An Egyptian court ruled against the fans of the Port Said al-Masri soccer/ football team, sentencing 21 of them to death for their role in provoking a stampede on the field last year. It is widely believed in Egypt that the al-Masri fans, called ultras or football hoodlums, deliberately caused the stampede, which killed dozens of people, and that they were hand in glove with Old Regime security officials who wanted to punish the al-Ahli ultras for their role in making the revolution against Hosni Mubarak. The court appears to have taken this theory seriously.
The al-Ahli ultras in Tahrir Square in Cairo went wild with joy at the verdict. But in Port Said, families of imprisoned ultras tried to free them, and the city erupted in protests, so that the national army had to come in and occupy it.
Friday saw another day of big protests and police repression in Egypt’s major cities. The protesters, who want the military to withdraw from politics and go back to the barracks, were galvanized by the soccer tragedy at Port Said on Wednesday, where some 74 persons were crushed in a stampede after local ultras (soccer hoodlums) supporting the al-Masri team attacked those cheering for Cairo’s al-Ahli team.
Ahli soccer rowdies had played a leading role in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and I saw them lining up around Tahrir Square last summer to provide security to a second round of protests. Ultras had often fought police after games, and used that experience during the revolution. Those in Egypt’s dissident movement already predisposed to see the military and police as holdovers of the Mubarak regime darkly suspected that police in Port Said had their own thugs target Ahli ultras in an act of revenge.
Even level-headed Egyptian authorities, such as judges in the judiciary, took this theory seriously enough to forbid the head of the Egyptian soccer federation to travel abroad, along with the governor of Port Said.
You can’t really understand the Arab world unless you appreciate the importance of what Americans call soccer (in most parts of the world it is just “football”). “
The Muslim Brotherhood itself, which has substantial support in rural Egypt, decided against engaging in counter-demonstrations, for fear that clashes would break out between pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi factions. But the police and security forces, now under the command of the fundamentalist president, were deployed in attempts to disperse the young protesters, just as they had been in the time of Mubarak.
Many of the protesters are demanding revisions to the hastily-passed, fundamentalist-leaning constitution, and are demanding that Morsi step down and pave the way for new presidential elections. Morsi expects to be in power for at least 4 years, and by the new constitution could serve two terms. He is preparing for parliamentary elections in late February, in which his Freedom and Justice Party (the civil wing of the Muslim Brotherhood) hopes to emerge dominant. The ascendancy of the Religious Right and its male chauvinist and puritanical emphases has alienated mainstream Egyptians, even many religious ones.
Morsi, representing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, has acted high-handedly has favored market-based solutions to the country’s problems, and has cracked down on striking laborers. It has provoked the anger of secular, centrist, feminist, Coptic Christian, leftist and labor groups.
In Cairo, there were several centers of protest, including the iconic Tahrir Square downtown, the presidential palace, the Maspero area around the state television station, and October 6 bridge linking the downtown area with neighborhoods beyond the Nile. There were active clashes between protesters and police on October 6 bridge for much of Friday. The army and state security forces used tear gas against the protesters. A youth anarchist group, the “Black Bloc,” which dressed themselves in black, including masks, attempted to set fire to the presidential palace with Molotov cocktails before being dispersed with heavy tear gas barrages. But most of the Cairo protests, despite provocation by security forces, remained peaceful.
Protesters are consolidating their position in Tahrir Square and pledging to camp out in it until their goals are met.
The protesters chanted, “A woman’s crown is her liberation!”
Mona Abd al-Radi, the secretary-general of the Union of the Women’s Organization of Cairo, and one of eight who cut her hair, said that the action was a reference to the daughter of Pharaoh Akhnaton, who cut her hair in grief that the priests were persecuting her father and had struck him blind with their spells.
It is possible that some of these demonstrators were Coptic Christians and were referring to Corinthians 11:2-15, which says a woman’s hair is her crown. They were rejecting this sentiment. They are said to belong to the organization, “Daughters of Egypt.”
The Egyptian electoral commission on Tuesday signed off on the constitutional referendum, declaring that the country’s guiding legal framework had received a little over 63 percent of the vote. (It only got 56% in the first of two rounds, when the leftist, liberal and centrist opposition thought they had some chance of blocking it, but likely they did not so much bother to come out for the second round, which was conducted in more rural and conservative governorates. The overall turnout was a low 33%). The administrative court concurred.
