahrir, and it seems the government decided on a timely "beautification" project to prevent future ruckuses. So I had been curious to see where protest organizers would relocate to. And it appears they made a very clever decision yesterday. I just came from an interview with Amira Bahey Eddin, a Cairo lawyer who has worked on a number of high profile human rights cases (most recently that of Ashraf Ibrahim) and is close to many on the left who organized yesterday's demonstration against Mubarak. She said the success of the demonstration was due to its location, on the steps of Egypt's high courthouse. With 8,000 judges fighting through 14 million pending legal cases in Egypt (those numbers according to Zeinab Radwan of the National Council for Woman, the National Council for Human Rights, and the NDP's Policies Secretrariat), closing down the courthouse to prevent the demonstrators from gathering was not an option. People had to be allowed to come and go in order to appear in court and it was impossible for security to distinguish between those with cases pending and the rabble rousers.
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More on the Coptic conversion to Islam

It appears that the conversion to Islam of Wafaa Kostantin, wife of a Coptic vice Bishop in Egypt, is a done deal. According to today's Al Hayat, the woman responded to attempts to convince her to return to the Coptic fold by reciting aloud half of the Koran. She has also taken to wearing the hijab, Al Hayat reports. It appears that Church officials are now concerned that she will become a spokesperson of sorts for Islam. Coptic officials are requesting that she not appear in the media or work to spread the call to Islam, "so as not to provoke the feelings of Copts."
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The Hitler-Stalin pact of our times?

More on the unusual alliance Issandr mentioned between leftists and Islamists in this month's Commentary. It's the "Hitler-Stalin pact of our times" says David Horowitz’s in his new book, "Unholy Alliance: Radical Islam and the American Left."
The fact that radical Islamists hold social and cultural values diametrically opposed to those of American leftists is not, Horowitz maintains, as big a problem for either party as it might appear. As in a previous era, when the hard Left dealt with Stalin’s widely acknowledged crimes by turning its attention to more attractive proxies of the cause like Vietnam and Cuba, today’s radicals tend to pay tribute not to al Qaeda but to groups like Hamas, whose extensive social-service network can be invoked to soften the horrors perpetrated by its terror cells.
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Al Jazeera on Arab elections

Here is Faisal al Kassem's framing of the debate on Arab elections in the introduction to his weekly program on Al Jazeera "Al Itagah Al Muakas" or "The Opposite Direction." I've translated it here, though surely without the eloquence it deserves. It's not a precise translation, so don't quote it. An ellipsis (...) indicates that a word or two is missing from the translation. I've linked to the original Arabic transcript if anybody is interested.
Reducing margins of victory by two or three percent, this is how Arab elections and referendums are developing. Do Arab leaders think that they can trick their people with small reductions in their margins of victory in elections, by reducing their official vote rigging from 99.99 percent to 97 or 95 percent? When will they stop this farce and this cheap theater? Do any of these leaders wonder why the Arab world is crying out about the leaders’ double-talk about elections, saying one thing here, and another elsewhere? Has anything changed after hundreds of referendums and elections have been fabricated in the cellars of Arab intelligence agencies? When will the people tell these regimes that have no shame that enough is enough? The young and the old in Ukraine turned out to protest elections in which incidents of fraud did not exceed one percent. Meanwhile Arab votes are robbed year after year and no one has the courage to so much as speak up about these violations. When will [Arab leaders] realize that if they had true elections they would get negative 99.99 percent of the vote?
To what extent are [Arab leaders] wasting millions of dollars on election charades (...)? Is it not better to use those millions to fix some of the Arab hospitals that are not suitable for wild animals, much less domesticated animals? Is it not preferable that, instead of using millions of meters of cloth [as signs] for empty election slogans, we give that cloth to the poor and the destitute to cover their naked bodies?
Does one of the [the Arab leaders] wonder if we are in need of elections and referendums after all of that? However, from the other side, why do we not consider the reductions in the margins of victory to just 95% of the popular vote a positive step that indicates that Arab leaders have begun to feel a little bit of shame? Why do we not say that the Arab elections, in spite of their weaknesses, are a necessary exercise needed to achieve a true democracy? Should we not encourage the changes that have begun to occur with respect to Arab elections instead of denouncing them? Should we not work on the principle that just because one can’t have everything, doesn’t mean you can ignore the matter in its entirety? And is it not unfair to lump all Arab elections in one basket? Did the Algerian president not win by just 85 percent of the vote? Didn’t the Mauritanian president win one time by 60 percent? And didn’t the Tunisian president allow the opposition to participate in the elections?
Hopefully this helps illustrate why Al Jazeera is a welcome addition to the Arab and global media.
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