The Arab Republic of Egypt - Part Three
This is the
final part of the series of articles on Egypt and it deals with religion and
human rights issues today. There are linked pages which give more detailed information
about Egypt - please see the following pages: People
and Country and the Western Desert.
The richness and diversity
of Egypt's cultural heritage has always caused some tension. This is true today
and places the Government of President Mubarak in a delicate situation.(1)
As we have seen, the geographical and political position of Egypt remains critical
for the world. Therefore, it is vital to keep a balance between all the pressures
from both within and outside of the country. Throughout the 1990s Egypt continued
to play an important role in Middle Eastern peace negotiations and no doubt
will continue to do so in this new millennium.
Despite the refinement and high intellectual reputation of Islam in Egypt, many ordinary and very devout Muslims practice a simpler form of their faith. This 'popular Islam' has developed over the years and is based on an oral tradition, the prayers, and the study and memorising of the Koran. In some areas Islam incorporates elements from traditional religion and other practices and has given rise to the development of cults and sects. There can even be differences in the way men and women practice Islam due to the separation of roles in the civil and mosque life.
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Ulama
had an influential role in the Muslim community which is rooted in history.
(2) Various Governments tried to
limit their power as they attempted to secularise the state and establish a
civil bureaucracy that took away many responsibilities from the Ulama.
An example of this is when, after the '1952 Revolution' and independence, the
Government began to appoint officials to the mosques and madrassa
(Koranic-religious schools). This was also done when the Al-Azhar
University was reformed by the Government and modern faculties introduced in
1961. Until then the Department heads had been the orthodox Ulama.
position gradually became more precarious with the resurgence of 'Islamic
activism' in the 1970s and 1980s. They were caught between their dual religious-secular
role, in collaboration with the Government, and the beliefs of the 'Islamists'
who wanted to purify the country according to Islamic principles. During this
time the majority of Ulama were moderate and, while
wanting the country's legal code to be Islamic, they condemned the violence
used by the 'Islamist'.
Islam - the 'State Religion'
According to the Constitution of 1971
Islam is Egypt's 'State Religion'. (3) The Minister
for Religious Heritage (Waqf) and the Mufti both
represent 'Official Islam' in Egypt. During the last two decades the Government
has given Islam financial support. This has aided the building of mosques,
training leaders and in printing copies of the Koran. In 1999 the Government
gave £E40 million towards the restoration of the Al-Azhar
In c. 969 the Fatimid
Dynasty established the Al-Azhar as a mosque-school
to teach Shiite theology and it is central to Islam in Egypt. It is claimed
to be the world's oldest university. (4) During the
reign of Salah ad Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin, 1169-1193) the University changed
from Shiite to Sunni Islam as Saladin developed the madrassa
system. The Al-Azhar is probably the most influential
centre of Islam in the world and adherents of the Sunni tradition refer to
it on matters concerning their faith.
The actual University has fifty-five colleges with 180,000 Egyptian students and 10,000 foreign students. There are about 5,000 schools affiliated to it in Egypt and fifty 'Azhar' institutes in Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union. The 'Da-wa' faculty (Islamic Mission) trains missionaries and teachers from all over the world. Imams and lecturers from the University also travel the world. It is a centre for the publication of Islamic books and the translation of the Koran into foreign languages.
The present Director of the University is Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, who was appointed by President Mubarak in 1996. After gaining a degree from the Faculty of Religion of Al-Azhar, he taught at the faculty and later became Rector of the Faculty of Islamic Studies. He became Mufti in 1986 and the Grand Imam in 1996.
'Islamic Movements' (especially the 'Jamaat al Islamiyah' [Islamic Associations]),
were founded between the two World Wars. The best known of these, and probably
one of the most influential throughout the world, is the 'Muslim Brotherhood'
which many considered 'mainstream' and not 'extremist'. (5)
Until now the 'Brotherhood' holds key positions in many of Egyptian trades unions
and other organisations - see later in the article. The are about fifty 'Movements'
of different sizes and influence which began to re-emerge after the Second World
1950s until today, the 'Islamic Movements' have developed for several reasons.
