Donor influence sparks controversy in Egypt's American University in Cairo

EGY070519JW003CAIRO - Seventeen years ago, a Saudi billionaire endowed a chair in comparative religion at the American University of Cairo (AUC) to promote religious tolerance and peace through knowledge.

Over the past two years, though, the donor's son allegedly pressured the chair to give preference to Islam over other religions---or to stop teaching them at all---until the university canceled the professorship completely.

The incident has set off a renewed debate over academic freedom---and whether the elimination of the chair constitutes a violation of it---and over how much control should a university allow over endowments.

Estimated at over $3.5 million, the Abdulhadi H. Taher Professorship in Comparative Religion was the largest endowment for the humanities in the Arabic-speaking world. It was established in 2002 by Saudi billionaire Abdulhadi H. Taher who died in 2013. A former professor that held the chair described it as intending "…to increase understanding of the world's different religious traditions, foster respect and tolerance among persons of different religious traditions, and thereby promote peace between religious communities," according to AUC's website.

Tarek Taher, the donor's son, however, believed the professorship as it was currently being conducted, was violating the spirit of the endowment as his father intended, according to emails reviewed by Al-Fanar Media. He wanted his father's name removed from the professorship and the chair canceled. A request for comment from Taher was not answered.

The university confirmed the change.

"While AUC kept the professor, courses and program unchanged and unrestricted, it agreed with the deceased donor’s son to remove his father’s name from the chair and re-direct his bequest to support unrestricted scholarships for outstanding students who are not otherwise able to attend AUC," according to an emailed statement from the university to Al-Fanar Media.

Adam Duker, a religious historian specializing religious violence and confessional identity in late medieval and early modern Europe, was the fifth academic to hold the professorship. Duker, who started in his position July 2016, taught a “Religions of the World” survey course at the university, lecturing on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

He calls the university's move to dissolve the chair and abolish the title awarded to him "illegal," a violation of his contract and an abuse of his academic freedom.

He said he was pressured to change his instruction following a January 2017 meeting with Taher at the donor's home in Malibu, California over the latter's concerns over how the course on comparative religion was taught to a class made up mainly by Muslim students.

According to email correspondence between Taher and Duker in January 2017, emails from Duker to university officials and Duker's recollections, Duker said Taher wanted to pre-approve lectures and course materials in advance, and encourage his non-Muslim students to convert to Islam. Taher, Duker said, wanted the program to promote Islam over other religions, teach other faiths as if they were "incorrect," and asked Duker to refrain from teaching about non-Abrahamic religions such as Buddhism altogether. Meanwhile, he objected to Duker's use of the Oxford translation of the Koran, which uses the word English “God” instead of the Arabic “Allah.”

Also, Taher wanted the program to have more autonomy and be governed by a partially independent advisory board made up of AUC officials, Taher himself, his wife Jessica, Duker and an outside scholar, according to an email on the California meeting from Duker to AUC administration officials dated Jan. 24, 2017.

Explaining his motivations, Taher said in an email to Duker on Jan. 17, 2017, "I am only looking for the best interest of my father's professorship and make sure it is in line with his vision."

After emails between the university administration, Duker, and Taher, on July 11, 2017, Duker was ordered to stop using the title of the chair by the university Provost Ehab Abdel-Rahman. Duker refused, saying that he was not offered a comparative title or position and that the withdrawal violated the terms of his contract. He was subsequently investigated by the university for using the title and threatened by the university's counsel, Sunanda Holmes, to desist or be held liable for "financial and reputational damage to AUC," according to an email on Feb.6, 2019 to Duker.

He says he didn't stop using the title because it was important to his work and his career.

“I came [to AUC] for two reason. The first was to build the only non-sectarian comparative religions program in the Islamic world. The second was because of the endowed chair,” he said, adding that in the academic world, holding a chair is an honor that opens doors, and that in relation to his research field, Egypt wouldn't have been a draw for him otherwise.

Duker's last class was in mid-May. He has resigned from the university. He says the experience was a significant career setback and doesn't rule out the possibility of a lawsuit in the future.

“I am not litigious and I never wanted a battle," he said. "I just wanted to teach and research and make a difference here in Egypt.

The university, meanwhile, says it didn't have a choice but to dissolve the professorship.

"AUC policy, acting under law, permits the University from time to time to adjust the terms of the gifts by donors, whether living or deceased, striving always to keep faith with the donor’s original intent under the changing circumstances of a dynamic world," according to the email from the university. "It is important to note that while the donor's endowed funds were re-directed to scholarships, the university continued to fund the program, courses and the faculty member retained all privileges."

