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Egypt: The Meaning of the Blind Sheikh’s Funeral and the Slaughter of Christians in Sinai

No one should now harbor any illusions about the size of violent Jihadists in Egypt. Just during the last couple of weeks, we were reminded, once more, of the depth of this problem. The funeral of the blind Sheikh Omer Abdel Rahman, who is considered the planner of the 1993 World Trade Center in New York, in his village in Dakahlia, Egypt, has seen thousands of Islamists gathering for the burial ceremony. Simultaneously, Christians in northern Sinai were being slaughtered, literally, at a ratio of almost 3 per week.

Rahman died naturally in a prison in North Carolina February 18 while serving a life plus 15 years’ prison sentence. His body was flown to Egypt. In the beginning, security agencies considered preventing any mass participation in the burial. Then, for some reason, they reached a deal with leaders of Al Jama’a Al Islamiyya, (The Islamic Group-JAI), to let them participate in return for a commitment to avoid politicizing the event and assurances it will remain strictly a religious sermon. Rahman was the religious “reference” of JAI. The permission to participate in the funeral might have been a mistake. JAI decided to turn the occasion into a silent manifestation of force and a message to all concerned.

From 1992 to 1998 the Group waged an armed insurgency against the Egyptian government and committed countless terrorist attacks. Prior to that, the Group participated in the assassination of late President Anwar Al Sadat in 1981.

JAI was built in the 70’s and was allegedly assisted by the authorities of that time to counter the leftist-liberal movement of the students in Egyptian universities. It was helped by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in a division of labor between Egyptian Islamists. According to that division of labor, a part of what has been called then the “Islamic awakening” was to use violence while the other was to introduce itself to authorities as the “moderating” brakes which refuses violence and the safety valve which prevents the growth of terror, but only if the government allows it to expand freely. The rule of the Brotherhood was to be the “political wing” of the movement. JAI was the armed wing.

The funeral of the blind Sheikh was a silent message to the government: We are here. It was meant to leave a psychological impact, and it did.

But on the other hand, those who participated in the funeral were not exclusively Islamists. Yet, the size of participation shows the magnitude of the responsibility of Egypt’s government and security forces. If Egypt takes the advice of the leftists and liberals in the West, it has to accept giving this blind force all the “peaceful” leeway it needs to expand then eventually rule the country. Egyptian security forces are standing as a solid barrier keeping away a wave of terror that could destroy Egypt, threaten the region, and attack many countries in the world. The magnitude of the security forces’ responsibility is clearer after the funeral of the blind Sheikh.

However, this does not justify breaking the law or using torture and the rest of the antiquated and useless arsenal we often see used by the security agencies in Egypt. Maintaining security is a delicate function that should always be seen as political, not technical. As such, it requires sophistication and smarter methods to keep the political balance within a safe zone.  

But in the case of Sinai Christians, Egyptian authorities could not provide the necessary safety. The security situation in that region has reached a point that requires a higher level of regional and global cooperation, or else we may wake up to see a situation sliding fast out of control.

For decades, the Egyptian army resisted all recommendations to modernize its doctrine and to re-structure in order to be ready for the new age of rising terrorism. But now, there are younger commanders, more alert to the rising threat, but also aware of the dimensions of the frightening regional developments surrounding them. It has become the order of the day for the US military and NATO to get together with Egyptian military commanders to discuss Sinai. We see a major security problem in the making just in one extremely sensitive spot of the Mediterranean coasts. In fact, the US military is correctly moving in this direction.

It is clear that the problem of north Sinai is more complex than the Egyptians can handle alone. This is not to shame this proud nation, but the nature of the rising threat, namely terrorism, does not give any country, including the US, the luxury of dealing with it alone. This problem is global. ISIL is present in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. The response should therefore be global as well.

The tragedy of Egyptian Coptic Christian in northern Sinai defies words. They are singled out by ISIL butchers, day in and day out. The word among Islamists is that the Christian West targets Muslims even if they were citizens, then why Muslims should refrain from targeting Christians in Islamic countries even if they were citizens. Haters feed each other on both sides and the victims often have nothing to do with their agendas.

At the time of writing this report, Bustin Kamal, a young girl living in Arish, saw her father slaughtered by ISIL thugs in north Sinai. Few hours later, while she was still crying under shock, they got to her as well and slaughtered her without mercy. It is indeed beyond words to express how armed men gather to slaughter a child in cold blood, all the while thinking that this will grant them a place in heaven. It is barbarism and savagery beyond belief, and it may be also without borders, as it is seen nowadays in many other places including Western countries.

Attempts to tackle the ideological sources of violent Islamists are either nonexistent or very timid, though this is the real problem. Even the attempts by the Egyptian government to reform the popular Islamic teachings that represent the base of all this hate and violence are miserably failing. President Sisi, with his weight and popularity, could not convince the “moderate” Al Azhar to approve a simple reform in the religious procedures of divorce: Instead of the traditional oral divorce which is a right given only to men, the President requested that Azhar mandates a written and registered form for the divorce for any divorce to be enacted and final. He simply wanted to give some room for conciliation between a married couple, in order to explore possibility of saving a family.

The President explained that families should not be broken apart because the father divorced the mother orally while angry or based on a misunderstanding. Currently, if the husband does that, the divorce is final, even if the man changes his mind five minutes later. Sisi just suggested that the couple goes to the religious office of registration to document the divorce before it becomes final. He said that this will give the Sheikh an opportunity to try to mend fences. He also said he opposed oral divorce, which may happen under emotional and momentary pressure. The current law considers such a divorce final even if the husband changes his mind.

But Al Azhar refused that simple reform on bases that Sharia does not allow it, though there were no civil records or modern governments at the time the Sharia was written, therefore, there were no records or registration.

The government in Egypt can certainly perform better in this field only if its economic back is protected. But in the current economic hardship, Sisi has narrower margin of movement. He is too cautious in his confrontation with forces like those who gathered behind the body of the blind Sheikh in Dakahlia or those who slaughter Copts in Sinai. Extending a helping hand to the only power-the power of the Egyptian state-that can clean all this mess has become more urgent than ever. The moment Egypt’s economy will grow to fulfil the popular aspirations, the government will be bolder in implementing the necessary reforms, and in fighting the real and main source of all this violence.

* March 2 2017

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