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. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Morsi Maneuver Part 2: Tahrir revolts against massive power grab

Marchers arrive in Tahrir to protest the Constitution

Dear readers, 

I have been watching the unfolding events in the past days with some trepidation, but not that much surprise. 

Morsi  has issued a sweeping decree on November 22, 2012 expanding his powers.  Opponents are furious, arguing that his declaration has made all his decisions immune to judicial review and banned the courts from dissolving the upper house of parliament and an assembly writing the new constitution, both of which are dominated by Islamists. The decree also gave Morsi sweeping authority to stop any ‘‘threats’’ to the revolution, public order or state institutions. The powers would last until the constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are held, not likely before spring 2013.  Egyptians Protest Morsi (Boston Globe)

His supporters argue that he is protecting the Revolution  Morsi has split Egypt down the middle (BBC)   According to the BBC, his supporters state that he merely took unchecked power away from the judiciary - which is still full of personalities from the Mubarak era - until the constitution is done and there are systems in place to allow the country to move forward.

Of course, when Morsi was elected, many people feared that exactly such a power grab would happen. Morsi is a complicated character. On the one hand, he was educated in America, and even taught at Cal State Northridge and is quite learned. On the other hand, he was a member of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood before that organization became legal after the Revolution.  Times Interview with Mohamed Morsi. Unfortunately, his rhetoric, that he wants a civil, constitutional state, is not in line with his current actions.

The crazy thing is that it is not even Friday, and all hell has broken out in Tahrir. The most astute analysis I have heard comes from my old boss at AUC Dr. J--- B----. She says that 

"At this point, almost any scenario could be built. Morsi may realize he has to prove himself and show the courage to confront his own side and rebalance the constituent assembly, in which case he could pull if off if he demands unanimity or a super-majority on every provision, to force them to reach consensus or take it out. 
Conversely, the MB could militarize and we could have green shirts jack-stepping around Tahrir. 

Or we could have massive unrest and economic collapse.

Or the military could come back if things get dicey. 

He has really painted himself into a corner. We'll have to wait and see if he knows something we don't -- about the Gaza situation or the IMF, or whatever -- but he risks having all hell break loose if there are any more unpleasant surprises.  Word is MB HQs in 7 governorates all over the country were burnt.  One of the students also told me that the police and the army were shooting at each other at the head of Road 90 last week."

My analysis is that if Morsi knows something we do not, he needs to convey it to the left, to regain their trust. He has shown strength and statesmanlike behavior toward the conflict in Gaza,  Talks begin in Cairo after Gaza Cease Fire (NYT) and in relations with Iran, but his inability to manage the domestic front in his own country could neutralize Egypt's effectiveness as a foreign affairs powerhouse.   

Most worrisome is Morsi's attempt to maintain the work of the Constituent Assembly. As I have noted in previous posts, from day one, the Constituent Assembly has been heavily Islamist. With only 7 women on the Assembly to begin with, the Assembly clearly did not represent the interests of a majority of Egyptians. I noted my discomfort with the opposition parties and the Christian parties pulling out. Strategically, they should have stayed in and fought for a better CA. Nonetheless, if Morsi has his way, the current CA, which is even more Islamist now than when it was initially convened, will be in charge of a new constitution that certainly does not reflect the secular, mult-religious, modern nation of the Egypt we know and love. 

This blog is called Democratizing the New Egypt.  Morsi's behavior is not democratic, and is made even worse by the fact that there is no parliament currently sitting. It is true that the judiciary needs reform, and feloul in the judiciary need to be routed, but concentrating all of the nation's power in the executive is not the correct tactic. 

There is a silver lining to all of this: my beloved secular opposition is getting its second wind. As reported by the Egypt Independent, 

For almost two years, civil and secular groups were constantly blamed for being disunited and unorganized, paving the way for Islamists to rise to power after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

That changed this week as opposition leaders, former presidential candidates, secular liberal and leftist parties, and even some figures previously labeled as feloul — or remnants of the former regime — united against President Mohamed Morsy’s constitutional declaration, through which he claimed sweeping powers for himself, and formed the National Salvation Front.  Civil Groups Pounce Into Public Space (EI)
As one protester quoted by the BBC (article above) pointed out, “It's unfortunate that my demands are still same - bread, freedom and social justice. If Morsi doesn't get it, well, we have seen this movie before and all know where this is going to end.”