The university also said it would continue to offer the comparative religion course with another professor.

Correspondence reviewed by Al-Fanar Media between AUC administration and faculty show that the donor had the power to control the endowment including the ability "direct and possibly withdraw funds." Also, university counsel Sunanda Holmes wrote in a Feb. 16, 2019 email to Duker, that "the donor has stopped supporting this professorship which is well within his authority to do so."

Some with knowledge of the contract say it was a disadvantageous arrangement for the university. It was an unusual but not unheard of arrangement, say those with knowledge of such contracts. It's more common for universities to engage donors over their endowments but bar donors from a say in hiring decisions, or how research or teaching is conducted. Most contracts do not give the donor the ability to withdraw professorships.

"There is a general concern within higher education, as there should be, that donors don't control content, that they don't control hiring decisions," said Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, an independent not-for-profit corporation based at New York University that promotes academic freedom. "I'm aware of such situations [regarding questionable strings on donations], but it doesn't mean it happens a lot. The main issue is to make sure people involved in the research and teaching functions of the university are part of the decisions [regarding donor gift agreements] so there is transparency about any terms or conditions for the gift. This would go a long way toward protecting academic freedom and avoiding any misunderstandings or problems down the line."
Some say donor interference is "not infrequent" and unacceptable.

"It happens everywhere---these endowments involve a lot of money and ego and of course the donor wants to control things," said John Waterbury, a scholar and author, and former president of the American University of Beirut. "The university has to insist on full control over how money is used. As president of AUB, I never accepted the right of donors to even be consulted on who filled a chair. This sounds like gross interference in the affairs of the university."

Meanwhile, the issue has set off a debate about academic freedom at the school and whether the donor pressure and subsequent dissolution of the professorship qualifies as a violation.

Some believe it does.

In April, its Faculty Senate Grievance Committee issued a formal finding expressing concern.

"The committee is concerned that the donor was allowed to interfere in academic matters and influence the Provost’s decision to strip Dr. Duker of his title," the committee wrote in its April 6 report submitted to Professor Amr Shaarawi, chairman of the University Senate. "This interference set a very dangerous precedent and infringed on Dr. Duker’s academic freedom."

The committee also expressed concern that Duker was not offered a suitable alternative.

The Middle East Studies Association Committee on Academic Freedom sent a letter June 7 to the university expressing its "deep concern" over the "peculiar circumstances" of the chair's termination, calling on the university to "vigorously respect and defend" academic freedom.

"The protection of both academic freedom and university professional standards demands a separation between the basic framing of the intention of a gift creating an endowed chair agreed upon by a donor and the university, and the process and requirements involved in the actual hiring and academic performance of the chair holder. To put it simply, donors should have no say in who is chosen to fill a chair or what they teach, nor should a donor have the right to terminate a chair once endowed," it wrote.

"Whatever the terms of the original Taher chair agreement, the cancellation of the Abdulhadi H. Taher Chair by the donor’s son and the subsequent repurposing of the donation appear highly irregular," it added, saying that Duker should have been awarded a revised contact.

The university, however, says there is no such violation.

"No member of AUC's faculty or administration has interfered at any time or in any manner with the complainant’s courses, curriculum, teaching, outside activities, or freedom of expression," the emailed statement said. "… Until Dr. Duker’s unsolicited and voluntary resignation in 2019, he has continued to enjoy his full rights and privileges as a faculty member. The university is deeply committed to religious and academic freedom and has stayed true to those values."

Pascale Ghazaleh, chair of the university's history department, which housed Duker’s professorship, says there has never been a threat to Duker's academic freedom.

"He retained his position, retained tenure, remained in the department," she said. "No one told him what to teach or not teach, what to research or not research. This is insulting to people whose academic freedom is actually threatened."

Ananya Chakravarti, who held the AUC chair from 2013 to 2015, says that in her experience, she saw AUC vigorously defend academic freedom.

"AUC has lots of problems," said Chakravarti, now an assistant professor at Georgetown University. "But some aspects of my work could have gotten me into trouble and AUC defended me."

"If this had happened while I was there, I would have wanted AUC to take away the title (in order to) to protect academic freedom," she added, referring to the professorship being dissolved after donor pressure. "The outcome here is right for academic freedom because it means the donor can't affect the academic freedom of scholars within the school."

AUC, the only Egyptian institution of higher learning certified by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education---a US credentialing consortium---sits in a country that has seen academic freedom decline significantly since the revolution in 2011, two regime changes and a general crackdown, also on academia, since President Abdel Fattah El Sisi took over in 2014.

