‘Activism’ and the ‘human rights agenda’ as espoused by international and local organizations have created several norms about ‘advocacy’ and the ‘universality’ of ‘religious freedom’ in Egypt. Yet these concepts are more exclusionary than emancipatory, more restrictive than liberating; they are in fact intervention mechanisms for US foreign policy. These concepts are put in quotation marks precisely because of their inherent paradoxical nature. The very foundation of ‘liberalism’, ‘advocacy’ and ‘universality’ are mechanisms of intervention by Western ‘soft power’; approaches which serve to revamp its colonial nature under the guise of fighting for rights, liberties and freedoms through think tanks, Western media and human rights organizations. Edward Said remarks that “liberality…[is] no more than a form of oppression and mentalistic [sic] prejudice… the extent of the illiberality…is not recognized…from within the culture.” By problematizing the link between US foreign policy, civil society and think tanks in Washington, the ‘gaze’ of human rights organizations is found to be counter-beneficial to Copts, Shi’tes and arguably most, if not all, segments on whose behalf it exercises ‘advocacy’. That is why ‘advocacy’ is similarly problematized. In exploring the discursive construction of ‘activism’, ‘solidarity’ and other liberal notions, these markers are deconstructed for their intervention and apologia to (Western) power as they seek to be presented as native and autochthonous. These notions lead to a democracy pathway that assumes that issues either need ‘reform’ (and so ‘activists’ should work on advocating for that cause), while others will be fixed once democracy is ‘consolidated’. This two-tier system is precisely that which Others a host of causes and plights of those such as Copts’ and Shi’tes’; they are relegated to the transition paradigm and are forced to buy into the mantra of ‘once democracy comes this issue will sort itself out.’ This relegation of struggles becomes an efficient mechanism of omitting the plight of Copts, Shi’tes and other segments of society in Egypt.
In fact these organizations’ omissions help us understand precisely what is illiberal about them. Probing the Egyptian experience of Copts and Shi’tes as well as the nexus created between the human rights complex based in Washington DC, local civil society organizations, the media and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF), it is found that Copts and Shi’tes have their voices muted. This discursive lacuna is created despite what these community leaders have been fighting against, largely because of the role of ‘activists’, some from those communities, who continue to play by the ‘human rights agenda’ to advance their own gains and ostracize their communities further. This pits those community leaders against a niche of activists who utilize the ‘human rights agenda’ to continue to gain access to Western media and reformulate identity based on a Rights Based Approach (RBA), that internationalizes such conflict and identity formulations.
Again the phrase ‘human rights agenda’ has positive connotations that espouse equality and inclusion but in fact is nothing more than a mechanism of exclusion that is apologetic to US power. In fact, as will be shown, some community members and ‘activists’ have had their voices hidden for their decision to speak out against the interests of those who define and dictate what the ‘human rights agenda’ is—in this case US policy towards the transition in Egypt. This is a clear demonstration of how the ‘human rights agenda’ is exclusionary. This paper first surveys the discursive field and episteme in which the appropriation of RBA’s, individualism and liberal discourse creates the ‘Coptic cause’ by looking at how Egyptian and Coptic actors appropriate these analytics. Secondly, it moves on to show how these discourses are used at the international level in controlling, serializing and influencing power relations in Egypt. This paper ends by asking if those who attempt to modify and alter the discourse from within and ‘recapture’ Western notions of human rights, ‘activism’ and advocacy, can escape the subjectivity of Western discourse and accrue gains. Can Western discourse on human rights be recaptured to augment RBAs so that they are not exclusionary? This paper shows how Western RBAs pick up such issues in order to further US hegemony under the guise of said ‘liberalism’.
As was the case for most segments of society, Copts participated in the lead-up to the June 30th 2013 protests as well as the protests themselves that overthrew Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Though this was the focus of most Western analysts and think tanks, focusing on Copts’ ‘activism’ against the MB and former President Morsi, few questioned or problematized said ‘gaze’ of Copts and their ‘activism’. Indeed a minor grammatical change denotes a different Cartesian power plane; Coptic ‘activism’ is not synonymous with Copts’ ‘activism’. However by conflating the two Western analysts would have us believe that ‘Coptic’ ‘activism is unitary, uniform and representative of the majority of Copts under the rubric of human rights. The problematic gaze of ‘activism’ and ‘social movements’ creates a binary by bringing ‘activists’ and human rights organizations that do ‘advocacy’ to the frontline of the debate. This occurs by making them the authority on Copts and Shi’tes. Thus they speak, debate and designate what these ‘issues’ are. These activists and ‘rights’ based agendas serve as effective mechanisms in perpetuating the ‘Coptic question’ and ‘Shi’te issue’ and the discussion of their ‘integration’ in society, most often in the form of quotas. This is as opposed to the sidelining of the ‘Coptic question’ during instances of mass societal participation in protests, which usually happens by claiming that protests are harmonious and filled with people from all walks of life, thus collectivizing subjectivity and sidelining any grievances that other segments of society may have. Viewing Coptic ‘activism’ as synonymous with protests encourages the idea of campaigning for rights and the consolidation of democracy.
Similarly, on January 25th 2011, throughout the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes of 2011 and in other instances of mass protest, there is emphasis on ‘equal participation’ by all segments of society to highlight that Egyptian society does not suffer from problems that affect Copts distinctly. Usually these protests are called for, organized and include activist participation.
