Monday, December 24, 2012

A Leader Worth Mourning: Samer Soliman (1968-2012)

As we prepare for Christmas, we celebrate a season of illumination, yet we also mourn many tragedies across the globe. This is appropriate, as Christmas is a time of endings as well as beginnings, and more subtly perhaps, it is also a continuation. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year. It therefore represents an end as well as a beginning. The birth of Christ, over two thousand years ago represented the beginning of a new world religion, a continuation of revered Abrahamic beliefs, as well as the incorporation of ancient pagan, animist, and pharaonic traditions.

On this day, as we prepare for the 2013th celebration of the prophet whom we call Christ, I want to celebrate the life of one of the most influential politicians, activists, and scholars I have ever met: Dr. Samer Soliman. As I mourn his leaving this planet earth, I also am mourning the passage of a an ill-thought out, undemocratic constitution by the people of Egypt. I pray earnestly for the continuation of the Egyptian democratic opposition on this holy night. I ask all the people of Egypt, and of the world, to keep working to ensure that the promise of the Egyptian Revolution is fulfilled.

Samer would have wanted me to feel all of these feelings. Samer died after a battle with terminal cancer at the age of 44.  He was a Coptic Christian, who was nonetheless a fundamentally secular person. He was a journalist, and a brilliant scholar who wrote The Autumn of Dictatorship: Fiscal Crisis and Political Change in Egypt under Mubarak. He was a Professor of Political Economy at the American University in Cairo, and a founding member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. Ahram Online bids writer, activist Samer Soliman farewell.

Yet these dry facts, as impressive as they are, do not do justice to Samer's life. I do not have space to eulogize his life as a devoted spouse and family man to his beautiful wife Mary Shenoda. Nor is there room to discuss his stature as a professor at the American University in Cairo. Rather, I will focus on his work as an activist and a politician, since Egypt is facing a political crisis larger than perhaps any since the January 25th revolution itself. Farewell Samer Soliman (Egypt Independent)

Samer had a vision for the new Egypt.  Samer came from a political family, reared in Egypt's long tradition of secularism, which made Cairo the jewel of North Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s. He drew on these resources when he helped found the Social Democratic Party of Egypt shortly after the January 25th Revolution. I arrived in Cairo on January 25th, 2011, the first day of the revolution. While I tried to understand what was going on in my new home, Samer was on the barricades with students, farmers and workers, fighting valiantly to usher Egypt into a new era of democracy and human rights. He had long been involved in Egypt's historically strong labor movement. He reached out to the European social democratic parties, forged in Europe's struggle for democracy and labor rights in the 1920s, and revived after World War II in the 1950s.

Although Western news sources tend to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Social Democratic Party, one of the few genuinely new post-revolutionary parties to emerge in Egypt, has made a huge mark in this time frame. In coalition with the Free Egyptians and Tagamoo, the SDP formed the Egyptian Bloc ("Kotla). In the new (now dissolved) parliament, the Bloc made an impressive showing for such a new party, winning 7 percent of the available seats. The Kotla became one of the top five parties, and the major party representing women, secularists, democrats, Nubians, bedouins, Copts, human rights advocates, and so many other underrepresented yet crucial segments of Egyptian society.

Inspired by Samer and the SDP, I decided that I needed to document the emergence of Egypt's emerging opposition. I spent countless hours speaking to Samer and other SDP members learning about this new political forces.  Samer spoke to my leadership class on the budget challenges facing the new Egyptian government. He kept the fire burning bright that Egypt could be a democratic country that had room for all constituents, and all citizens. He championed human rights, civil rights, democracy, and social justice.

What would Samer think of the recent constitutional referendum? He would be dissappointed, I am sure, perhaps even frustrated and angry, but he would tell us not to give up. Samer received his doctorate in political science from the prestigious Science Po in Paris, France. As an intellectual and a scholar, he would remind us that the French Revolution spanned decades. He would tell us that like our French compatriots centuries before, we must keep moving forward, clear in our objectives, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment.

I like to think that he would be cheered that the April 6 Movement is planning a march on the presidential palace to oppose this constitution that does not truly represent the Egyptian people. He would applaud the fact that after nearly a year of disunity, the Egyptian opposition has finally been galvanized. Indeed, the National Salvation Front, composed of the Constitution Party, Wafd, the Social Democratic Party, the popular current party, and the National Association for Change have stated that they will run for parliament on one list.

