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Screaming against the Egyptian Coptic church over divorce

Egyptians associate the word “tamarod,” Arabic for “rebellion,” with the campaign launched in 2013 to topple President Mohamed Mursi. Now, the name is bestowed upon an unprecedented movement calling for the resignation of Pope Tawadros II, head of the Egyptian Coptic Church. The campaign was launched by a group called Al-Sarkha (The Scream), which demands reform of the Coptic Personal Status Law, particularly regarding permission to divorce.

This is a challenge to the authority of the pope, who is to remain in his position for life, and shows how vocal opponents of church policies have become. Ishak Francis, founder of the group and the campaign, said the idea came to him after the church insisted on ignoring the demands of Copts and refused to change the Personal Status Law.

“The church claims it’s looking into our problems, but it doesn’t keep its promises. Had any progress been noticeable, this campaign wouldn’t have started and gained momentum,” he said, adding that he has so far collected 7, 562 signatures in Cairo alone, including 10 from Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of the pope. Francis said the pope had repeatedly made fun of Copts, including himself, who demand a reform.

“The pope even started turning in his critics to the police,” he said, referring to Adel Sedki, who was detained by priests in the cathedral then taken to the police station and charged with “disrupting security” after leading a delegation that attempted to talk the pope into changing the law. Francis dismissed claims that he was part of a conspiracy against the Coptic Church.

“Whenever faced with our demands, the church claims there’s a conspiracy instead of listening to our grievances and attempting to solve them.” Francis added that the church’s decision to make adultery the only legitimate cause for divorce is not based on the Bible or the teachings of Christ. Francis criticized the pope for other matters that he saw as detrimental to the Coptic Church.

“He accepts the baptism of Catholics, is trying to coordinate Easter date with other sects, and has been busy with visits to Europe and the United States while neglecting his own people.” In response to a question about the impossibility of deposing the pope, Francis replied that “nothing is impossible.”

No-confidence vote

The Christian Youths Movement for Orthodox Copts said the no-confidence vote that the Tamarod campaign seeks is not applicable to the pope, since he is “divinely chosen” and not a government official. “A vote of no confidence can apply to a president,” said Christian Youths founder Nader Sobhi. “In the church, it might be applicable to priests who prove inefficient since they’re chosen by human beings.”

Sobhi questioned the validity of the signatures the movement claims to have collected. “If the forms don’t have the national ID numbers of citizens and their signatures, they don’t count,” he said. Sobhi threatened to send the movement’s members to jail if the forms proved to be fake. “We’ll make sure to carefully examine those forms and contact the signatory to ensure their authenticity.”

Deposing the pope is also seen as unthinkable by Copts who demand reform of the Personal Status Law and who have personally suffered from restrictions on divorce. The League of Personal Status Victims, which includes leading critics of the divorce law who have for years been lobbying to change it, slammed The Scream’s Tamarod campaign for “the absurdity of its demands.” The league’s leader Hani Ezzat al-Masry said the papal seat should remain above all disputes in the church.

“The pope is a red line, and the stability of his position is an integral part of the stability of the church and Egypt as a whole,” he said. “Our problem is only with procrastination and mismanagement, but has nothing to do with the pope.” Masri called the Tamarod campaign members “traitors” and “agents of foreign powers,” and accused “forces of darkness inside the church” of trying to create a rift between the church and state.

Divine choice

Official spokesman of the Coptic Church, Father Boules Halim, said the ordination of the pope was not open to discussion. “The pope is chosen by the clergy and representatives of the congregation, and most important of all by God through the continuous praying and fasting of the entire church until the names of candidates for the papacy are revealed,” he said.

“The rules of the church stipulate that the pope remains in his seat for all his life, and no violation of such rules is accepted.” Halim added that the vast majority of Copts, both clergy and laymen, would never accept a campaign aimed at deposing the pope, who is “the father of all Copts.”

Nader al-Serafi, founder of the reformist Copts 38 Coalition – named after the 1938 law that allowed divorce for nine reasons, including chronic illness, impotence, abandonment and irreconcilable differences – said the idea of deposing the pope is not new to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

“It happened in 1954, and took a more violent turn when members of the group called the Society of the Coptic Nation kidnapped Pope Yousab II, who they charged with corruption,” Serafi said, adding that the pope was then forced to sign his resignation and new papal elections were held. “There are many similarities between both cases, mainlythat both popes were victims of a conspiracy that took advantage of the turmoil through which the country was going.”

Serafi underlined the intervention of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in favor of church laws with the arrest of members of the rebellious group. “That’s why I think the ball is in the court of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who needs to intervene to end this fray.”

Will Egypt ever get its ‘looted’ money back?

For the past few years, a sizable portion of the Egyptian public has been preoccupied with the wealth of former President Hosni Mubarak and his clique. Getting this money back was a major demand of the revolution of Jan. 25, 2011. Since 2011, there has been much talk of efforts to reclaim it, but nothing has materialized. With Mubarak, his sons and several top aides acquitted of several of the charges they had faced after the revolution, hope has started to fade.

The issue sprang back to life in June 2015, with Switzerland extending the freezing of the funds of Mubarak and 31 of his clique until 2017, and the subsequent presidential decree establishing a new committee to look into the matter once more. The National Committee for the Repatriation of Egyptian Money and Assets Abroad was not greeted with the same old enthusiasm, as many wondered if it would be any different from its failed predecessors.

Former Prime Minister Ali Lotfi said several factors contributed to the failure of the previous four governmental committees to reclaim the money. “The lengthy judicial process in Egypt was a major obstacle. The money will only be returned after the verdict against the person who owns it is final,” he said.

“A sentence in the text of the verdict has to clarify that the money of the defendant belongs to the Egyptian state and has to be returned, and this did not happen.” Lotfi added that the state should have hired international lawyers to handle the case. “Instead, millions were spent on committees that did not do anything.”

Lawyer Samir Sabry filed a lawsuit with the Public Funds Prosecution against the previous committees, which he accused of squandering public funds. “The total expenses of those committees has reached half a billion Egyptian pounds, and nothing was achieved,” Sabry wrote in the complaint. “If we go on like this, we will spend the amount we are working to get back.” Sabry also objected to the details of the expenses of such committees not being made public.

