Elections in Egypt could begin transition to democracy


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

Egyptians have gone to the polls in a vote which could show whether the country’s is able to transition towards democracy. Three years after a court disbanded parliament, the north African state will finally elect lawmakers who under the new constitution have the power to hold the president to account. The test will be how willing and how able the members of parliament (MPs) are to stand up to the general-turned-president who has been criticized for his perceived authoritarianism, say analyst here.

President Abdel Fatteh Al-Sisi was voted into power in the summer of 2014, months after he led a coup which removed the country’s first ever democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi. Weeks of street protests against the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president prompted the army to step in and arrest Morsi. Subsequently, Sisi was elected on a mandate to bring stability to Egypt, whose population had grown weary of the ups and downs of the Arab Spring, and to transition the country towards democracy.

But the question remains how meaningful is an election held in the country while the Muslim Brotherhood, the only party to ever have a leader elected by popular mandate in Egypt, languishes as a banned terrorist organization, and are not able to field candidates for office.

“The unprecedented restrictions reduce these elections to being a sheer gesture,” Lina Attalah, chief editor of the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr, told The Media Line. Increasingly, she said, the actions of the government appear to be worse than those of Hosni Mubarak – who ruled Egypt for thirty years prior to Morsi being elected.

Following Sisi’s coup hundreds of Egyptian were killed and thousands arrested. Courts in the country have been repeatedly criticized for acting under the orders of the president and for arbitrary use of the death penalty. Media freedoms have also been heavily curtailed during Sisi’s rein.

Activists hope that the elections will mark a beginning of an end to such practices. Voting is due to take place in two stages — the first conducted this week and the second round due in December.

“According to the constitution the parliament has the power – but the president also has. So there is a balance,” Ibrahim Awad, a professor at the American University of Cairo and director of the Center for Migration and Refugees Studies, told The Media Line. If parliament is unwilling to exercise this power and simply supports the government, its relevance as a democratic institution will be limited, Awad said.

Egypt created a robust constitution with a strong parliament, one which was understood and widely supported by the population, an observer with a European political organization based in Cairo who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line. However almost as soon as the constitution was ratified, it was ignored by the government, the source said.

“This parliament can do a lot of things, up to the point where it can get rid of the president itself. (However) will the Parliament be strong enough to do this – that is a separate question,” the observer asked.

Media outlets based in Cairo have reported low election turnout, possibly as little as 10%, which contrasts sharply with the attitude of Egyptian youth during the early years of the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012. At that time, images of student protests in Tahrir Square and long lines outside voting stations were seen as symbolic of the drive towards democracy in the Middle East.

A low turnout now could be a sign of the president’s slipping popularity. Mounting casualties among police and army units engaged in a counter-insurgency campaign in the Sinai Peninsula have cost Sisi politically. In Egypt there is a belief in a connection between military rule and stability, an idea that is encouraged through Sisi’s rhetoric, journalist Lina Attalah explained. Continued instability in the Sinai undermines the president’s image and could be one explanation for low turnout at the polls.

A second possibility is apathy among an electorate who see little choice among the candidates put forward for election. With the Muslim Brotherhood banned, there is little political opposition to Sisi.

“Democracy is about how different points of view can be reconciled,” Ibrahim Awad observed. If the government intends for democracy to truly develop in the country then the structure of its political system will allow a legitimate opposition to develop, the professor said. “(It) should allow these alternative ideas to crystalize and then you can speak of democracy. Until now this has not been the case,” Awad said.

For this reason the next six months will show if the government is committed to democratic transition, Awad explained. 

“Certainly under Mubarak you had a rubber stamp parliament,” he said. “In reality and under the constitution the parliament (then) had less power, so if the (new) parliament exercises the rights and functions that are reserved to it in the constitution it will be democratic.”

In court, defiant Morsi says he is still Egypt’s president


Ousted Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi, given his first public forum since his overthrow in a trial where he could face execution, declared on Monday he was still Egypt's legitimate president and shouted: “Down with military rule!”

Morsi, an Islamist who was toppled by the army in July after mass protests against him, spoke with anger and passion, interrupting the first day of his trial repeatedly from his cage during an unruly hearing that the judge adjourned to January 8.

State television aired brief footage of Morsi, the first public sighting of the president since his overthrow in July. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, had been kept in an undisclosed location since then.

“I am Dr. Mohamed Morsi. I am president of the republic,” said Morsi.

Inside the courtroom, anti-Morsi Egyptian journalists chanted “execution”, “execution” as the deposed leader did his best to challenge the authority of the court, shouting repeatedly at the judge whose legitimacy he refused to accept.

“We are in a state, not a (military) camp. Down down with military rule,” said Morsi. “I am a witness that what is happening is a part of a military coup. I ask the Egyptian judiciary to not act as a cover for the military coup.”

The judge repeatedly asked Morsi to stop giving long speeches. “Please answer the question, do you agree to have a lawyer representing you?” judge Ahmed Sabry said.

Opponents of Egypt's army-backed government deride what they call a “show trial” as part of a campaign to crush Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement and revive the police state of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule that ended in a 2011 popular revolt.

Hundreds of people were killed in the months that followed Morsi's overthrow, including many hundreds shot dead by police and troops who cleared out a weeks-long protest vigil by Morsi's supporters. Thousands of followers have been rounded up.

Egypt has become fiercely divided, with state media lionizing the military and police for their crackdown on “terrorists”, while the Brotherhood, once the country's most powerful political force, has retreated to the shadows where it spent more than 80 years as an underground movement.

Morsi, 62, who like many Islamists was also jailed under Mubarak, now faces charges of inciting violence that could carry the death penalty.

It is the second time Egypt has put an ousted president on trial since 2011, and taking place in the same venue – a police academy hall – where Mubarak has faced retrial over his conviction for complicity in killing protesters.

Morsi and 14 other Islamists face charges of inciting violence relating to the deaths of about a dozen people in clashes outside the presidential palace in December after Morsi enraged his opponents with a decree expanding his powers.

After stepping out of a white van and buttoning his jacket, he appeared in a cage in the courtroom beside other Islamist defendants, who were in white prison garb. They applauded when Morsi arrived, gave the Brotherhood's four-fingered salute, and at times turned their backs on the court.

“This trial is illegitimate,” said Morsi, who was dressed in a dark suit. “This is a criminal military coup.”

Hundreds of Morsi's supporters gathered outside the court building. One sign read: “The people's will has been raped”.

SECURITY PRESENCE

Trial proceedings were not aired on state television and journalists were barred from bringing telephones into the courtroom. Senior Brotherhood figures among the defendants used the chance to tell reporters they had been mistreated.

“I have been kept in my cell for 60 days,” Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagi told Reuters in the courtroom from inside a cage holding defendants. “I have been held under water in my cell and this has happened to other members.”

Another Islamist in the cage, Alaa Hamza, said he was tortured and lifted his shirt to show reporters what he said were torture marks.

After the hearing, Morsi was taken to Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria.

The military establishment's return to the forefront of power prompted Washington to cut some military aid, although Washington has not said whether the overthrow was a “coup”, language that would require it to halt aid to one of its biggest clients. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, visiting Cairo on Sunday, expressed guarded optimism about a return to democracy.

The uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011 had raised hopes that Egypt would embrace democracy and human rights and eventually enjoy economic prosperity.

Instead, the power struggle between the Brotherhood and the army-backed establishment has created more uncertainty in the country of 85 million which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal. Tourism and investment have collapsed.

