What is Egypt’s Islamist uprising about?


Nov. 28 is the date set for the start of an Islamist uprising termed “the battle for Egyptian identity.” The call was first made in a YouTube video that explained the reasons why Egyptian Muslims should start a revolution.

The men and women in the video say a war is being waged against Islam and Islamic identity “when mosques in Sinai are razed to the ground by Apache helicopters,” when “Islamic studies courses are cancelled from schools,” and “when adultery and homosexuality become the norm.” A revolution, they add, is needed to restore values and morals, “without which no country can move forward.”

They say the revolution is not being organized by any specific party, group or faction, and does not condone bloodshed or sectarianism, but is rather about freedom and justice. Nov. 28 “is when you can defend your religion and liberate your country,” the video concludes.

The Muslim Brotherhood is supporting the protest movement, saying in a statement: “The Egyptian people will never accept to have their identity eliminated, their religion desecrated, their mosques destroyed, their Quran burnt, their youths killed, and their women dragged.”

The group added that the “coup,” in reference to the ouster of Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi, is about to come to an end. The statement warned the authorities not to carry out acts of violence or vandalism then blame the protestors.

The Salafi Front also expressed its support for the protests, which the ultra-conservative movement said will start right after Friday dawn prayers. Protestors “will ask God for victory and prepare themselves for martyrdom,” the front said in a statement. “The 28th will not necessarily be the day of victory, but at least the start of a wave of protests that will continue till the anniversary of the January 25 Revolution” that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Opposition to protests

Not all Islamist factions adopt the same view. The Construction and Development Party, the political wing of the formerly militant Al-Gamaa al-Islamiya, objects to the protests. “Calling for an Islamic revolution will only create division among the members of Islamist movements, and will increase tensions between Islamists and non-Islamists,” said party leader Essam Derbala. “Moreover, it will lead to a violent crackdown on the part of the state.”

The Salafi Calling movement, and its political wing the Nour Party, have launched a campaign against the uprising.

“These protests will bring about guerrilla wars,” said Yasser Borhami, the movement’s vice-chairman. “The collapse of the state is what will actually lead to the desecration of religion.” Borhami added that protestors killed in the uprising would not be martyrs even if they were peaceful.

Several non-Islamist movements that are opposed to the current government are refusing to take part in the protests. “We are against all attempts at polarizing society whether on the sectarian or the political level,” the April 6 Youth Movement said in a statement. “We believe that every citizen has the right to freedom of faith.” The movement stressed its support for the right to peaceful protests, and condemned all forms of violence.

The Revolutionary Socialists denied allegations about its members taking part in the protests, which “revolve around demands by Islamist factions and totally ignore revolutionary demands.”

Political researcher Wessam Fouad said the protests would deepen the rift between opposition factions, which he saw as divided into two main groups. “The first group calls for a civilian state and is categorically against military rule. The second group sees Islamic identity as the main cause at the moment,” he wrote.

Fouad added that the protests would make it easier for the government to win over the secular opposition by playing on its members’ apprehensions about the Islamization of the revolutionary discourse. “The Islamist uprising will also give the regime the perfect pretext for endowing the war against terrorism with more credibility.”

Journalist Belal Fadl wrote that Nov. 28 marked the Brotherhood’s “political suicide,” as it was trying to “drag the country to an illusory battle for identity through promoting lies like the destruction of mosques and the burning of the Quran.”

He added: “As usual, the Brotherhood did not call upon its members to participate so that it can hijack the uprising if it yields fruit, or engage in more self-victimization if the regime stages another violent clampdown against Islamists.”

Militarizing Egypt’s Trials

Militarizing Egypt’s Trials

While the military trials of civilians are nothing new in Egypt, the circumstances in which Egyptians can be brought before these courts have seen a worrying expansion. From January to September 2011 alone, estimates place the number of Egyptians who faced military trials under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) at 12,000. A new law issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in October could likely lead to a significant rise in this figure, and raises more concerns about a further clampdown on freedoms.