"Under El Sisi, it's proven to be a very difficult place for freedom of speech, freedom of critical inquiry," said Miriam Lowi, professor of Middle East politics at The College of New Jersey, and chair of the Middle East-North Africa wing of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. "Some say it's a lot more difficult than it had been."

Students taking the comparative religions class, meanwhile, say they were not immune from the pressure from the donor or Egypt's current political and religious climate.

A student received messages from Taher complaining of Duker's "misuse of the chair" and that "we felt (Duker's) Zionist direction" and other plans "we stopped when we found out."

Many of Duker's students also said they were dismayed that he is leaving the university because they found the course a great opportunity to engage in open and honest discussions about religions not their own---and even express disagreement---something they said was rare in Egypt.

“As an atheist, I wanted to understand what it is that I am not believing in—especially when it comes to Asian cultures because I've only seen the Abrahamic side of things,” said Alex Ben Ghanem, a 21-year-old economics and computer science major who grew up in a Muslim household.

“But in recent years Muslims in the Middle East have not allowed academic debate regarding the theology of Islam or certain problems within it because you're supposed to believe that it is perfect and that it has come to us from an all-knowing God,” he added. “Professor Duker pointed out epistemological problems with each of the religions.”

On the student fan page for Duker, some students lamented what happened.

"Students and faculty are right to be angry with AUC. But as Dr. Duker says 'anger doesn't solve anything.' So let's step back from anger for a minute to remember why we liked him in the first place.

Dr. Adam is an amazing teacher. He opens religions and ideas that we would never have learned about. He introduces us to real live Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists who we can disagree with and learn from. he shows our shared humanity. professor Duker teaches us how to understand them as they understand themselves and to walk a mile in their spiritual shoes."

Photo: April 29 2019 - Cairo, Egypt - American University in Cairo Professor Adam Duker introduced Egyptian undergraduates to world religions - an influential Saudi donor intervened to stop him. His departure from Egypt raises questions about religious diversity and academic expression at one of the few American accredited universities in the Middle East.
Credit: ARA Network Inc. (04/29/2019)
Story/photo publish date: 06/14/2019

A version of this story was published in Al Fanar Media.

Egypt's president seeks endorsement from the White House

EGYElSissiWhiteHouseCAIRO - Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi flies to Washington Tuesday, expecting the American president to endorse moves in Cairo allowing him to run for two additional six-year terms after the 2022 end of his current mandate.

His visit comes as Israeli voters go to the polls with most indicators pointing to a fifth term for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both men are in the group of Middle Eastern leaders closest to President Trump, and the White sees the El Sisi visit as an opportunity to cement “Egypt’s long-standing role as a lynchpin of regional stability,” according to a statement last week.

It also comes as the Trump administration unveils its “Deal of the Century” peace plan after Israel’s elections, say analysts.

“El Sisi’s visit is in conjunction with the Israeli elections and the American initiative for peace in the Middle East which will be unveiled soon after,” said Sayed Sadek, a political sociology professor at Cairo's American University. “One of the most important points in the agenda of this meeting with Trump is to spell out precisely what is required of Egypt in this initiative and what role it will play.”

“Egypt’s political capital in Washington is that it is a moderate force in the region and prevents the escalation of military conflict between the Palestinians and Israel in Gaza,” Sadek added.

Cairo analysts say that continuity at the top of Egypt’s power structure – with El Sisi’s term prolonged through 2034 – serves historic American interests by expanding the scope of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed by the late President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin in March 1979 when Jimmy Carter was the U.S. president.

After meeting Trump, Sisi will attend a Capitol Hill ceremony to hand out a posthumous award of a Congressional Gold Medal to Anwar Sadat to his widow Jihan.

Not in attendance will be Mohammed Anwar Sadat, a nephew of assassinated president who is one of the leading members of the liberal opposition to the military’s ongoing consolidation of power in the form of a referendum in May on the constitutional amendments to extend El Sisi’s rule.

“These constitutional changes demolish liberties, democracy and the existence of a civil state,” said Sadat, who was stripped of his parliament seat in 2017 on charges that he leaked 'secret information to international institutions’ when he criticized Egypt’s human rights record.

Human Rights Watch estimates at least 60,000 people have been arrested on political grounds in recent years. El Sisi denies that these arrests.

While most voters in Egypt said they were unaware or unconcerned about the Egyptian president's visit to Washington, they were more critical of civil rights and economic situation in the country.