I believe that tonight, Samer looks down on us from Heaven. I pray that we remember the message of his life, and all take steps to ensure that his vision becomes a reality. I pray that the Egyptian opposition seizes the moment to unite, and move the revolution, and Egypt's democracy forward.

Merry Christmas Samer. Egypt has lost a great leader, a lion of a man. Like the Lion of Judah, we hear your call. May we reach the mountaintop that you pointed us toward. May the peace of Christ be with you, always.

Your comrade in arms, Warigia

Monday, December 17, 2012

Egyptian Constitutional Referendum: I am not impressed

The first part of the constitutional referendum took place this weekend in Egypt. Voting will complete on the 22d.

I am not a fan of these multi-stage voting operations. They give some groups, most notably the MB, the opportunity to influence the outcome while voting continues. Thousands of violations have been noted in the first round of voting, and many are calling for a repeat of this Saturday's referendum.

It looks like there will be a big protest against the referendum tomorrow, Tuesday. The Egyptian state has deployed an additional 120, 000 troops to provide security.  Turnout has been low, at just 31%.

Low turnout will contribute to the already prevalent perception that this is not a consensus document that really represents the views of a broad swath of Egyptian society. Rather, this document is generally more reflective of a religiously biased, Islamic approach. There are certainly strong elements of this constituency in Egyptian society. But Egyptian society also has a strong secular, and leftist tradition, as well as a significant Christian population.

This development is dissappointing. From the standpoint of building a successful democracy, having a constitution that is not widely accepted by the Egyptian people is not an auspicious start. It suggests that Egypt has moved from an autocracy to a theocracy, and not toward a democracy.

Yet residents of Gharbiya voted a resounding no. at least 52.1% of the governorate rejected the draft document. The town of Mahalla actually declared its independence from Egypt, as a rejection of Morsy's policies.

If Complaints Not Addressed, Referendum Voting Should be Repeated (Egypt Independent)

Protests Planned Against Egypt Charter Vote (Al Jazeera)

First Round of Voting Spurs Dispute in Egypt (NYT)

Gharbiya Votes No (Egypt Independent)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vote No on the Egyptian Constitution

Violent clashes at the Presidential Palace, December 5, 2012. Photo Credit Al Masry Al Youm

A constitutional referendum is scheduled for December 15, 2012 (this Saturday) and December 22, 2012. The National Salvation Front is asking supporters to vote NO.

Egyptian president Mohamed Morsy issued a law yesterday dividing the constitutional referendum into two stages. Ten governorates will vote in the first stage on 15 December: Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan, Assiut, Daqahlia, Gharbiya, Sharqiya, Sohag, South Sinai and North Sinai. The remaining governorates will vote on December 22d, 2012. These governorates include Giza, Qena, Beheira, Beni Suef, Damietta, Ismailia, Kafr al-Sheikh, Matrouh, Monufiya, New Valley, Port Said, Qalyubiya, Red Sea, Suez and Luxor.

The leader of the National Salvation Front is leftist politician Hamdeen Sabbahi. They want the referendum to take place over a single day. They have also asked for full judicial supervision, and have called for domestic, international, and NGO teams to supervise the vote. National Salvation Front Urges No Vote on the Egyptian Constitution (Egypt Independent)

Most judges have refused to supervise the vote in protest of Morsy's recent power grab. Egyptian expatriates began voting today, Wednesday, December 12, 2012. Morsy Issues Law Staggering Referendum Vote (Egypt Independent)

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Street remains outraged at Morsy's efforts to give himself more power. According to Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, Morsy has paced all of his actions, and those of the constitutional assembly outside of judicial review. He has made it impossible to disband the constitutional assembly, and has effectively assumed legislative powers. Brown argues that the constituent assembly (or constitutional assembly) is dominated by Islamists. Morsy has reduced the pressure for the CA to reach a consensus document, and he is instead allowing the predominantly Islamist CA to force their version on the Egyptian opposition. As Egypt's Constitution Waits in Limbo, Morsy Grabs More Power (Carnegie Endowment)