INCITING VIOLENCE

The Brotherhood won repeated elections since Mubarak's fall. But millions of Egyptians grew disillusioned with Morsi's troubled one-year rule and took to the streets to demand his resignation. They accused Morsi of usurping power and mismanaging the economy, allegations he denied.

“We didn't see as much misery in the 30 years of Mubarak as much as we saw in one year of Morsi,” said Ali, a driver who was sipping morning tea at a cafe in downtown Cairo.

“He fooled us with his year in power.”

The army, saying it was responding to the will of the people, deposed Morsi and announced a political road map it said would lead to free and fair elections.

But the promises have not reassured Western allies, who had hoped six decades of rule by military men would be broken. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled Morsi, is very popular, and few doubt he would win if he runs for president.

The Brotherhood maintains Morsi's removal was a coup that reversed the democratic gains made after Mubarak's overthrow.

Mohamed Damaty, a volunteer defence lawyer for Morsi, said:

“It is clear that the goal of this trial as well as any action against the Muslim Brotherhood is to wipe out the group as well as any Islamist movements from political life.”

Additional reporting by Hadeel al-Shalchi, Asma Alsharif, Shadia Nasralla and Shaimaa Fayed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Michael Georgy, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff

Democracy for Egypt? Come back in 20 years…


Let's try to make this simple:

For both the United States and Israel, the most convenient situation amid the inconvenience that is current Egypt is for the military to be in charge. Not just now, but for the foreseeable future, as well. Alas, however, the more the military is visible as the institution in charge, the less possible it is for the United States to maintain such a cynical position (Israel doesn’t need to talk about such things, and, surprisingly, was able thus far to keep its mouth shut). In other words — but still keeping it simple: Policy makers in Washington and in Jerusalem have very little faith and very little interest in Egyptian democracy. But they need to pretend that they do. And as they pretend, they need to make sure such pretense doesn’t end up hurting the military. Thus, on July 8, the White House ruled out the suspension of assistance to Egypt following (what it still refuses to call) the military coup. As its moral cover, the administration argues that it will use financial leverage to press for restoration of democratic rule. 

Now the longer version: 

Of course, all American and Israeli leaders want democracy for Egypt, they all want Egypt to thrive as a liberal and democratic and prosperous country — but they don’t believe any of that is feasible at this time. What Egypt needs is someone to rule it, someone to attempt to gradually pull it out of the ditch in which it is half-buried, and only then, maybe, eventually, someday, to give it back to the “people” — contingent on the “people” being a transformed “people,” meaning more educated, more ready for democracy, less prone to send one another flying off roof-tops or using guns to make a political point. 

In Egypt, illiteracy is rampant, unemployment is pervasive, and the majority of its populace holds views hardly compatible with a functioning democracy. As pundits and the occasional commentators talk about the “camps” — supposedly traditional and more liberal — competing for dominance, would also be useful to look at the numbers of which each camp consists. Dividing Egypt into two camps — those believing democracy is preferable to other kinds of government and those who don’t — gives some reason for hope: 59 percent of Egyptians favor democracy, and only 38 percent don’t. 

But what if you make a slightly different division — this time dividing the two camps between those supporting and those opposing the stoning of adulterous women? That division offers a different, far less encouraging result (according to a December 2010 poll): 82 percent favor stoning. And what about a division of Egypt into camps of those believing that “a wife must always obey her husband” and those who think otherwise? According to a 2013 Pew report, this division finds 85 percent of Egyptians agreeing that she should always obey. So, yes, there are two camps, but on many issues one of them is quite tiny compared to the other, and relying on that to be the beacon of democracy in this vast nation can prove risky. 

Given such a starting point, there is little wonder that the sudden show of democracy in Egypt was quickly proven to be nothing more than a passing mirage. And it is also not surprising that policy makers in Washington don’t really have much desire to rein in the military or attempt to reinstall the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi — albeit a democratically elected president of Egypt who was toppled in a military coup. Currently, the military is Washington’s only hope for an Egypt that is cooperative, attentive to American sensitivities and relatively stable (it is also Israel’s only hope for an Egypt that isn’t a constant headache, security wise). The one problem that the military poses for the United States and President Barack Obama — how to save face on the issue of democracy — is hardly comparable to the plethora of problems posted by any other scenario. 

“I’ll be blunt: This is an incredibly complex and difficult situation,” Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, said when asked if what occurred in Egypt should be called a coup. Note: It isn’t the question that’s complicated, but rather the “situation.” That is, a situation that prevents the press secretary from giving an honest answer. Of course, Carney knows that a week of chaos in Egypt that began with a relatively unified response from the United States was coming to an end a couple of days ago, with more pundits and leaders beginning to wonder aloud about the hypocritical policy of the Obama administration. 

“Reluctantly, I believe that we have to suspend aid [to Egypt] until such time as there is a new constitution and a free and fair election,” Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona declared. 

“We need to suspend aid to the new government until it does, in fact, schedule elections and put in place a process that comes up with a new constitution,” Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on July 8. Robert Kagan, writing for The Washington Post, argued that the United States failed the “very difficult test” of having to live with an Egyptian democracy headed by Morsi. “But was a military coup the best answer? The good news is that a bad leader is gone. Yet that is where the good news ends. People talk cheerfully about starting over in building an Egyptian democracy. But the slate is hardly clean, and the obstacles to Egyptian democracy are greater than they were before the coup,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan is, of course, right: There is no “starting over” in the new situation — a situation that is becoming bloodier by the day, and that, at the time I am writing (Tuesday afternoon), seems quite scary. He is probably wrong, however, if he truly believes that “starting over” is the end game of the Obama administration, when in fact the true goal is twofold: Preventing chaos and saving face — in that order. 

Whether the Egyptian military can provide such an end result — keeping Egypt orderly while putting on some kind of show that will enable the world to pretend democracy is coming soon to Egypt — is a question that will likely remain unanswered in the coming days or weeks. This is a continual nuisance of the so-called Arab Spring (and, I’m afraid, also a recurring, and possibly annoying, theme of this column): Even as events rapidly unfold, they reveal little of the likely outcome of each new situation. 

Egypt was revolutionized unexpectedly, and then was taken democratically by the Muslim Brotherhood, then it erupted again, and now it is in danger of deteriorating into civil war. Thus, it presents Washington with a familiar question: Whether to support the principle of democracy in the hope that a long-term and very painful process would eventually lead to that end result. Or, rather, maybe it is better to forfeit long-term ambitions and dreams in an attempt to make the short term as painless as possible.

For Israeli administrations, the short term has always been the choice. Having to live with a possible chaos closer to home, they tend to postpone dreams in exchange for stability and calm. And, yes, they might also be less caring about whether the Arabs — often a hating enemy — get their dose of freedoms. For the more idealistic Americans, this has never been an easy question, but in Egypt — where stakes are very high and realistic expectations are currently quite low — the answer has already been given. 

What’s next for Egypt then? Putting one’s chips on a truly democratic start-over would be a risky gamble.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain

Egyptian women struggle to fight sexual harassment


Despite its calls for democracy, freedom of speech and revolution against traditional Egyptian society, the current anti-government demonstrations have witnessed one negative phenomenon – an increase in harassment of women.

Women have been attacked and in some instances raped in public during demonstrations in Tahrir Square which have escalated in recent days, with some rumors claiming that the government of President Mohamed Morsi is behind the attacks. Women were previously beaten by members of the army in past protests.

In response, groups of Cairo-educated women have undertaken to protect women.  Both the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment were organized by women with a strong belief in fighting sexual harassment by raising awareness, empowering women, and creating groups on the ground to patrol marches and demonstrations.