According to Law number 163/2014 for the Protection of Public and Vital Facilities, issued on October 27, following the death of more than thirty Egyptian soldiers in a militant attack in the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian army will now aid the police in guarding “public” and “vital” facilities. For the next two years, these facilities are to be placed under military supervision and treated as military establishments. They include, but are not restricted to, power stations, oil and gas fields, railways, roads, bridges, and “public establishments of a similar nature.” Universities, seen as the last bastion of freedom of expression, were also later declared to be subject to the law. “Of course universities are included. Aren’t they public establishments?” said Minister of Justice Mahfouz Saber one day after the law was issued. Perpetrators of violent activities targeting any establishments seen to fall under the law will be referred to the military judiciary.

Less than a month after the law’s enactment, five Al-Azhar students have been referred to a military court on charges of torching a room on the university campus. Another eleven members of the Muslim Brotherhood were referred to military prosecutors on charges relating to planting a bomb in a local court, and blocking railway tracks in Kafr al-Sheikh.

While official statements insist the law aims only to counter terrorism and restore security, and also stress its constitutionality, activists and rights organizations have a different point of view. Fifteen local rights organizations including the Egyptian Imitative for Personal Rights (EIPR) and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, issued a joint statement calling on the government to repeal the law, describing it as a “masked state of emergency.” A Human Rights Watch (HRW) statement argues that even “the shaky due process guarantees” offered by regular courts in Egypt and which render a fair trial quite unlikely anyway are totally absent in their military counterparts.

The phrasing of the law is also regarded as a major drawback. HRW Middle East and Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson says, “Its absurdly broad provisions mean that many more civilians who engage in protests can now expect to face trial before uniformed judges subject to the orders of their military superiors.”

Diana al-Tahawy, head of the Transitional Justice Department at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, describes the law as “catastrophic.” Tahawy agrees that a lack of a proper definition “public and vital facilities” is problematic. She also argues that the law violates article 204 of the Egyptian constitution. “The constitution specifies that military courts are only authorized to deal with offenses directly targeting military establishments and personnel,” she said, noting a lack of objectivity on the part of judges and prosecutors in military courts since they are appointed by the minister of defense. This was precisely the concern of Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. “The disturbing truth is the government passed this law to remove any chance of an independent and impartial judge ever delivering a not-guilty verdict,”she said.

Mahmoud Salmani, a member of the No to Military Trials for Civilians movementsays protestors, not terrorists as claimed by the state, are the main target of the new law. “People take to the streets and sometimes block roads or railways to protest. All those will face military trials for demanding the rights granted by the constitution and denied them by the state. The same will apply to students who protest on campus,” he said, adding that the stability this law claims to establish will never materialize as long as injustice persists.

For all the local and international criticism the law has faced, it certainly has its support in Egypt. Editors-in-chief of seventeen state and independent newspapers issued a joint statement supporting the new law and pledging “to take part in fighting terrorism” and “countering unpatriotic rhetoric” in their coverage. While the signatories stressed their respect for freedom of expression, they rejected attempts at “questioning the intentions of state institutions and undermining the army, the police, or the judiciary.”

When asked to contribute to resolving the debate over the specifications that make an establishment vital or public, the head of Military Judiciary Authority, General Medhat Ghozy only added to the mystery, saying the law applies to “Any building that is state owned or offers public services… be it a university, a factory, or a power station,” adding, “The law is broad.”

It is, in fact, the law’s ambiguity that refutes the argument that only Islamist extremists and the Muslim Brotherhood–designated a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government and whose members and sympathizers have been subject to a fierce clampdown following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi– who are the target of the law. Given the number of secular activists currently serving jail sentences for breaching the controversial protest law, it is likely that military trials will become a new frontier they must now face in Egypt.

How ‘treacherous’ is criticizing Egypt’s president?


Egyptian actor Khaled Abul Naga might be facing high treason charges for criticizing the policies of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. According to the lawsuit, filed by lawyer Samir Sabry, Abul Naga insulted the president, incited the public against the Egyptian army and promoted anarchist principles, which makes him a traitor and necessitates trying him as such.

