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  • 1. WATANI International 2 January 2005 Translator: Ghada / copy editor: Samia Word count: 652 2005 Year of citizenship rights Youssef Sidhom The recent deplorable sectarian clashes between the security forces and the Coptic young men who had conducted a five-day sit-in at the St Mark’s Coptic cathedral grounds in Abassiya, Cairo—to protest the suspected forced conversion of a priest’s wife to Islam—had one auspicious result. Despite indifference in official circles, numerous meetings and gatherings were convened by independent Egyptian citizens over the past two weeks, to discuss the recent events and how they have shaken Egyptian society to the core and thrown the media into disarray. It is indeed reassuring that various groups in Egypt no longer wait for the government to take action in the direction of solving the problem, but themselves take the initiative of analysing the incident and figuring out what should be done. Various Egyptian liberal groups—gathering both Muslims and Christians whose sole devotion is to the homeland, regardless of any religious or official affiliation, and who are keen to confront areas of defects in our society—were formed. They came from the different walks of life; there were professionals, artists, scientists and literary men, as well as members of syndicates and NGO s. The only bond which bound them was concern over the future of the homeland. Thoughts and sentiments poured out to analyse—candidly and transparently—the reality we live in. Religious sensitivities where shoved aside; Muslims discussed with keenness and anxiety the grievances and complaints of Christians, and Christians candidly analysed Muslims’ apprehensions. Psychological barriers fell, clearing the way for visions of reform and advancement. The wide area of common ground reached revealed that a healthier climate could be easily fostered. 1
  • 2. The love that binds us Egyptians—Muslims and Copts—should be exploited to attain peaceful coexistence, and to manage the crises which are bound to erupt every now and then. Existing channels of interaction should be activated and new ones built, since it is unimaginable that a single component of the society would alone bear the responsibility of resolving crises which concern the entire country. All the different elements of the Egyptian society should work together towards one unified aim, that of upholding citizenship rights and correcting deviations in public consciousness. This may be achieved through stressing—via education and the media—the reality that we are all equally the sons and daughters of the homeland, heirs of its history and civilisation with all its good and evil. No sector of Egyptians can claim any monopoly over being ‘Egyptian’ to the exclusion of other Egyptians. And history does have its bright moments of which we are all proud, as well as dark moments which we should have enough courage to recognise and acknowledge instead of obscuring. Because our present culture and personality is after all nothing but a product of human experience and interaction over ages and centuries. Thus, as we stand on the threshold of a new year, and as our country proceeds towards economic reform and looks forward to political reform, we urgently need socio-cultural reform to redraw the relationship between Egyptians on basis of equal citizenship rights. I am confident that such a perspective could gain the support of many Egyptians. Let us work together to push it forward. Let us hope that agreement on the issue of citizenship rights among many Egyptians would encourage the sceptics among us to come forward and join, and would rid officials of the deplorable misgivings or fears which stand in the way of their endorsing full citizenship rights. Because civil work alone cannot achieve reform, but can only pave the way for change through founding a popular conviction of it, to be followed by formal procedures to put this change into practice. Last week’s editorial called for the foundation of an “Egyptian Council for Citizenship Rights”. Today’s calls for declaring 2005 the year of citizenship rights. We should not let it pass without healing the ailment that has infected Egypt, our homeland. 2
  • 3. WATANI International 9 January 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 303 CHRISTMAS Hope reborn Christmas comes this year as we lick the wounds of 2004, and look forward to a new year which would bring in peace, calm, and stability. The horrendous natural disaster in South East Asia that closed 2004 is still taking its toll, and the extensive loss in lives and property is still on the rise, leaving in its wake unanimous horror and heart-rending pain. But hope dawns bright as the entire world extends loving, helpful hands to aid and comfort the victims. The only good that has come out of the heartache and distress is that the people on planet Earth have—for once—put aside their differences, and rushed to support with compassion those hit by this calamity of gigantic- proportions. In Egypt, Christmas comes in the wake of the sectarian incidents which took place last month in Assiut and Samalout in Upper Egypt, and Abul- Matameer in the Delta. Last Tuesday, the police released the last of the 34 young men who had been unjustifiably arrested last month outside St Mark’s cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, during the five-day sit-in which Copts had then conducted in the cathedral grounds, to protest the manner in which security authorities had handled the alleged conversion of a priest’s wife to Islam. Again, the upside of the crises has been that Muslim and Christian Egyptians are together calling for the consolidation of the civil society and citizenship rights. This could be a harbinger of the long-awaited reform. I offer my heartfelt wishes for a blessed, happy Christmas to the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, and to all the Churches’ clergy and congregation. The fact that Christmas (7 January) is now a national holiday—as decreed by President Mubarak three years ago—is indeed a step towards upholding full citizenship rights for all. 1
  • 4. WATANI International 16 January 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 721 Problems on hold Managing the political process Youssef Sidhom Frustration has set in. In the Egypt of today, the political arena has stagnated, and all hope of constitutional reform that would lead to the long- awaited political change has gone to the wind. And among a large sector of intellectuals and writers, frustration has turned to anger. The average Egyptian may content himself or herself with the prospect of economic reform—already underway—but intellectuals know better than to give up political reform in favour of economic reform. The top political executives in our country—whether in the government or the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)—should have sensed the frustration and fury, and should have possessed the vision to manage the crisis adequately. Instead, these executives have obviously opted to play for time, with the objective of maintaining the political status quo till next autumn when presidential and parliamentary elections are due. This effectively postpones any debate on political reform until after the elections, or—better still—indefinitely. They are trying to sell the Egyptian street on the idea that stability is better than change, and that consequently, political immobility is far more important than political reform. These government and NDP executives did not take the trouble to gain public support for their stance. They did not even bother to ‘beautify’ the situation in any attempt to draw citizens to the polls. They held no public gatherings, seminars or suchlike to harness public opinion in favour of their call for abandoning reform in favour of political stability. Instead, Mr Safwat al-Sharif, secretary-general of the NDP and speaker of the ++Shura++ or Consultative Council—the upper chamber of the Egyptian Parliament—announced that the new president will be “named” by Parliament next May. Kindly note that Mr Sharif substituted “named” for 1
  • 5. “nominated”. In September Mr Sharif said, a public referendum will be held to decide on the presidential candidate named by Parliament. Mr Kamal al- Shazli, deputy to the secretary-general of the NDP, said that, once the outcome of the referendum is announced, President Hosni Mubarak will be sworn in for a new term. The entire issue of the new president appears then to have already been decided and the people duly ‘informed’. This despite the fact that President Mubarak himself has said that anyone who aspired to the post of president may nominate himself or herself—as stipulated by the Constitution—once he or she has gained the support of two-thirds of the Parliament members, and the referendum would be subsequently held. The president thus kept the door half-open—on the democratic and constitutional levels—and may have so managed to secure public interest and participation in the process of choosing a president for a new term. Contrariwise, the secretary-general of the NDP and his deputy slammed this door shut when they confirmed that the process was already pre-defined and its result predestined. It is quite obvious that political vision is entirely lacking where the process of renewing the term of the current authority is concerned. In fact, the process is being managed in a manner which enrages the mainstream public as well as the cultural elite. In which case the bitter questions arise: why do we call upon Egyptians to go to the polls? Why do we ask them to shoulder their responsibility in running their country? How can young people ever believe that their votes count, or that they should adopt a culture of critical thinking and free choice? It is neither our wish nor our intention to gamble with the future of our country. We thus do not aspire to any democratic change without the prerequisite adequate political groundwork. Until this materialises, we have nothing against the fact that most Egyptians love President Mubarak and prefer him to any newcomer. Even so, we must admit that this emphasises the vacancy of the political arena of any new faces or agendas, which in turn prioritises the necessity of political reform and pluralism. Egypt never was too barren to produce sons or daughters capable of leadership. If we succeed in providing a climate that would promote the emergence and growth of new figures on the political arena, we would definitely climb out of the current political predicament. More importantly, we would have found a viable alternative to the present authority other than fundamentalism, which is the only one currently available. 2
  • 6. WATANI International 23 January 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 854 Problems on hold President Mubarak: Egypt is home to Muslims and Copts Youssef Sidhom In an interview with Egypt’s State television on 8 January, President Mubarak said: “Egypt is home to all Egyptians—Muslims and Copts. We are one people.” And in a public gathering in Aswan on 9 January, he said that Muslims and Copts in Egypt are partners who work on one land and live under one banner. “We are all—Muslims and Copts—Egyptians, he said. We should allow nothing to come between us. Some foreigners claim the existence of divisions, hoping to disunite us. We are all Egyptians; there is absolutely no difference between one of us or the other.” The words are beautiful, and—coming from the president of the republic—confirm that the State views all citizens as equal regardless of religion. If the aim of such talk was to secure the concept of “national unity” and to consolidate the relations between the “two elements of one nation”, then some believe that this aim was fulfilled. My personal view is that this aim was only fulfilled on the by-now familiar level of tranquillisers, that is masking the real ailment through sedation with sweet rhetoric, instead of working to treat it. It pains me to write that the “national unity” and “two elements of one nation” slogans have become outdated, meaningless, and are no longer acceptable. Among the circles of intellectuals and writers, these slogans have gained notoriety as confirming the categorisation of Egyptians according to their religion, then hailing a hollow unity between the people of both religions. This in turn breeds deplorable, discriminatory concepts and practices, which even the best rhetoric can in no way beautify. The president said that differentiation between Copts and Muslims is nothing but an allegation made by foreigners. I beg to disagree. Inequalities 1
  • 7. exist; they are well-established and documented. And worse, having been the subject of steady official denial, nothing has been done to remedy them. During the recent sectarian events of last month, I noted that it was comforting that many Muslims have now come to acknowledge the inequalities and denounce them. They discussed what could be done to fix the faults in citizenship rights for Copts, within the wider national Egyptian perspective, regardless of colour, gender, or religion. I cannot imagine that the president is unaware of the fact that one of the major inequalities between Muslims and Copts concerns the legislation which governs their rights to build their respective places of worship. Muslims enjoy absolute, unfettered rights to allocate, purchase, or own land upon which they can build mosques. They are offered facilities to obtain approvals and building permits from the relevant authorities. Copts, on the other hand, face countless obstacles or obstructions in securing land—whether through allocation by the State or direct purchase—for building a church. Then begins the long, agonising journey of applying for the required security approvals to build the church. This process involves the required fulfilment of the notorious Ten Conditions—a legacy of an outdated, discriminatory regulation which dates back to 1934, and which places confining, all-but-impossible to meet conditions to build a church. If the Ten Conditions are however fulfilled, the application has to garner a long ascending list of official and security approvals, up to that of the president of the republic who alone holds the authority to decree the building of the church. No time span limits the period required until the final approval; the agony may be indefinite. What a difference between this ++Via Dolorosa++ Copts have to traverse to build a church, and the rosy one traversed by their Muslim partners in the homeland to build a mosque! This legislation which maintains the approval of building churches in the hands of the head of the State alone goes back to the 1865 Ottoman Himayouni Edict, when Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire. It was instated then in order to secure justice and equality in granting land and approvals for non-Muslims in the empire to build their respective places of worship. Many officials—among whom is Dr Mustafa al-Fiqi, head of the foreign affairs committee in Parliament—claim that this legislation was invalidated once the Ottoman Empire fell and Egypt ceased to be an Ottoman province. It pains me to confirm that the Himayouni Edict is well and alive; no legislation has ever been enacted to invalidate it. Rather, I have living proof that it is still in force. Last July, ++Watani++ printed the case of Orthodox Copts of al-Wadi al-Gadid in the Western Desert who applied to the government for the approval of a new burial ground for their dead. The 2
  • 8. official reply signed by the director of administrative and religious affairs at the Interior Ministry declared that: “The legal opinion of the State Council, the Fatwa department at the Interior Ministry, and the department of legal affairs, have all agreed that—+according to the Himayouni Edict which governs the building of places of worship or [any building which concerns a religious community]+—the matter requires a presidential decree.” This legislative flaw is but one of the forms of discrimination between Copts and Muslims. It is not the only one. 3
  • 9. WATANI International 30 January 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 1029 Problems on hold President Mubarak again: Egypt of the Muslims and Copts Youssef Sidhom Last week’s editorial referred to President Mubarak’s words that “As Egyptian Muslims and Copts, we should allow nothing to come between us”. The words, intended to condemn discrimination between Muslims and Copts, actually served as a strong reminder of it. This discrimination is especially flagrant when it comes to the right of the members of each religion to build their respective places of worship. Whereas Muslims can build mosques unconditionally and at any time, the building of a church requires a presidential decree. ++Watani++ last week published on its front page a call by Dr Mustafa al-Fiqi, head of the foreign relations committee at the People’s Assembly, in which he declared that “citizenship rights are the basis of the relationship between the individual and the State. There should be no discrimination whatsoever between citizens on religious grounds. We hope to see a law that would stipulate a unified set of regulations for building all places of worship, and would thus put an end to the problems of building churches. We also hope to see a law that would abolish the declaration of the religious identity of citizens in their ID cards”. It should be noted however that discrimination against Copts is not confined to building new churches, which, as mentioned, require presidential decrees, but extends to such commonplace issues as the restoration and renovation of existing ones. Ironically, these repairs are treated by the State as sensitive issues which require complicated, time-consuming approvals by the all- powerful security authorities. Thus, while Muslims may easily conduct any necessary repairs to a mosque, Copts are subjected to extreme humiliation and oppression in order to carry out similar works in their churches. 1
  • 10. Until recently, the restoration or renovation of churches required a presidential decree. Among the most notorious of such cases was the presidential decree 157 of 1991, printed in the “Egyptian Official Paper” stipulating that: “Orthodox Copts are authorised to restore the toilet and bakery of Mit Bera Church in Qouwisna, Menoufiya governorate, according to the attached drawing.” At that time, Antoun Sidhom wrote in ++Watani++: “Must Copts undergo such extreme humiliation that they cannot restore a toilet without a presidential decree? I call upon President Mubarak to abolish such disgraceful legislation.” President Mubarak did move to liberate the codes of restoration and renovation of churches. In 1998, presidential decree number 13 was issued entitling governors to the President’s rights in licensing restorations or renovations in churches. In February 1998, I commended the move in ++Watani++, as a genuine national achievement that put an end to the deplorable state of affairs which required a presidential seal of approval for such trivial matters as renovating a church’s toilet or fence.” In December 1999, presidential decree number 453 was issued stipulating that—in accordance with law 106 of 1976—the restoration or renovation of all places of worship should be approved by the building authorities of each governorate. The decree achieved several important objectives. It considered, for the first time, churches and mosques on equal bases. The mere use of the term ‘places of worship’ to indicate both churches and mosques alike implied equality between them. The reference to law 106 of 1976 was vital, since this law stipulates that, should the building authorities have any reservation or objection regarding a given application for construction works, it should notify the applicant within 60 days. Otherwise, the application is considered automatically approved. For the first time, the restoration and renovation of churches were freed from the absolute, indefinitely-extended power of the security apparatus. It was a huge relief. But we had laughed too soon. In May 2000, before the presidential decree in question was enforced, the governor of Assiut in Upper Egypt sent a “secret and confidential” memorandum to the head of the local government of Assiut to the following effect. “Regarding presidential decree 453 of 1999, please refer all applications concerning churches [note the specification of churches alone] to the governorate for security approval prior to licensing restoration work, for the benefit of public interest and the realisation of the decreed objective.” In July 2000, I wrote that Assuit governor’s memo emptied the presidential decree of its content, and returned the issue to the security authorities’ control. The term “churches” instead of “places of worship” stressed the 2
  • 11. differentiation between Muslims and Copts. I asked who could defend the presidential decree. Regrettably, nothing transpired and the contents of the memo were put into force from that time onwards. And worse still, a similar message was issued by Sohag governor in March 2001. The unhealthy ensuing climate of discrimination between Muslims and Copts has led to the persistence of widespread feelings of oppression and humiliation by the Copts. It may thus be argued that the President has done his bit and taken the initiative of issuing the required decisions to liberate the restoration and renovation churches. How can he be held responsible for the executive decisions decreed by governors—each in his own governorate—which hinder the execution of the presidential decrees? It should go without saying however that there are, within the presidential apparatus, departments in charge of following up the execution of presidential decrees in form and content. It hence stands to reason that such decrees can never be treated with indifference or negligence. Did not the President know what was going on? Did he know, but placed the issue on hold? Or did he know and condone it? The discrimination between Muslims and Copts—regarding the renovation of their respective places of worship—persists. In November 2004, presidential decree number 357 was issued stipulating that: “Orthodox Copts are granted license to demolish and rebuild the main gate of St Dimiana Church in the city of Kafr al-Sheikh.” This brought me to my wits end. Demolishing and rebuilding a gate are works of restoration and repair, which should not require a presidential decree. So how did the application to conduct them reach the President’s office, and how was the decree issued? Is it a negation of decree 453 of 1999? And is there a similar retraction concerning mosques? Because if so, it would indeed be true that nothing comes between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians. 3
  • 12. WATANI International 6 February 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 739 Problems on hold President Mubarak, one more time: Egypt of the Muslims and Copts Youssef Sidhom “The concept of citizenship rights forms the basis of the relationship between the citizen and the State. In this context, it is hoped that the ‘religion’ box [which identifies the holder’s religion on his or her identification documents] would be abolished from official papers.’ The words belong to Dr Mustafa al-Fiqi, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Egyptian Parliament. He made this statement during the opening ceremony last month of the centre for dialogue between Islam and the West, at the Roman Catholic Patriarchate in Cairo. It pains me that this statement was not made—as it should have been—in Parliament, especially after President Mubarak made his now-famous announcement that we should let nothing come between Egypt’s Muslims and its Copts. It is a self-evident truth though that an Egyptian’s religious identity can—in nine cases out of ten—be easily spotted without resorting to his or her ID. Names alone are a telltale sign. Both Copts and Muslims are generally named after saints of their respective religions. So the objective of abolishment of the religion box from IDs, job application forms, or any other document, is not the mere hiding of one’s religious identity—a next-to- impossible feat, but the confirmation that citizenship rights, competence, and adequate qualifications are not subject to religious identity. It goes without saying that for such a move to be effective, systems of follow-up and accountability should be firmly in place. I have repeatedly written on the problem so frequently faced by Copts when they apply for the new computerised ID cards. When they apply for the new birth certificate required in the process, many Copts find themselves 1