In this regard ‘activism’ is an escape valve for delaying much needed discussion surrounding the issue of Copts, Shi’tes inter alia. This happens either in chorus with other protests in which this is used as an indicator of harmonious coexistence, or independently when showcasing the need to fight for ‘rights’ based issues. Thus the binary is two-fold: either there is a complete denial of the problem during instances of mass protests and a simultaneous celebration of the harmony among protestors from all walks of life; or an alternative reactionary discourse that perpetuates the ‘Coptic question’ or the ‘Shi’te issue’ by talking about the need for ‘integration’, ‘citizenship’, and ‘equality’. The latter is often conceived through mechanisms such as an electoral quota or quotas in state bureaucracy. This pluralism hides more than it integrates; it displays all identities merely within the categorization of ‘protestor’ or ‘activist’ as an unmediated and un-negotiated fixation that negates any grievances. This is how the sidelining of the ‘Coptic question’ occurs. Statements such as “Copts protected Muslims as they prayed in Tahrir Square”, an incident that became the object of fixation by Western media, become mantras that espouse and delineate boundaries of power along an axis of ‘activism’ solely. By increasing this ‘gaze’ a host of other issues are omitted.
This form of ‘activism’ and ‘solidarity’, as the Western media propagates, falls into the hands of a few individuals. Ihab Ramzy, Mamdouh Ramzy (no relation) and Ramy Kamal join the chorus of those who make a niche for themselves in ‘Coptic activism’. In continually calling for side issues such as a quota for Copts in legislative elections they show their previous ties: Ihab Ramzy was elected in Minya on the list of the Party of Freedom, a former NDP party (the party of the former regime of Hosni Mubarak) while Mamdouh Ramzy, the former MP responsible for the statement that “the Shoura council [the upper Legislative chamber] has been wronged for the past 30 years” was in fact the MB appointee to the Shoura Council who had to endure the theatrical performance in condemning the attack on the Coptic Cathedral under Morsi’s tenure. After that statement, Mamdouh gave himself the title of ‘special papal advisor’. Ihab Ramzy has given himself the same title. The Coptic Pope then issued a statement saying he has no advisors and nobody speaks in his name or the Church’s and went on to reprimand Ihab privately for continuing to host conferences such as the Sonesta conference, which called for an electoral quota for Copts. Ihab has continually been sidelined after the Pope’s reforms, which have brought to the Church new lay voices to Episcopal hierarchy. Ramy Kamal joins the cohort of both Ramzys in breaking away from the Maspero Youth Union (MYU), the original organization that was born out of the ‘Maspero Massacre’ by Military Police. He went on to found the ‘Maspero Youth Foundation for Development and Human Rights’ and is quoted by Western think tanks under another purported capacity as organizer of the ‘Free Copts’ movement and debates issues of ‘Coptic activism’ for a Western audience in a manner that is detached from reality on the ground. Ramy’s activism spree joins other ‘activists’ who seem to be bent on muting and overshadowing the MYU. During November 2013 some decided to commemorate the Maspero Massacre at a time when the original Maspero Organization, MYU, decided to cancel that year’s proceedings. This was done to avoid associating with newfound MB disdain for the Armed Forces, and instead be content with a Church service in Muqattam, Cairo. However ‘activists’ decided to protest in a show of irony that left MYU’s proceedings underreported and not covered. That is why the quota, a non-issue amongst most Copts (who seem to have settled this in 1923), has encapsulated DC think tanks that continue to make generic one size fit all approaches to “appoint Coptic elites,” arguably what Mubarak used to do. In fact Ihab Ramzy has made the same demand with respect to the Egyptian bureaucracy because it is beneficial to him and a small oligarchy of pro-Mubarak elites. Proponents of ‘activism’ seem to romanticize modernist citizenship empowerment approaches that are both ahistorical and narrow.
Church reform: swimming against the tide of activism
Western analysis that laments the need for civil society is imposed based off the academic transition paradigm. This very analysis dislodges organic change happening on the ground, which goes unreported by virtue of this ‘gaze’ and cooptation of Western media and its nexus with think tanks. Earlier in June the Coptic Orthodox Pope, Tawadrus II, approved the Church councils law. These laws in effect decentralize churches by having a council made up of laymen that rule it at each church, with a papal representative making up 1/3 of it while the remaining 2/3 are elected. This creates a local electorate for each church. A standard 50%+1 is required to reach decisions. Yet Western think tanks and media seem fixated on the fact that the state’s authoritarianism permeates into the Church and that it similarly needs a ‘revolution’, ‘activism’ and ‘(Coptic) civil society’. It is deeply ironic that a post-Westephalian notion of direct democracy was missed by these very Western academics.
This is at a time when the previous laymen’s council has been frozen off pending new elections for it. The Pope has also struck down the first hurdle for inter-Catholic and Orthodox marriage while continuing on ecumenicalism at the national level in Egypt. This fundamental shift in lay-clerical relations has left figures such as Mamdouh, Ihab and other former Coptic figures that enjoy(ed) the status of elites in a precarious position. This is in contrast to earlier rigid attitudes by the previous Pope Shenouda III towards horizontal and vertical power structures within the different confessions and inside the Coptic Orthodox Church. These two examples of reform break such power structures and make it difficult for the previous elites to wield a monopoly on Church-civil society relations within the classic ‘state-civil society’ paradigm, it is thus ignored and unreported.
In some of Egypt’s new parties Copts have risen to the ranks of Vice President (VP); examples include the Social Democrat’s Ihab el Kharat, Fredy Bayady and several others. This is a different structure that manages to contest previous power economies that conventional old powers such as Ihab and Mamdouh Ramzy fail to make gains inside of, especially post 2011 in Egypt. This is to be added to other new forms of participatory gains. Minister of Environment Laila Iskandar’s new Zabaleen initiative is an example of how the Coptic community has made participatory gains that fall outside first wave approaches of equality and legislation. The Zabaleen initiative is a small unannounced and unknown victory because it falls outside the scope of classic ‘citizenship’ empowerment, subsequently outside the Western media and think tanks’ gaze. The initiative involves Egypt’s previously outlawed ‘Zabaleen’ Coptic community, a garbage collecting and recycling community in the area of Manshiyet Nasser, a poor-middle income informal housing area, that has felt the brunt of the previous government’s neoliberal authoritarianism. The government continually clamped down on the community and its informal housing, specifically by granting garbage collecting contracts to foreign multinationals; euphemism for neoliberal concessions. Not only did this not solve the problem but it outlawed the collection of garbage by this community, despite it having achieved higher rates of recycling than the new multinational and keeping its profit margin within Egypt and not abroad. At one point the government clamped down on them after the spread of the H1N1 virus, colloquially named ‘swine flu’, because most families had a side business of pig farming. This was despite the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring that there was no risk of transmission of the virus through pigs. It represented a clear signal of the government’s continued neoliberal clampdown. The new Minister of Environment, however, has reinstated the Zabaleen community and for the first time given them a government legal umbrella in cooperation with the ministry. Iskander’s NGO, which she started before her ministerial post, not only advocated for the participatory inclusion of this community, but also helped in teaching them new recycling techniques. This reversal and termination of garbage collecting contracts to foreign multinationals is a direct omission made by virtue of the ‘human rights gaze’ towards Egypt.
