Egypt prisons report: Did human rights council curry favor with govt?

Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has been suffering from internal divisions following a report it published into the high-security al-Aqrab prison, which houses scores of political prisoners and forms part of the Tora complex in southern Cairo.

The report was the result of a visit by a NCHR delegation in response to complaints from inmates about the prison administration’s practices, which they said violated their rights. There were allegations of abuse, a reduction in visit times, lack of medical care, the denial of access to food and clothes brought by visitors, cancelling of sports activities, and the closure of canteens in which visitors deposit money for prisoners.

Disputes started when several NCHR members deemed the report – which refuted most of the prisoners’ claims, and commended the living conditions of the prison – biased and inaccurate.

ElBaradei tweet

In a tweet that angered several NCHR members, former Vice President Mohammad ElBaradei wrote that national human rights councils “do not protect regimes as much as they expose their members.”

But NCHR deputy director Abdel Ghaffar Shokr argued that ElBaradei is not in a position to evaluate the report issued by the council. “ElBaradei has been away for a long time and is not aware of the situation in Egypt now,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Youm al-Sabea. “Plus, this is purely his personal point of view.”

‘Muslim Brotherhood lies’

In his article “When would ElBaradei go away?” published in al-Youm al-Sabea, journalist Abdel Fattah Abdel Moneim accused ElBaradei of supporting Muslim Brotherhood members who, he argued, falsified facts about the prison. “The delegation uncovered the Brotherhood’s lies and that is why their members inside and outside the prison slammed the report and ElBaradei is helping them,” he said.

For NCHR member Salah Salam, ElBaradei did not mean to criticize the members. “This was just a way to criticize the current regime rather than the council and its members,” he told the Egyptian newspaper al-Wafd.

Hafez Abu Saada, NCHR member and director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, argued that the council did all it could to investigate prisoners’ complaints.

“The only way to do this was the prison’s official records and prisoners’ testimonies, but members of the Muslim Brotherhood refused to meet us and sent a representative to tell us they do not recognize a council that works for an illegitimate regime,” he told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. “We did not claim that the prison is a five-star hotel, though.”

According to Abu Saada, the records prove that prisoners are getting the medical care they need inside and outside the prison and field visits show that places frequented by prisoners – kitchen, cafeteria, library, and clinic – are in a good shape.


Several NCHR members slammed both the visit and the report. Mohamed Abdel Qodous, who was part of the delegation, said that the prison administration knew of the visit beforehand and prepared the place accordingly.

“The food in the kitchen is only offered in hotels. I was in jail before and I know what the food is really like,” he said in the statement he issued following the report.

Abdel Qodous accused the prison administration of fabricating visit schedules in the logs. “For example, the prisoner’s family would obtain a visit permit and the administration registers it in the logs then prevents the family from entering the prison.”

He also questioned the authenticity of prisoners’ medical reports, especially those of former Muslim Brotherhood deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater. “We were told he underwent a scan that cost LE 35,000. There is an unbelievable figure,” he said. Abdel Qudous also cited examples of prisoners who died in al-Aqrab prison due to an alleged lack of medical care, such as Muslim Brotherhood member Farid Ismail and head of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya consultative council Essam Derbala.

Excluded members

Ragia Omran is another NCHR member who slammed the report and, together with Abdel Qodous, withdrew from the meeting held to discuss it. “Not all NCHR members were notified of the visit. I was one of the excluded members. I took part neither in the visit nor in the report.”

Omran issued a joint statement with another two excluded members – George Ishaq and Kamal Abbas.

“The council allowed the Interior Ministry to film the visit and this is against the regulations. On the same day, the ministry broadcast the film to give a false image of prison conditions,” the statement said, adding that by doing this, the council is taking part in the ministry’s propaganda.

The statement also objected to the council’s decision to hold a press conference to reveal the results of the visit. “This is totally unprecedented,” it said.

The statement criticized the council for issuing such a report instead of pressuring the ministry to give prisoners the rights granted to them by the Internal Regulation for Prison Administration. “This means that visits should be 60 minutes, prisoners should have access to newspapers and books, sports time should be two hours daily, and proper medical care should be available to all inmates.”

For NCHR member Yasser Abdel Aziz, criticism of reports issued by the council is not new and is never restricted to one faction. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, he particularly referred to the council’s report on the dispersal of Islamist sit-ins that followed the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi and which accused Egyptian security of using excessive force. “At the time, regime loyalists attacked us. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is attacking us. This only proves that we are on the right track.”

Will Egypt’s religious parties be banned before the elections?

As Egypt braces for the upcoming parliamentary elections, which begin in phases starting in mid-October, the debate about the participation of religious parties is making a powerful comeback.

According to Article 74 of the 2014 constitution, drafted after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood government, political parties cannot be established on religious, ethnic, sectarian, or geographical basis.

This article, together with concerns about another Islamist-dominated parliament, triggered the launch of a campaign called “No to Religious Parties”, which has the ultimate aim is getting those parties banned, and thus unable to compete in the elections.

“No to Religious Parties” follows the strategy used earlier by Tamarod, the campaign against former Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, which was based on collecting signatures from anti-Brotherhood Egyptians all over the country.

