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Egypt's Constituent Assembly

Egypt is currently undergoing a major political stir concerning the formation of the constitution. The referendum in March 2011 assigned parliament the right to elect a 100 member constituent assembly to draft the constitution, which would be put to a popular referendum after fifteen days. Very little instructions were provided on how this should be done, resulting in the current crisis.

Consistent with their powerful parliament majority, Islamist forces have approved an Islamist-dominated assembly. First they apportioned one-half of the membership to be drawn from parliament, which was distributed roughly according to party percentage. As Islamists represent 70% of this body, they immediately commanded a dominating percentage of the assembly as well.

The remaining half of the assembly was to be drawn from civil society, but the Islamist parliamentary majority submitted the final candidate list only one hour prior to voting, and then pushed through their desired candidates. This list includesseveral prominent non-Islamist figures, but most of these have since resigned in protest over Islamist dominance of the assembly.

The crisis is ongoing, with reformist Islamists seeking to reach out to the disgruntled liberals, while the Muslim Brotherhood engages in an ongoing war of words with the government and military council over the cabinet – which they want dismissed so as to form one themselves (in coalition, they insist, with all political currents) – as well as the presidency. The next few days in Egypt may be very politically telling.

In the meanwhile, this article purposes also to provide brief background on some of them selected members of the constituent assembly I have interacted with or written about in the past.

Only six Coptic members were elected to the body, but one of them is Rafik Habib. He is noteworthy as being a vice-president in the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. A Protestant, he cares deeply for the issues of Copts, but wraps their best future in an Islamic vision.

Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity – April 14, 2011

A more traditional Islamist is Nadia Mostafa, who is one of only six women in the 100 member assembly. She is a professor at Cairo University and discussed with me the relationship between Islam and civil society, especially how the promotion of civil society is often to the exclusion of the Muslim religion.

Islam and Civil Society – April 22, 2010

The final figure I have profiled was former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Nasr Farid Wassel. In a short interview I highlighted his statement honoring Osama bin Laden, but then spoke with an official member of the Azhar to dispute his interpretation.

Refuting bin Laden’s Martyrdom – May 24, 2011

It is certainly a unique body of Egyptians. Will they be able to draft a constitution acceptable to the Egyptian consensus? While already in question, the outcome is still to be decided.

Selecting the next Pope

Near thirty journalists gathered at the Cairo Foreign Press Association headquarters to gain insight on the process involved in selecting a successor to the recently deceased Pope Shenouda. Arab West Report presented its research on the subject, accepting also further inquiries.

The March 27 meeting was opened by FPA board member Sayid Ghuriyat, and presided over by FPA chairman Volkhard Windfuhr.

AWR Editor-in-Chief Cornelis Hulsman began by mentioning the 1957 regulations which govern issues concerning papal selection. AWR published a translation of these regulations into English on the internet for the first time in history, which can be accessed here.

The 1957 regulations make it clear that all papal candidates must be a minimum of 40 years old and have at least 15 years of experience living as a monk in a monastery. Yet other questions of eligibility can be perplexing.

For example, until the 20th Century only monks were eligible for selection as pope, not bishops. This changed for the first time in the 1920s when a diocesan bishop was selected, breaking with church tradition going back to the Nicene Council. The influential but controversial Makarius Monastery in Wadi Natrun supports the idea of returning to this ideal.

Hulsman noted another eligibility interpretation allows for the election of general bishops who do not serve in a diocese but rather in specific fields like education. Then Bishop Shenouda was the first general bishop in Coptic history, and was elected as pope from this position. Given the legitimizing popularity of Pope Shenouda, current Coptic consensus would allow for the election of another general bishop.

Finally, a minority position in the Coptic Church believes it is acceptable for a diocesan bishop to be elected pope. Though done in the past, it is widely believed such an action would contradict the 1957 regulations. The number two man in the church, Bishop Bishoy, is general secretary of the papal council, but also the bishop of Damietta, thus disqualifying him in the process.

Hulsman concluded his presentation by summarizing the research of AWR Managing Editor Hany Labib, introducing the leading candidates for the papacy from the community of bishops. Details of this research can be accessed here.

AWR Researcher Jayson Casper then presented the influence of expatriate Copts on the selection process. Though the population of Copts both within Egypt and abroad is disputed, both high and low estimates establish that between 10-25% of Coptic Orthodox Christians live outside of Egypt.

Many expatriate Copts logically complain they have no voice in the process of selecting the next pope, given the 1957 regulations reflected a situation before widespread Coptic emigration. Two factors limit this complaint however. First, ordinary Copts in Egypt also have little to no voice in the selection process, as it is a largely internal process conducted by the church, and explained further below.

Second, the most influential voice in the electoral process belongs to the bishops of the church, of whom roughly 20% preside over foreign dioceses. This is in approximate accordance with the population of Copts living abroad, so through their bishops they maintain an influence.

Casper provided statistics for these bishops, mentioning them by continent:

  • Africa: 4 bishops in 14 countries with 90+ churches and three monasteries, most of which are indigenous
  • Asia/Australia: 3 bishops in 11 countries with 70+ churches and two monasteries
  • Europe: 10 bishops in 10 countries, including the indigenous dioceses of England and France
  • North America: 5 bishops serving 240+ churches and two monasteries
  • South America: 2 bishops in 2 countries, including an indigenous movement in Bolivia

Nevertheless, foreign Copts have put forward a proposal to have each overseas bishop present ten or so lay members of his diocese to serve on the committee selecting the pope. Approximately half of these bishops are conservative and traditional say these Copts, and ignore the issue. The others have at least sympathetically listened, but it is not anticipated this proposal will be adopted.

Finally, Casper noted that among the often overlooked achievements of Pope Shenouda’s reign was his ability to institutionalize the Coptic Orthodox Church around the world. Not only may this extension of the hierarchy prevent Copts from dissolving into their adopted culture, but positively may result in a revival of Orthodox Christianity around the world, fitting with the church’s original missionary posture.

AWR board member Amin Makram Ebeid, from a prominent and historical Coptic family, then briefly provided his personal reflection on the process. He hopes the next pope will be transitional, so as to eventually return the church to its traditional spiritual role. He nevertheless noted that the sacred and the secular have been mixed in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs, noting the difficulty of the task.

Finally, Labib provided the details of the selection process through the forum of questions and answers. Specifically, those who will select the pope are constituted from the Holy Synod (the presiding bishops), the Community Council (20+ lay members who tend to administrative affairs), and the managing group for Coptic properties. In addition to these are a select number of public figures, journalists, and politicians.

This group of over 100 members first selects a nomination committee of 18, to be composed of nine clergy and nine laity (their names have been made public here). These will tend to all proposed candidates, of whom either five or seven will be accepted. These names return to the larger group for the official vote, and the top three names will then be put forward by ecclesiastical lot, with the final choice made by God.

Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the process should take between two to three months.

Labib noted that interim chairman of the Holy Synod Bishop Pachomius insisted the 1957 regulations will remain unchanged. New interpretations, however, will be considered. Some journalists present believed this would open the process up to undue controversy, but Labib and others disagreed. They found it to be an appropriate adjustment to changed circumstances as well as favoring greater transparency.

For example, Labib returned to the question of whether or not a diocesan bishop could become pope. Though often reported as ‘no’ in the media, the 1957 regulations stipulate that any bishop may become pope. Regulations stipulate also the candidate must be celibate, but herein lies the rub. In traditional Coptic understanding, a bishop is ‘married’ to his diocese. Should this then preclude eligibility for the papacy? Traditionally, yes, but the question is open for reconsideration. Labib echoed church voices, however, in insisting the church is not Tahrir Square. It is an ancient institution not subject to the whims of the street.

Labib was asked about the different trends present in the church. He described two, suggesting the choice of pope might be determined as a choice between these two trends.

One trend he labeled the rigid, almost confrontational. Labib believed this trend was growing due to tensions over the emergence of Islamist groups. Bishop Bishoy is at the head of this trend, as is Bishop Armiya.

The second trend he described as moderate, seeking consensus and conciliation. Bishops such as Musa, Yu’annis, and Marcos represent this trend.

In answering a separate question Labib noted Pope Shenouda was between the two trends, especially over time. While very confrontational before his banishment to the monastery in 1981, he became much more conciliatory after his return. Thereafter his conduct varied issue by issue as he deemed best.

Another question concerned whether or not these trends pertained to intra-church issues such as divorce and relations with other denominations. Another pertained to whether or not ordinary Copts are putting pressure on the selectors for their papal preference.

Labib stated that social issues are not a resonating factor and do not serve to be discussed by the church at this time. These intra-church matters must wait until the election of a new pope and then probably about six months or so afterwards, before they re-emerge for discussion or decision. In any case, if there is a semblance of popular pressure, it consists in the fact that the ordinary Copt is fearful the community no longer has a representative or protector in front of the state and/or Islamists.

One question wondered if the current constitutional crisis and threatened Islamist dominance affects Coptic concerns over the selection of the pope. No, Labib replied, as the selection is a wholly internal matter unaffected by parliament or the constitution. If the church purposed to amend the 1957 regulations this would have needed ratification in parliament, which could have complicated the issue.

To close the press conference after this note Windfuhr remarked that which binds Egyptians together is much stronger than that which divides them, believing Egypt would ultimately succeed in its transitional phase, however difficult it may be. Along these lines he noted that the great majority of all Egyptians received news of Pope Shenouda’s death with emotion and sympathy. Even those who made a show of their rejection in parliament by failing to stand for a moment of silence probably went home and regretted it, he remarked. If not, they were surely rebuked by their families upon arrival.

In appreciation, the Foreign Press Association ended the press conference with everyone standing for a minute of silence.

Is a man as good as his political Islamic word?

Yesterday I had the unique opportunity to visit the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Muqattam area of Cairo. I interviewed their official spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan about a recent document of principles agreed upon by the Brotherhood and the leadership of the Evangelical Churches of Egypt.
It is a very interesting document, and I hope to share a full article about it shortly. For now, I simply wanted to share some pictures of the building as well as brief reflections from the visit.

The MB HQ, labeled in both Arabic and English

From afar; translation: Headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood

The entryway; translation: The Muslim Brotherhood Welcomes its Guests; We Bring Good to All People (slogan of the MB's Freedom and Justice Party)

This final picture is from the reception area, displaying the nine ‘General Guides’ in Muslim Brotherhood history. Though each of these figures deserves further research, here simply I present their names, from left to right in the picture:

Hassan al-Banna (1928-1949)

Hassan al-Hudaybi (1949-1972)

Omar al-Tilmisani (1972-1986)

Muhammad Hamed Abu al-Nasr (1986-1996)

Mustafa al-Mashour (1996-2002)

Muhammad al-Ma’moun al-Hudaybi (2002-2004)

Muhammad Hilal (uncertain)

Muhammad Mehdi Akef (2004-2010)

Muhammad Badie (2010-present)

Our discussion centered on the document of principles establishing citizenship and religious freedom as common values. Still, I also gained some insight into the current political crisis between the Brotherhood, the military council, and liberal parties. Most interesting was the change in demeanor as we navigated certain topics.

It is not useful to read too much into the following, but when Ghozlan justified the Brotherhood for going back on an earlier pledge not to field a presidential candidate, his manner was humble and seeking an audience. He expressed that the media was engaged in deliberate mischaracterization of the group and its intentions, and appeared hopeful his story would be carried faithfully.

In another setting, I hope to, but while I find his explanations reasonable, I stated that for this article in particular I was not seeking political justification, but religious. If Egyptian Christians wish to have hope in the words of this document, how should they respond now that the Brotherhood has gone back on its word not to field a presidential candidate?

I was keen to not be accusatory, but to seek their mindset.

Strangely, his attitude changed. He immediately straightened and delivered justification from the life of Muhammad. It was no longer an invitation to see their political condition sympathetically, but a pronouncement of their non-culpability in terms of religion. I felt, hopefully wrongly, that he instinctively needed to assert/defend the moral high ground of Islam, or at least of their political Islam.

I had the distinct impression the group feels vulnerable and defensive. Indeed, it appears all are against them these days. Could it also be their conscience is pricked, underneath a Machiavellian exterior?

In the media, at least, it seems this is true of many in the organization, despite the official choice of the majority to go against their pledge.

It may be politically expedient and even necessary for the good of all Egypt. But as Muslims, is it right?

Ghozlan gave justification, even if the Christian or merely moral person might cringe – to be written about shortly. I think the pulse of general Egyptian morality will not permit it, though, no matter what presidential choice they make in the end.


Related Posts:

  • Egyptian Demonstrations and the Muslim Brotherhood – February 11, 2011

    Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt

    This text is transcribed from documents received from the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services, headed by Dr. Andrea Zaki, a chief participant in this meeting.
    The text reads:
    Based on a welcoming letter from Dr. Rev. Safwat al-Bayadi, President of the Protestant Community of Egypt and Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki, Vice-President, sent to the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, which addressed some public opinion issues at this critical stage in Egyptian history after the January 25th Revolution and gained the attention of the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, and based on the two parties’ communication, the General Guide called for a meeting to gather the leaders of the evangelical church and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The meeting took place on February 28, 2012, at the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The General Guide has agreed to visit the headquarters of the evangelical church upon invitation.
    The participants consented on the importance of the current historical moment Egypt is going through after the revolution, which requires everyone to take social and historical responsibility to advance the country. The participants emphasized that Egypt’s future depends on community cohesion and unity, and stressed on the basic values of the Egyptian society that represent its social and cultural identity and brings its citizens together.

    The participants agreed on the following:


  • The sons of the country are all partners in one destiny and one future.
  • The joint struggle of all Egyptians of all segments of society, that was manifest in the January Revolution, represents the cornerstone of societal unity; the struggle reflects that full citizenship, based on equality, is the foundation of this society.
  • All sons of the country have the same rights and responsibilities as the constitution states. Equality among all citizens constructs societal unity; efficiency is the only criterion to hold a public position; and equality of economic opportunities is the basis of justice.
  • The Egyptian society is based on solidarity, interdependence and compassion among all people, which represents the bond that includes all citizens without discrimination. Therefore, education should promote the values of tolerance, solidarity and pluralism.
  • Respect for beliefs and sanctities is obligatory. Prevention of any contempt of others’ beliefs and the incitement of hatred is a compulsory social responsibility of loyal citizens.
  • Freedom of belief and religious practices as well as freedom to build or renovate religious houses – in light of the law and the right for citizens to resort to their own religious laws concerning their personal affairs along with other rights mentioned in the Islamic Sharia’ – are all considered part of the values of the Egyptian society and a base for its cultural authenticity.
  • The participation of all citizens in defending the country is the responsibility of all, and it is the crucible where all segments of society are melted and form national unity. This national unity is crucial to fighting all internal and external enemies of Egypt who want to drive a wedge between its societal segments.
  • The religious values are the motives of the renaissance. Therefore, everyone must mobilize these values to achieve a better future for Egypt.
  • Societal responsibility obliges all leaders, institutions and religious movements to fight against all types of strife, intolerance and discrimination, and consolidate the unity of society.
  • The Egyptian society’s identity represents the frame for all its people. All people have made contributions to this identity and deserve its legacy. Protection of societal values is considered the basis of cultural uniqueness and the responsibility of all citizens who contributed to building Egypt’s civilization together over time.

    All participants of this meeting made emphasis on the importance of communication between the two parties to promote joint activities, especially among the youth, such as encouraging active participation, advocating for values and religious morals, and carrying the social responsibility of fighting the illness that affected the Egyptian society under the previous regime. This will guarantee everyone the right to participate in building a new Egypt that achieves the demands and dreams of the revolution.

Attendees from the Muslim Brotherhood:

  • Dr. Mohamed Badie (General Guide, Head of the Executive Office)
  • Mr. Mohamed Mahdy Akef (former General Guide)
  • Dr. Rashad Mohamed Bayoumy (Vice-General Guide)
  • Dr. Hosam Abo Bakr al-Seddik (Member of the Guidance Office)
  • Mr. Walid Shalaby (Media Counselor to the General Guide)

Attendees from The Evangelical Church in Egypt:

  • Dr. Rev. Safwat al-Bayadi (President of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Dr. Rev. Andrea Zaki (Vice-President of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Rev. George Shaker (Secretariat of the Protestant Churches in Egypt)
  • Rev. Soliman Sadek (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Fagala)
  • Dr. Rev. Makram Naguib (Pastor of the Evangelical Church in Heliopolis)
  • Dr. Rev. Atef Mehanny (President of the Evangelical Seminary)
  • Dr. Helmy Samuel (Member of the Parliament)
  • Dr. Rafik Habib (Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services)
  • Rev. Refaat Fathy (Secretariat of the Evangelical Synod)
  • Dr. Rev. Sarwat Kades (Chairman of the Board of Dialogue of the Evangelical Synod)
  • Dr. Emad Ramzy (Secretariat of the Board of Directors of CEOSS)
  • Rev. Daoud Ebrahim (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Rev. Eid Salah (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Mr. Farouk al-Zabet (Head of the Congregation of the Evangelical Brethren Church)
  • Dr. Fready al-Bayadi (Member of the Council of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt)
  • Rev. Nady Labib (Head of Cairo Presbyterian Council)