Historically Egyptian women have made great strides in obtaining their rights. They enjoy a 77 percent literacy rate and are making an impact in the work place. They were granted rights, in some cases, way before their Western counterparts, including the right to vote and widespread participation in protests, going back to the 1919 revolution which saw leaders like Safiya Zaghloud and Nahawiya Moussa lead the call for equal rights.

According to UN rape statistics reports and per capita cases of recorded rapes, Egypt is in 50th or last place, with 87 rape-reported cases in 2008. In the past, many sexual assaults, rape, and sexual harassment went unreported, many times due to the women's fear of the stigma that comes in a society that puts a social value on virginity. What is feeding the existing alleged sexual harassment is the seemingly uneducated Egyptian men's attitude towards women. These sudden cases of harassment of women are new to Egyptian society and didn't take place before 2008, and include incidents of assault against women during Eid Festivals and in public gardens and cinemas.

There are many physical training centers that teach self-defense to women, but the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment are leaders in fighting current sexual harassment during protests past the Arab Spring.

“I was never physically assaulted, but I was harassed, albeit without any direct connection to the revolution. It happened to me many years before,” Soraya Baghat, a full-time member of the Tahrir Bodyguards and a women's rights activist, told The Media Line. “The motive behind our group is that we don't want women to risk getting attacked and for those of my fellow activists who were attacked, to go through this again.”

She said she believes that sexual harassment can happen at all levels of society, regardless of economic and social standing, but there is hesitancy to report it when it happens to people from the same economic class because of the embarrassment involved and the social consequences of the scandal in Egypt's closed society.

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, co-founder Dalia Abdel Hamiid, 31, a graduate in anthropology from the American University in Cairo, says its aim is to “break the silence and take the problem outside of Tahrir Square.” She says the main difficulty is society “accepting” such harassment. “It's a patriarchal society where males are preferred over females. I am sexually harassed on a daily basis on my way to work. It is annoying but I learn to live with it,” she told The Media Line.

One woman, a Californian living in Cario, said that “If anyone ever tries to touch me against my will, you won't see that person in one piece again.” 

Neveen Bishay, a woman dentist working in Cairo's upscale Zamalek area, noted that “Sexual harassment in Egypt is flirting. Touching body parts is sexual assault, and not just harassment.”

However, Dr. Heba Qoth, a professor at the Cairo Faculty of Medicine and renown sociologist who has her own radio show on how to have a healthy sex life, argued that harassment has many degrees and is understood differently by different people. Some even consider flirting as sexual harassment  As for the Tahrir Square incidents, she said “I wouldn't call it sexual harassment. It's an organized assault to scare women and sometimes attack them, but we cannot confirm it's sexual.”

There is no severe punishment in Egypt for sexual harassment or sexual assault and it's hard to prove, according to legal experts.”The law considers sexual harassment and assault as a misdemeanor, and usually the assailant is fined about $5, or three months in jail, or both,” one lawyer told The Media Line. Asked about the Tahrir Square incidents, he said: “There is more propaganda than fact, and a few people wanting to be in the spotlight. The sexual assault cases that I saw were merely groups of individuals assaulting another individual, who happened to be female.”

Some Egyptians interviewed said sexual harassment isn't a growing concern compared to other countries they visited. They claimed that rising aggression now and in the past few years can be attributed to the deteriorating economic situation.

“When you and I flirt, it is acceptable. When lower class folks do it, it's called harassment – might makes right, or money makes right,” an academic researcher who chose to remain anonymous said.

“Rape isn't intended just for females at the protests, males get harassed as well, and it's symbolic and intended to rape the revolution as a whole. The whole idea behind the systematic assaults is to make the victims feel ashamed,” Alaa Alaswani, an Egyptian novelist, and a founding member of the political movement Kefaya said in an interview on ONTV.

“Egypt's current status quo has made men lose their sense of manliness. To me it's an assault by a stronger creature against a weaker creature who happens to be a woman, and we can't pinpoint if it's sexual or not. What is happening now happened early in the revolution, when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was ordering soldiers to conduct virginity tests and attack women at the protests,” Lobna Monieb, a female activist and correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asabi Shenbum., told The Media Line. She also noted that men get assaulted too, with incidents during riots in which men were physically and sexually assaulted in public by the riot police, the military or private citizens.

The issue, which has gotten a great deal of media coverage, therefore is whether what is happening in Tahrir Square is an organized event by pro-regime elements, where “sexual assault mobs” are determined to deter women – who represent 52 percent of the population and can therefore have a strong bearing on events and perhaps even topple the government — from participating in the ongoing protests.

Editorial Cartoon: Egyptian Democracy Now!


Clinton says no going back on democracy in Egypt


The United States expects Egypt’s military authorities to fully transfer power to a democratically elected civilian government as planned, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday.

“There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people,” Clinton told reporters, declining specific comment on an Egyptian court ruling to dissolve the country’s newly elected Islamist-led parliament.

Egypt’s supreme court ruling plunged a troubled transition to democracy into turmoil just two days before an election to replace ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.

Islamist politicians who had gained most from Mubarak’s overthrow have decried what they called a “coup” by an army-led establishment still filled with Mubarak-era officials.

“Throughout this process, the United States has stood in support of the aspirations of the Egyptian people for a peaceful, credible and permanent democratic transition,” Clinton said at a news conference of the U.S. and South Korean foreign and defense ministers.

“Now, ultimately it is up to the Egyptian people to determine their own future and we expect that this weekend’s presidential election will be held in an atmosphere that is conducive to it being peaceful, fair and free,” she added.

“In keeping with the commitments that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made to the Egyptian people, we expect to see a full transfer of power to a democratically elected civilian government,” she said.

“The decisions on specific issues, of course, belong to the Egyptian people and their elected leaders, and they’ve made it clear that they want a president, a parliament and a constitutional order that will reflect their will and advance their aspirations for political and economic reform,” Clinton said. “That is exactly what they deserve to have.”

Clinton also voiced concern about a decree issued by the military council on Wednesday allowing the military police and intelligence service to detain civilians and refer them to military tribunals.

“We are concerned about recent decrees issued by the SCAF,” she said. “Even if they are temporary, they appear to expand the power of the military to detain civilians and to roll back civil liberties.”

Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jackie Frank and David Brunnstrom

Egypt’s Islamists claim most seats in run-off vote


Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it won most seats in a first-round parliamentary vote, with early tallies suggesting liberals had backed some of its candidates to block hardline Salafis.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which has promised to work with a broad coalition in the new assembly, secured 34 individual seats out of the 45 it contested in the run-offs on Monday and Tuesday, a party source told Reuters.

The Islamist group, which was banned under ousted president Hosni Mubarak, had already won 37 percent of the vote in an initial phase of the multi-pronged election, meaning it is well on course to have the largest bloc of seats in the new assembly.

Its success confirms a trend set by Islamist election wins in post-uprising Tunisia and in Morocco, disappointing many of the democracy activists who led protests that toppled Mubarak.

But the real surprise in the opening ballot was the success of the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour party, which secured 24 percent of the vote and went head-to-head with the Brotherhood in 24 of the run-offs.

Official results are not due until Thursday, but leaked tallies suggested secular moderates might have rallied behind the Brotherhood to thwart the Salafis.

Sayyeda Ibrahim, 52, a cook from Cairo, said she voted for a Salafi candidate in last week’s first round but regretted her choice later when she saw him debate with a liberal candidate.

“That bearded fellow is too radical,” she said.

Among the Salafis who lost out was Abdel Moneim el-Shahat, a prominent spokesman for the movement in its base in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, who was defeated by a Brotherhood-backed rival, local media reported.