The latest campaign, which is also available electronically, includes a form entitled “No religion in politics and no politics in religion” and features the logos of parties against which the campaign was launched, a total of nine. While the campaign seems to be gaining momentum among Egyptians, it remains to be seen whether its objective can actually be achieved in such a short time and given the support such parties still enjoy among the Egyptian public.

Legal basis

Dalia Ziada, director of the Egyptian Center for Free Democratic Studies and a co-founder of the campaign, said that religious parties aim to repeat the history seen with the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government.

“The Muslim Brotherhood used democracy to come to power and once they did, they violated all democratic principles,” she said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel al-Hayat.

Ziada explained that signatures, which she said have so far exceeded 750,000, are a means of helping the campaign in the legal action it plans to take. “Parties cannot be disbanded without a court ruling so those signatures give us the right to file a request with the elections committee so it can take the matter to court and we already did that,” she explained.

Salah Abdel Maaboud, member of the higher committee of the Salafi al-Nour Party, one of the parties targeted by the campaign, argued that since only the court can disband a party, the campaign is pointless. “Is the judiciary expected to be influenced by the number of signatures?” he said in the same interview. “If the campaign is using signatures to prove that people don’t want us, why don’t we wait till elections prove that? Isn’t this what democracy is about?”

But according to Ziada, elections constitute the last phase in the democratic process. “Before elections, it is the state’s duty to make proper options available to the people and that this why parties need to meet a set of criteria. For this reason, the state should not allow a party that violates the constitution to run in the first place.”

Constitutional violation?

Salah Fawzy, professor of constitutional law and member of the High Legislative Reform Committee, argued that the campaign will not succeed since al-Nour and similar parties do not violate the constitution. “Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution states that Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic law [is] the main source of legislation,” he told the Egyptian news website DotMasr. “Therefore, parties based on Islamic principles are constitutional.”

According to Fawzi, Article 74 of the constitution does not apply to religious parties. “This article did not ban parties with a religious background, but rather [bans] using religion for political gains.”

While supporting the campaign, Hesham Ouf, co-founder of the Egyptian Secular Party, underlined the problem of Article 2, which he believes is the main obstacle to disbanding religious parties. “This article is always used by religious parties to legitimatize their existence and it is because of this article that the court might rule in favor of those parties,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Youm al-Sabea.

That is why Ouf argued that the campaign cannot bear fruit just through collecting signatures. “We need to engage in thorough discussions with constitutional experts to examine the possibility of disbanding political parties in the presence of Article 2,” he explained. “If this proves futile then we will have to go for the more radical solution: demanding the removal of Article 2 from the constitution.”

Secular parties unconstitutional?

Based on Article 2, calls to disband “non-Islamic” parties have started on the other side. Sameh Abdel Hamid, leading member of the Salafist Call, from which al-Nour Party originated, argued that liberal and secular parties are unconstitutional.

“Religious parties are formed based on Article 2 while this is not the case with secular parties that do not recognize Egypt as an Islamic state and call for separating religion and politics,” he said in a statement. Abdel Hamid added that secular parties support values that violate Islamic principles, therefore violate the constitution again. “Those parties promote a Western lifestyle in which homosexuality and other vices are allowed,” he said, adding that all parties should have an Islamic background in order to be constitutional.

Former jihadist Amal Abdel Wahab noted that the campaign against religious parties made a grave mistake. “They offered religious parties, especially al-Nour, a golden opportunity to abort their attempts through using Article 2 and even started a counter-campaign,” he told the Egyptian news website al-Bawaba News. Abdel Wahab argued that the campaign should not have used the argument that those parties are religious. “They should have rather focused on the history of those parties, their thirst for power, their hidden agendas, and their former alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Analyzing Egypt’s long relationship with underage marriage

Images of a party to mark the engagement of a 10-year old girl and her teenage cousin prompted angry reactions among activists and rights organizations – but was just the latest in a long line of cases of underage unions in Egypt.

The cousins, Wagih and Noha al-Banna, are not yet married – the main reason given for their families not have faced legal action, local media reported.

But the fact that the party, at the couple’s hometown in the province of al-Gharbia in northern Egypt, was attended by hundreds of guests left some with the impression that the issue of underage marriage – unions between those under the legal age of 18 – is not being taken seriously by the public or state institutions.

Mervat al-Tellawi, director of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW), condemned the union, which she said proves that the phenomenon is far from being eliminated, especially in rural areas.

“There are many reasons for parents allowing their minor children to get married, on top of which are poverty, illiteracy, religion, and lack of awareness,” she said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Masry al-Youm.

“Many parents marry their children without official documents because they are under the legal marrying age, and this is a crime.”

Psychological disorders

Tellawi added that underage marriages usually fail, with the mother and any children often left without any support, contributing to the number of children on the streets.

“Even if the marriage continues the wife and children always suffer from severe psychological disorders,” she said.

According to Tellawi, underage marriages are the main reason behind girls dropping out of school, noting that the dropout rate in the Delta region, in which al-Gharbia is located, has reached 60%.

She added that after the latest engagement, NCW will start an initiative in coordination with the Ministry of Justice. “This initiative will raise awareness among teenagers about the dangers of underage marriages and will offer legal support to minor girls who are being forced to marry.”

Legal action

While admitting that the recent engagement party is disturbing proof that underage marriages are not receding, Hani Helal, secretary general of the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights, pointed out that no legal action can be taken against the parents.