Human Rights Watch states that the draft constitution provides for basic protections against arbitrary dentention and torture and for some economic rights, but fails to end military trials of civilians or protect freedom of expression and religion. One positive development is that the final draft does not require strict adherence to sharia with regard to women's rights (former article 68 has been removed). However, sex or gender is not a grounds for prohibiting discrimination in the new draft, and potentially interferes with women's choices about work and family. Egypt: New Constitution Mixed on Support of Rights (Human Rights Watch)

Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Alexandria yesterday to reject the referendum on the new constitution in front of the Haqaniyq Court. Further, thousands of opposition members marched from Hijaz Square in Heliopolist to the presidential palace last night to reject the referendum. More marches are scheduled beginning today. Opposition Protesters March Again (Egypt Independent)

Monday, December 3, 2012

A very bad version of the Egyptian Constitution and a very big protest

Sit In at Tahrir. Credit: Al Masry Al Youm

There is so much going on in Egypt it is next to impossible to keep track of it all. But wait, I have had this feeling before!!!

To make a long story short, the draft Egyptian constitution is almost as unpopular as Morsi's decree. Here is a collection of materials about the massive Friday protests and the constitution.

The Associated Press reports, Islamists approved the Constitutional draft "without the participation of liberal and Christian members, seeking to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel with a rushed, marathon vote that further inflames the clash between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi." On Morning Edition, "Critics say it's not just that the president is rushing through an imperfect document, but one that could be dangerous. For instance, the draft constitution has preserved broad powers for the president although it does stipulate four-year term limits. There is still little civilian oversight of the military. And perhaps the most controversial part is the slightly expanded role and influence of Islam, which gives clerics a consulting role on legislation. "For all the hope of change, observers say the document is quite similar to the 1971 constitution it's expected to replace." In Egypt, Draft of Constitution OK'd (NPR)

Al Ahram reports that The finalization of Egypt’s new constitution did not help to stop protests. Egypt's Political Opposition holds firm (Al Ahram) Although given a 2 month extension, the Constituent Assembly finished the draft in a marathon session that lasted more than 15 hours. “According to analysts, the move was intended to placate activists and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators angry at what they see as Morsi’s attempt to impose autocratic rule.” Once a draft constitution is approved via popular referendum, Morsi's decree will be cancelled and his legislative powers transferred to a newly-elected parliament. However, protests showed no sign of abating. Tahrir Square demonstrators, who are pushing for a 'no' vote in the upcoming referendum, believe the draft constitution neither fulfils the aspirations of Egyptians nor achieves revolutionary objectives.

"Egypt will not be forced to choose between a dictatorial declaration and a rushed constitution written by a fraction of Egyptian society… Egypt will not bow down to the will of a few," former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. 
Protests had begun after Morsi's power decree on November 22nd, but the release of the poorly drafted constitution made things worse, not better. Egypt Constitution Protests (LA Times) Morsi continues to defend both his recent decree and the draft constitution, claiming that it is necessary to advance Egypt's political transition.  Human Rights Watch suggests that secular moderates in Egypt may approve the constitution because of the fear of a future full of uncertainty. 
Here are some of the more controversial articles of the constitution: Egypt Constitution Sparks Outrage (WSJ)
o   Article 2: Says that Islam is the religion of the state and that principles of Islamic Shariah are the primary source of legislation.
o   Article 11: The state has power to issue unspecified laws that regulate 'public morality, discipline and order.'
o   Article 150: President can call binding referendum on 'important matters related to the state's paramount interests.
o   Article 198: Military tribunals can try civilians for crimes 'that harm the armed forces.'

The Egypt Independent notes that
"Participants chanted against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. “Egypt for all Egyptians, not Brothers and Salafis,” they chanted, along with “Down with the supreme guide’s rule,” referring to the Brotherhood’s leader. Demonstrators call for canceling the new constitutional declaration, canceling the referendum on the current draft constitution, restructuring the Constituent Assembly to write a constitution that reflects the views of all Egyptians, and providing retribution for the martyrs of the revolution who have died since 25 January 2011. “Among the most prominent participants are the Free Egyptians, Strong Egypt, Egyptian Social Democratic, and Constitution parties, as well as the April 6 Youth Movement Democratic and Ahmed Maher fronts, the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts, the Popular Democratic Movement, the Maspero Youth Union, the Voice of Freedom Movement, the Free Front for Peaceful Change, the Coalition of the Lotus Revolution and the Revolutionary Youth Union.”"Thousands Converge on Tahrir (EI) 
Well, that is enough for today.