Saturday, May 14, 2011

Egypt: “Not Like Us,” say Muslims to Copts

By William Fisher

On May 7, 15 people were killed or mortally wounded, more than 200 injured, and two Coptic churches were burned down in the Imbaba section of

The Guardian newspaper reports that Egyptian media describe the Imbaba attackers as Salafis – fundamentalist Muslims who want the imposition of sharia law. The Salafis, often with links to Saudi Arabia, are seen as having become more visible because internal security is less repressive now than before the revolution. It is also widely believed that elements of the Mubarak regime are encouraging them, the Guardian reports.

"It's the previous regime that is responsible for this," one distraught resident
tells reporters. "We demand that the higher military council punish all those
responsible for this crime," says George Ishaq, a pro-democracy activist. "This is a crime – not sectarian strife."

Egypt’s interim government conducts an investigation and finds that the basis for the attacks on the churches – that Copts were holding as a prisoner a woman who wanted to convert to Islam -- was without factual foundation.

The National Council for Human Rights (whose chairman, ironically, is Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former UN Secretary General and a Coptic Christian) released the results of a fact-finding commission, pointing to the proliferation of illegal firearms, emerging religious extremism, the presence of a security vacuum, and the interference of former regime members as the main causes of the Imbaba violence.

The government says the attacks were carried out by extremist Islamist factions, aided by the armed goons that Mubarak so often employed. The government says it will pursue the culprits “with an iron hand” and will try the accused in military courts.

Fifteen of Egypt’s most prominent Egyptian human rights organizations say Muslim-Christian civil strife, and the interim government’s pledge to quell it using the iron fist left behind by Mr. Murarak as he exited, could plunge the newly-freed country into serious civil conflict.

But the shock and awe expressed by the military, Egypt’s interim rulers, has a familiar ring. There is little difference between their response now and their responses over more than a generation of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christians. The long-standing drill is that the government is appalled by the treatment of a faithful minority of its people. They vow to fix the problem. But they have no intention of doing so. They will try to simply paper over it. And one wonders whether today’s rulers are any more sincere.

Who are the Copts anyway? And why all the fuss? Well, 15 people were killed, hundreds wounded, and churches burned to the ground. That’s reason enough for the fuss, no?

Yes, except that these kinds of fusses have been going on for a very long time.

Coptic Christians are Egypt's largest religious minority -- at least 10 percent of the population, or about six million out of 64 million. There are Copts in all strata of Egyptian society. Many are in the middle and upper classes. Many have converted to Islam to avoid persecution.

The vast majority of those who are left follow the teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church. According to generally accepted folklore, that church was established by Saint Mark the evangelist, who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the first century. So Copts were in Egypt before Muslims. They simply were those who chose not to convert to Islam when it appeared in 641 A.D.

And this endangered minority has been paying for it ever since. Millions have left Egypt, but those who have remained have found themselves discriminated against in a thousand ways that are subtle and not-so-subtle.

So why are they being discriminated against? Who is marginalizing them?

After the Arab invasion of 641, Copts were relegated to “dhimmi” status. That means they were a protected minority but without full rights. Thus, they were subjected to poiltical persecution and social ostracism.

Over the next many decades, the Copts’ fortunes were up and down. Eventually there was a kind of Coptic civil and religious renaissance, but despite this reawakening, there were periods of extreme hostility between Muslims and Copts in Egypt.

It was during one such hostile period (1907-11) that the British high commissioner, in an effort to placate the Muslims, introduced a system that effectively barred Copts from senior government positions.

Not until the 1919 Revolution did Copts and Muslims unite against the British occupation and worked together to build a new political order. That was their high point, and their road has been downhill ever since, largely because of the rise of Islamist movements in the 1930s, the appearance of Arab Nationalism during the Nasser regime, and President Sadat’s use of religion for his personal political purposes.

But the unkindest cut of all was the constitution of 1971, which proclaimed, "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic its official language, and the principles of the Islamic Shari‘a a principal source of legislation." The 1980 constitution made things worse by designating Shari‘a a principal source of legislation.

The Coptic community rightly saw this as a move that would transform Egypt from a secular-style state into an Islamic theocracy, a la Iran.

And all of these pro-Islamic provisions are contained in the constitutional articles that were supposedly re-written following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and voted on favorably by the people in the ‘new Egypt’s” first plebiscite.

This history of Muslim-Coptic relations in Egypt doesn’t justify the institutionalized discrimination I saw when I lived in Egypt; it merely explains it.