These include: a wish to free Egypt from the domination of foreign non-Muslim
powers; Egypt's defeat in the June 1967 war and its consequences; Sadat's tolerance
towards political parties in the1970s; the rise of 'Islamic Associations' in
universities, the university authorities opposition to them and Sadat's attempt
to diminish their influence in 1979; and the gradual secularisation of the country
combined with the loss of Islam's influence. (6)
Since the 1970s the 'Movements' have gained a following across all areas of Egyptian society and have influenced the military and Government at regular intervals. Some of these 'Movements' are peaceful, following a rigorous religious life, while others preach violence in order to establish a pure 'Islamic State' incorporating the Shari'a law. These 'Movements' have other common elements such as: they reject Marxism, 'Zionism' (especially Israel), and Western Capitalism; and they are against the orthodox . The majority of them wish to move away from Egypt's secular society and some have even developed almost a parallel order to that of present day Egypt.
By the 1980s Muslim student organisations dominated campus life and greatly influenced university administration. Their membership numbers several hundred thousand, but those involved in underground activities and violence are only a few. There have been several Government crackdowns on the 'Movements' over the years and the extreme groups are constantly watched.
example of Islam's revival is the growth of Sufism from the 1970s. Sufism has
been present in Egypt for many years and has developed much of its mystical
side in the birthplace of Christian monasticism. It is not an 'extreme organisation'
but throughout its history has been a movement of renewal within Islam. Sufism
is found in many forms, and different countries, and has been an inspiration
to those who have become involved in other 'Movements'. In Egypt Sufism has
developed a great following among young professional men. (7)
The Sufi Confraternities are very active and number about 120, with around six
As we have seen the Coptic Church is accustomed to ill treatment from early Roman times, during its split from Rome, and through the various Islamic dynasties. Part of this was the selling of Copts into slavery, which removed most of the Christian population from the Nile Delta. Even today, Christians suffer discrimination in many ways, such as their exclusion from important positions in the Army, the Government and the Civil Service. A simple example of this is seen in the 'Hamayouni Edict' (1856) under which churches are not allowed to be built or repaired without the approval of the Head of State. This law was relaxed on the 28th. December, 1999, but still permission is needed from the Governor of the Province.
The present day 'persecution' on the Copts began in the early 1970s with the resurgence of 'Islamic Fundamentalism' in Egypt. Many churches have been destroyed and 'Islamic Groups' often denounce Copts in pamphlets. There were clashes between Copts and Muslims in Upper Egypt (1977 and 1978) and religious riots in Cairo (1981).
In rural areas it is often difficult to say if deaths are the result of 'family feuds/disputes' or the actions of 'Fundamentalists'. Most 'Fundamentalist' activity is in Upper Egypt - such as in the Miniah, Assiut, Sohag and Qena Regions - where the majority of Christians live. 'Extremist' groups have carried out terrorist attacks since 1992. They are usually against State institutions or tourists (Luxor, November, 1997, when 57 people were killed), but some have been against local Christians. Examples of the latter are: an attack in Abu Qorqas, Minya, in 1997 when twelve Christians were killed; in 1999 thirty people were killed at al-Kosh'h; and clashes at the beginning of 2000 in the Sohag Province when about twenty people were killed.
Over the years the Coptic Church has opposed the Government's wish to introduce various Islamic laws such as the amputation of hands and capital punishment. Under Shari'a law conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable by death - although this is not practised. There have also been cases when women were forced to convert to Islam. The Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, has continually protested to the Government about these and the terrorist incidents. This resulted in Sadat banishing him to internal exile in September, 1981. The then Government appointed five Bishops to administer the church and tried to have a new Pope elected, but the clergy would not agree. Mubarak eventually released Pope Shenouda III in 1985.
