Egypt mosque attack: Is Sufism a new target for terrorists in Sinai?

The magnitude of the attack that targeted worshippers in al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai is not only measured by the number of lives it claimed, estimated so far at 305, nor by the fact that it is the deadliest in Egypt’s modern history.

The rest of the details are equally disturbing. This is the first time a mosque is targeted, hence marking a clear departure from the sectarian agenda that characterized most recent attacks and also stirring away from the other traditional enemy represented by police and army forces. It does not, however, end at killing unarmed Muslim worshippers, since the association of that specific mosque to Sufism renders the issue more complicated and poses the inevitable question of whether a new war is just beginning.

Political analyst Mohannad Sabry argues that Sufis constitute a major threat to extremist groups like ISIS because they offer a totally different view of Islam, which makes them attractive for a considerable number of youths.

“The Sufis are succeeding in drawing hundreds of youths from the terrorist organization in a way the military hasn’t been able to do,” he said. “And I believe that the most important point, for ISIS, is to eliminate their ideological rival rather than a military rival.” Since the Sufi community in Sinai is among the strongest in the country, Sabry added, extremists will attempt to undermine their influence. “They also happen to be one of the most loyal communities to the Egyptian state,” he noted.

Despite his conviction that Sufis in Sinai cannot be easily broken, Sabry expressed his concern that that the Rawda Mosque attack would not be the last and, as horrendous as it was, not the most brutal. “If it’s the beginning of a pattern it could be the beginning of a war against Sufis that could be much more terrifying”

Newsweek internal security and terrorism correspondent Jack Moore argued that for fanatic Islamists Sufis are not really different enemies against whom they wage war for sectarian reasons. “Sufi Islam is a mystical branch of the religion that worships saints and shrines, behavior that ISIS considers to be idolatrous,” he wrote. “In the same way that the group’s brutal jihadis view Egypt’s Coptic Christian community with hate, and revile the Shiites of Iran and Iraq, they detest the Sufi branch of Islam.”

Despite the unprecedented brutality of the Rawda Mosque attack, Moore said that it was not the first against Sufis in reference to the abduction and beheading of Sheikh Suleiman Abu Heraz in November 2016 in the city of al-Arish. The blind 98-year-old Sufi leader was accused of practicing witchcraft. Attacks against Sufis, Moore added, have been quite common across the Arab and Muslim region since the emergence of ISIS. “Elsewhere in South Asia and Middle East, ISIS has attacked Sufis, their mosques, their shrines and their gatherings. In 2014, they destroyed several Sufi Muslim shrines and tombs in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor,” he explained.

“In February, an ISIS suicide bomber attacked one of the most revered Sufi shrines in the world, Sehwan Sharif, located in the southern Sindh Province of Pakistan, killing 80 people and wounding more than 250.”

A sheikh’s beheading, shrines bombed

Journalist Rabei al-Saadani saw the attack on al-Rawda Mosque as an implementation of earlier threats that should have alerted security forces. He cited the example of a statement ISIS published in January 2017 in its magazine Rumiyah in which the group slammed Sufism: “They venerate tombs, perform sacrificial slaughter for them, perform tawaf around them, and so on.” The Nabaa magazine, also affiliated to ISIS, published in October 2016 an interview with the head of ISIS self-proclaimed moral police and in which he said that the group would wage war against all forms of “idolatry” and “blasphemy” including Sufism.

He particularly mentioned al-Rawda mosque as one of the Sufi lodges and specified the names of other lodges affiliated to it and said the group would eradicate it “as soon as it conquers the areas hosting these lodges.” The interview revealed the group’s knowledge of the different Sufi orders, where their members are concentrated, and which places they frequent such as “lodges in the neighborhood of Abu Jarir and the areas of Tawil and Sabah.”

Al-Rawda Mosque is home to the Gaririya Sufi order, one of the largest in North Sinai. The Gaririya, an offshoot of the Bedouin al-Ahmadiya order, is named after its founder Sheikh Eid Abu Garir, who is considered the godfather of Sufism in the Sinai Peninsula and hails from the Sawarka tribe, the second largest in North Sinai. Gaririya is one of the official Sufi orders in Egypt and is registered under law number 118 for the year 1976.

The beheading of Sheikh Abu Heraz was preceded by the bombing of two Sufi shrines in North Sinai in August 2013: the shrine of Sheikh Selim Abu Garir in the village of Bir al-Abd, where al-Rawda Mosque is located, and the shrine of Sheikh Hamid in al-Maghara region. Several village residents said extremists threatened them a few days before the attack to kill them if they celebrate the prophet’s birthday, which falls this year on November 30, since it is considered an un-Islamic “novelty.”