What one needs to understand is that the outrageous treatment of the Copts was and is essentially based on Muslim attitudes toward people who are "not like us." This attitude is reinforced by the extremist fundamentalist views of the Salafists, the tacit support of The Muslim Brotherhood, and further complicated by the fact that, in Islam, only Muslims are viewed as innocent. Non-Muslims have not accepted Islam; therefore they are seen as guilty of a crime against Allah.

But this biblical sophistry, cited mostly by uneducated Muslims, merely serves to obscure the simple one-dimensional nature of Islam’s problem with the Copts.

The heart of the problem is ‘not like us.’

This is little different from the self-appointed vigilantes like the Minutemen patrolling our Southwest border hunting illegal immigrants. Or the police in Arizona pulling someone over for a broken tail light and then asking for the driver’s “papers.” Or the golf course at Augusta, Georgia, refusing membership to females. Or the fearful morons who still doubt President Obama’s citizenship.

What is so incredibly disappointing about this particular exhibition of Muslim bigotry toward Coptic Christians is its timing. It comes less than three months after the Revolution of Tahrir Square, which proclaimed freedom and self-determination, not just for Muslims, but for everyone. Those who cling to their bigotries betray the meaning of that revolution.

But there is an unintended consequence of this bigotry that is equally serious.

It is the capacity of inter-religious strife to wreck the principles of Tahrir Square and, in so doing, to trigger violent confrontations that could destabilize the whole country. Democracy cannot grow amidst chaos. Chaos creates a security vacuum that provides an irresistible target for the next brutal demagogue.

That would be tragic enough. But Egypt, to Arabs, is not just a country. It is the motherland, the most influential of all the Arab states. What is does – or doesn’t do – will resonate and be mimicked throughout Arab societies.

That’s why Egypt has become the crucible for the hopes and dreams of would-be democrats everywhere. That’s why the world holds Egypt to a higher standard.

Bahraini Protests on Life Support

By William Fisher

As Saudi-backed Bahraini authorities prepared to carry out death sentences against four anti-government protesters for the murder of two security officers, forces loyal to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa continued their campaign of arresting physicians and nurses to make it impossible for them see and treat wounds allegedly inflicted by government gunmen.

Twenty-three doctors and 24 nurses were arrested yesterday and charged with a laundry list of crimes including, embezzlement of public funds,
physical assault on civilians, assault leading to death, possession of unlicensed weapons and ammunition, failure to carry out their employment duties, in aims of hindering medical work, consequently endangering people’s health and lives, attempting to forcefully occupying a public building, efforts to bring down and change the regime by illegal means,
inciting hatred against the governing regime, promoting sectarian hate,
spreading false news and rumors that harm public interest, and participating in unlicensed protests and rallies.

The arrests included Dr. Ahmed Jamal, president of the Bahrain Medical Society.

The U.S.-based advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, called Monday on Bahraini authorities to put off military court death sentences and life imprisonment of Shiites over the alleged killing of two security men.

"Bahraini authorities should set aside a military court ruling on April 28,
2011, sentencing four defendants to death and three others to life in prison for their alleged involvement in the murder of two police officers," the human rights group said.

It said that the trial of the seven defendants, aged between 19 and 24, lasted
less than two weeks, while they were the first civilians to be convicted in
special military courts set after the crackdown in March on Shiite-led protests demanding democratic reforms.

"By establishing these special courts, the government of Bahrain is making it
near impossible for defendants to enjoy the rights to which they are entitled," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch.

"The role of the military prosecutor, the makeup of the special court, and the
meager access to legal representation undermine the most basic due process
protections," he added.

According to authorities, four police were killed in March after being struck by cars during the protests in the kingdom, which is ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.

Amnesty International last week urged Bahrain to block the executions.
"Those sentenced have no right of appeal except to another special military
court, raising great fears about the fairness of the entire process," Amnesty
International said.

Authorities charged the defendants with premeditated murder under Bahrain's 1976 Penal Code and the 2006 counterterrorism law, which mandates the death penalty for certain crimes, including murder, when designated a terrorist crime, Human Rights Watch said.

Bahrain had declared a "state of national safety," a lower degree of emergency, on March 16, a day before security forces crushed the month-long Shiite-led demonstration.

Bahraini authorities have said 24 people were killed during the unrest, most of them demonstrators. Last week, a Bahraini official said 405 detainees had been referred to military courts while 312 have been released.

