Egypt and the Islamic State: Two Sides of the Same Medal?

I am currently reading Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 by Anne Applebaum. Her book deals with the rise of Communism and the crushing of opposition in post-war Eastern Europe (more precisely in East-Germany, Poland and Hungary). In particular, Applebaum’s aim was to give an insight into how totalitarianism works in practice, how a totalitarian regime comes about. The definition of totalitarianism that is quoted in the introduction to the book is the definition that was enthusiastically adopted by Italian fascist Benito Mussolini: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

While reading one of the last chapters titled “Reluctant Collaborators”, I started drawing parallels between the post-war situation in Europe and the current situation in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. A couple of sentences in particular made me think of the Egyptian military dictatorship of al-Sisi. When Applebaum explains a number of reasons for many apolitical people to remain silent in the face of increasing oppression, she writes the following:

The devastation of the war, the exhaustion of its victims, the carefully targeted terror and ethnic cleansing – all of the elements of Sovietization described earlier in the book – are part of the explanation. Both the memory of recent violence and the threat of future violence hovered constantly in the background.

Although some of the reasons Applebaum cites are mostly applicable to the process of Sovietization, I believe the last sentence is very relevant to Egypt’s current situation. Immediately after the revolution, the Egyptian state sought to get the people back in line again. The violent crushing of dissent, sometimes through state agencies, the police and the military but also through the use of gangs of civilians, continued like no mass demonstrations ever happened.

The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether because of sabotage or incompetence (probably both) to get Egypt on track posed a huge opportunity for the military to regain absolute control. The military benefitted from the immense impopularity of Morsi’s government while in the mean time demonstrations turned more violent each week. This threat of more violence, or even civil war as al-Sisi put it when he forced Morsi to resign, is why the military was thanked for “saving Egypt.”

Currently, the threat of violence is being kept very much alive by the state’s destructive “anti-terrorism” campaign, given credibility by extremists who are bombing police officers in public places or killing conscripts at military check-points. One could argue that because this threat is credible and even real to some extent, the road to a totalitarian dictatorship was put wide open, with many “apolitical” people cheering on its arrival while standing on the side of the road.

This leads me to the other totalitarians who are on the rise in Syria and Iraq. The Italian fascist definition of totalitarianism suits them even better than the Egyptian regime, I believe. The Islamic State, or ISIS, “achieves its aims by psychological means and a reputation of extreme violence” as Ha’aretz put it. In Iraq, anger with the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has encouraged some Sunni groups to support ISIS in its fight with the Iraqi government. By no means all Sunni groups support ISIS, but as one of the persons interviewed by Ha’aretz points out: “One hundred percent of people are angry that the Islamic State is here but there is nothing we can do.” Villages that resist the rise of the Caliphate are given an ultimatum, after which most of them swiftly comply, facing terror campaigns, kidnappings and destruction.

Obviously there exist many differences between the two totalitarian regimes described above. However, in practice, the outcome is the same: absolute control of the state over all aspects of society through the use of force. Unfortunately it seems that both of them are here to stay, although the Egyptian dictatorship appears to be the more “stable” one. Ironically, in the fight against the Islamic State and similar groups, Egypt will most likely be perceived as an ally (like it was an ally in the “War on Terror” under President Mubarak), instead of the other side of the medal of oppression.

Lecture: Egypt in turmoil

This is a shortened version of a lecture I delivered on Monday, September 9, at the Student Association for International Relations (Studentenvereniging Internationale Betrekkingen) in Groningen. For more information, kindly visit their website.

First of all, I would like to thank SIB for inviting me to give this lecture on recent events in Egypt.

Let me start this lecture by sharing two anecdotes to give you an idea of the current situation. A few days before the mass demonstrations of 30 June, I walked into a small supermarket close to Tahrir square, Cairo. The owner of the shop greeted me and jokingly asked: “Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?”, referring to my beard. I said: “Of course not, I’m not Egyptian.” Then, the guy suddenly turned serious, and advised me to shave my beard before the big demonstrations of next Sunday. Because, “god willing, we will slaughter all those beards.”

Last week, the minister of the Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, survived an attempt on his life. A bomb went off as his motorcade passed in Nasr City, the area where the minister lives and also the scene of the biggest pro-Morsi demonstrations a until couple of weeks ago at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque.