  • 13. registered—in the religion box—as Muslims born to Muslim parents. When they attempt to prove that this data is incorrect, by referring to their own and their parents’ original birth certificates, marriage certificates, or death certificates if needs be, they are told that these are insufficient, and are ordered to obtain proof from the National Archives. No matter that the fault is in the first place that of the civil register clerk, and no matter that the entire situation is unreasonable and unjust. The Coptic citizen nonetheless is obliged to waste an incredible amount of effort and time to correct a fault not of his or her own doing. Worse still, no clerk has to date been questioned or held accountable for the errors that result in so much agony by blameless citizens. It is true that civil servants in Egypt are indeed incompetent. But to date, I know of no Muslim who was registered as Christian despite information to his or her being Muslim born to Muslim parents, as proved by the birth certificates. If, hypothetically speaking, this ever happens, I wonder if such a citizen would be arrogantly penalised by asking him to prove the disputed religious identity which was incorrectly entered by the clerk. Had I known of even one such case, I would have used it to prove that Copts are not the only people wronged by government clerks. But the civil register officials appear adamant in proving that clerks are highly competent at issuing official papers to Muslims, and lose all competence when it comes to Copts. Add to this the absence of orders to clerks to correct such faults, and you are left with a feeling that the only plausible explanation is a deep-rooted intention to harass Copts once they persist in being identified as Christians. It is sad that such cases are all to frequent. And lest anyone accuses me of making up or exaggerating the problem, I will not hesitate in printing any case I know of. The oral examinations of college students represent another notorious case of flagrant discrimination against Copts because of their religious identity. Coptic students frequently fall prey to fanatic teachers and professors who insist upon giving them low grades in oral exams, where their identity is disclosed. Contrariwise, these same students usually score top grades in written exams, where students are only identified by secret numbers. As though these top-grade Coptic students are suddenly infected with collective ignorance or stupidity when it comes to oral exams. This flagrant categorisation of Egyptians according to their religious identity, and their consequent division into deserving or non-deserving, accepted or rejected citizens, their rights granted or withheld, constitutes a serious flaw in Egyptian citizenship rights, which no amount of sweet rhetoric can remedy. 2
  • 14. +The steering committee of Zurich’s Coptic Symposium+ Last week, I attended the meetings of the steering committee of the Coptic Symposium which convened in Zurich last September. The committee’s task was to follow up on and assess the action taken regarding the symposium’s resolutions. The committee discussed the structural division of the work groups which will be responsible for activating the symposium’s resolutions, and reviewed the scope of activity of each group, and coordination between them. The committee met the members of the different work groups, and decided with them on the basic axes along which the work was to be conducted. Among these were: 1. Activating the resolutions of the Zurich Symposium of September 2004. 2 . Presenting a work plan to the steering committee for revision and approval. 3. Presenting a quarterly report to the steering committee for assessment and discussion of measures to control the work and improve performance. 4. Official communiqués may only be issued by the work groups if they are reviewed and approved by the steering committee. 5. Adopting a peaceful, balanced, non-antagonistic attitude in all talks or writings related to the work of the group. 6. Confirming the spirit of the Zurich symposium, which calls upon all Egyptians—Muslim and Christian—to work together in order to consolidate full and equal citizenship rights for all. 7. Working to build bridges of mutual understanding, respect, and dialogue on the official and civil levels, inside and outside Egypt, with the objective of activating the Zurich symposium resolutions. 8. Avoiding all forms of implication of religions or ridicule of faith, since they only serve to mar the cause of equal citizenship rights, and impair goodwill between citizens. 3
  • 15. WATANI International 13 February 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 646 Problems on hold President Mubarak, anew: Egypt of the Muslims and Copts Youssef Sidhom Earlier this month, as Egypt’s police celebrated their day, President Hosni Mubarak honoured 103 policemen and officers for distinguished performance on duty. Only one—who had lost his life in action—was Copt, meaning that Copts measured 0.97 per cent of the honourees. This incident took me back to the ‘problems on hold’ file. Last August I tackled the issue of the dearth of Copts in leading official posts, pointing out that their proportion in such posts was notoriously low, ranging between zero and three per cent. I wrote then that these figures indicated a severe flaw: “Semi-official figures—there are no official figures—place the Coptic population at some 10 per cent of the Egyptian population. Since Copts go through the same educational system—on all school and university levels—as Muslims do, and later enter the job market with almost the same qualifications, the natural distribution of Copts in jobs would be around the same percentage as their numbers. If advancement in jobs were subject to competence alone, it would then stand to reason that Copts would occupy around 10 percent of leading posts. That is, if no obstacles were placed in their path.” Sadly, this particular article dealt with the police officers’ promotions approved by the Interior Minister last July, which included 151 names not one of whom was Copt. I considered this a serious, inexplicable, unjust predicament, which occurred repeatedly every time official promotions or honours lists were announced. Since last December, the issue of citizenship rights has been under heavy debate in Egyptian political and civil society circles. Muslims and Christians 1
  • 16. alike expressed a high degree of awareness of the curtailment of these rights where Copts are concerned. It is to be hoped then that the question of the share of Copts in leading posts in the State would be confronted and remedied, and that the “complacency of the majority” of our Muslim fellow- citizens would not lead them to disregard the problem. I had previously called for applying a quota system—using a realistic ratio as regards the proportion of Copts—to leading posts. This should raise no apprehensions, since the quota system will only be a temporary remedy to a hard situation. It should not be viewed as a compromise of our national Egyptian integrity, since “Lebanonisation” of Egypt will never be a viable option. Whenever the question of the minimal nomination of Copts to leading posts surfaces, some hasten to declare that the reason is their small numbers in the work force, in the first place. This in itself is the outcome of a decades-long flawed policy which never afforded Copts opportunities equal to those of Muslims regarding access or appointment to jobs in certain sectors. This policy—dubbed “drying up the source”—has been applied in cases of admissions to military and police academies, the prosecution and judicial corps, the banking sector, the diplomatic corps, to list but a few. The acknowledgement of this state of affairs will in all likelihood lead us to hasten long-deferred reforms. It will also lead us to extend a generous quota of the leading posts in the State to Copts, to compensate for the years when—as a result of drying up the source—very few of them have had access to such posts. This brings me to the end of this series of articles on the inequality between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts in the most basic citizenship rights. I present it to the authorities in our country, in order to candidly investigate and courageously reform. I also present it to those who reject so-called pressure from the outside world to implement reforms, but in no way denounce the existing flaws in Egyptians’ citizenship rights. And finally, as always, I present it to the national conscience of our Muslim fellow-citizens, on whose support I place my highest hopes for the long-awaited reform. 2
  • 17. WATANI International 20 February 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 843 Problems on hold The Egyptian press on sectarian issues A call to account Youssef Sidhom The sectarian incidents which last December exploded in Assiut, and later in Beheira, drew our attention to the manner in which the Egyptian media has handled the issue. In the majority of cases, press coverage of the incidents was unreasonable, irrational, and bordering on the hysterical. Instead of seeking the truth and informing the public of it, the press deluded, goaded, and charged public sentiment by making up unsubstantiated stories. It became clear that the press trifled dangerously with the public mood, and resorted to irresponsible sensationalism in order to raise distribution figures. No wonder then that, next to all the flagrant sensationalism which dominated the media coverage then, some found ++Watani’s++ reporting rather pale. ++Watani++ only printed the strict, verified facts, and refrained from engaging in futile discussions or rhetorical duelling with pens which made it their job to charge public sentiment. I know that some of our readers—among whom are a number of clerics—are cross with us for not printing the angry letters they sent us commenting on the Assiut and Beheira incidents. To all of them I offer my apologies; the decision was neither was meant to insult nor to ignore any of them. ++Watani’s++ attitude was to define the flaws in our societal or official systems, analyse them and attempt to prescribe a remedy. It was clear to us that, left unchecked, these flaws—which basically categorised Egyptians as Muslims and Copts—threatened to pull Egypt down a fathomless abyss out of which there can be no ascent. With other conscientious fellow-Egyptians, we began looking for civil institutions which would manage such crises, and lift the burden of defending the Coptic citizen off the shoulders of the 1
  • 18. Church. It had to be confirmed that Copts are first and foremost subjects of the State, then sons and daughters of the Church. In this context, ++Watani++ launched its call for the establishment of a civil, national “Egyptian Council of Citizenship Rights”, which would open channels of dialogue with all State institutions and apparatuses, in order to remedy the flaws which hindered the attainment of full citizenship rights for all Egyptians. Efforts are underway for such a council to materialise. Amid the crisis, and just as I refrained from printing the angry reader letters, I also refrained from printing the letters of appreciation which ++Watani++ received, and which confirmed that ++Watani’s++ call had not fallen on deaf ears. Yet one such letter stood out, and so much so that I decided to print it. The letter came from Ms Amina Sarwat Abaza, director of the translation department of the Egyptian satellite channel, and daughter of the late writer and novelist Sarwat Abaza. Ms Abaza wrote: “I am lost for words to apologise—as an Egyptian—for the manner in which some Egyptian papers covered the story of Ms Wafaa’ Costantine. [Ms Costantine is the Beheira priest’s wife whose alleged conversion to Islam, and the subsequent uncooperative handling of the matter by the security authorities, prompted a five-day sit in at St Mark’s cathedral—the Coptic Orthodox papal seat.] How I wished I could find even one paper that would have covered the topic with even the minimal objectiveness or fairness. But this was apparently not to be. “One weekly paper’s coverage reeked of fanaticism and extremism. Its editors attempted to strike at Christians, but only succeeded in scoring against Egypt instead. Since all articles which tackle our national unity ultimately find their way to the Internet, this paper’s hate material was shortly posted on the Net, giving Egypt a bad image at home and abroad. “Another daily paper, the editor of which claims to call for enlightenment, progress and secularism, printed an article brimming with falseness and ignorance. Most papers propagated a culture of hate and narrow-mindedness. Little did they realise that, in so doing, they went against the values of goodness and beauty upheld by all religions. Does not Islam itself honour the holy Virgin Mary more than any other woman in creation? And how can such papers make the ridiculous claim that monasteries are used to stock arms, and thus call for inspecting them? Have we stooped that low? Sadly, such writings simply mirror the real frame of mind of our society. 2
  • 19. “All journalists know full well that Ms Costantine’s incident was not the real reason behind the revolt of the Copts, but was only the straw that broke the camel’s back, following years of shelving Copt’s grievances and covering them up. Why did the papers write condemning Pope Shenouda III for retreating—in protest—to his desert monastery? What crime did he commit in so doing? Are Copts or their Pope deprived of all rights to express their anger—no matter how peacefully? If such is the opinion of our ‘intellectuals’, what can we expect from our illiterates?” I thank Ms Abaza for her articulate wisdom, enlightenment, and awareness, and welcome her among the circle of people who strive to remedy Egypt’s ailments through consolidating the principle of full and equal citizenship rights for all Egyptians. 3
  • 20. WATANI International 27 February 2005 Translator: Ghada /copy editor: Samia Word count: 1007 Problems on hold The Copt’s ++Via Dolorosa++ Youssef Sidhom When—together with many honourable men and women in Egypt—I called upon the government to issue a unified law for the building and restoration of places of worship, my prime concern was to consolidate the principle of equal citizenship rights for all Egyptians, not to double the number of churches. I believed that such a move would put an end to what I metaphorically call the ++Via Dolorosa++ Copts alone—to the exclusion of Muslims—have to go through to establish churches. I was hoping that the smoothness and ease with which Muslims build mosques would extend to Copts building churches. Since some people in this country persist in denying that Copts face difficulties in building churches that Muslims do not encounter when building mosques, I today present the case of Burg al-Arab’s church. The Christian residents of this industrial town south of Alexandria have been trying for 16 years—since 1988—to obtain official license to build a church but have so far failed. They need to harness all their reserve of faith, courage and patience, and start all over again if they still want a church. I have yet to hear of or from Muslims who ever faced similar difficulties when attempting to build a mosque. I would not then offer them condolences, because I do not believe that equality in injustice is just, but ask them to join forces with us to call for a reform of the regulations governing the building of respective places of worship. Following are the details of the story of the Holy Virgin’s church, awaited so eagerly by some 750 families—about 3500 individuals in the old and new towns of Burg al-Arab and some 40 villages in the vicinity. 1
  • 21. • In September 1988, the archbishopric of Beheira applied to Burg al- Arab’s administrative bureau for the allocation of a piece of land to build a church, in accordance with a ministerial decree issued by the ministry of construction and new urban communities. • In January 1989, the head of the administrative bureau wrote to the archbishopric asking it to list the activities covered by the church project, in order to allocate the plot of land. • In June 1993, the bureau informed the archbishopric that an area of 2000 square metres was allocated for the church. In response, the archbishopric appealed to the bureau to double the assigned area to suffice the projected activities. • After years of exchanging messages between the bureau and security departments of Beheira and Alexandria governorates, a decision was issued on 1 April 1998 assigning 4000 square metres +on the city’s central axis+ for the church. • In June 1999 the archbishopric submitted the architectural drawings and calculations to the bureau, which approved them. In March 2002, the bureau referred the papers to the police commissioner of New Burg al- Arab—who in turn referred them to Alexandria security department—to file for the presidential decree required to allow the erection of the church. • In April 2003, the head of Alexandria security department turned the papers to New Borg al-Arab police commissioner with a letter asking him to check the drawings against the allocated land on site, and to provide information on the projected church’s attached buildings. In addition, the letter included the following demand: +“inform us frankly of your opinion on licensing the church”.+ • In Se ptember 2003, the commissioner returned the papers to Alexandria security department with the technical demands fulfilled, but minus “his frank opinion” on licensing the church. • I n October 2003, the security department again asked for the police commissioner’s +frank opinion on licensing the church.+ To reply, the commissioner ordered a protracted research the result of which was officially reported by the general administration of criminal investigation of West Delta—kindly note that it was a +criminal+ investigation—on 19 June 2004. The report was to the following effect: 1- No mosques are located beside the planned church site. 2- New Burg al-Arab town contains no churches. 2
  • 22. 3- The planned site is empty of construction works and the applicant for the license has pledged not to start any construction works before the license is issued. 4- A police officer regularly checks that no construction work is conducted. 5- The Alexandria department of criminal investigation has decided that there were no objections, +from the criminal viewpoint+, to license the church building—provided the state security investigation departments of Cairo and Alexandria approve. 6- The State security investigation department’s opinion was that +there was no objection to licensing the church if another site is allotted for it, since the present site (on the town’s central axis) is part of the projected urban expansion of the town, and is remote from the town residences.+ • The interior minister’s deputy for public security approved the report and referred it to the director of the department of administrative affairs on 26 June 2004. • On 31 July 2004, Alexandria security department sent a letter to Burg al- Arab police station asking to officially inform the applicant for licensing the church of the opinion of the criminal investigation and state security departments. The outcome was that the projected church was effectively dropped after 16 years of arduous efforts. Because the authorities found no legal reasons—not even according to the notorious Ten Conditions of 1934 which stipulate among their rules that no mosque should be in the vicinity of a church, and that there should be no other church in town—to prevent the project for coming into existence, they froze the project on the pretext that the site represents an extension to the town that is far away from the inhabitants. They apparently forgot however that the town’s central axis houses the core of the town activities and public services, which would hence be easily accessible. The project was thus effectively returned back to square one, which would imply another 16 years of arduous efforts. Does the ++Via Dolorosa++ detailed above illustrate why we need a unified legislation for building places of worship? 3
  • 23. WATANI International 6 March 2005 Translator: Samia /copy editor: Samia Word count: 822 So says the President Now that the President has said it … Youssef Sidhom Thanks are due to President Hosni Mubarak for taking the initiative to liberate the Egyptian political arena, and asking the People’s Assembly and the ++Shura++ (Consultative) Council [the lower and upper chambers of the the Egyptian Parliament] to change the Constitution. Article 76—which stipulates that the People’s Assembly nominates a candidate for the presidency then holds a public referendum on the nominee—should, the President said, be changed, and another article (192bis) added which substitutes “election” for “referendum” in all articles in the Constitution. Thanks are also due to President Mubarak for the “ten commandments” of reform, which he presented in his speech in the Delta town of Shebin al-Kom on 26 February. If courageously and honourably applied, these steps could pave the way towards the Egypt of tomorrow. It is no coincidence that the first of these ten principles is “commitment to the principle of citizenship rights as the basis of absolute equality in rights and duties between all Egyptians, regardless of their thought, gender, creed, or religion.” Much needs to be done in this respect. It will be a grave mistake if these ten principles are disregarded, so that they become mere hollow slogans to be used to beautify a poor reality. And now that President Mubarak has said it, and as is the custom with many in our political, media, and intellectual circles, a sudden change of mood has taken place. Those who had been against “imminent” change and advocated long term alterations suddenly appeared to embrace immediate change. If the President’s initiative is a step on the road to democracy, this change of mood is an ailment, where democracy is concerned. Yet it is not new to our political scene. When the president denounced the killing of civilians in Israel and said that Palestinian suicide attacks did not serve the Palestinian cause, voices which had traditionally hailed these attacks were suddenly quiet, and the customary 1
  • 24. expressions of “Palestinians martyred” and “Israelis killed” were—for some time at least—abandoned. Again, when the President announced Coptic Christmas a national holiday, the move was hailed in the media and the People’s Assembly as an Egyptian dream come true. No matter then that our call for such a move for years and years had fallen on these same people’s deaf ears. It is small wonder that the President’s recent initiative caused such a happy reaction, since it was an unexpected surprise. But I believe that we need to take matters cautiously until Parliament finalises the procedures to turn it into an instrument of people empowerment. One stance however made me stop in amazement. This was that of the leaders of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Egyptian Parliament. They announced that the President’s initiative reflected an unprecedented vision on the road to democracy, that Egypt had thus taken a huge step towards reform, that this initiative had been on the NDP’s agenda in 2003 and 2004, and that it came right on time. All this talk is fine for now, but I cannot forget countless declarations these same people made to the effect that now was not the right time for change. So many times did they insist that economic reform took precedence over political reform which was in turn against stability. Political reform had thus to wait since stability could not be risked at present. Constitutional reform, they said, was not on the agenda. All throughout 2003 and 2004 we had insisted on the inevitability of change, and that it should come from within, before we are forced to adopt it due to external pressures. Many studies offered viable prescriptions of reform—not least among them was the Alexandria Document issued by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina convention in March 2004, and discussed at length in ++Watani++. All reform proposals were met with official disregard, and in many cases apprehension. But now that the President has announced his initiative, the political rhetoric of these leaders and officials has taken a complete U-turn. They appear to have forgotten their previous stands and totally embrace the President’s vision. They even disregard what I consider a major force behind the President’s move, this being the voice of the Egyptian street, which has been crying for change. It goes to the president’s credit that he listened to the voice of the people, and did not give in to the obstinate, barren thought of the legislative organisations and ruling party. As we await what the coming days will bring, two issues strongly stand out. The first is our realisation that Constitutional change is only the first step in the process of reform, and must be followed by others that would secure systematic change, power rotation, and accountability. The second is that this reform can never be effected without the active participation of each of us—one and all. 2