"Sixty-two criminal cases and 343 misdemeanor cases have been referred to the courts of national safety," said the head of the Information Affairs Authority, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa.

In other developments, Maryam Al-Khawaja, Head of the Foreign Relations Office for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said Bahraini authorities have arrested two former members of Parliament from Al Wefaq political party: Matar Matar and Jawad Fairouz. MP Jawad Fairuz is known for highlighting government corruption and unfair distribution of lands as he attempted to bring the case to parliament. Matar Matar has been documenting violations and cases of disappearances and arrests.

His interview with the BBC can be found here:.

The Bahraini authorities are reportedly harassing and intimidating members of the press. An article entitled “The Murder of Free Speech and the Siege of Freedom” on the website of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights claims that “More than 68 journalists have been subjected to lay-off, arrest and threats because of their work.”

Since the 14th of February 2011, he article charges, “Bahrain has seen a political movement demanding freedom, democracy, and the revival of communal partnership in the framework of the civil movements seeking freedom which are currently overrunning Arab countries.

“This was followed by brutal security crackdowns and the entry of the Peninsula Shield forces (Military units of 6 Gulf countries) into Bahrain.

“Journalists engaged in this event with daily coverage through both their jobs at local newspapers, through their announcements on satellite television stations, by writing to Arabic newspapers in the framework of their presence at the site of action, and via effective action through online social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

“Because of that, journalists have been subjected to a campaign of lay-offs and collective arrests affecting more than 68 journalists, while many have received different threats originating from the Bahraini authorities, its associated organizations, and affiliated parties. The online activist Zakariya Al Aushayri has been killed in detention and Reporters without Borders has released an official statement demanding an investigation into the incident, indeed the reporters Faisal Hayyat, Hayder Mohammad, Ali Jawad, and other bloggers and e-activist have been arrested. Warrants have been issued for others as well, causing some to leave Bahrain, in fear of their personal safety.

“Bahrain is currently considered a dangerous zone for the freedom of press and journalists. Bahraini journalists are hoping for a helping hand and for the adoption of measures to insure their safety. We firmly believe that any journalist arrested by the Bahraini government could die in view of the current security laws (the emergency law) implemented in the country, the severity of the situation, and the arbitrary procedures that the country has seen on multiple levels that go up against the international commitments concerning human rights; especially with the rise in the number of people killed in Bahraini interrogation centers to 4, asides from the 35 dead during the demonstrations so far, all in a country with a population that does not exceed 570 thousand people.”

In other developments, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja's wife, Khadija AlMousawi was fired from her job on Sunday 2nd May. AlMousawi was Head of Guidance and Administrative Manager at Abdulrahman Kanoo International School where she has worked for the past 10 years. According to family members, AlMousawi was informed that the order for her layoff came from the Ministry of Interior. Five other employees at the same school were also fired.

Shaikh Mohammed Habib AlMuqdad (Swedish citizen) called his family yesterday asking for clothes. This is the first time his family knew that he was being held by the authorities. AlMuqdad was recently released from prison (late February) after being accused of being part of a terrorist cell. After his release AlMuqdad spoke about the torture that he had been subjected to and showed marks left on his body due to electric shocks and other types of torture.

Another Swedish citizen, Khalil AlHalwachi, has gone missing after his daughter found their home vandalized (pictures attached)

In a related development, Forbes Magazine is reporting that a major U.S.-based labor group is asking Washington to suspend a free trade pact with Bahrain in response to the Gulf nation's crackdown that includes purging union leaders accused of supporting pro-reform protests.

A senior official for the AFL-CIO says the petition urges American trade officials to halt the special accord that waives tariffs on industrial and consumer products. Bahrain is a key U.S. ally and home to the Navy's 5th Fleet.

Jeff Vogt, an AFL-CIO official, said on Monday that it's the first time the group has sought to halt a trade pact because of political pressures.

Ever since Saudi Arabian soldiers and UAE police rolled into Bahrain across the 26 km. Causeway separating the two countries, increasing numbers of observers have been writing the obituary of Bahrain’s version of The Arab Spring.

The consensus seems to be that Saudi power and influence would quickly blow the winds of change out to sea. And the effect of Saudi power is not difficult to find; the U.S. Administration has been handling clashes between Bahraini security forces (the Sunni minority) and anti-government demonstrators (mostly the Shia majority) as a super Third Rail. The U.S. wants to avoid irritating the Saudis, who are strategically important for obvious reasons. The Saudis want to avoid the possibility that the oil-producing Eastern part of Bahrain, a heavily Shia area, will make common cause with a neighboring oil-producing province of Saudi Arabia, which is home to a sizable Shia population.

