Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

Egypt: Let my people go

The Middle East is considered of the most volatile region in the world.  Everyone understands that Egypt has the largest population in the Arab world. Egypt has never been democratic but has been stable for decades. As a result of signing a peace treaty with Israel (which it has observed) it has received billions in U.S. aid used primarily for its military. America supported Egypt’s stability rather than democracy. Regardless of whether authoritarianism was stable or not George Bush has changed that policy.

Jihadi terrorism was founded in Egypt. Its last President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood. They were founded in Egypt 75 years ago and the Brotherhood formed Hamas almost twenty years ago. Hosni Mubarak has been the authoritarian leader for almost twenty five years. Since then Egypt has, with the exception of its relationship to Israel and the U.S., been ignored in the western world’s media. It has no oil or other natural or technological resources.  ‘Foreign Affairs’ America’s premier Journal on Foreign Affairs last published an article on Egypt in 1995; it was on the relations between Egypt and Israel. The last article about Egypt’s internal problems was ‘The Battle for Egypt’ in Sept. – Oct. 1993. The previous one was in 1986.

Has Egypt lost its influence in the Middle East? Do the Saudis with money and Islamism now have more influence? Does Syria now represent Arab nationalism? Does Iraq represent Arab’s on the road to democracy? What does Egypt now represent?

President Mubarek was born in 1928 and became president in 1981 after the assassination of his predecessor; next year he will celebrate his twenty fifth year in office. His government has ruled under Martial law for twenty four years. He apparently plans to run for his office again this year. In the normal course of human events a man who has recently passed his 77 birthday and has health problems is not a candidate for election to control a country. His son may inherit his mantle as seems to be typical in Arab lands. But Egypt has problems with Islamists and Jihadists; in the past twelve months several attacks have taken place. Nobody can know what will happen when he does die. Why are the socio-economic problems Egypt being ignored?

The Egyptian Parliament recently voted to amend its constitution to allow for multi candidate Presidential elections. This must now be approved in a popular referendum. The constitutional amendment requires any “approved” candidate for president to have the support of various already elected bodies before his candidature is valid. These elected bodies are controlled by Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP). Thus  Mubarak will decide whether to approve his own competition. This reminds one of the Islamic Republic of Iran called "the most democratic dictatorship and the most dictatorial democracy" (Menashe Amir).  This cannot be considered an open free election. After international complaints Safwat el-Sherif, Speaker of the Shura Council (Upper House of Parliament) and Secretary General of the NDP stated "we all reject any intervention in our internal affairs". Who should and will control reform in the Egyptian landscape?

When Condolezza Rice, American Secretary of State spoke about democracy at the American University in Cairo in June two negative events occurred almost simultaneously. As her speech was transmitted live on satellite television, the news bar on every channel across the globe ran a brief that in democratic Iraq a number of people were killed in a car explosion – not an unusual event. Secondly one day after her Middle East tour ended the Iranian people responded through the ballot box to Rice's democratic promises. They voted hardliner Mahmud Ahmadinejad into the presidential office - a victory that can be interpreted as the end to the potential constructive diplomacy in Iranian-EU-US relations. The Iranians were saying: "We don't want American solutions to this part of the world."

Mohammad Mahdi Akef, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who has seventeen members in Parliament was opposed to what he called this American plan for democracy. If the Brotherhood chose to have a candidate the NDP would never approved him.

The Muslim Brotherhood, often banned over the years may have the widest support at the grassroots level, has started holding peaceful protests. Its first leaders al Banna and Sayyid Qutb were killed or executed by the military. In 1981 the Brotherhood assassinated Anwar Sadat.

Sayyid Qutb is perhaps the most important Islamic theological fundamentalist – in fact he is the theologian of Arab terrorism. ‘Inevitably Islam shall rule’. While not trained as a theologian, but as an engineer he has written an influential exegisis on the Koran. His theology was based on his interpretation of the shariah – Islamic law. He called “freedom of conscience” defined by him as freedom from false doctrines that failed to recognize God and freedom from what he called “modern schizophrenia”. Shariah was utopia and perfection for Sayyid Qutb. It was the natural order in the universe. It was freedom, justice, humanity and divinity in a single system. It was a vision as grand as any of the other totalitarian systems of the 20th century. It was, in his words, 'the total liberation of man from enslavement by others.'  His vision would require a total dictatorship in order to be enforced: a vision that, by claiming not to rely on man-made laws, was going to have to rely, instead, on theocrats, who would interpret God's laws to the masses. He stated that that Islam has the only Divine truth, every other religion is false and ‘truth and falsehood cannot coexist on earth  . . . The liberating struggle of jihad does not end cease until all religions belong to Allah” (Milestones).

Between 1992-1997 1,000 deaths occurred with the infamous 58 tourists in Luxor decimating tourism for several years. The Brotherhood recognized that government offence would be vicious and undertook a political line. A breakaway group the ‘Wasat’ went further and created a secular party.

The predominant Sunni University is in Cairo, the Al Azhar University.

‘Ijtihad’ or independent and critical thinking is usually associated with University learning; but not in Al Azhar. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar University, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, harshly attacked a seminar and its participants, who suggested that clerics cannot “claim monopoly over religion". He is the most important Sunni cleric in the Islamic world and had signed the Alexandria Document in January 2002 with other religious leaders, both Christian and Jewish, stating: ‘We declare our commitment to ending the violence and bloodshed that denies the right to life and dignity’.

One year later he declared "A man who blows himself [up] in the middle of enemy militants is a martyr, repeat, a martyr. What we do not condone is for someone to blow himself up in the middle of children or women. If he blows himself up in the middle of Israeli women enlisted in the army, then he is a martyr, since these women are fighters". (Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2003). It is clear neither he nor any other serious Muslim cleric intends to issue a ‘fatwa’ against Osama bin Laden.

(Ijtihad as an Islamic mode of thought has been proposed by Irshad Manji in her recent book ‘The Trouble With Islam Today’. While it has been published in many European languages she has been unable to find an Arabic publisher and thus translated it and had it posted on her own website.)

Mohamed Alwan, a member of parliament from the secular Wafd party, noted, the Brotherhood "owns the political street". If there is a free and transparent election it is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood would win; what then of Bush’s democracy. Everyone in Egypt recalls the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) when they appeared in the fateful 1991 elections.

The movement for democracy is called “kifaya” meaning in Arabic “enough”. The Brotherhood considers the Kafiya a ‘communist’ movement.

President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who after a quarter of a century in power, has now decided to allow opposition candidates to run against him. It is not yet clear that they will be allowed to campaign freely while doing so. Bush announced that "Egypt will hold a presidential election this fall . . . and that election should proceed with international monitors and with rules that allow for a real campaign."

Weeks before Mubarak’s announcement he arrested Ayman Nour, the major ‘kifaya’ opposition leader in Egypt. Shortly after the announcement the police quashed a demonstration in favor of releasing Nour from prison.

He was arrested for forging more than 1,000 signatures to register his Ghad Party, even though only 50 valid signatures were required.   

His trial began in late June with all the theater of Kafka’s ‘Trial’. Five other defendants in the case pleaded guilty. They alleged that Mr. Nour had instructed them to commit fraud. Mr. Nour maintains he has even never met any of the other defendants, whom he has derided as government stooges.

Early in July the government's case received a severe blow when one of the defendants, Ayman Ismael Hassan al-Refai, repudiated his guilty plea. He told reporters that he had confessed to helping Mr. Nour forge signatures only after government security agents had threatened to harm his two nieces and promised to clear his police record. The Egyptian court on July 6 postponed the forgery trial of Nour until Sept. 25, clearing the way for him to run in the presidential election in early September but leaving his legal future in doubt. It is unclear whether under Egyptian law he can be arrested even if elected. Nour despite not speaking English and never having been to America was also accused of being an American stooge.

Over the years many people supporting some degree of democratic leanings have been arrested or oppressed; two are noteworthy. Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim directed a research and advocacy institute in Cairo that monitored elections, conducted voter education projects, and criticized, at times, the Egyptian government. In the summer of 2000 he and 27 of his colleagues were arrested and tried before a state security court on several charges allegedly connected to their work. All 28 defendants were found guilty on some of these charges and several were sent to jail. Dr. Ibrahim, who is 64, was sentenced to a seven year term. He spent 14 months in prison before he was acquitted of all charges and released on March 12, 2003.

Dr. Nasr Abu Zeid, a university Professor, faced a charge required his wife to be forcibly divorced from him. On 14 June 1995 a Court of Appeal ruled that since  Dr. Nasr Abu Zeid had insulted the Islamic faith in his writings it ordered him to divorce his wife on the grounds that as a Muslim, she could not remain married to an apostate. Despite being rejected by a lower court the Court of Cassation upheld the ruling in August 1996. Dr. Nasr Abu Zeid and his wife left Egypt and continued to challenge their forced divorce before a judicial appeals body in Egypt. He lost his appeal.

The economic situation is typical of the Arab world – dreadful. 35% of Egyptians are under 14 years of age. While college education is free and there are 500,000 current day students they have no prospect of jobs. The

official rate employment is 15%; it is estimated at double that. According to the UN Arab Human Development Report 32% of the population live in poverty. A significant basis of income is tourism – every time terrorists attack this income drops precipitously. What would happen if democracy prevails and the Brotherhood wins?

This of course is not just an Egyptian problem. The same is true of Saudi Arabia another key ‘partner’ to the U.S. What if Bashar Assad more authoritarian Uncle takes Syria and attempts to retake Lebanon? And what if Hamas wins the Palestinian election? Iran has already chosen a hardline President-elect.  Could this yet happen in Iraq? What if the failing states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh fall into Jihadists? Would democracy in Egypt or Jordan strengthen the peace with Israel?

It may be a myth that Ariel Sharon told George Bush "I have no doubt that if the Arab world surrounding us would be a true democracy, Israel could take far greater risks than today." It he is right Bush’s guarantee of Israeli’s security is inconsistent with his promotion of democracy.