  • 25. WATANI International 13 March 2005 Translator: Samia /copy editor: Samia Word count: 858 So the President said … Youssef Sidhom The Egyptian media has lately been brimming with material commenting on President Mubarak’s call for Constitutional change. The change will allow for the free election of a president from among multiple candidates, instead of the current system in which Parliament nominates a candidate for the presidency then holds a public referendum on the nominee. Many have written or spoken in gratitude and celebration of the President’s call—a stance which reflects an unhealthy climate incapable of seriously dealing with reform. A few however, have presented earnest studies on or analyses of the issue, introducing substantial visions of what should follow the aspired Constitutional reform. It is hoped that the political kitchen can come up with a recipe for a new system of nominating and electing the president and vice-president, and redefine their authorities, duration of their terms, and conditions for re-election. One of the most serious studies on the issue was conducted by Mr Nabil Abdel-Fattah, researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. It was printed in the Cairo daily al-Ahram on 7 March under the title “The constutional status of the president of the republic. Structural flaws and visions of reform.” I must admit that I immensely enjoyed reading the objective study, and agreed with the major part of it. So much so in fact, that I would like to highlight some of the its more important points. • Any attempt towards political reform can never ignore constitutional reform, which would in turn question the powers of the president of the republic under the current Constitution. • The 1971 Constitution—the present one—did not stipulate a full parliamentary system that would allow correct political and democratic practice. Instead, it consolidated a presidential system, granting the president extensive powers, so that the boundary between the legislative 1
  • 26. and executive authorities of the State was no longer obvious. Especially where the relationship between the president, the prime minister, and the speaker of the parliament is concerned, this boundary is blurred. All three appear to form the sides of one power triangle, instead of representing two distinctly separate entities, where the president and prime minister impersonate the executive authority of the State, while the speaker of the parliament personifies the legislative authority. • The articles which stipulate the duration of the term of the presidency are among the most controversial in the 1971 Constitution. Article 77 had stipulated that the president may be re-elected for one consecutive term, but was changed in 1980 to allow the re-election of the president for several [unlimited] successive terms. The result was that the post of president went out of circulation, as though permanently booked for the present occupant, to the exclusion of any other eligible candidate. • Whether or not by intent, the 1971 Constitution emerged as male- oriented. As such, it ignores its own principles of uncontested equality between citizens, since it absolutely disregards the possibility of a woman being nominated for the presidency. Those who love to refer to Islamic ++sharia++ or jurisprudence, quote it as stipulating that no woman may occupy the post of ‘grand ++imama++’ or top post in the nation. I remind those that many schools of modern ++fiqh++ or religious science consider that the ‘grand ++imama++’ is not synonymous with that of the presidency of the modern, national State. Proof of this is obvious in the case of some of the bigger and more populous Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, where women were elected to the presidency. • The extensive authority which the 1971 Constitution grants the president allows him to dominate the political and constitutional arena. From among a total of 59 defined prerogatives or powers, the Constitution grants the president alone 35 of them, leaving a mere 14 to the legislative authority, four to the judicial authority, four to the ministers, one to the prosecutor general, and one to the Supreme Press Council. • This focal, central role of the president contributed to the marginalisation of politicians and the later complete absence of any ground to produce them, so that the likes of the politicians who had helped build modern Egypt during the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were no more. The role of parliament and government shrunk in the face of the growing role of the president who alone took political and judicial initiatives. The executive apparatuses only awaited the president’s orders. 2
  • 27. • This legacy of the 1952 July Revolution bred a broad class of statesmen and politicians whose mindset was captive to the incorrect concept of absolute obedience, submission, and loyalty to the president, as a requirement of good citizenship. This legacy is a serious impediment to political and constitutional reform, and to the foundation of a modern parliamentarian State where pluralism, political freedom, and peaceful power rotation reign. We must admit that our country suffers from a political vacuum and scarcity of politicians, and that reform should proceed gradually and in stages in order to allow for the productions of new political cadres which would possess new concepts and visions, and believe in the reform we aspire for. 3
  • 28. WATANI International 20 March 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 662 Egypt within our souls Youssef Sidhom As we talk of extending our vision of electoral reform towards constitutional and political reform, questions arise as to the capacity of such reforms to draw the average Egyptian out of the isolation which has for more than half a century kept him or her off the political and public arena. There is a near consensus that this isolation has not been through ignorance or apathy, but was the natural outcome of the absence of liberalism and pluralism from the political arena, and a general sense among Egyptians of being marginalised. The painful reality which few imagine is that the simple, toiling Egyptian is distanced from the luxury of reform talk by his or her daily struggle to secure the bare necessities of life—in some cases merely to survive. This simple citizen and his or her needs are conspicuously absent from the agenda of those who make a livelihood out of politics, only to be recalled in hollow speeches or electoral campaigns. In his column in ++Watani++ last week, Soliman Shafiq truly mirrored this reality when he wrote: “As for the commons of Egypt—so long marginalised—the benefit they attained from the proposed constitutional reform was that they got to know that Egypt had a Constitution.” His words moved us all when he continued: “Two-thirds of Egypt’s population, struggling as they are with poverty and need, look forward to a presidential proposition that would secure constitutional social rights. These include the right to work, the right to a home, the right to medical care, the right to get married, the right to three meals a day. All this requires a new social contract.” Absolutely true. The average Egyptian needs much before we can talk to him or her of freedom at the ballot box. Before asking him or her to assume an active role in the political arena from which he and she had been banished for more than five decades, we ought to worry about how these Egyptians 1
  • 29. may restore their faith in their country. It is first necessary to secure their most basic needs, then to find a system whereby these citizens may become innovative, creative and effective, instead of mere recipients. Only then would they realise that their voices matter and their votes count. It is no secret that they often say that this country is not theirs, but belongs to those with authority or money. Why else do they feel estranged, alienated, hopeless, and unable to effect any change to their deplorable everyday reality? Why are they ready to emigrate without giving a second thought to the homeland they are leaving? Why are they unusually hardworking, innovative and successful abroad? Candid answers to such questions could bring us closer to the Egypt we live in, and could help us visualise the Egypt we wish for. Since we are so busy arguing about reform, we might as well even dream of what should precede or follow the outcome of the ballot box. Instead of remaining under the custodianship of the political elite who alone may initiate and dictate what they see fit for the people, who ought in turn to be ever grateful for such thoughtfulness, Egyptians should one day have ready access to all information on their country and its institutions. This should normally promote a strong sense of belonging to and responsibility towards their homeland and its foundations. Why should Egyptians be any different from the citizens of countries of the civilised world, who—as taxpayers—are entitled to know all the details and finances of the ruling establishments, their governments, military and security institutions? Why is such data considered public information there, but top secret—threatening national security—here? We know more about the White House, the Pentagon, the US Navy, and the FBI than we know of our own country’s institutions. Our Egypt is entitled to be not merely a homeland in which we live, but a homeland that lives within our souls. 2
  • 30. WATANI International 27 March 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 775 Problems on hold Awaiting presidential orders Youssef Sidhom The unjustifiably low rents of flats in old buildings constitute an issue which has long been shelved by consecutive governments in Egypt. Neither the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) nor any of the opposition parties have had the courage to place this issue on their reform agendas or on plans for achieving social justice. MPs present countless interpellations to the government on so many issues, but not one of them concerns the rents of old flats. Forty full years after the vicious vilification of landlords at the hands of the socialist regime of Egypt’s first president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and the consequent State-imposed harsh cuts in rent rates, no-one has taken any move towards correcting these wrongs. This is not the first time I write on this issue. Back in September 2002 I tackled this problem among the “problems on hold”, under the title “Frozen rents: Absent justice and eroded wealth”. I reviewed the decades-long build- up of the consequences of freezing the rents at deceptively low values since the 1960s. I wrote that this unwise government policy had succeeded in winning the uncontested support of the short-sighted working classes, but that this had come at the expense of short and long-term investment in the entire real estate sector. Investors found ways—such as key money, renting their flats fully-furnished, or selling the flats—to circumvent the sinking return on their investment due to the low rents, but the wider Egyptian community is to this day suffering from the shortage of affordable housing. Had housing been left to the market forces of supply and demand throughout the past forty years, I have no doubt that we would have been spared the present crisis. 1
  • 31. I received the following letter from Mr Ageeb Mikhail Boctor, retired lawyer at the Court of Cassation—the highest judicial authority in Egypt. “The civil law of 1948 stipulates that a contract governs the relation of the contractors. As such, it cannot be modified or nullified except at the will of its signatories, or because of reasons stipulated by the law. Even so, the State unjustifiably interfered with the relation between landlords and tenants through Law 7 of 1965 which reduced then rental values by 35 per cent. In 1977, it passed Law 49 of 1977 which stipulated that rents should be fixed by committees formed through governorial decrees, and that the rents specified by these committees were final and irrevocable. “As though this were not enough, the State again passed Law 49 of 1979 which stipulated that the rental contract should, after the death of the tenant or his or her leaving the flat for any reason, be extended to the spouse, children or parents who had lived there. So the State’s authority did not stop at reducing and freezing rents, but extended to side with the ‘poor’ tenant against the landlord, by allowing the spouse, children or parents to ‘inherit’ the flat. “Lately, the State attempted to right matters through Law 4 of 1996 which applied the rules of civil law to all places which had not hitherto been rented or the contracts of which had not been renewed. But this never granted the landlords of old buildings their usurped rights, nor did it recover the four-decade long lost justice. “It is a phenomenon unique to Egypt. Nowhere in the world have we heard of 40-year-long rulings that freeze rents and confiscate actual ownership rights in favour of the tenants, converting the tenant into the practical owner of the flat. The penury sums which landlords pocket as return on their investment are a national disgrace. As salaries and incomes have risen throughout the past years, the State has allowed tenants with average monthly incomes of LE1000 to pay average monthly rents of LE10. The State has raised the cost of all vital services such as electricity, drinking water, telephone calls, transportation, fuel and suchlike, but has not seen fit to raise the rents of flats in old buildings. It has practically obliged the landlords to pay long-term subsidies they can ill-afford for the rents paid by their not-needy tenants.” My only comment to Mr Boctor’s letter is that, since our MPs are notoriously silent on this issue, it appears that nothing short of an initiative from President Mubarak calling upon Parliament to give the poor landlords their rights will move the issue. And you should not then be surprised my 2
  • 32. friend if all the legislative councils rush to correct the wrongs with undaunted enthusiasm, the media rushes to applaud the move, and the NDP leaders rush to declare that the issue had been on the party’s reform agenda for years on end. 3
  • 33. WATANI International 3 April 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Jenny/Samia Word count: 465 ++Watani++ in Braille Youssef Sidhom Starting this month, ++Watani++ will publish a monthly issue in Braille designed and executed to serve those with sight disabilities. For those of our readers who would like to visualise it, I hint to them that it is different from our usual paper in that it is in tabloid form and naturally uses the heavy white Braille paper—specifications dictated by the Braille printing machine. ++Watani Braille++ is expected to fill a void in our media arena by addressing our homeland partners who cannot read the printed word. It is the culmination of ++Watani’s++ long association with the blind on the levels of journalism, youth activities, and social services. All along, ++Watani++ has always had absolute faith in the blind as significant, productive, innovative members in our community. As such, they—as all Egyptians—are entitled to equal opportunity. The idea was to issue a monthly publication which would include a varied selection of ++Watani’s++ material through the month. This meant scanning the paper for stories on the most significant events, as well as the best and most meaningful reports, opinion pieces, articles on arts, economy, social issues, sports, tourism, and so on. ++Watani Braille++ is our message of love to all our blind brothers and sisters, a message which confirms our belief in them and their contribution—in no way less than any of that of the sighted—to this homeland. We ask them to send us their feedback on this publication, their assessment and their suggestions. Watani will send copies of our experimental issue of ++Watani Braille++ by special order until it is put on news stands and in bookshops. It gives me pleasure to introduce to our readers Ms Sherifa Massoud, the person behind this tremendous work. Ms Massoud is a bright, dynamic, young blind woman who joined ++Watani++ Youth Parliament and ++Watani’s++ Centre for Journalistic Formation and Human Resources 1
  • 34. Development a few years ago, graduated in 2003, and is today among the paper’s young energetic reporters. A few months ago, Ms Massoud suggested to me that ++Watani++ might publish a Braille issue, to which I responded with enthusiasm. She then eagerly hastened to take all the necessary steps for the dream to materialise, knocking upon doors, investigating alternatives, negotiating for the best offers, examining ++Watani’s++ material, and sparing no effort to make the work a success. Last week Ms Massoud again entered my office, this time triumphantly holding the dear experimental issue in her arms, and asking for my opinion. Whatever the result, I believe the work is wonderful—the pride of all ++Watani++. I eagerly await comments on our new publication, and heartily thank our young Ms Massoud who may lack sight, but has no lack of insight, love or wisdom, and whose name graces ++Watani Braille++ as managing editor. 2
  • 35. WATANI International 10 April 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 577 Pope John Paul II Living the Bible Youssef Sidhom Last week, Pope John Paul II departed from our world of trouble and pain, and entered the heavenly realm of eternal glory. The Church of Rome and the entire human family has lost a shining star, but is left with an immortal memory of a unique leader who dedicated himself absolutely to the service he had been called upon to perform. In his unconditional love for all, Pope John Paul II managed to capture not only the hearts of his congregation, but also those of millions of other Christians and non-Christians as well. The tears shed by people from the world over, in grief over his death thus came as no surprise. In Pope John Paul II we stand before an example of a truly “global citizen” whose loving interaction with the entire human family knew no bounds. He reached out to all; no different faith or language, no political boundary ever stood in his way as he extended loving hands to everyone. Like his Master of whom the Bible says in the Acts of the Apostles “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.”, Pope John Paul II went around doing good. He visited the poor and suffering in far-off places, wiping away their tears and planting hope and comfort instead. He went to the different Churches, preaching brotherhood and understanding. With the Muslims in their mosque and the Jews in their synagogue, he broke down the old legacy of differences, and sowed the seeds of tolerance and acceptance of the other. And again, like his Master, he mastered the art of forgiveness, surpassing human frailty by “overcoming evil with good” (Rom 12: 21). After the attempt on his life in St Peter’s square in 1981, he visited his would-be 1
  • 36. assassin Mehmet Ali Aga in his prison cell, embraced him, assured him that he held no grudge, and even asked for his prayers. This great leader who sat on a venerable throne surrounded by wealth, esteem and veneration, stepped down and toured the world preaching love. He met great rulers and leaders to plead on behalf of the oppressed and the suffering, fighting for their welfare, his only weapons being love and faith. Again, we are reminded of St Paul who said: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.” (1Cor 9: 19) Pope John Paul II’s courage in the face of illness was legendary. He did not retreat from the public eye, nor did he curtail any of his religious or pastoral duties. Millions looked on with emotion as feebleness and disease gradually took over his frail body; they watched the increasing droop in his posture, tremble in his hands, failure in his steps, and quiver in his voice. Yet his Lord’s living words rang true: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor 12: 9) Pope John Paul II has been described as the greatest of the 20th century’s men, and it has been said that the Catholic Church may canonise him. Apart from all official declarations, it is clear that Pope John Paul II will always retain a very special place in the hearts of people—all people, regardless of their religion, race, language, wealth, power, or rank. 2
  • 37. WATANI International 17 April 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 530 Watani’s Centre of Journalistic Formation and Human Resources Development A new class Youssef Sidhom A few days ago, Watani’s Centre of Journalistic Formation and Human Resources Development celebrated the graduation of its second class. When the first class graduated two years ago, ++Watani++ provided Egyptian society and its journalism community with a group of confident and ardent young people, eager to leave their own imprint on public and professional life. The seven-month long second round—from August 2004 to March 2005—sought to stimulate young people’s critical thinking through discovering the ‘other’ and examining areas of difference and parity. The round offered theoretical and applied studies, and focused on three axes: developing creative skills, economic and political thought, and cultural and philosophical thought. Those three questions represent the message ++Watani++ aims to spread so as to form a group of conscientious young people ready to serve their country. Among the first round’s graduates were several who joined ++Watani’s++ staff, while others found their way to various institutions associated with journalism and public work. It is worth noting that the centre’s programme aimed at deepening students’ culture and self-confidence through merging the human knowledge accumulated over the centuries with contemporary thought and current events. Creative skills were developed through mental and intellectual exercises and dialogue, geared towards self-acceptance and acceptance of the ‘other’, as well as towards enhancing latent creative skills. Exercises in silence and contemplation sought to help trainees achieve inner 1
  • 38. peace and lucidity in thought, and led to a substantial degree of transparency and candidness in discussions. Economic and political thought covered both applied and theoretical topics. Courses on political philosophy were taught as a gateway to understand politics and the philosophical theories behind them. The concept of the State in Christian and Islamic thought, as well as in political regimes based upon liberalism, communism and totalitarianism were taught. Trainees participated in models for the UN Security Council, Palestinian factions, and Egyptian parties. Moreover, they went through discussions on US-Korean relationships, Palestine in post-Arafat era, projects to reform the United Nations, US presence in Iraq, the current crisis in the Levant and the forthcoming Egyptian presidential elections. Students were trained in speech writing and delivery. On the economic level, the trainees studied economic theories and policies in commercial, fiscal and investment fields, as well as the rules governing economic relations between nations and regional blocks. Theories and discussions were applied to the Egyptian case. As for cultural and philosophical thought, courses helped enrich students’ minds and stimulate critical thinking. Students were encouraged to acquire new information and knowledge, and reconsider prevalent or well- established ideas. Trainees were acquainted with mega theories such as materialism, idealism, existentialism, aestheticism, realism and other schools of thought. Students learnt about great philosophers, intellectuals, Sufis, reformers and men of letters, whose contributions in the field of thought have enriched the entire human race. The wealthy harvest of Watani’s Centre of Journalistic Formation and Human Resources Development materialises through the mature and conscientious young people it turns out into society. It has become imperative for young people to be empowered to cope with the requirements of the current era; otherwise they fall easy prey to desperation and resentment, and are driven into the arms of ++Salafi++ thought and ++jihadi++ violence. 2
