Egyptian Historian: Drop the Palestinians, Normalize With Israel: Ari Soffer, Arutz Sheva, June 1, 2015— A prominent Egyptian historian took to national television last week to make an unusually open and robust case for Egypt to "drop the Palestinian cause and normalize relations with Israel."
Egypt's Religious Freedom Farce: Oren Kessler, National Interest, May 21, 2015 — President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt presents himself as an Islamic reformer.
Egyptian Bishop: Security Services Complicit in Anti-Christian Violence: Raymond Ibrahim, Coptic Solidarity, May 4, 2015 — In a 25-minute interview on Arabic satellite TV with Dr. Mona Roman, Coptic Christian Bishop Agathon fully exposed the plight of his Christian flock in Minya, Egypt—a region that has a large Coptic minority that is steadily under attack.
The Last Seven Jews in Egypt: Mina Thabet, Real Clear World, May 15, 2015 — Egyptian Jews are having to face the ugly truth that their community appears bound to vanish.
Israel and Egypt Grow Closer, but Anti-Semitism Remains Part of the Equation: Sean Savage, JNS, June 8, 2015
Egypt Dismisses Human Rights Report as Politicized, Biased: Jerusalem Post, June 9, 2015
Why I Am Suing Al Jazeera: An Open Letter From Mohamed Fahmy: Egyptian Streets, June 3, 2015
Turkey: Muslim Brothers' Protector: Burak Bekdil, Gatestone Institute, June 9, 2015
Arutz Sheva, June 1, 2015
A prominent Egyptian historian took to national television last week to make an unusually open and robust case for Egypt to "drop the Palestinian cause and normalize relations with Israel." In a lengthy interview with Egypt's Mehwar TV on May 28 – segments of which were translated by MEMRI – historian Maged Farag insisted it was time for Egyptians to leave "the old ideology and cultural heritage on which we were raised" – namely, rabid anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism – in favor of a more rational focus on Egypt's own national interests.
"What I'm saying is that we should pay attention to the interests of our country," he told his interviewer. "There are no such things as eternal enmity or eternal love. There are only eternal interests. We should identify our country's interest. Churchill once said that he was ready to cooperate with the Devil in the interest of his country. As a man who knows a little bit about history and about international relations, I believe that it is in our interest to maintain normal relations with Israel."
Noting that in practice there already is close cooperation on security, political and other issues between the two countries' respective governments, Farag asserted: "The state is not the problem. The problem lies with the people, who still live the old ideology and the cultural heritage on which we were raised. Our generation was raised upon hatred and upon these people being barbaric…" Indeed, despite Israel and Egypt successfully maintaining an official peace treaty since 1979, popular sentiment inside Egypt is still largely – though not exclusively – anti-Israel. Anti-Semitism is also rife in the country, which is the most populous Arab state in the world. Egypt was home to around 80,000 Jews in 1948, but expelled most of them and seized their property as part of a wider campaign of ethnic-cleansing carried out by Arab states in "revenge" for the defeat of Arab armies by the nascent State of Israel in 1948.
Key to that outdated mentality was Egypt's continued support for the "Palestinian cause," Farag posited. Since Egypt had achieved a just peace with the State of Israel, there was no rational or logical reason for it to maintain any hostility towards the Jewish state, he said – particularly when the Palestinians themselves "have no interest" in actually ending the conflict, short of annihilating Israel altogether. "For over 70 years, the Palestinian cause has brought upon Egypt and the Egyptians nothing but harm, destruction, and expense. We have been preoccupied all our lives with the Palestinian cause. "The Palestinian cause is Palestinian," he continued. "Egypt's problem has been resolved."
Referring to the Sinai Peninsula – which Israel captured during the 1967 Six Day War, and handed over to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace treaty – he added: "The occupied land has been liberated. End of story, as far as I'm concerned. Let us now live and care about the interests of my country." "Am I supposed to shackle myself to the Palestinian cause? Let the (Palestinians) resolve it… We have tried to help them many times." "They don't think it is in their interest," he said of the Palestinians themselves. "They don't want to resolve their own problem."