Credits: Huge thanks to my awesome graduate assistant Jillian Underwood for assisting with research and keeping me organized!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Troubles with the Egyptian Constituent Assembly

Friday of Islamic Sharia in Tahrir Square. Photo Credit Al Masry Al Youm.

The Constituent Assembly is the somewhat difficult name for the group of Egyptians tasked with writing the Constitution for this emergent democracy.

On Sunday, several leftist and liberal members withdrew from the Constituent Assembly. Further, Coptic Orthodox Pope Bishop Pachomius announced the withdrawal of three Christian members from the CA on Saturday. I am of two minds about this. First, I can see that maybe some of them feel they are participating in a fundamentally flawed process. Principles aside, they risk handing the task over to conservative Islamists, which will result in a document not widely accepted by the entire Egyptian population, particularly the educated population.

Salafis in the CA wanted to replace the idea of "Sharia principles" with the idea of "Sharia provisions," which would leave less open to interpretation in the Constitution, and might usher in a Sunni theocracy of sorts.

Christians and liberals are protesting what they see as an "Islamic" Constitution.  They are also concerned about the far reaching powers granted to the Executive by the Constitutional draft. Further, there is concern that the way the draft is currently written, it would preclude a civil state. The Church has said that the withdrawal of the Christian members of the CA is final.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Constitutional Conundrum and Egypt's stance on Gaza attacks

The process of drafting the Egyptian constitution is turning out to be difficult, to say the least. Court cases, threats, and a debate over human rights are common occurrences. Further, a polarizing debate about the role of religion in the new Egyptian state continues to make headlines. One important debate is Islamist representation in the Assembly. Further, observers feel that the conservative language of certain articles may violate the human rights of religious minorities, women and even children. Liberal and secular groups are protesting the recent draft.

Human Rights Watch argues that the draft of the constitution provides basic political and economic rights, yet it falls short on women's and children's rights, freedom of religion, as well as torture. HRW believes that several provisions of the September 27th draft are at odds with international human rights standards. HRW tells Egypt to fix draft constitution (October 8, 2012)

Nathan Brown, a law professor at George Washington University, notes that the Egyptian constitution is not a secular document, rather it puts Islam at the front and center. Most of the 100 members of the Constitutional Assembly are Islamists, however, but Brown argues that they are trying to defer some major issues to get national buy in. Sharia law governing marriage, divorce and inheritance--which gives men and women very different rights-- will continue, although it has some language supporting the status of women at the beginning. In the long run, he notes, those provisions may come into conflict.  Brown states that "[l]iberals, secularists, Islamists, leftists, people from all across the political spectrum are having to hammer out an agreement, and they're not used to having to do that," yet he is hopeful that they will make it work. Looking to Rebuild, Egypt Leans on New Constitution (October 21, 2012)

Meanwhile, President Morsy has threatened to form a new Constituent Assembly if this one does not complete its work within six months. He also accused members of the former Mubarak government of sowing dissent in the country. Morsy puts pressure on Constituent Assembly (October 28, 2012)

The New York Times suggests that the new Constitution will insert religion more deeply into Egypt's judicial and legislative processes. Yet, the document firmly seats power in the hands of Egypt's elected officials and civil courts, so their is little likelihood that the country will become a theocracy as is the case with Iran. Liberal delegates believe that the guidelines are vague enough to give the nation flexibility with regard to interpretation in crafting the future Egyptian state. Egypt is the first Arab state to attempt to meld Sharia with principles of democracy. Tunisia is using a more liberal constitutional approach.A Vague Role for Religion in Egyptian Constitution (November 9, 2012)

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports that Morsy remains firm in his support for Hamas, as he attempts to negotiate the delicate space between supporting the Palestinians, and honoring his treaty obligations with Israel. Thousands of Egyptians rallied in squares and mosques to condemn Israel's air strikes on the Gaza Strip, and to urge the Egyptian state to support the Palestinians. The post reports that Morsy has taken the lead among Arab leaders in confronting Israel. Egyptians Rally in Support of Palestinians in the Gaza Conflict (November 16, 2012)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Anniversary of Maspero, and other thoughts

Dear readers

I think we should just commemorate the anniversary of the Maspero massacre on October 9, 2011. It was a very stressful and emotional time in my life, and the life of my colleagues. It really made me pay attention to the discrimination faced by Christians, and Bahai in Egypt. What was particularly eerie about the Maspero Massacre was how the state run press tried to pretend that a) it had not attacked the protesters, and b) the protesters were violent terrorists who had attacked the army.