  • 39. WATANI International 24 April 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 734 Problems on hold The civil register Beyond deterrence Youssef Sidhom When a complaint gets repeated mention in the press, it indicates that the problem in question has not been solved. This means that no official has moved towards investigating or resolving it, neither has any supervisory body moved towards monitoring or following up on it. And lest anyone presupposes absolute official silence or disregards towards all the problems we print, I would like to inform our readers that in several instances we have written about problems and received positive replies from those in charge. Once this happens, we make a point of printing the response, emphasising thus the right of the public to know, and acknowledging the official role in treating shortcomings or flaws. When supervisory bodies therefore persist in ignoring complaints which had repeatedly found their way to the press, it is not because officials in these bodies were not informed of the complaints or have not read about them, but because they do not wish to confront the problem. Such an attitude is deplorable, since disregarding complaints should not be an option with such apparatuses, whose very raison d’être is to monitor complaints, deal with them, and inform the public accordingly. Sadly, official and governmental performance in our country is characterised by substantial incompetence as well as arrogance, and the supervisory apparatuses themselves need to be supervised and held to account. What could be done then when a complaint persists and people continue to suffer because of it? As far as ++Watani++ is concerned, we will not give in to despair, but will go on bringing persistent problems to light. We will expose the shortcomings of the official executive and supervisory 1
  • 40. apparatuses, and keep the complaint alive in the public circle of interest lest it should become—by virtue of continued disregard—just another distressing matter of fact. We will continue to attempt to wake the consciences of MPs, so that they would raise the complaint to Parliament. Today’s complaint—as obvious from the title of this article—concerns the by-now-famous ridiculous error committed by civil register clerks who register Christian citizens as ‘Muslim’ in official identification documents. This usually occurs in the case of the new computerised ID cards and birth certificates. Even though the new documents are based upon older non- computerised documents which had been issued by the same civil register, and in which the citizens in question had been clearly denoted as ‘Christian’, civil register clerks cheekily insist that “the computer makes no mistakes”. Following which the ill-fated citizens in question are penalised by being unreasonably required to refute the errors which were non of their fault, in order to prove that they are Christians born to Christian parents. To this end, they are sent on time and energy consuming tasks, frequently taking them back and forth between their present residence places, their birthplaces, and those of each of their parents, to prove that every one concerned is Christian. Only thus could they have their new documents corrected. To say nothing of the humiliation these citizens are subjected to once they object to their erroneous denotation as Muslims, sometimes being accused of rejecting Islam—a very serious allegation in Egypt. The entire matter is thus no longer one of administrative incompetence or error, but takes on the hateful dimensions of State discrimination against citizens because of their religious identity. It has been suggested that the erroneous registering of Christians as Muslims—which was very uncommon when ID documents were issued manually—was due to ‘Muslim’ being the default religion on the computer. Obviously, the civil register computer clerks do not bother to change the default religion into the correct one as they enter the data. I have before me three live examples of such errors. The first concerns Youssef Wageeh Sidqy Tawfiq whose birth certificate issued in Cairo in February 2005 denotes him, his father, and his mother as Muslims, contrary to the data in the original birth certificate issued in June 2004, in which all three were registered as Christian. Sousanna Fathy Bakheit Samaan born in 1997 in Giza, and Wadie Girgis Fam Tadros born in 1962 in Alexandria suffered the same fate. These are mere examples of countless cases. Meanwhile, civil register clerks persist in their arrogance, and supervisory apparatus officials in their silence. 2
  • 41. As for our MPs, they are too busy with the forthcoming political and constitutional reform to give these suffering citizens a second thought. 3
  • 42. WATANI English Section 1 May 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 249 The Resurrection A soul change Youssef Sidhom My heartfelt wishes for a blessed, happy Easter go to the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, and to all the Church’s clergy and congregation. My sincere wishes go as well to all the Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Egypt—their heads, clergy and congregation. As we join in celebrating the Resurrection, we ask the good Lord to grant us the love and wisdom that might one day lead to one unified Church. As the days pass and every year Easter is again with us, we recall the beautiful message of God’s plan for the good of mankind. We live the Passion Week and Easter prayers, services, Bible readings, and rituals. We celebrate and rejoice, exchange good wishes, and hope for brighter days to come. Then the blessed event is over, and we go back to our monotonous everyday life with all its struggles and strain. It would almost seem as though we are programmed to live through a ‘feast scenario’ which hardly outlives the occasion, then is put away until the event recurs. I pray that we would maintain the spirit of Easter ever-present in our lives, to help us reconcile with ourselves and with others, as a first step in the journey of change—that magical word which today dominates our political, economic, social, and cultural arenas. May we always remember that the real change came when the Lord died on the cross and rose from the dead to redeem our souls. 1
  • 43. WATANI International 8 May 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 962 Antoun Sidhom The ever-present Youssef Sidhom On 2 May ten years ago, ++Watani++ lost its founder Antoun Sidhom, and Egypt lost a distinguished intellectual, a bold writer and prominent advocate of national unity. Throughout two decades—from 1975 to 1995—when Egypt and Egyptians were passing through hard times because of curtailed civil liberties and rights, sectarian violence, terrorism and extremism, as well as the abuse of Egyptian identity and national unity, Sidhom fearlessly wrote on the problems and crises which Egypt underwent. Sidhom’s only weapon was his pen. He used it, through ++Watani++, to expose conspiracies woven against Egypt—whether those which originated from outside the country, those plotted by a fanatic few in Egypt, or by Egypt’s then executive and security authorities whose members sowed hate and disunion between Egyptians. Sidhom wrote with admirable courage and candour at a time when these attributes exacted a stiff price from the authorities, his sole objective being the benefit and safety of Egypt. When Antoun Sidhom passed away, many files on the problems he tackled were yet open. And since it takes years in our country to admit ills and expose them, and more years to remedy them, a tour through Sidhom’s articles feels like a reading in Egyptian contemporary problems. The values and principles he upheld are the same we advocate so strongly today. Following are excerpts from his writings. On the subject of national unity, Antoun Sidhom wrote in September 1977: “We Egyptians presented humanity with a civilisation which led to light, and gave humankind good, beauty, truth, and sublime values. It therefore befits us today to preserve our unity by defeating the irresponsible currents which attempt to assault our values and destroy our national pride. Throughout the 1
  • 44. years, our unity has been the symbol of our national struggle, has formed the foundation of our future, and the way to our Egyptian revival.” In June 1986 he wrote: “Copts have always been strongly attached to their Muslim brothers and fellow citizens, bound to them with love and sympathy. Nothing but this fraternity can ever be the focal point of a dialogue between the two.” And in March 1990 Sidhom wrote, addressing the same topic: “Egypt’s Copts need to exercise calm, wisdom, and peace. There can be no doubt of our Muslim brothers’ love for us. They are our own flesh and blood, and our relationship with them has always remained strong and robust, never weakening or waning. As for the few who assaulted us, may the good Lord forgive them, and guide us and them to what is right. We ask the Lord of peace to protect us and safeguard our dear homeland. Copts ought never to confront evil with evil or assault with assault. Love and peace have always been and will always remain their motto, and as such, they will always pray for their Muslim brothers and wish them good.” In April 1990, Sidhom wrote on extremism and terrorism as follows. “What can we expect from young people who have been charged since childhood—through school books and teachers, mosques and radio preachers, as well as printed material brimming with insults against religions other than Islam—with hatred and disrespect of anything non-Islamic? The occasional sectarian outbursts are merely the natural outcome of such long- time charging. We should fill our children with the spirit of love and tolerance, revise our school curricula to sow the seeds of accepting the other, and weed hatred from our media material and religious address. Moreover, we ought to revise the social and economic conditions in our society, which lead young people to adopt violence and destruction.” On the topic of religious conversion, Sidhom wrote in May 1978: “How easy for a person to convert to a religion other than his or hers, for the sake of escaping problems or obligations, or gaining social or tangible benefits. In many cases such a person finds ample encouragement from those who care nothing for true faith, and exploit religion to trifle with this country’s interest. The matter then departs entirely from faith, and enters the realm of farce. It goes to no religion’s credit to hold on to those who merely utilise it for their own advantage.” As to the exclusion of Copts from official posts, Sidhom wrote in November 1990, and later in November 1991, referring to two consecutive groups of newly-appointed prosecutors and assistant prosecutors, where the proportion of Coptic appointees did not exceed 1.25 per cent. This, he wrote, was no isolated incident, but clearly represented a movement to exclude Copts from official posts, a movement which Sidhom asserted could never meet the 2
  • 45. approval of Egypt’s mainstream Muslims. Along the same line, Sidhom cited the figures nominated by the ruling National Democratic Party for parliamentary elections, all in all 440 candidates who included only two Copts. The notorious Himayouni Edict which dates back to 1856, and the infamous Ten Conditions of al-Ezaby Pasha who was deputy interior minister in 1934, both of which govern the building and repair of churches, came under Antoun Sidhom’s fire in an editorial he wrote in February 1993. He questioned the reason why such outdated regulations should be exploited to humiliate Copts and curtail their basic right of freedom of worship. He bitterly asked if it was not time yet to abolish such legislation and replace it with a fair, unified law to govern the building and repair of all places of worship, for all Egyptians equally. The day will surely come when Egypt would rid itself of all these ailments. All its sons and daughters will then join in building its renaissance. History will always retain a special niche for those great men and women who lit candles to light the way, and Antoun Sidhom will doubtless occupy one very prominent spot therein. 3
  • 46. WATANI International 15 May 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 752 Problems on hold The civil register Youssef Sidhom ++Watani’s++ editorial on 24 April dealt with the not-so-uncommon ‘error’ committed by civil register officials, when they register Christian citizens in the new computerised official documents as Muslims, then penalise the victims of the errors by sending them on arduous wild-goose errands to prove they are Christian. Considering that the computer is fed with data from documents which had been issued by that same civil register authority at an earlier date, the obvious solution to the problem should have been the correction of the information which had been erroneously entered in the first place. Instead, the victims are tyrannised by being asked to have the original papers re-issued, no matter at what cost in money, time, and burdensome effort. I have been informed that someone in a position of authority at the Ministry of Interior has given orders to correct the errors in the specific cases reported by ++Watani++, and that the civil register offices concerned with these cases have called the victims in order to correct the mistakes. Since there is no administrative transparency in Egypt, I cannot know whether the correction order was an all-encompassing one, concerned with the working system at the civil register offices in general, or whether it was only concerned with the cases printed in ++W a t a n i++. Accordingly, and inasmuch as administrative corruption and unaccountability are rampant, I am committed to indefatigably bring to light all the cases of ‘computer errors’ of which I am made familiar, until a permanent solution is found to the problem. The latest such case brought to my attention concerned Ms Manal Shawqy Tawfiq. Ms Tawfiq is a Christian born to Christian parents on 14 February 1962, as registered in her official birth certificate issued by al-Azbakiah civil 1
  • 47. register office in Cairo, and her ID card issued by the civil register office in Giza in January 1980. Both documents were issued in handwriting, before the new current computer cards. Ms Tawfiq’s father, Mr Shawqy Tawfiq, and her mother, Ms Khairiya Saad Barsoum, hold new computerised ID cards issued by Giza civil register office in April 2005, in which each is registered as Christian. In addition, Ms Tawfiq’s official marriage certificate registers her as a Christian married to a Christian spouse, and the birth certificates of their two daughters—born in 1990 and 1995—register each as born to a Christian mother, namely Manal Shawqy Tawfiq. So far so good. When Ms Tawfiq applied to al-Azbakiah civil register office for a new computerised birth certificate however, one was issued in April 2005, in which Ms Tawfiq, her father and her mother were all registered as Muslims. When she protested that this contradicted the information in all the official documents, she was ordered to apply for a new computerised ID card, using her old hand-written birth certificate, in order to correct the error. The reader will note that the clerk did nothing to remedy his mistake, referring the victim instead to a new round of administrative procedures. This alone ought to have warranted questioning and a call to account—but it was not to be. Ms Tawfiq did as required, only to be told that her original birth certificate was not valid, and that she had to submit one issued by the national archives in the citadel district. There she was informed that they only kept record of births until 31 December 1961—38 days earlier than her date of birth—and that she had to go to the other archives in Abbasiya for the required document. There, her request was again rejected, and she was advised to go to al-Azbakiah civil register office—the same office whose clerk had sent her on this wild-goose chase—for the birth certificate. Back to square one? Worse, since Ms Tawfiq was informed by al-Azbakiah officials that the birth certificates of 1962 had been shredded and that there was no way one could be re-issued. Ms Tawfiq thus found herself in an impossible situation—a woman with no official identity, despite the fact that she was in possession of all the official documents necessary to prove her identity. The situation was made possible because of the extreme callousness of a few clerks who were never called to account. Are we to hope for an official at the Interior Ministry who would care to put an end to such absurdity? And to the absurdity involved in cases other than that of Ms Tawfiq? Until this happens, ++Watani++ will not hesitate in bringing to light such ugly, unacceptable practices. 2
  • 48. WATANI International 22 May 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 704 Mind or muscle might Youssef Sidhom Next Wednesday will witness the public referendum on the constitutional amendment which was passed by Parliament earlier this month, and which allows for the first multi-candidate presidential elections in Egypt. It is to be hoped that the voters will actively respond by taking part in the referendum. The notoriously low—17 per cent on the average—participation in past elections were an expression of apathy or silent protest, both of which reflect a participation-unfriendly environment. President Mubarak’s initiative to amend article 76 of the Constitution was seen by many as a stone cast in stagnant waters. Its ripple effect restored hopes in the possibility of Egypt emerging out of the dark tunnel of monopolistic executive authority. Even though many currents on the political arena have expressed frustration at what they perceive as no real opportunity of sharing power, the iron curtain which had long been drawn on change is definitely being raised—thanks to the president’s initiative. It is my opinion that we should seize the opportunity of change, instead of abandoning it on the pretext of its futility or insufficiency. Change as we wish it will probably only be achieved through a long struggle and in phases. This is after all the natural sequence of events, since every phase sets the stage for a consequent one that would normally be more advanced in the sense that it is less defiant to change and more receptive to progress. It must also be noted that the characters which had for so long held power will be sore to give it up. The change we dream of will never be presented to us on a plate of gold. At the same time, we will not seize it through violence or force, but can only attain it through awareness and understanding. Politically, the saying goes 1
  • 49. that “what cannot be attained absolutely should not be abandoned absolutely”. Consequently, participation and voting are patriotic duties. Boycotting, condemning, or rejecting the referendum are nothing but impotent tools which only serve to play into the hands of anti-reform powers. I imagine that the proposed constitutional change should attain the required public consent through strong participation. Only then can we move on to modernise and develop our political system, so that new, serious, convincing movements may emerge, with enough public backing to provide a way out of the current squeeze between the ruling party and the religious fundamentalists. Anyone who contemplates the events of the past two weeks since Parliament approved the proposed constitutional amendment, will observe serious defects in the manner of public expression. Opposing demonstrations swiftly resort to wrathful, indecent language, creating a climate which leads to violence, and aborting the opportunity of instating the right to demonstrate. Observers will note that these demonstrations are in the main part initiated by the members of Kifaya movement—trying yet to gain a foothold in the political street—and the Islamist current, frequently termed the ‘Friday party’ since its demonstration usually start in mosques, following Friday prayers. The deplorable outcome—the inevitable skirmishes with the police—appear as an show of force or confrontation between the ruling regime and the bastions of religion or free opinion. I do not believe that any sensible person would condone such behaviour. I would imagine that the coming period should witness political dialogue, discussion and debate, through which every political movement would present its ideology and agenda, and maybe stress the points of agreement in lieu of those of conflict. This would definitely serve to strengthen the call for political participation by properly informing the public of all the political players—exposing both the weak and the strong—and encouraging the silent majority to take an active stance and head to the ballot boxes. There are indeed several commendable programmes which serve such a purpose on the radio; I hope TV channels would take their cue and emulate them. If the ruling National Democratic Party—the ‘elder brother’ on the Egyptian political scene—follows this course, it will succeed in putting an end to the deplorable practice it employed last week when it sent supporters to assault those who demonstrated against it. Perhaps then it would prove that dialogue power is more effective than muscle might. 2
  • 50. WATANI International 29 May 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 644 Building places of worship Youssef Sidhom In a patriotic, courageous initiative, MP Mohamed Goweily, head of the Complaints and Suggestions Committee of the People’s Assembly, earlier this month proposed a unified draft law to govern the building of all places of worship in Egypt, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. The building regulations would apply to the building, restoration, renovation, or maintenance of all places of worship. The draft law is already under study by the Parliament, and will go into force once it is approved. This would finally liberate places of worship from political and security restrictions, and would put an end to the chronic inflammation of Coptic sensitivities as regards church building and maintenance. The deplorable, unconstitutional discrimination against Copts, and their curtailed citizenship rights where their places of worship are concerned would thus be a thing of the past. If the People’s Assembly manages to pass the law before it recesses next June, it would have succeeded in creating a mellow climate for Egypt’s anticipated vital political reform, consolidating civil society and the modern State. In this respect, I would care to stress that the aim is not for Copts to build more churches, but for achieving total equality between all Egyptians, and liberating their affairs from the captivity of the political and security authorities. It should be expected though, that once the law is passed, there would be a Coptic rush towards obtaining permits for new churches or licences for existing non-licensed ones. This would be most natural, considering the decades of dearth, indignity, and oppression which Copts suffered whenever they wished to build a church, and which left deep wounds in their collective psyche. It may call for a ‘corrective phase’ until the situation stabilises, and church building achieves realistic levels. Maybe 1