What I’ll try to do in this lecture, is to explain how we got from the first anecdote, to the second. I will also provide some background. SIB has asked me to talk about the recent events, namely the ousting of president Morsi, in the context of Army-Muslim Brotherhood relations. I will give a short history of these two players in Egyptian politics, the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Afterwards, I’ll discuss in detail the way Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood came to power after the January 25 revolution. I’ll try to explain the context in which this took place, as well as the challenges that Morsi had to deal with during his short presidency.

Subsequently, I’ll talk about the popular protests against Muslim Brotherhood rule, Morsi’s ousting by the military and finally the current situation.

A short history of the Army

The Egyptian army is one of the most powerful players, if not the most powerful player, in Egyptian politics. Led by the Free Officers, the army staged a coup d’etat against King Farouq in 1952, resulting in the king’s ousting and the establishment of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Ever since 1952, Egypt has been ruled by generals or retired generals. Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Free Officers, deposed Mohamed Naguib and took power in 1954. After Nasser died in 1970, Anwar Sadat took over. Sadat was assassinated by a member of an extremist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood during a military parade, and his vice-president Hosni Mubarak became president.

The Egyptian army controls a large percentage of the economy, and directly or indirectly owns up to 40% of Egypt’s businesses. This is of course one of the reasons why the army is so powerful. The army has the ability to influence the Egyptian economy, as it controls numerous factories, bakeries, natural gas and gasoline companies, et cetera.

Another source of power for the Egyptian military is its popularity. Despite the fact that the army has proven to be very incompetent in fighting and winning wars, it is still very popular among many Egyptians. Just imagine, almost everyone knows someone, a conscript or an officer, doing service in the army.

Maybe because of this popularity, the army has largely escaped public anger over the issue of foreign funding. Egyptians aren’t really fond of organizations that they suspect of being funded by the West. However, the biggest recipient of foreign funding is the military, which receives 1.3 bln dollar annually from the United States. I don’t think this is a fact that the army is very proud of, and it won’t publicly acknowledge this of course.

Let’s now have a look at the Muslim Brotherhood. I’ll come back to the army and its relationship with the Brotherhood later.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Founded in 1928 by a school teacher, Hassan al Banna. Quickly grew to become a country-wide conservative Islamic movement, aiming to ‘Islamize’ Egyptian life.

The Muslim Brotherhood was involved in the resistance against Israel in 1948. The organization also opposed the Egyptian monarchy. The Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by the prime minister in 1948, out of fear for its popularity and because of rumors that the organization was plotting a coup against the king.

Less than three weeks later, the prime minister was assassinated by a student member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although Hassan al-Banna condemned the assassination, he was himself murdered in February 1949.

The Muslim Brotherhood supported the 1952 revolution, but they felt Nasser and the Free Officers betrayed them afterwards, and tried assassinating Nasser in 1954. This led to a crackdown on Islamists.

During the presidencies of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood was largely forced to work underground. On a few occasions, members of the organization were allowed to run in elections as independents. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, these ‘independents’ won 20% of the seats, but in the 2010 elections most of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates were banned from participating. So the army-Muslim Brotherhood relation has always been problematic.

The 25 January revolution

That fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is a conservative organization explains the way it dealt with the 25th of January revolution. The first few days, it prohibited its members from participating in demonstrations. While mainly youth from the April 6 Youth Movement and other groups took to the streets on the 25th, the Muslim Brotherhood stayed home. When it became clear that this time it was serious, the Muslim Brotherhood joined the protesters in their call for Mubarak to step down.

After Mubarak stepped down, the army took over and ruled Egypt through the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. While the youth movements and other opposition groups continued their protests against what they viewed as the same old regime with new faces, the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated with SCAF to pass a constitutional declaration opening the road to elections.

Even when the army was rounding up many activists, putting them in jail and prosecuting them before military courts, the Muslim Brotherhood remained quiet. When the army committed the Maspiro massacre in October, in which over 20 Coptic christians were killed, and when the army and police killed over 40 protesters in November, the Brotherhood still said that parliamentary and presidential elections under SCAF were the way forward.

People were presented with maybe the worst possible choice. Ahmed Shafiq was the last prime minister under Mubarak, and a retired air force officer. For many Egyptians, voting for Shafiq felt like betraying the revolution. So people who supported the revolution were more or less forced to vote for Morsi.