Farag also brushed off criticism of a recent visit he paid to Israel, during which he posted pictures of himself at famous Muslim, Christian and Jewish sites, as well as other Israeli attractions. He retorted that he was "not afraid" of openly visiting a neighboring country, and noted that many other Egyptians work and have relations with Israel and Israelis, but simply don't admit to it. "I still don't understand what the big deal is. I met many Egyptians there, and many Egyptians have visited Israel. I don't understand why my visit there made people so angry," he said.
Farag also busted a common Egyptian myth that a large sign exists outside of Israel's Knesset declaring the country's attempt to expand "from the Nile to the Euphrates." "This is not true. There is no such thing," he informed viewers. "We all know that this is not true, but people keep saying this to heat up the hostility."
His vision for Israeli-Egyptian relations is one of total cooperation – citing by way of example the relationship between Germany and France, who until the latter half of the twentieth century had been at war on and off for hundreds of years. "Normal relations require, first of all, cultural exchange," he explained. "I must not fear the other. So long as I fear the other, nothing good can develop. We should not fear (Israel). We should visit there. There should be tourist exchange, and economic exchange. There are Israeli companies that specialize in modern drip irrigation. They have very advanced irrigation technology. We have a water problem. We have a shortage of water. Why can't we take advantage of their technology, of their thought, and of the results of their research?”
"They used this technology to cultivate the desert, so why can't we use it here? Why can't I benefit from someone who used to be my enemy? I'm not looking to force him to become my friend. I want him as a partner in developing agriculture and industry in Egypt." Challenged by his interviewer as to how Egyptian schools should teach about the numerous wars between Israel and Egypt, he stated simply: "We should teach that there were wars in '48, '56, '67, and '73, and that these wars came to an end, that we signed a peace treaty, and we should set our eyes on the future. That's it. Israel exists, whether we like it or not, and it will continue to exist, whether we like it or not. So let's just accept this."
National Interest, May 21, 2015
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt presents himself as an Islamic reformer. He has challenged the sheikhs of Al-Azhar University—Sunni Islam’s preeminent religious institution—to promote moderation, and took the bold step (by Egyptian standards) of wishing worshippers a merry Christmas in Cairo’s Coptic cathedral. The moves are commendable, but do little to alter an unfortunate reality: while Egypt’s penal code prohibits “insulting heavenly religions or those following it,” the law is enforced for just one faith: Sunni Islam.
Egypt takes religion seriously. By law, Egyptians are only allowed to practice one of the three recognized monotheistic religions: Islam (implicitly Sunni Islam—the faith of the overwhelming majority), Christianity (representing some ten percent of the population) and Judaism (today, Egypt has exactly seven Jews, down from 75,000 in 1947). Still, Egyptians may only practice the creed they’re born into—the government does not recognize Muslim conversions to Christianity, and conversion from either faith to Judaism is nonexistent—unless the target faith is Islam.
The latest annual report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, issued earlier this month, found that while the majority of Egypt’s blasphemy charges were levied against members of the Sunni majority, the bulk of prison sentences were doled out to Christians, followed by Shiite Muslims and atheists.
In June 2014, shortly after Sisi’s election, a court in Luxor sentenced four Christians to up to six years in prison for posting photos to Facebook deemed insulting to Islam. The same month, a journalist (a Muslim who had begun practicing Christianity in an unrecognized conversion) was given five years in jail for supposedly offending Islam by reporting on anti-Christian violence in Upper Egypt (some of the charges were later dropped, but he remains imprisoned). The punishments for these alleged verbal slights against Islam come as mob attacks against Coptic churches regularly go unpunished.