Shahat caused uproar among liberal Egyptians for suggesting democracy was “haram” (forbidden) and the country’s ancient Pharaonic statues which draw millions of tourists to the country should be covered up or destroyed as they are idolatrous.

The strong showing by Islamists has unnerved Israel, which called on Egypt this week to preserve their 1979 peace treaty, and also the United States which has backed the peace deal with billions of dollars in military aid for both countries.

The Brotherhood and Salafi al-Nour party share much of the same rhetoric, focused on applying Islamic sharia law as the solution to Egypt’s problems.

But the Brotherhood has emphasized the political reform agenda it shares with a broad range of groups that took part in the uprising at the start of the year and is sounding more open to compromise with liberal forces in parliament.

Some 56 individual seats were up for grabs in the first round of the election, with others assigned to party lists that will eventually account for two thirds of all seats on offer. Two more rounds follow, with the last run-off in mid-January.

Divisions between Islamist rivals has given liberals hope that they might take part in a post-election government and help shape the future constitution.

Parliament’s popular mandate will make it difficult for the military council to ignore, but the army will keep hold of the levers of power until a presidential election in June, after which it has said it would hand over power to civilians.

The army announced on Tuesday it would give more decision-making powers to its new prime minister, Kamal al-Ganzouri, in an apparent attempt to deflect criticism that it is seeking to control the political transition.

Ganzouri, tasked with forming a “government of national salvation” after violent street protests last month, announced a new cabinet with many incumbents keeping their portfolios.

A state-owned newspaper said on Wednesday that Ganzouri had nominated General Mohamed Ibrahim, a former regional security official, to the sensitive role of interior minister, tasked with reforming the police.

Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Tamim Elyan and Patrick Werr; Editing by Crispian Balmer

Egypt Islamists expect gains in post-Mubarak poll


Egyptians voted on Tuesday in a parliamentary election that Islamists hope will sweep them closer to power, even though the army generals who took over from President Hosni Mubarak have yet to step aside.

The election, the first since a revolt ousted Mubarak on February 11, unfolded without the mayhem many had feared after last week’s riots against army rule in which 42 people were killed.

General Ismail Atman, a ruling army council member, said he had no firm figure, but that turnout would exceed 70 percent of the 17 million Egyptians eligible to vote in the first round that began on Monday. “I hope it will reach more than 80 percent by the end of the day,” he told Al Jazeera television.

Atman was also quoted by Al-Shorouk newspaper as saying the election showed the irrelevance of protesters demanding an end to military rule in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, one of many groups monitoring the poll, said earlier it was “a fair guess” that turnout would exceed 50 percent, far above the meager showings in rigged Mubarak-era elections.

The United States and its European allies are watching Egypt’s vote torn between hopes that democracy will take root in the most populous Arab nation and worries that Islamists hostile to Israel and the West will ride to power on the ballot box.

They have faulted the generals for using excessive force on protesters and urged them to give way swiftly to civilian rule.

The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, banned but semi-tolerated under Mubarak, said its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), had done well in the voting so far.

“The Brotherhood party hopes to win 30 percent of parliament,” senior FJP figure Mohamed El-Beltagy told Reuters.

The leader of the ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist al-Nour Party, which hopes to siphon votes from the Brotherhood, said organizational failings meant the party had under-performed.

“We were not dispersed across constituencies, nor were we as close as needed to the voter. Other parties with more experience rallied supporters more effectively,” Emad Abdel Ghafour said in the coastal city of Alexandria, seen as a Salafi stronghold.

But he told Reuters the party still expected to win up to half of Alexandria’s 24 seats in parliament and 70 to 75 nationwide out of the assembly’s 498 elected seats.

Abou Elela Mady, head of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, made no predictions, but praised the turnout and said the party would accept the result despite electoral violations.

Soldiers guarded one banner-festooned Cairo voting station, where women in Islamic headscarves or Western clothes queued with their families. Judges kept an amiable eye on proceedings.

ISLAMIST VOTE-GETTERS

Islamists did not instigate the Arab uprisings that have shaken Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen, but in the last two months, Islamist parties have come out top in parliamentary elections in Morocco and post-revolutionary Tunisia.

Egyptian Islamists want to emulate those triumphs, but it is unclear how much influence the previously toothless parliament in Cairo can wield while the generals remain in power.

If the election process goes smoothly, the new assembly will enjoy a popular legitimacy the generals lack and may assert itself after rubber-stamping Mubarak’s decisions for 30 years.

“Real politics will be in the hands of the parliament,” said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian political analyst.

One general has said parliament will have no power to remove an army-appointed cabinet due to run Egypt’s daily affairs until a promised presidential poll heralds civilian rule by July.

The army council assumed Mubarak’s formidable presidential powers when it eased him from office on February 11. Many Egyptians praised the army’s initial role, but some have grown angry at what they see as its attempts to retain its perks and power.

ELECTORAL VIOLATIONS

The election is taking place in three regional stages, plus run-off votes, in a complex system that requires voters to choose individual candidates as well as party lists. Full results will be announced after voting ends on January 11.

Election monitors have reported logistical hiccups and campaign violations but no serious violence.

Armed with laptops and leaflets, party workers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and its Islamist rivals have approached muddled voters to guide them through the balloting system and nudge them toward their candidates.

In the Nile Delta town of Kafr el-Sheikh, Muslim Brotherhood workers were selling cut-price food in a tent where they also distributed flyers naming the FJP candidates in the area.

Some Egyptians yearn for a return to stability, uneasy about the impact of political turmoil on an economy heading toward a crisis sure to worsen the hardship of impoverished millions.

Others worry that resurgent Islamist parties may dominate political life, mold Egypt’s next constitution and threaten social freedoms in what is already a deeply conservative nation of 80 million people whose 10 percent Coptic Christian minority complains of discrimination from the Muslim majority.

Copts, like Muslims, were voting in greater numbers than in the Mubarak era. “Before, the results were known in advance, but now we have to choose our fate,” said Wagdy Youssef, a 45-year-old company manager in Alexandria.

“Copts like others want civilian rule,” he said. “I voted for Muslims because they represented moderate views and stayed away from a few Christians on the lists I saw as extremist.”

As voting resumed in the chilly, rain-swept coastal town of Damietta, Sayed Ibrahim, 30, said he backed the liberal Wafd Party over its main local rival, the Salafi Nour Party.

“I’m voting for Wafd because I don’t want an ultra-religious party that excludes other views,” he said, in jeans and a cap.

Additional reporting by Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta and Tom Perry, Patrick Werr, Peter Millership and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Peter Millership

Egypt votes in first post-Mubarak election


Egyptians voted on Monday in their first election since a popular revolt ousted Hosni Mubarak, amid fears the generals who replaced the deposed leader would try to cling on to power.

In the nine months since the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into violent protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July.

In Cairo, Alexandria and other areas, voters stood patiently in long queues, many of them debating Egypt’s political future that for the first time they believed they could shape.

“Aren’t the army officers the ones who protected us during the revolution? What do those slumdogs in Tahrir want?” one woman asked loudly at a polling station in Cairo’s Nasr City.

“Those in Tahrir are young men and women who are the reason why a 61-year-old man like me voted in a parliamentary election for the first time in his life today,” one man replied politely.

About 17 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first two-day phase of three rounds of polling for the lower house, which will be completed on January 11.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

“We are at a crossroads,” Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said on Sunday.

“There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt toward safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow.”

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing their grip on power as provoking instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Tents of protesters demanding an immediate end to army rule still stood in Tahrir Square, but after heavy overnight rain, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt was far from crowded.