However, in 2012, Morsi won the presidential elections by a small margin, in part because many non-Muslim Brotherhood people voted for him to keep the other candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, out.

Morsi’s presidency

We have to acknowledge the fact that Egypt was more or less in ruins when Morsi became president. The economy was in a very bad state, security absent in many places, people had no trust in government institutions, et cetera.

Morsi faced many challenges, and expectations were unrealistically high. It was clear from the beginning that a few years would not be enough to fix Egypt’s economy, get the tourists back and improve the daily lives of poor Egyptians.

Morsi obviously didn’t succeed in fixing these problems. But I think it’s actually worse than this. He only didn’t succeed, he didn’t even try. Instead of reforming the police, he tried to use the state security and riot police to quash opponents. And when the police refused to disperse protesters in front of the presidential palace in December, 2012, Morsi sent his supporters to attack these peaceful demonstrators.

Instead of fulfilling his campaign promise of inclusiveness, he fired or marginalized advisors who didn’t agree with his policies. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to compromise on the subject of the new constitution, instead pushing for a very dividing document.

The way the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies among the Salafi parties approached the draft process for the first post-revolution constitution disappointed a lot of people. Even the ones who voted for Morsi in the second round of the presidential elections felt like the first civilian president in the history of Egypt was just another dictator looking to maximize his power. When Morsi issued his infamous constitutional declaration, making himself and his presidential decrees immune against judicial oversight, people took to the streets in anger.

The protests continued for a couple of weeks, resulting in a lot of violence, especially outside of Cairo. Still, the army and the security forces supported Morsi. After some time, the protests died down, without any tangible results for the opposition.

However, the first cracks in the army-Muslim Brotherhood alliance became visible during these weeks of protest.  The army, now headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi in August, 2012, called for reconciliation and an end to the violence. Al-Sisi wanted to organize meetings between the opposition and the government to find a way out of the crisis.

Rebellion

Out of disappointment in the Egyptian opposition, mainly the National Salvation Front headed by ElBaradei, a group of youth activists started their own campaign against Muslim Brotherhood rule. The campaign is called Tamarod, or Rebellion, and entailed the collection of signatures against Mohamed Morsi, calling for early presidential elections. As soon as Tamarod became well-known and picked up speed, the ‘mainstream’ opposition endorsed the campaign, trying to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment.

I think it’s important to note that these youth were not the same people who started the revolution in 2011. Although a lot of activists supported the Tamarod campaign, others questioned its understanding of democracy. They also pointed out that the campaign lacked a decent follow-up strategy in case Morsi would step down.

On June 30, Morsi’s first anniversary as president, thousands of people took to the streets. It was a very celebratory atmosphere in most places in Cairo, as people seemed surprised that so many turned out in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood. The inevitable numbers game was played by both sides, as Morsi’s supporters also came together to show their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and their elected president. It’s hard to say how many people each demonstration had, but in my experience at least, the number of protesters against Morsi was larger than the number of protesters during the 18-day revolution in 2011.

A few days before June 30, Morsi had delivered a speech broadcast on StateTV. It was expected that he would compromise on a few less important issues, but he wouldn’t even go that far to prevent this political crisis from becoming unsolvable.

On Monday, July 1st, al-Sisi, the army general, issued a statement urging Morsi and his political opponents to reach an agreement. Al-Sisi basically gave Morsi 48 hours to solve this crisis, otherwise he would come up with a roadmap that would clearly not include the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi.

On July 2nd, Morsi delivered another speech, stressing his democratic legitimacy as president, that he would defend until death. Again, it was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood would try to hold on to power, without compromise. I wonder whether anything else than “I resign” would have been enough to make people return to their normal daily lives. In the run-up to June 30, I heard many people say that Morsi would finally leave on the 30th, and that hopefully the army would save Egypt from disaster and civil war. So expectations were a bit high.

Finally, on the 3rd of July, at about nine in the evening, al-Sisi issued a statement outlining a roadmap for transition. I watched the speech just a few hundred meters away from Tahrir square, in the street where I used to live. I could only hear the first couple of sentences, after that it was clear that Morsi was no longer president and celebrations had started.

According to the army, the Tamarod movement and political parties like ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front, this was not a coup, but a popular revolution supported by the army. Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood has a different perspective. They say it’s an attack on the legitimacy of a democratically elected president.