Foreign involvement

Moataz Salah al-Din, coordinator of the non-governmental Popular Initiative for the Repatriation of Smuggled Money, said relying on court rulings alone was a mistake. “Egypt should have also addressed relevant countries in the context of the U.N. convention against corruption,” he said, adding that some countries are usually more cooperative than others.

“Switzerland is the most likely to return the money, since Swiss public opinion and several NGOs there are supportive,” he said. “The United States has so far been the most intransigent, as it refused a request by the Egyptian government to freeze the accounts of 103 officials from the Mubarak regime.”

The changes through which Egypt has gone since the revolution, Salah al-Din added, made the success of such committees much harder. “The process was delayed by several regime changes, which also gave an impression to the involved countries that the Egyptian state is not stable enough to handle the smuggled-money file,” he said.

Court rulings

Wahid Abdel Maguid, researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said the new committee would never be able to progress in the absence of court rulings. “The formation of the committee is only a bureaucratic step,” he said. “A judicial action is needed, but courts in Egypt are preoccupied with domestic cases.”

Abdel Ghaffar Shokr, deputy chairman of the National Council for Human Rights, agreed that the committee would be useless without court orders. “True, it was a positive step on the part of the president to revive the matter, but the judiciary has to be quick in issuing final verdicts that can be immediately put into force.”

Financial analyst Hani Mahmoud said banks would not return the money without a court ruling. “The country demanding the return of the money has to provide proof that this money was obtained illegally,” he said.

A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said providing such proof was far-fetched, adding: “Technically, this money is not blood money since it is not obtained through illegal activities in the conventional sense like, for example, drug dealing or arms trade.”


Professor of international law Ahmed Refaat said he was optimistic about the new committee, adding that it was different from the others since it allowed reconciliation between the state and those accused of smuggling money abroad. “The accused will make restitution of the looted funds in exchange for dropping charges against them. Egyptian law allows reconciliation in several matters, including currency, tax and customs-related issues,” he said.

“The possibility of reconciliation will save time and huge amounts of money paid for international law firms and travel allowances for the members of the relevant committees.” Refaat said this might be the only realistic means of getting the money back, since traditional legal means might not work, especially with countries whose economy strongly relies on banking.

“If those countries restituted these funds, depositors’ confidence in these banks relying on foreign remittances would be shaken, which would lead to reluctance to deposit funds in these banks and cause the collapse of these countries’ banking systems.”

Egypt vs. ISIS: Is Sinai now an official battlefield?

The July 1 Sinai attacks were not the first, but they were the most shocking. They followed the assassination of the prosecutor general, which made linking the two incidents inevitable, especially since they both took place around the second anniversary of the June 30 protests that toppled former President Mohamed Mursi.

Confusion ensued due to contradictory reports on the number of deaths, with an official figure of 21 but local sources saying 70-100. The media described the battle, between Islamist militants and the army, as the fiercest since the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. Meanwhile, officials are trying to alleviate fears over the growing power the militant group Sinai Province, which is affiliated to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Syria and Iraq

“This specific attack is by far the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Daniel Nisman, CEO of the Levantine Group Risk Consultancy, adding that the danger lies mainly in a plan to take over Sinai. “It’s not a hit and run – this is what [ISIS] used in places like Syria and Iraq to capture and hold territory.” Nisman said the operation underlined the shortcomings of the “scorched land” strategy of the Egyptian army, as it makes it harder for the state to garner local support.

Sinai security expert Zack Gold described the attack as “new and worrying,” and said militants either aimed to take over the city of Sheikh Zuwaid, where the attacks took place, or wanted to drag the army into an actual battle. “Either one is unprecedented.” However, he said comparing Sinai to Iraq and Syria was unrealistic, and the success of militants in the peninsula was extremely unlikely.

“Egypt isn’t Iraq; this isn’t Anbar. The [Egyptian] military is more cohesive, has more firepower, and has the capability to get them out,” Gold said, adding that the main obstacle is the number of civilians that could be killed in the process.

Journalist Adel al-Qadi said the analogy with Syria and Iraq is not far-fetched. “For the first time, Sinai Province manages to control the streets and military checkpoints of Sheikh Zuwaid, and to besiege police stations and security camps, in addition to planting IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on highways to prevent rescue. All this while simultaneously attacking 15 targets with all sorts of weapons,” he wrote. “This looks like real war.”


Qadi noted the large number of militants who took part in the attack – estimated at 300-500 – and the advanced training they must have received, especially in the use of anti-aircraft missiles.

Eissa al-Kharafin, one of the elders of the northern Sinai tribe of Armilat, said the militants exhibited unusual power in the attack. “We were shocked to see them roaming the streets of Sheikh Zuwaid freely, and to see military facilities besieged,” he said, adding that the army was taken by surprise.

Aref al-Akour, a chieftain of Al-Sawarka tribe, blamed the state for following the same strategy after every attack. “With every attack, the state imposes harsher measures, but apparently militants are not affected and civilians in the region are the only ones who really suffer,” he said.

Yehia Abu Nassira, also of Al-Sawarka, said launching airstrikes is not the solution, especially in light of civilian casualties. “Terrorism will only be eliminated through cooperation between the state and the locals of Sinai,” he said. “The state needs to use their help instead of only pointing fingers at them. We have reached the point where almost all members of tribes are considered suspects.”

Khaled Abdel Rahman, political analyst and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Movement, also underlined the tense relation between the state and Sinai residents. “According to the Egyptian state, if you are from Sinai then you are guilty until proven innocent,” he wrote.

Abdel Rahman added that militants in Sinai keep making a more powerful comeback each time, which was obvious in the last attack, because they are technically in a more advantageous position than the army. “The mountainous nature and rugged terrains of Sinai serve them well. Plus, they know that the Egyptian army is not trained to engage in guerrilla wars.”