There were no reports of serious election-day violence. But scuffles among women voters erupted at one Alexandria polling station that opened late because ballot papers had not arrived.

At least 1,000 people were queuing outside one polling station in Cairo’s Zamalek district when it opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT). “We are very happy to be part of the election,” said first-time voter Wafa Zaklama, 55. “What was the point before?”

In Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, men and women voted in separate queues. Campaign posters for Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafi Nour Party and the moderate Wasat Party festooned streets. Troops outnumbered police guarding polling stations.

“This is the first real election in 30 years. Egyptians are making history,” said Walid Atta, 34, an engineer waiting to vote at a school on his way to work in Alexandria.

The segregated voting for men and women in Alexandria and many other places was a reminder of the conservative religious fabric of Egypt’s mainly Muslim society, where Coptic Christians comprise 10 percent of a population of more than 80 million.

A host of parties have been formed since the removal of Mubarak, who routinely rigged elections to ensure that his now-dissolved National Democratic Party dominated parliament.

Under a complex electoral system, voters pick both party lists and individual candidates.

In the Nile Delta city of Damietta, some voters said they would punish the Brotherhood for its perceived opportunism.

“I think the Brotherhood has lost more in the past three months than it built in the last three decades,” said tour operator Ayman Soliman, 35, adding that his vote would go to the moderate Islamist Wasat Party.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood has formidable advantages that include a disciplined organization, name recognition among a welter of little-known parties and a record of opposing Mubarak long before the popular revolt that swept him from power.

Brotherhood organizers stood near many polling stations with laptops to help people find where they should vote, printing out a paper with the FJP candidate’s name and symbol on the back.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the vote was the first benchmark in Egypt’s transition.

“If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”

But Egyptians seemed enthused by the novelty of a vote where the outcome was, for a change, not a foregone conclusion.

“We are seeing clear signs of voter excitement and participation, as evidenced by long lines at polling stations, and it appears to be a genuine contest,” said Les Campbell, of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

The army council has promised civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June – much sooner than previously envisaged.

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said on Sunday the new assembly would have no right to remove an army-appointed government using its “presidential” powers.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice quickly rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee the transition to democracy.

The military had envisaged that once upper house elections are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair, Maha El Dahan and Tom Perry in Cairo, Marwa Awad in Alexandria, Shaimaa Fayed in Damietta, Yusri Mohamed in Port Said and Jonathan Wright in Fayoum; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Maria Golovnina

Egypt vote tests troubled political transition


Egyptians vote on Monday in the first big test of a transition born in popular revolutionary euphoria that soured into distrust of the generals who replaced their master, Hosni Mubarak.

In the nine months since a revolt ended the ex-president’s 30-year rule, political change in Egypt has faltered, with the military apparently more focused on preserving its power and privilege than on fostering any democratic transformation.

Frustration erupted last week into bloody protests that cost 42 lives and forced the army council to promise civilian rule by July after the parliamentary vote and a presidential poll, now expected in June, much sooner than previously envisaged.

Oppressed under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties stood aloof from those challenging army rule, unwilling to let anything obstruct elections that may open a route to political power previously beyond their reach.

It is not clear whether voters will punish them for that or whether the Brotherhood’s disciplined organization will enable its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party to triumph over the welter of lesser-known parties and individuals in the race.

Free elections are an intriguing novelty in a nation where the authorities and security forces rigged polls for decades in favor of Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party.

A high turnout among Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters could throw up surprises, perhaps revealing whether a silent majority favours stability or the radical overhaul demanded by the youthful protesters who overthrew Mubarak.

Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center, said the parliamentary vote phased over weeks until January 10 was the first real benchmark of progress in Egypt’s transition.

“It will also tell us how much Egyptians are invested in this political process. If turnout is low, it will mean there is widespread disaffection among Egyptians and they don’t believe that real change is possible through the electoral process.”

Parliament’s lower house will be Egypt’s first nationally elected body since Mubarak’s fall, and those credentials alone may enable it to dilute the military’s monopoly of power.

Yet army council member General Mamdouh Shahin said the new assembly would have no right to remove a government appointed by the council using its “presidential” powers—a stance the new parliament may try to challenge.

On Friday, the army named Kamal Ganzouri to form a new cabinet, a choice rejected by protesters in Tahrir Square demanding that generals step aside immediately in favor of a civilian body to oversee a transition to democracy.

Ganzouri said on Sunday that any parliamentary majority that emerged from the elections may move to install a new government.

The military had envisaged that once upper house polls are completed in March, parliament would pick a constituent assembly to write a constitution to be approved by a referendum before a presidential election. That would have let the generals stay in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

The faster timetable agreed under pressure from the street has thrown up many questions about how the process will unfold and how much influence the army will retain behind the scenes.

The United States and its European allies, which have long valued Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, have urged the generals to step aside swiftly, apparently seeing them as causing, not curing instability in the most populous Arab nation.

Editing by Philippa Fletcher

The Muslim world is out of control


The Muslim world is out of control. And that’s a good thing.

The control of ruthless dictators has declined markedly in less than a single year. Two brutal despots, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, are gone for good, and while it will take time for the citizens of these two states to clean up the mess left them by their erstwhile leaders, they are moving in the right direction. Others, like King Abdullah in Jordan and King Mohammad VI in Morocco, are voluntarily beginning to transfer power, incrementally to be sure, to parliaments.

The old guard running the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is failing to keep discipline among young members who are creating new break-off parties, and as of this writing the Islamist Tunisian Renaissance Party (called Hizb al-Nahda in Arabic) is negotiating with secular parties to try to form a coalition government as a result of its winning 41 percent of the vote in a fair and democratic election. Veteran Islamist popular preachers such as Yusuf Qaradawi, who used to control the media for the Muslim religious right, are swiftly losing ground to savvy young Muslim televangelists. And leaders in Al-Azhar, the bastion of the Muslim old guard in Egypt, are hoping the new government that will be formed in elections a month from now will have a secular bent that protects the rights of all minorities, including Christians.

Whatever happened to the static, unchanging, ever-rigid iceberg of Islamic backwardness?

The answer is that we weren’t paying attention. All the while that we were assuming Muslims were hopelessly stuck, they were, in fact, changing. We weren’t paying attention because it was we who were stuck in the false assumption about Islam that actually has never been true — that Islam is backward and unable to change with the times.

Never have I been more struck by the positive lack of control in the Muslim world than last week in Qatar at two conferences, the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, and the ninth annual conference of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID). Muslim participants represented virtually the entire Muslim world, from Bangladesh to Bosnia, and from Yemen and Somalia to Norway and Sweden. The Interfaith Dialogue conference was particularly interesting because of this year’s theme of new social media and how to use it for enhancing understanding and better relations among religious communities. Not only did we experience plenary sessions and Q-and-A before an international audience of hundreds, we also had the opportunity to take workshops on the latest in the social media trade, including how to avoid its pitfalls and harmful use. And all this in an Arab Muslim state.

What particularly struck me was the openness of discourse among the participants. Not only Muslims and Christians, but a minyan of rabbis representing literally all Jewish religious movements engaged fully in the program, from delivering keynote presentations to chairing panels and even drafting the final summary conference declaration.

Islam always has honored the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, even when it has not had a consistent record of honoring those religions’ practitioners. But Islam has had a history of real trouble with polytheistic religious traditions. And yet, in a plenary session attended by the entire assembly, a Muslim religious scholar who directs an institute of Islamic studies at one of the most prominent Islamic seminaries in India called for future conferences to include non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and others. This would have been impossible even a few years ago.