“So far, this is only an engagement and there are no official records of the marriage,” he said in a statement. “We can take the parents to court when the marriage contract is signed, yet what we can do now is charging them with endangering the lives of their children.”

To solve the engagement issue, which is seen as a way of going around the law, the Union for Egyptian women issued a statement calling for a legislation that penalizes any step taken towards the marriage of minors.

“Anybody who proves to have taken part in facilitating a marriage between minors has to be prosecuted,” said the statement, adding that the engagement of the couple in al-Gharbia showed how this phenomenon is deeply rooted in a large segment of the Egyptian society, and how stricter laws are required to prevent any attempts at marrying minors. “These laws should protect both boys and girls who are subjected to this experience.”

Against Islamic principles

According to Taher Abdel Hakim, professor of jurisprudence at al-Azhar University, engagement is a marriage promise, which makes it invalid if it happens between children. “People cannot get engaged until they reach the age when they are capable of making choices and knowing what is in their best interest,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Watan. “Therefore, engagement between minors is against Islamic principles.”

When asked why he decided to become engaged, teenager Wagih al-Banna – whose age has been given variously as 14 and 16 – said that his 10-year-old cousin had too many suitors and he had to “reserve” her, as he put it, and denied that she had no choice.

“Of course she approved our engagement. I would never marry her against her will,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV. In the same interview, the bride-to-be Noha al-Banna, who said that she still plays hide-and-seek with her friends, said the marriage will not stop her from getting an education: “I want to be a doctor,” she said.

Noha’s uncle Moustafa al-Shal refused to call this a marriage of minors. “This was just an engagement and they still have seven years to go,” he said on the same Dream TV episode. “We did this now so we can make sure she doesn’t marry outside the family.” Shal added that Noha will still live her full childhood despite the engagement. “Everything will be normal and the marriage will not be consummated until the right time comes.”

Gaining acceptance

Psychologist Alaa Ragab saw the celebration as a dangerous development which presents the practice as desirable. “When girls see the photos and the video, they would start conceiving the idea as fun and might even ask to be brides like Noha,” he said in a phone interview with the same program. “The idea will gradually become more acceptable than it already is. The same would happen with boys.”

Ragab argued that neither Noha nor Wagih are actually aware of what marriage is about. “If you ask them now about the duties marriage entails, none of them would know. Those are children and this is a crime against childhood.”

Journalist Sylvia al-Nakkadi criticized the way the story was presented in the media. “The story was run as a piece of interesting news that provides entertainment for readers but it lacked serious analysis of such a flagrant violation of children’s rights,” she wrote in Al-Masry al-Youm, arguing that the media had not done its proper job.

“News of the celebration should have been accompanied by a thorough explanation of the physical and psychological damages such a practice entails and different ways of eliminating it.”

Killing of Mexican tourists in Egypt: How did the tragedy happen?

The killing of 12 people, eight of whom were Mexican nationals, in Egypt’s Western Desert is an incident like no other for several reasons.

Egypt has seen cases of terrorists killing tourists, and security forces killing terrorists. But this time it was security forces killing tourists.

The reason for the attack, which also injured six other Mexicans, and four Egyptians, is that security forces mistook the tourists, their guides and drivers for militants.

The controversy was taken to another level when victims were said to have ventured into a restricted area. Each relevant state authority absolved itself of contributing to the “misunderstanding” and, more importantly, where the army’s strategy in tackling the war on terror was called into question.

Western Desert

In his article “Fire in the Oasis”, published in the Egyptian daily independent newspaper al-Shorouk, journalist Abdullah al-Sinawi blamed Egypt’s security institutions for the presence of tourists in an area as volatile as the Western Desert.

“How are the tourists and their guides supposed to know that a specific zone is restricted if they are not notified in advance?” he asked. “And if this zone is really restricted, how come the convoy passed through all the checkpoints on the way to the Western Desert?”

While acknowledging that, two days before, the same area was the scene of clashes between militants and security forces, Sinawi expressed his indignation at the fact that trips to this area were still allowed.

“Why wasn’t this area closed completely until all operations are over?” he asked. Sinawi also criticized analyses that focused on the blow dealt to tourism following the incident. “This is not about tourism. This incident was politically detrimental. The attack came from the army, not terrorists and this is a factor that cannot be overlooked.”

Where were the warning shots?

Security expert General Mohamed Nour al-Din, a former assistant to the minister of the interior, called the attack “impulsive” and argued that even if the victims looked suspicious, there were wiser ways of responding.

“The army could have started firing warning shots instead of bombing the cars with heavy weaponry right away,” he said in an interview with al-Shorouk. “Whoever gave the orders to fire miscalculated the entire situation.”

According to Nour al-Din, the attack took place because only a week before, militants in four-wheel drives similar to the ones used by the convoy fired at security forces in the same area.

“So, when a similar situation happened, they fired preemptively before being fired at,” he said.

Nour el-Din argued that the Egyptian state will be in a difficult position if investigations prove that the travel agency did obtain all the required permits to visit this area, and that the convoy did not stray from the pre-planned route.

“In this case, an official apology would not be enough and compensations have to be paid to the injured and to families of the deceased,” he said.

Impact on terror war?