  • 51. then a portion of the savings which were directed at church building—and probably mosque building as well—would be channelled towards economic and human development, creating job opportunities and raising the living standards and enlightenment levels of Egyptians. It would be wise of us though, as we approach the end of the dark tunnel and glimpse the light of freedom, not to overlook the obstacles which aborted previous attempts at reform. MP Dr Georgette Qellini commented that some governors had before managed to elude the 1999 presidential decree which ended the governorial and security authority over the building of churches, emptying thus the decree of its content. Dr Qellini’s remark accorded with countless cases presented by ++Watani++ in its ‘problems on hold’ series. In Assiut and Sohag, governors defied the said presidential decree by writing ‘secret’ orders to the building authorities to refrain from licensing churches unless they obtained security clearance. It was amazing that no decisive action was taken by the presidency to defend the decree and enforce it, and the security authorities were allowed to trifle with it to their hearts’ content. Applications for licensing churches or related buildings were sidelined, frozen, or unjustifiably rejected, in a cheekily defiant manner. Previous experience therefore leads to well-founded fears that the draft law—when it does see light—might be vulnerable to governorial or security trifling. This calls for measures to monitor the enforcement of the law, meaning that systems of supervision and accountability should be firmly in place. No official, local, security, or even building authority should be allowed to tamper in any way with the implementation of the law, or to jeopardise the interests of citizens. Such monitoring devices should be nimble and close to the site of events, able to grasp matters and manage them at the local level. Otherwise it may have been suggested that the National Council for Human rights or the National Council for Citizenship rights—under foundation—may have shouldered the responsibility. Without proper assurance to implement the law in question, we risk adding it to the list of ‘problems on hold’. 2
  • 52. WATANI International 5 June 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 690 A new political diction Youssef Sidhom President Mubarak’s initiative to establish—for the first time in Egypt—a multi-candidate presidential election system instead of the one which involved a single-candidate nominated by Parliament and approved by public referendum, has gained the support of the majority of voters. This new reality in our political life heralds in a new phase of political work in order to put our house in order, empower participation, and promote pluralism. In the president’s initiative I detected concern for Egypt’s future and a will to nourish democracy, before he decides whether or not he will relinquish the huge responsibility he has shouldered for a quarter of a century. Consequently, the contribution of each of us in drawing up the features of the forthcoming period is a patriotic duty which should never be abandoned. It is no longer acceptable that the majority would adhere to the totalitarian system through which it dominated the country for so long, neither is it acceptable for the minority to withdraw into a sphere of condemnation and boycott. Wise people in this country should shoulder the historic responsibility of substituting dialogue for conflict, and promote alliance instead of fragmentation. Only thus can a new, strong, patriotic, political force be born—one that would gain credibility with the public. An observation of the Egyptian street during the last two months—since the president’s initiative—has induced the following remarks. • The paid advertisements in the papers, which occupied full pages or substantial space, and called for participation in the referendum, did not stop at that, but went on to hail Mubarak as Egypt’s sole future president. In my opinion, those who published these advertisements—whether businessmen or top officials—obviously missed the point. The coming 1
  • 53. phase should be one of pluralism. If Mubarak does win a multi-candidate election, it would indicate popular will and an appreciation for his 25- year contribution to Egypt. I believe this would be an honour far more worthy than his being hailed as president by default. • The violence on the streets definitely contradicted the concepts of pluralism and dialogue. Violence had until recently been restricted to encounters between demonstrators and the security forces, especially when the demonstrators grew destructive and unruly. The recent violence however is novel to the Egyptian street, in that it expressed the conflict between and subsequent assault of two or more political movements, in scenes reminiscent of thuggery and disorder, for no other reason than difference in political opinions. The National Democratic Party (NDP) has been accused of being behind the unprecedented assaults, humiliating the men and harassing the female demonstrators. The entire matter calls for a swift, thorough investigation. If the NDP is innocent of the allegations of instigating the assaults, it deserves to be exonerated. But if it is pronounced innocent, what explanation can be given for the blind eye which the security forces turned towards the vicious attacks? As we move forward towards a new phase of political activity, it is essential that the role of the security apparatus should be redefined to defend the people instead of the ruler. • We obviously need new political parties on the arena—which is not to imply that religious parties should be allowed. The present parties are clearly inadequate at echoing the pulse of the masses. I am sure that the pluralism we hope to achieve could be attained by the contributions of many honourable, enlightened Egyptians who would offer a liberal vision, and utilise effective political tools. I am sure many such people are waiting for an opportunity to assume political roles, and save Egyptians from the limited political options now available. • There are many visions of reforming the performance of the legislative authority as represented by the two chambers of Parliament: the People’s Assembly or the lower chamber, and the Shura (Consultative) Council or the upper chamber. One suggestion which I consider essential is the introduction of electronic polling, which would lend precision and transparency to the polling procedure. The time has come to put an end to the primitive polling procedure of raising hands, and the speaker’s customary “Those who agree, hands up. Approved!” 2
  • 54. WATANI International 12 June 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 800 Problems on hold Selective correction Youssef Sidhom On 24 April, and again on 15 May, ++W a t a n i++ printed among its ‘Problems on Hold’ series three reader complaints against the Civil Register Authority. The readers had applied for the new computerised ID documents which are to replace the old manually-issued ones that are being phased out. In all three cases, the new computerised documents were issued with incorrect information—the applicants being listed as Muslims instead of their actual Christian identity—which the Authority refused to correct unless the complainants went through some incredibly difficult measures to prove they were Christian. The first two of these complaints were printed in ++Watani++ on 24 April. They concerned the computer-issued birth certificates of the children Youssef Waguih Sidqy Tawfiq and Suzannah Fathy Bakheit Samaan. Both were listed in the new documents as Muslims born to Muslim parents, despite the original authentic documents—issued by the same Civil Register Authority and handed in with the applications for the new documents—which listed all concerned as Christians. On 29 April, both Mr Tawfiq and Mr Samaan were independently contacted by the Civil Register Authority and invited to report to its offices. They each went on the following day, and were received very courteously by the deputy to the Interior Minister for civil affairs who ordered correct documents to be issued as soon as possible. Mr Tawfiq wrote to ++Watani++ saying that all the procedures were conducted smoothly, swiftly, and with the utmost courtesy. On 4 May, he was handed his son Youssef’s new birth certificate with all the correct data. Likewise, Mr Samaan was handed the corrected birth certificate of his daughter in record time and with heart-warming courtesy. 1
  • 55. The third case concerned Ms Manal Shawqy Tawfiq. Only this time the problem was more complicated, since Ms Tawfiq was sent on a wild goose chase to prove that she and both her parents were Christian, and ended discovering that all original documents which proved her nationality had supposedly been lost. Directly following the publication of her complaint in ++Watani++ on 15 May, and in a repeat scenario at the Civil Register office, Ms Tawfiq’s documents were all restored. She was handed her corrected ID card just five days from printing her problem, two days from inviting her to the civil register office, and 24 hours from her reporting there. And all with the utmost respect, civility, and friendliness. All through, I wrote clearly that it was neither right nor fair that citizens should be humiliated and penalised for the errors committed against them by the Civil Register’s clerks. Instead of arrogantly declaring that “the computer does not err”, these clerks should have been ordered to go back to the original documents issued by the same Civil Register Authority and handed in with every application, to correct the error. In addition, it should have been announced clearly and transparently that all errors would be dealt with systematically by checking the original documents, instead of correcting only the papers of those people who made their complaints public through the media. Notwithstanding, I wish to thank the officials who responded so swiftly and courteously to the complaints printed in ++Watani++, and who took care to solve the complainants’ problems so competently. It is no secret that many people refrain from publicly complaining against government officials lest they fall prey to these officials’ vengefulness. But the Civil Register Authority’s officials acted bravely and honourably, in a manner that is highly commendable. More importantly, the question of what—if anything—has been done to correct or avoid such errors in the future still begs an answer. The men and women who have had their documents corrected all said that the officials told them that anyone who had any complaint could take it directly to the Civil Register Authority headquarters where it will be handled on the spot, instead of publicising their complaints in the press. If anything, this takes us back to square one where clerks are free to make mistakes, since their seniors will see to it that the mistakes are corrected without taking the wrong-doer to account. I thus hope for the understanding of these conscientious senior officials at the Civil Register Authority as ++Watani++ persists in printing complaints of errors such as those mentioned earlier in this article. Which brings us to the latest complaint we received. Mr Sadeq Gayed Moawad, Alexandria, 2
  • 56. who complained of errors in the new computer-issued birth certificates of his two daughters Regina and Katrin. The mother’s name was listed incorrectly, and the girls were listed as Muslims, despite their original listing as Christian in the official documents handed in with the applications for the new birth certificates. When he objected, Mr Moawad was ordered to prove his claim. Our dear Civil Authority Register officials are welcome to handle the problem. 3
  • 57. WATANI International 19 June 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 741 Problems on hold A unified law Youssef Sidhom ++Watani++ has been closely following up on the draft unified law for building places of worship, now under consideration by Parliament. The law was proposed by Mr Mohamed Guwaily, and was referred by Speaker of the Parliament Mr Fathi Sorour to the parliamentary committee for suggestions and proposals for a report. Noteworthy is that the committee’s report laid down a few basic principles that should help pass the law. It acknowledged that the draft law complies with the Constitution, and contradicts neither political, economic or social norms, nor societal, religious or ethical norms. It puts an end to legislative discrimination between Egyptians based upon their religious denomination, as far as building, restoring or renovating their respective places of worship is concerned. It rightly places these matters under the control of the building law of 1976, and cancels all previous legislation. Countless cases of building, demolition, rebuilding, restoration and renovation of churches form a long queue of problems that have been continuously shelved or frozen by the authorities, and await the passage of the new law. It is imperative that church building and restoration should be liberated from the labyrinth of regulations which currently govern it. The new law would place churches on the same footing as mosques—which require no permits for their building or restoration—a worthy enough cause of national equality. It would also serve to end the feelings of bitterness and humiliation that have steadily built up in the collective Coptic psyche as a natural outcome of the flagrant inequality and repression Copts have been incessantly subject to whenever they needed to build or restore a church. 1
  • 58. Lest anyone should think that the new law is an uncalled-for luxury or an unwarranted change, it is expedient to consider the case of the old church of Mar Youhanna al-Meimadaan (St John the Baptist’s) in the village of Awlad Elias in Assiut, Upper Egypt. ++Watani++ had printed the story of this church among its Problems on Hold series, in July 2001,under the title ++The inevitability of opening the Coptic file. Why is security a perennial obstacle?++ The governor of Assiut had in 1999 licensed restoration and reinforcement works for the church. As construction began, under the supervision of the building authorities of Assiut governorate, some of the old dilapidated walls of the church collapsed and had to be rebuilt. The security authorities—as though lying in wait—issued orders to halt the work and prohibit entry into or use of the building. The congregation resorted to holding prayers in a tent that—naturally—could not accommodate the growing congregation nor protect it from the scourging summer heat or bitter winter cold. Earlier this month I received a new complaint from the congregation of St John the Baptist’s to the effect that the situation was still—four years on—frozen. I could not help again bitterly wondering why the security apparatus—whose authority reigns supreme, beyond accountability or questioning—always blocks the way to any solution problems. For the Coptic file to be pried out of the clutches of the security apparatus, the foundations of civil society, full citizenship rights, and the rule of civil law must be firmly in place. Copts must have the option, as full Egyptians, of taking their problems to civil authorities. And they should be treated as Egyptians with full citizenship rights and duties, not as members of a special group that warrants special treatment. What is the unforgivable sin committed by a congregation which applies for, and obtains license to restore its church’s dilapidated building, and once the work starts under authorised supervision, a wall collapses—a most natural occurrence with old buildings which undergo repairs, and requires a revised restoration decree? Why should the security authorities halt the work? And why should they freeze the situation for four full years, closing their ears to the congregation’s complaints or petitions to resume restoration? Such tyranny is inexplicable, unjustified, and unprecedented in comparable cases of restoration of mosques, or any other building for that matter. But, in the absence of citizenship rights, it is obviously sanctioned in case of churches or whatever is related to the so-called Coptic file, especially with the absolute supremacy of security authority. 2
  • 59. All hopes thus hang upon the unified law for building places of worship, not only because it should place rules that would apply to all Egyptians as regards their places of worship, but also as regards their citizenship rights. 3
  • 60. WATANI International 26 June 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 727 Power beyond bounds Youssef Sidhom A letter from one of our readers in Abu-Zaabal, Qalyubiya, northeast of Cairo, carried to ++Watani++ a report of a serious violation to law and order, which occurred last February. Since the violation was committed by an army officer, ++Watani++ in turn refers the letter to General Mohamed Hassan Tantawi, Minister of Defence, for investigation and subsequent action. I wish, however, to express deep concern over an issue which repeatedly surfaces among the predicaments in the ‘problems on hold’ file. This involves the abuse of power and rank—and the immunity which goes with that rank—by some in the military or police corps. Such abuse is, at the very least, beyond the call of military or police duty or prerogative, and is nothing but a flagrant confiscation of civil law from the hands of the apparatuses responsible for implementing it. Which brings me to the pivotal issue of the need for delineating clear-cut boundaries between the different authorities in the State—a pressing requirement in the anticipated reform which everyone in Egypt is today concerned with. This reform should in no way sanction the encroachment of the authority of the armed forces upon the domains of the judicial, legislative, or executive State authorities. Because I believe that the violation today in question is limited to an individual case of power abuse, I anticipate a swift investigation and correction on the part of the defence minister. Our reader Agaiby Stafanos Agaiby, from Abu-Zaabal, Qalyubiya, wrote as follows: “I own, jointly with Ahmed Hamdan Hakim Badreddin, a piece of land in Ard Gameit al-Nasr, in the district of Abu-Zaabal, Qalyubiya. The land is seven feddans, 21 qirats, and four sahms in area, and is officially registered under number 602 in 2004 Qalyubiya. Since I wished to use my share of the land to build a cemetery for Copts, I 1
  • 61. applied for and was granted a permit by the Abu-Zaabal local government in May 2004. Upon which Mr Badreddin and I had the piece of land officially divided between us, so that each independently owned half of the original plot. Worth noting is that my former co- owner used his share of the land to build a cemetery for Muslims. I built the cemetery I had planned—it included around 250 tombs—sold them off, and as customary, handed the cemetery over to the religious authorities. The cemetery consequently went into use. “On 23 December 2004, an officer stationed with the military unit on the Belbeis desert road escorted a bulldozer owned by a civilian in the neighbourhood and destroyed part of the wall around the cemetery, on the pretext that I had not obtained the approval of the Armed Forces Operations Authority (AFOA) to build the cemetery. This despite the fact that the full area of Ard Gameit al-Nasr—some 700 feddans—was granted a general building approval from the Armed Forces. “The officer escorted us—Mr Badreddin and me—to the military prosecutor office in Cairo where we were questioned. We were not charged, but were ordered to obtain clearance from the AFOA, which we then proceeded to procure. I wish to stress however, that this clearance had never been required of us, and in no way justifies the destruction of part of the wall. “On 6 February 2005, I enraged and stupefied to discover that the cemetery had been attacked, parts of it ruined, some locks had been broken and doors pulled out. The neighbours informed me that the same officer who had before broken part of the wall, again attacked—this time more ferociously—with the help of a bulldozer owned by the owner of a nearby quarry. I reported the attack to the police, and hastened on that same day to complete and hand in to the AFOA all the papers it had required. On 13 March 2005, the AFOA contacted me asking for the same documents once more, which I duly again handed in on 14 March 2005. To date, this is where the matter stands. “I raise this complaint to the defence minister, and call upon him to order an investigation into the matter, in order to defend us against the terrorisation we were subjected to, and compensate us for the material and moral loss we suffered” I join Mr Agaiby in his claim, wondering if this could happen to any of us. 2
  • 62. WATANI International 3 July 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 730 The new tax law Youssef Sidhom Dr Youssef Botrous Ghali ought to be congratulated on his formulation of the new tax law. The law, which passed through Parliament and was issued last month, is a basic departure from the prevalent view of taxation as an unjust, forced tribute levied by the government, to an honourable patriotic duty. It heralds in an era of a new relationship between Egyptians and their government, in which reconciliation, mutual respect, and confidence dominate. For many, the major interest in the law is what provisions it includes for lower taxes and wider exemptions. This however is beside the point. Even though lower taxes certainly ease the burden of already heavily-encumbered Egyptians, it is nothing new and was stipulated by countless regulations before. The pivotal change introduced by the new law is the abandonment of government tyranny and arrogance where tax collection is concerned, and the adoption of a fresh attitude of “Let us reconcile” towards taxpayers. It is the first time the tax collector admits failure of the one-sided imposition of taxes, and the policy of terrorising the taxpayer into payment. It is an admission that the view of the taxpayer as thief until proved otherwise has led to lower, not higher, State revenue. Now the government’s message to the taxpayer is one of trust, respect, and care. If the taxpayer’s credibility is in doubt, this has to be positively proved by the tax authority. Several fiscal concepts that had so far been absent from our tax laws made an appearance in the new law. Major among these is the principle that higher taxes result in lower revenue and vice versa; also that coercive tax collection only leads to wider tax evasion and the capital flight. The new law changes the objective of the fiscal policy from collecting the largest possible economic surplus into State coffers for redistribution by the State, to leaving this surplus in the hands of the community to redirect it into consumption, 1
  • 63. savings, or investment. This is bound to lead to higher efficiency in the exploitation of resources, and hence to balanced, sustainable development. By allowing a bigger portion of the surplus to remain in the hands of the people, the new law not only helps relieve the burden of the needy, but also provides the opportunity to those with money to share in the development and growth of the country. Moreover, the new law contains several articles which serve to awaken the national conscience and achieve social justice. The fact that tax officials will not needlessly place taxpayers’ statements of income under doubt should encourage countless tax evaders to become taxpayers. This will undoubtedly include many cases of entire businesses that were not registered in the first place because of fear of unjustifiably high taxes. And the provision of women and wives with the same exemptions as men and husbands is a change which finally acknowledges the role of women as family supporters and corrects the injustice they have long been subjected to. So far so good. However, the attitude and concepts adopted by the new law will undoubtedly clash with the old attitudes of all but a few tax collectors, who generally discredited taxpayers, estimated prohibitively high taxes on their incomes, and terrorised them into paying bribes in order to escape such intolerable situations. Nothing short of revolutionary can change such deeply-ingrained attitudes. So we are before a real challenge to make the new law and concepts work. Mechanisms should be put into place to insure the fair application of the law. Its implementation should be closely monitored, and tax authority violators should be called to account. However, it should be borne in mind that regaining taxpayer confidence—which is still very shaky—is not an overnight process. In fact, many taxpayers still believe that the new law is only a cosmetic ruse to trap them. It will take a lot of effort, courage, and transparency to change the deplorable image of tax collection that has prevailed for so long. All the above should not lead us to disregard the fact that many would-be taxpayers in Egypt are very comfortable with tax evasion, preferring to keep all their profits to themselves. These too should realise that they are thus robbing their community, and are liable to the harsh penalty of the law. Tax evasion should be viewed for what it really is: an honour crime. 2