The Shi’ite community in Egypt faces the same problems stated above: the issue of ‘universality’ and the host of interventions it invites as well as the problematic gaze of ‘activism’. Those who highlight Shi’ite suffering as synonymous with their ability to publicly celebrate Ashoura do so as part of a ‘human rights agenda’ of ‘religious freedom,’ yet no one has bothered to ask how Shi’tes want to celebrate or practice their rituals and whether it is far from the ‘religious freedom’ mantra espoused by Western civil society, a mantra also espoused and internalized by local civil society in Egypt. The fact that we know far less about Shi’tes in Egypt than other groups is likely due to the fact that they are only focused on around the time of Ashoura, as well as because of the Western gaze towards their ‘activism’ (defined as their right to publicly celebrate Ashoura). It is no surprise that community leaders have said that there are no official plans to go the Al Hussein mosque and that the media in fact has created problems for them, thus making it a more difficult time than it usually is. Continued fascination by individual decisions to go and commemorate Ashoura in Al Hussein has received vast media coverage because of the purported title ascribed to those quoted in the stories as ‘activists’. The binary ‘activism’ creates is readily observed here with major Shi’te communities denying any intention of commemorating Ashoura as these activists would have the media to believe. While Shi’tes do call on the authorities to allow them to practice more openly, the media portrayal of ‘Shi’ite activists’ going to clash with the Salafis and police forces are only false and counterproductive. Any observer of the Shi’te community knows that they celebrate quietly, predominantly in rural Egypt and the urban Delta such as in Mansoura at many smaller shrines, which, while sometimes closed around Ashoura, tend to be open most of the time. In that regard the fascination with ‘Shi’ite activism’ hides more than it tells us about a community that for obvious reasons will remain unwelcoming to current approaches. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) should not approach the Shi’ite community with a ‘universal’ rights based agenda that would seek to make them a sui generis community, while they specifically highlight that their festivities and rituals are not recognizably different from mainstream Sunni Muslims. There are no visible self-mutilating rituals as practiced in the Gulf and Iran, Shi’te community leaders have constantly said that Egyptian Shi’tes are no different than Egyptian Sunnis, particularly in the call for prayer, adhan, and their rituals.
The constitution as a false panacea
The core issue around the Constitution that I will focus on is the decision to ignore the Church’s push for an amendment of article 3, despite it being unclear what they would stand to gain from it. The Church virtually pushed for this amendment alone, but an acute focus over the Shoura Council, affirmative action and the question of a quota dominated instead. This comes from the influence of media, civil society and think tanks. The source of this focus and its reason will be elaborated on later. Such ‘activism’ seems oblivious to the political economy map of power relations outlined previously. There is also the underestimation of the removal of article 219, an article that defined Islamic jurisprudence and equated it with legislation. According to some jurisprudence, this would have institutionalized and formalized the designation of non-mainstream Islamists as second tier citizens and turn Egypt into a theocracy. The Church knows only too well, as witness to the article 2 debacle with the late President Anwar al-Sadat, that the problem of discrimination, despite some new think tank reports, lies not in what is inked on a piece of paper called a constitution, but beyond that.
Here it could be useful to draw on feminist movements as an example. Many postcolonial feminists have critiqued the problematic approaches and assumptions inherent in first wave feminism and its liberal, individualistic theories and praxis. This is usually in the form of pro-activism policies, lobbying for legislative reform as a panacea and ignoring societal stigmas. This same process can be seen with regards to ‘activist’ groups and movements in Egypt; most are enamored with legislation as a panacea. Let us also not forget the near silence on part of many key players who have ignored the Church’s purposefully leaked internal memo expressing deep frustration towards the sluggish pace towards removal of article 219 and stonewalling on article 3 inter alia. It is telling that only Ahmed Harrara, one activist amongst the many groups, picked up on this leaked memo in an interview with TV talk show host Mahmoud Saad.
Lastly, no one has bothered to look at the process of discussion internally for the Church and in the constituent assembly rather than at the outcome. While most constituent assembly members know this is a temporary constitution, media reports have either sought to overemphasize the Church’s stance on voting to keep the Shoura but ignore the battle for article 3, or emphasize the military tribunals article. While all state institutions and Salafis seem to be supporting such a restrictive article, which allows the trial of civilians in military tribunals (under cases that involve civil-military disputes), it hardly seems to make sense to expect the Church to take on yet another frontal battle. Victims of violence against Copts seem to be unable to garner justice either in civil or military tribunals. This is hardly an issue likely to be resolved by civilian judiciary or a constitution. Anyone familiar with the episodic violence against Copts in the 80’s will know that all too well. It is precisely because it falls out of the Western ‘gaze’ of human rights that it becomes unknown; context is a luxury for some which Copts have not been afforded because of omissions made by virtue of the ‘human rights agenda’. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a report that attested to this shortcoming, an increasingly sidelined nuance missing amid the loud activist-driven ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign:
The judiciary, particularly sitting judges, does not often hear cases of sectarian violence, and it is extremely rare for such crimes to be referred to trial. On the other hand, the Public Prosecutor’s role in dealing with the violence is shameful: although Egyptian law gives that office the prerogatives of investigating judges authorized to conduct immediate, independent investigations to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice using evidence of their crimes to protect society from lawbreakers, the Public Prosecutor’s Office tends to aid the security establishment in imposing “reconciliation” procedures, even when these are against the law—for example, accepting reconciliation in felonies, which is not permitted by Egyptian law. At other times the Public Prosecutor conducts investigations for show that lack all evidence, which means that either the perpetrators are not identified or they are acquitted if they are referred to trial. As such, impunity is the norm.