I think you all know how the army and police forces ended the pro-Morsi sit-in on August 14. As Human Rights Watch put it, the security forces used excessive lethal force against mostly unarmed civilians. Hundreds were killed, thousands injured. Muslim Brotherhood supporters responded by attacking tens of churches and other christian institutions, as well as burning houses and shops owned by christians.

Right now, a curfew is still in place in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. The military is very visible in the streets, and violence between security forces and groups of civilians is happening almost every day.

The short anecdote I started this lecture with illustrates how it’s possible that many people, I think a fair majority even, supports the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a number of reasons: the first is that people were very disappointed in Morsi’s presidency, as he failed to fulfill his campaign promises. Second, the way Morsi was elected shows that a large part of Egyptian society was always against the Muslim Brotherhood. The former regimes of Mubarak and even Nasser and Sadat before him, have always attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and described it as a terrorist organization.

The Egyptian media, and unfortunately not only state media but also private, so-called liberal, media, have adopted the “war on terror” discours in their coverage of the current crackdown. The most dangerous thing is that many Egyptians are fine with it. Something that has become very clear to me when I lived in Egypt before the coup, is that many Egyptians hate the Muslim Brotherhood and its members. One time when I exited the metro, a elderly headscarved woman came up to a man with a large beard and started insulting him, and his Muslim Brotherhood. Like the crackdown on Islamists in the fifties and nineties, every man with a beard, and every woman wearing a niqab, is a suspect. Not only Islamists or members of the Muslim Brotherhood are targeted. Leftists and human rights activists as well as lawyers are vulnerable as they critizice the current government’s treatment of Islamists and lament the lack of progress.

As the failed attempt to assassinate the minister of interior shows, there are some jihadist extremist elements in Egypt. Police stations and military checkpoints have been targets of such groups over the past few weeks. The current situation resembles the period of violence of the nineties, when tourist attractions were often targets. I am afraid that the current situation of bombings, assassination attempts and attacks on churches will remain for at least some time. It’s very hard to see how free and fair elections can take place in such an insecure and polarized environment.

Update: Mahmoud has passed away in hospital

Two days ago, I wrote about Mahmoud, a servant to a Zamalek family who fell ill and was only discovered in his rooftop room after four days. He was taken to a hospital, where he died yesterday in the presence of his family. Mahmoud was buried in the family grave of a shop owner close to his building in Zamalek.

As my friend told me some additional information on Mahmoud’s life, I feel obliged to include this in my blog to create a more complete picture of his life and death.

In my previous post, I wrote that Mahmoud was abandoned by the family he used to work for as soon as he fell ill. Many people from the neighborhood had told me this, and it seemed like a plausible explanation at the time. However, as it appears now, the story is more complicated.

Mahmoud used to work for the family for a very long time. When the father and mother of the family passed away, their son moved somewhere else. Mahmoud was allowed to stay in his room on the roof, and was still given small amounts of money during Eid (Islamic feasts). I don’t know why Mahmoud didn’t move with this son. Maybe he didn’t need him anymore, or perhaps Mahmoud didn’t want to work for him and preferred to stay. The family’s apartment has been uninhabited since.

The latter explanation seems to be likely. As his cousins told my friends: “[…] he always wanted to be left alone, and [we] hadn’t had contact with him for some time.” People from the neighborhood told us that Mahmoud was a very introvert and lonely man. For example, when he would come down the stairs, he would return halfway if he heard people talking in the garage.

When Mahmoud became ill, the son was traveling, so he couldn’t be reached for help. (I don’t think he ever said that Mahmoud is “not my business” because it appears that nobody spoke to him on Sunday.)

As more information has become available now, I think it’s clear that the story isn’t as black and white as some people in the area made it seem, and as I wrote it down in my previous blog. Still, it’s fair to say that many people have failed to care for Mahmoud (not in the least the ambulance staff and people who didn’t want to help him when he was dying). However, others have tried to help Mahmoud, even when nobody asked them to and while they’d never met him before (like the shop owner who agreed to bury Mahmoud in his family grave because of problems with Mahmoud’s family grave).

May he rest in peace.

Family servant left to die on rooftop of Zamalek residential building

Yesterday, a friend told me the story below.