  • 64. WATANI International 10 July 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 1030 Problems on hold A new list Youssef Sidhom Complaints against the Civil Register Authority keep coming in. ++Watani++ readers are still writing to us about mistakes in the new computerised identification papers issued by the Civil Register, and the subsequent defiant, arrogant, uncooperative attitude adopted by the civil register clerks who refuse to correct the mistakes when these mistakes are reported. Once a complaint is published in ++Watani++ however, the top officials of the Civil Register Authority hasten to contact the complainants, apologise for the mistakes committed by the clerks, bypass all the tedious bureaucratic procedures involved, and issue corrected papers. Nevertheless, this recurrent problem has not been basically solved. We had hoped for strict orders that the erring clerks should correct the mistakes by going back to the original authentic documents issued by the Civil Register Authority at an earlier date and handed in with the application for the new papers. But this has not, so far, been. Instead, the civil register clerks insist on sending the victims on wild-goose chases to obtain new authenticated documents of the same ones they already handed in. Noteworthy is that such redundancy is obviously uncalled-for, since the corrections ordered by the top officials—as mentioned above—was done without any additional documents. ++Watani++ thus proceeds with publishing the complaints we receive. The reader will note the feelings of extreme oppression and frustration of the victims, who only resort to complaining to ++Watani++ when no other way or door remains open before them. It is hoped that the civil register’s top officials will kindly take care of them. Mr Ramses Seraphim Deibes, born in 1969, and an Alexandria tax official, applied to the civil register office of Moharram Bey in Alexandria for the 1
  • 65. new computerised ID. Since his original birth certificate is kept on file with the personnel department in the Finance Ministry and cannot be taken out, he presented instead an authenticated copy of the birth certificate carrying the official seals of the ministry and the republic. Noteworthy is that this is standard practice with government officials, and worked perfectly well with all Mr Deibes’ colleagues when they applied for new IDs. In case of Mr Deibes however, the civil register clerk asked him to hand in his original birth certificate or an official copy of it authenticated by the civil register office of Gheit al-Enab which had issue the birth certificate in the first place. Mr Deibes proceeded to do so, only to discover that a fire had destroyed all birth certificates of 1969 a few years ago, and they were therefore non- existent. Upon which Mr Deibes was advised to apply to the Montazah civil register office for a birth certificate and the new ID. When these were issued they included two mistakes. The name of Mr Deibes’ father was mis-spelt, but was corrected by the civil register clerk. Mr Deibes’ religion was cited as Muslim instead of the actual Christian religion listed in all the documents he had handed in with his application, but the clerk refused to correct it and asked Mr Deibes to go to Alexandria security directorate to prove his religious identity. Since Mr Deibes could not understand what Alexandria security had to do with his religion, he did not go, and his problem remains pending. When Mr Amir Sobhy Labib, born in 1968, applied for a new ID at the Abbasiya civil register office in Cairo, he was asked to hand in a new birth certificate. At the civil register of Daher which had originally issued the birth certificate, Mr Labib was told that the paper registers were torn and that he had to go to the Bab al-Shieriya civil register office for a certificate. He did that, but the new certificate listed his father as Muslim, his mother Christian, and himself Muslim. When he protested that the data was incorrect, he was told he had to be ‘re-registered’—a process that should take a few weeks at least. Ms Rasha Fawzy Mansour Maarouf, born in 1982, was handed the new ID she had applied for at Imbaba civil register office with two mistakes. Her mother’s name was incorrect, and her religion, her mother’s and her father’s was cited as Muslim instead of the original Christian. Even though Ms Maarouf’s brother and sister had both applied for and were handed new correct IDs from the same civil register office, Ms Maarouf was sent on a wild goose chase to prove her religious identity, and has so far not succeeded. The amount of papers and correspondence attached to Ms Maarouf’s complaint would appear to indicate that someone behind that civil register computer is absolutely out of touch. 2
  • 66. Mr Girgis Makram Fayez Bishay applied to Sherif civil register office for a new ID for his mother who is an old woman. The new ID was issued with two errors in the mother’s name. Instead of referring to all the documents Mr Bishay had originally handed in, the civil register clerk asked for the death certificate of her father—Mr Bishay’s grandfather. Apart from the fact that this certificate cannot be found since the man died a very long time ago, it definitely contains no mention whatsoever of his daughter—Bishay’s mother. Yet the civil register clerk insists that without this certificate, the woman can never have her new ID issued. Mr Youssef Wassef Girgis Greiss was born in 1933, lives in Alexandria, and is retired. Mr Greiss heard that soon enough he may not be able to cash his monthly pension without a new computerised ID. So he applied for one and got it, only with several errors. His name was mis-spelt, and he was cited, together with both his parents, as Muslims. To correct these errors, Mr Greiss had to shuttle repeatedly between Alexandria, Cairo, and his birthplace in Upper Egypt to obtain documents that had been required of him. The outcome was that his name was corrected, but the religion was not. Finally Mr Greiss despaired. “Just hand me my new papers, even with the incorrect religion,” he said, “So I may cash my pension.” But the civil register clerk refused. Is there no way to save this old man—and all the others? 3
  • 67. WATANI International 17 July 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 662 Problems on hold On religious conversion Youssef Sidhom A recent letter from ++Watani++ reader Mr Nabil Mahmoud Wali took me back to the Problems on Hold file. Under the title “Egypt’s maligned Copts”, Mr Wali wrote on a taboo issue—that of religious conversion in Egypt. Mr Wali wrote: “The issue of Copts who convert to Islam then reconvert to Christianity has become a point of dispute between the administrative court, interior ministry, and Dar al-Iftaa’ (the Islamic body concerned with issuing ++fatwa++ or rulings according to Islamic legal code). The number of such conversions has surpassed what may be described as individual cases, and can now be counted in the scores. The issue involves the conflict between Islamic teachings, the Egyptian Constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of which Egypt is signatory. The Islamic law of ++hadd al-ridda++ metes the death sentence to Muslims who relinquish their religion. Egypt’s Constitution stipulates that Egyptians should not be discriminated against because of their religion. Universal human rights uphold a person’s freedom to embrace whichever creed he or she prefers. “On the practical level, the dilemma unfolds when the administrative court rules in favour of converted Muslims who wish to reconvert to Christianity, but the Civil Affairs Authority refuses to change the Muslim religion in their official papers. The Mufti—the high-ranking Islamic cleric in charge of issuing ++fatwas++—on the other hand, considers their relinquishing of Islam equivalent to high treason, even though his ++fatwa++ acknowledges that proof of ++ridda++ is the prerogative of the courts alone. 1
  • 68. “Those concerned about Islam as a religion and creed know very well that such converts only convert to Islam in order to escape a few mundane predicaments or achieve specific benefits. Once their problems are solved, it is only natural that they should wish to go back to their original faith. So it is in no-one’s interest that such double- converts should be hindered from again embracing their original religions. Neither Islam nor the huge number of Muslims worldwide could benefit from their being counted—or not—among Muslims.” Mr Wali’s letter recalled to my mind an earlier case I had written on in May 2004, of a doubly-converted woman who took her case to court. The administrative court of the State Council—the highest administrative judicial body in Egypt—ruled in favour of the woman’s right to official papers that cite her as Christian. I wrote then, as I do now, that the legal reasoning of the case included information of which I and many Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—were ignorant. Since awareness of the details would serve to dissipate the hypersensitivity of Egyptians to religious conversion, I again refer to the legal reasoning in question. After confirming that the Egyptian Constitution stipulated equality between Egyptians regardless of their religion, and guaranteed freedom of religious faith, the legal reasoning declared: “It is needless to confirm the relationship between freedom of faith and the consequences of such freedom. Arguing otherwise would empty this freedom of its content, and render it mere rhetoric.” As to considering the woman an apostate, the legal reasoning cited ++fiqh++ (Islamic jurisprudence) that deemed a Muslim a deserter or apostate “only if he or she feels comfortable with apostasy and adopts it in practice,”—a situation not applicable to the woman in question, according to the court. Denying the woman official papers listing her as Christian then was tantamount to “unjustifiable interference in the woman’s personal life, and coercion to adopt a faith she did not wish to embrace. The State is legally committed to register the woman’s real religion, and should not use its power to force the woman to remain Muslim.” This legal reasoning corrects some common misconceptions which have forced converts to Christianity to live in the dark. With official apparatuses taking sides in the personal choices of citizens’ religion by refusing to issue Christian converts official papers, these who exercise their human and constitutional right of embracing Christianity find themselves officially penalised for their choice. 2
  • 69. WATANI International 24 July 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 656 Problems on hold Equal before the law Youssef Sidhom In January 2002, Anba Morqos, Bishop of Shubral-Kheima, purchased a 1351-square-metre plot of land for the construction of a church and a building to house the social service activities the church planned to offer to some 400 families who lived in the vicinity. The land was officially registered in April 2002, and—since it lies within an agricultural area, building upon which is absolutely prohibited by law—full clearance for building was obtained from Qalyoub Court in May 2003, and the clearance was ratified by the military ruler in December 2003. In the meantime, the bishopric applied to the State Security Apparatus in March 2003 for a licence to build the church and the social services building. Attached to the application were the structural drawings of the project. When months passed without any reply, the bishopric began following up on the application. To every enquiry, State security officials replied that the application was still pending investigation. The bishopric was never informed that the application was rejected or its papers incomplete. State security officials simply acted within their legal prerogative of indefinitely postponing the decision, content that—as is the usual case—they would never be questioned or held accountable on the matter. As for the 400 families who needed to worship, get married, or bury their dead, State security probably decided that they should just wait. Assuming that his personal intervention might hasten the decision, Anba Morqos met the officials and reminded them of the matter. Again, he was told that the application was still pending, and was promised that it will be looked into soon. When the official in charge of the application was appointed to another position and a new one took over, Anba Morqos contacted the new officer, 1
  • 70. and was again given the same promises. A reply finally came, asking the bishopric to re-apply for the licence. No reason whatsoever was given, and the bishopric had to comply. A new set of application documents and drawings were thus handed in on 20 November 2004, after 20 months were lost for no apparent reason. Last May, as the security official concerned paid Anba Morqos the usual courtesy visit on Easter day, the bishop enquired about the project. The official obviously found it in bad taste to repeat the usual claim that the application was pending investigation, so he said that the security and political authorities were too busy at the moment with the then-upcoming public referendum on Constitutional reform decreed by Parliament. He apparently missed however, that the application had been pending for some three years then, while the referendum was only a matter of the past month or two. He also did not appear to notice that during these past month or two, a draft on a unified law to govern places of worship in Egypt was also being studied by Parliament. The referendum was held and done with, and still no reply as regards the application. Anba Morqos realised that the reply would again be postponed if it is not issued before next September when political and security authorities will be again busy with upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Moreover, the election results may entail that the security official in question be again replaced, meaning that the bishopric may be asked to re-apply and repeat the indefinite wait. With such a disturbing prospect in sight, Anba Morqos last June sent an envoy to meet the security official concerned. The official’s secretary simply announced that he was not in. The incident clearly illustrates the climate which governs the building of churches and associated buildings. Every time I read in the official paper that President Mubarak has approved the building of a church, I cannot help wondering whether he realises the humiliation and oppression the congregation and church officials have to suffer in the process, and the resulting bitterness. All the more reason to hasten with passing the unified law of places of worship. 2
  • 71. WATANI International 24 July 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 594 A national coalition Time for holding hands Youssef Sidhom For the second time in less than one year, the hand of black terror struck at Sinai—last week in Sharm al-Sheikh and last October in Taba. Since the bloody terrorist attack on Hatshepsut temple in Luxor in 1997, Egypt had enjoyed a period of relative calm, and we had come to feel ourselves immune to terrorist activity. But the events of the past year have been a rude awakening to the bitter truth: that terrorism knows no boundaries, but is on the prowl to shatter peace and stability all over the world. It has become obvious that terrorist operations against Egypt are targeting the tourist industry—the mainstay of Egyptian economy and the cornerstone of its development, and thus the prime source of jobs. Terrorism is therefore hitting the livelihood and subsistence of Egypt’s sons and daughters, in an attempt to take them back to unemployment and despair. Following last week’s explosion, satellite channels aired images of Egyptian young men mourning their lost trades, businesses, and hopes for a brighter future. These young men had left their home villages and towns where jobs were scarce and, instead of living as parasites on their community, spared no time or effort to make a living in the relatively remote land of Sinai. Their hard work paid, and they were enjoying the fruits of their labour, forming young families and supporting parents and relatives. Life was smiling upon them and they looked up to a future which appeared to promise everything good. It was development at its best. Then terrorism struck … We should not be deluded into believing the invalid, ridiculous, evil arguments which terrorists often use to justify their attacks, such as claiming that the killing of innocent civilians punished their governments for their policies in the region. In the Sharm al-Sheikh attacks, the victim was 1
  • 72. Egypt—its stability and the future of its children. It thus came as no surprise that President Mubarak, following the terrorist attack, stressed that Egypt will go full speed ahead with its development programme. This naturally calls upon all Egypt’s sons and daughters to unite to overcome the crisis and rectify the damages to the tourist industry and development as quickly as possible. This is no time for in-fighting—throwing about accusations, blame or condemnations—since this would only confuse the real issue and play into the terrorists’ hands. As we approach what we hope would be a phase of political and legislative reform, as well as presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming four months, we should all re-assess our stances in light of what happened in Sharm al-Sheikh. This is not a call to give up aspirations or stall reform, but rather to realise that since Egypt is now a terrorist target, its people have no choice but to collaborate in a national coalition to fight terrorism and fend off the chaos and despair it works to bring. The competition anticipated on the political arena, and the different visions of reform and development we look forward to, should never be coloured with personal feuding, fault-finding, or alienation. Rather, a wise attitude of looking for common areas of agreement—which are in no way small—and exploiting them towards mutual understanding would definitely serve Egypt best. Such an attitude would probably bring into focus the areas of joint national concern, and bring down the wall between the majority and the opposition. More importantly, we hope it would put an end to the monopolisation of power in our country. This is indeed the time for a national coalition. 2
  • 73. WATANI International 7 August 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 638 Problems on hold A police State? Youssef Sidhom Is Egypt a police State? The question is frequently raised at home and abroad. Since we are on the threshold of all-encompassing reforms, especially on the political level, the issue warrants candid, transparent discussion. ‘Police State’ denotes the condition where the police apparatus, which represents the security dimension in the State, occupies a position which predominates the legislative, executive, and judicial authorities. As such, the security authority maintains the upper hand in the State, and has a strongly tangible presence in the everyday life of citizens. ‘Citizens’ denotes the law- abiding persons who do not overstep the lines of public order and should thus have scarce dealing with security authorities, as opposed to outlaws who threaten social peace and whose paths therefore naturally cross those of the security devices. In a police State, citizens frequently need to refer to the security authorities as a prerequisite to perfectly normal dealings with the civil society institutions, bearing in mind that these authorities possess the power to block or sanction civil transactions despite the law. A case in point is the so-called Coptic issue or Coptic file. In the absence of democracy and full citizenship rights, the political leadership in Egypt saw fit to treat Copts unlike their Muslim fellow citizens, and thus handed over the Coptic file—which encompasses everything and anything that pertains to Copts—to the security authority. The move was justified by a number of vague, elastic excuses such as “security reasons”, ‘State security”, or averting “sectarian sedition”. The issue absolutely lacked in clarity, mechanisms of revision or accountability were absent, and the civil society institutions were entirely subservient to the security sway. It was ‘police State’ at its most effective. The passage of a unified law for places of 1
  • 74. worship was thus our only hope for prising the Coptic file out of the clutches of the security authority. It goes without saying that the security institution, as part of the executive authority of the State, should work in harmony with the legislative and judicial authorities to defend the safety and security of the community, and to insure the application and implementation of laws and regulations. The trouble starts when the security of the society is confused with that of the ruling regime, not in terms of protecting its leaders as the public figures that they are, but in fortifying the regime and guaranteeing its stay in power. The security authority thus interferes with and hinders the democratic process, and takes sides with one political party against the others—a clear symptom of the police State. Anyone who has attempted to participate in public or political work during this recent period which has seen positive, constructive changes on the political front must have been horrified at the flagrant bias of the security authorities towards the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). These authorities should have adopted a non-biased, neutral stance towards all the players on the political field, in order to insure an equitable, democratic process. The security authorities’ bias is a horrible reality especially outside Cairo. In Egypt’s other governorates, anyone who wishes to undertake any form of public effort—even if civic and absolutely apolitical in nature—is stunned by the sway of the security authority over every aspect of public life. No public work or project—sometimes as trivial as organising a trip for young people—can be accomplished without the ‘blessings’ of the security authority. People exchange some magical recipes which serve to open the doors wide before projects otherwise rejected by the security officials—the surest and most notorious being that the project be done through the NDP. Do the NDP leaders know all this? Do they imagine that it helps raise the popularity of the NDP? And do they approve? The answers give a clear indication of another symptom of a police State. 2
  • 75. pWATANI International 14 August 2005 Translator: Ghada / copy editor: Samia Word count: 672 Presidential elections…and beyond Youssef Sidhom The nomination of candidates for Egypt’s first ever multi-candidate presidential elections—to be held on 7 September—ended earlier this month. The one-week nomination period brimmed with surprises and speculation, with Egyptians’ attention focused on the names of the nominees, their orientations, objectives and programmes. Sad to say, most declarations made by presidential hopefuls were rather shallow—in some cases almost comic—lacking in the seriousness and sense of responsibility indispensable for the contested post. Actually, most statements reflected a fascination with power, fame and glory, that is, with the gloss of the post. This is not to blame those who nominated themselves, rather, I personally applaud their courage and initiative, and wish luck to those whose nomination was approved by the Presidential Election Committee. The upcoming period should witness the competition of programmes and proposals by rival candidates. However, a quick look at the nominees and their first declarations—including those who were disqualified—leads one to wonder if this is the utmost Egypt could offer in leadership and statesmanship. The answer is definitely not. Egypt is not barren of people who possess ample wisdom and insight, and are waiting for the right time to rise, come forward, introduce their programmes to the public, and lead. They probably believe that the reform process has already started, but the six- month period since the onset of reform last March and the presidential elections scheduled for September—whether or not this period was deliberately limited—is too short to allow a serious approach to the masses. I am confident that after the end of the presidential and parliamentary elections, they will use the climate of reform to work hard and prepare 1