Hafez Abu Saada, member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, argued that the incident would have a negative impact on the effectiveness of the war on terror.

“This war against terrorism has to be managed very delicately so that innocent people are not killed in the process,” he wrote on Twitter. “Such incidents would give a chance to many to question the validity of this war.”

Hassan al-Nahla, head of Egypt’s Tourist Guides’ Syndicates, argued that the army is not to be blamed for such a quick response to suspicious activity in an area that is already infested with terrorists.

“I rather blame the ministries of interior and tourism for absolute lack of coordination,” he explained, in a statement he issued following the killings. “The Ministry of Interior should have submitted a list of restricted areas to the Ministry of Tourism which, in turn, should have distributed it to all travel agencies.”

Nahla stressed that the tourism policeman at the hotel where the tourists stayed knew where they were heading and did not warn them – a claim not officially confirmed by Egyptian authorities. “Also how come there are no signs along the road that show where restricted areas are?,” he asked.

‘Terrorist hotbed’ risk

In his article “The complete picture in the Oasis accident,” published in the daily independent Al-Youm al-Sabea, journalist Mohamed al-Desouki Rushdi agrees that it is not the army’s fault. “This is a huge desert that risks turning into a terrorist hotbed if not properly controlled,” he said.

“Plus, it is a very critical location since it borders areas with Libya from which both terrorists and weapons are smuggled.”

Ahmed al-Mestekawi, the owner of a travel agency that specializes in desert safaris, refuted claims that four-wheel drives are not allowed in the area.

“This area is full of oil companies and quarries and four-wheel drives are all over the place,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV, adding that a policeman accompanied the convoy, as reported in some other news media.

“Why then didn’t he tell the drivers that this was a restricted area? They would have definitely not gone there.”

According to Mestekawi, the helicopters that fired at the convoy had a full view of what was happening on the ground. “This area is open. It has no mountains and no tourist facilities, so it was easy to see what the suspects were up to.”

Mestekawi also noted that an official decree from last year states that the road from Cairo to the Bahariya Oasis, to which the convoy was heading, is not a restricted area.

Mutiny in the Egyptian police: Pent-up anger and the protest law

The division of the Egyptian police commonly called “lower-ranking policemen” has always been as source of controversy.

While regular policemen graduate from the Police Academy, lower-ranking ones study at the Institute of Assistant Policemen, and can only be promoted to lieutenant – the rank regular policemen obtain when they graduate – after 24 years of service.

Assistant policemen help policemen in several duties – such as organizing traffic, guarding facilities and handling complaints at police stations – and sometimes work as informants.

The disgruntlement of assistant policemen is not new, but showing it is. Hundreds of assistant policemen in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya, the third most populous governorate in Egypt, recently held protests against low salaries and deteriorating working conditions.

They demanded the ouster of the interior minister, and started a strike that saw the closure of several police stations. Though not the first of its kind, this protest has become the most alarming, not only because it shed light on disputes inside the Interior Ministry, but also since it called into question the state’s commitment to the much-debated Protest Law.

Pent-up anger

Journalist Maged Atef attributed the recent protests to the years-long accumulation of bad feelings on the part of assistant policemen, who “realized that people look down on them and only respect regular policemen. They felt this was unfair since they believed that they do all the work in the streets and get no credit.” Assistant policemen, Atef added, also came to be associated with corruption and bribery, which made them even more marginalized.

Writer Hamdi Rizq described them as “time bombs at the heart of the Interior Ministry,” since their position below regular policemen makes them constantly angry. Rizq added that being an indispensible part of the police force, assistant policemen are able to twist the ministry’s arm with impunity. “This is a real challenge for the ministry, especially at a time when it is fighting terrorism.”

Former MP Moustafa al-Naggar said the recent protests are more foreboding than they seem, citing violent clashes between protesters and riot police upon the former’s storming of the security directorate headquarters. “Confrontation between two armed factions in the state apparatus is extremely alarming, especially if the protesting party feels inferior and discriminated against.”

Protest Law

Following the protests, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) demanded the release of all activists sentenced to jail for violating the Protest Law.

“Through applying the law to hundreds of pro-democracy activists and not applying it to members of the police force, the state is exhibiting a clear case of double standards,” said an ANHR statement.

“We are against the Protest Law, but if it is there anyway then it better be applied to everyone or be annulled altogether. Otherwise, let’s just simply declare Egypt a police state.”

Journalist Abdel Rahman Badr noted how assistant policemen protests were treated differently. “They did not have prior permission as required by the Protest Law, yet the protest was not dispersed by force, and none of the protestors were arrested. On the contrary, the Ministry of Interior listened to their demands,” he wrote. “All this despite the fact that protesting policemen did get violent when they stormed the headquarters of the Sharqiya Security Directorate.”

Criminal sciences and crime scene expert General Refaat Abdel Hamid was of the same view: “So storming the directorate and closing police stations do not constitute a threat to security and an obstruction of vital services?”

Major General Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, responded by saying assistant policemen organized a “rally,” not a “protest,” so the articles of the Protest Law do not apply to them.

“They did not use violence, and they peacefully ended the sit-in after the ministry promised to look into their demands,” he said.

“The ministry also has priorities, and containing the situation so that security services can resume was a must. The protestors also prioritized national interests when they agreed to go back to work.”

