Monday, May 12, 2008

CSM: Arab TV feels the pinch of new broadcast limits

Arab TV feels the pinch of new broadcast limits

The Arab League has adopted new restrictions on satellite broadcasters warning them not to insult Arab leaders.

By Liam Stack Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
May 2, 2008

Cairo - Spread across the top of this city's crooked skyline like a field of mushrooms, satellite dishes absorb signals beamed from across the Arab world to send images of pop stars and politicians to the throngs of families living below.

Throughout the Middle East, where governments have long had a powerful grip on the media, satellite broadcasting serves as an important source of information – and entertainment – that has been beyond the traditional reach of the state censors.

But now, according to rights groups and media observers, Arab governments are slowly moving to extend their control of the media to satellite broadcasters, as well.

In February, the Arab League adopted the Satellite Broadcast Charter, a new package of tight guidelines for broadcasters, at the instigation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which own two of the region's main satellites, Nilesat and Arabsat.

The document urges TV stations to "uphold the supreme interests of the Arab countries" and warns them "not to insult their leaders or national and religious symbols" or "insult social peace and national unity."

Weeks after adopting the charter, Egypt's Nilesat dropped Al Hiwar, a London-based network seen as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's main opposition group. Following that, Egyptian police confiscated the transmission equipment of the Cairo News Company (CNC), a syndicate that news agencies such as Al Jazeera and the Associated Press rely on to broadcast their footage live from Egypt.

Nader Gohar, CNC director, says the government raided CNC in April because it blames it for images broadcast by Al Jazeera of protestors destroying portraits of President Hosni Mubarak during two days of food riots.

Although Mr. Gohar says that his company did not broadcast the images, and that Al Jazeera correspondents bypassed him and sent their footage directly to their Qatar headquarters from their satellite phones, he says a service provider such as CNC is an easier target than a major network.

"The government doesn't like what Al Jazeera says in their broadcasts, but at the same time it won't shut down their office," he says. "So they bother people like me because I give Jazeera the technical facilities they need to broadcast. It is an indirect way of limiting Al Jazeera's work."

Both the new charter and the seizure of transmission equipment from the CNC are part of the same repressive trend, says Lawrence Pintak, director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in Cairo.

"It is all a symptom of the same reality, that this government and others in the region refuse to back away from the big brother mentality when it comes to the media," he says.

Egypt's media is freer than most in the Arab world. A number of independent newspapers and television channels have flourished here over the past several years, many of which were at their peak during a brief period of political openness that accompanied the 2005 presidential election.

President Mubarak handily won reelection in 2005, and his main challenger has languished in a prison cell ever since. As 2005 recedes further in to the past, the government has begun to move more aggressively against the press.

At the country's independent newspapers, editors, and journalists have been sentenced to jail for insulting the ruling party and speculating about the health of the country's leader, who turns 80 next month and has ruled Egypt for 27 years. Satellite broadcasters have started to feel the pinch, too.

Hussein Abdel Ghany, Cairo bureau chief for Al Jazeera, is concerned by the changing environment for satellite networks in the region, and in Egypt in particular. Al Jazeera was never consulted about the new guidelines issued in February, he says, but in particular he is "really worried about what is happening with our service provider," the CNC.

He calls the seizure of their equipment "a sneaky, indirect" way to attack freedom of the press.

"We rely on our cooperation with service providers, especially for covering live events," he says. "They are our only way to work here."

"If the government starts to close down service providers, or harass them to stop cooperating with independent media like Al Jazeera, the BBC, or the AP, then this is something that the international community and human rights groups that focus on freedom of speech should be paying attention to," he adds.

The state prosecutor has charged the CNC with violation of the 1960 Transmission Law, which gives the state-run Egyptian Radio and Television Union the sole right to transmit television signals out of the country. That law does not take into account the existence of technologies such as satellite broadcasting and the Internet.

The government has long promised to update the law, and will not renew the operating licenses of groups like the CNC until the law is changed.

Critics say the government has taken no action toward actually changing the law, and want to keep the media in a state of limbo.

"If you make a mistake the government will punish you for not having a license, but if you don't make any problems for them then you will be OK," says Gohar.

Critics say that those gray areas are the government's best weapon against the independent media.

Hussein Amin, the author of the Satellite Broadcast Charter, says that one of his goals for the document is to clarify those shades of gray. "Imagine you are walking in a dark room and someone turns on the lights," he says. "Censorship is that darkness and regulations are the lights."

He compares the guidelines to those of the Federal Communications Commission in the United States, and says it is meant to protect Arab youth from pornography, violence, and "hate campaigns" run by terrorist groups.

"It was obvious that some channels were really designed just to implement hate campaigns against Christians in general and Americans in particular."

He points to Al Zawra, a channel run by Sunni militants in Iraq that was pulled from both Nilesat and Arabsat last year.

Mr. Amin, who is chairman of the journalism department at the American University in Cairo and a member of the policy committee of the ruling party, which advises Mubarak, says critics of the document do not under "the difference between freedom and responsible freedom."

"People need to remember that this is not the United States or Europe," he says. "This is still authoritarianism. The government can ban any network they want if it is giving them a hard time. They can ban it. They are in control."

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, April 21, 2008

SF Chronicle: Cultural boycott partitions Egypt from Israel

Cultural boycott partitions Egypt from Israel

CAIRO - Almost 30 years after Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David peace accords, the normalization of cultural ties is still mired in a cold war.

Since Egypt became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, the two nations have exchanged ambassadors, cooperated on security issues and greatly increased trade. Yet for many Egyptians, the war has migrated to the cultural arena, including boycotts of Israeli artists and criticism of actors who work with their Israeli counterparts.

At the center of the normalization debate is the American University in Cairo, the most elite university in the Arab world and a stronghold of Egypt's secular ruling class of military officers and business leaders.

Last year, articles published in the local media that the university would hire Israeli professors and allow the entry of Israeli students provoked much campus outrage. Student activists organized protests, circulated petitions and organized opposition groups on Facebook, the popular social Web site. University administrators quickly intervened.

"Over the past several months rumors have circulated on campus and the local media that have had no basis in fact and may seek to harm the university and its reputation as an independent, apolitical institution," David Arnold, the university's president said in an e-mail to the student body. "These rumors are completely false and seek only to harm the university."

A boost to trade

Many Egyptian liberals favor cultural normalization with Israel. Some point to the financial benefits, while others stress the importance of dialogue in a region racked by conflict. A 2004 free trade pact more than doubled trade in its first 12 months from $58 million to $134 million, according to the Israeli Export Institute.

Yet cultural interactions are few, and those who travel or work with Israelis are harshly criticized.

Last year, Egyptian actor Amr Waked, who is best known for his role as a terrorist preparing young suicide bombers in "Syriana," was threatened with a lifetime ban from filming in Egypt by the nation's actors union. The union was angry that he had appeared opposite Israeli actor Yigal Naor in a 2007 BBC film called "Between Two Rivers" about the life of Saddam Hussein. The union eventually dropped the threat after Waked said he did not know an Israeli was involved and that the film criticized U.S. foreign policy.

The actor's union and other critics who reject any cultural exchange with Israel say it is a matter of standing up for Palestinian human rights.

"In this case, art must follow politics and not the other way around," said Rafiq el-Saaban, the organizer of the annual Cairo international film festival. "I can't accept the idea of having artistic relations with Israel before we have found a political solution to this crisis."

Envoys frustrated

Officials at Israel's heavily guarded embassy in Cairo say that even though the two countries have good political relations, they are frustrated by the cultural boycott. Tourism between the two nations has dropped significantly since the peace agreement and only a handful of Egyptian artists, writers and academics has traveled to the Jewish state.

"It has been 30 years since (President Anwar) Sadat came to Israel to break down the wall of ignorance and hate between our countries, and he was successful in certain respects," Israeli Embassy spokesman Shani Cooper-Zubida said. "But there are still some bricks in the wall that are still standing, and one of them is cultural relations."

High-ranking officials in Egypt agree that the cultural boycott has not reduced the strong political ties between the two nations.

"On the level of prime ministers and foreign ministers, there have been many exchanges between our countries, but you can draw a line between them and all the different groups in society that do not encourage any kind of cooperation with Israel in any way," said Hussein Amin, the chairman of the journalism department at the American University.

Amin says the human rights concerns that motivate the boycott are "respectable reasons," but are misguided. "You have to understand that the people, the public, do things with their feelings, not with their minds," he said.

But most critics disagree.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says the boycott is all about politics.

"Cultural normalization will never happen as long as Palestinians are slaughtered and killed, and the whole world can see them being deprived of their human rights," said Houdaiby, an American University alumnus. "I am always in favor of dialogue, but you need a good atmosphere to have a healthy dialogue. You can't just kill people and then ask the survivors to have a dialogue."

Critical of Mubarak

Yasmeen Jawdat El Khoudary, a 17-year-old undergraduate at the American University from the Gaza Strip, says Israelis should not be allowed to study in Egypt until the occupation is over.