This year’s conference was far less controlled than the earliest Doha conferences on interfaith dialogue, which excluded Jews. Since those early days, Jews from the Diaspora and from Israel have been invited and have participated, though during periods when relations between Israel and the Arab world deteriorate enough, Israelis are not invited — which is unfortunate because inviting them nevertheless would be a great step forward. OK, there is still government meddling in religious affairs, but they are light-years ahead of where they were only a short while ago, and forward-looking projects like DICID are leading the way.

The Arab Spring has given a huge push to the sea change in the Middle East and North Africa, but the region is a very big ship, and it takes a long time for a turn of the helm to move such a large vessel to a different course. That new course is one in which the old autocratic forms of leadership will lose influence and power as the culture of the region continues to move toward democracy. We need to keep in mind that it will not happen in any way that we can expect or anticipate. Still, we will see real change in our own lifetimes, something that I could hardly have hoped for even a year ago. That’s because people have been pushing the rudder for many years. The molasses seas of dictatorships have, until recently, blocked any significant turn.

Let’s not let our old assumptions remain stuck in the muck of stale thinking. Democracy is a political system that varies from state to state. Christian Democrats control the government of democratic Germany. Not secular Democrats, but Christian Democrats. And in democratic Israel, the National Religious Party and Shas have made themselves indispensable to virtually every government. So, too, will we see Muslim democrats controlling the governments of some Arab democratic political systems. That in and of itself is not cause for alarm. We need to judge by deed and not by name.

The Muslim world is not nearly so simple as we’ve been accustomed to thinking.

Courage in Cairo: Reflecting on Jewish martyrs and heroes


As seen in The Jewish Week

Putting politics and Israel aside, the most impressive part of the events in Cairo was the fearlessness and courage of the protesting Egyptians. We asked Rabbi Jill Jacobs to offer perspective on placing life in harm’s way. What should we be prepared to die for?Tell us what you think at con- {encode=”nect@jinsider.com” title=”nect@jinsider.com”}.

The Jewish Obligation

The three categories for which Jews are traditionally expected to mar- tyr themselves are all instances in which the choice is either to die or to violate a serious prohibition — namely, idol worship, murder or certain sexual practices such as incest.TheTalmud also offers examples of rabbis who choose to martyr themselves rather than desist from teachingTorah. In all of these cases, the potential martyr does not put him or herself into the situation, but rather is forced into it by an oppressive government or a powerful individual.

Tahrir Square & Jewish Tradition

In the Egyptian situation, individuals are not necessarily setting out to martyr themselves, but are assuming a significant degree of risk for a greater cause. Anyone who entered Tahrir Square knew there was a possibility of being injured, arrested or even killed.The calculation, then, is whether the risk of death is outweighed by the possibility of bringing about a better life for the majority.

This may be more akin to the Jewish question of whether one must put him or herself in physical danger in order to save a life. In general, there is no expectation, for example, that one must risk drowning in order to rescue another person.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs

But no situation comes without risk — a doctor driving a car to the hospital could be involved in a fatal car crash. In every situation, then, a person must weigh whether the chance of saving lives immediately or in the long term outweighs the possibility that she will be hurt or killed in the process. Judaism does not value martyrdom for its own sake, but may permit some degree of risk when lives are at stake.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs On Her Own Martyrdom

I don’t think that any one of us can know whether or when we would be willing to sacri- fice our lives until the choice presents itself. It’s easy for me to sit in my Manhattan apartment and declare what I would or would not do under any circumstance, but philosophical musings may or may not have any relationship to how I would act when called.That said, the chief question for me would be whether I believed that the risk I was taking was justified by the results that my actions would bring about.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of “There Shall Be No Needy” and the forthcoming “Where Justice Dwells.”

Final Thought: Human Being Not Martyr Or Hero

Rob Eshman

Just the other night in a lecture hall at UCLA, the writer Leon Wieseltier stood beneath a photo of the journalist Daniel Pearl. Islamic terrorists mur- dered the young Wall Street Journal reporter nine years ago, just seconds after he told them, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

But Pearl, said Wieseltier, was not a martyr. “Jews don’t believe in martyrs,” he said. “We believe in heroes. And

Daniel Pearl was a hero.” Martyrs set out to die for a cause. But thevalue Judaism places on life is too high, too precious, to make room for the intention to die. Daniel Pearl didn’t set out to die for his faith; he was killed for it, and he died a hero’s death. So the question, “What would you be willing to die for?” is a question best left to the moment before, when all other options are exhausted, when the only choice left is life or death.

Take away the obvious and immediate an- swers — my family — and the answer is likely just one word: freedom. Given the choice between living an oppressed or enslaved life, robbed of choice and dignity, and a chance to change my fate, I’d like to believe I would risk my life for freedom. I don’t think that makes me special, or a martyr, or a hero, but a human being.

Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of Tribe Media Corps, which publishes the LA Jewish Journal.

Mubarak leaves Cairo as protests continue


Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reportedly is leaving Cairo, but who is in control remains unclear.

Media on Friday afternoon said Mubarak was on his way to the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheik.

There were conflicting messages, however, about whether Mubarak remained in control, or whether his vice-president, Omar Suleiman, or the military had assumed control. State TV said an announcement was imminent.

President Obama called for greater clarity in a message Thursday evening after Mubarak delivered a statement in which he said he relinquished unidentified powers to Suleiman.

“The Egyptian people have been told that there was a transition of authority, but it is not yet clear that this transition is immediate, meaningful or sufficient,” Obama said in a statement. “Too many Egyptians remain unconvinced that the government is serious about a genuine transition to democracy, and it is the responsibility of the government to speak clearly to the Egyptian people and the world. The Egyptian government must put forward a credible, concrete and unequivocal path toward genuine democracy, and they have not yet seized that opportunity.”

Egypt moves to limit presidential terms as protests reach 16th day


A judiciary committee formed to review Egypt’s constitution has agreed to amend six articles, state media reported on Wednesday, as anti-government protests continued for the 16th straight day.

Articles 76 and 77 are among those to be changed, to put term limits on the presidency and expand who can run for the highest seat in the country – two of the protesters’ key demands.

The 2005 revision of the Egyptian Constitution, first drafted in 1971, had made the selection of presidential candidates more challenging.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Egyptians would oppose Muslim Brotherhood rule


There is such a huge flow of news here in Cairo these days that Salah Abdullah, an Egyptian carpenter in his 30s, says he is not able to keep track of everything.

However, in the midst of all the coverage following the series of massive demonstrations against the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the growing presence of Islamists among the anti-Mubarak demonstrators has caused alarm among Egyptians like Abdullah.

“Can they really rule Egypt one day?” he asked. “This will be catastrophic.”

Abdullah’s fear was reverberating strongly among Egypt’s intellectual circles earlier this week, as the demonstrators refused to leave Cairo’s Tahrir Square for the 11th day in a row.

Seeing the protests, which began Jan. 25, rock Egypt and weaken Mubarak, who has ruled since 1981, Egypt’s secularists, leftists, liberals, Christians and even some observant Muslims are gripped by fear at the prospect that their country might fall into the hands of the fundamental Islamist group know as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Adel Hamouda, a leading Egyptian political analyst, called the Muslim Brotherhood “the only political movement capable of action at the present time, particularly as Mubarak reaches his weakest point.”

The Brotherhood, which began as an educational charity movement in 1927 and keeps flashing the “Islam is the solution” slogan, has had a fluctuating relationship with successive Egyptian regimes since Gamal Abdel Nasser enlisted their help in ousting King Farouk in the Egyptian revolution of 1952.

Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood has suffered a complete political siege at times and superficial freedoms at others. Thousands of its members and affiliates have been sent to jail at times.