Abdel Karim had earlier slammed the protest and called its organizers “a conspiring minority” that “is violating the working regulations of the Interior Ministry and police discipline.”

In response to a question about whether the protests were instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: “I don’t find this unlikely at all.”

Following Abdel Karim’s statement, journalist Mohamed al-Desouki Rushdi published an article in which he included the definition of a “protest” under the Protest Law. Rushdi said according to Article 4 of the law, a protest is “any gathering of more than 10 people, whether marching or stationary, that aims at expressing grievances or political demands.” Article 7, he adds, says it is illegal for a protest to disrupt public order or impede public services.

“For 48 hours, assistant policemen closed the headquarters of the security directorate and several police stations, left their positions, and stopped organizing traffic,” he wrote. “Playing around terminology will only make things worse. The Interior Ministry better admit the gravity of the situation.”

Russia-Egypt relations: Farewell to old alliances?

For the third time since becoming president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi heads to Russia amid another round of official propaganda about the significance of the fast-growing strategic alliance. The remarkable development in bilateral ties in the past year has been received with a mixture of skepticism and enthusiasm, bringing back memories of friendship with the Soviet Union while promising new possibilities away from what is seen as a suffocating uni-polar world order.

Egypt and Russia have never been that close since the era of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, said journalist Mustafa Bassiouni, specifically referring to the level of military cooperation, which culminated in naval maneuvers codenamed “Friendship Bridge 2015.”

Bassiouni said following the Syrian conflict, Russia lost “the only breather it was allowed in the Mediterranean” – the Tartous naval base. “Russia is not sure it will ever get it back with the escalation of the conflict in Syria, and needed to look for new alliances in the region.”

Russia’s need for new alliances, he added, has to be seen in light of the conflict with Ukraine, which earned Russia the hostility of the West. “Egypt suffered the same hostility from the U.S. and the EU following the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood rule, therefore also needed to forge new alliances, especially upon seeing its military aid from the U.S. threatened.”

Bassiouni, however, finds the comparison with Egyptian-Soviet relations in the 1960s far-fetched. “Back then it was the Soviet Union, but now it is the Russian Federation, which is driven by protecting its interests rather than ideology,” he said. “Egypt is not the same country too.”

Political analyst Samuel Plank said apart from losing its strategic place in Syria, Russia is generally keen on a strong presence in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. “Russian support of Sisi means cooperation with the Egyptian military establishment, which is tremendously powerful, both in terms of armament and the financial resources that it controls,” he wrote. “A partner with that level of strength gives Russia influence over the politics of the region.”

The West

While acknowledging possible American consternation over growing cooperation between Egypt and Russia, Plank dismisses claims of the return of a “Cold War-style proxy battle.” It would “would require a tremendous amount of political capital” for Washington “to stage any intervention – diplomatic, economic, or otherwise – to regain the influence lost in Egypt,” he said.

The United States would also benefit from Egyptian-Russian cooperation in the war on terrorism in the region, which is seen as one of the main reasons for Sisi’s third visit to Moscow: “Russian cooperation with Egypt to target radical groups like the Islamic State does not undermine American foreign policy in the region.”

Journalist Emad al-Sayed said the recent alliance with Russia earned Egypt a lot of political gains that might not have been possible had Cairo “remained under the U.S. and European Union umbrella, or followed them in their relations with a strong country like Russia.”

Getting close to Moscow, Sayed said, played a major role in restoring Egypt’s relations with the West. “Egypt managed to partly restore the positive convergence with important international powers,” he said. “It recovered its strategic relations with the U.S. using the Egyptian-Russian convergence as its playing card, and got closer to main European powers such as Germany and France.”

Mohamed Abdel Qader, analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agreed about the impact of close ties with Russia on easing U.S.-Egyptian tension. “The U.S. is using political and military tools to re-incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood in the political scene. It froze some aid and military agreements. The decision to go East contributes to consolidating Egyptian-U.S. relations,” he said, calling the alliance with Russia “part of a consistent strategic plan.”

However, Abdel Qader said U.S.-Egyptian relations will never go back to the way they were under former President Hosni Mubarak.

Regional dimension

Political science professor Mohamed Kamal said Sisi’s visit to Russia was far from confined to bilateral relations, as important as these were. “This visit has an important regional dimension, which mainly focuses on the Syrian crisis,” Kamal said.

“Russia is the country with the biggest influence on the Syrian regime and will, therefore, play a major role in resolving the conflict. This kind of influence is driving several countries in the region to seek closer ties with Russia.”

Strategic expert Mahmoud Zahr said Russia needed regional support to reach an agreement on Syria, and this was one of the topics to be discussed during the visit. “Russia is trying to formulate an initiative that would push the Syrian regime to hold presidential elections, and the inclusion of countries in the region is crucial since preserving the unity of Syrian territories is in their best interest.”

Alexander Shumilin, a Russian expert on the Middle East, said Iran was another contributing factor to establishing stronger ties between Cairo and Moscow: “Russia is the ideal mediator between Egypt and Iran, and will work on alleviating Egypt’s concerns over Iran and preparing for Iran’s integration into the region especially after the signing of the nuclear deal.”

Can the Pink Taxi solve Egypt’s harassment problem?