“Abul Naga is a political dwarf who is attempting to gain fame through making such statements,” Sabry said in a television interview. “Those troublemakers have to be stopped by law.”

Sabry also declared that he plans to file another lawsuit accusing Abul Naga for attempting to topple the regime and “defy the will of Egyptians who elected Sisi as president.”

The lawsuit came in response to Abul Naga’s criticism of the current regime, especially as far as the Sinai evacuations are concerned.

“The regime does not have the right to kick people out of their houses under the pretext of security,” he said in an interview on the margins of the Cairo International Film Festival.

“If the regime cannot defend the country without displacing people, it is failing.”

Abul Naga argued that bringing back the security state would eventually ruin the country, especially that the revolution’s main goal was to eliminate it. Although he did not mention Sisi by name, he explicitly called upon the president to deliver or resign.

“If you cannot do your job then you better leave. Looks like we’ll be saying that very soon,” he added, referring to one of the Egyptian revolution’s most renowned slogans and which was at the time addressed to former President Hosni Mubarak: “Leave.”

Sabry’s lawsuit triggered a wave of indignation among activists and intellectuals who defended Abul Naga’s right to freedom of speech. A group of filmmakers, journalists, and writers issued a statement condemning what they termed “terrorism disguised as patriotism and which allows leveling grave accusations like high treason against citizens who have a different opinion.”

The statement pledged solidarity with Abul Naga and called for the respect of the rights granted by the constitution “for which Egyptians paid with their blood and lives.”

The signatories also called for expelling Sabry from the Bar since he “not only violated the constitution, but also contributes to undermining political life in Egypt.” A hashtag called “support_naga” was also launched on Twitter.

On the other hand, Abul Naga was the subject of a fierce campaign started by several journalists and talk show anchors, several of whom resorted to slander.

Anchor Tawfik Okasha, in fact, claimed that Abul Naga was a homosexual, a matter that Sabry apparently hinted at when he said there was a reason why Abul Naga could not join the army.

“You are no different from tabloids,” added Okasha.

Mazhar Shahin, a preacher-turned-talk-show-host, followed the same strategy.

“If Abul Naga does not like Egypt, he is the one who has to leave,” he said.

“He can go to Syria or Iraq where there is no army to bother him. He just needs to take care of his pants there.”

Journalist Moustafa Bakri accused Abul Naga of taking part in conspiracies against the Egyptian state since the Jan. 25 revolution.

“One is ashamed to talk about those people whose views conflict with the people’s will,” he said on television.

Talk show host Ahmed Moussa sarcastically called upon Sisi to appoint Abul Naga head of operations in the Sinai Peninsula.
“There he can apply all the military tactics he is an expert in and show us how he can fight terrorism,” he said in his show.

Meanwhile, talk show host Khairy Ramdan argued that Abul Naga’s statements are not worth paying attention to in the first place because of how “naïve” they are. “So, if you want someone else to be in charge, who is going to fight terrorism?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it be the army still? What is the alternative in your own point of view, Khaled?”

While objecting to the high treason accusation, journalist Hamdi Rizq argued that Abul Naga has been impulsive in his statements.

“Abul Naga seems to be totally oblivious to the terror through which the country has been going in the past year,” he wrote.

“There is a huge difference between heroic roles you play on the screen and the actual wars waged against Egypt.”

Rizq expressed his surprise that as an actor like himself, Abul Naga was not thankful for having Sisi as head of the state.

“Had it not been for Sisi, you would have stayed at home with no films to make and no festivals to attend,” he said. “You would have been governed by people who reject creativity and believe that arts are prohibited,” he explained, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Abul Naga, who refused to retract his statements, cited article 65 of the 2014 constitution, drafted after the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, to hold on to his right to express his views freely.

“Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed,” reads the article. “All individuals have the right to express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication.”

Abul Naga’s supporters saw the Best Actor award he received Tuesday from the Cairo International Film Festival as a compensation for the insults he has been exposed to following his statements.