Church closures in Egypt: ‘We were silent when it was one, now it’s four’

“We said nothing when one church was closed, so it got worse and a second, then a third were closed, and a fourth is on its way as if praying is a crime for which Copts are punished,” said a statement issued by the Diocese of Minya in Upper Egypt.

The statement listed the names of the four churches, two of which were closed after being attacked by extremist Islamists, the third closed in anticipation of an attack that never materialized, and the fourth was besieged by security forces following an attack and is expected to be closed. “We are concerned that extremists will be able to impose their will on state institutions,” the statement added, calling upon the governor and security entities to interfere.

The statement issued by the governor of Minya in response gives, however, a totally different picture. According to the statement, the buildings that were attacked were houses in which prayers were performed without a license. “Two houses were attacked. Security forces arrested 15 suspects in the first and 11 in the second,” said the statement. “As for the other places, they were also houses owned by Copts but were not attacked at all.” The statement added that the governorates responds to all requests for the construction of churches and makes sure that their number is proportional to population increase.

“In fact, Minya governorate has the biggest number of churches, monasteries, and Coptic community service centers,” added the statement, which also called upon the diocese to verify the information it has.

Bishop of Minya Makarios said he would not comment on the governor’s statement. The dispute about whether the targeted buildings were actual churches or houses used for prayers started a debate over the legal status of churches and the long-overlooked licensing ordeal.

The “war of statements,” as journalist Mohamed Youssef puts it, signals the beginning of a rift between state and church officials. “The governor’s statement angered a lot of Coptic activists who called upon President Sisi to personally intervene through forming a neutral committee to look into the crisis in Minya,” he wrote. “Many of those activists believe that the new law on the construction of churches has not so far solved any of the problems pertaining to the legal status of churches.”

It is noteworthy, Youssef added, that neither Pope Tawadros nor the Coptic Orthodox Church have issued any statement on the matter while Bishop Makarios is the only one in charge. “The Pope has most likely assigned Bishop Makarios the task of speaking in behalf of the Copts of Minya and putting pressure on the governorate to reopen the churches and legalize their status,” he said. “The Pope does not want the matter to be escalated to a dispute between the church and the regime so he preferred to deal with it on a more local level.”

Journalist Girgis Bishry, who criticized the governor’s statement, argued that the absence of licenses was just a pretext used by the governorate to close the churches and that the whole situation was not dealt with in accordance with the law. “The governor resorted to reconciliation sessions between the assailants and the victims in order to solve the problem, which basically means that the perpetrators get away with what they did,” he wrote.

Bishry noted that Minya is the most affected by sectarian violence among Egypt’s governorates, with more than 64 churches burnt following the dispersal of the Islamist sit-in staged in protest of toppling the Muslim Brotherhood and attacks targeting churches and Copts still taking places. “This means that Minya is a hotbed of extremists and there is a possibility that the governorate itself is infiltrated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters who intentionally turn a blind eye to such violations,” he added. “If this is not stopped, we might wake up one day to find Minya an Islamic state.”

MP and political analyst Emad Gad explained that the law on the construction of churches, issued in 2016, is divided into two parts: the first is issuing licenses for new churches and the second is legalizing the status of already-existing churches. “Almost half Coptic Orthodox churches are not officially licensed,” he wrote. “Some churches had all the documents completed before starting construction and got permission for construction, but the Security Bureau never gave the actual license so that church remained technically without papers.

Other churches were built without any documents to start with because of the many obstacles security entities placed in their way and these became a matter of fact.” Gad added that the Coptic Orthodox Church submitted a list of unlicensed churches so that they can be legalized, but instead of starting the process of issuing licenses, local authorities started closing them because they are not licensed. “Those authorities totally overlook the fact that such actions are bound to increase sectarian tension as Copts would once again fell deprived of their citizenship rights, on top of which is the right to practice their faith.”

report by Girgis Safwat, Teresa Shenouda, and Ali Hussein quotes sources from the Coptic Orthodox Church as saying that the Diocese of Minya sent to the special committee established by the cabinet the document for 50 houses that turned into churches so that their status can be legalized. “Those were originally small houses that parishioners started using over the years for prayers with unofficial security approval so they gradually acquired the status of churches,” the sources said. “Ownership documents were submitted to the committee so that licenses can be issued and the houses can acquire the official status of churches.”

Meanwhile, lawyer and head of the Egyptian Center for Developmental Studies and Human Rights Joseph Malak sent official warnings to the Egyptian prime minister and ministers of interior, parliamentary affairs, and local development to demand stopping the closure of churches and the re-opening of any closed churches.

“This demand is based on the 2013 constitution and law number for the year 2016 on the construction of churches as well as ministerial decree number 199 for the year 2017, which stipulates legalizing the status of existing churches and particularly articles 8, 9, and 10 which consider all existing churches legal,” said the warning.