Mahmoud was in his sixties when he fell ill and was left to die in his little room on the rooftop of a Zamalek residential building. He had been the servant of a family living in that building for almost forty years, but when they thought he wasn’t useful to them anymore, because he was ill and couldn’t perform his tasks, they just forgot about him. He was discovered by the bawab (porter) of the building. He hadn’t eaten or drunk for four days. They put him in the building’s garage, although it was obvious that he should be taken to a hospital.

“He’s not our business,” one member of the family said, when he was asked for help. The security staff of the garage and nearby buildings also didn’t want to get involved, because they were afraid to get in trouble. However, someone decided to call an ambulance. But when the ambulance arrived, nobody stood up for Mahmoud when the personnel asked for more information about him. They were unable to take him to the hospital, as nobody knew who Mahmoud was.

We decided to bring Mahmoud to the hospital ourselves. We carried the old man to a taxi, and took him to Qasr al-Eini Hospital, a government hospital in Manial. The hospital didn’t have any empty beds, so he had to lie on the floor all the time, while we arranged for medication.

We were finally able to reach Mahmoud’s family, and two of his cousins showed up late in the evening. They told us that he always wanted to be left alone, and that they hadn’t had contact with him for some time.

Mahmoud is being treated in the hospital for now, but it’s unclear how long he can stay there as the hospital is always short of beds. A doctor, who isn’t working in Qasr al-Eini, visited him this morning. She said Mahmoud is doing better, and family members were still with him.

If it weren’t for a few people, Mahmoud would have died in his room on the rooftop of a building inhabited by rich Egyptians, for whom it would take just a fraction of their wealth to save him, if they’d care. The selfishness and mentality of some very rich people in Egypt is absolutely disgusting.

Egypt’s draft constitution is product of Islamists only

Note: I wrote this post a couple of days ago, but forgot to publish it… So here it is.

Over the past few weeks, Egypt has again seen scenes of large demonstrations and clashes between anti-government protesters on the one hand and pro-government supporters and police forces on the other. Protesters turned back to the streets after president Morsi issued a constitutional decree on November 22. Already on November 19, mostly youth clashed with the Central Security Forces after they staged a demonstration in Mohamed Mahmoud Street to remember their friends who died during last year’s clashes with the army. After Morsi’s decree, which extends his powers and makes him and the Constituent Assembly immune from judicial oversight, people in other cities also took to the streets.

It should be clear that Morsi has not succeeded in uniting the Egyptian society, or has even tried to. On the contrary, by the unilateral actions of the Muslim Brotherhood on several (subjects), and by disregarding of all the objections to the draft constitution made by the opposition, Egypt has become more polarized than ever before. One thing has to be noted though: the Muslim Brotherhood has been cooperating excellently with the even more fundamentalist salafi groups, mainly the Nour Party. The drafting process of the constitution poses as a perfect example.

Already from its very establishment the Constituent Assembly, responsible for drafting Egypt’s first post-revolutionary constitution,  has been dominated by the above-mentioned Islamist parties. After strong protest, the first assembly was disbanded by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the authority that took over power after Mubarak’s ousting. The new assembly however, showed the same symptoms of its predecessor: Islamists dominating and marginalising the other political parties. Steadily, more and more non-Islamist members resigned, including important politicians as Amr Moussa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Secretary-General of the Arab League.

One of the members who resigned from the assembly, member of the secular Wafd Party, said that members who objected to the dominance of the Islamists were intimidated. According to him, the assembly’s president, Hossam el-Gheryany, a member of the Brotherhood, made it almost impossible for them to perform their job within the assembly. In the end, they saw no other option then to resign. Not that resigning made a difference though. By the way in which the block of Brothers and Salafis operated, the opposition to the draft constitution had already been silenced.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the final result, the draft constitution, mainly serves the Muslim Brotherhood’s and Salafi groups’ interests. There are many examples of this, a few of them will be given below. One of the main objections of seculars and liberals obviously is the role of Islamic law (the sharia) within the constitution. Article 2 states that sharia is the main source of legislation, which makes the seperation of religion and state non-existent. Article 4 states that only the Islamic institution of Al-Azhar, the most important authority regarding Sunni Islam, may define the meaning and contents of sharia. The position of the Grand Shaykh unimpeachable. It must be said that even Al-Azhar doesn’t agree with the role that it has been given.