Many in the left, liberal and centrist opposition pledged to work to repeal the articles of the charter to which they objected. But Amr Moussa, a leader of the anti-Morsi Council for National Salvation, proposed a truce between the opposition and fundamentalist President Muhammad Morsi, so as to allow the country to step back from its current extreme polarization. He asked Morsi to appoint a national unity government, putting members of the opposition in his cabinet. He also proposed postponing parliamentary elections for six months (presumably in order both to allow tempers to cool and to permit leftists, liberals and centrists time to organize to contest them).
Morsi in the meantime appointed 90 members to the 270-member upper house of parliament (the other members had been elected in fall, 2011). Since Muslim fundamentalists dominated the elections last year this time, Morsi attempted to foster some good will by appointing many liberals this week, though the body is still dominated by Morsi’s allies.
By the newly passed constitution, the upper house of parliament now becomes Egypt’s legislature until the new lower house is elected in late February. One of the Assembly of Delegates’ duties will be to pass enabling legislation for 48 articles of the slapdash constitution that specify that statute is necessary to supplement the article. Another duty will be to set up hundreds of councils and commissions called for by the constitution, many of them duplicating already-existing councils and commissions.
This transition to a new legislative body is important because the Egyptian high court dissolved the elected lower house of parliament last June, because of electoral irregularities, and since then Egypt has had no proper legislative branch. It has, however, had several would-be legislators.
Just before Morsi was declared the winner late last June, the Egyptian officer corps declared that *it* would function as Egypt’s legislature until a new one was elected.
In mid-August, President Morsi issued an executive order abrogating that military prerogative, and he made several high-ranking generals retire from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He then promoted several more junior generals in their place, presumably having secured their agreement to go back to the barracks and cease interfering in civil politics.
After Morsi tried to put the military in its place, he more or less combined in himself the executive and legislative branches. In mid-November, he made this prerogative explicit, declaring his executive orders above judicial review.
Morsi appears to have gotten word just before his ‘constitutional decree’ that the supreme administrative court was planning to dissolve the Constituent Assembly that was drafting a new constitution, was planning to dissolve the upper house of parliament (which had not been struck down when the lower house was), and perhaps that it was planning to strike down his August 15 decree demoting the military from being the legislature.
Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood circle feared that Mubarak holdovers in both the judiciary and the officer corps were planning to roll back further what they saw as the electoral achievements of the post-Mubarak period, which had ensconced the Muslim Brotherhood in power, and to steal from the Brotherhood its chance to shape post-revolution Egypt.
Morsi’s ‘constitutional decree’ had the desired effect, of forestalling a judicial coup, but it backfired in alarming about half the country that in placing himself above the judiciary he was seeking to become a dictator. The judiciary is still largely on strike, and most judges refused to help oversee the referendum on the constitution, which the fundamentalist majority had hastily finished up once Morsi provoked the crisis.
Morsi was forced to back down on his new powers, and to pledge that once the constitution was passed, his constitutional decree would lapse.
It has now lapsed.
Despite the turmoil and mobilization provoked by his November 22 announcement, Morsi on the surface has won most of his goals. The army has not come back as legislature, and it has now been permanently supplanted in that role, first today by the upper house of the Assembly of Deputies, and then in a couple of months by the new elected parliament. The constituent assembly was not dissolved, as it likely was on the verge of being, and it was goosed into producing a constitution that has now become the law of the land. It is difficult to see what the Mubarak-appointed judges can any longer do about this, once they come back from their strike.
Most important, Morsi survived a popular challenge to his presidency, and he is in a position to continue to push for the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood, which functioned as his in-house national gang. The hastily-assembled constitution has tricky contradictions that over time can be deployed to impose a fundamentalist reading of Islamic law and practice on an Egypt so far characterized by a diversity of religious observance–from secularists and leftists, to traditionalists, to Sufis and just people not very interested in religion.
Egypt is deeply polarized, and there has been blood in the streets in Cairo and Alexandria. The Muslim Brotherhood has moved from a cadre organization to providing street thugs to attack leftist demonstrators, in a haunting evocation of what happened in revolutionary Iran in the early 1980s.
Still, with regard to power dynamics, Morsi has won.