The Maspero episode also made me worry about the fate of any minority group, Bedouin, Nubian, or women, who want to make a peaceful point in the face of a violent state. This is particularly a matter of concern, because Syria has devolved into a bloody civil war. Egypt's revolution was supposed to lead to a brighter future.

My colleague Abdel Rahman has written a few posts worth reading that I would like to share with you

As my brother Abu says, "Meet the old state, same as the new state." We need to keep our eyes on the prize and hold Morsi accountable. We need to keep fighting to finish this revolution.

Amnesty reports on persistent violence

Maspero Massacre, a Year on from the terrible turning point

The Morsi Maneuver


Thursday, October 11, 2012

First draft of new Egyptian Constitution released

Egypt's Constituent Assembly announced this Wednesday that it has finished the first draft of the new Egyptian Constitution. They released an unfinished draft to the Egyptian public on Wednesday, and encouraged public debate regarding the document. The draft leaves key questions unanswered. No sections address the future role of the military, for example. Egy[t Releases partial draft of new constitution, Abigail Hauslohner, Washington Post.

The Constituent Assembly comprises 100 persons. It is generally viewed as being dominated by Islamists. Only 7 women were chosen to take part in the 100 member Constituent Assembly.

Egyptians will have an opportunity to vote yes, or no to the entire constitution. They will not have an opportunity to disapprove individual articles. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place within two months of the national referendum on the new constitution, which is scheduled for the end of the year. Reading the MorsiMeter, Issandr El Amrani, The New York Times.

The current draft divides power between a president, and a prime minister representing a parliamentary majority. The Egyptian Parliament will consist of two chambers, the People's Assembly and the Shura Council.

The draft limits gender equality to the extent that it interferes with "the rulings of the Islamic Sharia," according to the Washington Post. Al Masry Al Youm reports that the wording may pave the way for fresh attacks on women's rights.

Osman El Sharnoubi of Al Ahram writes that Article 9 stipulates citizens' religious freedom. Christians are a small minority in Egypt, and the members of the Bahai faith are not recognized by the Egyptian state, leading to discrimination in the most basic aspects of life. 

The current draft eliminates the role of the state a protector of religious freedoms, limiting religious freedom  in comparison with the 1971 version of the constitution. However, human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El Islam states that the new constitution appears to guarantee freedom for Abrahamic religions to build places of worship. This would assist Shiite, Jewish and Christian Egyptians in their efforts to build houses of worship, but would do nothing to assist the Bahai, or Buddhists. Egyptian Constitution offers fewer religious freedoms, El Sharnoubi, Al Ahram

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Speech Obama Should Give about ‘Innocence of Muslims’

My colleague Nivien Saleh, an Egyptian Professor of International Relations who works here in the US, has written a terrific article about how Obama should react to the movie "The Innocence of Muslims."

I highly recommend it. Here is an excerpt.

The current turmoil in the Muslim world  that has unfolded over the YouTube video clip Innocence of Muslims offers the U.S. what educators call a “teachable moment:” an opportunity provided by circumstance to explain an idea that the audience might otherwise find abstract and irrelevant.
The idea is freedom of expression. . . .

Citizens of these nations do not appreciate how valuable freedom of speech is in protecting them from the very dictatorships Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, and Syrians have struggled so hard to overcome. But right now, they want to hear from the United States. If President Obama keeps his silence, this moment will become a memory of insult and murder. In fact, the seeds for this may already be germinating: In Egypt, an Islamist member of the Shura Council – part of the country’s legislature – announced that a group is forming that consists of young people from various Islamist persuasions. Its aim is “to defend the Prophet by producing documentaries about the history of Christianity and Judaism.” In other words, some of Egypt’s young Islamists believe that tit-for-tat, insult for insult, is the appropriate answer to Innocence of Muslims.

If, on the other hand, Obama speaks to the video and its consequences, explaining that listening to obscenity once in a while is the price that democrats are willing to pay for their ability to participate in the political process, he may be able to heal some of the injury to the American psyche from the killing of U.S. personnel. He also might succeed in convincing many of the 1.6 billion people in the Muslim world that even though the United States does not penalize offensive speech, it understands the injury that it can cause.