Therefore the ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign also has a problematic gaze that seeks to universalize its cause and victims, citing that Copts too suffer from military trials, such as the case with Maspero. This clearly shows they can even politicize mourning for their own civil society ends. The ‘No to Military Trials’ initiative, while important, assumes that all victims are treated equally and unjustly before a military court, but what about those who are treated unjustly before civilian judiciary as reported by EIPR? In this case, the ends are making the civilian judiciary the domain of ‘reform’ approaches as if it functions for the most part equally for Copts, Shi’tes and other heterodox societal segments that fall outside the modern conceptualization of the ‘citizen’.
Perhaps the most immediate and tentative conclusion of the process now is that such a ‘transition’ paradigm, or ‘transitional justice’ seems bankrupt and unable to express current realities past a Western focus. This divides issues into two factions, those that need ‘reform’ and deserve institutional focus and those that by association encourage ‘activism’. The latter are issues that are classified as ‘low-level’ politics that are not prioritized in a transition paradigm and should work themselves out after democracy has been ‘consolidated’. However this consolidation negates how in a ‘transition’ such questions are open ended and ongoing power struggles. This firmly excludes participatory approaches to addressing the discourse that binds and controls Copts and Shi’tes. It also ignores how it formulates Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) subjectivity as a project of modernity that is equally blind to such issues. Particularly notable is the spectrum of CSOs that fail to understand or comprehend that the Church is between a rock and a hard place, and that in fact, it has been between a rock and a hard place for almost the entire modern history of Egypt and will continue to be. Nominal allies such as civil society, with the examples of Ihab and Mamdouh Ramzy whose efforts accentuate the plight of Copts rather than ‘empower’ them, adhere to modernist discourse that propose ‘citizenship’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘activism’; buzz words not only on social media but for all those who undertake low-level CSO work or ‘democracy’ promotion (a similar ruse for intervention). In fact this continues to be the talk and focus of the US State Department.
Take Hillary Clinton’s inaugural 2011 ‘religious freedom report’ speech, given not surprisingly at a think tank—the same think tank whose previous ‘gaze’ and recommendations were criticized: the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Clinton remarked:
Now meanwhile, Egypt is grappling with these challenges as it navigates its unprecedented democratic transition. And during my recent visit, I met with members of the new government, including President Morsi, and representatives from Egypt’s Christian communities. Religious freedom was very present behind closed doors and out in the streets. President Morsi has said clearly and repeatedly, in public and private, that he intends to be the president of all the Egyptian people. He has pledged to appoint an inclusive government and put women and Christians in high leadership positions. The Egyptian people and the international community are looking to him to follow through on those commitments. Another important aspect of Egypt’s transition is whether citizens themselves respect each other’s differences. Now we saw that capacity vividly in Tahrir Square, when Christians formed a circle around Muslims in prayer, and Muslims clasped hands to protect Christians celebrating a mass. I think that spirit of unity and fellowship was a very moving part of how Egyptians and all the rest of us responded to what happened in those days in that square. And if, in the years ahead, if Egyptians continue to protect that precious recognition of what every single Egyptian can contribute to the future of their country, where people of different faiths will be standing together in fellowship, then they can bring hope and healing to many communities in Egypt who need that message.
In this regard Hillary Clinton’s comments affirm the vanguard role attributed to activism: during moments of mass protest the ‘harmonious’ exhibition of national unity, or to be more blunt the lack of violence, is used as a marker of citizenship that hides the otherwise unwanted realities; participatory gains, class mobility or critique of the ‘universality of rights’ and citizenship in general. Such critique would arguably criticize the foundations upon which most Western states are built and would infringe on high-level politics and US interests; it would be unwarranted for the US to embarrass Egypt over such an issue. But this is key, its performativity and claim to be moved by such an issue, such as the ‘universality of religious freedom’ is false. This exhibition of liberalism is also used hypothetically-“in the years ahead”- meaning that the US will monitor, advocate and recommend the practices. Thus a transition paradigm is quintessential to serializing, locating and identifying key performance indictors, ones that have not been locally ascribed or agreed upon. Indeed it is quite telling that the US failed to pick up on the incidence of the police attack on the Egyptian cathedral. Clearly that does not fit the narrative in which “Tahrir Square’s…unity” is espoused. Hillary Clinton continues:
As we look to the future – not only in Egypt, not only in the newly free and democratically seeking states of North Africa and the Middle East, but far beyond – we will continue to advocate strongly for religious freedom. This is a bedrock priority of our foreign policy, one that we carry out in a number of ways [emphasis added]. Earlier today, the United States did release our annual International Religious Freedom Report. This is the fourth time I’ve had the honor of presenting it. It comprehensively catalogues the official and societal restrictions people around the world face as they try to practice their faith, and it designates Countries of Particular Concern that have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. This report sends a signal to the worst offenders that the world is watching, but it also provides information to help us and others target our advocacy, to make sure we reach the people who most need our help. In the Obama Administration, we’ve elevated religious freedom as a diplomatic priority. Together with governments, international organizations, and civil society, we have worked to shape and implement United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18.