Meanwhile, slander of the Jewish faith and its adherents is a fixture of contemporary Egyptian life. Anecdotal and statistical evidence puts Egypt in the running for the world’s most anti-Semitic nation: with 98 percent of the public expressing unfavorable opinions of Jews, it exceeds even the accomplished records of its Arab neighbors. The story of Egyptian Judeophobia is a long one, but today, Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are mainstays of Cairo book kiosks, and foreign journalists are beaten and sexually assaulted on imaginary charges of being Jewish. Mainstream, otherwise liberal actors appear in grotesque Judeophobic entertainment, and Sisi’s election nearly a year ago has done nothing to slow the flow of anti-Jewish calumnies on public and private television.
Jews and Christians, however, at least enjoy the nominal right to live according to their beliefs. Woe to anyone who follows neither of the three state-approved faiths: atheism remains grounds for ostracism, and members of Egypt’s Shia community are treated like lepers. Late last year, the Religious Endowments Ministry launched a campaign to warn imams of the “growing threat” of the Baha’i creed, lest citizens fall prey to “deviant thoughts that destroy the minds of young people.” Baha'is—at most a few thousands out of the country’s 82 million people—“threaten Islam specifically and Egyptian society in general,” the ministry said, which last month expanded the campaign to counter atheism and Shia Islam.
Egypt is, by any measure, a conservative country. A comprehensive Pew poll conducted in 2013 found three-quarters of the country’s Muslims want to live under sharia, while an earlier survey found eight in ten endorse stoning adulterers and maiming thieves. Nearly nine in ten favor the death penalty for apostasy from Islam. Views among Christians, while less austere, are also less than liberal. Marriage is only through the Church, while divorce requires permission from the Coptic Pope and is exceedingly rare. Even when granted, divorced parties are almost always prevented from remarrying.
Egypt’s Sunni Muslims need not worry—the country’s demographics ensure their faith will forever exert a stronger cultural pull than any other. Still, it’s bad enough that Egypt gives its citizens three religions to choose from. A government claiming to uphold religious diversity must do more to protect those choosing the unpopular creed or none at all. One of best gauges of a country’s freedom is the security the majority affords minorities. For Sisi’s Egypt to credibly claim the mantle of religious pluralism, it must extend that protection equally.
Coptic Solidarity, May 4, 2015
In a 25-minute interview on Arabic satellite TV with Dr. Mona Roman, Coptic Christian Bishop Agathon fully exposed the plight of his Christian flock in Minya, Egypt—a region that has a large Coptic minority that is steadily under attack. While several important points were made, most notable was that the Egyptian State itself is often behind the persecution of and discrimination against Christians.
According to the frustrated-sounding bishop, local governmental authorities—including the State Security apparatus—are not just ignoring the attacks on Copts, but are often the very ones behind them. For example, when the Copts were having a serious council meeting with government officials about the possibility of building a church, one of the authorities actually contacted the Islamic sheikhs of the village asking whether they "stand with the Coptic church or with the State?" If the latter, each Muslim household was instructed to send one family member to protest against the proposed building of a church—so that security can then point to the mob and, as usual, just tell the Copts, "Sorry, no can do."
Other times, State Security is complicit: Male and female Christian minors—currently 21 from just Minya alone said the Coptic leader—are habitually abducted by surrounding Muslims. At the moment, the youngest Christian girl abducted had just started elementary school. Whenever any of these attacks occur, Copts, working with the church, prepare bundles of documents, including photos and other verifications, incriminating the culprits. These then are placed into the hands of top officials, to make sure they don't get "lost" or "misplaced" by underlings. The bishop named many of these top people—at no small risk to himself—and said he even put such proofs and documents into the hands of the Director of Intelligence himself. "Absolutely nothing was done," said the despondent Christian.
He discussed the difficulties that Copts encounter whenever they want to build a church—due to their dearth, some of the current churches serve tens of thousands of Christians—or even make simple repairs. By way of example, he explained how the Virgin Mary Church in Safaniya village has no bathrooms or running water. Christians "tried time and time again to get approval to build bathrooms, to no avail." The bishop lamented how elderly and sick people sometimes urinate on themselves during service, while mothers must change their crying babies' diapers right on the pews. In response, authorities told the bishop to "Go and ask the Muslims of your region if they will approve the building of a church, or bathroom, or anything—and if they do, so will we."