Not all is negative between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. There are examples of Muslim-Christian dialogue such as the 'Al-ikhaa ad-dini' Association at the Greek Catholic parish of St. Mary of Peace in Cairo. On an international level the Vatican and Al-Azhar have a 'Commission for Dialogue' which has met twice a year since 1998. We also often forget that Catholic, Copts and Muslims have co-operated, and even fought side by side for the Arab and Palestinian causes.
Human Rights Concern
Many organisations regularly
express concern about the human rights situation in Egypt. (8)
This concern does not only apply to atrocities committed by 'Islamists', but
also to Government activities. The Security Forces, including the local Police,
are alleged to have been involved in 'extrajudicial killings'; deaths in custody;
torture (in Cairo and Alexandria); and have had people 'disappeared' (though
many of the 'disappeared' have later been found to be in prisons where they
are not allowed to be visited by relatives). (9
Often the accusations of both torture and
death in custody are not investigated and it is rare for the perpetrators to
be brought to justice.
The Security Forces regularly
conduct mass arrests and detain people without charge under the 'Emergency Law'
of 1981, which still remains in force. (11)
the outcome can be uncertain. Prison conditions are poor and prisoners do not
receive appropriate health care. (12)
There are a high number
of political detainees, though many have been released over the last few years.(13)
For some years now Egypt
has asked different countries to return 'Islamic Extremists' to them. It is
reported that alleged members of 'Jihad (Holy War) Group' have been extradited
to Egypt from Albania, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab
Emirates. In this connection it is believed that the United States and Egyptian
intelligence and security agencies have been working together to combat 'Islamists'
- especially those who have connections with Ossama bin Laden. (14
& 15) Some of the suspects have been tried in
Military Courts where the verdicts can only be quashed or referred back to the
courts by the President. Both local and international human rights organisations
have questioned the use of such courts for the trial of civilians.
The 'Muslim Brothers' is
still banned in Egypt but, according to Amnesty International, it is 'an organization
that neither advocates nor condones violence', this can certainly be said about
the mainstream non-violent majority within the 'Brotherhood'. (16
& 17) Despite this, alleged members of the 'Brotherhood'
have been treated in the same way as 'Jihad'. In mid-2000 the Government targeted
them in a crackdown. Reports say that this was timed for before elections to
the board of Egypt's Bar Association on the 1st. July, in which the 'Brotherhood'
plays a prominent role, and the General Election due to be held in November.
Both the 'Brotherhood' and the 'Islamic Group of Egypt' have asked for dialogue
with the Government, but it appears that such opportunities were rejected. (17,
18, 19 & 20)
The Government operates
'censorship' over the Media and activities of NGOs within the country. A Government
license is required for the printing, and distribution of newspapers and this
can be revoked by the Government's Higher Press Council. Foreign publications
are subject to censorship by the Ministry of Information and journalists are
often face court cases for articles that they write. All of this makes it difficult
for the independent press to report on many issues. (21)
A Hopeful Future
Some concern was attached to the Pope's visit to Egypt (25-26 February, 2000) at the invitation of President Mubarak. The worries were unfounded and the Pope covered the various delicate situations on the different levels of diplomacy: the Government (meeting the President); the Catholic (Latin) Church; the ecumenical (meeting the Coptic Pope [Shenouda III] other Christian Leaders); and the inter-religious (meeting the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University [Sheik Mohamed Sayed Tantawi]).
Perhaps the best way to sum up the Pope's visit is by quoting from the communiqué which Sheik Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi gave to 'Fides' concerning the Pope's visit and their talks together. In this statement the Sheik echoes the possibility of dialogue between Christianity and Islam that bodes well for the future of Egypt and for all of us. He said:
' "We welcome with joy the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Egypt and Al-Azhar" and he adds:
"God, the all powerful, created us in this life so we may know each other and open our hearts in harmony and agreement". He quoted a passage of the Koran: "O humanity, we created you man and woman and made you into peoples and tribes that you may know one another...."
The Sheik also explained that dialogue is part of the duties of Islam and authentic Shari'a law (Islamic law) "for the good of humanity and the propagation of virtues sustained by all religions ... Dialogue between religions allows us to listen to each other, to learn and compare ideas which commit us in love, truth and justice".