The Saudi and UAE forces in Bahrain are under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC would like the troubles in Bahrain to simply go away, because many of the countries in the Council are near carbon copies of Bahrain.

In the early days of the anti-government protests, the King toyed with the idea of offering some concessions to the dissidents. But these, as in most roiled-up Middle Eastern states, have apparently come too little too late. So the royal family has adopted a hard and unforgiving line against the protesters.

The government seems prepared to arrest them all!

Tom Friedman of The New York Times put the predicament quite succinctly. He wrote, “…Saudi Arabia, which is 90 percent Sunni and 10 percent Shiite, has made clear that it will oppose any evolution to constitutional monarchy in neighboring Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority. Saudi Arabia has no tradition of pluralism. When we say “democratic reform” to Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, we might as well be speaking Latin. What their rulers hear is ‘Shiites taking over from Sunnis.’ Not gonna happen peacefully.”

Hispanic Caucus Blasts “Secure Communities”

By William Fisher

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is charging that the President's Secure Communities (S-Comm) policy “is not living up to its name,” and is demanding that the Obama Administration declare a moratorium on the program’s implementation.

The Caucus said it has sent a letter to President Obama “following a chorus of growing criticism of program.” The letter states, “Evidence reveals not only a striking dissonance between the program’s stated purpose of removing dangerous criminals and it’s actual effect; it also suggests that S-Comm may endanger the public, particularly among communities of color….”

The Caucus said, “Secure Communities (SCOMM) was initially described as a program to identify and deport immigrants found guilty of serious crimes. The program enlists local police into federal immigration enforcement by screening all fingerprints of those booked in local jails through the federal ICE database.”

They added, “Data revealed through a federal lawsuit filed by civil rights groups shows the program fails to live up to its stated intention, as the program deports large groups of people without any convictions or convicted of only minor offenses.”

According to the CHC, “Lawmakers in Congress and in states throughout the country say ICE officials lied about program details and requirements at its early stages.’

Other groups are expressing similar sentiments. For example, the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) applauded Illinois Governor Quinn for “his decision to terminate our state’s participation in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Secure Communities program.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, has described the implementation of the program as "dissembling and deceiving" and has called for an Inspector General (IG) investigation with the support of Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey.

The call is reminiscent of another IG report on SCOMM's predecessor, the 287(g) program, made famous by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, which showed “a program riddled with flaws that was too broken to be fixed.”

On May 4th, the Governor of Illinois terminated his state's participation in the program. In California, Assemblyman Ammiano introduced the TRUST Act to reform and regulate the program. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, large-scale rallies have taken place in opposition to the program.

Thus the Caucus states, “We appreciate and steadfastly support your efforts to reform broken immigration laws and to strengthen national security and public safety. Unfortunately, neither of these goals are served or advanced by the S-Comm policy in its current form”

The group added, “We are not convinced the program is achieving its stated goals, and we see nothing in the management and oversight of S-Comm that convinces us that these risks have been adequately addressed in the latest incarnation of local police immigration enforcement….For these reasons, we request an immediate freeze of S-Comm pending a thorough review.”

Pablo Alvarado, Director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network whose organization along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, are litigants in a Freedom of Information (FOIA) lawsuit against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). These groups said in a statement:

“SCOMM has become a symbol of the President's broken promises on immigration reform. We are all painfully aware of the poisonous political climate on immigration reform, but there is simply no excuse for the President to deploy a policy that criminalizes immigrants, erodes our civil rights, and destroys community safety. The policy is unacceptable and it needs to be stopped immediately.”

They added, “There is a domestic human rights crisis in Arizona and elsewhere, on display to the world, because of the foolish entanglement of police in immigration enforcement. To allow -- and advance -- a policy that repeats Arizona’s mistakes across the whole country would be a betrayal.”

The President must change direction immediately, through actions and not mere words. His first steps on the road to reform can- and must- be heeding the Hispanic Caucus’ call and putting S-Comm on ice.

"Obama should re-think the Secure Communities program," said Sunita Patel, Center for Constitutional Rights staff attorney. "Rather than force states and local jurisdictions to become entangled with immigration enforcement, he should pause and prevent the program’s operation. Governor Patrick Quinn and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have it right. A moratorium is needed now.”