“Mubarak has given none of this country’s political powers any chance for political freedom,” said Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a prominent Brotherhood leader. “He has failed to present Egypt’s political powers with any practical solutions,” he added.

Perhaps Aboul Fotouh and his colleagues in the Brotherhood, who tend to be highly educated Egyptians who permeate the nation’s professional unions, mosques, and universities and whose utmost goal is to apply Shariah (Islamic law) in Egypt, see in Mubarak’s potential ouster one of these practical solutions.

As soon as Egypt’s security system showed signs of crumbling at the outset of the Jan. 25 demonstrations, the organization started to deploy tens of thousands of its members and sympathizers to protest centers so that they could make their presence strongly felt.

This has worried ordinary Egyptians like Abdullah. He expressed fears that the Islamists will hijack the revolution, which was started by the poor, the afflicted and the politically un-affiliated, but has evolved into a show of anger by all Egyptians against the corruption and the economic and political failure of Mubarak’s ruling party.

“These people want to take Egypt hundreds of years back,” Abdullah said. “If they reach the presidency, they will turn our life into mere hell.” Abdullah prays five times a day like all observant Muslims. He reads the Quran and pays alms, but finds the seeds of his fear in the platform the Muslim Brotherhood announced four years ago, when it applied for a political party license.

In that platform, the Brotherhood says it believes Egypt’s presidency should be a no-go area for both women and Christians, a reason that women might not welcome a Brotherhood rule.

More important still, Egypt’s Christians, which make up about 10 percent of the 80 million population, seem to also shudder at the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Some Christians have said that if the Brotherhood comes to power, they will be in for yet more persecution.

“This is a very sensitive issue for us,” said Fayez Girgis, an Egyptian Coptic Christian in his late 40s. “An Islamist rule in Egypt will naturally curb religious freedoms.”

Aboul Fotouh and other group members, however, are quick to reassure Girgis and fellow Christians that they have nothing to fear.

Egypt and the universal rights of women


In 1799, the French artist Vivant Denon, accompanying a team of scientists traveling to Egypt with Napoleon (who excused his invasion with the logic that he was bringing democracy to the Arabs) was touring some ancient sites along the upper Nile when he came across an 8-year-old girl in severe pain. Writing in his journal, Denon noted that “a cut, inflicted with equal brutality and cruelty, has deprived her of the means of satisfying the most pressing want, and occasioned the most horrible convulsions.” Denon was referring, of course, to female genital mutilation. The Frenchman quickly pulled out a knife and performed a counter-operation, by which he “was able to save the life of this unfortunate little creature.”

On another occasion, Denon (who went on to become the first director of the Louvre) encountered a bleeding, recently blinded woman carrying an infant in the desert outside Alexandria. She was begging for food and water. As the French stopped to offer aid, a man galloped up, claiming to be her husband, and demanded that they leave her alone. “She has lost her honor,’” the man shouted, according to Denon. “She has wounded mine, this child is my shame, it is the son of guilt!” The horrified French artist watched as the man then drew a dagger, stabbed the women and hurled the infant to the ground, killing it as well. Denon asked his Egyptian guides whether the man was not liable under the law for murder, and was informed that the man was within his rights, although the actual murder was frowned upon, and that after 40 days of wandering, the woman would have been eligible for charitable services.

The French in 1800 were among the first Westerners to visit and write about the lives of modern Arabs in Egypt. Besides the great pyramids, what struck them most forcibly was the abominable treatment of women. And while the archaeological treasure has been studied and secured, 200 years later, unfortunately, much remains the same with respect to women’s rights.

Ninety percent of Egyptian women are genitally mutilated, according to aid worker estimates. Although the practice was officially outlawed in 2007, gynecologists can still legally perform it “for health reasons.” Egyptian women can vote; they are a significant part of the workforce, and there were women in the recently disbanded Egyptian cabinet. But Egyptian women are not allowed to travel abroad without the permission of their husbands; they have difficulty initiating divorce; and they can’t become judges.

As Egyptians rise up to demonstrate for their civil rights, the world watches with bated breath, wondering what man (for surely it will be a man) will succeed Mubarak, and whether he will be moderate — that is, “friendly to Israel and Western ideas and mores” — or a fundamentalist, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose strict interpretation of the Quran and anti-Western political and cultural bias would turn the delicate global balance upside down.

What no one is talking about, though, is how deeply dangerous this time is for Egyptian women. The influence of extreme Islam has been growing there in recent years, so that for a bare-headed female to walk the streets of Cairo, even the tourist areas near the Egyptian Museum where I worked in 2004 on my book about the French in Egypt, is to invite menacing looks and muttered obscenities from men on the street.

Whatever happens in Egypt, there’s an elephant in the room, and it’s pink. Despite the years of discussion around our “War on Terror,” we have not focused on the fact that misogyny is a fundamental pillar on which radical Islam is based. Women’s freedom is what the al-Qaeda jihadis, as much as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, most revile about the West. Women living in these parts of the world are severely discriminated against in ways that would be considered human rights violations if the same abuses were applied specifically to racial or ethnic groups.

While women in the West, and many Asian nations, have begun to move toward gender equality in the past century, the Islamic fundamentalist regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran, some African nations, and especially the Taliban, have moved backward, with great violence and repression that harms millions of women and feeds jihadi fervor against the West. The influence of the Islamist/fundamentalist attitude toward women has spread to neighboring countries, and into countries in Europe where migration is occurring.

To varying degrees, women in Islamist regimes are forced to wear blankets over their heads, marry in childhood, are denied education, denied freedom of movement, have little or no control over their finances, cannot divorce. Their most basic desires are thwarted at every turn: those who dare choose their own lovers are routinely murdered in so-called “honor killings.” Rape victims may be forced to marry their attackers.

These horrific examples should make it ever more obvious to the world that subjugating females is the driving force behind Islamist rage. It was there in 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta’s will, in which he demanded that no pregnant woman be allowed to come near his grave; it’s there in the acid attacks on pretty girls who dare say no to their men in Pakistan; it’s there in the stoning sentences for “adulterers” in Iran and Somalia; it’s there in the prohibition on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia; it’s there in the black blankets millions of women think — know — they must throw over their heads whenever they dare step outside their homes.

With so much evidence piled up that the status of women in the West is what radical Islamist fighters revile most about us, the only question left is why haven’t the Western countries made support of women a fundamental element of the diplomatic, military and political response?

The issue gets very little discussion in the foreign policy community. Five years ago, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) deemed it appropriate to convene a roundtable on “Arab Women and the Future of the Middle East.” Afterward, a not-for-attribution summary report was produced for the foreign policy community containing the views and suggestions voiced at the April 14, 2005, roundtable. The first three recommendations were:

• American foreign policy should be consistent: The United States must apply human rights standards uniformly in its relations with all the countries of the region;
• When dealing with officials of Middle East countries, U.S. officials should always remind them of their obligations to respect human rights and women’s rights enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
• The State Department should expand the section concerning women’s rights in its annual report.

The United States has had three female secretaries of state in the last 15 years, yet the human rights of women remain unaddressed, and the above recommendations have never been implemented.

In March 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed on MSNBC and asked what the Obama administration was doing for women’s rights globally. She mentioned three fronts: health care, which affects the infant mortality rate; food security; and climate change. While these certainly help all people, they do not remotely rise to the level of a real response to the abuses women specifically face simple because they are female.

For years, our governments have treated outrageous depredations against women as quaint cultural customs. Only the French have officially rejected the burqa, and for that faced international criticism about “racism.”