And in the process, he just might open a few minds to a truly revolutionary idea.

The Speech Obama Should Give About the "Innocence of Muslims" 

Reaction to the film "Innocence of a Muslim"

Dear readers

I would like to welcome a new guest blogger. Jillian Underwood is my student at the Clinton School of Public Service. She will be helping me keep this blog more up to date.

Here is her first post.


By now, American citizens and Egyptian citizens alike should have both heard about the controversial film trailer Innocence of a Muslim. The film, which has been reported as coming from a self-described Coptic Christian from California, has been described as “inflammatory,” “insulting,” and “emotionally immature” (The Associated Press, September 14, 2012). Reaction to the film has left three Americans and a U.S. ambassador dead in Libya and attacks on U.S. embassies across the Middle East, including Egypt where 220 people were arrested. Al-Qaida and the Taliban have called for more attacks claiming that the attacks were to “avenge Muslims insulted by the film” (The Associated Press, September 15, 2012).

In Egypt, the perceived anti-Islamic film may lead to a provision in the new constitution criminalizing blasphemy and insulting religious figures. Many are suggesting the US should overlook freedom of speech protections and prosecute the filmmakers responsible. “Many Egyptians appear to reject the extent of free speech protection in the US, considering it more important to protect the public order than to protect a person’s right to say offensive things” (Chick, 2012).

Of course, Americans have quite a different perspective. Reacting to the American perspective, in his article Was the Arab Spring Really worth it?: The Fascinating Arrogance of Power, Bassam Haddad comments on the U.S.’s power and describes it as casually barbaric. He came to the conclusion after CNN ran a story asking if the Arab-Spring was “worth it.” Bassam suggests that history is insignificant to those in power and many Americans are probably legitimately entertaining the idea, “Was it really worth it to let these creatures out of their cages?” (Haddad, 2012).

Associated Press. (2012, September 14). Egypt's Christians
anxious, anticipate troubles. Retrieved from

Associated Press. (2012, September 15). Al-qaida calls for more attacks on

Haddad, B. (2012, September 15). 17.“Was the arab spring really worth it?: The

Chick, K. (2012, September 17). After film, push strengthens for blasphemy clause in

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections upon rioting because of American anti-Islamic video

Dear readers

I have been slow to respond to the riots in response to a disrespectful video about the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) affecting parts of the Muslim World, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan. I needed time to think about it.

Mostly I feel sad. I feel sad that a Coptic Christian would embarass his group-- and Christians worldwide-- by producing such garbage. For those of us people of the book who reject this nonsense, I extend my apologies: this video does not represent us.  I tried to watch the trailer, and it was really painful for me that someone could be so ignorant, and so hateful.

Of course, holding the US Government responsible for the acts of a private citizen also strikes me as unusual, and that is what the rioters are essentially doing by attacking embassies and affiliated centers. Of course, it is true that I was raised in the US. It is no secret that I advocate free speech. That being said, I have noted in this blog and elsewhere that that is a global value, enshrined by the United Nations, and with roots in the great philosophers of the world, including those of the enlightenment.

I have also expressed my admiration for aspects of Islam, as well as the rich, multi-cultural melange which has historically been the Arab World. I am worried that we are losing this culture's history of tolerance and understanding as Wahabis and Salafis attack Christians, Sufis, Shiites, and anyone whose views do not align perfectly with theirs.

I think that Salman Rushdie speaks for me in this piece.

Salman Rushdie Interview with Steve Inskeep, September 17, 2012

For more thoughts, Jeffrey Fleishman is a genius. What's Next in the Arab World

I also thought that since everyone is worried and depressed you might enjoy this.

"Muslim Rage" Explodes on Twitter, but in a funny way

 Praying for peace, understanding and tolerance. . . 


Friday, August 24, 2012

Free Speech Hangs in the Balance in Egypt

الإفراج عن إسلام عفيفي
Islam Afifi, editor in chief of Al Dostour, released.

Dear readers

I am sure many of you have been following the recent uproar regarding the detention of journalists who have been critical of Mohammed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party.