Short of a military coup (which no one but the holdovers of the old regime wanted) or another mass revolution (hard to organize twice in a row in the space of a couple of years), the only course of action open to Morsi’s many critics now is to contest vigorously the February parliamentary elections and to work over the coming years to repeal the articles in the constitution to which they object. In short, they are now in a position similar to that of American liberals in the 1920s who wanted to repeal the 1921 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which made the sale and distribution of alcohol illegal. (To be clear, Morsi and his Brotherhood-based Freedom and Justice Party probably will not go so far as to forbid alcohol in Egypt, but have signalled that they will place heavy sin taxes on it).
The danger going forward is that large swathes of society will forgo electoral politics to engage in civil disobedience to protest fundamentalist or right wing elements of this constitution. For instance, the text allows labor unions and collective bargaining, but forbids more than one union for each trade. Depending on how the courts interpret this article, many workers could feel disenfranchised by being herded into an official union they don’t like. In turn, the 3000 strikes staged in the zeroes could be outstripped in this decade.
The language of the new constitution, which is crafted to as to allow prosecution of individuals for actions that are immoral under Islamic canon law but not necessarily illegal under civil law (i.e. consensual sex among single adults) contains the most severe dangers to Egyptian tourism, one of the country’s few sources of wealth. The country’s tourism industry is clearly terrified of this constitution and its implications for the sector. Tourism is way off because of the turmoil over the constitution, and Egypt’s economic woes are growing.
There are more Middle Eastern Christians than ever before, and they are poised between emergence as a new political force in a democratizing region and the dangers to them of fundamentalism and political repression. The arguments you see for Christian decline in the region are mostly wrong. If we count the Christians in the Arab world and along the northern Red Sea littoral (Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and the Horn of Africa to the borders of Ethiopia) they come to some 21 million, nearly the size of Australia and bigger than the Netherlands. (This figure does not count the large Christian expatriate populations in the Gulf emirates or Christians in Iran and Pakistan). They are important in their absolute numbers, which have grown dramatically in the past 60 years along with the populations of the countries in which they live. If the region moves to parliamentary forms of government, they may well be coveted swing voters, gaining a larger political role and louder voice than ever before.
In fact, despite all the hype about the rise of Islam in Europe, Muslims in that continent have on the whole much less potential influence than Christians in the Middle East. About 5% of the French electorate is Muslims, the largest proportion in Europe. But Christians are 10 percent of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and 22 percent of Lebanon. Even in Israel, they are 2 percent of the population, a little less than the percentage of contemporary Italy that is Muslim.
Among the biggest dangers to Middle Eastern Christians in 2012 were these:
1. Israeli occupation has made life in East Jerusalem and the West Bank increasingly unbearable, spurring emigration abroad of Palestinian Christians, who once made up 10 to 20 percent of the Palestinian population. Because they are Christians, these Palestinians may find it easier to get visas to the West.
2. The Syrian civil war has displaced or endangered many Syrian Christians, who make up between 10 and 14 percent of the 22-million strong Syrian population. At the upper estimates, there are as many as three million Syrian Christians. There are allegations that Christians have been targeted by hard line fundamentalist militias, but most probably suffer from the same difficulties other Syrians are facing.
3. Iraqi Christian expatriates in Syria are also in trouble. Before George W. Bush invaded Iraq, there were about 800,000 Christians in a population of 25 million, or 3 percent of the population. Some 400,000 are said to have emigrated, mainly to Syria (and about 10,000 to Lebanon), as refugees. But now many of those who went to Syria are returning to Iraq. Inside Iraq itself, some Christians say the situation has improved for them to the point that they are committed to staying in the country rather than emigrating.
4. The newly enacted fundamentalist constitution in Egypt and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi, poses dangers to Egyptian Christians. It is alleged that hard line Salafis attempted to intimidate them from voting against the constitution in this month’s referendum. On the other hand, Egyptian Christians have clearly been invigorated by the new press and political freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt, and are gaining an important set of political voices.
5. In the new country of South Sudan, Christians form between 10% and 50% of the 8 million population (the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church each claim about 2 million believers in that country. Christians in the region may thus have gained a great deal of influence in a whole new state. Earlier estimates from the mid-20th century of only 10% Christian are probably out of date and do not take account of the large number of conversions since then). The challenges here are enormous, though. The partition of Sudan has not in fact led to social peace between the two, with continued confrontation over oil exports and saber rattling. (Sudan is inarguably in the Middle East, and I have hung around with South Sudanese and was surprised how many spoke Bedouin Arabic).