For years, Egypt has been grappling with the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment. Rights organizations have launched a wide range of initiatives mainly aimed at encouraging women to report verbal and physical harassment. While recent jail sentences against men proven guilty of sexual harassment have been greeted with relative optimism, preventive measures on the ground remain lacking.

The introduction of the women-only Pink Taxi is, in this sense, seen as a positive step toward making Egyptian women feel safer in public. The ability of the project to tackle such a large-scale problem has, however, been questioned from the outset.


Azza Kamel, a women’s rights activist and head of the Appropriate Communication Techniques center (ACT), said the Pink Taxi “encourages segregation of the sexes, and this undermines the cause of fighting against harassment. Women have the right to feel safe while men are around. It is a society made up of men and women, and they have to coexist safely.” Kamel expressed concern that the project would promote segregation as a means of solving the problem in other fields such as education.

Intesar al-Saeid, a lawyer and director of the Cairo Center for Development and Human Rights, said the project promoted taking Egyptian women back to “the era of the harem,” and widened the class gap.

“The Pink Taxi is only for women who can afford taking taxis, and ignores other women who use public transportation,” she said, adding that all such projects are useless if the law is not strictly applied to sexual offenders, and if no effort is made to change the culture of Egyptian society.

Journalist Wael Abdel Fattah also used the word “harem” in reference to the project. “What this project does is locking women up instead of changing their surroundings,” he wrote. “The Pink Taxi only highlights the gravity of the problem but will never solve it.” Abdel Fattah compared the Pink Taxi to upscale gated communities in which people “pay millions to isolate themselves from the rest of the community,” and called both “a consumerist” way of escaping the problem.

In addition to agreeing that the project undermines calls for gender equality, sociology professor Ahmed Yehia Abdel Hamid finds the Pink Taxi less safe. “A taxi with women only is more subject to acts of aggression like harassment and kidnapping,” he said. “This will especially be the case if the taxi breaks down in a deserted area.”

Nehad Abul Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women Rights, said the project would not give women more freedom, as it claims. “Starting such a tradition will lead women to see taxis driven by men as dangerous, and there will never be enough pink taxis to accommodate women who use taxis,” she said. “The end result is that women will become more restricted and more isolated.”


Fouad al-Saeid of the National Center for Social and Criminological Research said: “In a city like Cairo, our priority should be looking for as many practical solutions as possible to the problems, and the Pink Taxi is one such solution.”

He added that separating men and women in public transportation is not new. “For years, we’ve had women-only cars in the Cairo subway and this protects them from harassment.” Saeid said the project promotes equality by allowing women to occupy jobs customarily reserved for men, such as driving taxis.

Pink Taxi driver Inas Hassan said women feel much more at ease when the driver is also female. “We talk about women issues, and if they are tired they would sleep through the trip, which is something they don’t do if the driver is a man,” she said. “Also, when they know me, they trust me with their children, also something they wouldn’t do with male drivers. I once drove a third-grade child from east of Cairo all the way to the west.”

Professor of political sociology Saeid al-Sadeq said the project was the inevitable result of the security vacuum that followed the Jan. 25 revolution, which led to an increase in sexual harassment among other crimes. “Women were not only harassed but sometimes kidnapped, and many of them were grounded because they are afraid of taking a taxi, especially that women in Egypt are not trained to defend themselves against assaults,” he said.

Sadeq added that the Pink Taxi was one of the immediate reactions that would solve the problem at the moment, until further long-term actions are taken. “While providing those solutions, we can start working on other issues like the phenomenon of moral deterioration among youths in Egyptian streets.”

Despite supporting the project as a means of giving women more freedom of movement, Mona Abdel Radi, spokesperson for the Women of Egypt Front, criticized restricting the service to relatively well-to-do women. “The project needs to be implemented on a larger scale so that, for example, women-only buses are made available,” she said.

The Brotherhood’s Istanbul conference: Turkey’s message to Egypt?

The Conference for Countering Despotism and Bloodshed, held on Aug. 8-9 in Istanbul, slammed Egypt’s government – referred to as “the coup” – for its clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood during the past two years. It was organized by the Union for Sunni Scholars, an association known to be pro-Brotherhood, and hosted affiliated Islamic associations.

The closing statement, read out by a number of leading preachers, said Egypt’s government was illegitimate, so “people should not abide by any of the state’s decrees and should, instead, strive to rise against them.” The statement, which accused the government of state terrorism and crimes against humanity, specifically slammed death sentences against Brotherhood leaders, including former President Mohammad Mursi.

“These are politicized sentences and if they are executed the consequences are bound to be grave on the domestic, regional, and international levels,” said the statement. “Stopping the execution of those sentences is a legitimate, moral, and human right.” The statement argued that by “waging a war against Islam,” the state drove Egyptians to either atheism or extremism.

It said Aug. 14, which marks the second anniversary of the dispersal of protest sit-ins in Cairo, would be a day of “popular uprising against tyranny” under the leadership of Islamic scholars. The statement held the government responsible for the death in jail of Essam Derbala, a former Islamist militant and leading figure in the movement Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya: “When you intentionally stop giving a sick man his medication, then this is pre-meditated murder for which you will burn in hell.”

The statement delivered “a message for the apostate Abdel Fatah al-Sisi [Egypt’s president]: You are a criminal and a murderer… you and all your thugs from ministers of interior all the way down to prison wardens. You are all murderers.”