While admitting that the last attack was like no other in terms of tactics, weaponry and purpose, writer Fahmi Howeidi said Sinai Province committed a grave mistake by assuming they could capture Sinai or even a small part of it. “It seems the group was tempted by the relative success it has achieved in Syria and Iraq, and accordingly decided to follow the same pattern in Egypt,” he wrote.

“They totally overlooked the fact that Egypt is different; it is a proper state that has a powerful army and a population of 90 million, and is not plighted by sectarian wars as is the case in Iraq and Syria.” Assuming that Egypt is a failed state doomed their plans, Howeidi added.

However, the state made two major mistakes, he said. “The first is insisting on a military rather than political and social solution, and this has not proven successful at all. The second is putting all Islamists in one basket and considering them all suspects, which increases resentment against the regime.”

Foreign involvement

However, the military approach is supported by numerous experts who believe confrontation is inevitable. General Abdel Rafea Darwish, co-founder of the Knights of Egypt party for army veterans, said the state needed to officially declare war in Sinai due to the sophistication of militants’ training and ammunition.

“The weapons used in the last attack proves that militants are receiving foreign funding,” he said, adding that the United States and Israel are most likely implicated and refuting claims about the involvement of Qatar and Turkey.

Zakaria Hussein, professor of strategic studies and former head of the Nasser Military Academy, said Sinai was already a war zone. “Militant groups have already declared war against the state, and this war is ongoing since terrorism is not eliminated,” he said.

General Moustafa Kamel, professor of political and strategic sciences, agreed that the war was far from over. “In fact, it is impossible to predict when it will end since there are foreign powers behind it,” he said, without specifying which countries.

General Farid Haggag, member of the London-based International Center for Strategic Studies, said the state needed to take stricter measures to speed up the elimination of terrorism in Sinai. “All residents of border areas have to be evacuated to create a buffer zone that no one from outside the army can have access to,” he said. “Anyone who tries to trespass is to be killed immediately.”

Haggag said the state should reveal the countries funding terrorist operations in Sinai and sever diplomatic ties with them. “This will make it harder for those countries to keep the funds coming, and will thus weaken militants.”

Brigadier General Mohamed Samir, official spokesman of the Egyptian Armed Forces, said all Sinai is currently under state control, and reassured civilians that the army would make sure it safeguards their lives and property while targeting militants. “I want everyone to rest assured that the militants’ days in Sinai are numbered,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before terrorism in Sinai is totally eliminated.”

Egypt’s ‘forced disappearances:’ Between fact and hearsay

On June 1, three young Egyptians – a female and two males – went out for dinner together and never came back. For more than two weeks, their families failed to obtain information about their whereabouts despite contacting all relevant security bodies, including the Ministry of Interior and Military Prosecution. The issue went viral on social networking websites as concern over their safety heightened with each passing day.

On June 18, news of the female, photojournalist Israa al-Tawil, appeared for the first time when a judiciary source told the press that her arrest warrant was issued by the National Security Prosecution, and that she was detained pending interrogation.

“She is charged with spreading false news about Egypt,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She accused the Egyptian judiciary of inaccuracy, and sent photos to foreign organizations to be used as proof of violent suppression of protests by security forces.”

Shortly after, the Facebook page Freedom for the Brave, which focuses on political prisoners, announced that the other two, political science student Sohaib Saad and engineer Omar Mohamed, were seen in detention together. No official announcement has been made about them yet, so the exact charges leveled against them remain unknown.

Despite relative happiness that the three turned out to be alive, their initial disappearance has become a source of major concern, especially after other names, reportedly disappearing in the same manner, started emerging.

Following Tawil’s disappearance, the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) said it received dozens of complaints about disappearing citizens. “We received complaints about 50 cases, while other independent organizations such as Freedom for the Brave documented 163 cases since April,” said activist and NCHR member George Ishak.

Nasser Amin, head of the NCHR complaints committee, said the council will officially address the prosecutor general and the Ministry of Interior to inquire about those cases. “The authorities should inform the families of the detainees’ whereabouts as soon as they are arrested,” he said. “They also have to clarify the charges they are facing and the dates of their trials.” Amin added that the committee is going to sort out the cases to decide which of them can be categorized as “forced disappearance” according to international criteria.

A different number appeared in the info graph issued by the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), which said 786 people disappeared between March and May. “The estimate provided by Freedom for the Brave is much lower than the actual figures,” said ECRF director Ezzat Ghoneim. “Organizations working on this issue will never get the same numbers, since it mainly depends on the number of people working for each organization on the ground.”


In a report entitled “Forced disappearances: Egypt in the footsteps of totalitarian regimes,” the Human Rights Documentary Organization (HRDO) said the detainees lose all their legal rights when their whereabouts are unknown, which is against all international agreements and charters. According to the report, forced disappearances mirror the state’s inability to deal with its problems in accordance with regular procedures.

“Making people disappear betrays a great deal of inefficiency on the part of the state since it prioritizes stability and security over its citizens’ rights and the rule of law,” said the report. “This is exactly what is done in Iran and North Korea.” The report noted that arbitrary arrests were against the constitution, particularly Article 54 on personal freedom.

According to the article, “citizens may only be apprehended, searched, arrested, or have their freedoms restricted by a causal judicial warrant necessitated by an investigation.” The article also says all detainees must be allowed to contact their families and lawyers.

Lawyer Hoda Abdel Moneim, spokesperson of the Egyptian Women’s Revolutionary Union, said disappearances raise concerns about the health of detainees, especially those requiring special medical care such as Tawil, who has a leg injury and needs regular physiotherapy. “I am holding the Interior Ministry accountable for any deterioration in her condition,” Abdel Moneim said.

Mona Seif, activist and founder of No to Military Trials for Civilians, said forced disappearances usually involve arbitrary arrests by people who do not present themselves as policemen. “Usually people are taken from the street by men in civilian clothes without being told what their charges are. Then security bodies would deny knowing anything about them.” This, she said, was the case with the three disappeared youths.

While human rights organizations almost unanimously agree that the frequency of forced disappearances has become quite alarming, political parties disagree over the gravity of the situation.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party issued a statement calling on the president to intervene. “The president is responsible for ensuring that the law and the constitution are respected, and this is not the case with forced disappearances, where the detainees are not informed of their offenses and are detained without trial,” said the statement.

