ISIS digs out old grievances to attack Copts

The Islamic State has released a video of the beheading of Egyptian Christians in Libya. The chilling video surfaced following an article published in the group’s magazine Dabiq showing photos of twenty-one Coptic Egyptians kidnapped by militants in Libya. According to the Dabiq article, the kidnapping was “in revenge for Kamilia Shehata, Wafaa Constantine, and other sisters who were tortured and murdered by the Coptic Church in Egypt.” No political reasons were mentioned in the report. Interestingly, that key assertion was overlooked by many reports and analyses of the attacks. In fact, when Jen Psaki, the spokesperson of the U.S. department of State was asked about the status of minorities in the Middle East, her reply was [the kidnapping] “is more about Libya than it is about Egypt.”

Ms. Psaki is wrong in her assessment. Although the logistics of the kidnapping were directly linked to the disintegration of Libya and the arrival of ISIS to its cities, the ideological motives behind the kidnapping are rooted in the troubled relationship between Islamists and Copts in Egypt, which started some time ago and have continued since the 2011 revolution.

The two women mentioned in the Dabiq article, Wafaa Constantine and Kamilia Shehata, are examples of disputed conversions to Islam that were exploited for political reasons. For years, conversion to and from Islam used to happen in Egyptian society, but it was always discrete, away from the media and public sphere. The situation has changed, however, in the last decade of Mubarak’s rule. A combination of the rise of private TV satellite channels, increasingly assertive Islamist movements and a defiant Coptic Church have rendered what were previously private affairs into a matter of tense public debate.

Constantine’s story surfaced sometime between 2003-2004. She was a Coptic Christian woman and wife of a Coptic priest whom Egyptian Islamists claimed had voluntarily left Christianity and converted to Islam. Copts, however, asserted that she was kidnapped and forced to convert. Rumors and unconfirmed allegations then spread like wildfire in an increasingly polarized society, with people being easily seduced by shallow stories and religious zeal.

The fact that Wafaa Constantine later told Egypt’s general prosecutor that she had been “born Christian” and would “live and die” as such, did not tame the Islamists’ anger or dampen their convictions that she is a Muslim and not Christian. Ten years ago, I heard this chilling remark from an Islamist acquaintance during the peak of the flurry around Costantine, “They are playing with fire and one day it will burn them.” He loathed the Copts and their late Pope Shenouda. His voice rattled with anger while watching a video of an Islamist cleric portraying the cases as examples of “ how the honor of Islam is being raped by the Coptic Church.” I later spoke to some Salafis, and they were equally angry at Copts, blaming the Coptic Pope for her reversion to Christianity.

The other case of Kamilia Shehata is strikingly similar. Again, a Coptic woman, married to a Coptic priest, she later disappeared with conflicting allegations about what really happened to her. The difference, however, was that her case coincided with the removal of ex-president Mubarak and the security vacuum that followed. In May 2011, a group of armed Islamists attacked the St. Mina Church in Imbaba in Cairo, claiming that Kamilia Shehata was held in the church. A police search of the premises was not enough for the crowd and clashes erupted leading to at least ten deaths and 200 people being injured. A church video released of Shehata’s Christian confession fell on deaf ears.

Tension later eased, however, Islamists have continued to express their grievances about the alleged conversions of Constantine and Shehata. Here are some Arabic examples by Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, Abu-Ishaq al-Howaeini, and a report by Al-Jazeera Arabic.

It was their opinion that the women were Muslims and forced to reconvert to Christianity. The handling of the situation by the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church in both cases was less than perfect and shrouded with secrecy and a lack of transparency. However, Islamist obsession with these two cases unveils their bias and one-track thinking. While on the one hand they are critical of the Coptic Church’s protectionist approach toward conversion to Islam, they also on other hand, reject any conversion from Islam to Christianity and insist that it should be punished by death.

The assault on Egypt’s social fabric started long ago. For years, Islamists of various shades have created a deep pool of grievances, shared by both their violent and non-violent groups. It is no surprise that the Islamic State has dipped into that communal pool and used it to justify its barbaric behavior against Copts in Libya.