6. Christians are about 60% of the 6 million-strong population of Eritrea. They are Coptic Orthodox, the same as most Egyptian Christians. (Eritrea is not usually counted in as being part of the Middle East, but it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and has substantial cultural and political relations with Yemen and Saudi Arabia, so it is as eligible as Sudan and Somalia). Eritreans suffer under authoritarian government and continued tensions with Ethiopia.
Christians in Iraq and Syria have faced challenges (as have the entire populations of those two countries) in the past year. Christians in Egypt are alarmed by the new political muscle of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be easy to construct a ‘vale of tears’ kind of narrative of Middle Eastern Christianity in decline, since the communities face political turmoil. It is often alleged that the proportion of Christians in the region has declined, though it is not clear that this allegation is true on a regional basis.
This argument from a declining proportion of the population does not take account of the region’s amazing population growth. It also makes analogies from the small nations of Lebanon and Palestine, which actually have an unusual demographic profile.
It is controversial what proportion of Egypt is Christian, but it is probably around 10 percent. A lot of Christians live in rural areas where census takers may not have gotten a complete count. Egypt’s population is 83 million, so that would give 8.3 million Christians. There is no reason to think that their proportion in Egypt has declined (in fact they may be somewhat higher a proportion now than in the 19th century).
Egypt’s population in 1950 was about 20 million, at which time there were 2 million Christians. Because Egyptian Christians are substantially rural, they appear to have shared in the high population growth rates typical of global south farmers in the second half of the 20th century.
Today’s Christian population in Egypt, some 8.3 million, is roughly the size of the whole country of Austria! Allegations that 100,000 Egyptians have emigrated since the revolution in February 2012, and that most of these are Christians, are not to my knowledge substantiated, and they seem exaggerated. Even if there was something to the assertion, it isn’t a big dent in a population of 8.3 million.
If we went back to 1850, in absolute terms the number of Christians in Egypt and the Levant was tiny. 500,000 in Egypt, 150,000 in Lebanon and Syria together, 35,000 in Palestine, perhaps 45,000 in Iraq. That is 730,000. So in absolute terms, Egypt alone now has more than 11 times as many Christians as lived in the central lands of the Middle East 162 years ago. How is that a decline?
The argument for decline is usually made from Lebanon, where Christians were a bare majority in 1931, but are now something like 22%. But Lebanon’s population was about 800,000 in 1931, so Christians were 408,000. Lebanon’s population is now 5 million, and Christians inside the country are about 1.1 million. So with all the vast Christian Lebanese emigration abroad, to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, the United States, Mexico, etc. (with perhaps 6 million Lebanese-descended people in the New World), there are still twice as many Christians in Lebanon in absolute terms now as there were in 1931. And although it is consequential politically that Lebanese Christians are now less than a third of the adult electorate, they are hardly powerless. They dominate the presidency, the officer corps, and the business world, and they are split between allying with the Sunni Muslims and allying with the Shiites, which gives them influence as a swing vote.
Christian power in Lebanon comes in part from the country’s clan system and in part from its long history of parliamentary governance. For instance, it is important for the Shiite party, Hizbullah, to have Christian allies in the Biqaa valley. This principle holds true elsewhere. There is every prospect that as parties are formed and become important in contesting elections in Egypt, the 8 million Coptic Christian votes will be courted, and will make themselves felt in policy. Likewise, if Syria moves to a parliamentary system, the 3 million Christians there will be a force to be reckoned with in Syrian politics.
In Jordan, Christians are 10 percent of the 6 million strong population, or 600,000.
These are parlous times for Middle Eastern populations who are challenging older forms of government rooted in mid-20th century notions of nationalism, socialism and a leading role for the military. We don’t know how this story will turn out. The “Islamic winter” notion of the Neoconservatives (who were unhappy that the American public was identifying with rebellious Arab youth), however, is way too simplistic. The Muslim fundamentalists took a bath in the Libyan elections last July. The Nahda Party in Tunisia only got about 37% of seats in parliament and could only form a government in coalition with a secular party; they have renounced trying to put Islamic law or sharia in the constitution. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidency in June with only 51% of the vote, and his proposed constitution lost in the megalopolis of Cairo and only got a third of registered voters to go to the polls. Egyptian Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris has founded a political party, and I very much doubt he plans to emigrate.