Abdel Aziz al-Husseini, secretary general of the Karama party, said since the constitution was voted on by most Egyptians, violating it implies disrespect for them. “This is an attack against all Egyptians,” he said, also calling on the president to intervene.


Other parties say the matter has been blown out of proportion. Ahmed Ezz al-Arab, deputy chairman of the Wafd Party, said reports about forced disappearances are issued by domestic and foreign bodies that aim to destabilize Egypt and tarnishing its image.

“Human rights organizations are not to be trusted, since they always focus on the rights of detainees and overlook the offenses they might be involved in or the people they might have harmed,” he said. “How can they be sure that those so-called ‘disappeared’ are not criminals?”

Nagi al-Shehabi, head of Al-Geel Party, said he did not believe the numbers announced by the NCHR. “These are exaggerated figures that only aim at making a fuss about nothing,” he said, calling for the restructuring of the council so it can be purged of “members with ulterior motives.”

Shehabi said the term “forced disappearance” was inaccurate. “Disappearances are quite common. People can just leave, and their families would not know anything about them for years and maybe for life. How can we know that they were taken against their will and did not leave voluntarily? And we never heard about security forces being held accountable for the disappearance of people except now.”

Why was Egypt’s prosecutor-general assassinated?

On June 29, Egyptian Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat was killed in a bomb attack that targeted his motorcade. Being the first terrorist attack to target a top Egyptian official since the failed attempt on the life on the interior minister in 2013, the assassination brought back concerns about the growing strength of the attackers and the corresponding weaknesses of the security system.

The attack also brought back to the forefront earlier threats by extremist groups to target the judiciary. Such threats did not prove hollow with the assassination in May of three judges in the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, the Wilayet Sinai (Province of Sinai) militant group, which pledges allegiance to ISIS, posted a video of the assassination of the judges a few hours before Barakat was killed under the title “The liquidation of judges.” The timing of the assassination is also quite revealing since it took place one day before the second anniversary of the June 30 protests that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood that was regarded by the group and its supporters as a military coup. All those links are expected to provide definitive answers to the reasons behind the assassination, but do they?

Pointing the finger of blame

In his article “From al-Khazendar to Hisham Barakat,” political commentator Khaled Ammar holds the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for the assassination and argues that it has been common for the group to target members of the judiciary in retaliation for sentences they issue against them. “It started in 1948 with the assassination of Judge Ahmed al-Khazendar who was at the time in charge of a case about the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in the bombing of a movie theatre,” he wrote.

“When arrested, the attackers were found to possess documents that proved their affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood and the first suspect turned out to have been the secretary of the group’s supreme leader Hassan al-Banna.” Ammar added, noting that at the time, Banna denied having known about the assassination plot. Ammar also referred to the failed attempt on the life of Judge Moataz Khafagi who was in charge of the case known as “the guidance bureau incidents,” in which Muslim Brotherhood members were accused of murder and attempted murder as well as to the killing of the three judges in Sinai. While stressing that it is not possible to determine the culprits at the moment, historian and manuscripts professors Emad Abu Ghazi said that the Muslim Brotherhood has had the biggest share of political assassinations in Egypt, especially senior officials. “In addition to Khazendar, they killed Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nokrashi when he decided to disband the group and tried to kill president Gamal Abdel Nasser when he disagreed with them,” Ammar said.

Reports of ousted President Mohammad Mursi allegedly making a slaughtering gesture in the dock at the courtroom right after the attack on Barakat aroused suspicions as to his personal involvement in the assassination. “According to security sources, Mursi will be interrogated about this gesture in order to determine whether it is related to Barakat or not and whether he planned or at least blessed the assassination,” wrote journalist Mahmoud Abdel Radi.

Targeting Barakat

Nagi Shehata, known as the “judge of executions” for the death sentences he issued against members of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that like other members of the judiciary, Barakat was targeted because of his determination to fight terrorism. “I know that I for one am at the top of this hit list,” he said in a press interview. For Shehata, eliminating terrorist attacks against judges would only be possible through the modification of the Criminal Procedures Law. “Sentences should be implemented immediately following their ratification by the president instead of allowing them to be appealed,” he explained. “Slow justice is a form of injustice and the possibility of getting away with crimes encourages more crimes.” For Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend, the assassination of the prosecutor-general is bound to intensify the state’s efforts to eliminate terrorism. “And judges will now be more determined to make sure terrorists do not escape punishment,” he said. “We are going to avenge not only judges, but all the victims of terrorism, ” he said.

Hossam al-Kholy, deputy chairman of the Wafd Party, argued that the security apparatus in Egypt cannot be absolved of blame. “It is true that anyone can be a victim of terrorism, but as we approach June 30, precautionary measures should be much stricter and certain public figures have to be placed under high protection,” he said. “What happened to the surveillance cameras that are supposed to allow security officials to monitor the roads?” Judge Wael Makram, who is also governor of the province of Fayoum, argued that since he assumed his position as prosecutor general, Barakat had never changed his route. “This made it easier for terrorists to target him on his way to work,” he said, adding that he still cannot confirm the laxity of security measures until the investigations are completed.

Journalist and former MP Moustafa Bakri accused political activists of playing a role as major as that of the Muslim Brotherhood as far as incitement of violence in concerned. “Activists who condemned the assassination of the prosecutor general did previously support terrorists involved in similar attacks. Those same activists were at the morgue supporting the families of executed terrorists in the Arab Sharkas case,” he wrote in reference to the controversial execution of six suspects found guilty of terrorism in what was seen as a retaliation to the killing of the Sinai judges. Bakri, however, did not mention names of the activists he referred to.