Posted in Best Read, Egypt, Libya | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Egyptian Aak 2015 – Week 7 ( Feb 9- 15)

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(IS’s photo of kidnapped Copts in Libya, via Twitter)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

Good Reports

Good Read

Interview

 Plus

 Photo Gallery

A published list of the Coptic victims killed by IS in Libya

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Finally here are Jayson’s Casper’s prayers for Egypt

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Orange is the New Black

Originally posted on salamamoussa:

The Christians of Egypt are indistinguishable from their Muslim Brethren. Both belong to the land and are bound by close historical ties that transcend the patterns of religious confession. It was this simple fact that made the foreign rulers of Egypt in the 1300s demand that Copts wear only black, otherwise there would be no way to mark them as targets for mob violence.  Clothing color as a social signifier is hardly unique to medieval Egypt. Armies, sports teams, company workers and others choose distinctive colors to emphasize unity and differentiation from others.

Orange is the color of the American prison system, and consequently of captured terrorists. The deluded souls at ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant) have adopted it as the distinctive dress of the innocent victims of their barbarity. Such is the depth of their confusion that they see parity between those who committed no…

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Lessons for Sinai from Yemen

yemen

(Egyptian air force chief adel Hafez with air force pilots in Yemen. 1964.

wikimedia photo) 

I wrote this piece for The Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source, hope you like it

Following the recent major attacks by militants that killed at least twenty-seven people, mostly soldiers, in Sinai, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made two important decisions. He has established a unified military command east of the Suez Canal to fight radical groups in the Sinai Peninsula. He has also pledged $1.3 billion to develop the impoverished peninsula. Both decisions are well overdue. Egypt’s military leadership needs to shift its de-facto mindset from fighting conventional wars and readjust to the evolving reality of a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. In that context, a particularly important past military intervention is worth remembering____ Nasser’s Vietnam____ or Egypt’s war in Yemen.

 More than half a century ago, in 1962, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser made a bold decision to send Egyptian troops to Yemen to support the Yemeni Republican coup d’état against the ruling Imam. Yemen’s complex civil war was not a conventional war by any stretch of the imagination. It was essentially a wide counter-insurgency operation that involved fighting many tribes in harsh desert landscapes. In his book, Nasser’s Gamble, author Jesse Ferris describes the challenges that faced the Egyptian military in Yemen:  “The tactical disposition of Egyptian forces was unenviable. The diffusion of forces in small garrisons across the desert or in the mountains rendered Egyptian units ever vulnerable to surprise attacks.” Ferris continued, “The principal military counter-measures were aggressive patrolling and preventative ambushes, neither of which was practiced sufficiently.”

Sound familiar? Ferris’s words can easily be used to describe the evolving reality in Sinai, but with an added urgency. Sinai is not the distant Yemen; failure or even partial success, is not an option.

 Initially, the Egyptians arrived in Yemen with Sana’a as their focus. It took them a while to understand that the actual battle was outside Sana’a, in Yemen’s hostile terrain. Similarly, the Egyptian Army’s initial response to rising militancy in Sinai was the mounting of one operation after another to “eradicate sources of terrorism.” The over-confident tone of successive army spokesmen reflects a deep underestimation of the enormity of the task___ just like 1962’s Yemen adventure, in which Nasser aimed for a quick, decisive victory that did not, of course, happen.

 Yemen’s war between the royalists and nationalists had gone on for years, draining Egypt militarily and economically. It left the country vulnerable, and arguably, indirectly contributed to Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967. In his latest speech, Sisi acknowledged that the battle against Jihadists will be a tough one, a late admission of the bitter reality. Unrealistic expectations can erode public support and help the militants project an image of invincibility.

 The structure of Egypt’s armed forces has not changed since 1968—until now. Nasser formed the Second and Third Field Armies following Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967. The Second Field Army is based in Ismailia and is responsible for the northern part of the Suez Canal region. The Third Field Army is based in Suez and is responsible for the southern part of the Suez Canal region. Following the peace deal with Israel, responsibility for Sinai was allocated to both the Second and Third Field Armies, with North Sinai under the former, and the South under the latter. This geographical allocation is not an ideal counter-terrorism approach because militants are never confined to geographical regions. Therefore, creating a separate military command makes sense.