Egypt’s Dar al-Iftaa, the governmental body in charge of issuing religious edicts, said the conference was another attempt by Islamist factions to legitimize violence and spread chaos across the country. “This is especially clear in the choice of venue. Turkey’s hostility towards Egypt is no secret and so is the role it is trying to play in the region,” said a statement issued by the Fatwa Monitoring Observatory at Dar al-Iftaa.

The statement said the conference “was attended by the most extremist of Islamist preachers who are willing to receive foreign funding to further their goals.” It cited the focus on the Sunni nature of the conference as proof of collaboration between factions of political Islam and external powers. “This rhetoric corresponds to foreign agendas that aim to divide the region along sectarian lines.”

Al-Azhar deputy Abbas Shouman objected to conference participants presenting themselves as representatives of Sunni scholars: “Who gave them the right to claim this? Isn’t Al-Azhar the world’s biggest Sunni institution?” Shouman said what was common among participants was not that they were Sunni scholars, but that they were all members or supporters of the Brotherhood. “Was there one single scholar there who wasn’t tied to the Brotherhood?”

Emirati writer Mariam al-Kaabi said the conference was one of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tools to achieve his regional ambitions under the pretext of religion. “Turkey hosted a conference whose main purpose is inciting violence against Egypt and its leaders because Erdogan cannot let go of his dream of restoring the Islamic caliphate under his leadership and is using religion and sectarianism to achieve this goal,” she wrote. Kaabi adding that the Brotherhood was Turkey’s main agent in weakening Egypt’s regional influence. “Turkey has been helping the Muslim Brotherhood in every possible way.”

Former Brotherhood leader Tarek al-Bishbishi said the group “wants to ward off the charge of terrorism by holding conferences in which members and supporters of the group condemn extremism and highlight the difference between the Brotherhood and other militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS].”

The Brotherhood, Bishbishi added, was now fighting for survival. “In addition to proving it isn’t a terrorist group, the Brotherhood is also desperate to seek help from sympathetic countries so it can guarantee it won’t be eliminated,” he said. “This shows the group is starting to realize that its end is near.”

How significant is Egypt’s ‘New Suez Canal’ to the world?

Preparations for the inauguration of the new Suez Canal are being accompanied by a variety of nationwide festivities for a project marketed by the state as the most vital since the High Dam, and the biggest triumph since the 1973 war with Israel.

Main squares across Egypt are decorated, statues are erected at the entrances of canal cities, and the site of the canal is being prepared for a gala event to be attended by VIPs from around the globe.

Meanwhile, TV channels display the countdown to the inauguration as they broadcast patriotic songs, some made especially for the occasion, and host analysts who innumerate the benefits of the canal. Yet amid this jovial ambiance, a few skeptical voices can still be heard, questioning how representative the propaganda is of the actual value of “Egypt’s gift to the world.”

Wael Kaddour, a former member of the Suez Canal Authority, criticized completion of the canal in one year instead of three.

“Cutting construction time doubled the expenses,” he said, referring to the 19.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($2.49 billion) that constitute the total excavation cost.

Kaddour explained the motivation behind the timing thus: “The project was announced at a time of instability and political divisions. A national mega project was necessary to unite Egyptians over a common cause.”

Rasha Qennawi, a member of the Popular Front for the Suez Canal Corridor, said: “Instead of building a new canal, the area surrounding the old one could’ve been fully developed. This is what would really increase economic growth, job opportunities, and the state’s resources.”

Khaled Abdel Fattah, an economic expert and professor of investment, said the project, which he called a “branch” rather than a canal, would not benefit Egypt’s economy. “Talk about increasing the revenue of the canal is incorrect. There’s no relation between revenue and the digging of a branch of the Suez Canal,” he said, adding that revenue is only linked to global trade.

“Only 1-2 percent of global trade passes through the Suez Canal, and the new branch will not increase it.”

Economic expert Mamdouh al-Wali said global trade has been receding in 2015, and this will reflect on revenue. “For example, economic problems in the Euro zone led to a decrease in demand, hence a decrease in imports, and the Ministry of Finance admitted that this is bound to affect Egyptian exports and traffic in the Suez Canal,” he said.

Wali added that from 2009, the number of vessels crossing the canal daily had decreased to 47 in 2014. “This means there was no need for another canal, since the old one isn’t working with full capacity,” which is 76 vessels daily.


Economic expert Fakhri al-Feqi said according to feasibility studies, the revenue of the canal is expected to rise from $5.3 billion to $13.5 billion over the coming eight years. “Global trading is expected to increase by more than 10 percent with the opening of the new canal, because with the digging of another waterway the waiting time of each vessel will be minimized,” he said, adding that the new canal is the first step toward developing the surrounding area.

Adel Amer, chairman of Al-Masreyin Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said: “This is a mega project that isn’t limited to the digging of a passageway. The entire area will be developed, and a vital trade center will be established. Think of the job opportunities this would bring.” Amer added that the new project would allow the Suez Canal to compete with the Panama Canal.

Businessman and economic analyst Hussein Sabbour said the new canal aborted foreign conspiracies against Egypt. “There was a scheme to divert traffic from the Suez Canal, and Egypt had to act quickly,” he said. “Plus, because of climate change a new trade route is expected to emerge in the North Pole in the coming 50 years, so Egypt had to take serious steps toward utilizing the strategic location of the canal.”