  • 76. themselves to take part in next parliamentary or presidential elections due in 2010 and 2011 respectively. It must be admitted that President Mubarak has accumulated enough trust with the people to give him an unquestionable advantage over the other candidates. However, it must also be admitted that this is not merely because of his achievements, but has much to do with the existing political vacuum which makes the multi-candidate elections—the first in more than 50 years—closer to a pre-determined battle which lacks real competition. This however should not preclude serious participation in the process through investigating candidates’ programmes, following up on their electoral campaigns, and heading to the polls. Practice makes perfect, and this applies to the political process and reform just as to everything else. It is sensible to aspire for change, but political change should thrive in a culture of plurality and power sharing and rotation. In this context, those who compete for posts at different levels should not be condemned or defamed, and those who control power should abandon the pursuit to monopolise it forever. I thus believe that the real strive for reform and change should seriously start after the elections. The right to freely form political—rather than religious—parties, so as to inject new blood in the political arena, should be secured. New, creative figures, and innovative programmes and concepts can thus surface, grab a share in the political field, and draw the attention of wide sectors of Egyptians. Our political life would be wealthier, and we would emerge out of the dark tunnel which now traps Egyptians between the one ruling party and the scary prospect of religious fundamentalism. This is my view of the present and future phases of our political life. It is the view of an Egyptian who is keen to contribute to running his country’s affairs, and invites all others to do so. I do not fear different opinions or evade plurality, nor do I call for rallying behind a specific candidate. In this context, I find that the support announced by the Coptic Church to Mubarak, and its call upon Copts to re-elect him for President, inconsistent with democratic practice. It confiscates Copts’ rights to free political inclination and commitment, and bypasses their Egyptian identity in favour of their Coptic one, reducing them to mere subjects of the Church. 2
  • 77. WATANI International 21 August 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 663 A dark comedy of errors Youssef Sidhom Today I go back to a problem which I tackled on several occasions during the past months in ++Watani’s++ ‘Problems on Hold’ series, and which concerns complaints from readers against the Civil Register Authority (CRA). When the readers had applied for the new computerised ID documents which are to replace the old manually-issued ones currently being phased out, the new documents were issued with incorrect information. This despite the fact that the correct information was proved by original authentic documents issued by the same CRA at an earlier date, and handed in with the applications for the new documents. Worse, the Authority clerks refused to correct the errors—for which they were responsible—unless the applicants went through some incredibly difficult measures to furnish proof of the required data. I would have thought that any more reference to cases of such problems was unnecessary and redundant, if it weren’t for the fact that I continue to receive complaints from victims of these same errors, who feel utterly oppressed, confused, and helpless. If anything, this means that the CRA has no method or system of tackling complaints—apart from those which are printed in ++Watani++—and does nothing to avoid the errors. Before going into the details of a new list of cases of CRA errors, I would like to offer thanks to General Sherif Galal, director of the department of media relations of the Interior minister’s office, for his prompt action concerning the complaints printed in ++Watani++. The last such case tackled by General Galal concerned the correction of the errors in the birth certificates of the sisters Katreen and Regina Sadeq Moawad of Alexandria. I hope such behaviour reassures our readers. Mr Atef Amin Iskandar Saleeb, who was born in Shebin al-Kom in the Delta in 1948, applied in May 2003 for a new computerised ID, and has to date not 1
  • 78. received it, on the pretext that his father’s religion was not registered in his birth certificate. Mr Saleeb handed in to the CRA an official certificate from the Coptic bishopric concerned proving his father was Christian. He also submitted his father’s ID dated 1962, and death certificate dated 1988, both of which were issued by the CRA and included the information on the father’s Christian religion. In addition, Mr Saleeb’s brother’s birth certificate—also issued by the CRA—cited the father as Christian. Yet the four official CRA-issued documents were not enough to prove a piece of information which had gone missing from one document. Ms Francel Halim Haroun, born in Giza in 1934 applied for and received her new computerised ID with all the correct information. When she later applied for a computerised birth certificate, it was issued with her name spelt as Franfel. Despite all the official documents she presented to prove her correct name, the CRA clerks refused to correct it. Ms Nagwa Henein Barsoum, who was born in Cairo in 1970, says that her problems began when she applied for a new ID in 2003, and the clerk discovered that the name of Ms Barsoum’s mother was not clear in the original birth certificate. Instead of checking the name by referring to all the relevant CRA-issued papers already submitted by Ms Barsoum, the clerk insisted on sending Ms Barsoum and her aged mother on a wild-goose chase between Cairo, Fayoum, and Minya in Upper Egypt to have the mother re- registered with the CRA. When this was done, Ms Barsoum was requested to produce her grandmother’s death certificate. She proceeded to have this issued, but was then asked for official certification of the name of her grandmother’s mother—her great grandmother. It was then—after two years and repeated shuttling between Cairo and Upper Egypt—that Ms Barsoum decided to give up. I hope that none of our readers would pronounce any hasty condemnation of bureaucracy or red tape in Egypt. After all, we can always be sure that officials will respond to our complaints once we publish them. 2
  • 79. WATANI International 28 August 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 895 On Mubarak’s programme Youssef Sidhom With Egypt on the threshold of presidential elections, electioneering has reached fever pitch. The media is brimming with material on the different candidates, their political leanings, programmes and pledges. It is time to take in, scrutinise and carefully asses the various candidates’ plans and promises against our demands and aspirations, before heading to the polls on 7 September. We should form a conscientious, weighted opinion without being misled by the mob spirit; that is, if we are serious in our quest for real democracy. Away from some of the empty slogans used by President Hosni Mubarak’s supporters to applaud him, one can safely say that Mubarak’s programme does appear to be by far the most well-researched and carefully-detailed of all the candidates’ programmes. It presents aspirations and targets which tackle a wide angle of political, economic, and social vistas. As with all election programmes, it promises a bright, flourishing and thriving future for Egypt; the only catch being that it does not say how. The absence of clear mechanisms and systems through which the promises may materialise casts serious doubts on how realistic—not to say credible—these promises are. Furthermore, the programme steers clear of some very important issues, and it is not clear whether these issues were disregarded in the first place, or have simply been placed on hold. A look at President Mubarak’s programme reveals that it focuses primarily on the following: • Free citizens within a democratic regime: The programme sponsored the move towards democracy and reform. It called for independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, Constitutional reform to 1
  • 80. achieve balance between the different authorities in the State, fortifying party politics, empowering women, and invigorating local government, in addition to expanding Parliament’s authority in approving the State budget. Placed on hold however were the issues of reducing the security apparatus’ sway, freedom of establishing political parties, empowerment of Copts and youth, and decentralising power by moving some of the president’s authorities to the governors and affording more independence to the governorates regarding decisions on the economic front. Conspicuously absent from the programme were thorny issues of Constitutional reform such as fixed, limited presidential terms, annulment of the 50 per cent quota granted to workers and peasants in Parliament and legislative councils, and establishment of alternative quotas for women and youth. As for the sensitive issue of affording Parliament more authority to approve the State budget, it is—contrary to what I had assumed—an official admission that this authority is now limited. In this context, I demand that the budgetary allowances for the presidency, defence ministry, interior ministry, and intelligence apparatus be publicised precisely and transparently, since these items have always been kept in the dark. • On the economy: President Mubarak’s programme was very generous in its promises on job opportunities. During the coming six years—understandably the presidential term—the programme promised 600,000 opportunities in individual projects, at some three billion pounds investment. In small and medium scale projects, the programme promised 900,000 job opportunities at investments of LE60 billion over six years. Likewise, 1.5 million job opportunities at six year investments of LE100 billion were promised in the industrial sector; 420,000 job opportunities in the agricultural sector through the reclamation of 2.6 million feddans of land; and 1.2 million opportunities in the tourist sector at LE48 million. The total investment required for these 4,620,000 opportunities amounts to an ambitious LE161 billion in six years. Only a seasoned economist can figure out how this can be achieved. • On the social and services fronts: President Mubarak’s programme offered an impressive plan to revive the education, health, housing, transportation, water and sanitary drainage sectors, promising disciplined, professionally ethical performance. It is a promise of the longed-for ‘good old times’ which were lost following decades of post-1952-Revolutionary thought, destruction of personal motivation, 2
  • 81. near-elimination of the middle class, decline of work as a value, and the discounting of citizenship rights. The good old times however can only be regained through battling corruption, reviving the values of equality and citizenship rights for all Egyptians, and upholding competence and top performance as the sole qualification for jobs, posts, and leadership. Mubarak’s programme tackled none of that. • On foreign policy: Mubarak’s programme stuck to the traditional no- risk, no-debate issues, guaranteed to garner support on the Egyptian street. The Palestinian issue was stressed, but without taking into account the various parties concerned, especially Israel. Solidarity with the Iraqi people, empowerment of the Arab role, Egypt’s African connections, and its ties to world economic powers were all emphasised. The rhetoric however was more suited to diplomatic courtesy or Arab summit meetings than to a programme designed to actively deal with present-day world variables. If President Mubarak is elected to another term, he should be held accountable for any disregard of his explicit election programme. In the same context, his attention should be drawn to the issues which went un- mentioned in his programme or were placed on hold. These are precisely the issues that constitute our demands from the forthcoming president. Analysis of the other candidates’ programmes should place one in a position to make a responsible choice of our next president. Even if any of us is in any way dissatisfied with the elections, withdrawal is not an option, since it is only through perseverance and political participation that we can attain a better future. 3
  • 82. WATANI International 4 September 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 899 A play on voter sentiment Youssef Sidhom The countdown for Egypt’s first ever multi-candidate presidential elections—to be held on Wednesday—has begun. Last week ++Watani++ reviewed the election programme of President Hosni Mubarak, the National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate. Today, ++Watani++ takes a look at the programmes of two other candidates: Noaman Gomaa of al-Wafd party, and Ayman Nour of al-Ghadd. Both candidates’ programmes focus primarily on criticising the present regime and protesting conditions which go back to the pre-reform period, as well as rallying against the NDP’s monopoly over power. These views however, remain nothing but a release of long pent-up anger, and are no alternative for a serious view of the future. And lest the title of this article gives readers the impression that it concerns al-Wafd and al-Ghadd alone, let it be clear that Mubarak’s programme as well is not free of play on the sentiments of voters. Whether this is an acceptable campaign ploy or an unhealthy device to attract voters, people are bound to discover that many campaign promises never belonged to the realm of reality in the first place. Among the many examples of play on voters’ sentiments are Mubarak’s promises to “legalise buildings erected outside the urban cordon, to serve the interest of some 15 million residents.” This concerns building which infringe on the dwindling area of Egypt’s agricultural land. Mubarak also promises “for every child, a place in a nearby school; and for every young man, a house.” The question is how and when could this be. Again, he pledges “agricultural plots for 70,000 new owners, and a LE100,000 loan for each.” This alone sums up to some seven billion Egyptian pounds in investment, apart from all the other investment promised. And for hollow sloganeering, MP Mohammed al-Murshedi of the NDP says: “Mubarak’s era is the brightest in democracy and power rotation.” 1
  • 83. On his part Noaman Gomaa promises “unemployment aid to every unemployed, a social security network, and fair wages for workers.” Again, how and when? Gomaa also says: “I strongly need your support to win the presidency; then you will all be heads of Egypt; Egypt and all its wealth will be yours; and we will make Egypt great.” So much for hollow sloganeering. As for Ayman Nour, he claims he “will not allow a person to be imprisoned because he defaulted on an instalment for a refrigerator or wash-machine,” and that he “will convert the Agriculture Credit Bank into a ‘Peasant’s Bank’, and end the usury the bank applies with the peasants.” Nour wishes to “abolish the concept of a society based on penalty. We want, he says, a non-penalising society where only real criminals are put behind bars.” He pledges LE150-employment aid to every unemployed, “to be funded out of the benefits of ending corruption and the looting of public money.” And, he claims, “we will not sell natural gas to Israel.” Moreover, Nour believes the Muslim Brotherhood to be “an old noble organisation, with which we share ties of sympathy and respect. If they wish to form a civil party, we have no objection.” How can the Brotherhood, whose raison d’être is the establishment of a fundamentalist regime, form a civil party?! On the other hand, the programmes of both al-Wafd and al-Ghadd offer serious, positive aspects. Al-Wafd pledges a new Constitution to regain the power of the State, parliamentary elections according to a proportional list, a maximum of two terms for every president, restricting the president’s authority and ensuring his accountability. Al-Wafd also promises to implement the currently inactive law of, literally “Where did you get this from”, or holding public servants to account regarding the sources of their wealth. The party proposes a law to take Cabinet ministers to court for any violation, restricting waste of public funds, ending political corruption and favouritism, and implementing basic reforms in public education, health, and housing. Al-Ghadd promises Constitutional reform to limit the authorities of the president, a law to allow taking him or Cabinet members to court, and the freedom to establish political parties. It pledges the abolishment of exceptional rules such as the emergency law, the social prosecutor general, the State security prosecution, and military courts, in addition to releasing all political prisoners. Al-Ghadd also promises to abolish the ministries of justice, media, and religious endowments. It pledges to redistribute development dividends among the various districts in Egypt more equitably and transparently, and to end favouritism. Moreover, the party promises a new concept of Egyptian citizenship, and a unified law of building places of worship. It proposes a New Delta project of urban-rural communities west of 2
  • 84. the present Nile Delta, and a return to elected village councils and mayors. It also presents a new model for privatisation whereby investment is poured into modernising factories—especially the spinning and weaving plants—before selling them off. I hope this assessment of the programmes of the NDP, al-Wafd, and al- Ghadd was comprehensive, and apologise for not tackling the programmes of the other parties due to lack of space and time in this weekly paper. The daily papers however have given the matter extensive coverage, so that I feel certain every Egyptian can now head to the polls with confidence. My only caution is against apathy, since it is only through the active participation of each and every one of us that we can safely cross the present phase and move over to the coming one. 3
  • 85. WATANI International 11 September 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 867 Why I voted for Mubarak Youssef Sidhom Today, and for the coming six years, Egypt has chosen its first ever president elected from among several candidates—a new president who is expected to shoulder the huge responsibility of completing and putting into practice the longed-for reforms. Today, and for the coming six years, every Egyptian may hold in his or her hand a copy of President Hosni Mubarak’s election programme, demand its implementation and monitor how the president makes good on his promises. The heightened political awareness acquired by Egyptians during the past six months, ever since reform seriously began, has turned every Egyptian into a close monitor of the required change—promised so lavishly in the election campaign—and harsh critic of any setback in its implementation. Away from the rampant hollow sloganeering of the election campaigns, I went to the polls last Wednesday and, of my own free will and absolute conviction, voted for Mubarak. I was convinced that he was the best among the presidential candidates, and his programme was the most well-researched and detailed, apart from a few ambitious exaggerations that were not well backed by credible figures. Mubarak was also, in my opinion, the candidate best suited to lead Egypt to the aspired change in the coming few years. I wish to add however, that my vote for Mubarak claims action on several issues which were left out of his election programme but which should not be left out of his reform programme. After 24 years in Egypt’s top authority position—the new six-year term should bring that up to 30 years—I believe Mubarak possesses the wisdom and experience which qualify him to put the Egyptian house in order, as a step towards securing smooth and proper power rotation in the future. 1
  • 86. Such a target can never be realised without a democratic climate capable of breeding new political figures which possess vision and dedication, and are able to interact with the masses. Such figures were unfortunately absent in the last presidential elections, and will probably remain lacking in the forthcoming imminent parliamentary elections. The period between the onset of political reform last May and the presidential and parliamentary elections in September and November respectively was too short to allow for the emergence of new figures. The ones currently on the scene were obviously unprepared, many of them either outlandish or extremist. My vote for Mubarak thus entails the following demands. On the political level, I call for political and Constitutional reforms to allow freedom to form political, non-religious parties, in order to provide for new blood on the political arena. The president should give up party allegiance once he or she is elected, and should be elected to a maximum of two terms. He should run with or appoint a vice president who would be subject to the same restrictions regarding party allegiance and term limitations as the president. Presidential and vice presidential prerogatives should be clearly specified by the Constitution, and Parliament should have the authority to question and hold them to account, as well as impeach them. The Constitutional provision of complete separation of the State authorities should be implemented, to end the domination of the executive authority of the State over the legislative and judicial authorities, as well as on the media. Parliament should have full power to revise and approve the State budget, including the funds for the presidency, defence, and national security. It should be able to question, monitor, and take to account the government and State ministers on that head. The present system of parliamentary elections should be changed from voting for individual candidates to voting for a list of candidates, in order to end the dominion of the ruling party, and to allow marginalised sectors in the society—such as women, Copts and youth—a better opportunity at political participation. Such sectors must be afforded more encouragement and empowerment, for the sake of consolidating equal opportunity and offsetting the long discriminatory practice which granted peasants and workers a full 50 per cent of the political cake. All exceptional laws such as the emergency law should be abolished, as well as all extraordinary courts such as State security and military courts, to implement the rule of law and civil courts. The unified law for building places of worship should see light, so that all Egyptians would be equal before the law as regards building, renovating and restoring their mosques and churches. The president should give up his wide 2
  • 87. authority over the building of churches, as opposed to mosques; and the ‘Coptic file’ should be prised out of the clutches of the State security authorities. Mubarak’s constant confirmation of there being no difference between Muslims and Copts should be realised, especially as regards the rights of Copts—based alone upon their competence and qualifications—to high ranking positions in the State. Mubarak should also work to firmly uphold the principle of Egyptian citizenship based upon the Egyptian identity alone, as opposed to notions of giving the religious identity precedence over the national. This has so far only served to sustain discriminatory, bigoted practices. Congratulations to the new president of Egypt. Let as all stand united to traverse the forthcoming era of change peacefully. 3