"My major reason for being opposed to normalization is that no one ever listens to the Palestinians," she said. "The occupation has taken every opportunity and right that we have, including the right to education."

For other critics of normalization, attacks on the Camp David accords are part of larger criticism of the autocratic government of President Hosni Mubarak, its close relationship with the United States and its embrace of free trade.

"Rumors always grow, develop and acquire dynamism in the absence of transparency," said Mahmoud El Lozy, an American University in Cairo drama professor and well-known critic of normalization. "If there were clear principles established, and people believed that policies would be based on those principles, then there would be no more rumors. The problem is that we are dealing with shifting grounds."

But among the university's students, there are those who disagree with the cultural boycott against Israel.

Passant Rabie, an American University senior supports normalization and wants to visit Israel someday.

"People here need to learn to differentiate more between Israel, Zionism and Jews," she said. "You can't just say that all Israelis automatically have Zionist beliefs, because that is like saying that all Arabs have terrorist tendencies. That's what we always accuse the West of saying about us."

This article appeared on page A - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Labels: , , , , ,

CSM: Amid violent riots, Egyptian elections fizzle

Amid violent riots, Egyptian elections fizzle

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, facing repression, failed to harness growing public discontent.

By Liam Stack Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
April 9, 2008

Cairo - Finally, after a two-year postponement, Egypt's polls opened Tuesday for municipal council elections. But hardly anyone came.

In Cairo's Manyal neighborhood, many residents said they did not realize there was an election. Among those who were aware, many said voting was useless, with candidates loyal to President Hosni Mubarak running unopposed in 90 percent of the races.

"I voted last time but this time I won't because I don't think it is going to be fair," says Hany, a young man who declined to give his last name. "It makes all of us feel like the government is only doing what it wants, and doesn't care about what we want."

The elections are being held at a time of burgeoning economic unrest and ongoing political repression. Public discontent with the regime is widespread, and opposition groups appear unable to successfully mobilize this growing dissent.

The weeks before Tuesday's vote were marked by a systemic campaign to block regime critics from running in the contest, which had been postponed since April 2006. At the center of the crackdown were the arrests over the past several weeks of 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's main opposition group.

The Brotherhood, which holds a fifth of parliament's seats, says it had planned to support 10,000 candidates for 52,000 posts on local councils at the town, city and province level across Egypt. But faced with intimidation and bureaucratic technicalities, fewer than two dozen managed to get their names on final election lists.

On Monday, the Brotherhood pulled their candidates from the race and called on Egyptians to boycott the vote, saying that it would not reflect the will of the Egyptian people.

"The regime has adopted a strategy to keep us from competing with them in elections – they decided they would start arresting people, detaining people, and trying some of them in front of military courts," says Mohamed Habib, the group's deputy leader. "They want to have the security apparatus control the whole country, and put the Brotherhood on the sidelines of political life so it can not be an active participant in it."

The government also tried, through state-run media, to intimidate prospective participants in a general strike called by secular opposition groups over the weekend. In the first major attempt by opposition groups and intellectuals to coordinate actions with labor activists, the strike was planned to coincide with a worker's strike at the state-run Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla. The factory is the largest public-sector firm in the Middle East and a national icon.

But both strikes were thwarted by a combination of worker infighting and a crackdown by state security, which arrested 150 labor leaders early Sunday morning. Protests erupted in Mahalla late that afternoon when townspeople, including a large number of women and children, gathered in the main square to protest the morning arrests as well as a skyrocketing inflation rate, which has nearly doubled the price of many staple foods in the last three months. Nearly 40 percent of Egypt's 80 million people live at or near the poverty line of $2 a day.

The protest turned violent when thugs hired by security services, called baltageyya, began pelting demonstrators with stones, according to witnesses.

"One minute there was nothing, and then suddenly there were big crowds of people and state security officers and baltageyya," says Joel Beinin, a labor historian and professor of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, who was present at the Mahalla demonstrations.

"The baltageyya started throwing rocks very carefully, like they were firing volleys. They aimed very high so they would arc up and then fall on people's heads."

According to Ahmed Seif, Director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, rioting spread across the city as police pursued demonstrators from neighborhood to neighborhood firing tear gas canisters, rubber bullets, and live rounds of ammunition. Protesters responded with stones, bricks and Molotov cocktails.

Monday afternoon saw new clashes when a crowd of young men tore down a large portrait of President Mubarak in the city's main square. Demonstrators also burned banks, schools, buses and shops. Estimates of those injured in the violence range from 80 to more than 150. Local media reported up to five killed.

"Workers and people from the town came out in to the streets all around the factory without any organization, breaking things and setting them on fire," says Syed Habib, a Mahalla labor organizer reached by phone after the riots. "Everything has come to a standstill. The only thing working now is the factory."

Observers say the outburst of violence in an iconic factory town, as well as the inability of opposition movements to organize a strike, demonstrates both the disorganization of the Egyptian opposition and the deep frustration felt by many Egyptians across the boundaries of social class.

"The regime knew it could not let a general strike happen and that any movement that came from the working classes as well as [the] intellectual [classes] is not a good sign for them," says Mr. Beinin. "The regime reacted very, very strongly, judging correctly that this was a potentially very serious challenge to them," he added. "But what happened surely indicates that opposition movements are very disorganized."

Labels: , , , , ,

CSM: Egypt targets Muslim Brotherhood moderates

Egypt targets Muslim Brotherhood moderates

President Hosni Mubarak's regime is clamping down on the banned opposition group ahead of next month's local elections.

By Liam Stack Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
March 26, 2008

Cairo - Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members waited under the hot spring sun on the Hikestep Army Base near Cairo on Tuesday to hear the verdict against 40 other influential members on trial for participating in the banned opposition movement.

Many traveled from far away provinces to hear the decision, only to be told that the verdict was being delayed – again.

It was a repeat of a similar scene in February, when around 1,000 Brotherhood members holding banners, photographs of the defendants, and copies of the Koran filled the parking lot of the base, only to be told then that the decision was postponed.

Members of the opposition group, human rights activists, and other reform advocates here see the 14-month-old military trial as part of the government's ongoing crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood to diminish its political prospects ahead of next month's polls in which more than 10,000 local council seats are up for grabs. They say the trial has targeted key moderates in the movement, as well as important financiers, in an attempt to push it further to the margins of Egyptian public life.

"The fact that they keep delaying the verdict means that this case is purely political and there are no actual, serious charges," says Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, who himself was sentenced to five years in prison by a military court in 1995 for membership in a banned group. "The regime is mainly interested in keeping pressure on the Brotherhood to prevent us from taking any action."

Detained, intimidated, on the run

More than 800 Brotherhood members who have been involved in campaigns for local council seats have been detained in recent months and many of its prominent members have gone into hiding around the country.

Thousands of aspiring Brotherhood candidates have been barred from filing their paperwork by a mix of bureaucratic trickery and violence, says Mr. Habib, who estimates that the group will not be able to field more than 15 candidates in next month's race.

While the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned in Egypt, its members run in elections as independents. In parliamentary elections in 2005, the group stunned President Hosni Mubarak's regime by winning one-fifth of the seats in the country's People's Assembly.

The group renounced violence in the 1970s and focused on establishing a vast network of charitable activities for the country's poor, such as schools, clinics, and youth centers.

In recent years, it has emerged as a major advocate of democratic reform in Egypt, coupling calls for elections with its longstanding arguments for Islamic law.

Brotherhood members and outside observers say the crackdown has weakened the influence of the movement's moderates and empowered its more conservative ideological elements.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an editor of IkhwanWeb, the group's English-language website, says the government is cracking down on moderate Islamists because they are more willing to engage with the international community and to work across party lines with opposition groups of different ideological stripes.

He points to the recent arrest of a senior IkhwanWeb editor, Khaled Hamza, who was detained on a busy street just hours after meeting with visitors from an international human rights group.
Moderates increasingly targeted

"People with a greater ability to reach out to those with different ideologies and backgrounds, like secular opposition groups in Egypt and the international community, are at a higher risk of being detained," he said.

That view is shared by Zahraa El Shater, the daughter of Khairat El Shater, the movement's No. 3 leader and a lead defendant in the case.

Ms. El Shater says it will take "a miracle" for her father and her husband, Ayman Abdel Ghani, who is also on trial, to be released.

If the regime wanted to give them a fair trial, she says, it would abide by the multiple acquittals they received in civilian courts.

Instead, she thinks the regime wants to punish the men for their moderate views and openness to the West.

"My father was taken because he was moderate and liked to open dialogue with Western people, with American people," she says. "The government here hates that. It does not want the Muslim Brotherhood to talk to Western people.

The imprisonment of Mr. El Shater and other moderates has had "a tremendous effect on the internal workings of the group" by upsetting the balance between pragmatists and conservatives, says Joshua Stacher, a fellow at Syracuse University who specializes in Middle Eastern politics.

This case is the first time the government has gone after the finances of Brotherhood members, says Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

That is significant, he says, because it strikes a blow at the charitable activities that draw in many of its supporters, and also sends a warning to the movement's donors.

"If the government goes after its funding, then this stops the money used to fund these activities," says Shehata. "Now the government is not only jailing people, but also threatening their families' well-being."

Labels: , , , ,

CSM: U.S., Egypt disagree over Suez shooting, fueling suspicion

U.S., Egypt disagree over Suez shooting, fueling suspicion

A US Navy-chartered cargo ship fired on a small Egyptian boat Monday night. Egypt says at least one man was killed, while the US initially reported no casualties.

By Liam Stack Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor
March 26, 2008

Cairo - Egypt and the United States issued conflicting accounts Tuesday of a shooting incident involving a US cargo ship and a small boat in the Suez Canal, feeding into the deep distrust here of American motives in the Middle East.

The Global Patriot, which was under short-term charter to the Navy's Military Sealift Command, entered the canal from the Red Sea after dark Monday, when it was approached by several small boats, US and Egyptian officials say.

According to the Egyptian government and local reports, the vessel opened fire on one of the motorboats as it transited through the canal, killing an Egyptian man and injuring two others.

Two men on the boat were injured and one man, identified as Mohamed Moqtar Afifi by Agence France-Presse, was killed.

The US Navy has been particularly alert to the activities of such small boats near its warships since Al Qaeda's 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Yemen killed 17 sailors.

"The Americans come to the Middle East and deal with everyone like they are Al Qaeda," says Essam el-Erian, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most influential opposition group. He says that it is "well known in the area that these people sail beside big ships and sell things."

"It is terrible to kill poor people like this without any warning and it reflects the foolish American policy of treating everyone like an enemy," he said.

But US officials say preliminary reports from the ship indicate there were no casualties.

According to the US Embassy in Cairo, the small boats approaching the ship were warned to move away from the vessel by an Arabic speaker on a bullhorn. The ship then fired "a warning flare" at one boat that did not change its course.

"One small boat continued to approach the ship and received two sets of warning shots 20 to 30 yards in front of the bow," reads the statement. "All shots were accounted for as they entered the water."

The motorboats in the Suez Canal incident are believed by many Egyptians to have belonged to mamboutis, local vendors who peddle simple goods such as cigarettes, tea, and snacks to ships passing through the canal.

Pending the results of an investigation, there has been no ready explanation for why the American account is so different from the one reported in the Egyptian local and state-run media.

Nabil Abdel Fattah, the deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also attributed the incident to an American "obsession" with terrorists.

"The American soldiers who come to the Middle East see a threat in everything," he said. "They think so much about terrorist groups, Al Qaeda, nationalist groups. There are many phantoms and obsessions in their minds.

"Egyptians are angry," he added. "There are many nonviolent ways that the American soldiers could get these people away, who were just trying to sell them some simple goods."

Labels: , , ,

Al Jazeera English: Iraqis in Cairo struggle to rebuild

Iraqis in Cairo struggle to rebuild

By Liam Stack in Cairo

An Iraqi woman waits for a bus bound for Syria. Many Iraqis are still trying to flee to Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon [AFP]Azhar Adnan turns his hands restlessly in his lap as he talks about his fall from middle-class comfort in Baghdad to poverty and instability in Cairo.

Once a political prisoner during Saddam Hussein's rule, Adnan, a secular Shia, took a job in the Ministry of Finance in the months after the US invasion in 2003.

When the country's reconstruction began to falter and the power of rival insurgent factions grew, he said he and others like him began to receive threats from all sides.

"Al-Qaeda sent me a threatening letter because I worked in the ministry," he said. "Everyone who worked there was targeted."

Secularists targeted

The Iraqi refugee crisis since 2003
But Adnan was also persecuted for his religious lifestye.

"The Mahdi Army considered me an atheist because I am secular. They said I did not believe in God so I should be killed," he told Al Jazeera.

"Then they called and said they were going to come and kill me."

The deaths threats prompted Adnan and his family to leave Iraq and come to Cairo.

He has lived here since 2006 as a refugee with his wife, uncle and two cousins in Sixth of October City, a sprawling suburb that is home to many Iraqi refugees.

Cairo is one of the largest urban refugee centers in the world, and has for decades hosted people fleeing violence or persecution in the Horn of Africa and the occupied Palestinian territories.

No rights in Cairo

The UN estimates violence has displaced another two million within Iraq itself [EPA] The Egyptian government estimates that about 100,000 to 150,000 displaced Iraqis have settled in the country.

The number is small compared to Jordan and Syria, which together host more than 2 million, but many Iraqis who live in Cairo, including Adnan and his family, migrated in 2006 after Jordan stopped accepting refugees.

Others chose Egypt because of its relatively low cost of living, though restrictions imposed last January have since curbed their entry.

Egypt does not grant Iraqi refugees resident status and does not encourage them to put down roots here.

Iraqi children are not allowed to attend public school, say refugee rights advocates, and their parents cannot legally work. Researchers say that leaves them vulnerable to exploitative work in the informal economy and puts them at a greater risk of poverty and disease.

Adnan said he lives hand-to-mouth in Cairo. Without a steady income, his family cannot afford suitable health care or even buy medicine or leg braces for his wife, who suffers from polio.

"Life here is very hard," he said. "Our biggest problem is that there is no way for me to work. We live off our savings and my uncle's pension, but it is hardly enough."

Moving beyond anecdotes

Researchers say that problems like Adnan's are common among Iraqi refugees in Cairo, but that it is hard to grasp the bigger picture of the community's situation.

"We know almost nothing about Iraqi refugees in Egypt," said Phillippe Fargues, chairman of the Department of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies (FMRS) at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

Of the more than 100,000 Iraqis estimated to be living in Egypt, fewer than 10,000 have registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Fargues added.

Furthermore, these government estimates are based on the number of Iraqis who have entered the country since 2006 at Cairo Airport, which Fargues said is an inadequate measure. "People move back and forth and we have no way to estimate that."

AUC will conduct the first census of Iraqi refugees in Cairo this spring. It will focus on refugees' social class and family structure, religious sect, personal history, the problems they have faced in Egypt and their plans for the future.

"We need to know the size of the community and the magnitude of the problems they encounter before we can have policies to solve their problems," Fargues said.

"Personal stories and rumors do not give an accurate picture, especially from a policy-making point of view."

But for now, personal stories and rumors provide the only picture of Iraqi life in Egypt's teeming capital.

Distrust and disorganisation

But Mike Kagan, a professor of international law at AUC, says local government treatment of Iraqis and the sectarian divisions among the refugees themselves have stunted the growth of Iraqi organisations.

"Other refugee communities have a much longer history in the country, and international organisations and aid workers get to know them through their community leadership," he said.

"Iraqi refugees are harder to get to know because there is little internal organisation, largely due to government pressure and distrust among Iraqis."

"The question is, is there an Iraqi community, or are they many Iraqi communities?"

Hassanein, a refugee who asked to be identified only by his first name, understands all too well the deep unease that many Iraqi refugees feel around each other.

After fleeing the violence of their homeland, often leaving loved ones behind, the displaced find it hard to trust one other again, he said.

Sensitive subjects

Distrust and violence back home means Iraqis abroad have little community assistance [EPA]Hassanein came to Egypt a year ago, after militants in his neighbourhood discovered that he had a job with a US firm inside the Green Zone. Gunmen opened fire on his car as he drove home from the barber shop one day, only a week after his wedding.

He narrowly escaped, but said he "knew that Iraq was no longer the place for me".

He and his wife came to Egypt, where their son was born. But it was impossible to support all three of them in Cairo without a steady income, so after several months his wife and child returned to live with family in Baghdad.

Concerned about their safety, he is always careful when talking with other refugees about his reasons for fleeing.

"If you have some money or have ever worked with the Americans, then you don't want anyone back in Iraq to know that," he said. "People here can't tell each other their stories easily."

"I still have family in Iraq, so I don't trust anyone. I feel like I can't talk to any Iraqis about my life."

"I would never join any Iraqi organisation here. I don't think anyone else would either."

Labels: , , , , ,

Guardian Weekly: Rough Justice for Egypt's Brotherhood

Rough Justice for Egypt's Brotherhood

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is the country’s most popular political movement, despite a 1954 ban. It won one-fifth of the seats in the People’s Assembly in 2005, becoming the largest opposition bloc in Egypt’s history. Stunned by their success, the regime has come down hard on political opponents. Zahraa El Shater is the daughter of Khairat El Shater, the Brotherhood’s third-highest ranking member; her husband, Ayman Abdel Ghani, is a member too. Both men are standing trial at a special military tribunal, where the verdict has been postponed until late March. Meanwhile Zahraa struggles to explain the world to her four children and to keep them focused on a peaceful future

My husband has been arrested four times since we got married. They take him away every time there is an election.

Everyone was happy when the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections in 2005. I was happy too, of course, but I was also upset; I knew that they would come and arrest my husband. And that is exactly what happened. They took him away for six months.

We were all in the car when they took him. We had moved house and the police didn’t have our new address, so they were looking for him in the streets. We had just collected the children from school when suddenly there were officers jumping on the car, screaming: "Stop trying to escape!" My husband wasn’t trying to escape; he hadn’t even known that they wanted him. If he had he would have gone to see the prosecutor by himself.

The officers pulled him out of the car in a very violent way. My children were screaming: "They are trying to kill my father! No, don’t kill him!" One of the officers was crying as he did it. (Afterwards, many of them asked me to forgive them. They said that they were just following orders. They went and bought sweets for my children.)

The officer in charge insisted on taking me and the children with them to the State Security station. My husband said to them: "Let her take the children and go; she knows how to drive. I am the one you want. Let her leave." But they refused. My husband asked them to let us go in the same car so the soldiers would not do bad things to me, but the officer made us go in different cars.

All of my children were crying and screaming, and my husband started to shout to passers-by in the street. It was 3pm and there were a lot of people around. They were gathering to see what was happening. My husband gave people my father’s phone number and asked them to call it. He was afraid that no one would know what had happened to us. The police didn't want anyone to know, so they beat him harder.

The police usually arrest members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep. The first thing they do when they attack a house is take out all the phone wires so the inhabitants can’t call anyone.

When they brought us to the State Security station they kept my children and me inside our car in a big garage for seven or eight hours. My children were shocked and scared and have not been the same since. My son soiled himself out of fright and since then has had the same problem when he is sleeping.

They kept asking me questions: "Why did they take him this way? What did he do?" I had to try to calm them down, but I needed someone to calm me down too. I couldn't really do anything for them because I was too upset.

When we left I asked the officer to please give me back my mobile phone – and he did. This was very kind of him. I think he was upset as well. He was a human being and thought what was happening was wrong.

When they let us out I called my father. No one knew that we had been taken from the street. He sent a friend to come and collect us because I was too shocked to drive.

My husband spent six or seven months in jail. After that he was free for only three months before the police came back to arrest him. I was so surprised; we weren’t expecting them to come back. We were planning to go to Mecca to make our pilgrimage a week later, but of course we couldn’t.

Then my father was arrested. I never thought they would arrest him; he’s a very moderate and diplomatic member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Also, it's unusual for the Supreme Guide or his deputies to be arrested, and this was the first time it had happened. It was a big shock.

It was 3am when I heard the phone ringing. I was scared something bad had happened so I tried to ignore it. I said to myself: "OK, just keep sleeping."

A minute later there was loud knocking at the door, but my husband did not wake up. I wasn't veiled, so I ran to the door to say: "Wait, please let me get veiled." My younger brother Saad was with them on the other side. I asked him what was happening and he said: "It’s State Security. They’re here."

When I opened the door my husband asked: "Why me? I have only been out for three months. I haven’t had a chance to do anything new." The police officer said: "Show me where you keep all your books and papers." But they had taken everything the last time they came and we had nothing for them to see. It had only been three months. We didn’t have time to buy anything new.

When my children woke up and discovered their father been taken again, and their grandfather, they were shocked. In the Muslim Brotherhood, we try to bring up our children with peaceful values. We want them to live in a good way. But now my oldest daughter Sara – she is 10 – asks me dangerous questions. She says things like: "You are so weak. You couldn’t defend our father. Isn’t he a strong man? He should not allow them to take him so easily every time. You are weak people."

It is astonishing to my children that their father should be taken if he is a good man. I try to explain to Sara how things are, but she does not understand. I told her: "Your father and grandfather are good people, but the problem is this government."

She asked me once: "If they put good people in prison and let bad people go free, then why should we be good people?" I explained it to her from an Islamic point of view. I told her that in order to make our community a good community we should be patient and try to be good people. We have to make sacrifices and do the right thing.

My children have begun to understand that we are living in a mess and I’m afraid that they will learn bad values from it. I try to tell them that their father is political prisoner, not a criminal. In Arabic, I tell them that he is mo’ataqal, a detainee; not masgoon, which means prisoner. I tell them there is a special kind of prison that is not for bad people, that sometimes good people can become mo’ataqal.

Every now and then I bring my children with me to protest against the trial. But it just convinces them that peaceful ways don’t work. Now, when we go to demonstrations, my children say to me: "Nobody hears you, nobody is listening to you." Knowing that my children think this way makes me afraid.

The Muslim Brotherhood wants to change society in a peaceful way, not in a violent way. But I am convinced that pressure produces pressure. If the government is violent there will be violence in society. What the government is doing makes a lot of young people feel upset and that the peaceful ways are useless.

If my husband and father were found guilty by a civilian court it would mean they had done bad things and I would not try to defend them. But to watch them go to jail when they haven’t done anything wrong, when they were found innocent by [three separate] civilian courts? The government thinks that the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t deserve to have justice. Criminals in Egypt have justice, and we deserve it too.

• Zahraa El Shater was talking to Liam Stack in Cairo.

Labels: , , , ,

Al Jazeera English - Interview: Cindy Sheehan

Interview: Cindy Sheehan

By Liam Stack in Cairo

Cindy Sheehan is in Cairo to protest the Egyptian government's decision to try members of the Muslim Brotherhood in a military court
Cindy Sheehan, an American activist who was nicknamed the "Peace Mom" by the media for her criticism of the Iraq War, retreated from her public campaigns in 2007.

The death of her son Casey, a US soldier, in a Baghdad battle in 2005 had transformed Sheehan into a public figure in the US.

But she resurfaced in Cairo last week as a member of a delegation from the Muslim American Society which is in Egypt to protest against the military trial of 40 members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

She spoke to Al Jazeera about her journey from peace activist to Congressional candidate, her thoughts on Iraq and her experiences in Egypt.

Al Jazeera: You first became famous for your protests against the Iraq war in August 2005, but you have not been an active anti-war figure for a while now. What happened?

Sheehan says she wants to put impeachment of George Bush back on the agenda [GETTY]Sheehan: In May 2007, I decided to quit actually being the face of the anti-war movement in America. I quit and I have not gone back to that. When I left the movement I was broke, I was tired, I was sick – literally sick and in pain.

I wanted to just totally be out of the political realm and not have anything to do with it. The establishment that runs our country just disgusted me and I was tired of it. It is very corrupt and I definitely saw that when I was focusing on anti-war activism.

The leaders of both parties work together to keep normal people out of the process. In many ways the Democratic leadership, especially in Congress, has been complicit with George Bush, the US president, in his crimes against humanity.

How can [Democratic Speaker of the House] Nancy Pelosi say unequivocally that water-boarding is torture and that Bush and [Richard] Cheney, the US vice-president, should not only be impeached but they should be charged with war crimes when in 2002 she herself was briefed on water-boarding and shown video of the rendition places where water-boarding happened?

Impeaching George Bush was a popular demand among liberal Americans at one time, but very few people talk about it anymore. Is that what turned you into an activist again?

When George Bush commuted [vice-presidential aide] Scooter Libby's sentence, the Democrats in Congress didn't do anything about it. When the Administration said they would not cooperate with subpoenas against [presidential aide] Harriet Myers, the democrats didn't do anything about it.

That's what pulled me back into activism. I thought how can they do that? How can they say 'I'm just not going to come to your stupid trial,’ and no one will say anything about it?

When the Democrats took impeachment off the table, I decided enough was enough. On July 23, 2007, I officially announced that I was running for Congress against Nancy Pelosi.

Why the focus on Nancy Pelosi?

I don't think politicians who make political decisions necessarily think about how they are going to affect people and their families. I decided if Nancy Pelosi wasn't going to put impeachment on the table then I would run against her.

You can't take any part of the Constitution off the table, even though they have rendered it almost meaningless between George Bush and Karl Rove. Since they came to power they have institutionalised torture and spying against Americans.

They have passed the Military Commissions Act and just done away with habeas corpus. They have practically rendered it meaningless. That is why I decided to challenge Pelosi for her seat. I always say if you want change you have to vote out the enablers, and Pelosi is the biggest enabler there is.

If your new focus is on unseating Nancy Pelosi, what are you doing in Egypt?

My anti-war work evolved into work for global human rights because I saw the problem was much deeper than just George Bush.

It's about militarism and violence, globalisation and free trade.

I decided I wanted to do human rights work on behalf of people around the world who have been harmed by US imperialism.

Part of why I am here, also, is to draw attention to the parallels between the military courts here and the same kinds of courts that are being used to try detainees at Guantanamo Bay by the US.
If this becomes the standard for the world, and there is no international outcry, then everyone is in big trouble.

But what does the US have to do with a military trial in Egypt?

Egypt is a major recipient of US foreign aid, and there is no relationship between American aid and human rights.

If we [America] really want to promote democracy in this region then we cannot silence the voices of the Muslim Brotherhood because they're the moderate voice here and they are the ones who are actually working for democracy.

Do you think your presence in Egypt will have an effect on the trial?

Well, we have been doing a lot of media work since we came to Egypt and we hope this will put pressure on the Egyptian government to treat the prisoners better and to also maybe alleviate their punishment.

Hopefully we will draw some international attention to what is happening here, too, and that will help the situation.

You also went to the National Council of Women in downtown Cairo to request a meeting with Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt's First Lady. How did that go?

I didn't really understand a lot of what was going on. There was a lot of yelling in Arabic. They weren't the right people to get us a meeting with Suzanne Mubarak ... I left a letter for Madame Mubarak and they promised that she would see it.

We thought it was important to go there because there are women and children who are being harmed by having their fathers and husbands detained, so I wanted to talk to Suzanne, mother to mother.

We brought along mothers and wives of the detainees and they were actually able to file complaints, and it was really great.

Have you spoken to many of the families of the defendants in the military trial? Have you spoken to many female members of the Brotherhood mother-to-mother?

My conversations with the mothers and children of the detainees have been really emotional. They told me about the hardships [the arrests and trials] have placed on their families, from financial hardships to emotional and physical hardships.

It is very emotional for me because my family has gone through the same things since my son died. It has been really hard for us.

People always say to me, 'Cindy, why do you always make everything personal?'.

But in the end, everything affects people, whether it's war or economics or human rights violations. I don't think politicians who make political decisions necessarily think about how they are going to affect people and their families.

That is why when I meet people who have been harmed by the policies of their own countries, or the policies of my country, it just makes me resolved to work harder to make the world a better place.

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, January 04, 2008

SF Chronicle: Egypt working to reclaim the desert

Egypt working to reclaim the desert
Remote areas grow crops, but some say they are ignored

Liam Stack, Chronicle Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Abu Minqar, Egypt -- This remote Sahara oasis on the edge of the Great Sand Sea is far from the noise, pollution and crowded throngs of the fertile Nile Valley. In fact, its 4,000 residents call it "the farthest place from Egypt."

Abu Minqar, 404 miles southwest of Cairo, had previously been a bleak moonscape before the government began drilling for water in 1987 in the vast Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. Now, this area is a green stretch of wheat fields and lemon trees.

"Here, we are free," said longtime resident Magdy Mubaraz Ibrahim. "We can plant whatever we want and do whatever we want."

Reclaiming Egypt's desert lands, which cover about 96 percent of the nation's territory, has been a major government objective for more than 50 years.

Successive presidents have said reclamation is a key component in countering not only urban crowding - the population grows by 1.5 million annually - but high unemployment. The official unemployment rate is 10 percent, but many believe it is twice that amount. Currently, 98 percent of Egypt's 78 million inhabitants live in the densely populated Nile River Valley or along the Mediterranean Sea.

But in the past five decades, development experts estimate that as many as 2 million people have moved to reclaimed lands in the Sinai and Sahara deserts. Such desert plots now account for almost 25 percent of Egypt's 8 million acres under cultivation, these same experts say.

President Hosni Mubarak has allocated an estimated $70 billion to reclaim some 27 million acres by 2017. Under his plan, the government offers land to peasants, small-business investors and even university graduates who can't find a decent-paying job in the cities.

At Abu Minqar, the state provides each family with a house and 2 1/2 to 6 acres, for which they pay $35 to $52 annually for as many as 30 years. The oasis consists of two-room cement homes, roads and gravel paths, electricity lines and a rough network of canals that irrigate area crops.

But in spite of its success in lessening pressure on urban areas, state reclamation projects have experienced the same difficulties associated with cities and towns across Egypt, observers say.

The reclamation project "is a way to push the country's problems into the desert," said Jessica Pouchet, a researcher at the American University's Desert Development Center in Cairo.

Abu Minqar residents say the mayor does little, the state-run farmer's cooperative store is poorly stocked and the most significant state presence - the State Agricultural Bank - hordes fertilizer to create a black market. The bankers then sell it to outside interests who sell it back to villagers for two to three times the normal price.

"There is no one to complain to about our problems," said Ali Yassin Marai, a bean and wheat farmer.

Moreover, water experts fear the repercussions once the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which Egypt shares with Sudan, Libya and Chad, goes dry.

"The real problem is uncertainty," said Rick Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center, who has spent several years working on desert irrigation projects in Egypt. "No one knows how much water is even in the aquifer, let alone how fast it is being drained."

Residents also say the state has failed to build cement-lined canals, causing irrigation water to be absorbed by canal walls or evaporated under the desert sun. Electricity is available only a few hours a night, and no adequate health clinics or secondary schools exist. To treat a major illness or attend high school, villagers must travel hundreds of miles on rocky desert roads.

Marai, who moved to Abu Minqar with his family from the Cairo suburb of Giza as a child in 1987, says the central government has forgotten its Sahara transplants.

"Abu Minqar is far from the eyes of the government," he said. "They don't pay attention to us."

Yehia Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Ministry of Local Administration, which oversees in the delivery of services to desert towns and villages, says the government is well aware of the problems in Abu Minqar and other reclaimed desert areas.

"The ministry has 840 million Egyptian pounds ($146 million) for development, but it has to be done step-by-step. People have to be patient."

Moreover, the State Agricultural Bank does distribute some fertilizer at low prices and, more importantly, purchases area crops. Without such support, farmers in this remote spot would find it difficult to sell wheat - the area's main cash crop - to distant cities and towns.

But that is little consolation for most residents here, who finally banded together in September to form an independent association that helps them pay for such necessities as heavy machinery to keep the canals clean or medicine to keep their livestock healthy.

"We have a lot of problems here, and if we work together we can solve some of them," said Ibrahim, who now heads the farmer group.

At the Desert Development Center in Cairo, researcher Tina Jaskolski says the farmers' association is a healthy sign that oasis residents plan to make their own future.

"A lot of people are saying 'forget the government, we have to do this by ourselves,' " said Jaskolski, who has spent more than a year working in Abu Minqar.

"These people all moved to make a new life for themselves, and they have kind of a frontier mentality," she added. "I think that the will to make it work is a big part of what does make it work."

This article appeared on page A - 14 of the San Francisco Chronicle

The Forward: Decades After Camp David, Resistance to Normalization Endures in Egypt

Decades After Camp David, Resistance to Normalization Endures in Egypt

By Liam Stack
Wed. Dec 19, 2007

Cairo, Egypt - The American University in Cairo is a neatly landscaped stronghold of Egypt’s ruling elite, the alma mater of the wife and children of the country’s autocratic and deeply unpopular president, Hosni Mubarak. As a symbol of the ruling class and its close ties to the United States, the university has long been the focus of rumors and popular unease in this bustling city of 18 million.

In the past few months, the unease reached a crescendo amid a heated debate on campus and in the local media about rumored university plans to launch academic exchanges with Israeli universities. According to campus gossip, the university was looking at a secret plan that would allow Israelis to come to the university to study and teach.

On Facebook, the popular social networking site, students organized a group opposed to any “normalization” of ties between their school and the Jewish state that attracted more than 900 members.

Students on the Facebook group called for “a strict boycott against Israeli academics” and urged the university to “act on its good judgment and refrain from any dealings with Israeli academic institutions.”

The quick opposition that formed on campus underscores the fact that, almost 30 years after Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Peace Accords, cultural normalization with the Jewish state, through academic or artistic exchanges, is still a touchy subject. The university administrators acknowledged this by quickly and assertively denying the rumors.

“Over the past several months, rumors have circulated on campus — and have also been reported in the local media — that have had no basis in fact and may seek to harm the university and its reputation as an independent, apolitical institution,” said AUC President David Arnold in an e-mail message sent to the university community November 11.

University provost Tim Sullivan was blunt when asked about possible cooperation with Israel.

“There are no agreements with Israeli universities,” Sullivan told the Forward. “We don’t have any now, nor are we contemplating any. And David Arnold never said we were.”

Even after these denials, though, many students are skeptical.

“I think the rumors are true,” says Yasmeen Jawdat El Khoudary, a 17-year-old undergraduate from Gaza. “It’s not a lie. As we say in Palestine, there is no smoke without fire. If these things weren’t happening, then why would people be talking about them?”

El Khoudary says that her opposition to normalization is based on her childhood in Israeli-occupied Gaza.

The peace between Egypt and Israel is often described as a cold one, but that does not mean the two countries ignore each other. Since the peace treaty between them was signed in 1979, they have exchanged ambassadors and cooperated on a number of security issues in the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli diplomats in Cairo say that their ties with Egypt are strong and that they meet with officials at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs every other day.

There is a significant economic component to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, as well, and it becomes more significant every year. Cross-border trade has more than tripled since Egypt and Israel signed a limited free-trade deal in 2004.

Despite three decades of negotiation, cooperation and trade, many people here act like the conflict never ended. Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member and the tech-savvy editor of the organization’s English-language Web site, says that the cultural boycott is all about politics.

“Cultural normalization will never happen as long as Palestinians are slaughtered and killed, and the whole world can see them being deprived of their human rights,” said Houdaiby, who is an alumnus of the AUC.

For many Egyptian intellectuals, the battle migrated to the country’s cinemas and coffee shops and to the campus of the AUC, which is a stone’s throw from the Nile and from crowded Liberation Square. Many Egyptian liberals from the country’s ruling class favor cultural normalization and economic ties with Israel. Some point to the financial perks of working with Israel, while others stress the importance of dialogue in a part of the world wracked by conflict.

Those who work with Israelis can face severe criticism and potential ostracism in Egypt. This fall, the actors’ union investigated Egyptian actor Amr Waked, best known in America for his role in “Syriana,” after he appeared in a BBC film opposite an Israeli co-star.

The union dismissed the case against Waked, but the furor the actor provoked reveals the degree to which most of Egypt’s intelligentsia still regards Israel with suspicion. It is a hostility that cuts across the political spectrum, from artists and actors to members of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

Mahmoud El Lozy, an AUC theater professor and a well-known critic of normalization, is typical of many elite members of the Egyptian left who reject normalization. A highly educated playwright, he laments life in Egypt under the Mubarak regime with a posh British accent.

Israel is “the enemy,” he said, and cooperation and business ties with Israel are just one of the many insults brought to the country by the autocratic Mubarak regime. “People who support normalization are just a bunch of bend-over Egyptians who support globalization and the rape of the country,” he said.
University administrators privately blame the controversy on the popularity of conspiracy theories in Egypt, which are influential in forming many people’s political opinions.

El Lozy says that the reason the rumors are so powerful in Egypt is that the country’s institutions suffer from a lack of accountability.

“Rumors always grow, develop and acquire dynamism in the absence of transparency,” he said. “If there were clear principles established, and people believed that policies would be based on those principles, then there would be no more rumors. The problem is that we are dealing with shifting grounds.”

Officials at Israel’s heavily guarded embassy in Cairo say they are frustrated by Egypt’s cultural boycott of their country. They say it is “a source of sorrow” that Egyptians cannot watch Israeli films or study next to Israeli students. Shani Cooper-Zubida, the spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy, said that Egyptian-Israeli relations are strong at the political level. She attributes the cultural boycott to the ignorance of the Egyptian people.

“We have good relations regarding political issues, but when it comes to cultural affairs it is a little tougher,” she said. “It has been 30 years since Sadat came to Israel to try to break down the wall of ignorance and hate between our countries, and he was successful in certain respects. But there are still some bricks in the wall that are still standing, and one of them is cultural relations.”

Among the students at the AUC, a small coterie is amenable to the Israelis — though that does not equate with sympathy for Israel politically. Passant Rabie, a senior who has long, curly hair and who sports a backpack with peace signs, supports normalization with Israel and would like to travel there someday.

“I support normalization because we’re all people,” she said. “Normalization does not necessarily mean that you are pro-Israel. You should be civil enough not to have hate for any one big group of people.”

“People here need to learn to differentiate more between Israel, Zionism and Jews,” she added. “You can’t just say that all Israelis automatically have Zionist beliefs, because that is like saying that all Arabs have terrorist tendencies. That’s what we always accuse the West of saying about us.”

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

DNE: ID card policy violates religious freedom, say rights groups

ID card policy violates religious freedom, say rights groups

By Liam Stack
First Published: November 13, 2007

CAIRO - Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights called on the government to allow Egyptian citizens to list their actual religion on national ID cards and other necessary official documents in a joint report released on Monday.

At the age of 16, all Egyptians are required to obtain a national ID card that states their religious affiliation.

Religion is listed on most official documents, including birth certificates, although in some cases the religion written on the ID card is different from the religion listed at birth.

No law on the books requires people to believe only in Islam, Christianity or Judaism, and activists say that Egyptians are guaranteed freedom of belief by both international and domestic laws.

But according to the new report, members of the Baha’i faith, as well as those who have converted from Islam, are systematically prevented from getting official documents listing their true religious beliefs.

Many say they are bullied or forced into lying about their religion, and some are later prosecuted for fraud if police learn that they are practicing a different religion than the one listed on their ID. Activists say that this is the fate that befalls many converts.

“The problem that we identify in this report is that Ministry of Interior officials systematically prevent some people, in particular Baha’is and people who have converted from Islam, from properly identifying themselves in their documents,” says Joe Stork, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

Baha’is and converts are often unable to acquire any documents at all, and are consigned to a bleak state of official non-existence.

Without proper government identification, it is impossible to accomplish many basic tasks, such as going to a hospital, getting a job, collecting a pension or enrolling in a university.

“This is a violation of religious freedom that has much broader implications on a whole range of people’s rights,” says Stork. “This is not based on any Egyptian law, and our message today is that the government should begin to follow its own laws.”

The rights groups say that the restrictions on people’s official religious status are not sanctioned by existing Egyptian law, but rather come from some officials’ misguided belief that allowing people to record their actual faith would encourage heresy and violate Islamic law.

Under certain interpretations of Islamic law, both converts from Islam and those who believe in faiths beside the three “revealed” religions are considered apostates.

Since sharia is legally considered one component of public order in Egypt, some officials at the Ministry of Interior consider recognition of conversion and other religions a threat to society.

But Islamic law is not a monolithic body, says Hossam Bahgat, the Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Islamic jurists have reached no consensus on what punishments, if any, should be meted out to people considered apostates in the here and now.

Matters of Islamic jurisprudence are also far outside the jurisdiction of bureaucrats inside the Ministry of Interior’s Civil Status Department, he says.

“We agree with many Islamic scholars that the state is under no obligation to punish people for their religious beliefs and that it should not impose worldly penalties on people who leave the Islamic faith,” he says.

“We are not saying there is a consensus supporting our opinion, we are saying there is no consensus supporting any opinion on this matter. Scholars widely disagree on the issue.”

Furthermore, he argues, the Egyptian penal code does not forbid conversion from Christianity to Islam, or bar citizens from practicing a religion outside of Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

“For the government to say that sharia requires these violations of religious freedom and equality is both a violation of international law and of sharia itself,” he added.

The Egyptian Baha’i community is small, numbering no more than 2,000 people. For decades they have lived peacefully beside their Muslim, Christian and Jewish countrymen.

But the community began to face hardship in the 1950s, when Arab nationalists cast a suspicious gaze on their faith and its world headquarters in Haifa, a formerly Palestinian town that had recently become part of the State of Israel.

Egyptian Baha’is have been able to obtain national ID cards in the past, which until recently were hand-written. Under the old system, workers at the Ministry’s Civil Status Department were allowed to write ‘other’ or simply leave a dash in the space left blank for religious affiliation.

But the system of hand-written ID cards and birth certificates have been steadily phased out in recent years, and may be declared null and void as soon as this January.

They are being replaced by sleeker computer printed versions, but Ministry guidelines now forbid people to leave their religious affiliation blank, and only a rare few are allowed to be marked “other.”

Wafaa Hindi and her family, all Bahai, say they live a life full of worrying bureaucratic hardships because the government will not issue them official documents that list their true religion.

Her two sons, Nabil and Kareem, were both given hand-written birth certificates listing their religion as Baha’i.

But when the Ministry of the Interior modernized the country’s birth registries, putting everyone’s information on computer databases, the whole family’s religious affiliation was changed.

To make matters worse, each member of her family was assigned a different religion.

“Nabil’s religion is listed as ‘other.’” She says. “ But Kareem is listed as a Muslim, and my husband Sami and I are both listed as Christians. It’s like we are a mixed salad. But this is not me, this is not any of us – we are Baha’i.”

Now Nabil, her oldest son, faces expulsion from Suez Canal University because he does not have proper identification.

“We are so afraid for our son,” she says. “Anyone can stop him in the street and ask for his ID, and he doesn’t have one.”

Hindi says she does not understand why the government does not let them list their actual religion on their IDs, or at the very least let them leave the cards blank. She sees a difference between official toleration of the Baha’i faith and official endorsement.

“If the government says that I am a Baha’i and recognizes that in the official documents I need, then that is not the same thing as them agreeing with my religion or recognizing four revealed religions,” she says.

“Just saying that they recognize that I have my own religious beliefs does not mean that they believe them too.”

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, November 10, 2007

DNE: Cornel West: 'as American as cherry pie'

Cornel West: ‘as American as cherry pie’

By Liam Stack
First Published: November 9, 2007

CAIRO: This year’s Edward Said memorial lecture at the American University in Cairo was delivered by Dr Cornel West: a philosopher, activist, cultural icon, occasional film actor and professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University.

He has won critical praise for his work on race, democracy and imperialism, and his books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. He sat down with Daily News Egypt for a conversation on imperialism, justice and what it means to be American.

Daily News Egypt: You are in town to deliver a lecture in honor of Edward Said, who was a close friend of yours. How does that feel?

Cornel West: You know, I get sentimental thinking about Edward. He was a real soul mate, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen too often. He was 18 years older than me. We met when I was 24 years old and he was 42, but he always treated me like an equal.

DNE: Your work, like Said’s, confronts institutionalized injustice head-on. But some have said that in a country as socially divided as Egypt, an elite university like AUC itself represents an institutional injustice. How do you feel about that?

It’s hard. I think universities all over the world face these kinds of challenges. It’s hard for a university president to be both a moral leader and a fundraiser for the institution.

And as far as students go, all over the world young people are seduced by the idea of the bourgeois good life, by fitting into the mainstream, the malestream. You have to look for that Socratic, prophetic, courageous slice of humanity willing to look outside of that.

DNE: Much of your work discusses the importance of justice, human dignity and democracy. Many people say that here in Egypt, all three are threatened.

Democracy and the value of every person are at the center of my vision, and in that is an implicit critique of authoritarianism and militarism. I don’t want to come in to a country like Egypt, which is so ancient and so complex, and criticize things in the spirit of arrogance or condescension. But at the same time you have got to take a stand.

In my lecture yesterday I made an allusion to the relationship between the United States and Egypt. It’s worth billions of dollars, and those are my tax dollars too. Working for justice is about identifying the facts and the truth of the matter and that is one of the challenges of remaining true to the life of the mind in a context where democracy has had such trouble gaining traction.

DNE: But in a situation like the one currently facing Egypt, the facts and the truth are both contested subjects. It’s not always so easy to pin them down.

To really identify the facts and the truth, you need to keep putting forward your argument and showing the ways in which the distortions of the truth are tied to the interests of those in power. The key is to connect those distorted interpretations on the one hand to intrinsic interest on the other. Fighting for the truth doesn’t always mean your argument will win in the short term, it means that you continue to put it forward again and again no matter what.

DNE: You have been a critic of American foreign policy for a long time, and began calling it “imperialism” years ago, which is a word many Americans find controversial. What ways have you seen American imperialism change in your lifetime?

I think that Joseph Nye’s distinction between soft and hard power is a very important one. The United States has been an empire for a long time, but outside of Latin America and Vietnam it has mostly used its soft, cultural power to convince and seduce people, and to highlight the best about the country. The use of hard power and force, outright coercion, violence and military action has increased a great deal under Bush. I think Iraq is just the tip of the iceberg, and there has been an ugly backlash against America which I think is no surprise. This happens to any empire, make no mistake.

DNE: How do people in the United States respond to your criticisms?

Critiques of anti-imperialism at home are often seen as anti-American. But I am not anti-American, I am anti-injustice, whether it is happening in Cuba or Burma or Egypt. As a Christian and a democrat, sometimes it is hard to get that message through to people. Americans have a self-image that we are an innocent, pure, unadulterated force for good in the world. There are some very good things in the American democratic experiment, and some very ugly things.

I consider myself as American as George W. Bush, and we are both as American as cherry pie. I represent the other America, the America that has much less power but has deep roots in American history — Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr, Fanny Lou Hamer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshem, and Edward Said himself. We are as American as any group.

DNE: As both a committed democrat and a committed anti-imperialist, what is your take on American calls for democratization in the Middle East?

I think that America ought to be explicit in the view that democracy is a desirable way of life. But it is important to say this in the spirit of humility and dialogue, not force or coercion. This include being self-critical about the limitations and shortcomings of our own democracy. But I do believe that democracy is desirable around the world, whether that means China or Singapore or Cuba or Egypt.

Part of the problem with American policies, especially under Bush, has been that the rhetoric of democracy has had very little to do with actually promoting genuine democracy. We saw that when it came to the coup in Venezuela — there you had a democratically elected president who was nearly overthrown in a coup, and all of a sudden we saw that America’s commitment to democracy didn’t cut too deep. America’s moral high ground has been lost.

DNE: Do you think that America can bounce back?

Sure, American can absolutely bounce back, if enough citizens are devoted to justice out of a vision of deep love for each other and the common good. It will take a tremendous amount of vision, courage and determination — I am not naïve about that. But I think that people are tired of the politics of greed and fear, and hungry for a politics based on compassion and justice.

One day the empire will die. All empires go — it is part of the ebb and flow of history. My concern is with the democratic practices and procedures within the empire, because the two do coexist. Aspects of democracy are still there, like the rule of law. They may be weakened but they are not gone, and they are worth fighting for — intellectually, morally and politically.

DNE: When you say that you are as American as cherry pie, what exactly does that mean?

I like to tell the truth so that people can see that the forces for good in America are American, too. I can accent that while I talk about income inequality, structures of domination and the Bush administration. You can be truthful as well as not one-sided. When I go to speak in Cuba or Venezuela they expect me to bash America, but my mama is American, so there must be something positive going on. My tradition is American, and I didn’t become a committed democrat because I dropped out of heaven — I learned it in America.
I should say that as a Christian and a democrat I always put the flag under the cross. I put democracy over nationalism. So that makes me an internationalist in a fundamental way. A lot of people question my patriotism because of my concern for the unjust policies of America — to be concerned with justice across the board is always to risk being called unpatriotic. But if you ask me, it is all a part of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As he said, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And Martin is as American as cherry pie too, no doubt about that.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, November 08, 2007

DNE: Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark denounces Brotherhood trial

Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark denounces Brotherhood trial

By Liam Stack
First Published: November 8, 2007

CAIRO: Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general of the United States, is visiting Cairo this week to denounce the military trial of Khayrat El Shater and 39 other leaders of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

In a wide reaching speech delivered at the Lawyer’s Syndicate, Clark drew parallels between the Brotherhood case and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.

He accuses the Mubarak regime of trampling on human rights and the rule of law, and says that respect for both is the key to peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East.

“The major reason for the tragedy of Palestine in my lifetime has been the world’s failure to live up to the sacred covenant enshrined in Article 22 of the League of Nations Charter, which promised a free and independent Palestinian state on Palestinian soil more than 80 years ago,” he said, referring to the document that founded the now defunct League in 1919.

“If the world had fulfilled that sacred covenant, I think it would be fair to say that we would all live in a different and much better world — not just for the Palestinians but for all people, brothers and sisters living together in peace and respect,” he added.

Clark argues that by trying the civilian Brotherhood leaders before a military court, the government is violating a “sacred covenant” of its own. The 40 members standing trial are accused of money laundering and membership in a banned organization.

He says the trial is illegal, and in violation of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that the regime signed in 1984. The treaty guarantees defendants the right to a fair public trial before a legally competent court that is both fair and impartial, and forbids the referral of civilians to military courts.
“The violation of this covenant against the Muslim Brotherhood is as clear as anything before law and life may be,” said Clark.

“But we know why the military court is trying this case — because the president told them to,” he added. “In a free society living under the rule of law, the president cannot tell the court who to try and how, especially if he is sending people to a military court.”

Clark served as attorney general from 1967 to 1969 under the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

During his time as the head of the Justice Department, he supported a number of important advances in the American civil rights movement, including the desegregation of schools that had formerly divided black and white students.

Since then, he has embarked on a second career as an international human rights campaigner.

But his activism has brought him a controversial reputation as the outspoken defender of men such as former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Liberian dictator Charles Taylor.

Clark says that he has defended such controversial figures because he believes that they are the most likely to be treated unfairly in emotionally charged court cases.

“I feel like the most important cases are those that involve the most hated and feared people,” he said. “Whatever they have done, they are still human beings and still have the same civil rights as anyone else.”

“If you don’t stand up for these people, then you say that not everyone has the same rights all the time,” he added. “And that is a world of enormous sadness and danger.”

The controversy surrounding political Islam in the West drew Clark to the Brotherhood case. He sees the trial as an important test of Egypt’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

He says the group is a beneficial part of Egypt’s national life.

The Brotherhood is the country’s largest political opposition group, but has been banned since 1954.

Despite the ban, the group has long been tolerated. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the group startled both the government and its allies in Washington by capturing 88 of the 454 seats in the lower house of parliament. The members ran as independent candidates.

Since then, more than 1,000 members of the group have been detained by the government.

Many analysts say the military trial against El Shater is part of a larger crackdown meant to weaken the group.

Clark says that the United States has been scared away from previous commitments to democracy in Egypt by the war in Iraq and Hamas’ election victory in the Palestinian Territories.

Unwilling to upset an old ally, he says the American government has decided to turn a blind eye to the military trial and other human rights abuses committed by the Egyptian government.

“A case like this is a dilemma for the United States,” he says. “For its own domestic politics, it needs to support democratic rulers and democratic societies. But the US wants to stay away from this case because it is an assault on democracy that they don’t want to appear to support.”

Labels: , , ,

DNE: Trial on refugee gang murder postponed, case referred to State Security Court

Trial on refugee gang murder postponed, case referred to State Security Court

By Liam Stack
First Published: November 8, 2007

CAIRO: The state prosecutor on Wednesday postponed indefinitely the trial of eight men charged in connection with a gang murder on World Refugee Day just outside the American University in Cairo (AUC) campus this past July.

Prosecutors changed the charges against the defendants at the last minute, and referred the case to a State Security Court under the country’s Emergency Law.

Family and friends of the accused gathered at the South Cairo Courthouse in Bab El Khalq Wednesday morning. The eight were told two weeks earlier that their months of detention would finally come to an end.

The defendants have been in legal limbo since their arrest in July, when they were detained in connection with a gang fight between members of two Sudanese gangs “the Lost Boys” and “the Outlaws.”

The fight left one man hacked to death by a machete outside the Greek Campus of AUC.

Friends of the eight men insist they were innocent by-standers to the violent melee, and say there is no evidence against them.

For its part, the prosecutor’s office has avoided setting a firm trial date and instead repeatedly extends their detention for weeks at a time.

At the last such hearing in October, the men were told they would see their day in court on Nov. 7, but it was not to be.

At the last minute, the defendants were taken in shackles from the open-air pen behind the court house to the nearby State Security directorate. They were told that they were now to be charged with a more serious offense.

All eight now stand accused of murder. Before Wednesday’s session, only one of the men was accused of “accidental murder,” which carried a penalty of seven to 10 years in jail.

Weapons possession charges against all eight still stand, a crime which carries a sentence of three months to one year in prison.

Lawyers for the men predict that the case will be tried in the State Security Court in Rehab City by mid-December. But they admit that, as the events in Bab El-Khalq demonstrate, the justice system is unpredictable.

Members of the men’s families reacted to the change in the case with dismay, holding their heads in their hands in the court’s crowded entrance hall.

Mohamed Bayoumi, the lawyer in the case, said he remains committed to the case and to his client’s innocence.

“This puts these men in a very difficult situation, and now we just have to work harder,” he said. “The prosecutor is still convinced that these men killed the person who died at World Refugee Day because that is what the police officers said. But there are no other witnesses and no real reason to believe that they did this. They are just listening to the testimony of the arresting officer.”

Yousef Ahmed Saleh Idris, a friend of Essam Eddin Jubarra — one of the accused — agrees that the men are innocent. He says that Essam was working as a volunteer at the event, and was not a member of any gang.

Idris witnessed his friend’s arrest, and says it was conducted haphazardly by abusive plainclothes officers. He says he thinks the officers wanted to look like they were responding competently to the situation, but were in fact seizing random bystanders based on the color of their skin.

“Essam and his friends were been grabbed by some plainclothes police officers who were dragging them away,” he said. “I went over and told the police that he was with us, but they didn’t respond.”

“I said I wanted to talk to his boss, so the guy grabbed me too and dragged me over to the main gate at AUC where there was a plainclothes officer sitting,” he added. “The officer started screaming ‘Don’t bring anyone to see me over here, how dare you let someone see me here!’”

“I told him Essam was with me but he didn’t respond to me and just started screaming at Essam to shut up, and then he told the cops to put Essam in the truck,” he said. “When the cops were throwing him in the truck they told me I had two choices — I could either get out of there, or they would arrest me too.”

Estimates on the number of refugees in Egypt vary wildly. According to the UNHCR, it has officially registered 45,000 refugees in the country, mainly from Sudan, Somalia and Iraq. But some independent estimates push that figure to as many as three million.

Labels: , , ,

DNE: Kefaya holds short, lackluster protest against NDP conference

Kefaya holds short, lackluster protest against NDP conference

By Liam Stack
First Published: November 5, 2007

CAIRO: Members of the Kefaya Movement for Change demonstrated on the steps of the Press Syndicate on Sunday afternoon against the annual conference of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which Kefaya accuses of corruption and human rights abuses.

But few activists showed up to the short protest. Those that did were herded inside a security perimeter in front of the syndicate by lines of armored riot police, which outnumbered protestors by almost four-to-one.

Some demonstrators attributed the small size of the lackluster demonstration to disorganization within the Kefaya movement and a sense of hopelessness among its members.

“We don’t agree with the regime, we don’t believe in the regime, and we don’t have any faith in the regime,” said George Ishaq, former Kefaya leader who still plays an organizational role within the group.

The movement’s current leader, Abdel Wahab Al Messiri, did not attend the protest because he was sick, said Ishaq.

“All the talk of change at this conference is just a load of rubbish,” Ishaq added. “It’s the same thing every time the NDP meets. We are against this regime and we oppose the president and everyone who leads this bloody party.”

The demonstration was originally planned to take place in front of the Lawyer’s Syndicate on Ramses Street at noon, but facing last minute security pressure, both its time and location were changed.

Many human rights activists and journalists seemed to be unaware of the original plan for the demonstration in the first place.

Some protestors said the movement’s confusing approach to planning demonstrations was to blame for the low turnout — less than 50 people attended. On occasion, past demonstrations have drawn several times that number.

“Unfortunately, the protest is kind of weak today,” said Nadia Mabrouk, a veteran Kefaya activist. “We should have protests in other places, but security always tries to stop us and people get scared.

“Sometimes everyone is told to meet somewhere else, like Talaat Harb Street or in front of the Lawyer’s Syndicate, and then at the last minute the place or the time gets changed,” she added. “It’s not consistent.”

Activists said the point was not Kefaya’s confusion but the fact that the NDP conference was taking place across town.

During the conference, President Mubarak was re-elected as chairman of the National Democratic Party, which he has led for 26 years. His son Gamal was appointed to a newly formed Supreme Committee, whose members are eligible to be the party’s presidential candidate.

In a speech at the opening of the second day of the conference, Gamal told the assembled delegates that the party is looking out for the concerns of the average citizen.

“The problems of all Egyptians are the priorities of our party,” he said, according to a press release. “The political activities and actions of the NDP are working at the local level, to the benefit of the villages, the families and the hard-working people of Egypt.

“Their needs are for more jobs, better schools, improved healthcare and greater access to basic infrastructure and that is what our party is working to provide,” he added.

Kefaya members expressed angry skepticism at the party’s claims that it represents the Egyptian people. They charge its leaders with corruption and say the NDP is the party of the country’s abusive ruling class.

“They don’t represent the people, they are not talking about the people, and they are not discussing the people’s ideas,” said Rabaa Fahmy, a human rights lawyer who works at the Ibn Khaldun Center research center, which was founded by activist and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

“The conference is like a meeting of gangsters,” she added. “They are talking about their plans for their futures and thinking up ways to defend all their corruption. This isn’t a political conference, it’s a social club.”

But as the protest drew to a close with the singing of the Kefaya song and the rolling up of banners, Nadia Mabrouk expressed a frustration that many seemed to share.

“The NDP and our political leaders are all focusing on Gamal Mubarak,” she said. “Nobody wants him to be president, but we don’t know what we can do. I think that for us to be successful in the short term is basically impossible. It is a hopeless situation.”

Labels: , , ,

DNE: Rights group calls on Egypt to stop forced return of refugees to Sudan

Rights group calls on Egypt to stop forced return of refugees to Sudan

By Liam Stack
First Published: November 5, 2007

CAIRO: Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement calling on Egypt to stop sending Sudanese refugees back to Sudan against their will.

Authorities forcibly repatriated five Sudanese citizens detained by Israel in August after crossing the Sinai to seek refuge there.

The New York-based rights group fears that the returned refugees will face persecution in their home country, and say that such forced repatriations are in violation of international law.

It says that many of the people in question came to Egypt to escape violence in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

"We are extremely worried by Egypt's failure to account for these people," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and North Africa division of HRW. "The entire incident reveals Egypt and Israel's shared disregard for the plight of Sudanese fleeing Darfur."

The repatriated Sudanese were part of a group of 48 detainees caught by Israel and handed over to Egypt. Israeli authorities claim they received assurances from Cairo that the detainees would not be returned to Sudan, although Egypt denies making any such promise.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 23 of those detainees were either officially classified as refugees or have outstanding asylum claims.

But the exact number of refugees in the group is unclear because Egyptian security has not allowed the UNHCR access to the detained men.

"Egypt cannot avoid its obligation to assess the refugee status of persons fleeing a conflict by preventing the UN refugee agency from seeing them," said Whitson. "Egypt is thumbing its nose at a fundamental principle of refugee law."

Refugees expelled from Israel face increased danger back in Sudan, which considers it to be an enemy state.

In September, the Sudanese Foreign Minister announced that visiting Israel was a criminal offense and accused those who do of participation in a Zionist plot against Khartoum. It called on the Egyptian government to punish Sudanese caught trying to make it to the Jewish state.

HRW criticized Cairo for not taking Sudan’s hostility towards Israel into account when dealing with refugees who have traveled there. It says Khartoum’s stance gives extra urgency to the issue of forced repatriation.

"In the face of Sudan's record of rights abuses and its hostility toward its citizens who seek refuge in Israel, Egypt's apparent decision to forcibly return Sudanese asylum seekers is unconscionable," Whitson said.

Israel captured the group of migrants and refugees on Aug. 17 after they crossed the mountainous Sinai desert with the help of human traffickers. They were returned to Egypt less than 24 hours after their detention and were not allowed to present asylum claims, in violation of international law.

Israel was widely criticized for sending the refugees back to Egypt, where they complain of racism and random violence at the hands of Egyptian police and civilians.

Earlier in the summer, Israeli border police claimed to witness their Egyptian counterparts gun down a group of refugees running for the border. A young mother was killed in the incident, and several others were seriously wounded.

Labels: , ,