There are also several articles that restrict freedom of civillians and that leave the possibility for the state to act as the moral authority of Egypt. Article 10 for example, states that the state will protect the moral values of the Egyptian family. Besides that, article 10 also imposes a conservative interpretation of the role of women in their families.

The power of the army, a very important player within Egyptian politics, has been left unchallenged in the new constitution. Democratic oversight of military affairs has not been secured. Eight of the fifteen members of the National Defense Council hail from the military, while only simple majority is needed for decision-making, thus making sure that civilians can’t challenge the military in this council. Besides the lack of democratic control, the military is still allowed to try civilians in its courts, if the crime was committed against the army, a very vague description which can easily be exploited. Apparently, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t want to constrain the army’s powers.

On December 15, Egyptians will be able to vote on the constitution in a referendum. The opposition however, has demanded that Morsi postpones the vote and rescinds his constitutional decree that caused the current political crisis. It is still unclear if the Muslim Brotherhood will give in to these demands. If they don’t, Egyptians will most likely vote the constitution into law, mainly because of the well-organized voting machine that the Muslim Brotherhood can rely on, as well as bribing poor voters with food and other benefits (also known as vote-rigging). Egypt will then, almost two years after the revolution, be burdened with a very bad constitution, potentially granting the state enormous powers.

“Hulanda mish mazboot”

In recent weeks, Egyptian media have for the second time in a period of only a few months created some rumors about Dutch government policies regarding asylum for Copts. About two months ago, Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) published an article stating that the Netherlands would welcome any Copts applying for asylum in Holland. The report was completely baseless and false. It is true that a Dutch Member of Parliament, namely Joel Voordewind (member of the ChristianUnion, a small party currently holding five seats in the 150-seat parliament), asked the minister to review his policies with respect to Coptic asylum seekers. The minister replied that the current policy is sufficient, and would not be changed.

The Al-Masry Al-Youm article created quite a stir online, and the Netherlands Embassy in Cairo was flooded with requests for asylum. Even the academic Netherlands-Flemish Institute in Cairo was contacted numerous times a day for more information about government policies. Because of this, the embassy came out with a statement (July 16, 2012), saying that nothing had changed:

“Every request for asylum by Egyptian Christians will be assessed on its own merits as is the case for any asylum seeker in the Netherlands. It remains up to each Egyptian Christian individually to demonstrate that he/she is in need of international protection. This has always been the Dutch asylum policy towards Egyptian Christians. Nothing has changed in this respect.”

When I was in Dahab for a short vacation, last week, the Egyptian newspaper Al-Youm Al-Sabi’a (The Seventh Day) published a similar story (September 5, 2012) as the AMAY article, but this time an official letter from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to a certain Mr. Ebid was included. The letter should provide evidence for the assumption that Dutch immigration policy regarding Copts has changed and that it’s now “granting Copts asylum”, as the title reads. In the letter, dated August 28, 2012, the ministry replies to an email sent by Mr. Ebid.

According to Mr. Ebid, the embassy statement of July 16 is not in line with a letter from the Dutch Minister of Immigration, Integration and Asylum, Gerd Leers, sent to Dutch Parliament on July 11, 2012. This letter was the only substantiation for the AMAY article. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs admits that the clarification published by the embassy on July 16 does not mention the fact that the government’s policy was updated on one point: Egyptian Copts do not have to request the Egyptian government for protection before applying for asylum in the Netherlands. This is just a minor change, and it certainly does not mean that asylum will be granted to any Copt requesting asylum.

To avoid any misunderstandings and to pre-empt a flood of requests, the embassy published a second statement on September 9, 2012, again denying the reports. It states the following:

“Every request for asylum by Egyptian Christians will be assessed on its own merit as is the case for any asylum seeker in the Netherlands. It remains up to each Egyptian Christian individually to demonstrate that he/she is in need of international protection. This has always been the Dutch asylum policy for all asylum seekers including Egyptian Christians.”

About the change in policy it states:

“The change in the procedure as it applies to Egyptian Christians was decided upon on July 11, 2012 by the Netherlands Minister of Immigration, Asylum and Integration and entails the following: in case an individual Egyptian Christian asylum seeker can make a plausible case that there is a real risk of a breach of article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms or that he/she is persecuted as described in the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, he/she does not need to demonstrate that he/she asked the Egyptian authorities for protection.”