Egyptian novelist and journalist Alaa al-Aswani called Barakat’s assassination “a serious turning point” since it highlights the drawbacks of the state’s iron grip as far as countering violence is concerned. “Only justice can eliminate terrorism,” he wrote. “Repression, on the other hand, only gives it reason to survive.” Other analysts agreed that the security solution has proved its failure and that a political and intellectual approach has become inevitable. “The assassination of the prosecutor-general confirms that responding to violence with more violence only makes things worse,” said Abdel Galil Moustafa, activist and coordinator of the Egyptian Awakening electoral coalition. “Rehabilitation of criminals might take a longer time, but it is the only way out of this blood cycle,” he added.

Is the Muslim-Coptic honeymoon in Egypt over?

Copts breathed a sigh of relief following the ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Morsi, and the visit of his successor Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the Coptic Orthodox Church on the eve of Coptic Christmas on Jan. 6, 2014 seemed to usher in a whole new era. Yet concerns about latent hostilities that threaten to boil over were revived with the forced evacuation of five Christian families, a total of 18 people, from their hometown.

It began when 28-year-old Copt Ayman Morcos, who lives and works in Jordan, was said to have posted on Facebook cartoons that were considered derogatory to Islam and the Prophet Mohamed by residents of his village Kafr Darwish in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Beni Sweif. As news of the Facebook posts spread in the village, angry Muslims attacked Morcos’s house and the houses of several Coptic families with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

The clashes, which reportedly lasted for days, were followed by customary reconciliation meetings attended by village elders and religious leaders from both parties. The decision was made to evacuate Morcos’s extended family.

The outcry that followed the evacuation, and reports of the family moving from one village to another looking for a place to live, drove the governor of Beni Sweif, Mohamed Selim, to revoke the decision and oversee the return of the family, while promising an investigation into the incident and compensation for the damages.

“This is not a happy ending,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Al-Watani. “This is not a healthy situation, and the law has not been enforced.” Sidhom said the problem goes beyond harming Christians. “The greater harm was done to the sovereignty of the state.”


Ishak Ibrahim, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said the state should be held accountable for allowing customary reconciliation meetings to make decisions in such serious disputes in the first place, especially that those decisions are treated locally as court rulings.

“Accepting those rulings means that the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked with protecting citizens and their rights,” he said, adding that no one was arrested following the attacks on Christian houses.

Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the Civil Liberties Unit at EIPR, said those reconciliation sessions do not offer solutions as they claim to. They “are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” he said. The sessions are conducted with the knowledge of security forces, which implies their support not only for the process but also the conclusions, he added.

While admitting that the state sees reconciliation sessions as the easier way out, and that is why it prefers to leave such matters to locals, Yousri al-Azabawi, researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, notes the role of the church in perpetuating this process.

“The church bases its reaction to attacks on Christians on its relationship with the state,” he said. “When the church is on good terms with the state, it approves such fast solutions in order to avoid further tension.”


Journalist Salma Omar anticipates a deterioration in relations between the state and Copts if this situation persists, especially with all the expectations that followed Sisi’s coming to power. “Copts supported Sisi and played a major role in toppling the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they had high hopes in this regime,” she wrote, adding that Copts have always disliked the tradition of customary reconciliations.

Coptic activist Kamal Zakher links the Kafr Darwish incident to Coptic support for Sisi. “Extremist Islamists are retaliating at Copts for their support of Sisi,” he said. “That is why I believe the president should personally interfere to change the way such clashes are handled, and to make sure that the police don’t stand watching while Copts are attacked, like they did this time.”

William Wissa, head of the MCN news organization, which focuses on issues related to Christians in the Middle East, said the clashes had nothing to do with Morcos posting anti-Islam cartoons, but rather with the general persecution of Christians. “Deriding Islam is only an excuse to persecute Christians,” he said. “There is no proof that this young man actually posted these cartoons. In fact, he turned out to be illiterate and he does not have a Facebook account.”

Refaat Abdel Hamid, an expert in criminal sciences and security affairs, objected to the use of the term “forced evacuation,” saying the family left the village until tension eased. “It was necessary at the time for the family to leave,” he said. “It is not true that this means the failure of the state, since it is the state’s intervention which brought them back.”

Security analyst General Gamal Abu Zikri said the incident in Kafr Darwish was only a dispute like many that happen in villages across Egypt, and the parties involved in the dispute had to be separated for a while. “It was the Muslim Brotherhood that blew it out of proportion in order to attack the regime.”

Former Brotherhood member Kamal al-Helbawi agreed with Abu Zikri as far as Brotherhood involvement was concerned. “After being excluded from the political scene, there is nothing they can do except spreading chaos,” Helbawi said, adding that the 2013 constitution, drafted after the fall of the Brotherhood, is the first to treat Muslims and Christians equally in all rights and duties.

Egypt president’s ‘entourage’ of movie stars raises debate

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s trip to Germany was the subject a debate that was unequalled in any of his official visits during his first year in power, even if for quite peculiar reasons. Concerns about protests organized in Berlin by Europe-based Islamists, and speculation over the impact of recent death sentences handed to Muslim Brotherhood members, were not given as much attention as the movie stars who accompanied him.

Photos of actors and actresses on board the plane heading for Berlin, and videos of them rallying there in support of Sisi and cheering as his motorcade passed by, were received with resentment by some and admiration by others.

Journalist Mohamed Abdel Rahman said he could not see how the 19 actors and actresses who went to Berlin are expected to support Sisi. “Those are stars in Egypt and the Arab world, but they have no leverage whatsoever in Germany,” he wrote. “They are not even among those who acted in foreign films.”

For Abdel Rahman, their presence would maybe aim to deliver a message of Sisi’s support for the arts, as opposed to his conservative predecessor Mohammed Mursi. “If so, then it still didn’t work because he should have instead invited painters, photographers, folklore dancers, or even football players who played for German teams,” he added.

Mosaad al-Masry, spokesman of the Tamarod movement that initiated the campaign to topple Mursi, shared the same view regarding the choice of delegation. “The president was expected to invite a delegation of investors who can hold talks there about projects of economic benefit for Egypt,” he said, adding that he intends to file a complaint with the prosecutor general against all bodies that facilitated and funded the trip, including the Ministry of Culture.