The discursive performance here of the widening of a religious freedom agenda that encompasses the Middle East without mentioning Israel; is a spatial designation of power. These remarks should make us pause for a number of reasons. Religious freedom is taken as the bedrock of US foreign policy. This assumes a liberal universality to it which it endows the ‘free’ world with the duty to help others while evoking universal declarations such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In doing so the US gains a foothold, not just universally, but exceptionally in the Middle East as Clinton remarked. It is only here we understand the crucial role that civil society plays to affirm not so much a ‘rights based’ agenda as much as a US agenda. But is this really the bedrock of US foreign policy? Or is part of an exclusive gaze in the Middle East? Does Saudi Arabia fall in the same category equally? Take Paul Sedra’s important words when discussing the nexus of US foreign policy and the plight of Copts with respect to DC based think tanks:
What I find disturbing is the alacrity with which particular US political forces have taken up the cause of anti-Christian persecution, notably over the past decade, just as the “war on terror” has gained so much momentum. And perhaps unsurprisingly given these political links, “persecution experts” have, much like their counterparts in the ‘terrorism expert’ industry, tended to find their way to particular think-tanks in Washington.
The discursive performativity being exercised here is reminiscent of NSC-68 during the Cold War where the communist “threat” was hailed in such a way that religious freedom was designated to be the bedrock of US foreign policy. NSC-68 paved the way for intervention and rollback of communist regimes, and this new policy arguably does the same. Sedra continues commenting on the nexus of the human rights complex in Washington, DC:
…Arguably the leader in this regard is the Hudson Institute, which houses the Center for Religious Freedom under the directorship of Nina Shea. According to the Hudson Institute’s website, the center “promotes religious freedom as a component of U.S. foreign policy by working with a worldwide network of religious freedom experts to provide defenses against religious persecution and oppression.” Despite the emphasis in this description on a ‘worldwide network,’ a quick scan of op-eds by Center staff reveals that the geographic scope of their concern is substantially narrower: The vast majority of the articles concern the Muslim world, and among them, Egypt features most prominently.
In this regard the Muslim world is the equivalent of the ‘free world’ during the Cold War that “needs” protecting and guidance. In the Cold War the free world needed protection, contemporarily the Muslim world needs a partner for its ‘democratic transition’. In this regard think tanks have their work equally distributed between those who white-wash ‘Islam’ as democratic and call for engaging Muslim leaders under the guise of ‘democratic support’, such as Mohamed Morsi, much to safeguard US interests, and by association legitimate him as Hillary Clinton did as a proponent of “minority rights”. It is because Hilary Clinton has uttered it that it has been taken to be the truth. Meanwhile, other think tanks such as the Hudson Institute work on ‘minorities’ and turn their ‘cause’ into a pressure card. Thus ‘causes’ become intervention mechanisms much the same as “minority rights” can be. This gives the US the cozy place of arbitrator. A function of pluralism and ‘advocacy’ is that it creates the performativity of ‘choice,’ meaning that when the US goes to Egypt it has a host of ‘issues’ to select from. This becomes one of them and is activated to their liking. Sedra continues:
… Why would American conservatives take a particular interest in sectarian tensions in Egypt? As is well known, in recent decades, evangelical Christians in the United States have moved increasingly rightward in political orientation. At first glance, it would appear that Christian conservatives are moved by the plight of fellow Christians like the Copts. In practice, however, these Christian conservatives are moved to a still greater extent by Israeli protestations of insecurity. Given their track record of unstinting support for Israel, and relative disregard for the plight of Palestinian Christians, the focus on Egypt’s Copts emerges as a function of ‘Realpolitik’ rather than ideals.
Realpolitik indeed. That is the very part of deconstructing the nexus of ‘activism’, ‘advocacy’, ‘social movements’ and the nexus with think tanks and foreign policy. All come together to hide and mask apologia to politics of a lower-level, but one that is crucial nonetheless to US presence in the region. More recently the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF), a “bipartisan” and “independent” body tasked with fighting for the “values of our [US] nation”, held a joint subcommittee hearing on human rights abuses in Egypt. Coptic Bishop Angaleos, USCRIF Vice Chair Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, and Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute (the same one in question in Sedra’s article), as well as a host of other ‘experts’ testified. These ‘experts’ are also part of the illiberality that Said spoke of: they are orientalist ‘experts’ of the same kind that create knowledge apologetic to US power. However before continuing it is important to analyze the US State Department statement on the passing of the 2012 constitution:
The future of Egypt’s democracy depends on forging a broader consensus behind its new democratic rules and institutions. Many Egyptians have voiced deep concerns about the substance of the constitution and the constitutional process. President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust, and broaden support for the political process. We have called for genuine consultation and compromise across Egypt’s political divides. We hope those Egyptians disappointed by the result will seek more and deeper engagement. We look to those who welcome the result to engage in good faith. And we hope all sides will re-commit themselves to condemn and prevent violence. Only Egyptians can decide their country’s future. The United States remains committed to helping them realize the aspirations that drove their revolution and complete a successful democratic transition. Egypt needs a strong, inclusive government to meet its many challenges.
This omits and fails to mention how the constituent assembly was dominated by the MB and its allies, required no 67% threshold to pass an article (if there was no 67% approval the first time then during the second vote all that was required was 57%) and how Morsi passed a constitutional declaration that immunized the assembly against court rulings that dissolved it. It also negates to mention the violence against protesters in the enthusing battle after the constitutional declaration, a process that was far from democratic particularly when you see that the MB strongman Khairat al Shater, Deputy General Guide, claimed that “80% of protesters [were]…Copts”.
Compared with Zuhdi’s recent testimony, the 2012 State Department statement on the constitution is almost identical, pro-status quo and seeks to highlight the positive aspects of the 2013 constitution while saving face for the State Department’s statement on the 2012 constitution. In that sense the USCRIF is a discursive self-correcting tool for the US, and perhaps only in that light can it be called a ‘bedrock of US foreign policy’ in so as much as it maintains its ‘gaze’ on the region and remedies previous US foreign policy hiccups. But what is most interesting is how Zuhdi posits the plight of Copts, Baha’is, Shi’tes, Sufis and even Jehovah’s witnesses, as well as Jews in Egypt. This pluralism serves to discursively create a foothold and make the issue universal, despite clear messages from perhaps all those segments of society that they do not wish to identify themselves with the US. The statement by Shi’te leaders discussed previously is perhaps the most indicative. As for Jews, a similar statement has been made to that effect in which Magda Haroun, the head of the Jewish community in Egypt said “I don’t want anything from France or any country…Eastern Jews are not like Western Jews and their rituals are different”, thus trumping any semblance of universalism. But its mention by Zuhdi means it exists, and as such it is an issue that can be activated; creating the foundational discourse of ‘religious freedom’. His testimony is ahistoricized and hides the colonial legacy of Jehovah’s witnesses and their arrival to Egypt by way of American missionaries. Zuhdi concluded it by saying “[F]or the sake of stability and security, and because of Egypt’s international human rights commitments, the United States government should urge Egypt to choose this pathway to democracy and freedom.”