The United States has issued a statement that they are "very concerned" (strong words in diplomatic speak) about the state of media freedom in Egypt. The Egyptian government recently detained Al Dostour's Editor, Islam Afifi, for spreading false news and spreading disorder. Tawfiq Okasha, host of a TV talk show, will go on trial on September 1 for being critical of Mohammed Morsy. His television channel has been stopped from broadcasting. Further, Khaled Hanafy, managing editor of the Al Fajr newspaper was summoned for questioning on charges of defaming the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.

After withering internal and international criticism, in a quick turnaround,  Afifi was released from custody today. Morsy also passed a law (note that there is STILL no parliament in Egypt) disallowing custodial detention for those arrested on publishing related offenses.

I have been concerned about the state of media freedom in Egypt for some time. Although it is promising that Morsy has released Afifi, it is not enough. More safeguards for a free press are needed.

Here is an article I wrote on this exact topic in March 2011.  Although SCAF is no longer in power, these issues remain pressing.

Protecting Freedom of Information in Egypt

Here are some more related articles.

US concerned about media freedom in Egypt

Under New Leadership, Media Face Old Oppressive Policies


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Reacting to the Swearing in of Morsy as Egypt's President

A Morsy supporter prays on Egyptian flag after presidential announcement. June 24, 2012. Photo Credit Mohamed Hesham

Dear readers

Mohamed Morsy is now officially Egypt's president. He does not have very many powers, to be sure. Most of the power in the country is still in the hand's of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, aka the military junta.

The good news is that there is a civilian president of Egyptian descent running (sort of) the country. The Revolution has indeed achieved a victory in this sense.To the extent that this development is worth celebrating the Revolution continues.

Remember, there is no parliament in Egypt right now. There is no constitution written by the people. The SCAF keeps unilaterally amending the Constitution, which is completely in violation of all constitutional and legal principles.I found Morsy's comments that he will respect the military somewhat laughable, considering that in actual fact, he serves at the will of the junta. Morsy promises to preserve military's rights.

A cynic might say that the SCAF is simply allowing Morsy's victory as a way of maintaining the veneer of progress. I really respect Abdel Rahman, and this is the line he subscribes too. Let us call it the "marriage of convenience" hypothesis. Morsy Loves You. Egypt runs on the fuel of rumors, and many say that Morsy and the SCAF struck a deal before his victory. Another concern is that a lot of Saudi and possibly Qatari money fueled the Morsy campaign. One of the more interesting rumours I heard at AUC was that Hamas was threatening to blow up key bridges and infrastructure if Morsy did not win. 

I disagree with Robert Fisk writing in the Independent (United Kingdom),Egypt Has No Constitution, Parliament or Control Egypt calmed down considerably after the election of Mohammed Morsy. The stock market rebounded, and an air of calm suffused New Cairo at least. Many were upset, but sort of adopted the stiff upper lip motto.  That being said, a pro Shafiq sit in continues in Nasr City.

In juicy gossip, apparently Shafiq went to Abu Dhabi with (allegedly) thousands of tons of luggage in tow after his defeat. If this story is true, this kind of fairly blatant corruption makes one think that perhaps it is best Shafiq lost. One of the big challenges facing Morsy is to begin prosecuting corrupt officeholders from the Mubarak government seriously. Here is the FJP platform. More analysis later. FJP political program from their very nice English language web page. The biggest issue facing Morsy is improving Egypt's ailing economy.

Here is an interesting article on the way forward for activists. Taking Stock: what comes after the election for activists?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Anguish at Shafiq loss

While Morsy supporters celebrated their candidates win, many Shafiq supporters were despondent, depressed, or even hysterical at his loss.

Shafiq supporters in disbelief after election loss.

Shafiq supporters devastated by loss.

My office this morning was like a morgue. My coworkers, Christian and Muslim alike, were miserable, scared, and uncertain. I tried to comfort them, telling them now is the time for activism, not the time to lose faith.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Morsy wins. What Now?

Photo Credit, Al Jazeera.

Press conference melts down, Al Jazeera cuts away to jubilant crowds in Tahrir. People flooding into Tahrir.

I guess this means the election was free and fair at some level, given that the SCAF would have preferred Shafiq.

Morsy wins with 51.73% of vote. 

At 5:10 p.m. 