Mursi advisor Essam Heggi said the actors and actresses were in Berlin to “play the role of the Egyptian people” in front of Western cameras. “This turns patriotism into cheap propaganda. We have actually reached the level where we need professional actors and actresses to play the role of happy Egyptians.”

Heggi said unofficial delegations should be comprised of scientists and researchers who can play an actual role in joint projects between the two countries. Heggi said the “charade” was obvious in the photo of the actors and actresses carrying posters of Sisi as they chanted slogans in his support. “This is one photo history shall never forget.”


Kuwaiti journalist Fajr al-Saeid accused critics of the delegation of trying to find fault with the government and inventing excuses to attack the president. “There is nothing abnormal about the delegation,” she said. “Look at the United States; presidents have taken actors like Tom Cruise and Robin Williams on trips.”

Delegation member Elham Shahine said actors and actresses are “ambassadors of Egypt’s soft power,” since they reflect the role art plays in combating extremism and terrorism. “Actors and actresses played a major part in the revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said, adding that it was important to show the world Sisi’s support for art and artists.

Yousra, another actress who participated in the delegation, said they showed the world that Sisi is loved by his people. “There is nothing wrong in supporting our president and demonstrating that we believe in him and in everything he is doing for the country,” she said.

Yousra accused the Brotherhood of organizing a campaign against the delegation. “Germany is home to a big Muslim Brotherhood lobby that spreads false news about Egypt, and we should always be there to counter their attempts.”

She added that she accompanied Sisi on his official trips whenever she could. “This is my third time. I went to the United States twice in delegations accompanying the president.” Yousra added that the actors’ delegation only constituted a small fraction of Sisi’s supporters who appeared in Berlin. “Members of Egyptian communities all over Europe came a long way to declare solidarity with their president.”


Professor of international law Ayman Salama said the movie stars did not actually accompany Sisi in the formal sense of the word. “There are two delegations that ‘accompany’ the president on official trips,” he said. “One attends all official talks with the president and participates in all the activities organized by the host country, while the other takes care of administrative issues and always travels before the president in order to prepare for the visit.”

The stars, Salama said, were not part of either. “They are more of a popular delegation that goes voluntarily to make a statement or another.” When asked about the kind of statement they expected to make, he said most likely they wanted to counter any possible protests by Brotherhood members and refute claims that Sisi lacks support back home. “The president has the right to refuse allowing such delegations to go, so he just didn’t.”

Journalist Hani Labib said claims that the presidency invited actors and actresses to go to Berlin and paid for their flights and accommodation are “not true. Neither the president nor the presidency has anything to do with the delegation. It was the Chamber of the Audio-Visual Media Industry that invited actors and actresses to go, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited politicians. This is popular diplomacy! What’s the big deal?” Labib said the campaign against the delegation aimed to distract public attention from the significance of the trip.

First deputy of the Egyptian Actors Syndicate, Sameh al-Seraiti, said there were no specific criteria for choosing delegation members. “Actors and actresses who had no commitments at that time just went, and that is all.”

A ‘parliament beauty,’ but can Egypt’s Shahinaz al-Najjar win?

Shahinaz al-Najjar became a familiar face in 2005 when billboards of her started spreading across Cairo as part of her campaign to run for Egypt’s male-dominated parliament. She became the talk of the town not only because she was a woman, but because she was only 36 years old at the time.

Her beauty was also a topic of discussion, as people joked about how MPs would be distracted by her presence. Her victory as Egypt’s youngest MP was a surprise for candidates as well as voters.

However, this was overshadowed by the controversy over her marriage to steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, himself a controversial figure for his leading position in the previously-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and his close ties to Gamal Mubarak, reportedly groomed to succeed his father Hosni as president of Egypt. Shortly after the marriage was announced, Najjar resigned from parliament amid rumors that it was Ezz’s wish.

As Najjar, originally a businesswoman, went back to managing her projects, news of her started fading. After the 2011 revolution and the subsequent incarceration of Ezz, Najjar was almost solely mentioned in relation to how her wealth would be affected by the possibility of confiscating Ezz’s assets. Shortly after Ezz’s acquittal in June 2013, she announced her intention to run for the next parliament.


Journalist Hussein al-Zanati says Najjar’s announcement is a disguised comeback for her husband, who had intended to run for parliament following his release. “There was a lot of pressure on Ezz to retract his decision to run for parliament, so he withdrew and made his wife run instead,” Zanati wrote.

“They are one and the same person. Both represent the powerful return of Mubarak’s supporters.” For Zanati, Najjar’s return is bound to increase opposition against the current government, which is accused of encouraging the political participation of members of the Mubarak regime.

He said while Najjar stressed the NDP would never come back, she indirectly defended the party. “She claimed that younger leaders in the party, her husband being one, had already embarked on several reforms but were not allowed to complete them because of the revolution. She is portraying her husband and his clique as revolutionaries and reformers.”


Journalist Ahmed Ismail highlighted the unpredictability of the constituency in which she will be running for the upcoming parliamentary elections, the same constituency she represented in 2005.

“Some residents in the area she is planning to represent accused her of disrespecting the sacrifices of revolutionary youths since she is a prominent symbol of the Mubarak regime, while others welcomed her decision to run as long as she was not involved in the killing of any of those youths,” he said.

Ismail added that the financial support Najjar has been offering residents of her constituency since she decided to run is seen by some as a gesture of goodwill and by others as a bribe. “She is also making grand promises about solving the problems of the constituency like unemployment, infrastructure, and education if she wins the elections.”

In addition to questioning Najjar’s awareness of the deplorable conditions in her constituency and her ability to address them, Ismail said it would be hard for a woman to be in charge of that area.

“The district of Manial and Masr al-Qadima is categorized as tribal, since a large number of its inhabitants descend from Upper Egyptian tribes who settled there and have religiously preserved their customs. According to these customs, women are not allowed to mediate… disputes.”

Najjar, who has been touring different neighborhoods in her constituency, launched an initiative to provide future brides with electrical appliances, which contributed to increasing her popularity especially among women. She is counting on female voters, with whom she holds frequent meetings that focus on women rights.

