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.”