Of course womanhood is not a “race,” and that may be the problem. If blacks or Jews were consistently mistreated the way women are from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, and in many of the nations in between, the United Nations, the Europeans and the people of the United States wouldn’t stand for it, and our elected representatives would be holding hearings, issuing sanctions, putting the issue front and center every single day.

In Egypt in 1899, a male judge named Qassem Amin caused an uproar when he penned a book titled “The Liberation of Women,” arguing that improving the status of women would help Egypt develop. Amin blamed Egypt’s falling under European power, despite centuries of ancient learning and civilization, on the low social and educational standing of Egyptian women.

A century on, women remain severely discriminated against in Egypt and throughout the region, especially in extremist regimes in the Gulf States and under the Taliban. The reversals women face after revolutions in these areas are horrific. The case of Iran is well known. In Iraq, so recently secular under the dictator, millions of women have now donned the black blanket out of sheer fear and have seen their mobility decrease.

The effort to keep women segregated is at the heart of the regional cultural bias against women, and it is true that it is an old tradition. When Napoleon invaded Cairo, the Egyptians barely resisted at first. They only revolted when Napoleon ordered his soldiers to break down the many doors in Cairo streets and alleys that kept neighborhoods walled off and women safely incarcerated in their communities.

But Islamist efforts to keep women segregated in these modern times have reached ridiculous levels. Iraqis whisper that extremists have even shot storekeepers for stowing “male and female vegetables” (cucumbers and tomatoes apparently) together. An Egyptian cleric in 2009 decreed that men and women may only work together in offices if the women have breast-fed the men. That cleric was forced to retract the decree, and was fired, then reinstated. But the decree was reiterated by another cleric in Saudi Arabia.

Increased limitation on female mobility is a hallmark of Islamic resurgence, and this should be recognized as a backlash against the model of increasing women’s rights elsewhere. “Women’s liberation movements in the Muslim world were viewed as Western contaminations aimed at the destruction of Islam from within,” wrote Lamia Rustum Shahedah, in Arab Studies Quarterly, in an article about the theoretical bases of Islamic fundamentalist attitudes toward women. “Accordingly, all resurgents allotted the female status a major part of their corpus, the most radical stipulating complete segregation of women to the home environment. Thus, men will direct the Islamic society while women sustain, nurture, and propagate the family, the nucleus of society.”

We in the West should reconsider our own definition of the boundary between a cultural trait and a human rights violation, as it pertains to women. An extremist takeover of Egypt will be a disaster for Egyptian women, who must hope that the future will be better for their daughters than for them, and that whatever new society is being formed takes into account the universal — not just Western — human rights of women. The world and moderates among the Egyptian people must keep the human rights of women front and center in the discourse as they watch Cairo, and other Arab nations, transform themselves.

Nina Burleigh, who has lived and worked in Italy, France and the Middle East, is the author of, most recently, “Unholy Business” (Harper Collins, 2008), about an archaeological forgery trial under way in Israel.

‘Day of Departure’ in Egypt: Demonstrators call on Mubarak to leave [VIDEO]


Tens of thousands of Egyptians prayed in Cairo’s Liberation Square on Friday for an immediate end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, hoping a million more would join them in what they called the “Day of Departure.”

“Leave! Leave! Leave!” they chanted after bowing in prayer and listening to a cleric declare “We want the head of the regime removed”. He praised the “revolution of the young”.

The United States, long the ally and sponsor of the 82-year-old former general and his politically influential army, was also working behind the scenes to have him hand over power.

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

Stop and smell the roses in Pakistan


As an Egyptian whose country’s military dictators are either taken by God or an assassin’s bullet, I envy the Pakistani people’s ability to now use the term, “former president.”

As former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf contemplates how his friends in the U.S. administration dropped him quicker than you can say “hot freedom fries,” for those of us from the Muslim world — awash in military dictators who have friends in high places in Washington — his exit from Pakistan’s frenetic political stage is miraculous.

The naysayers will remind us of all the “ifs” and “buts” that remain for Pakistan. For starters, Musharraf’s two main rivals, who engineered the threatened impeachment elbowing him toward resignation — Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari — are nowhere near perfect leaders, especially since the only factor uniting them is now contemplating the real estate of exile sites in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Sharif — the former prime minister swept aside by Musharraf’s bloodless 1999 coup — was himself in exile until last year, when he returned home vowing political revenge. He wants to try Musharraf for treason. Meanwhile, Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has taken a more conciliatory line.

They might disagree on Musharraf’s future, but what they do have in common is ignominious histories of corruption — a reminder that dictators like Musharraf are experts at stifling the life out of their country’s politics and leaving poor alternatives to their rules by coup d’état.

We will be reminded that the Taliban and Al Qaeda and all those other scary figures Musharraf dutifully fought as part of his card-carrying membership in the war on terror are now celebrating in every cave that straddles Pakistan’s troubled border with Afghanistan.

Last year, militant friends of the newly insurgent Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies slaughtered hundreds of Pakistanis in waves of suicide bombings across the country. But much like his fellow Muslim dictators befriended by Washington, Musharraf just perfected his technique of using them as Islamist bogeymen.

My country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas points to Hamas. But neither can beat having Osama bin Laden allegedly hiding somewhere in his country.

Although he presented himself as a secular leader, Musharraf gave free rein to those same Islamists that he was warning the West about, because they were a foil to Pakistan’s vibrant liberal community.

It’s unclear who will become Pakistan’s next president, but there’s no doubt that the ruling coalition’s challenges are many now that Musharraf is out of the picture: fighting inflation, reducing the gap between rich and poor and continuing to fight militancy in the nuclear-armed country. For Pakistan, politics has been a roller-coaster ride since its birth in 1947 as a partition from India.

But let’s stop for a moment and appreciate what has just happened in Pakistan: The constitution and the justice system of a Muslim country were about to impeach a sitting president who was once head of the armed forces. Rather than face such accountability, that president resigned.

To further put Pakistan’s achievement in context, consider that had he insisted on fighting impeachment, Musharraf faced charges of violating the constitution and gross misconduct. Why?

Because he imposed six weeks of emergency rule and fired dozens of judges last November, when the Supreme Court met to decide his eligibility to stand for re-election for a third term as president while still army chief.

Egypt has lived under emergency rule for each and every one of Mubarak’s four terms in power straddling 26 years. In 2006, his regime showed a similar allergy to an independent judiciary. Mubarak’s regime disciplined two senior judges and arrested and beat dozens of their supporters when the judges had the temerity to press for an inquiry into electoral fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections, which Mubarak’s party swept. The elections were marred by violence, several deaths and plenty of intimidation.

Just like Musharraf, Mubarak recognized the dangers of an independent judiciary — which in many Muslim countries constitutes the most potent secular opposition. But don’t hold your breath for Mubarak’s impeachment any time soon.

“Let’s hope we can learn from this in Egypt,” my dad told me as we discussed Musharraf’s resignation. “It will tell our dictators, ‘You are not more powerful than the people.'”

It will also signal to our various dictators that no matter how tight you are with Washington, no matter how well you have managed to persuade your American friends that you’re the only thing that stands between them and Islamist lunatics, they will look away when your people have had it with you.

For years, Pakistan has been home to much that ails the Muslim world: coups, dictatorship, militancy and corruption. Let’s recognize it now as home to judges and lawyers who won their staredown with the dictator.

And let’s remind Sharif, Zardari and whoever becomes Pakistan’s next president: “Hey, those same judges and lawyers against whom Musharraf foolishly picked a fight and lost are there keeping an eye on you, too.”

To the people of Pakistan — I salute you!

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.