 A new unified military command unit is now under the command of Osama Askar, the previous head of Third Army, who has been promoted to Lieutenant General. Despite the relatively peaceful conditions existing in South Sinai, Askar has a long record of fighting militants in Sinai. In July 2013, he announced that his troops had seized nineteen Grad rockets allegedly smuggled into the country by Hamas. He was also hailed as the mastermind behind an operation that killed 16 militants in February 2014. Some saw Askar’s promotion as a subtle way of punishing the Commander of the Second Army, General Mohamed El Shahat, who was not picked to lead the new unit, despite the fact that North Sinai is directly under his command. Sisi, however, seems careful to avoid any resentment among army cadres, by making the new unit separate from both the Second and Third Armies and appointing a new commander of the Third army, General Mohamed Abdella, instead of keeping it under the command of Askar.  In other words, the new counter-terrorism command will supervise both the Second and Third Armies, instead of replacing them, which may suit army ranks that may be wary of fundamental changes.

 However, if a lesson is to be learned from Yemen, the new military command should extend beyond Sinai and the Suez Canal to include the North and West command. In early 1963, Egypt’s army extended its operations to tackle pivotal Yemeni Royalist supply points from the north, such as Najaran in Saudi Arabia, and Harib, near the Omani border. Now, in Egypt there is increasing evidence that Libya has become a new supply route to militants in Sinai. It was also implicated in the shooting down of an Egyptian Air Force helicopter by Sinai’s Islamic militants with a portable surface-to-air missile in January 2014. Moreover, there are now ISIS-affiliated groups in Libya, Sinai, and Gaza, and joint co-operation between the three entities is not unlikely. This evolving new reality needs a robust approach from the leadership in Cairo.

 Currently, Egypt’s focus is mainly on creating a buffer zone between Sinai and Gaza to stop the underground tunnels that were built over many years and used by militants to smuggle arms and fighters. Nonetheless, focusing on Gaza and the tunnels is not a wise approach because tunnels are only part of the problem. Egypt has to prevent Sinai from being a storage depot of smuggled arms from Libya and Sudan. Jesse Ferris highlighted in his book that as long as the supply of money and arms from Saudi Arabia [the patron of the Royalists in Yemen’s war] was guaranteed, it would be a matter of months before they regrouped and resumed their insurgency.

 Meanwhile, civilians in Sinai continue to suffer. Sisi’s pledge to develop the region is important, but it is a Catch-22 situation for him. There is no security without development, but development is impossible in hostile villages. Again, back to Yemen: in 1962 Egypt established a group dedicated to handling relations with tribes. A similar establishment is needed in Sinai, and it should liaise with Lieutenant General Osama Askar.

 It took six years for Republicans backed by Nasser to gain ground in Yemen. Egypt cannot afford six more years of ongoing insurgency in Sinai. The war in Yemen was about Egypt’s regional prestige; the war in Sinai is about Egypt’s survival as a functioning state. The stakes are much higher, however: Sinai is not Yemen. It is much smaller in size and population. The objectives of the counter-insurgency task can be achieved, provided past lessons are heeded.

Posted in Best Read, Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Middle East, Sinai | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Egyptian Aak 2015 – week 6 ( Feb 2-8)

Football massacre

(Sunday’s football match riots. Photo via AP)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

 Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

 Good Reports

 Good Read

 Plus

Video

Finally here are Jayson Casper’s prayers in Egypt

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Another casualty in Turkey’s war on journalists

Originally posted on Human Rights in Turkey:

The news today that Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, is being prosecuted under anti-terror statutes is, sadly, unsurprising.  The prosecution of journalists in Turkey, is after all, hardly a rare occurrence; seldom does a week go by when a journalist in Turkey is not subject to prosecutionBut as I noted in an earlier blog on the case, the targeting of a foreigner suggests that the Turkish government is “increasingly unhindered by Western criticism.”  External checks on Turkey’s internal repression seem less and less effective.

At the heart of these prosecutions are an increasingly politicized judiciary and a series of laws which make it easy to target voices perceived as critical to the state.

Fréderike Geerdink Fréderike Geerdink

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Egyptian Aak 2015 – Week 5 ( Jan26 – Feb 1)

Sinai attacks

(Funerals have been taking place for those killed in the Sinai attacks – Photo via BBC)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

 Wednesday

 Thursday 

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

 Good Reports

Good Read

Plus:

 Poll

  • Baseera poll: 79% to vote in parliamentary elections, 35% approve Islamists’ candidacy

Video

 Tweet of the Week

Finally here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt

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Egyptian Courts Take on FGM, But Can They Uproot the Practice Altogether?

I wrote this piece for the Harvard Journal of Middle East Politics and policy, hope you enjoy it.