Sabbour added that the construction of the new canal, and the presence of dignitaries from all over the world at the opening, will attract investors to Egypt and open the door for more projects that will boost the economy.

Economic researcher Hisham Khalil said the new canal is a mega project that cannot be underestimated. “Constructing the canal in one year is indeed an engineering miracle, and we have to give credit to all those who worked on completing it and accepted such a tough challenge,” he wrote.

The problem, he said, was not the canal itself but the priorities. “The topmost priority of the state should be human beings – their health and education. This is the most important investment” he wrote. “Yet the state seems to care more about publicity.”

Khalil said while the new canal was a major achievement and the state must have meant well when it initiated it, the project could have been postponed until more important problems that require huge funds were solved. “The state acted like a man with 10 children who decided to send one of them to Harvard while the other nine are starved.”

The curious case of Egypt’s banned preacher Mohamed Gibril

“May God avenge us on those who spilt our blood and orphaned our children… May God avenge us on corrupt politicians, those who oppressed us, violated the sanctity of our homes… May God avenge us on tyrants and despots,” said preacher Mohamed Gibril in the sermon he delivered at a Cairo mosque in the last week of the holy month of Ramadan.

Gibril dedicated just under half the 40-minute sermon to “corrupt politicians who divided the Egyptian people,” and particularly those “who killed youths in the squares” and “imprisoned thousands unjustly.”

He pleaded with God to help the families of martyrs, detainees and exiles. Gibril cried while reciting the supplication, and a large number of worshippers followed suit as they repeated: “Amen.” Shortly after, Gibril was banned from preaching in Egypt, then banned from leaving the country.

“We’ll never allow places of worship to be used for political purposes,” said Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, who decreed the ban against Gibril. “Mixing politics with religion has inflicted a lot of harm on the country, and we need to make sure this never happens again.”

Gomaa equated Gibril’s sermon with the previous use of mosques for electoral campaigning by the Muslim Brotherhood, and said the ministry would monitor mosques across Egypt and take serious measures against any that allow political talk during sermons.

“The ministry will request that Egyptian TV doesn’t broadcast any of Gibril’s sermons, and that no Arab country or no country at war with terrorism allows him to preach at its mosques. We won’t give him another chance to emotionally manipulate the people,” Gomaa said, adding that anyone proven to help Gibril deliver sermons or give religious lessons would be penalized.

The ministry filed a complaint against Gibril, accusing him of “supporting extremism” and citing his use of expressions previously used by Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei, such as comparing government officials and pro-government journalists to “the pharaoh’s sorcerers.”

Mohamed al-Shahat al-Guindi, a member of the Islamic Center for Research, said Gibril was serving the Brotherhood’s agenda, even if unintentionally. “Instead of calling upon the Egyptians to unite, he’s turning them against each other through inciting supplications,” he said. “This is exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood wants: to see Egyptians divided.” Guindi said the Brotherhood also took advantage of the incident to attack the regime. “Now they’re saying the Egyptian state is persecuting religious figures, and this isn’t true.”

Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Saeid Raslan said whoever attacked the Egyptian state was a “traitor,” and this applied to Gibril. “If you find a preacher attacking the state, then be sure he has a hidden agenda and wants to incite sedition among the people,” he said, adding that worshippers who responded to Gibril were also traitors because they support his scheme.
Raslan accused Gibril of ingratitude since he attacked the very government that gave him the opportunity to become a renowned preacher. “How did he get to preach at the first mosque in the African continent?” Raslan asked, referring to Amr Ibn al-Aas Mosque in Egypt’s old capital Fustat. “Is that how he repays the state that raised him to this rank?”


TV anchor Tamer Amin said Gibril’s penalty was in no way equal to his offense. “Yes, he made a mistake when he mixed religion with politics, but it was enough to suspend him or refer him to a disciplinary committee. Banning him from traveling is taking it a little too far,” Amin said, adding that Gibril’s offense was administrative, not criminal. “This way the state isn’t abiding by the law, and is only demonstrating that opposition won’t be tolerated.”

Journalist Reda Hamouda said Gibril’s punishment was part of a plan by the state to eliminate all Islamist voices, which he argued constitute the main opposition bloc against the current government. “This is despite the fact that this same regime came to power through opposition,” Hamouda wrote. “It looks as if the regime is worried that what it did to its predecessor would be done to it if it does not eliminate voices of dissent.”

While agreeing that Gibril had an agenda when he included politics in his sermon, journalist Emad al-Din Hussein criticized the state for its reaction. “Through its exaggerated response, the state made a sermon heard by a few people the talk of the town, and made a hero out of Gibril,” he wrote. “If he belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, then this is the best propaganda ever for them.”

Hussein said the state looked extremely insecure when it took such extreme measures without tangible proof of who Gibril meant in his sermon. “The question that inevitably poses itself now is: Why was the state infuriated with a preacher who prays to God against tyrants?”

Political activist Gamal Eid sarcastically responded to the measures against Gibril with a counter-supplication: “May God grant tyrants victory and endow despots with strength. May God avenge us on those who seek justice and strike the insightful with blindness and cast his fury upon supporters of democracy.”