Mona Seif, founder of the No to the Military Trial of Civilians movement and sister of controversial activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, said Abul Naga’s patience in the face of slander was well rewarded.

“He has been bearing with incredible attempts at tarnishing his image for the past few days,” she wrote. “Now, he is named Best Actor. Congratulations to him and to us for having him among us.”

Seif also noted the role Abul Naga has played since 2011 in opposing the trial of civilians before military courts. Activist Hazem Abdel Azim wrote: “Congratulations to Khaled Abul Naga for getting the Best Actor award at a time when terrorism is used as a pretext for the suppression of freedom of speech.”

Meanwhile, no official statement was issued regarding Abul Naga’s controversial statements in what could be seen as part of Sisi’s policy toward opposition and insults to his person.

In a speech he gave for the commemoration of the 41st anniversary of the October 6 victory, Sisi stressed that he is not interested in responding to criticism. “If I responded to insults, I would be degrading myself,” he said.

“Many people have been insulted before but that never meant they were weak or unsuccessful.”

Fate of Egyptian NGOs hangs in the balance


Nov. 10 marked the expiry of the ultimatum given to Egyptian NGOs to “adjust their legal status” by registering under law 84, which dates back to ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The registration decree was issued in July by Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali, supported by amendments to the penal code, and approved by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

It states that citizens who receive material or logistical funding from local or foreign bodies for the purpose of destabilizing national security will be sentenced to life imprisonment and a fine of no less than 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($69,924).

With the passing of the deadline, NGOs that have not registered risk facing criminal charges, while some opted to close down and others have started the registration process.

There is heated debate about whether the decree and amendment will enhance security or clamp down on civil society.

Several NGOs refused to register in principle, saying the law contradicted the nature of civil society.

Magda Adli, head of Al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said: “The law allows the authorities to interfere in the NGO’s affairs, including sources of funding, which makes it no different from any governmental body.”

She added that NGOs are supposed to monitor the performance of government, not the other way round.

Mohamed Abdel Azim, head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, said registration under this law will give the government the right to approve only activities that serve its interests. “This will be a problem for our center, which basically works on torture.”

Saad al-Din Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies, said his organization will not register under the law. “If the government objects to our status, we’ll file a lawsuit and I’m sure we’ll win,” he said.

“I’ve actually been through many legal battles with the government, and the verdict is usually in our favor.”

Concerns over the law’s negative impact on civil society were expressed in a statement signed by 29 Egyptian NGOs: “The signatories of this statement believe that the law defeats the purpose of civil society since it aims at closing down independent organizations and authorizing only ones that will abide by the government’s rules.”

Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, said the law violates article 75 the 2014 constitution on “the right to establish associations,” and “the right to form NGOs and institutions on a democratic basis, which shall acquire legal personality upon notification.”

That is why no action should be taken before a new law is issued in line with the constitution, Abu Saeda added.

“A law was already drafted by a civil society committee formed in 2013 under the former minister of social solidarity,” he said.

“Why not wait until this law is approved by the upcoming parliament, especially since it was approved by a large number of organizations?” The current law is also against international charters and democratic principles, since it deprives citizens of one of their basic political and civil rights, he added.

George Ishak, an activist and member of the National Council for Human Rights, said it is unlikely that any measures will be taken against NGOs that have not registered until the election of a new parliament.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity “is only negotiating with NGOs to adjust their status, but a new law will be issued by the upcoming parliament,” he said.

Legal expert Essam al-Islambouli said the amendment of the penal code does not target NGOs, but rather aims to fight terrorism. “The amendment aims to impose harsher penalties on those who receive funding in order to destabilize security.

I don’t know why NGOs are making a fuss about it,” he said, adding that some terrorist groups have used NGOs to store weapons.

A source at the Ministry of Interior, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said more than 80 NGOs in Egypt are operating outside the law.

“Some activists also work for foreign NGOs that have no offices in Egypt, and some of them attended conferences and training sessions without notifying the authorities,” he said, adding that Egypt is targeted by several countries that want to jeopardize its national security.