FGM

(Victim of FGM, 13-year-old Egyptian girl Suhair al-Bataa- Photo via AP)

In a landmark verdict handed down last Monday, an Egyptian doctor was convicted of the manslaughter of 13-year-old Suhair al-Bataa, who died during an illegal female genital mutilation (FGM) procedure. Dr. Raslan Fadl was initially acquitted in November 2014, triggering a wave of anger among activists and women’s rights advocates. The new verdict provides a glimmer of hope in the fight against the retrogressive practice, which originated in ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, the depth of the challenge should not be underestimated. FGM remains popular in Egypt, despite a 2008 ban on all its forms. Fadl’s conviction, though another step in the right direction, does not mean that the ugly practice will disappear anytime soon. More needs to be done to change mindsets, not just among families, but also among medical practitioners.

Interviewed by The Guardian following his initial acquittal, Fadl admitted he had removed a “wart” from Sohair’s pubic area, but claimed his incision was minor and that the girl died from an allergic reaction to penicillin. According to the report, there was little outrage in Fadl’s village, where both FGM and the doctor enjoy strong support. “I’m very happy for him,” said one young woman waiting in Fadl’s clinic. “It wasn’t his fault.”

The doctor’s response and the local support he continues to enjoy sums up the challenges Egypt faces in combating FGM. According to a report by the Orchid Project, up to 77% of FGM in Egypt is conducted in a medical environment or by a medical professional. There are three reasons that motivate some doctors to defy the FGM ban.

First, the Egyptian government did not restrict FGM until 1996, when it passed a partial ban on the practice. It failed to enforce this ban until 2007, when the death of 12-year-old Budour Ahmad Shaker provoked a public outcry, leading to the ban’s amendment in 2008. These ill-conceived policies have proven difficult to reverse.

Second, medicine, like any other profession, counts Islamists among its practitioners, whose attitudes towards FGM range from staunch support to refusal to condemn the practice. Although the Quran contains no explicit basis for the procedure, its supporters claim it was widely practiced during the Prophet’s time and sanctioned by senior Islamic jurists such as Abu-Hanifa and Ibn-Malik. Any dissenting religious edict by the government or al-Azhar, the prestigious Egyptian center of Islamic thought, is often dismissed as politically motivated.

While at university, I once witnessed an alarming debate between a student in favor of FGM and a psychiatry professor who supported its ban. While the professor calmly cited the negative physical and psychological effects of the practice on women, the student, rather than trying to counter with possible benefits, cited religious fatwas (Islamic verdicts) in its favor. The student was not alone in his beliefs; I have met several doctors who, ignoring medical reason, justify FGM on the basis of their own religious convictions.

Lastly, FGM survives because it is good business in a society in which many doctors are underpaid. Support for FGM is not limited to Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi followers; many conservative Egyptians seek out doctors willing to perform the procedure. Struggling to preserve their conservative values in the age of the Internet, many Egyptians see FGM as a means to protect their girls’ sexual purity and prospects for marriage. Demand for the procedure is especially strong in rural areas, where Egyptians tend to follow more conservative local preachers over the Cairo-based al-Azhar scholars. Some doctors justify the procedure by convincing themselves that if they refuse to conduct it, families will find non-professionals willing to do so at greater risk to the children.

Female genital mutilation is thus the tragic outcome of an unhealthy relationship between Egyptian policy, medicine, religion, economics and culture. Legal enforcement of the ban is crucial, but a multi-faceted approach is needed to tackle its many angles. Independent, credible religious institutions must support the ban. A robust debate on the issue is needed within the medical and rural communities – one that will confront those who defy the ban without forcing them underground. Our girls deserve a future free from backwardness and mutilation.

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Egyptian Aak 2015 – Week 4 ( Jan 19 – 25)

Shimaa Death 2

(Photo of  activist Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh  shot  in Cairo on Saturday)

(Via Youm 7 newspaper)

Main Headlines

 Monday

 Tuesday 

 Wednesday

 Thursday

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

 Best Reports

Best Read

Plus

Photo Gallery

Finally here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt

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El-Sisi and Human Rights in Egypt

 

Sisi

(Photo via Reuters)

In a change of tune, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi acknowledged on Tuesday that Egypt’s police committed human rights abuses after the overthrow of his predecessor, but said they were expected given the “exceptional” security threats faced by the country.

Here is my brief interview with Radio France Internationale on why El- Sisi has changed his tune and what we should expect from him.

Posted in Diary of Aak, Egypt, Middle East | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment