Egypt’s Copts and Persecution

At an academic conference a while ago, I made an offhand reference to the contemporary persecution of Christians. My remark was greeted with some incredulity, even derision. There are, one scholar responded sarcastically, something like two billion Christians in the world today. “Next you’ll be telling us a billion Chinese are also in need of protection.”

The failure of many opinion leaders in the West to acknowledge what’s happening to Christians around the world results from many factors, including, as I’ve written, a kind of psychological disconnect. Western liberals are not accustomed to seeing Christians as sympathetic victims, but as adversaries to be resisted. The idea that Christians might be suffering from persecution ruins the narrative.

An article from last week’s Washington Post might change some minds. In response to increasing attacks on them since the revolution that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, Egypt’s Copts are showing a new assertiveness. Traditionally, Coptic leaders keep a low profile, avoiding confrontation with authorities. Now, however, Copts are adopting a more confrontational approach, vocally protesting the wrongs being done them:

Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has vowed to promote equality between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Christian minority. But Christians have been worried by the growing influence in society and government of Muslim conservatives and hard-liners, many of whom espouse rhetoric consigning Christians to second-class status.

A mob attack this month on the Cairo cathedral that serves as the seat of the Coptic pope raised alarm bells among Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s 90 million people. There has been a surge in attacks on Christians and churches in the two years since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But for Christians, the cathedral violence laid bare their vulnerability. Morsi quickly condemned the violence, saying attacking the cathedral was like attacking him personally. But the Coptic Pope Tawadros II accused him of failing to protect the cathedral in an unprecedented direct criticism.

Copts have no illusions about the possible consequences of their new assertiveness: more persecution. But it seems a price they’re willing to pay. A senior Coptic monk told the AP, ““Our church grows stronger with martyrdom. My faith and confidence tell me that so long as our church is in the hands of God, no one can hurt it.”

Panel: “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West” (March 20)

The Foreign Policy Research Institute will host a briefing, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West,” on March 20 in Washington:

Few observers foresaw the Arab Spring, but it should not have surprised anyone that the Islamist movements–the most organized movements in the Arab world–became the main beneficiaries of the turmoil that ensued. Islamism, in its gradualist and pragmatic approach embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots worldwide, seems ready to reap the rewards of its three decades-old decision to abandon violence and focus on grassroots activities. This monumental change has created many concerns among liberals, religious minorities and, more generally, all non-Islamists in the countries where Islamists have won. In addition, Arab states ruled by non-Islamist regimes have expressed concern. The former worry that Islamist ideology–even in its more contemporary, pragmatic form–remains deeply divisive and anti-democratic, often at odds with their values and interests. The latter believe that on foreign policy issues, most of the positions of various Brotherhood-inspired parties are on a collision course with the policies of established regimes in the region.

The event will be webcast live. Details are here.

Coming Economic Crisis in Egypt?

Here at CLR Forum, we’ve been thinking about the role of Islamic law in Egypt’s new constitution, which voters approved last month. The new constitution represents a significant victory for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. But, as Walter Russell Mead points out on his blog today, the Brotherhood still faces major problems. Egypt is on the brink of an economic crisis that the Morsi government seems unable to handle.

Since the Arab Spring, foreign investors and tourists have fled Egypt and the country’s currency has plummeted. Regional allies like Turkey and Qatar have lent Egypt billions of dollars, but the IMF, which has the real money, is refusing to advance roughly $5 billion until the Morsi government implements an austerity package. This would mean political disaster for Morsi, since many Egyptians depend on government food subsidies to survive. So things are in a holding pattern. Meanwhile, the bad economy is creating a security crisis. Egyptians complain about a lack of basic safety.

It’s hard to know what will come next. Perhaps frustrated Egyptians will decide that the problem is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not Islamist enough and turn to the even more radical Salafis. I can’t imagine the Salafis would have a better relationship with the IMF, though. Or perhaps a military strongman who mouths the correct pieties will take charge. Anyway, it’s hard to imagine a situation in which Egyptians turn to the secular liberals whom the West hoped would run Egypt after the fall of Mubarak.

Egypt’s Draft Constitution

Obviously, Egypt’s version of the Constitutional Convention is not going as smoothly as everyone might have hoped. The plan was for a Constituent Assembly comprised of Islamists, Christians, and secular deputies to draft and vote on a consensus constitution sometime next January. Things haven’t worked out that way. Greatly outnumbered from the start, the Christians and secular deputies have all resigned in frustration. And, rather than wait till next year, the Assembly has just finished rushing though all 230 provisions of the constitution in a marathon, 16-hour session. The Assembly will present the document to President Morsi tomorrow, and he will then submit it to a national referendum. Why the rush? The Assembly and Morsi want to accomplish all this before the Supreme Constitutional Court has a chance to rule, perhaps as early as Sunday, on the legality of the constitution-drafting process. Meanwhile, pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators are facing off on the streets of Egyptian cities. It all looks very unstable.

Given our own experience, observers in the US may see the struggle between Morsi and the SCC in terms of the rule of law: Morsi is just another strongman trying to stare down an independent judiciary. That’s true as far as it goes, but there’s an added issue people may miss. Article 2 of the draft constitution declares that Sharia is the principal source of legislation in Egypt. This is nothing new; the Mubarak-era constitution contained the same provision. Traditionally, the SCC has had authority to determine whether Egyptian laws comply with Sharia principles and, traditionally, it has adopted a flexible, non-fundamentalist approach to the question. In staring down the SCC now, Morsi and his allies in the Assembly may be laying down a marker for future conflicts with the SCC over Islamic law. The message seems to be this: power dynamics in Egypt have changed fundamentally, and the SCC had better get in line.

Lecture: “Beyond Political Islam”

The Foreign Policy Association is sponsoring a lecture by Tarek Masoud (Harvard), “Beyond Political Islam: The Muslim Brotherhood and the Future of the Middle East,” at NYU School of Law on November 1. Details are here.

Faour on Religious Education and Pluralism in Egypt and Tunisia

Muhammad Faour (Carnegie Middle East Center) has published Religious Education and Pluralism in Egypt and Tunisia, a contribution to the Carnegie Institute’s Working Paper Series. The abstract follows.

Religion occupies a prominent position in the education systems of all Arab countries. With the rise of Islamists across the Arab world, especially in Egypt and Tunisia, there is a possibility that the new parties in power will update education curricula to reflect conservative Islamic beliefs. Education is very important for any ideological party that assumes political power. And in the long run, the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia will target education reform to ensure that more Islamic content is included in all students’ schooling. But in the short term, the emerging power of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia is unlikely to lead to a dramatic change in the curricula Read more

The NYT on Divisions Among Egyptian Islamists

An interesting piece on the Egyptian elections in the Times. Now that an electoral commission has disqualified the Muslim Brotherhood’s preferred presidential candidate , Khairat al-Shater, as well as the leading Salafi candidate, the two principle Islamist contenders are the MB’s Mohamed Morsi and a rival, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. Morsi, the more conservative of the two, embraces a kind of back-to-basics program that, among other things, calls for limiting the presidency to Muslims and establishing a council of Muslim scholars to advise Parliament on Islamic law — the MB’s “old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he declares. (The Times explains for its readers that the MB is known for “its moderate Islamist politics;” I guess Mori did not get the memo). Aboul Fotouh, whom the MB expelled two years ago for advocating political pluralism, offers a competing, more liberal Islamist vision. For example, he rejects  restrictions on political office for non-Muslims and the idea of the scholars’ council.

In opinion surveys, majorities of Egyptians consistently say that Sharia should be the only source of law in their country. Which version of Sharia prevails  will depend largely on the result of this conflict within the Islamist movement. Mori’s strategy is to appeal to more conservative elements, including the very conservative Salafis, while Aboul Fotouh seems to be staking his political future on more progressive Muslims, as well as the relatively small number of Egyptian secular liberals and Christians. MB and Salafi candidates received a combined two-thirds of the vote in a recent election for a new national assembly in Egypt, and one has to assume that Mori’s electoral strategy is the correct one. Time will tell.

Sharia Is My Main Priority: Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Candidate

According to the Reuters FaithWorld blog, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for the Egyptian presidency, Khairat al-Shater, declared last week that restoring Sharia would have the highest priority in his administration. “Sharia was and always will be my first and final project and objective,” he told a group called the “Religious Association for Rights and Reform.”

One shouldn’t be surprised. Since its founding, the MB has made restoring Sharia in Muslim societies its main goal. Moreover, the idea that law should be based on Sharia is quite popular in Egypt.  Indeed, in a recent, widely-reported survey, a majority of Egyptians said that Sharia should be the only source  of law in their country.

Do comments like al-Shater’s mean that non-Muslim minorities should worry? That’s not as clear, frankly. People who say they favor “Sharia” may mean different things.  Perhaps, as Noah Feldman argues, “Sharia” in  contemporary Muslim politics suggests a more or less democratic, rule of law society informed by religious principles. Non-Muslims would not necessarily have to worry about this version of Sharia. If, however,  “Sharia” means something like classical fiqh, which placed severe restrictions on Christians and other non-Muslims, calls for its restoration are quite worrisome.

Which version does the MB endorse? The MB has been presenting a moderate face to the world. Its official English-language website contains a slew of articles attempting to reassure Egyptian Christians (and Western liberals) that minority rights would be protected under the MB’s version of a Sharia society. Like “Sharia,” however, “rights” can mean different things, and the MB will also have to assuage more militant Islamists who are not so interested in moderation. Time will tell.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe

In May, Columbia University Press will publish The Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, edited by Edwin Bakker, Professor of Terrorism and Counterterrorism at Leiden University in Holland, and Roel Meijer of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.  The volume collects articles presenting different views on the Muslim Brotherhood‘s activities in Europe.  The articles explore the extent to which these activities mirror the Brotherhood’s activities in the Middle East and whether their presence in Europe promotes a positive rallying force for Europe’s Muslim communities or the dangerous potential of national and international destabilization by fomenting inter-communal and inter-religious conflict.

Please see the publisher’s description after the jump. Read more