  • 88. WATANI International 18 September 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 715 Gauging the elections Youssef Sidhom Now that the presidential elections are over, it is time to analyse and assess the election process. Despite a general sense of comfort, organisations which gauged the balloting are busy reporting on its transparency, neutrality, and discipline. In fact, these reports will not only be necessary to asses the last elections, but will also be substantial in preparing for the forthcoming parliamentary elections next October and November. I wish however, to point out that one of the most serious shortcomings of the 7 September balloting was the inaccuracy of voter lists. Unfortunately, the short span of time between the September presidential election and the November parliamentary ones makes it a near-impossibility to correct, organise—not to say up-date and modernise—the voter lists. The inadequacy of these lists is absolutely unreasonable, unacceptable and unjustifiable, and the matter is sufficiently serious to take the interior minister to account, since he repeatedly alleged that the voter lists had been up-dated and organised. There have been complaints from voters of the difficulty and time wasted in tracing their names or election registration numbers since the names were not arranged alphabetically, nor were they matched with the corresponding registration numbers and, more frequently, the lists included names of voters who were no longer alive. It should be a more or less simple task in this age of technology to computerise the entire election process. A national council may be formed—on behalf of the interior ministry—to manage the process, with the ministry’s role restricted to the application of law and order. Surely computerising the election process can be hardly more difficult than digitising many government services such as paying telephone bills, or booking airline or train tickets. The interior ministry could itself handle the 1
  • 89. process, seeing that it possesses the computerised national data base of the civil register, but the ministry has already let us down in the relatively simple task of establishing proper voter lists, and is notorious for its errors in the civil register accounts. Moreover, an independent council whose sole duty is to conduct disciplined, clean, fair elections will probably do that properly, since it would be held accountable for any mis-performance, whereas the interior ministry staff has been repeatedly performing inadequately and never brought to account—casting strong doubts on the probability of future accountability. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) declared that balloting went smoothly, and no complaints were reported regarding police interference to confiscate the freedom or confidentiality of the vote. In many polling stations however, voters found it difficult to locate their constituencies, names, or voter registration numbers. This led to overcrowding, and many voters—exasperated at the long undue wait—left without voting. The Dutch ambassador to Cairo called upon the NCHR secretary-general and expressed the observations of members of the diplomatic corps in Cairo regarding the balloting, citing poor turnout and voter list shortcomings. All the same, he said, the elections were a positive step towards democracy, and the irregularities did not affect the outcome of the elections. The Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Bar, which monitored polling stations inside and outside Cairo, reported several violations in balloting, but declared that the security authorities assumed an unprecedented impartiality, and concerned themselves solely with implementing law and order. The centre reported that government and public sector employees were bussed to polling stations to vote for the candidate of the ruling party—the National Democratic Party (NDP). Even though judges had orders that neither independent monitors nor representatives of the candidates should attend vote counting, a number of judges allowed them to, according to the ruling by the Judges Club. Some first-hand complaints by ++Watani++ staff included one from a young lady who, after marking her ticket, found no ballot box. She was told by the clerks to leave her ticket and they’ll put it in the ballot box for her. Another lady spent three hours trying to locate her name matched to her voter registration number, but in vain. When she complained, she was told: “Don’t vote; go home.” A young man who could not find his data on the lists was allowed to vote among those who were away from their hometowns or the places where they were originally registered—a flagrant irregularity. 2
  • 90. WATANI International 25 September 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 949 Egyptian citizenship rights Youssef Sidhom Even though the term “citizenship rights” came up more than once in President Hosni Mubarak’s electoral platform, no definition of the term was cited, nor was any scientific or procedural standard of it outlined. Consequently, no flaws in citizenship rights were diagnosed—neither relevant to Egyptians as a whole nor any specific sector of them. It is no secret that citizenship rights deficiencies involve in the main part—if not entirely—Copts. Because of their religious identity, Egyptian Christians suffer a plethora of problems on the legislative, political, social, and behavioural levels. It is thus imperative to admit the problem, define and diagnose it, and thence prescribe treatment. Much has already been done throughout the past three decades on that front, starting with the recommendations of the Oteify Committee commissioned by the Egyptian Parliament in 1972 to report on the problem and recommend solutions, and through countless declarations and conferences on that head. Among the most recent such events were the Zurich Symposium in September 2004, the Egyptian Journalist Syndicate Group’s Declaration of the Egyptian Council of Citizenship Rights in February 2005, and the Montreal Declaration in June 2005. Discounting the conspiracy theory and accusations of unwarranted interference in our domestic affairs—allegations which are promptly hurled in our media and political arena at any reform suggestions coming from outside Egypt—it is worth noting that those who tackle the problem of citizenship rights, whether Muslim or Christian, are concerned Egyptians. If we take into consideration that denial and escapism have led to a lack of any Egyptian official, partisan, or popular initiative to tackle the problem, there 1
  • 91. is no reason why initiatives from outside Egypt should not be given due thought. The most recent of such initiatives was posted to me by a group of Egyptian- Americans from the Greater Chicago area, who met under the auspices of the Egyptian-American Society to discuss what could be done for Egypt at this critical period in its history. The result was a declaration on citizenship rights in Egypt of which the following excerpts highlight the main features. "Nationalism has been all-inclusive in contemporary Egyptian history, but tensions have been growing between Muslims and Christians, and were reflected within the Egyptian communities in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Concerned about this situation, a Group of Egyptian Americans met in Chicago to discuss issues affecting Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt and abroad. The participants shared the belief that fundamental human rights, which include freedom of religion and expression—guaranteed by the Egyptian Constitution—should be the unifying basis for all Egyptians. “It is obvious that the Christian minority in Egypt feels the pressures of marginalisation, intimidation, and even exclusion. This social climate has led to withdrawal of the Coptic community, and increased polarisation of the Egyptian society. “The Group recognises that the intolerance and prejudice cannot be attributed to religious factors alone, but also derive from social and educational factors, in addition to ignorance, suspicion, and indifference to issues of religious intolerance. “Accordingly, the Group believes that a set of basic principles and guidelines should be elaborated to address these problems and create a better climate of understanding between the two communities. The following Basic Principles and Implementing Guidelines—neither all-inclusive nor all- encompassing, and not likely to entirely satisfy all concerned—are not intended to direct blame, but to bring about inter-religious understanding, enhance national unity, and advance equality and human rights of all in Egypt. • “Egypt is a homeland for all Egyptians, irrespective of differences in religion or ethnicity. • “All citizens must be allowed to enjoy and exercise equal rights, including freedom of religion and its practice, in accordance with the Constitution and international human rights legal obligations. Nothing in policy or practice should abridge these fundamental rights. • “Egyptians should be called upon to set aside religious intolerance, reinforce the unity of the nation, and advance social harmony. It is 2
  • 92. imperative that the government, religious establishments and civil society institutions should confront all forms of discrimination and disparity between Egyptians.” Apart from the above basic principles, the following guidelines were proposed: • “A unified law for building and repairing places of worship should be issued and applied to all Egyptians. • “Official documents and papers should not contain the religious identification of persons, except where there is a demonstrable and valid reason. • “Intolerant religious messages, as demonstrated in undue comparison of faiths and ridicule of other religions in the media, school curricula, and sermons, should be prohibited. • “The number of appointments and access to leadership positions in the government, military, police, universities, regional and local councils, should be increased for Christians. A law for affirmative action should be considered, to guarantee a percentage of non-Muslims—provided required qualifications are met—in governmental and institutional positions. “The Group, having reached these conclusions, decided to circulate this text to a wider audience of Egyptians inside and outside the country, with a view to develop a broad constituency capable of taking their viewpoints to governmental and religious leaders, and to Egyptian civil society.” Even though the above declaration was written outside Egypt, it is purely Egyptian in spirit and soul. It remains for us in Egypt to decide upon it. We may describe it as treacherous and conspiratorial, and accordingly shelve it as we have done with similar material before, or we may put it on the locomotive of reform, which has already taken off with no stopping or going back. From thence it can be brought to the attention of those in power in order to activate it—that is if they can admit the present flaws in citizenship rights, and shoulder the responsibility to correct them. 3
  • 93. WATANI International 2 October 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 757 Problems on hold Why in Washington Youssef Sidhom Last week’s editorial tackled the Declaration on Egyptian Citizenship Rights which was recently issued in Washington by a group of Egyptian-Americans from the Greater Chicago area. I wrote that “If we take into consideration that denial and escapism have led to a lack of any Egyptian official, partisan, or popular initiative to tackle the problem, there is no reason why initiatives from Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—outside Egypt should not be given due thought.” I ended by mentioning that the declaration “can be brought to the attention of those in power in order to activate it—that is if they can admit the present flaws in citizenship rights, and shoulder the responsibility to correct them.” Anyone who contemplates the flaws in Copts’ citizenship rights—starting with the right to freely build places of worship, their share of leadership and top posts in the State, and their political empowerment—will discover flagrant inequality between them and their Muslim fellow citizens. The disparity can be said to be obvious on three levels. First, on the legislative and executive level, where there is no move whatsoever in the direction of considering or tackling Coptic grievances. That is unless the president issues direct orders to resolve some given problem—which is something the content and time of which no-one can predict. Otherwise, most on this level see no Coptic problem, and those who know there are problems do not possess the courage to propose any solution. Some even justify the inertia by resorting to tranquillisers of the type: “Waiting for an adequate timing to raise the problem”, “President Mubarak has confirmed that there is no difference between Muslims and Copts”, “What do Copts want? The president has already decreed Coptic Christmas—7 January—a national holiday; he approves applications to build new churches; and there was a 1
  • 94. Coptic governor in the 1970s”. In short, there is a general conviction that Copts’ citizenship rights are confined to those which are already granted to them by the government, and there is no realisation in the first place that Copts are looking for equality. On the second level, there are the intellectuals, writers, those concerned with public issues, human and citizenship rights, as well as some politicians. These realise well the Coptic predicament and grievances, and their curtailed rights. But this elite group—even though it possesses the reliable data on the real dimensions of the problem, a clear vision of it, and the potential to initiate a solution—has preferred to remain in the ivory tower of academia and take no action. The utmost this group has achieved on the Coptic front is participation in conferences and seminars with an absolutely ineffective discourse more suited to a condolence address. This group thus remained isolated, unable to rise with the issue to the executive level, or to stoop down with it to the street level. Third is the level of the Egyptian street—the real challenge where citizenship rights are concerned. The ordinary Egyptian—consumed with the daily battle for subsistence; and prey to failures, frustrations and incompetence—has found refuge in the arms of the religious institutions. These either preach patience and adaptation to the situation, or spread hatred, rejection, and a culture of violence against society. The challenge to save Egyptians from the clutches of fundamentalist, extremist movements can only be met through development on all economic, social, and education levels. Only then will the concept of citizenship rights take foothold. The picture is rather bleak. The executive authority of the State knows well but refuses to acknowledge the flaws in Coptic citizenship rights, the intellectual elite knows but cannot connect with the authorities and is above communicating with the street. The grassroots are victims of the grim economic situation and the fundamentalist currents which exploit it to their favour. Everyone appears to be content, and the issue of curtailed Coptic citizenship rights remains frozen until once in a while sectarian problems or violence erupts. Directly, flowery rhetoric, false declarations, imaginary reconciliation, hugs and kisses are recruited to anaesthetise the situation without bothering to treat the basic problem. No matter how dismal the situation is, we should not give in but should go on striving to correct it. Strangely, we have that the Palestinian cause be negotiated in Geneva, Madrid, Oslo, Washington and Sharm al-Sheikh because it could not be negotiated in Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv. So why is termed treachery when the Coptic issue is discussed in Paris, London, 2
  • 95. Zurich, or Washington because it cannot be discussed in Cairo, Alexandria or Assiut? 3
  • 96. WATANI International 9 October 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 751 Problems on hold Again …Why in Washington Youssef Sidhom News of an upcoming conference in Washington to discuss Coptic grievances caused a furor in the Egyptian media. Copts certainly do have a problem with curtailed citizenship rights, some own, but it should be discussed inside Egypt not outside it. No one can argue against this, we say, the only trouble is that the Coptic issue is never brought up inside Egypt. None on the legislative, executive, or partisan levels possess the courage to open it up for discussion. It is unthinkable that Copts should react to this disregard by giving in and waiting for an unforeseen solution. There is a general feeling of frustration among Copts because President Mubarak’s electoral platform, his inaugural speech, and his speech before the National Democratic Party’s congress all ignored the Coptic issue. Obviously the president and the State legislative and executive authorities are overly sensitive to discussing the Coptic issue publicly, preferring instead to deny existing flaws and hide behind the Constitutional fundamental of equality between all Egyptians regardless of religion. In reality, however, the problem lies not with the Constitution, but with regulations, practices, and behaviour. During the past six months there were calls for a unified law for building places of worship, to apply to all Egyptians. The significance is not that Copts would build more churches, but that they would be equal in citizenship rights to their Muslim fellow citizens. Retaining a legislation which applies to Copts alone and not to Egyptian Muslims, is not sound practice. Even though the new law—which was originally proposed last May by Mr Mohamed Guweily, head of the complaints and suggestions committee of the Egyptian Parliament—has wide support, it warranted no mention in any of President Mubarak’s recent declarations. 1
  • 97. A look at the presidential decrees issued for the restoration and renovation of places of worship—meaning churches and services related to them, since construction work for mosques and related services requires no presidential decrees—does not hint at any move towards phasing out these procedures. This in turn does not help the principle of equal citizenship rights, and fortifies the idea of increased presidential authority where churches are concerned. In some cases it is a setback and a contradiction to former presidential decrees which were issued to liberate the restoration and renovation of churches from presidential authority. In December 1999, presidential decree no. 453 was issued to stipulate that the “the restoration or renovation of all places of worship should be licensed by the building authorities of every governorate, and should be conducted according to the building regulations and procedures of law 106 of 1976.” This left only the licensing of new churches in the hands of the president, and Copts were already looking forward to the new unified law for places of worship to remedy that. Instead, I have before me six presidential decrees issued between January and August 2005 to license renovation and construction works for different churches—Coptic Orthodox and Protestant—and buildings belonging to them. The works included pulling down and rebuilding fencing walls, erecting a services building, renovating existing buildings and—in one case—the pastor’s resident, as well as building a kitchen, dining room, and toilets at the Holy Virgin’s monastery in Beni-Sweif, Upper Egypt. It is obvious that most of the works are very clearly restorations and renovations which, according the above-cited presidential decree, are the responsibility of the respective building authorities and should not require presidential decrees. Neither should the fencing wall, kitchen, dining room and toilet since they cannot be considered a ‘new church’—the only building which has to be licensed through a presidential decree. There is thus an official insistence upon retaining legislative inequality between Egyptians where places of worship are concerned. Worse, there appears to be official regression on the phasing out of presidential decrees required for renovations and restorations. So the end result is that instead of creating a climate conducive to the hoped-for reform, an atmosphere of discrimination, division, inequality, and curtailed citizenship rights has set in. Very indicative is the insistence on the term ‘sect’ used in every one of the above-mentioned presidential decrees to refer to the Orthodox Copts or the Protestants, almost forgetting that they are—or should be—full Egyptian citizens in the first place. If the highest authority in the State insists on categorising them on a sectarian basis and curtailing their citizenship rights, 2
  • 98. and yet no-one at home wishes to approach the problem, why should discussing it outside Egypt be seen as treachery? 3
  • 99. WATANI International 16 October 2005 Translator: Samia / copy editor: Samia Word count: 676 Problems on hold Once more …Why in Washington Youssef Sidhom President Hosni Mubarak has repeatedly announced that there is no difference between Muslims and Copts in Egypt, and that according to the Constitution they are all equal in rights and duties, the only measure of distinction between them being hard work, competence, efficiency, and respect of law. I do not doubt the president’s words. However, as one who sits at the top rung of State authority, he ought to insure that systems are in place to realise this equality perspective. Equality should be an objective of all State institutions and apparatuses and not merely a personal attitude of the president. Confirmations of equality—no matter how strong—can never alone remedy inequalities. If Copts complain of distorted equality regarding their share of State high- ranking positions and leadership posts, intervention is needed to correct the injustice. If the injustice is due to prejudice or fanaticism on any State level, accountability and revision is due, and this in turn demands the establishment of relevant supervisory boards. Lamentably, no such apparatuses exist to date, despite the fact that high hopes were once placed upon the National Council for Human Rights. Perhaps a national council for citizenship rights—if it ever sees light—may handle this end. But what if a substantial portion of the problem lies with resolutions decreed by no other than the presidency itself? How do the president’s declarations on the equality between Muslims and Copts concur with the real-life series of presidential decrees that discriminate against Copts? It is incomprehensible that, while the president states that Copts amount to some ten per cent of the population, their share of appointments to State posts is in no way remotely close to ten per cent—in some cases zero. Official statistics 1
  • 100. confirm that under the free schooling system in Egypt, Coptic pupils and students form around ten per cent of the total student body from primary to high education. It would therefore make sense that Copts would form around the same proportion of the State workforce, that is if they are given the same opportunities at appointments and promotions. Since all along—from childhood to graduation—Copts never displayed symptoms of stupidity or incompetence, their scarcity in higher-ranking State posts surely cannot be attributed to either. Obviously there is in the system some serious defect which warrants acknowledgement and revision. To prove my point, I cite data from ten presidential decrees which were issued in the interval from January to August 2005, to approve appointments to State posts. These included assistants to the general prosecution and the administrative prosecution, delegates and assistant delegates to the State Council, assistant councillors to the State Council, deputies to the head of the State Council, and different appointments to the State Court Authority. Out of a total 1727 appointees, only 31 were Christians, their proportion ranging between 3.5 per cent in some posts and zero per cent in others. No Christian was appointed as assistant councillor at the State Council, deputy to the head of the State Council, or deputy to the head of the State Court Authority. The above-mentioned figures illustrate that the disproportionately meagre share of Copts in State posts begins with their insignificant numbers in the lower ranks, decreases steadily in the higher ranks, and recedes completely in leadership ranks. This flawed situation can never be remedied by escapism, denial, and slogan-mongering about the presumed equality of Copts and Muslims. Rather, it should be acknowledged and phased out. The State has passed laws to guarantee a five per cent quota of State employment opportunities to the handicapped, and there is talk about empowering women and young people in the upcoming reform and development agenda by granting them too job quotas. Since we Egyptians appear to know so well how to remedy long-time wrongs, why is it that Coptic grievances are denied and nothing done to alleviate them? And why are Copts’ cries never heard? Then, when they decide to take their grievances outside Egypt for open discussion, they are accused of treachery and tarnishing the image of the homeland. 2