"For Islam, all humanity came from the same parents" (Adam and Eve), the Al-Azhar Sheik said and continued "the Pope's efforts for peace, love and moral values and virtues are precisely the goal of all the revealed religions."
"For our part, he says,
we wish and work for the propagation of peace and security in the world." "The
leaders of world religions must work together so peace, security and love may
reign among mankind." ' (22)
On the 26th. September, 1999, Hosni Mubarak was re-elected as President with
93.97% of the vote in the referendum. He was the only candidate and will serve
a fourth six-year term of office. Return
See note (13) of issue
352 - The Ulama, Arabic for Scientists, are Islamic
scholars and teachers. They were mainly from the Al-Azhar
Mosque/University in Cairo and took on a major role in the 18th and 19th. centuries.
'The 1971 Constitution stipulates in article two that "Islam is the State religion"
and the "the principles of Islamic law are the main source of legislation."
Article 40 and 46 affirm that the State guarantees freedom of belief and religious
practice and that "all citizens are equal for the law...irrespective of race,
origin, language, religion or belief".' ('International Fides Service', 18/02/2000) Return
'Al-Azhar' means the 'shining one' and is named after
Fatima, Mohammed's daughter. Return
See FootNote (3) of the
last issue, no. 353, about the 'Muslim Brotherhood'. Return
The 'Jamaat al Islamiyah' (Islamic Associations) rapidly grew on campuses in
Egypt and gained power in Student Unions. During Sadat's time they were tolerated
to counter-balance left wing elements in the Student Unions. Return
Organisations such as: Amnesty International, Committee to Protect Journalists,
Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, Human Rights Centre for the Assistance
of Prisoners, Human Rights Watch, International Federation of Human Rights,
Land Centre for Human Rights, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, U.S. Department
of State, World Organization Against Torture. Return
U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, released
by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, the U.S. Department of
State, February 25, 2000. (USCR 1999) Return
'There are several security services in the Ministry of Interior, two of which
are involved primarily in combating terrorism: The State Security Investigations
Sector (SSIS), which conducts investigations and interrogates detainees; and
the Central Security Force (CSF), which enforces curfews and bans on public
demonstrations, and conducts paramilitary operations against terrorists. ...
'Human rights groups believe that the SSIS continues to employ torture. ...
in SSIS offices ... and at [CSF] camps.' (USCR 1999) Return
'The Emergency Law allows authorities
to detain an individual without charge. After 30 days, a detainee has the right
to demand a court hearing to challenge the legality of the detention order and
may resubmit his motion for a hearing at 1-month intervals thereafter. There
is no maximum limit to the length of detention ... Human rights groups reported
that hundreds, and according to one report, thousands, of persons detained under
the Emergency Law have been incarcerated for several years without charge.'
(USCR 1999) Return
'In principle human rights monitors are allowed to visit prisoners in their
capacity as legal counsel; however, in practice they often face considerable
bureaucratic obstacles that prevent them from meeting with prisoners. The Government
does not permit the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit
prisons.' (USCR 1999) Return
'In April the Ministry of Interior
reported that it had released 1,200 political detainees described as 'repentant
extremists.' This group included persons who had served their sentences but
had remained in detention, and persons who had never been charged or tried.