The link between security and the “pathway to democracy and freedom” reads directly out of the neo-neo IR debate between neo-realism and neo-liberalism. This is correlated with Samuel Tadros’ testimony of the Hudson Institute, clearly more informed: “[O]n the national level, the scarce Coptic representation that existed in the government further declined.” A clear correlation with Ihab Ramzy’s demand and continuation of ‘activism’ based discourse and a human rights agenda that is top-down. Though Tadros has a more historicized approach one cannot shake off Sedra’s remarks and the use of an Egyptian native informant by the Hudson Institute in such a setting before the House Foreign Relations Committee. Again it is not so much a function of who advocates for what, rather than who advocates for whom and is used to prove legitimacy.
Finally Bishop Angaleos’ testimony sought to counter both testimonies. He started by talking about Copts’ historical standing since the 7th century and how ancient law still governs society, mentioned the attack on the Coptic Cathedral under Morsi, the impunity of the Maspero Massacre, the rights of Shi’ites and contextualized Morsi’s “democratic credentials”, or lack there of. Lastly Angaleos gave a different view to transitional justice than is conventionally found, arguing:
Finally, the model of reconciliation that is called for is one that must be built upon prior criminal acts being investigated and accordingly dealt with, and future ones being subject to a stringent rule of law; only then will Egypt be able to live true reconciliation and work towards a common future.
He also affirmed that Copts “absolutely negated accusations of their reliance upon and loyalty to foreign powers or negatively-perceived domestic authorities.” Neither Zhudi nor Tadros mentioned this point; on the contrary, Angaleos sought to counter all claims that Copts need US assistance while Zhudi and Tadros created the conditions and rhetoric that makes US intervention welcome. It is however unfortunate that a member of the Coptic clergy continued to see salvation within a rights based agenda. Though this is an internal debate among the Coptic community, particularly the more nuanced ‘movements’ such as the MYU, few realize that those who hold the keys of defining what is and is not part of the rights agenda are not those affected by or those whose “rights” are being violated. Some however have offered to fight and contest that meaning. Angaelos’ testimony shows an attempt at recapturing that discursive space. It is however unlikely that a discursive battle can be one where a rights based subjectivity is maintained while changing the power economy that is so firmly entrenched with Western civil society, be it in the West or Cairo, the media, a transition paradigm and incumbents in both the US and Egypt. Angaelos’ plea is apparent:
More recently, an incident in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya evokes experiences of the persecution faced by Christians in the Dhimmi period centuries ago. In this incident, two men, Emad Damian and his cousin Medhat Damian, were killed by Islamists in the Assiut governorate for refusing to pay a jizya tax. In the current day and age, and in the context of the ongoing process of democratisation in Egypt, such an incident should be unthinkable, yet it is indicative of the reality lived by some Christians in certain parts of Egypt on a daily basis.
Indeed the contradiction is readily made apparent, but can be drowned out on account of several other factors and “gains” towards democracy. A case in point is the US State Department Egypt Country Report on Human Rights Practices. The 2012 report lamented:
…progress in moving towards accountability for civilian security forces compared with the previous year. The ENP [Egyptian National Police] adopted a code of conduct in October 2011, and in July the government established the Civil Rights Defense Committee to examine issues relating to the use of force by security services during the 2011 revolution.
Yet the report failed to mention that this was decorative “reform” designed to placate local CSOs who issued a report highlighting the failure of Morsi to refer anyone to trial through this committee, its vast shortcoming in makeup, its lack of agenda, and non-conclusive investigations it undertook. Furthermore, the report wrongfully claims the constitutional declaration was cancelled amidst increasing ‘advocacy’ by the opposition; failing to ignore that its effects remained firmly in place. Morsi issued another constitutional declaration to annul the previous one, but it included an article that gave immunity to the previous constitutional declaration’s effects. Thus the main goal, to pass the constitution without judicial review, was accomplished by preventing the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) from convening to issue a ruling to disband the constituent assembly. Later the SCC would issue the ruling disbanding the constituent assembly, but after the draft constitution went to a referendum and was passed. The ineffectual reform seems to have achieved its primary goal of addressing a Western audience.
When it comes to the issue of Copts and the Shi’a this hard hitting axiom seems more relevant than ever: the more you know, the less you know. Looking forward, Coptic ‘activism’, and ‘activism’ in general is likely to remain dominated by demands unrepresentative of those on the ground, and continue to be blind to issues of Copts and Shi’tes except when they are attacked, particularly with regards to Shi’tes. Why do these ‘activists’, ‘social movements’, and NGOs continue to occupy this role that has been assigned to them by liberal rights based discourse? A tentative conclusion points towards the fundamentally Western makeup of the state as conceived in a neoliberal world. For most issues to be addressed, lobby groups become essential components of the state, and the more organizations there are the better, much à la pluralism. In this regard Steve Fish’s words about the misgrievances of liberalism and pluralism as smokescreens for liberal inoculation are on mark. As an immediate remedy there should be grassroots based approaches of participatory development, such as the Zabaleen initiative that serves to tackle neoliberal agendas. Such initiatives, which are combated by rights based agendas, are a practical step towards fighting neoliberalism. With the events in Egypt so firmly grounded in a ‘transition’ paradigm, it is no surprise that Western notions of development translate economically to neoliberalism and politically to ‘activism’.