Please note that nearly half of the people who voted supported Shafiq, in part because he is secular. Morsy has quite a task ahead of him. It was a very narrow victory. There is going to be a large opposition to Morsy rule. Also, many ballots were invalidated. Farouk Sultan said as many as 800,000 people invalidated ballots.

Shafiq supporters in tears. Photo credit, Al Jazeera.
The next task? The constitution. The test of whether Morsy is a true revolutionary is whether he establishes a  Constituent Assembly that is truly representative of the Egyptian people. Another test will be how people are in fact chosen for that Constituent Assembly. The process of selection, as I have said repeatedly, is of the utmost importance.

5:16 p.m. Tahrir is going absolutely wild. People are chanting "The Revolution Continues."

5:18 p.m. People in Tahrir are chanting "Down with military rule." 

The Tahrir protest/celebration is likely to stay in as a sit in against military rule.

6:37 p.m. Here in El Rehab, some young men are walking through the courtyards, drumming, shaking their tambourines, and chanting in a jolly way. The children in the apartment complexes, who are all down playing in the yard, after a day of being cooped up inside by worried parents, are dancing and having fun. Of course, the children, have no idea what is going on. Cars are honking their horns. Is all this festivity a sign that the old, culturally rich, exciting, interesting Egypt is back? Perhaps it is a good omen for happy times ahead.

From twitter

Judging by celebrations downtown, egypt is more likely to turn into Ibiza than iran


Egyptian Presidential Election Results? Pending!

It is 3:15 p.m.

The announcement of the Egyptian presidential election results has been delayed. We were expecting the information at 3:00 p.m. The results have been delayed by 30 minutes.

It is incredibly hot today. The American University in Cairo dismissed the university. The last bus was at 1:00. A colleague who is quite reasonable and calm insisted that I go home.

I went to the metro grocery, apparently a lot of people had the same idea. The place was completely packed.

Rumors are flying on twitter. Will there be a salvation government? Will Baradei become Prime Minister (Cool! I would love that!)

Talks over proposed salvation government

Tune in to the next episode of "As Tahrir Turns"

Friday, June 22, 2012

Waiting with Baited Breath for Egyptian Presidential Election Results

جمعة «عودة الشرعية» بميدان التحرير
Photo Credit. Ahmed Al Masry. Thousands of protesters gather in Tahrir Square to participate in Friday of "Rejecting Coup d'etat", Cairo, 22 June 2012, against Constitutional Declaration supplement issued by SCAF.

Dear readers

For those of you in Egypt, I know nothing that you do not know. Everyone is wondering who the presidential victor will be, Morsy or Shafiq?

Breaking News: SCAF and MB may be in negotiations    (11:41 p.m., Friday, Cairo time)

I was at a conference on defense spending and its distortions of various world economies today. It was held at the AUC in Moataz Al Alfi hall. The entire day, we kept checking in with each other, "have you heard anything?"

I asked my boss, whom I think is very thoughtful in these matters. I said to her, "does it really matter if Egypt elects a president, given that Parliament has been dismissed?" She said that indeed, it matters deeply. People need to have a sense that the process will be carried through. Also, if Parliament is dismissed, the presidency would arguably be the democratic bulwark in the country.

I went to Maadi yesterday to see my good friend from the UNDP who is monitoring the elections.   She focused on the fact that Egypt is in a learning process regarding democracy. The highway from Downtown to New Cairo is completely plastered with giant billboards for both the Presidential candidates, right next to each other in many cases. This picture gives you a sense.

Photo credit Reuters. Morsy signs are in Red, Shafiq signs are blue.

If you would like a good background piece to catch up on the situation check out the Carnegie Endowment for International Piece.

The Egyptian Political System in Dissaray by Nathan J. Brown. 

People are worried that violence could break out if one side or the other disputes the results.

I love this photo published in the Egyptian Independent today. It shows a former pasha, with protesters sitting on his statue, Morsy posters plastered everywhere. There is the spire of a mosque on the left hand side, and a glimpse of the heart of high class Cairo, the Semiramis Intercontinental, directly opposite the US Embassy on the right hand side of the photo.

Tahrir square the 22th of June
Photo Credit Virginie Nguyen, Egypt Independent.

For non-Egyptian readers, some selections from today's press.

Morsy Urges Fast Election Results

Shafiq Claims Victory in Egyptian Presidential Runoff

Egyptian Media warns of Massacre of the Century

Election's Political Context Flawed, Say Monitors. 