The old Middle Eastern dictatorships often exploited Christians or subordinated them. The Christians were deprived of a voice and of the chance for autonomous political action just like everyone else. But now, they are potentially in a position to organize, speak out and vote as never before. And they are arguably more numerous in absolute terms than ever before. From the point of view of a social historian, these days could be the beginning of an unprecedented efflorescence of Christianity in the region– not Western-missionary, Christianity, not evangelicalism or fundamentalism, but Coptic Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other indigenous and ancient strains. There are no guarantees in life, but let us give them a chance, on this day when their religion was born.
Egyptians went to the polls again Saturday in the second round of the constitutional referendum. The provinces or governorates that voted in this round were disproportionately rural, and early returns suggested a big “yes” vote, perhaps as high as 70% or so. Rural areas are strongholds of the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist forces, though there are significant rural populations who reject the Brotherhood’s brand of Islam. The highly urban governorate of Cairo, a megalopolis of 19 million, rejected the constitution in the first round, last week.
In this round, the rural governorate of Minufiya rejected the constitution, and it barely squeaked by in Port Said, a center of leftist and labor activism. Critics of the process alleged irregularities at the polls, including campaigning and intimidation by Muslim Brothers or Salafis.
Many Egyptians opposed to Muslim fundamentalism boycotted the vote or just couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for it. Some, as with the Copts, were intimidated. Given that the constitution passed with 56% in the first round, and it was known that the governorates involved in this one were even more in favor of the Brotherhood, many leftists, liberals, centrists and supporters of the old regime may have stayed home out of despair. These figures show the lowest turnout of any post-Mubarak vote.
Since total “yes” vote from both days came in at about 64% if initial projections hold true, and the total turnout was 33%, only 21% of Egyptian voters actually approved this constitution, which restricts unions and provides no protection to women’s rights, and which seeks to subordinate secular law to Muslim canon law and abolishes civil law with regard to personal status matters.
The country will now move to parliamentary elections by late February. But street protests against the constitution and the way it was imposed will likely continue. Whether fundamentalists can do as well in these elections for the lower house of the People’s Assembly remains to be seen; some reports suggest that President Morsi’s high-handedness has damaged the Brotherhood’s reputation with voters.
The clashes again show the unwisdom of the way President Muhammad Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, rushed the drafting of the constitution and rushed the referendum on it. Because the unrepresentative constituent assembly that drafted the constitution was dominated by Salafis and Brotherhood supporters, and because no consensus had been reached on the most controversial articles, Morsi’s hasty and high-handed decisions have deeply divided the country, producing a series of street battles between the Brotherhood and less fundamentalist youth. At one such clash in front of the presidential palace, Muslim Brotherhood cadres physically attacked left-liberal youth, raising fears of an Iran-style Basij or popular religious militia.
The disputed constitution will likely pass; it got 56% of the vote in the first round. But turnout in the referendum is very light because many voters are boycotting the process. Among those who are voting, the constitution appears likely just to squeak by. Given the undemocratic way that some of the articles were quickly inserted into the document, and the lackluster results, the legitimacy of the document is being questioned by many.
The fighting yesterday in Alexandria broke out after Friday prayers near the Qaed Ibrahim mosque, which is headed by Sheikh Ahmad Mahallawi. The latter criticized a secular former presidential candidate [Muhammad Elbaradei] for complaining about mosques being used for political purposes, insisting that mosques are not only for praying.
Mahallawi was trapped in his mosque Friday a week ago by angry anti-Morsi demonstrators who had been attacked by hard line Salafi fundamentalists. They accused him of harboring them in the mosque.
The fighting on Friday pitted youth who dislike the Muslim Brotherhood and are suspicious that President Muhammad Morsi has authoritarian tendencies against the fundamentalists. The opponents of Morsi include leftists but many others are not necessarily “secular” in the sense of being non-religious; many are religious centrists or liberals, and others are Ultras or what in Europe are called ‘soccer hooligans.’
A secular television anchor in Egypt recently played a clip of a Salafi fundamentalist preacher dismissing Muslim liberals as “hypocrites” (i.e. actually infidels). He replied to complaints that leftists and liberals have no respect for Muslim clerics and scholars. The anchor said, look, you don’t consider us Muslims, and we repay the favor by not considering your clerics to be scholars.