- An excellent example of understanding the problématique of ‘activism’ and its inherent contradictions is the director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts, Alex Dewaal. Dewaal states that “a group of people, in whose company I didn’t want to be, were claiming not only to be activists but to define “activism” [sic] itself…[they] all had one thing in common: using more US power around the world.” For more see Alex Dewaal, “Reclaiming Activism,” Reinventing Peace, World Peace Foundation blog, Fletcher School, December 21 2013, <http://sites.tufts.edu/reinventingpeace/2013/04/30/reclaiming-activism/>, accessed December 29 2013.
- Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage, (1994), 254.
- Essential to showing the illiberality of such ‘universalizing’ concepts is the ‘gaze’ of human rights organizations, namely their decision to arbitrarily dictate what is and is not on the agenda which, as will be shown, is far from objective but an articulation of their interests and by association those of the United States when it comes to religious freedom in Egypt and the region.
- Paul Sedra, “The Copts Under Morsi: Leave Them to the Church,” Middle East Institute, May 1 2013, <http://www.mei.edu/content/copts-under-morsi-leave-them-church>, accessed May 3 2014.
- Like Copts, Shi’tes do not get any attention except after or during an attack on a member of its community. With Copts this has become detrimental after human rights activists have dubbed it the ‘Coptic question’ thus the issue is debated more than the plight of Shi’tes, even absent of an attack using a Rights Based Approach, but within the narrow binary espoused by them. This makes it more difficult to escape the binary since Copts have become an ‘issue’ where as Shi’tes are still an unknown area to most Egyptians.
- Daily Mail, “Images of solidarity as Christians join hands to protect Muslims as they pray during Cairo Protests,” February 30 2011, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353330/Egypt-protests-Christians-join-hands-protect-Muslims-pray-Cairo-protests.html>, accessed May 3 2014.
- Heba Haydar, “In video…Ramzy: “The Shoura Council has been wronged for the past 30 years,” el fagr, November 13 2013, <http://new.elfagr.org/Detail.aspx?nwsId=460613&secid=67&vid=2>, accessed Deceember 25 2013.
- Mostafa Rahouma: “The Church warns those who speak in its name: and renews its trust in the consensus among the national forces to support citizenship,” [AR], el watan newspaper, November 14 2013, <http://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/355612>, accessed December 13 2013
- The Sonesta conference was the subject of much controversy inside the Coptic Church as Pope Tawadruss II reprimanded Ihab Ramzy for his media appearances in which he sought to publicly espouse a different position than the Coptic Church’s but continue to say the Church’s position was in line with his.
- Avi Asher Scahrpio, “Is the Government-Church alliance a “Coptic Marriage”, Sada Journal, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 1 2012, < http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=47344>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Amr Hamid, “Activists commemorate the second anniversary of Maspero in front of the broadcaster in absence of Coptic movements,” al watan newspaper, October 9th 2013, <http://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/332525>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Mohamed Abu el Ghar, “The Future of the political system in Egypt: Copts (5),” [AR] Al masry al youm,” November 13 2013, <http://www.almasryalyoum.com/node/2297991>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Jason Brownlee, “Violence Against Copts in Egypt-Egypt’s Transition,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 14 2013, <http://egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org/2013/11/14/violence-against-copts-in-egypt>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Michael Fares, “Copts asks Minister of Transitional Justice to reopen closed Churches,” The Cairo Post, November 17 2013, <http://thecairopost.youm7.com/news/38424/news/copts-ask-minister-transitional-justice-reopen-closed-churches>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Jason Brownlee, “Violence Against Copts in Egypt-Egypt’s Transition”, November 2013.
- Mario Guénard, “Cairo puts its faith in ragpickers to manage the city’s waste problem,” The Guardian, 19 November 2013, <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/19/cairo-ragpickers-zabaleen-egypt-recycling>, accessed December 13 2013.
- The Zabaleen area, officially called the mashyt nasr area, has been the victim of continued police racketeering in exchange for being allowed to continue to live within the informal settlement. This is in the form of profit shares out of the Zabaleen residents’ recycling income generating activities. Additionally the area has also been discriminated against by security forces on several occasions as well as by the Ministry of Health through the unnecessary mass culling of pigs, one of the forms of income generation for the community, under the false pretence of combating the H1N1 influenza. For more see George Ishak, “Copts Under Military Rule: A year and a half of crimes in the “transitional period””, [AR], Egyptian Initiative For Personal Rights, October 2012, <http://eipr.org/report/2012/10/09/1520>, accessed April 25 2014; EIPR, “After presenting the findings of its field investigation to the fact finding mission: we look forward to fairly prosecuting all those responsible for the killing and injuring of civilians,” September 13 2012, <http://eipr.org/pressrelease/2012/09/13/1481>, accessed April 25 2014; EIPR, “Freedom of Religious Belief Quarterly Report, August 2010,” August 4, 2010, <http://eipr.org/en/report/2010/08/04/935/936>, accessed April 25 2014.
- Joel Beinin, “Neo-liberal Structural Adjustment, Political Demobilization, and Neo-authoritarianism in Egypt,” in Laura Guazzone and Daniela Pioppi (eds), in The Arab State and Neo-liberal Globalization: The Restructuring of State Power in the Middle East, Reading: Ithaca Press, 2009, 19-47.
-  Ghada Sheif, “Shi’te leader: We will celebrate Ashoura in Al Hussein…and the Salafis will not stop us,” [AR], al masry al youm, November 12 2013, <http://www.almasryalyoum.com/node/2293896>, accessed December 18 2013.
- For more see Shi’te community leaders’ statement denying plans to publicly celebrate Ashoura and their intention on avoiding confrontation and condemnation of Western media reports that have quoted them stating they intend to celebrate Ashoura publicly and practice their universal right to believe as part of media campaign to create a political issue to distract the public. http://www.alwafd.org/; original copy of Taher al Hashemi’s statement, Shi’te community leader, available on his website, 11 November 2013, <http://www.elhashemi.com/>, accessed December 18 2013.