Mursi, Shafiq campaigns both claim victory in Egyptian presidential race

Hoping for the best, most democratic outcome. ~WMB

Monday, June 18, 2012

Democracy under assault after Egyptian election

Egyptian soldiers near Tahrir in February 2011. Photo Credit Al Ahram.
Let me begin my post by telling you the word on the street, and then, I will update you on the "official news."

First of all, a completely non-scientific sample of people in my life produced the following election results. My office manager, who is actually a very observant Muslim, said that "at least if Shafiq is elected, we will have a civilized country, not a religious one." I think she meant civilian, or secular, but point well taken. My taxi driver had no idea what the dismissal of parliament meant, but was very gung ho about Shafiq. My favorite tour operator, who is very literate in both English and Arabic, and quite politically savvy chose Morsi, as the more revolutionarily appropriate choice.

Anyway, what I have heard this morning in New Cairo from a fellow law professor and a colleague at the UN is that Morsi has won, unofficially. That being said, the SCAF has also issued a decree strictly limiting the powers of the presidency. They also told me that the SCAF will appoint the Constituent Assembly, draft a constitution in three months, and then additional parliamentary elections will be held. Further, there is buzz that the SCAF will make all provisions in the Constitution appealable to the Supreme Constitutional Court. I have also heard that the military now has the power to arrest civilians for assembling in public, and other infractions.

Brief thoughts. If Morsy won, then the election was more or less free and fair, because the SCAF wanted Shafiq, one of their own. Then again, what is the point of having a President in the absence of a parliament. It is also yet to be seen if the president will actually be allowed to assume power. Further, I am not a fan of this rushed constitutional process. I also do not think that you can write a constitution from the top down. It must be a consensus process which is widely accepted by the populace. This cannot be attained if the SCAF appoints the members it desires with no feedback from Parliament or other major social organizations. Finally, as I have noted in previous posts, the courts are completely unreconstructed from before the Revolution. They are all Mubarak appointees. The Supreme Constitutional Court members were all picked by the former regime, which feels a lot like the current regime today. It is lunacy to give the Court the power to evaluate which clauses it approves. This is legally problematic at multiple levels. It will take me time to digest that.

Okay, so now, what does the paper say? Al Masry Al Youm says that according to their count (unofficial) Morsy wins with 51.3 percent of the vote. The news also confirms the expansion of military powers. Amended Article 60 gives the military to appoint the Constituent Assembly if the CA developed by the parliament does not fulfil its role.

Check this out.

The SCAF, the president, the prime minister, the Supreme Judicial Council, or one-fifth of the Constituent Assembly have the right to contest any clause issued by the Constituent Assembly if “it is in opposition to the goals of the revolution or its basic principles… or the common principles of Egypt’s past constitutions.”

The assembly would have to revisit the contested clause or clauses within 15 days, and if the contention holds the Supreme Constitutional Court should have the final word.

What?? So, the Supreme Constitutional Court gets to rule on the constitutionality of the Constitution? Very puzzling.
According to Al Ahram, which is nominally state controlled, Morsi fans are already celebrating his election.  AUC Professor, former MP, and liberal political figure Amr Hamzawy laments the restrictions on the newly elected president's powers.
Here is the text of the SCAF amendments (Made by decree) to the constitutional document. Given the frequency with the SCAF rules by decree, the document is beginning to look like a list of military orders.   

So what is the score card? Parliament: mainly Islamist, but some secular forces, few regime forces, only democratically elected institution in Egypt. Status. Dissolved, technically, but impressively defiant. . Judiciary: strong hold of Mubarak Regime appointees. Status. Very powerful. SCAF: the military, secular, but corrupt with strong ties to Mubarak Regime. Status: Currently holds executive and legislative power. President: election results not yet finalized, but Islamist. Status: unclear if president will really be able to be sworn in. 

Here is the New York Times take. The bottom line is that a power struggle is emerging between those who want a civilian state and those who want a military state. Within the coalition of those who do not want a military state, there is a conflict between Islamists and secularists. The Islamists and secularists will have to find an accommodation if they wish to work together against the old forces of Mubarak, now embodied in the SCAF. That is not going to be an easy pill to swallow, but as always, I am cautiously optimistic.