Unfortunately, this statement did not reach every Egyptian somehow interested in the matter. As I wrote above, all this happened when I was in Dahab enjoying the really nice weather and the beach. When I arrived back in Cairo on Friday night, I took a taxi from Tahrir square to my apartment in Doqqi. The cab driver asked the usual questions, and by the time we were close to my destination, he asked me where I was from. I said: “Hulanda”, and before I could tell him that I wanted to get out because I had reached my destination, he started to get angry with me, and said “Hulanda mish mazboot” (Egyptian for “Holland isn’t good”). He didn’t want to let me get out of the car, and kept on driving. According to him, the Netherlands were welcoming Copts in their country, and that’s why he was mad at me. I’m not sure why he didn’t like the idea that a lot of Copts want to leave Egypt, because I assume he doesn’t want them to stay either. After a few minutes, he stopped the car and let me out while saying “Welcome to Hulanda”. At least he took his revenge…

Egypt: the road to elections

In recent weeks there has been much speculation about the willingness of Egypt’s ‘caretaker government,’ the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to hand over power to an elected assembly. (I don’t think ‘caretaker government’ is the right terminology to describe the ruling military council, because it can hardly be argued that SCAF is governing, let alone taking care of Egypt.) On Friday, thousands of protesters demanded the removal from power of the Supreme Council and its leader, Field Marshal Tantawi. The demonstrations continued over night, and totally escalated yesterday. Resulting in at least two deaths and 750 injured.

The main focus of the demonstration was the Constitutional Principles Document. After the 25 January revolution, liberal groups wanted to have a safeguard against Islamist groups, so they pushed for a civil rights charter, enshrined in the constitution. When this proved impossible, different political parties agreed to a compromise; a document was to be drafted showing the commitment to a set of principles to be incorporated in the constitution. Deputy Prime Minister Ali Selmi, also deputy head of Al Wafd Party coordinated the process.

SCAF more or less hijacked the document and added some articles ascribing more power to the military as a ‘guardian of the revolution,’ on which Egyptian writer Bassem Sabry has elaborated on his blog. The military also suggested the document would be a binding Constitutional Declaration, which would hardly be amendable. Islamists vehemently opposed this move, and finally took to the streets on Friday, joined by liberal groups like the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and the 6 April Movement.

These recent developments show, besides the power of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, the army’s intention to remain in power, whether it is in the ‘front seat’ or behind the scenes. It is unfortunately not the only sign of SCAF’s lack of democratic intentions.

Another worrying sign is the decision of the Supreme Council to ban independent election monitors from the European Union or other organizations because it is a violation of Egypt’s sovereignty. It is true that the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs granted the Carter Center for Human Rights permission to ‘witness’ the elections. But as Jimmy Carter states in an interview with Reuters: ‘That’s a distance from observing.’ The other observer of the elections is the Supreme Commission for the Elections, a cover for the corrupt Ministry of Interior. An Egyptian human rights organization found out that the Commission enjoys no authority whatsoever to oversee the elections.

And even if the army is willing to hand over power to a civilian government formed by a newly elected parliament, this government will mostly consist of Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties. As this highly recommendable piece by journalist Evan Hill explains, liberals don’t stand a chance against well organized powers like the Muslim Brotherhood and the folool – Arabic for remnants – parties, founded by members of the former ruling party.

However, there will still be elections next week. The Egyptian Cabinet today confirmed that the elections will continue as planned, though the Supreme Council has not responded to latest events yet. So here is some information on the electoral process and the competing parties.

First, the numbers: over 50 million eligible voters, 6000 candidates, 454 seats, 444 districts and more than 50 parties. These are the numbers of the coming elections for Egypt’s People’s Assembly. On November 28, the first round will be held in nine governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria. The whole process will take several months, with the second round starting on December 14, and the last round on the 3rd of January. A week after each round there will be a run-off between the candidates that were not directly elected. During the elections, schools will be closed to prevent unrest. Elections for the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house, will be held in March 2012, in the same way as the elections for the lower house.

This document (PDF, by @Arabist, arabist.net) clearly points out the competing parties and the electoral blocks they have formed. The Democratic Alliance, headed by the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, is the block likely to win the most seats. Another interesting block is the Egyptian Bloc, with the liberal Free Egyptians Party as the driving force. The Salafi parties are united in the Islamist Alliance.

A few interesting websites on the subject: