The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Archive for the ‘Daily Star Egypt’ Category

In the Egypt Independent’s closure, an end of a beginning

Posted by vmsalama on April 30, 2013

by Vivian Salama

Columbia Journalism Review

April 30, 2013

Like many things in Egypt these days, the fight to save the Egypt Independent from termination went viral almost instantly. A cry for help by the newspaper’s editors earlier this year cited “the current economic crisis” as reason for the looming closure of the country’s most highly respected English-language newspaper, as well as the “political limitations manifested in rising restrictions on freedom of expression” since the election of President Mohamed Morsi.

Journalists protest outside the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo

Journalists protest outside the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo


“On April 25, after weeks of international campaigns and fundraisers, the executive management of the Independent abruptly pulled the plug on its operations, days earlier than scheduled. A statement from the editorial staff read:

“Four years after the birth of Egypt Independent, the management of Al-Masry Media Corporation has informed our editorial team that our print and onlinenews operation is being shut down.”

Because we owe it to our readers, we decided to put together a closing edition, which would have been available on 25 April, to explain the conditions under which a strong voice of independent and progressive journalism in Egypt is being terminated.

Opened four years ago as an English language division to privately owned Arabic daily El Masry El Youm, the newspaper was one of few that chronicled the real beginnings of the Egyptian revolution, from the economic deterioration to the death of Khaled Said, brutally beaten to death by police in Alexandria in 2010—coverage of which went viral on social media websites, planting the seed for the January 25, 2011 popular uprising.

“This kind of press played an important role in the wave of contentious politics that started in 2005 and onwards,” said Lina Attalah, editor in chief of the now defunctEgypt Independent. The paper’s closure has made headlines around the world, as it represents a blatant setback for a revolution hard fought and now, seemingly, coming apart at the seams.

Like a handful of news organizations in Egypt today, Egypt Independent lured a new generation of journalists that were not schooled in the art of self-censorship, once a necessity to operate safely as a reporter in Egypt. These newly untethered journalists put emphasis on the post-uprising day-to-day struggles, as well as on more mainstream coverage of street battles, sectarian strife, and rape. Most importantly, the paper provided a medium for bilingual Egyptians to speak to people beyond their borders with an intellectual, analytical, nuanced voice, often tackling issues that would otherwise not get attention in the international media. (more….)


Posted in Al Jazeera, Arab, Arab Media & Society, Arab Spring, Arabic, Bloggers, Cairo University, Censorship, Comedy, Constitution, corruption, Culture, Daily Star Egypt, dictatorship, discrimination, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Freedom of Speech, Journalism, Judiciary, Media, Middle East, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Politics, Protests | Leave a Comment »

Illegal Abortions Trigger Debate of Law and Ethics

Posted by vmsalama on January 30, 2006

By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Staff

Click here for Daily Star Lebanon link

CAIRO:  “One of my female patients once told me, ‘I have infrequent sex, and I can never guess when – maybe every 40 or 50 days.  So, I just take the pill when I know I am about to have sex,’” recalls Ahmed Ragab, professor of reproductive health at Al-Azhar University. 

            “This is very wrong,” he insists.  “And of course, condoms are not an accepted contraceptive among most married couples, so as a result you find a high level of unwanted pregnancies.” 

            There are no statistics accurately indicating the frequency of abortion in Egypt or anywhere in the Middle East, as it is illegal throughout the region, though the level of tolerance varies both by the society and in the courts.  Doctors across the Middle East confirm, however, that abortion, albeit punishable by law, happens with great frequency, very often, via methods that put the pregnant mother’s health at risk. 

            Variance between the courts and religious community has created a lingering cloud of controversy.  Early last year, Egypt’s highest Islamic authority, Al-Azhar, issued a fatwa saying “it is impermissible for a mother to induce abortion even if is proven that the fetus is deformed or suffers from mental retardation… It is not justifiable.”

The only difference that erupted between scholars is whether the abortion was intentional, or the woman didn’t know she was pregnant and intentionally did something that would cause an abortion, or someone else harmed her in a way without knowing she is pregnant,” explains Sheikh Safwat Hegazy, Secretary General of Dar El Ansar for Islamic Affairs.  “Even if the pregnancy is a result of adultery, it is prohibited.”

            Religious authorities in Kuwait, on the other hand, ruled at Islamic conferences over the years that abortion under such circumstances is permissible.  However, even among moderates, there is debate.  The central issue among theologians is when a soul enters the embryo.  Whether it is after 120 days, or 80, or as some believe, after 40 days, those accepting abortion argue that it is merely a question of “when?”  

            In Christianity, the issue varies from one denomination to the next.  For Catholics, it is prohibited – the Vatican constantly issuing statements of condemnation against the practice.  Christian Orthodox faiths hold a more lenient view on the issue.  While the church preaches that abortion is against the will of God, it tends to handle matters on a case-by-case basis.

The courts have their own take.  Under legislation set by the Egyptian Court of Cassation, abortion is justified only if the pregnancy and/or delivery pose a high risk to the mother’s health.  If the baby risks serious deformity, the courts will also consider the matter.  The court does not show pity for women impregnated through rape.  Doctors who perform abortions outside these parameters risk up to 10 years imprisonment.  The laws are similar in Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Oman, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

            “Basically, it’s a conflict of two human rights – the right for every female to control her private life, including the decision of not wanting the baby, and the right to life,” explains Mahmud Moustafa, a Cairo prosecutor.  “Here, we say it is life, so it is killing.  But it is not [murder].  The embryo is alive but not a living person.  It is a legal technicality.  It should be separate from the mother’s body for the baby to be alive.” 

            In the late 1980’s, Al-Ahzar’s Grand Imam at the time, Sheikh Gad El-Haq addressed the issue from two perspectives, the issue of genetic abnormality and rape.  “I asked him, ‘now that we can diagnose some of the genetic abnormalities with 100 percent accuracy, what should we do?’” recalls Ragab.  “He was against it, saying ‘science which today allows you to diagnose genetic abnormalities will allow you in the future to treat these abnormalities.’” 

            Similarly, on the issue of rape, Sheikh Gad advised that Islamic leaders take the children and provide them with proper foster homes and schools, where they are given the chance of a bright future.   

            Regardless of the moral and religious dilemmas, women are receiving abortions daily – and because it’s illegal, women in many cases are going to great lengths to rid their bodies of developing embryos.  Doctors describe a number of methods by which women have punctured their uteruses to induce abortion.  Ragab recalls incidents where hospitals found the stems of molikhaya plants and cotton trees shoved into the patient’s uterus – often the roots were doused in kerosene.   

“In hospitals, you hear of doctors removing matches from the uterus, knitting needles, once I learned a nurse pulled a catheter from the uterus,” Ragab explains.  “We have found as many as 10 tablets of aspirin – their impact on an empty stomach will definitely cause an ulcer.  Yes, these things can kill the embryo, but before killing the embryo, it will damage the health of the mother.” 

Another issue is that illegal abortions tend to be performed in secret.  Often times, the pregnant woman is unmarried, one of the greatest social taboos in Arab culture.  Such occurrences have led to hundreds of honor killings across the region.  Families – as a symbolic undertaking to preserve their honor – kill the unmarried pregnant woman, regardless of how she was impregnated to begin with.  Most modern, educated societies have abolished the practice of honor killing, though family honor is still very much at stake.    

            “Unmarried abortions have certainly increased but in our society, this is seen as unaccepted and extremely sensitive,” explains Tarek Tamara, doctor of gynecology and obstetrics in Cairo.  “A lot of people demanded that I do illegal abortions for them. Patients who come for an illegal abortion usually come in hiding.  Then, when I tell them I do not do it, they try to disappear quickly hoping I will not tell anyone about them.”

            “Except for certain health risks, it is completely illegal to perform abortions, and they teach them this in medical school.  It is a felony – the doctors are aware, hospital administrations are aware,” notes Moustafa.  “The bottom line is we press charges frequently, but not as often as the actual abortions happen.  For every 100 abortions, we might prosecute 20, maybe.” 

            There are other options, despite legal restrictions, such as the morning-after pill which is available over the counter at most regional pharmacies and pills which medically induce abortion, also available at pharmacies.  There are clinical procedures, such as uterus dilatation and curettage, and a suction devise which literally sucks the embryo right out.  These are all happening with great frequency, as the Arab culture has not openly embraced contraceptives such as condoms, and sterilization – vasectomies and hysterectomies – is prohibited by Islam. 

            Ragab describes extreme cases, such as a woman who was impregnated through premarital sex with her cousin and promised marriage only if she aborted the child.  In the fifth month, the woman finally succumbed to her cousin’s request, and had to remove the fetus via cesarean section.  In the end, her cousin abandoned her and married another.  She resorted to getting a hymenography – virginity reborn.    

            “I met in my life many women who justify abortion and see it as a way of life, and even see it as a contraceptive,” Ragab admits.  “Everybody hates abortion, even me.  I don’t call for abortion legalization, but we have to face reality.  Let’s see what the causes of unwanted pregnancy are, and deal with them first.”


Posted in Abortion, Arab, Daily Star Egypt, Egypt, Islam | Leave a Comment »

Islam is the Solution

Posted by vmsalama on January 26, 2006

Hamas gains ground in historic Palestinian vote

By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt

January 26, 2006

EAST JERUSALEM:  Across from the Damascus Wall on Salah El Din Street in East Jerusalem – the city’s Arab section – journalists and television cameras surround a young man as he professes in broken English his desire for peace, and greater opportunity for the Palestinians. 
            “I hope one day we live together – peace, no killing,” said Atef Badran, 22, outside the main polling station in East Jerusalem. 
            After getting their soundbite, the cameras leave.  Realizing that I speak Arabic, Badran looks around as though to ensure that they’d all gone away.  Then he continues.
            “The only answer for peace, for change for the Palestinians, is for Hamas to take control,” he says, almost whispering.  “They are not criminals.  They are not warriors.  We’ve seen what Fatah can and cannot do.  Hamas is the best representation of the Palestinians and the only ones who can make a difference in the lives of those who need in the most.”     
            Early opinion polls leading up to yesterday’s historic election – the first in which Hamas participates – indicated that the militant Islamic group might walk away with as much as 40 percent of the newly-expanded 132-seat legislature, on the tail of the ruling Fatah party, under Abbas.  Concerns are high among Israelis, as well as neighboring countries with moderate, secular governments – such as Egypt and Jordan – that an Islamic stronghold in the Palestinian parliament might further aggravate decades of tension. 


            Voting in East Jerusalem has been a point of contention between Palestinian and Israeli authorities as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas threatened to postpone elections should the city’s 3 million Palestinians be barred from voting.  Last week, Israel’s cabinet, under acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, voted unanimously to allow voting in East Jerusalem, though Hamas was banned from campaigning there. 
“Don’t think that just because they prohibited Hamas from campaigning here that they have no representation – on the contrary, the Arabs of Jerusalem support Hamas,” added Badran.  “People around the Arab world are realizing the benefits of having Islamists in control.”   
            Indeed, the campaign slogan “Islam is the Solution” has gained ground outside of the Palestinian territories as well.  Just over a month ago, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood saw unprecedented gains in parliamentary elections, winning 88 of Egypt’s 144-elected seats.  Running under the slogan “Islam is the solution,” independent candidates supported by a reformed Muslim Brotherhood, relied less on touting Islamic ideologies of shar’ia law, and more on the basic principles of government and humanity. 
            “The major concern now is that the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the first time participation by Hamas might enhance other Islamic movements,” explains Khaled Dozdar, head of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information in Jerusalem.  “The whole region is experiencing this.  They are bringing dogmatism to the region via another form of tyranny – dogma, not just to the peace process, but to the socio-economic level.  The only side to blame for this is the authorities because this is the complete result of years of neglect and misuse of power.”
            “For me, it isn’t about voting for Hamas, it’s about a change of power,” says Adel Adwayat, a native of Jerusalem.  “I think that just like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas will grow in strength because they are working a real political campaign, not a campaign of fear as they have done in the past.”
            During the first intifadad, Hamas was founded in the Gaza Strip in 1987 as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The group’s military wing dedicated itself to the destruction of the State of Israel.  When the group rejected the Oslo Accords, however, it opened the door for Fatah to engage in dialogue with the West.  It is the rejection of the Oslo Accords and firm stance against Israel that some experts believed actually boosted Hamas’s support in the region.


            “The people are comforted knowing that Hamas is political active,” says Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Essam Al-Arian.  “We support all the Palestinian people.  This is not an ordinary election because it will decide the fate of this conflict.  Everyone will see that the Palestinians support the Resistance Group, not the corrupted one.  The people are comforted knowing that Hamas is politically active.” 
            Despite their reputation for militant activity, Hamas is active on the community level, running preschools, youth clubs, and health clinics.  It has regularly provided financial assistance to the needy people of Palestine.  Despite their civic contributions, however, Egyptian officials have adamantly supported the ruling Fatah party as some fear Hamas might benefit from the vulnerability of the Gaza Strip following the withdrawal of the Israeli military last August. 
“Total chaos will equally affect the two neighboring countries – Egypt and Jordan, as well as Israel,” says Dozdar.
“Hamas was not born yesterday – Israel is showing they are afraid for nothing,” insists Mohammed Asem Ibrahim, Egypt’s Ambassador to Israel.  “At the same time, if Hamas does interfere in the process taking place these coming days, then of course, Israel has a point to say that there are no partners for peace here.  And it is the responsibility of Egypt and Jordan, given their peace treaties with Israel, that they play a role in this process.”
More than 35 delegates have been sent from Egypt to monitor the electoral process in the West Bank and Gaza.  Last year, some 500 international monitors traveled to the Palestinian territories to monitor the first presidential elections since the death of longtime leader, Yasser Arafat.  Egyptians hold a stake in overseeing the withdrawal and rebuilding of the Gaza Strip, as lax security and governing could expose the Sinai to exported fundamentalism.  Still, with poverty and lagging revitalization in Gaza, many believe it will boost Hamas’s reputation among Palestinians as the people’s party.          
“Remember, the enemy of our enemy is our friend,” notes Al-Arian.  “I think Israel’s restriction against Hamas will only add to their power and popularity.”

Posted in Arab, Daily Star Egypt, Elections, Hamas, Islam, Israel, Palestinians, Politics, Religion | Leave a Comment »


Posted by vmsalama on October 30, 2005

by Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt  

CAIRO – Hamida Ali is, in many ways, a typical 9-year old.  She loves to draw.  She enjoys playing with dolls.  She likes to fix her hair.  Still, this young Iraqi girl has endured hardships unimaginable to most adults, let alone children. 

            Even beyond having to live in the war-torn nation, Hamida has come to Egypt on a personal crusade – a fight to live.  Amid the bombings, power-outages and constant hostility in which most Iraqis struggle to find normalcy, a few individuals, both in her homeland and in Egypt, have given this child an inkling of hope that she might live to have a bright future.

            Hamida has a rare condition called hypomagnesia, an abnormal lack of magnesium in the neuronal cells, the impulse-conducting cells that constitute the brain, spinal column, and nerves.  As a result, she experiences convulsions, often more than a dozen times per day, and full-blown seizures several times a week.  What is particularly urgent about Hamida’s case is that three of her seven siblings have died from the condition, two of them were about Hamida’s age when they passed on. 

            Still, she takes her condition with a grain of salt, clinging to her father’s waist the moment she feels the sensation of an on-coming attack.  The frequent convulsions, which first began when she was three months old, last for about a minute, whereby she then goes back to play, without a care.  The more severe seizures often leave her temporarily handicapped, too weary to function.  She is far too enthralled with her “vacation” in Egypt to discuss her health, however, noting her favorite thing about the country is electricity – a luxury in much of Iraq nowadays.


            It is Hamida’s father, Ali, once a soldier in Saddam Hussein’s army and former prisoner of war, who tells of the pains of losing three daughters to this rare illness, and how his family is prepared to do whatever it takes to save Hamida from the same fate. 

“We went to the hospital and they did all kinds of investigations and blood tests, checking calcium or potassium,” he explains.  “In 1994, the fourth one died.  Our first two children died also.  The third child was ok, but then fourth died when she was ten years old.  At that time, I sent four letters to Saddam, the criminal, asking his help.”

Ali, already bitter with the former Iraqi government for, as he explains, unjustly throwing him into prison for illegal possession of a weapon, became even more disenfranchised having to beg the regime he hates for help – and not receiving it. 

“I was trying to get somebody who can raise my voice to the government so they can take care of her case,” he says.  “I wrote to the Ministry of Health about my financial situation and the condition of Hamida and how rare her condition is, but I didn’t get a good response from them.  The bureaucracy was very bad.  I wrote some letters to the Saudi hospital asking them if they can accept treating my daughter.  But there was no answer.  Also I contacted the government hospital in Baghdad but the expenses to go to Baghdad were too much.”

            Having to support a wife and four children, including Hamida, Ali found the expenses too much to bare.  Earning a monthly salary equivalent to $15, the family would begin making sacrifices, dedicated most of their money to young Hamida’s health care as a priority.  “The expenses were a burden.  Recently, we sold our house.  Every time I use to go to Baghdad, it took one day to go, one day to come – and then of course, add several days to stay there, so it was so expensive.  I use to sell everything in my apartment, even my wife’s clothes trying to get money for the treatment.”

            Now living with his wife’s family in Baghdad, Hamida, her parents and three siblings all live in one small room – a small price to pay, they say, if it means being closer to the best health care in Iraq.  The country’s dynamic changed drastically upon the invasion of coalition forces.  For Ali and his family, it was a blessing in disguise since military forces bring with them foreign doctors and international attention.

            “I contacted the Human Rights Association of Babylon,” he recalls.  “A Kuwaiti-based team of American doctors visited southern Iraq, in our neighborhood – Hella.  I took Hamida to them.  The human rights organization told the doctors that Hamida’s condition is a chronic case and they suggested sending her to Egypt for treatment.”

            “Hamida is one of hundreds of cases that we have registered,” explains Aly Al-Saeedy, head of the citizen assistance committee with Human Rights of Babylon in Baghdad.  “The Human Rights Association is doing its best to provide any help to the Iraqi people because the tragedy is huge. The deteriorated security conditions caused charity organizations and NGOs such as the Red Cross to leave Iraq.”

            At the same time, a young Egyptian woman was on a quest of her own.  Having spent some time in Iraq during the early days of the war, Mandi Mourad Fahmy, a translator and reporter, was now back in Egypt to tend to her ailing mother.  Having made many connections, Fahmy felt an overwhelming sense of duty to continue helping the citizens of Iraq from home.   

            “I wanted to go back to Iraq but I couldn’t go back, so I was trying to think of ways to help while I was away,” she explains.  “This guy told me about a few cases so I thought why don’t we bring them here?”

            Hamida wasn’t the first case Al-Saeedy contacted Fahmy about.  The first patient to come from Iraq was a 4-year old girl who has suffered from a hernia in her head since birth.  She was unable to talk or walk, however with an intricate operation – unavailable in Iraq – she could gain those abilities.  “She came and had this operation,” tells Fahmy.  “Now, she’s standing up, her father calls me and tells me.  It’s very gratifying.  Human Rights Association of Babylon wrote to me about this girl, they’re excited about helping.”    

Months later, Al-Saeedy contacted Fahmy once again to inform her about Hamida’s deteriorating condition.  The association explained the situation to the Egyptian Embassy in Baghdad, supplying them with an invitation from Fahmy to come for treatment.  “The embassy was very sympathetic and understanding,” she says.  “[The family] collected whatever money they can, they get donations if they can, and come by land.  It’s difficult for someone who’s sick and dangerous.”


“We were left with two choices.  One option was to watch our children die and accept the reality imposed on us by Saddam’s regime, the occupation and terrorism, the death triangle for Iraqis who have experienced all sorts of suffering over the past 40 years,” says Al-Saeedy.  “The other option was to do our best to find people who can help us treat these children.  Mandi’s face gave me hope.  I found a lot of humanity in that woman.”

The 1,288 kilometer journey took Hamida and her family two days by bus.  Fahmy arranged for Hamida, her father and mother to stay in a rented apartment in Dokki at her expense.  “In Iraq, I don’t think they have the facilities for some tests.  I put them in touch with doctors, I call friends, if I’m working with any one, I asked them if they’re willing to donate.  If they are, fine.  I think God will help us.”

 “Mandi paid for all the living costs and arranged for neurosurgeon,” says Hamida’s father, Ali.  “Hamida went to the hospital twice and each doctor in Egypt use to do his part with all kinds of tests related to his specialty.”

Medical treatment was not free, but doctors lowered their rates given the circumstances.  Fahmy has paid some LE 2800 out of pocket to help the family.  The diagnosis was a chronic inherited case of hypomagnesia, the failure of her intestines to absorb magnesium, which to this day, is incurable. 

 “We have no reached any results,” he says.  “The doctor said she should take a 10 CC injection every three days.  After three days, she got a seizure.  So there was no actual treatment for her case.  There is no test that they didn’t repeat for us here in Egypt.  They suggested to do brain surgery for her, but said she might die in the surgery.  So we decided not to do the surgery.”

“She needs help,” pleas Fahmy.  “We need someone who’s familiar with the case.  We’ve done all sorts of tests.  It’s rare.  Here in Egypt they are not familiar with the case.  I’m told in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Palestine they are familiar with the case.  I hope we can find anyone who knows anything about this case.”

“What I am looking for is the treatment of my daughter Hamida,” says Ali.  “I don’t care if I go to America or any place in Europe.  I really suffered a lot with my other kids who died and I am looking to find a cure for Hamida.”

Hamida and her family recently got back on the bus, and tolerated the long journey back to Iraq, with no cure but enduring faith.  Meantime, Fahmy continues to work with human rights organizations in Iraq to bring people to Egypt who continue to suffer in the war-torn country. 

“If we suffer from something, we think it’s the end of the world,” she insists.  “These people, their whole day is full of suffering.  They have no electricity, no water, no good services.  They deal with it as a normal thing, they don’t complain.  I hope I can bring other people.”

If you have information about hypomagnesia or would like to help Hamida, please contact Mandi Fahmy at Mandim03@yahoo.com

Posted in Arab, Daily Star Egypt, Egypt, Iraq | Leave a Comment »

Protesters Cry for Help

Posted by vmsalama on October 23, 2005

Sudanese demonstrators desperate for relocation

(To view my photos from the Sudanese refugee protest, click here)


By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Staff

Sudanese Protest 

CAIRO:  “We want to be far, far, far away from Cairo,” reads one of many signs enclosing a makeshift camp outside the entrance of Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohendaseen.  

It’s been exactly 25 days now since an estimated 1,000 Sudanese refugees took the decision to launch a peaceful protest nearby the regional office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Fed-up from being, what they call “victims of mismanagement,” families have come together, each carting a suitcase holding their sole possessions.  The group insists that UNHCR assist in their relocation, saying they can no longer endure the discrimination, inopportunity and abuse they experience in Egypt.   

Demonstrators say conditions are growing more horrid by the day.  Since they assembled, protestors allege a 28-year old man died of influenza, a pregnant woman miscarried and an infant died of untreated diarrhea.  Many more are falling ill as they spend their days and nights in the open-air.

“My two kids are coughing because the wind gets so strong at night” says Lisa Simon, 29.  “I came here with my bags and my kids because I want a solution to our problems.  The streets are not safe for us here.  People hit us with stones, this is normal for us.  Our men cannot work.  This can’t continue.”

“We have demands and the UNHCR knows our demands,” says Jack Pam, one of the spokesmen for the demonstrators.  “Finding jobs is difficult.  Our children are abused.  Our women are raped.  We will meet anyone at any hour of any day to solve our problems.”  

There are approximately two to three million Sudanese nationals living in Egypt today, according to recent statistics by the UNHCR.  Of those, more than 14,400 have refugee status, another 10,000 are seeking asylum.  The regional office stands some 30 meters away from the blanket-covered camp; the neighborhood, swarming with security and precautionary riot police – many of whom have no idea why they are there and who they are protecting.

The issue, UNHCR officials maintain, is that the people gathered along one side of Gamaat El Dowal Street are not under the jurisdiction of their organization.  Nonetheless, its officials insist that they have offered to meet with the group’s decision-making committee to see if a resolution is possible, but that only yesterday, they received word that the group was not interested to negotiate. 

            “We have absolutely nothing to defend ourselves against,” insists Damtew Dessalegne, Assistant Regional Representative for UNHCR.  “The situation in Egypt, for Sudanese nationals – including Sudanese refugees – is not as awful as it’s being described by some of the demonstrators and their advocates.  The economic difficulties that these refugees are facing are not any different than the difficulties millions of Egyptians are facing.”

            Through groups such as UNHCR, individuals are evaluated and investigated, and then granted legal refugee status with the final stamp of approval from the Egyptian government.  Those who are granted status receive a blue card – and now a yellow card given to asylum seekers, a different category in itself.  It is only with these cards that they can legally pursue any work opportunities. 

            “Here, they are not allowed to work without a permit and I’ve only met two (people) who have permits and that’s because they work for a radio station and they needed their languages,” explains Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC).  “There are 24,000 registered refugees in Egypt.  What donor is going to be worried about such a small number in such a huge country?  The reality is there are many, many more.”

            Refugee activists site several “rumors” casting doubt over the position of UNHCR.  First, Harrell-Bond notes that the high salaries of United Nations and UNHCR officials is a cause for concern, as displaced individuals like those gathered in Mohendaseen grow desperate for attention.  Dessalegne denounces such accusations, insisting that the salaries of his staff meet international guidelines set by the UN.  Word also circulates the camp that the Sudanese nationals would be granted $25 per day by UNHCR if they agree to gather at the park.    

            “We don’t give money if people stay; we don’t give money if people leave,” says Dessalegne.  “It’s up to them to decide when to leave and what to do next.  These people can stay there as long as they want.”

            The problem activists insist, is a lack of communication between UNHCR and the refugees.  Many of those gathered in Mohendaseen are not clear on their status.  In many cases, they do not know who qualifies for refugee status.  Many of the demonstrators remain optimistic that they will be relocated, be it to America, Australia, Canada or Finland.  Others have sought to convince demonstrators to withdraw their children from church schools in an effort to force UNHCR to make the Ministry of Education provide the children with equivalency exams.  False hopes, says Harrell-Bond.

            Further complicating the matter is the stance of the Sudanese government on the issue.  Demonstrators allege that late one night last week, a car from the Sudanese Embassy in Egypt circled the park, tempting people with alcohol as a way to provoke trouble.  Demonstrators allegedly retaliated, stealing the license plate from the vehicle.  Harrell-Bond possessed a photo of the plate in question, beside it, a recent copy of Al-Ahram Newspaper to verify it was current.         

            “You came here to get resettled, you didn’t come here for protection, so you’re not a refugee?  Resettlement is not a right,” insists Harrell-Bond.  “Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, they have not signed the [1951] Convention, so every refugee UNHCR gives status to has to be gotten out of the country, yet all the places for resettlement are centered in Cairo – why?  There’s no equity to the system – it has to be a political interest.” 

“This is not a refugee problem,” Dessalegne says.  “It is a mix of economic migration, development, poverty, and whatever.  They are not political refugees.  The majority are not even refugees recognized by UNHCR under the legal procedures.  Even if it is a refugee problem, it is not entirely a UNHCR problem, it is a problem of the government of Egypt.”


Also see Toddler Latest to Die in Sudanese Refugee Protest in Cairo

Posted in Daily Star Egypt, Egypt, Politics, Refugees, Sudan | Leave a Comment »

Muslim Brotherhood Leader Akef Spells Out His Ideas for Democracy

Posted by vmsalama on September 15, 2005

By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Egypt


CAIRO: Just as an opposition meeting at the Journalists’ Syndicate was winding down last week, a very different type of gathering was commencing at the Lawyers’ Syndicate next door.  From around the corner, one could hear the thunderous call by hundreds of male voices repeatedly chanting, “God is great.”  There was no mistaking this group’s affiliation. 
For whatever image the Muslim Brotherhood (Akhwan El Muslimeen) may project, history reveals the Brotherhood of today may in fact be a gentler, more tolerant organization, whose political agenda preaching for peaceful democracy has often overshadowed its more commonly known push for a rigorous Islamic government.  At age 77, with risk of losing support to some of the younger, more liberal movements which have spurred up in recent years, the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood has gotten a face lift so to find its place in this age of reform.  With a presence in 70 countries, a target audience of the fastest growing religion in the world – some 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide – and dozens of Islamic organizations spawned off of it, the Muslim Brotherhood has a choice.  It can stay true to his age-old ideologies, or evolve with the times. 
Maybe it has done both.  The group’s soon-to-be 77 year old leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, whose soft-spoken, no-nonsense rhetoric has won him mixed reviews on the world stage since being elected into his role in January 2004, says it is the group’s long history and experience that has kept it in touch with the needs of the Egyptian people.  “We have a role in the Egyptian society,” he says.  “By the confession of all people, the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest community that exists on the Egyptian streets.  There is no democracy in Egypt but it is a dictatorship that is coming from the roots.  There is no democracy of any sort in Egypt.”


The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 at the climax of British colonialism in Egypt.  A young school teacher by the name Hassan Al-Banna, angered by what he considered British thievery of Arab culture and ideals, called for Muslims to reject all Western influences.  Their mission would expand as an effort to prepare society to spread Islamic culture through any means possible, be it in the media, at mosques, through public organizations, at universities, or through the government. 
As time elapsed, colonialism ended, and the Brotherhood was not satisfied with the direction Egyptian politics was headed.  Egypt went from being a monarchy to a police state.  The Muslim Brotherhood felt that Egypt’s government violated the laws of Islam and Shari’ah through means of corruption.  On the flipside, the government, fearing they would be overthrow by the Brotherhood, played the defense.  There were assassination attempts on government officials, including President Gamal Abdel Nasser.  In response, there were thousands of Brotherhood members arrested across the Arab world. 
It would be long before the government and Muslim Brotherhood would find it in their power to carry on a somewhat harmonious existence – albeit superficially.  The group has remained vocal about several key issues – particularly the imprisonment of hundreds of their members, a move they call unjust, and their restriction from running for government positions on an official platform.  Sitting as independents, Brotherhood supporters now hold 13 seats in Egypt’s 454-seat legislature.
“The tyrannical countries that depend on the security forces, they can’t achieve reform by themselves,” presses Akef.  “They must first communicate with the people for reform to exist.  Good steps toward reform must come from the presidency in order to avoid bloodshed.”
In recent weeks, reformist movements in Egypt have become more outspoken than ever – particularly following the May 25 referendum vote where nearly a dozen people – mostly women and journalists – reported being abused by plain-clothes police and National Democratic Party (NDP) supporters.  “The people are tired.  They are in pain.  They are against tyranny,” says Akef.  “[The government] must call out to the people and see what they need first.  Without this initiative, maybe there will be reform, but not for a very long time.”
It is imperative, opposition movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Kafaya (Enough) stress that the government refrains from obstructing the public’s right to free speech and demonstration.  The government maintains that the Egyptian people are free to do so – Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif emphasizing the point on a recent visit to Washington.  Akef laughs, saying he has yet to see even the most peaceful, symbolic protests received without hostility. 
“We decided to make a public convention and say our opinions, but [Mubarak] actually refused,” says Akef.  “We asked to make marches in the streets, and he also refused.  It was all just symbolic, but he refused.”
In a recent interview with the Daily Star Egypt, Kafaya leader George Ishaq emphasized the importance of all opposition groups – including the Muslim Brotherhood – to work together, saying “there will never be change if we don’t stand together against the oppression.”  Akef downplayed the notion of any partnership, as Kafaya pushes for a more secular rule than the Muslim Brotherhood would support.  Akef’s response simply was “I work with all people that want reform.  We want reform and we support it.  We support [Ishaq].”
To stress the Brotherhood’s political agenda, Akef in recent weeks called out to all the brothers to refrain from raising the Quran at protests, saying that the demonstrations are open to all people, not just members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Recently, Al-Azhar issued a fatwa calling protests “haram,” as they interfere in the general order of society.    Akef is quick to brush it off, saying that he himself is an active protestor. 
Still, this group which spawned Hamas, planted the root for Al-Qaida and now publicly endorses peaceful reform and democracy is facing a greater challenge than ever.  Despite it’s diverse appeal worldwide, the struggle remains in their effort to be viewed primarily on the basis of their political agenda, and less so on their religious ideologies, as the Islamic world continues to combat stereotypes of terrorism and violence. 


A suicide bombing in Cairo’s Khan El-Khalili bazaar in early April which killed two French tourists and an American, an injured 18 others, instilled a fear in many of a revived Islamic movement in Egypt.  The attack came months following terrorist attacks in two Sinai resort towns.  Two more attacks would follow in Cairo.  The Muslim Brotherhood was quick to condemn the attacks, calling them “cowardly.”  However, they would add that the attacks were a “reaction to the injustice” of President Mubarak’s cap on the opposition. 
In the United States, a report released by the national commission investigating the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001 revealed that the architect of the attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, confessed to having roots with the Muslim Brotherhood.  In the report, Mohammed told interrogators that his inspiration to carry out a jihad came from his days as a member of Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood, attending desert youth camps at age 16.
Akef stresses that it is the duty of Muslims worldwide to carry out a jihad appropriately against those who look to rob them of their homeland.  He says only in such circumstances will he condone violence.  “Jihad for Muslims starts with a personal jihad,” he explains.  “It’s not only Islam, it’s the entire world.  To invade another’s land is a crime. When Israel invades another land, it’s a crime.  When America does it, it’s a crime.  When the French went to Algeria it was a crime. We fight them until they flee.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, according to Akef, has no intention of making peace with Israel at any time, saying that any Arab country that does is serving the interests of the United States.  “We will never acknowledge Israel because it is a group of people coming from around the world to invade a land that is not theirs and to kick out the people who live there,” he says.  “[The Arab countries] are agents of the United States.  All of the Arab countries are submitting to America.”
Acknowledging that Egypt does receive some $2.2 billion in economic assistance from the United States annually – second only to Israel – Akef insists that the Arab countries, Egypt especially, should learn to properly utilize its own natural wealth and resources.  “Why should we take money?  Why can’t we rely on ourselves?  We’ve got resources like petroleum, the Suez Canal, agricultural, we’re one of the wealthiest countries in the world but the tyrannical people made it one of the poorest countries.”  The Muslim Brotherhood is an example, he says, as it receives funding only through its own supporters.
Still, Akef stands strong against his critics.  “I don’t care what anybody says – the agents, external or internal.  There are people in Egypt that are getting money from outside just to stand against the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim Brotherhood is a mature community existing in the Egyptian streets.  It’s got its weight and its trust and they are scared from this.”
In a country which has remained comparatively liberal, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood fear that should they come to power, adoption of Islamic rule will result in the backward motion of society.  A recent editorial in the Washington Times makes a comparison between Akef and the Muslim Brotherhood with Khomeini and the Islamic regime of Iran.  Akef strongly opposes this, saying that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime have stark differences.  “Our code is on peaceful guidelines,” he says.  “The violence is only under one condition – when our land and our countries are occupied.  When someone tries to get our land and our country, we are against it.  Any other situation, we never use it.”
Still he is quick to dismiss that any nation – be it Iran or America – has got the right idea when it comes to governing its people.  The missing factor, he says, is true democracy.  “The government that works right must respect the people’s opinion.  There is no government that respects the people’s opinions.”
Akef looks to the future with great optimism that one day a member of the Muslim Brotherhood will be chosen by the people to lead this nation.  “We won’t go ahead unless the people choose him,” he notes.  “In this time, the people will be convinced with the codes and ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And when the Brotherhood says something, the people will agree.”
In the meantime, Akef is not encouraged by talks of referendum changes and multi-candidate elections, a move he calls an attempt to “confuse the people.”  He even brushes off questions surrounding the use of international election monitors.  “America has eyes on Egypt more than the Egyptian government.  USA knows about Egypt more than Hosni Mubarak knows Egypt,” says Akef. 
Whatever the future holds for the Egyptian people, Akef communicates that the Muslim Brotherhood is there to support them through their struggle toward a democratic existence.  “Egyptians have been under this forcible burden,” he says.  “But at the same time, the Egyptian people are good, wise people.  I myself am optimistic about a good future.”
(Me Interviewing Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, Courtesy of Daina Moussa)

Posted in Daily Star Egypt, Egypt, Elections, Middle East, Muslim Brotherhood, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood

Posted by vmsalama on August 27, 2005


The youngest members of Egypt’s largest – but banned – party talk politics and more

 The Daily Star Egypt continues its talk with the youngest members of Egypt’s largest, but banned, party about politics, jihad, and life in general in the second and final part of this series. 

Click here to read Part I. 

(to read the PDF version of this story, click here-pdf-ikhwan-youth-part-2.pdf) By Vivian Salama 

CAIROWith a presence in 70 countries, and a following soon to outnumber any religion, – some 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide today – the Egyptian based Muslim Brotherhood (El-Ikhwan El-Muslimeen) – outlawed; feared; followed; the root of dozens of Islamic organizations – faces a dilemma.  Famed for its orthodox disciplines and fierce stance on a number of issues, both political and religious, the group has recently revealed a tamer, more tolerant and more political side as it looks to hop on the bandwagon of reform.  The question remains, in the face off between politics and Islam, can the group maintain its overwhelming global influence?  

               “If you go to the street and you ask people their political views, without even mentioning Muslim Brotherhood, you will find people saying the exact views as us and agreeing with our position on most issues,” says Asmaa Gamal, 20, studying commerce at Cairo University.  “Once you bring up the Muslim Brotherhood’s name, you will find that the people get scared.  The word alone scares people – it’s outlawed by the government.”“There is a big problem facing the Islamic movements,” insists Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, 22, a senior at the American University in Cairo (AUC) studying political science.  “People in the West teach from their understanding – especially when talking about fundamentalism – the root of the word.  The meaning in the West differs completely from the meaning here.”

              So when discussing Jihad, Islamic holy war, members of the Muslim Brotherhood agree that there is a stark difference in the way it is interpreted versus the way it is taught.  In an interview with the Daily Star Egypt last June, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Madhi Akef explained, “Jihad for Muslims starts with a personal jihad,” he said.  Jihad is against the enemy.  The infidels, when they come after our land, we must jihad against them.  When the Americans come into Iraq, I must jihad against them.  When the Americans go into Afghanistan I go after them.  To invade another’s land is a crime.”

“This doesn’t mean we’ll say, ‘America, do what you want and we’ll keep quiet,’” adds Ibrahim.  “We will not hit cities when it is haram to hit them.  It is haram to kill civilians to have nothing to do with the situation.”


             This group, which underpinned Hamas, planted the root for Al-Qaida and now publicly endorses ideologies of peaceful reform and democracy, has combated negative publicity in this era of a global war on terrorism.  In Egypt, a series of deadly bombings – in Sinai, the Khan El-Khalili market and most recently, in Sharm El-Sheikh has instilled fears in the minds of Egyptian authorities of a revived Islamic Movement.  Even prior to that,  a report released by the United States commission investigating the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001 revealed that the architect of the attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, confessed to ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.  


              “As for whether jihad is understood by those abroad, my opinion is it is our role to make them understand,” explains Ahmed Ibrahim, 24, a medical student at Cairo University.  “We should at least clear the picture, although the fact that it is misunderstood is not a mistake of Muslims.”

dsc02642.jpg     “There is a difference between jihad and war,” says Lubna Mohamed, 20, a political-science major at Cairo University.  “Violence is different than jihad.  If someone hits a place, you want to do something about it, think of strategies.  But I can’t say its purpose is violence or its purpose is terrorism.  Our lives aren’t about that.”


                       The young men and women gave details of different situations where they felt the deadly acts of a small group bared negative impact on the image of Islam worldwide.  Incidents such as the July bombings on the London Underground and last year, bombings to the Madrid Metro – all acts, the group insists, which were violations against the core teachings of Islam. 


                    “If they were Muslims, should their actions speak for all Muslims?” asks Osama Ghobish, 21, who studies electrical engineering at Cairo University.  “We are Muslims trying to promote the message of Islam in the correct light.”


                   The group generally supports the actions of Arabs in Palestine and Iraq who are – in their words – defending their roots and homeland, not instigating violence and hatred as in the attacks on New York and Washington or to London and Madrid, or even to Sharm El-Sheikh last month.  This week, as the world watched the last of 8,500 Israeli settlers withdraw from Gaza, many of them by force, these young members of the Muslim Brotherhood shake their heads in pity, calling it merely a song and dance by Israel’s Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

                    The history of this issue is as if we are all just running around after one another,” says Lubna, the others agreeing.  “In a few years you’ll see, [Sharon] will reenter Gaza.  I am sure of this.  This is the pattern throughout the history of Israel.  He wants to give them something to make them drop their guard a little bit.”

                     “This is the biggest change and the biggest steps taken in our region so far, is that the Jews withdraw from Gaza,” says Mahmoud Moustafa, 19, a commerce student at Cairo University, optimistically. 

                    “Sharon did this withdrawal but from start to finish, he’s doing this for his own benefit,” rebuttals Ibrahim.  “People shouldn’t believe that this is done for the benefit of the Palestinians – Sharon killed the roots of the Palestinians.  This is known.  Sharon is the opposite of peace.”           

                   “The photos of Israelis crying and clinging to each other, and the image of the Palestinians celebrating, it is sending to the foreigners an incorrect picture of what is happening,” Ahmed adds. 

                    The group is more moderate in their criticism of America, admitting that just as Americans view the Arabs in a certain light, the Arabs too will view them in their own perspective.  Still, where politics is concerned, there is skepticism among the youngsters toward the unadulterated actions of US President George W. Bush and his motives for intervening in Arab affairs.  With no evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and a maintained affirmed ties with Israel, anti-American sentiment will only continue to grow, says the group. 

                  America wants to take over Iraq for their own benefits, whether it be oil or reasons yet to surface,” exclaims Ibrahim.  “[Bush] wants to take over Syria. In Jordan as well, he’s got King Abdullah in his pocket.  He wants to keep Israel close as well.”            Osama jumps in.  “There is one aspect we don’t focus on, and it’s an important one.  Is [Bush] really moving in on the basis of true information or intelligence?  Maybe they have convinced Americans that he has a point or that he knows what he is doing.”            “Of course it needs to be pointed out that our views on American politics will likely differ completely from the views of the American citizens on their own domestic and foreign relations,” says Ahmed. 

               Politics isn’t the only area of varying perspectives.  Even among Egyptian citizens, the degree to which Islam should play in government affairs is an issue of sharp debate.  In a country which has remained comparatively liberal, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood fear that should they come to power, adoption of Islamic rule will result in the backward motion of society.  It’s no secret – since the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, a new ideology spread.  Egypt became considerably more conservative, many Muslims abandoning their European fashions for a more modest and traditional garb.  Young men began to grow their beards in a show of unpretentiousness; more women began veiling their hair.  Is it because people have become more religious, or has religion becoming more open? 

                 I think it is a simple progression of time,” speculates Ahmed.  “The ideas [of Islam] spread.  The ideas were always there, but we repeated its teachings and we spread its blessings to people, and the people in turn adopted the message.  Islam does not focus on an external or outer image, for example the tarha or beard.”           

               “The details of religion that have begun to surface,” adds Lubna.  “People might say bad things about mohagabat (veiled women), but your image should reflect on the way you think.”           

             “Islam says a young person should educate himself well, respectful in his life, and pray,” adds Osama.           

             “A lot of people were afraid at firsts but when the idea was spread a little bit then the people really started to be interested and respect the idea,” says Mahmoud.  “And it is a personal thing before anything.  Just as a man would hope for a woman to wear higab and stay modest, he too should make sure to take care of himself and make sure he looks good.  This is the idea of Islam.”           

           The message this group is communicating is that they are no different than anyone else.  They have very set political and religious beliefs, but in their words, it makes them no greater or lesser threat than a communist, for example.  The young men are witty and mischievous; they talk of football.  The women are intelligent and polite; they discuss clothes and gossip quietly about boys.  They all share dreams of having a family and living a productive life in which they might one day make a difference.

            “You won’t find our dreams different from other people’s dreams,” concludes Ibrahim.  “In our movement, we dream to move the people.  We need to get them involved.  We shouldn’t wait for someone to change things.  We need to change it ourselves first to create a real difference.”

Posted in Arab, Daily Star Egypt, Egypt, Elections, Jihad, Muslim Brotherhood, Politics, Terrorism | 2 Comments »

The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood

Posted by vmsalama on August 26, 2005

The youngest members of Egypt’s largest – but banned – party talk politics and more

The Daily Star Egypt talks to the youngest members of Egypt’s largest, but banned, party about politics, religion, and life in general in a two part series.  Click here for Part Two.

(to read the PDF version of this story, click here-pdf-ikhwan-youth-part-1.pdf) 


by Vivian Salama


CAIRO – They are feared and outlawed equally as much as they are supported and renown worldwide.  The Muslim Brotherhood (El-Ikhwan El-Muslimeen), perhaps the most misunderstood political movement in existence, arguably has the greatest number of supporters in Egypt, and possibly, across the Arab world.  With a presence in 70 countries, a target audience of the fastest growing religion in the world – some 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide – and dozens of Islamic organizations spawned off of it, its influence is far beyond the reaches of Egypt’s government and any other.  Yet for decades, they have attached to their name the leprous image of political bad boys, their candidates for office banned from the election ballot should they bare the party’s name. 

            In this era of political transition, as weathered generals sit in their offices and engaging solely in a war of words, their soldiers – young, passionate, in some cases, naïve – head to the frontlines day in and day out defending their cause.  Perhaps they are the most accurate depiction of a party and their views – honest, refreshing, and unacquainted with the politics behind the politics.  This week, four young men and two young women of the Muslim Brotherhood came together for a discussion held exclusively with the Daily Star Egypt, to talk politics, religion and life in general.  While certain topics riled them up more than others, they look to communicate that they are just average young adults who hold politics and religion close to their hearts. 

            Most surprisingly, as strong-minded as each is about their political views, of the six, two of them have not told their parents they are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, a third says his parents do not know to what degree he is involved.  The reason across the board is fear.  Those whose parents are not aware of their involvement say they hide it simply because they don’t want their parents to worry. 

            “They would not refuse it, but I do not like to make them worried,” admits Lubna Mohamed, 20, a political-science major at Cairo University.  “Generally here in Egypt, even if you’re a communist, the idea of getting involved in politics, holding a political stand on anything is not easy, it comes with consequences.”

            “The idea is that maybe the father and mother will support the movement with their heart, but they don’t want their son or daughter to be involved,” explains Osama Ghobish, 21, who studies electrical engineering at Cairo University.  “My parents know I am in the Muslim Brotherhood, but I’m not sure they realize how much I am with them.” 


            Even those who have told their parents say it is a tough thing for any parent to accept.  As opposition movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Kafaya grow more outspoken by the day, the government’s grip equally tightens in the face of growing resistance.  In recent months, sweeping arrests of members of the Muslim Brotherhood have shaken the group out of a period of surveillance and reflection, and into active-duty, only this time, with a slightly different edge.  Under the leadership of Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef, today’s Muslim Brotherhood appears gentler, more peaceful, and placing greater emphasis of their political platform, not a religious agenda.  Akef has even instructed his members not to raise the Quran at protests for it overshadows the Brotherhood’s true message – political reform.

            Just this week, Akef released a statement confirming that the Muslim Brotherhood would not endorse President Hosni Mubarak in his bid for re-election during Egypt’s first ever multi-candidate campaign.  It comes as no surprise.  However as candidates such as El-Ghad party leader Ayman Nour sought support from the Brotherhood, the outlawed group is refusing them one by one.  The fact remains, Egypt’s largest party will not participate in this historic election, but just as significant, they have chosen not to boycott the ballot as many opposition groups have.  While members of the Muslim Brotherhood are permitted to run as independents, no independents are among the ten candidates approved by the Electoral Commission as they could not secure the backing of 250 elected officials, such as parliament which is dominated by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).

            “Within the 10 candidates, it’s not even a question of whether there are two or three better than Mubarak.  No one is good,” insists Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, 22, a senior at the American University in Cairo (AUC) studying political science.  “I don’t care about the person, I care about his program.  If we see that a candidate’s program was a good, strong program, of course we would support him.  Anyone besides Mubarak would be a step forward, unless it is Gamal [Mubarak].”              “If you look at the people we have here in the country, ask yourself, can any of them be president?  It’s difficult,” says Asmaa Gamal, 20, studying commerce at Cairo University.  “Even the publicity that’s written in the newspapers about the candidates, they are showing all of these strange personalities running for president.”              “How can you expect change when the people must walk down your path, must enter your door in order to reach the other side?” questions Lubna, the others nod in agreement.  “The other point we want to communicate is that it is not whether or not someone from the Muslim Brotherhood is elected, but that it is a natural process, that it is coming from the people and the candidate is someone that the people want,” adds Mahmoud Moustafa, 19, a commerce student at Cairo University.  “However, I believe that these elections are just a big show and that’s it.”     While Egypt has remained moderately liberal next to countries in the Gulf, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to push for a Shar’ia based government, where Islam and politics work hand in hand.  The country has, under rule of the NDP, managed to cling to secularism, as citizens adopt a more conservative outer image.  The young people of the Muslim Brotherhood say the idea of secular and non-secular is an unnatural concept conjured up by the West

“The idea of non-secularism originally is coming from the West,” says Lobna.  “The idea of Islam, as a non-secular government, it doesn’t mean that a Sheikh is running the government.  It simply means that we follow the rules of Shar’ia.  There is no discrimination.” 

“We don’t say that if the Brotherhood holds the government that they are going to enforce the ideologies of Islam in the country,” explains Ahmed Ibrahim, 24, a medical student at Cairo University.  “We would try to enforce what is naturally considered right and wrong.  The ideas of [Islam] would be there, but it does not have anything to do with having a non-secular government.”

“The people think that we will drastically change things and have a religious authority running the country and that we will change things to a way we see fit,” adds Mahmoud.  “It will stay as it is, a secular country, which under the constitution would be supported by Islam.  Nothing new would come out of it.”

The Brotherhood’s leader, Mahdi Akef himself, told the Daily Star Egypt last June that there is no perfect government in the world – citing polar examples such as the United States and Iran as both missing the point to true, honest democratic governance.  “The government that works right must respect the people’s opinion,” explained Akef.  “There is no government that respects the people’s opinions.”

The young people of the Muslim Brotherhood agree.  When asked to define democracy, most of them initially responded, with a chuckle, “Not Egypt!”

“Democracy is the ideas of the people,” responds Asmaa.  “The people choose, they decide.  They govern themselves.”

“Democracy is the opinion of the majority,” adds Ibrahim.  “We don’t look at the government for the first steps.  The government is the result of a strong civil society.” 

“Democracy is the opposite of what we are in now, that’s for starters,” says Ahmed, sparking giggles from the group.  “It is an idea of free expression.  It would give people the opportunity to express his or her own point of view, and the situation should be the opinion of the majority and that a person can make himself heard.”


Posted in Arab, Daily Star Egypt, Egypt, Elections, Muslim Brotherhood, Politics | 2 Comments »

Meet the Incumbent: Mubarak looks to appeal to an evolving nation

Posted by vmsalama on August 18, 2005

By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Staff
CAIRO:  It wasn’t the fact that there was a press conference held yesterday at the Mubarak Campaign headquarters that was so atypical; it was the way they held it.  On the tail of a visit by President Hosni Mubarak, who had just be briefed by his campaign staff, reporters filed into the auditorium – as they entered, many were handed headsets so to ensure no one was left lost in translation.  Transcripts of the President’s Wednesday night address were made available in English and Arabic.  The setting itself was almost superfluously comfortable; air-conditioning set at a perfect temperature; theater-style chairs with a high reclining back; television cameras restricted to the back;  microphones strategically lined up on a single podium in the front.
            Then there was the décor.  No longer is the National Democratic Party (NDP) simply calling out for voters to say “yes to Mubarak,” they’re telling them why.  “Mubarak 2005: Leadership and crossing into the future,” the signs read; an image of a robust President Mubarak, sleeves rolled up, placed strategically on the far right hand side of the poster.  All along the left and right walls, silent testaments of dedication to his leadership – each poster depicting a overjoyed commoner in his or her natural habitat in areas across Egypt; “Mubarak 2005” written on top. 

Mubarak Campaign

To some, it may not be what the President is saying that interests them so much as it is the way he is saying it.  While the Egyptian people are accustomed to seeing their president’s face decorating billboards across the country, they are not used to seeing a neighborly, softer side to the 77-year old president, now campaigning for his fifth six-year term.  Something has definitely changed. 
“[President Mubarak] has experienced a lot in his life that makes him sympathetic to the problems of the common people,” Mohamed Kamal, political secretariat for the NDP and head of the campaign, told reporters yesterday.  “We will work with the president.  We will have contact with the voters directly and through the media, so the voters know what to expect.”
Kamal was joined by Hossam Badrawi, a member of the People’s Assembly, and Mahmoud Mohieldin, Minister of Investment.  In keeping with an effort to reform inside and out, the President has outlined a platform, or a list of political and economic objectives should he be elected.  The goal, campaign leaders insist, is to focus on the future, and realize that the president can evolve with his citizens.    
To ensure the legitimacy and transparency of their campaign, Mubarak’s staff says they are committed toward working hand in hand with the media during this three week period.  Daily bulletins will be issued listing the President’s schedule, his meeting and public appearances.  The First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak will even hit the campaign trail in an effort to promote her husband’s message of reform leading up to Election Day – September 7.  Then, as much as twice a week, campaign leaders will hold press conferences to inform the media of any major happenings, and give them the opportunity to ask whatever questions they may have. 
“We are trying to mobilize all of our efforts now toward focusing on the future,” explained Kamal.  “We are not elaborating on past achievements.  The President has put forth the basic principles.  He is calling on society to integrate them so any constitutional amendments would be a reflection of the reality at large.”
During his speech to the nation Wednesday night, Mubarak spoke of the future for political reform.  He sited hopeful amendments to the constitution which would enhance the much demanded independence of the judiciary, reinforce the rule of law and revise the system of administrative detention.  The Judges’ Club, which meets September 2 to make a final ruling on whether they intend to monitor the election.  Kamal conveyed the President’s confidence that the elections will be supervised by the judiciary 100 percent.  He added hopes for revisions to Parliament, including it in budgetary issues, promoting the fair representation of women, and giving to it the power to hold the government accountable.  Mubarak also emphasized the importance of free speech and free flow of information.   
“We cannot prejudge changes before they start,” insists Badrawi.  “It is in the favor of a democratic process to have strong opposition.  This is the reformation of society.” 
The President further pledged his dedication to tackling unemployment.  He sited programs to build 1,000 factories in Egypt over the next six years to provide 250,000 jobs annually; reclaiming one million feddans of desert land to allow for 70,000 jobs in the agriculture sector; plus a goal to increase the number of rooms and hotels over the next six years, creating an additional 200,000 job opportunities annually. 
“We are taking into consideration the considerable growth in the labor force,” admits Mohieldin.  “This year alone we have 5,800 new projects.  We are making use of the positive and negative experiences and using it to support our finances.”
Mohieldin admits that it is impossible to site specific records or give exact figures as to past and present corruption taking place in the government, though it did not dismiss it does exist.  “The government is committed to targeting corruption and bringing anyone committing any wrongdoing to justice,” he said.  

Mubarak Campaign Headquarters

Kamal adds that the Mubarak’s campaign staff has made it their mission to stress that the organization and transparency of their campaign is in every way an indication of what is to come for this reformed candidate and party.   
“From our financial side, we are very transparent,” insists Kamal.  “We will submit periodic reports listing the expenses of the campaign and at the end, we will submit a final report.”
The president additionally spoke of his commitment to raising the basic wages of low-income civil servants by 100 percent, and increasing the wages of the remaining civil servants by 75 percent over the next term.  He also stressed other issues, such as enforcement of better education, and the great challenges facing Egypt in its role as a leader in this region battling war and terrorism. 
While such issues remain of vital importance to the citizens of Egypt, we will not see them debated face-to-face among the candidates anytime soon.  With ten candidates – headliners including Mubarak, El-Ghad (Tomorrow) party leader Ayman Nour, and Wafd leader, Norman Gomaa – Kamal insists a debate would be too difficult to pull of logistically or organizationally.  He further emphasized the President’s commitment to seeing to it that there are no outside pressures or disruptions to the coming campaign and election period.     

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