The National Security Bureau estimates the funds received by 57 NGOs in Egypt as of July 2014 at more than 100 million Egyptian pounds ($13,984,843).

Wali said nine foreign NGOs and eight Egyptian ones applied for registration before the deadline. “We are currently in the process of surveying NGOs that have not adjusted their status,” she said.

A source at the Ministry of Social Solidarity said a day after the deadline that looking into the files of unregistered NGOs will be postponed because “the ministry does not have a clear vision of the measures to be taken against those NGOs.”

Egypt’s Sinai evacuations: A case of displacement for security?


Creating a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip has been the Egyptian government’s priority since the Oct. 24 attack that killed more than 30 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. The plan, which promises to stem the flow of smuggled weapons and militants, necessitates the immediate evacuation of thousands of residents and the demolition of hundreds of homes.

While both the decision and the speed of its implementation are lauded as a positive step toward eliminating terrorism in a restive region, concerns about the financial and psychological damage sustained by locals are emerging.

Lawyer and human rights activist Gamal Eid said the evacuation constituted a blatant violation of the constitution. Article 63 “states clearly that forced evacuations of citizens are prohibited,” he said. “Even if only one person refuses to evacuate, it’s still a crime.” Eid also objected to permitting the evacuation in return for compensation. “The constitution mentioned nothing about compensation.”

Naeim Gabr, a chief of the Sawarka tribe in northern Sinai, said he did not see how evacuation would contribute to countering terrorism. “This is absolutely illogical. National security is achieved when an area is properly populated, not deserted,” he said, adding that some residents are planning to file lawsuits that could reach an international level. He also noted residents’ strong ties to their lands. “No compensation can replace the land for the locals of Sinai.”

Political activist Haitham Mohamedin said the evacuations “will neither end terrorism nor protect soldiers in Sinai. They’ll only trigger animosity between the people and the army,” which is “treating the people as second-class citizens, and accuses many of them of treason.” The army “is technically imposing martial laws on the people of Sinai, on the basis that the peninsula has become a military zone.”

However, security expert Hossam Sweilam said the evacuation plan “was done in agreement with the Sinai locals, and most of them accepted the decision and will be compensated. Even if it’s unconstitutional, the constitution isn’t a holy book, and national security takes precedence over the constitution.”

Sweilam said the buffer zone, and a planned canal inside it, will be large enough that members of Palestinian group Hamas “wouldn’t be able to infiltrate the Egyptian border.”

Military and strategic expert Mahmoud Zaher refuted claims that the government was treating Sinai residents as traitors. “On the contrary, the army is fully aware of the major role played by the people of Sinai in helping it combat terrorism,” he said. “The army is now asking them if they can go one more extra mile.”

Zaher also denied that Sinai residents were being treated as second-class citizens. “They are of course first-class citizens, and nobody can say otherwise. We know that evacuation isn’t a pleasant business, but the government is unfortunately forced to do it. It’s a matter of national security.”

Samir Ghattas, chairman of the Middle East Forum for Political Studies, highlighted the importance of a buffer zone in closing tunnels used to smuggle weapons and militants from Gaza into the border town of Rafah.

“Those tunnels constitute a grave threat to Egypt’s national security,” he said, adding that Hamas has been “using Sinai as a warehouse for their weapons” because “they’ll be safer than in [Gaza], where they’re subjected to Israeli attacks.” Ghattas said Sinai residents found to be involved in smuggling would be forcibly evacuated and not compensated.

He acknowledged that some residents have started complaining, but not about the evacuation in principle. “They only complained that they weren’t given enough time,” he said, referring to the 48 hours given to leave their homes.

Sinai-based journalist Mustafa Singer said the evacuation, “delivered over megaphones, took people by surprise.”

New York Times reporter Kareem Fahim said it was hard to gauge local reaction because it is difficult for journalists to get access to the area, and because protests without permission are strictly banned. “But the lack of outcry also seemed to measure the fatigue in Sinai, after decades of government neglect and months of armed conflict pitting the army against a stubborn insurgency.”