It should be noted that Islamic law specifically bans the construction or repair of churches. Clearly frustrated, the bishop added: "We as Copts are human beings. And envy takes us when we see our Muslim brothers build mosques where they will, how they will, at any place and at any time. And the State helps them! But as for us, we cannot build anything and that which is already open is being closed…. We, the Copts, are citizens with rights; and we see Muslims get whatever they want, while we are always prevented."
The Coptic bishop also said that sometimes Christians are punished whenever they go and "bother" authorities about their treatment. For example, when a Coptic delegation went to make a formal complaint, one of them was immediately kidnapped. His kidnappers demanded and received 120,000 Egyptian pounds for his release. Police were notified—even told where the exchange of money for hostage was to take place—but did absolutely nothing. The bishop referred to this incident as a "punishment" while Dr. Roman, the Coptic hostess, called Minya, Egypt a "State of Retribution" against those Copts who dare refuse to suffer quietly," adding, "Al-Minya is apparently not an Egyptian province; it is governed by ISIS."
Finally, Bishop Agathon made clear the despondency he and the average Christian in Egypt feel, repeatedly saying that, no matter which official they talk to, "nothing will change." If anything, the plight of Egypt's Christians has gone "from bad to worse," said the bishop: "We hear beautiful words but no solution." Dr. Roman concluded by imploring Egyptian President Sisi, saying: "I've said it before: President Sisi is very meticulous and aware of the nation's issues. Why, then, is it that the Coptic plight in Minya is being ignored? Why is he turning a blind eye toward it?" Bishop Agathon concluded by saying that "Copts are between a state anvil and aggressor hammers," meaning that, the state serves only to keep its Christian citizens in place while Islamic radicals pound away at them.
Real Clear World, May 15, 2015
Egyptian Jews are having to face the ugly truth that their community appears bound to vanish. As recently as 1947, Egypt's Jewish community numbered up to 80,000. Today, by most accounts, there are just seven Egyptian Jews left, most of whom are elderly women in need of daily medical care. The last time I met Nadia Haroun, one of the last survivors of Egypt's Jewish community, was in November 2013. I remember that day because I met her at the same time as her older sister Magda, the community's leader.
Jews represent the oldest religious community in Egypt, which has faced a wave of propaganda, defamation and hate speech over the years. That legacy is still felt today through stereotypes and slurs that persist in everyday language. I was criticized for writing an article in Arabic entitled, "We are sorry, Jews." Some wondered how a Christian could defend Jews, who some blame for taking part in the crucifixion of Jesus. Ironically, many of those critics are Muslims extremists, some of whom themselves discriminate against Christians.
Unfortunately, Egyptian history is full of violations of the essential rights of minorities and vulnerable groups. On Nov. 2, 1945, anti-British, anti-Zionist (and anti-Jewish) demonstrations took place in Cairo on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. A synagogue was burned down, 27 Torah scrolls were desecrated, and among the buildings damaged or destroyed were a soup kitchen, a home for the elderly, a shelter for poor transients, the Jewish hospital, the quarters of the Art Society and several Jewish public buildings.
After the 1948 war, a hostile environment against Jews worsened, as they were suspected of acting as a "fifth column" for Israel. After the 1952 coup, Jews were subject to detention, deportation and sequestration. In the mid-1950s, then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser initiated his policy of nationalization, which had a devastating impact on the Jewish community, as it controlled a broad sector of the Egyptian economy. American diplomats noted that sequestration decisions were filed against 539 Jews by name and 105 companies, in addition to Jews covered in the sequential orders filed against British and French nationals.
In November 1956, the regime modified its citizenship and nationality laws in order to keep Jews and other minorities from becoming Egyptian citizens. The situation became more complicated at the end of November, when at least 500 Egyptian and stateless Jews had been expelled from Egypt, not including a considerable number of Jewish citizens from Britain and France. Most of the them were heads of families, and they were ordered to leave the country within days. In most cases, the individual served with a deportation order was responsible for supporting his family, so all members of the family would have to leave the country. This measure led to the mass migration of Jews, who nearly vanished from Egypt.