The release brought the total number of detainees released in the past 2 years
to more than 6,000. Following the releases, revised prison population estimates
indicate that there are 10,000 prisoners who are registered and serving sentences
and approximately 12,000 political detainees. ' (USCR 1999)
Human Rights Watch, World Report,
1999, 'Egypt: Human Rights Developments' (HRW 1999)
'The London-based Islamic Observation Centre (IOC) pressure group said this
week: "The Egyptian regime has allowed a team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of
Investigation to question Mohamed Rabie al-Zawahri in Cairo after ... being
extradited by the UAE regime." ' (Reuters, Cairo, June 8,
Amnesty International Index: MDE
12/40/99 of 29th. October, 1999, 'Egypt: Concern over arrest and detention of
possible prisoners of conscience'. Return
'Harassment and arbitrary arrest
of known or suspected members of the non-violent but unauthorized Muslim Brotherhood
also continued, possibly to weaken the influential group's ability to field
independent candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled for November
2000. As hundreds of suspected militant Islamists were released from prison,
Muslim Brothers, including doctors, engineers, and teachers, were arrested,
detained, and questioned by prosecutors throughout the year, typically suspected
of membership in an illegal organization, possession of illegal leaflets, and
attempting to reactivate the group by recruiting new members. In January, interior
minister Habib el-Adli ruled out any role for the Brotherhood in the political
system: "They are a banned group. They have no legal status and, hence, there
will be no meetings or dialogue." ' (HRW 1999)
'On March 25, the clandestine Islamic Group issued a statement announcing that
all of its cadres "inside and outside" the country would bring "armed operations"
to a halt. In April, some 1,000 to 1,200 known or suspected Islamic Group members
were reportedly released from prison, bringing to about 6,000 the number set
free under Interior Minister Habib el-Adli, who assumed his post in November
1997.' (HRW 1999) Return
'The same month, Mustafa Mashur, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood,
said that his beleaguered group sought a 'dialogue with the various parties
to firmly oppose violence and terrorism and end extremism.' He argued that the
state's 'lifting of limits on freedom of expression and political action would
be the best way to fight against the deviant thought' of the armed militants.
Suspected Muslim Brotherhood activists continued to be detained for membership
in an illegal organization and 'possessing leaflets opposed to the regime.'
' (HRW 1999) Return
'In January, leaders of the Islamic Group held in Tora High Security prison
reiterated their appeal, first made in July 1997, for a suspension of all
attacks. In a handwritten statement, they challenged Islamic Group leaders
abroad 'to issue a clear statement for an end to military activity.' ' (HRW
The Committee to Protect Journalists (USA). Return
'International Fides Service', 25/02/2000. Return
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A Country Study', Library of Congress; 'A Brief Review of Modern Egyptian
History' by Dr. M. Trabia (University of Nevada Las Vagas, USA); 'The Grolier
Multimedia Encyclopaedia, 1999'; 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'; 'Egypt', Lonely
Planet, 1999; Lonely Planet Web Site; 'Egypt', The Rough Guide by Dan Richardson,
1997; 'The Times Atlas of World History'; 'The Catholic Encyclopaedia'; http://www.anthro.mankato.msus.edu/
prehistory/egypt/; The Coptic Network - WWW; 'The Coptic Encyclopaedia', edited
by Aziz Sourial Atiya; 'Zenit'; 'Fides International'; 'World Churches Handbook;
'A History of Christianity' by Owen Chadwick; 'The Oxford Illustrated History
of Christianity'; CIA Factbook; 'Country Reports on Human Rights Practices',
U.S. Department of State; 'The New African YearBook'; 'Africa Review'; 'Makers
of Modern Africa' (3rd. edition, 1996); 'Africa Today' (3rd. edition, 1996),
'Amnesty International' reports; 'Historical Dictionary of Islamic Fundamentalist
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Geographic Atlas of the World'; '1999 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopaedia'; 'North-East
Africa', Michelin (Map); 'Dorling Kindersley World Atlas'; UN-Relief Web;
'Dorling Kindersley World Reference Atlas'; 'Country Fact Files' on Egypt;
World Bank reports; Human Rights Watch; APIC; Egyptian Tourist Authority pamphlets;
Committee to Protect Journalists; UK. Hansard, 14th. June, 2000; 'The Foreign
& Commonwealth Office; 'The Oxford History of Islam'; 'Islam Today' by
Akbar S. Ahmed; 'Al-Ahram Weekly'; 'The Cairo Times; 'The Egyptian Gazette';
'The Guardian'; 'The Independent'; Reuters; 'The Telegraph'; 'The Times'.
This article first appeared in "White Fathers - White Sisters"
(UK), issue 354, of October-November, 2000.
The article may be published freely with due acknowledgements
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