Is Cairo the ‘most dangerous megacity in the world’ for women?

Cairo is the most dangerous megacity in the world for women, according to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the first poll to be conducted on the conditions of women in cities whose population exceeds 10 million people, and which included 19 cities, Cairo was deemed worst in terms of sexual harassment.

While the results of this poll were far from surprising, especially for women rights activists and Egyptian women in general, they were labelled inaccurate by parties that underlined the survey’s failure to rely on confirmed data and scientific methodology.

The National Council for Women NCW was the first entity to question the accuracy of the poll, which, it argued, did not rely on Egyptian or international documented statistics or on recognized studies on women’s issues.

“This poll, on the contrary, based its conclusions on the impressions of a few women rights activists, only 15 to 20 from each city, without mentioning the criteria for choosing them,” said the statement issued by NCW in response to the poll. “All what the poll mentioned was that the interviewees were divided into five categories: academics, civil society activists, healthcare personnel, social commentators, and decision-makers.”

The statement noted that it was a “perception poll” that focused on experts’ views on a number of topics such as sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, under-age and forced marriages, and femicide. “This was done without any reference to internationally recognized indicators and without employing the necessary research methodology.”

The statement added that the poll overlooked the efforts continuously exerted to overcome challenges women face in Cairo: “The council is aware of the difficulties women encounter in Cairo and that is why the Women Empowerment Strategy 2030, approved by the president this year prior to the release of the poll results, was drafted, which demonstrates how the Egyptian state prioritizes women issues and gender equality.”

Professor of sociology Rashad Abdel Latif labelled the poll “unfair” and “illogical,” arguing that Cairo is much safer than many cities around the world. “In a city like New York, for example, women cannot walk alone after 10:00 pm for fear of getting mugged and assaulted, while in Cairo women can stay out till 2:00 am,” he said. “

I am not saying that Cairo is 100% safe, but it’s definitely not the most dangerous. At least we don’t have a crime problem like many major cities.” Abdel Latif, however, admitted that a lot needs to be done in order to make Cairo a safer place for women. “This starts with a strict law that deters anyone who engages in violent actions against women followed by dealing with the social problems that trigger the prevalence of these practices such as poverty and unemployment.”

‘Tarnishing our image’

Mervat al-Tellawi, chairperson of the Arab Women Organization, said that the poll aims at tarnishing Egypt’s image and that it was conducted for political reasons. “It is true that there are cases of violence against women in Cairo, but this poll makes it look like we live in a jungle,” she said. “There are countries where women live in constant violence and repression such as Yemen and Somalia.”

Tellawi stressed the necessity of firmly responding to the poll in order to present the Egyptian society for what it really is in front of the world.

MP and head of the Human Rights Committee at the Egyptian House of Representatives Margaret Azer had a similar view. “Cairo is a huge city with an extremely dense population, so incidents of sexual violence are always a possibility, yet they are not the norm,” she said. “Plus sexual harassment is a problem everywhere and alleging that Cairo ranks first is just an attempt to ruin Egypt’s reputation.”

‘Denying the threat’

Fathi Farid, coordinator of the Aman Initiative for countering violence against women, slammed the Egyptian government and critics of the poll for denying the growing threat of sexual harassment in Cairo and accused the state of not doing enough to stop this phenomenon. “In late 2014, NGOs were no longer given permits for field work, which drove volunteers to make themselves available in the streets in crowded places on holidays to protect women at their own responsibility,” he said.

“There were also reports that the police were sometimes involved in violence against women.” Regarding the projects and initiatives the state launches, Farid said that they cost a lot of money that is taken from taxpayers then no results are seen on the ground. “In fact, women are the ones who are now protecting themselves and are learning how to face sexual harassment.”

Women rights activist Azza Kamel argued that the debate about the accuracy of the Thomson Reuters poll is a waste of time since whether it is the most dangerous or not, Cairo is “a sexual harassment city par excellence,” as she put it. “The past six years witnessed horrendous sexual assaults that did not spare toddlers and we still hear people blaming the victim and talking about what women wear,” she wrote.

Kamel referred to a statement made by lawyer Nabih al-Wahsh in which he said that harassing and raping a woman who wears ripped jeans is a “national duty” and wondered how such an incident is overlooked in a city already plagued by sexual harassment and how instead there is focus on the credibility of the poll. “Isn’t this statement in itself a crime? How come nothing was done about it? Isn’t the state supposed to protect women from this kind of incitement?”

On a more personal note, TV anchor and human rights activist Shahira Amin summed up what it feels to be a woman in Cairo: “Everything about the city is difficult for women. We see women struggling in all aspects. Even a simple walk on the street, and they are subjected to harassment, whether verbal or even physical,” she said.