- Article 3 of the 2012 constitution, which remained in the 2013 constitution outlines only 3 recognized religions as sources of legislative for personal status law; this eschews Shi’tes, Baha’is and other societal segments while including only Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
- As the former president Anwar el Sadat sought to fight leftists in Egypt he empowered Islamists and added an amendment to Egypt’s constitution so that Shari’a become the main source of legislation rather than a source of legislation. This also conceded with the promulgation of an apostasy law in 1977 which would make put in place ‘Islamic jurisprudence’ rulings that label a person an apostate, and so deserving the death sentence, if he converts from Islam while conversion to Islam is welcome. Though the law was withdrawn conversion from Islam remains impossible, this is only one episode of contention between Sadat and the then Pope Shenouda III which eventually resulted in placing Shenouda under house arrest for several years.
- Jason Brownlee, “Violence Against Copts in Egypt-Egypt’s Transition,” 2013.
- For more see Al Nahar, “Interview with Activist Ahmed Harara,” November 13 2013, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YLXRJcYClk>, accessed April 25 2014.
- EIPR, “Two Years of Sectarian Violence: What happened? Where do we begin? An Analytical study of Jan 2008- Jan 2010,” Reports and Studies, Civil Liberties Program, April 2010, <eipr.org/en/report/2010/04/11/776/>, accessed December 13 2013.
- For a critique of the Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) and Transitional Justice based approach see Mahmood Mamdani, “Amnesty or Impunity A preliminary Critique of the Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, Diacritics, Volume: 32, Number: ¾, (Autumn-Winter, 2002), 32-59.
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on International Religious Freedom,” June 30 2012, Washington D.C., <http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/07/30/secretary-of-state-hillary-clinton-on-international-religious-freedom/d2no>, accessed December 2013.
- For a critique of the ‘transition paradigm’ adopted by the US and how the theoretical concept masks complexities see John M Owen IV, Michael Poznansky, “When does America drop dictators?,” European Journal of International Relations, January 9 2014, forthcoming; J. Peter Burgess, Costas M. Constantinou, “New Middle East, new insecurities and the limits of liberation geography,” Security Dialogue, Spec issue: The New Middle East: A critical appraisal, Volume: 44, Issue: 5-6, (2013), 365-373; Halit Mustafa Tagma, Elif Kalaycioglu, Emel Akcali, “’Taming’ Arab social movements: Exporting neoliberal governentality,” Security Dialogue, Volume: 44, Issue: 5-6, (2013), 375-392.
- “Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Remarks at the Release of the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report,” US Department of State, June 30 2012, <http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/07/195782.htm>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Paul Sedra, “September 11th, Islamophobia, and the ‘Persecution Industry’,’” Egypt Independent, September 9 2012, <http://www.egyptindependent.com/opinion/september-11th-islamophobia-and-%E2%80%98persecution-industry>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Saba Mahmood, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Volume: 54, Issue: 2, (2012), 418-446.
- USCRIF website: http://www.uscirf.gov/about-uscirf/message-from-the-chair.html
- Patrick Ventrell, “Referendum on the Egyptian Constitution,” December 25 2012, <http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/12/202381.htm>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Ishak, Ibrahim “Who is responsible for what happened to Copts?” [AR] September 10 2013, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights blog, <http://eipr.org/blog/post/2013/09/10/1815>, accessed December 9 2013
- Ashraf Sayed, Aml Fawzy, “Magda Haroun head of the Jewish Community: for the first time I open the vault and secrets of the Jewish community in Egypt,” Al ahram, November 22 2013, <http://digital.ahram.org.eg/articles.aspx?Serial=1472302&eid=113>, accessed December 13 2013.
- For an excellent insight on missionary work in Egypt and the nexus of the US State Department see Robert Kaplan: Arabists the Romance of an American Elite, New York: Free Press, (1983)
- See Congressional extract of testimony: “Testimony of Dr. M. Zuhdi Jasser, Vice Chair U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom Before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Human Rights Abuses in Egypt, December 10, 2013, <http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA16/20131210/101576/HHRG-113-FA16-Wstate-JasserZ-20131210.pdf>, accessed December 13 2013.
- See Congressional extract of testimony: “Testimony of Samuel Tadros, Research Fellow, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, Before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Human Rights Abuses in Egypt, December 10, 2013, <http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA16/20131210/101576/HHRG-113-FA16-Wstate-TadrosS-20131210.pdf>, accessed December 13 2013.
- See Congressional extract of testimony: “Testimony of His Grace Bishop Angaelos General Bishop Coptic Orthodox Church, United Kingdom, Before the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Human Rights Abuses in Egypt, December 10, 2013, <http://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA16/20131210/101576/HHRG-113-FA16-Wstate-AngaelosH-20131210.pdf>, accessed December 13 2013.
- US State Department Egypt Country Report on Human Rights, 2012,<http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/humanrightsreport/index.htm?year=2012&dlid=204357#wrapper>, accessed December 13 2013.
- See Ahmed Ragheb’s testimony, committee member of the fact finding mission, on Morsi’s decision to shelve the committee’s report: “Evan Hill, Muhammad Mansour, “Egypt’s army took part in torture and killings during revolution, report shows,” The Guardian, April 10 2013, <www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/10/egypt-army-torture-killings-revolution>, accessed December 13 2013; See also Mohsen Bahnasy’s testimony, member of the general secertarit of the committee, “Al Watan: fact finding mission refutes Morsi: Criminal court refuses the committees report…and Tal’at: failure in [accountability towards] the killing of the revolutionaries,” al watan, June 27 2013,<http://www.elwatannews.com/news/details/211419>, accessed December 13 2013.
- Stanley, Fish. “Vicki Frost Objects,” in The Trouble with Principle. Cambridge: Harvard U P, (1999), 154.