A small number of Jewish families stayed in Egypt, among them leftist activist Chehata Haroun and his family. According to Haroun's daughter, Magda, when her father tried to fly her older sister to Paris for medical treatment, Egyptian authorities would only approve an exit visa with no return, so his daughter died without treatment and he never left the country. When he died in 2001, his family had to bring in a French rabbi to perform the ritual prayer for him, because there was no rabbi in Egypt. The same happened with Nadia, who died in March 2014. I had the honor of attending her funeral. Egyptian state officials did not attend, even though they typically attend funerals of Al-Azhar sheikhs or bishops from the Coptic Church. Nadia left her older sister Magda alone to carry the burden of Egypt's Jewish community.
On the first anniversary of Nadia's death, Magda went to her older sister's grave along with her current Christian husband and her Muslim daughters from a previous marriage to perform their rites. She found that a group of youth had desecrated her sister's grave. They also insulted her and Judaism. I can't imagine how Magda felt about that. It's very hard for anyone to see their beloved insulted in life and death, just because they had a different religion.
Despite the fact that Egypt has some of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the world, they have been left vulnerable to desecration and vandalism. Cemeteries are not the only neglected part of Jewish legacy in Egypt. According to Magda, there are about 12 Jewish synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria left without maintenance. The majority were closed because there is no one left to pray there. There are also registers belonging to Egypt's Jewish community, which are part of history that need to be digitalized and safeguarded. The original written Torah also needs to be restored and kept in a museum, along with other parts of this dying community's heritage.
Magda once told me about her deepest fear – that after she is gone, what remains of Egypt's Jewish heritage will be lost. I remember her comments at her sister's funeral. She looked in my eye and said, "'It's your history, Mina.' Then she turned to one of her friends and said, 'It's your history, Mohamed.'"
About six decades of propaganda and hate speech finally led to the end of this country's Jewish community. The same hate speech led to the forced evictions of the Baha'i from Sohag in 2009. The same hate speech led to the brutal murder of four Shia men in June 2013. The same hate speech led to a swell of sectarian violence against Christians, with dozens of churches burned down, and dozens more Christian homes and stores looted since 2011.
Hate speech and lack of equal protection under the law inside create a hostile environment for minorities. Since 2011, at least 40 incidents of sectarian violence have occurred in Egypt. Most of these followed hate speech, which incited the perpetrators to commit the attacks. Since 2011, sectarian violence has taken the lives of at least 100 Egyptians, where the absence of accountability and protection for vulnerable groups has become all too common. We should learn from our mistakes. We should start preserving our Jewish heritage and restore our synagogues. We should face down hate speech and discrimination. We should stop sectarian violence and bring its perpetrators to justice.
Israel and Egypt Grow Closer, but Anti-Semitism Remains Part of the Equation: Sean Savage, JNS, June 8, 2015 —As the Middle East grapples with the fallout of the so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions and the rise of terror groups like Islamic State, Arab states have sought increased cooperation with Israel in areas such as military and intelligence in order to confront ongoing threats.
Egypt Dismisses Human Rights Report as Politicized, Biased: Jerusalem Post, June 9, 2015—The Egyptian government on Tuesday dismissed a report that accused it of widespread human rights violations as politicized and lacking in objectivity and accuracy.
Why I Am Suing Al Jazeera: An Open Letter From Mohamed Fahmy: Egyptian Streets, June 3, 2015—In June 2014, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy was sentenced to seven years imprisonment, which he is currently appealing, on charges of aiding the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, broadcasting false news and operating without an equipment and operational license.
Turkey: Muslim Brothers' Protector: Burak Bekdil, Gatestone Institute, June 9, 2015 —What do Syria, Egypt and Libya have common? They are all at various degrees of cold war with Turkey, which they accuse of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist terrorists in their countries.