Najjar visited the main church in her constituency on Coptic Christmas, and posted her photos there on her Facebook page. She is also offering training courses in technical skills to youths in her constituency.

This, however, did not stop the 30 complaints filed against her by members of her constituency who demanded her exclusion from the parliamentary race due to her “bad reputation.” The complaints followed statements by Cairo-based Armenian belly-dancer Soufinar about a hotel owned by Najjar allegedly involved in prostitution, drug-dealing and gambling.

Female participation

Najjar is not the only woman to run for the 2015 parliamentary elections, and not the only controversial one for that matter. Singer and belly-dancer Sama al-Masry’s decision to enter the race was met with criticism, mainly because her songs and performances are seen as sexually explicit, and because lacks political experience.

Veteran NDP MP Amal Osman, who was minister of social affairs for 20 years, said members of her former constituency, which she had kept for 24 years, were urging her to run in the upcoming elections. Although she has not officially announced whether she will run, Osman’s statement was seen as another alarming sign of the return of Mubarak’s regime.

Internal conflict: Is the Muslim Brotherhood falling apart?

When Muslim Brotherhood Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein issues a statement, then party spokesman Mohamed Montasser issues another to refute it, it is obvious that there are internal conflicts. Hussein’s statement, which was overlooked by the Brotherhood’s media outlets, said he was still secretary general and that Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat is acting supreme guide.

However, Montasser’s statement, published on the Brotherhood’s official website, said a new secretary general was appointed in 2014 and that Mohamed Badei, who is currently in jail, is still the official supreme guide. The Brotherhood has no representatives except him and the group’s official website, Montasser’s statement added.

Journalist Ahmed Khair al-Deen said the two statements indicate the emergence of two camps inside the Brotherhood: the old guard represented by Hussein, and the new guard represented by Montasser.

Khair al-Deen said the new guard, which mainly consists of the leadership appointed in Feb. 2014, adopted a different form of violence against the state, initially “supported the ‘no-bullets’ strategy, which includes forms of violence that do not include killing, like blocking roads and targeting power stations for the purpose of draining the regime and containing the anger of young Muslim Brothers.”

However, that changed, Khair al-Deen said, with the death sentences against a number of Brotherhood members, including ousted President Mohamed Mursi, and the death in detention of two of the group’s senior leaders, Farid Ismail and Mohamed al-Falahgi. “These developments triggered the rise of a more violent discourse against the state, and drove the old guard to step in before further escalations take place,” Khair al-Deen wrote.

This, he added, led to the conflict between these two camps: the old guard that wants to renounce violence and oppose the regime peacefully, and the new guard that believes it has the right to choose its means of resistance. “The first group prioritizes the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the second prioritizes the toppling of the current regime.”

The new guard adopted a statement issued by 159 preachers, which explicitly adopts violence as the ideal way to combat the government. The statement called the state “murderous,” and supported its undermining with all available means.

“Rulers, judges, police and army officers, preachers, politicians, and journalists who are proven to be accomplices in the state’s crimes, even if only through incitement, are considered murderers and have to be penalized as such. They have to be executed,” said the statement.

The website of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, posted a statement supporting “the preachers who issued an edict condoning all forms of countering the crimes of the coup, last of which the death sentence against the legitimate president.”

Coup attempt?

Activist and political analyst Anas Hassan sees Hussein’s statement as “an obvious coup that was immediately aborted.” Hassan said Hussein and the old guard, which includes Deputy Supreme Guide Ezzat and Guidance Bureau member Mahmoud Ghozlan, still believe they have the upper hand by virtue of belonging to an older generation that had been in contact with the founding members.

“They assume they are the only ones who are capable of running the Muslim Brotherhood, and that any other leadership is bound to fail,” he wrote, adding that the old guard believes the new guard is not capable of facing current challenges, such as “an enemy much fiercer than [late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser,” a “more extremist Islamist ideology,” and a “war-torn region.”

Hassan scoffed at the old guard’s warnings of bloody scenarios if the Brotherhood follows the policies of the new guard, which it sees as immature and impulsive. “As if the old guard has not offered the Muslim Brotherhood to the military regime on a silver platter to be slaughtered in the Nahda and Rabaa sit-ins! What the Muslim Brotherhood suffers from now is all their doing.”

According to Hassan, this “coup” is only indicative of how insecure the old guard feels following the coming to power of a different generation with a different perspective.

Ahmed Ban, an expert in political Islam, said members of the old guard believe they are entitled to lead the Brotherhood because of their history. “They see themselves as the gatekeepers who have really suffered to guarantee the survival of the group and are still doing so,” he said.


Ban said it was unlikely that the impasse would be resolved through new elections in the group. “This will be very difficult with so many Brotherhood leaders behind bars, including supporters of each camp.” Ban said he does not see a way out of the impasse.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has ignited a fire it cannot extinguish now. This started with the dispersal of the sit-ins and the revenge rhetoric that has prevailed ever since. It was easy for them then to turn the conflict from political to religious, but they won’t be able to turn it back to political now. It is also difficult for the old guard to ask the new guard to renounce the violence it has originally instilled in them.”

Ban said the current government is the real winner in this conflict, since it would benefit from further disintegration in the Brotherhood. “The regime thought it is facing a huge organized entity that needs excessive effort to be dismantled. Now the state can sit back and watch the Muslim Brotherhood self-destruct.”

Sameh Eid, a researcher in Islamist groups, downplayed the impact of the conflict on the structure of the Brotherhood. “The old guard is still in charge, and the majority in the Brotherhood, which was trained to obey the leadership, still supports it,” he said, adding that previous disputes did not have a serious impact on the Brotherhood’s structure.

“Nothing will be more radical than the quitting of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh,” he said, referring to the deputy supreme leader who left the Brotherhood to run for president in the first elections that followed the 2011 revolution. “The Brotherhood did not collapse at the time.”

Meanwhile, younger Brotherhood members have started expressing their indignation at the mystery shrouding the dispute, and have accused conflicting leaders of dragging the group toward its destruction.

