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  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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