“First, Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein issues statements in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood and says no one else represents the group, then official spokesman Mohamed Montasser says Hussein is no longer the secretary general,” wrote Ali Khafagi, secretary general of the Brotherhood youth committee in Giza. “Now we have become two teams playing a game they are both destined to lose.”

Khafagi criticized leaders who keep silent about the conflict under the pretext of saving the group from polarization while the exact opposite is happening. “They destroyed us before and now they are finishing us off completely, with each of them dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood as his own private estate,” he said. “This is obviously the hardest time ever for the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Arab Sharkas executions in Egypt: Justice or revenge?

On May 19, the Egyptian Court of Administrative Judiciary was scheduled to look into a lawsuit that demands annulling the death sentence handed to six young men on charges of carrying out terrorist attacks in the case known as Arab Sharkas. On May 17, the same six were executed by the Military Court, which issued the initial sentence.

The heated debates following the executions were different from others commonly associated with this type of trial, such as how politicized the verdict might be, the culpability of the defendants, or the referral of civilians to military courts. The controversy revolved around what was specifically unique about this case: the speed with which the executions were carried out, and the reasons for not waiting for the result of the lawsuit contesting the verdict.

Lawyer Fatma Serag sees the lawsuit filed with the administrative judiciary as “the only available window for appealing the Military Court’s verdict and putting the death sentence on hold.” Serag said the decision to execute the defendants broke all the rules that have always been observed in such cases.

“There’s always a long time, usually years, separating the issuance and implementation of a death sentence, even when the verdict is final,” she said. “The Prisons’ Authority does that in order to give the chance for new evidence to emerge, and which may lead to postponing or annulling the verdict. Why was this verdict in particular carried out that quickly?”

Mohamed Adel, head of the Litigation Unit at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Political Rights, said he had the answer to Serag’s question. “The execution was carried out two days before the hearing of the other lawsuit to close any door to a verdict that might postpone the execution,” Adel said. He added that even when a death sentence becomes final, it has to take a turn on death row, which means it waits until earlier death sentences are carried out.

“This usually takes at least six months. In this case, only two months had passed since the verdict became final,” he said, referring to the Military Court’s rejection of the appeal in March. Adel said the defendants were deprived of their legal rights when they were executed that fast. “According to the law, families of the defendants have to be notified of the time of the execution, and defendants should be allowed final visits.”

Mahmoud Salmani, a member of the movement “No to the Military Trial of Civilians,” saw the execution as an indication of the main problem inherent in the idea of military judiciary, since its very presence violates the principle of the separation of powers.

“Judges in the Military Court are appointed by the head of the Military Judiciary Authority. This authority reports to the minister of defense who, in turn, is affiliated to the executive power,” he said. “This means that the military judiciary isn’t independent.”

A Human Rights Watch report voiced the same concern and demanded, weeks before the execution, that the defendants be retried before a civilian court. “Egypt’s military courts, whose judges are serving military officers, are neither independent nor impartial, but in October 2014 President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi increased their powers to try civilians by expanding their jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on state or public property,” said the report.

Criminal sciences expert General Refaat Abdel Hamid said in the case of defendants facing trial before two courts, the court that issues the first sentence has the right to carry it out. “This applies to the death penalty and to cases where one court is civilian and the other military,” he said. “In case of execution, the second pending trial is automatically dropped.”

Ahmed Helmi, a member of the defendants’ defense team, agreed with Abdel Hamid. “Filing a lawsuit against the verdict doesn’t oblige the Prisons Authority to postpone carrying out this verdict,” he said. “When the Military Court rejected the appeal, the verdict became enforceable and filing a lawsuit with an administrative court wouldn’t stop it. The only exception would be if the administrative court accepts the case.”

Professor of criminal law Mahmoud Kobeish blamed the administrative judiciary for not treating the matter with more urgency. “The administrative court should’ve set an earlier date for looking into the case to guarantee that the execution could be put on hold,” he said.

Analysts who supported the execution of the verdict expressed their concern over the reaction of the militant group to which the defendants reportedly belong, namely Ansar Beit al-Maqdes. “The group will do its best to prove its existence, and to convince Egyptians and the international community that the verdict was politicized,” said political writer Gamal Asaad.

“That’s why the Ministry of Interior declared a state of emergency right after the executions were carried out.” Asaad also expected that several countries and human rights organizations that have opposed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood would condemn the executions.


Professor of political science Tarek Fahmy said the revenge of militants has become more immediate than expected. “This was made very clear when three judges were assassinated in Sinai on the same day [former President Mohammed] Mursi and several Brotherhood leaders received a death sentence.”

The link between the executions and the killing of the judges took the controversy to a different level, as it was debated whether the decision to hasten the execution was aimed at avenging the judges. Hesham al-Mayani said what was more serious than whether the executions were fair is for the state to become party to a feud with militants and to allow this to impact its decisions.

“It is obvious that members of the Arab Sharkas cell were not scheduled to be executed on that day, especially that the state had enough on its plate with the strong reactions the latest death sentences against Mursi and Brotherhood members brought about on both the domestic and international levels,” he wrote. “This changed when the judges were killed.”

Mayani said he did not object to the verdict but rather to the timing, since it demonstrated that militants have succeeded in dragging the state into a cycle of revenge. “We will be fooling ourselves if we believe that the judges are now avenged because all what the state did was punishing terrorists it already had under its control for a crime committed by other terrorists,” he said. “Punishment for each crime should target those who committed this crime. We cannot assume that punishing another criminal would stop the criminals who are still at large.”

Security experts, however, see fast executions as the way to speed up the elimination of terrorist cells. “It’s important to get rid of members of those cells as fast as possible so that Egypt can regain its security,” said strategic expert General Hamdi Bekheet. “Executions should be accompanied by a series of clampdowns on those terrorists in their strongholds.”

Military expert General Talaat Mussallam disagreed with speculation about an increase in terrorist operations following the execution: “Militants strike whenever they get the chance, regardless of death sentences their fellow-militants receive.”

For Mussallam, the assassination of the judges illustrates the growing danger of militant groups, and which necessitates their immediate elimination. “Militants were targeting army and police officers; now they’ve added judges.”