"(I have been critical) From the first moment El Sisi sat in the seat of power and I saw his desire to amend the constitution to grant extended presidential terms,” said Michael Youssef a 37-year-old Uber driver and a former automobile spare parts dealer. “I did not participate in the previous presidential elections and certainly will not go to the referendum on the constitutional amendments because everyone in Egypt knows the result in advance.”

The referendum is due to be held before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in May.

Meanwhile, under El Sisi Egypt has made efforts to liberalize trade, but non-tariff barriers continue to present problems for domestic importers while the poor and middle class have been hit hard by a withdrawal of energy subsidies and steep inflation driven by a 2016 currency devaluation that essentially cut the value of the Egyptian pound by half.
"The increase in prices and the deteriorating economic situation does not make me enthusiastic about anything Sisi is doing,” said Youssef.

Nevertheless, the Trump-El Sisi dynamic is the strongest bond between leaders in Washington and Cairo since the Sadat-Carter partnership brought the Sinai Peninsula back under Egypt’s sovereignty, tore up a pact between the nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser and the former Soviet Union as Sadat forged a strategic defense alliance between the largest Arab nation and the United States.

“The special relationship between President El Sisi and President Trump was built during the 2016 US elections and the words exchanged between the two presidents show their admiration for each other’s views and abilities,” said Tarek El Khouly, 34, a freshman member of the Egyptian parliament. “Trump said he would cooperate with anyone in the Middle East to resolve the conflicts and problems left by the Obama administration and we have witnessed the return of military cooperation between the two sides.”

El Khouly lauds El Sisi for making “difficult economic decisions and undertaking necessary reforms” to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund and launch a massive infrastructure drive even as the military battled an ISIS inspired terror campaign targeting soldiers and civilians in the Sinai Peninsula and against government and Christian targets in the Nile Valley.

“Changing leaders in the middle of the journey to restructure our state and economy just doesn’t make any sense,” said El Khouly, a supporter of the proposed amendments that give the president further power over legislature with a new upper chamber appointed by El Sisi and discretion to nominate his own judges to Egypt’s courts.

The parliament members in Cairo are aware that liberal US think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment and congressmen including Vermont’s Senator Patrick Leahy have slammed El Sisi for his human rights record and a heavy-handed approach to counterterrorism – including the 2015 injury of American professional roller skater April Corley who while on a desert safari was badly injured by Apache helicopters hunting down terrorists.

“Those criticisms that come from Washington will not disappear, but there are also interest groups such as the American business community, friendly lobbies, and the security and defense community who understand that Egypt is a vital partner,” said Karim Darwish, 51-year-old chairman of the parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee. “We want president El Sisi to complete his economic strategy for 2030 and America knows we believe in peace and will spare no effort to achieve it for the entire region.”

Photo: Screenshot of a video post taken from the White House official twitter. United States President Donald Trump (left) hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (right). The post read: "President Trump had a bilateral meeting with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of the Arab Republic of Egypt in the Oval Office this afternoon, followed by an expanded working lunch."
Credit: Official Twitter of the White House (04/09/19)

Story/photo publish date: 04/08/19
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Prestigious Egyptian seminary launches online battle against jihad

EGY190309jw001CAIRO - Long before the ascendance of the World Wide Web, Cairo’s Al Azhar University served as the hub of global Islamic learning, its Grand Imam considered an authority on religious and public life for Sunni Muslims far beyond the borders of Egypt.

But over the years, the seminary’s hold over the interpretation of key Islamic concepts including jihad suffered a setback with the rise of extremist groups including Islamic State – organizations with proven capabilities for deploying digital tools just as effectively as explosive devices.

In response, this 1,044-year old institution decided to up its game.

“(Terrorists) say killing people is great because this is what Allah wants but we say that living in the name of Allah and letting others live is much greater,” said Tarek Shaban Mohammad, supervisor of Al Azhar’s Observatory – a department of the university created to use online channels to moderate and modernize Islam.

“Our work began in 2015 with the electronic tracking of all publications issued by Islamic State and other armed organizations and then we launched a systematic refutation of their flawed fatwas and religious arguments on the internet,” he added.

2015 was a peak year for Islamic State (IS) activity both on and off line.

In Iraq alone, 1,802 civilians were killed in IS-linked violence. The group downed a Russian airliner carrying tourists from Egypt and staged a one-day spree of attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

Meanwhile, IS-supporters operated at least 46,000 Twitter accounts, and a study commissioned by Google Ideas and published by the Brookings Institution found much of the content was graphic: The organization posted images and video of public floggings and executions while its followers praised the violence as mandated by Quranic verses.

With Islam itself under global scrutiny in new and uncomfortable ways, Al Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmad Al Tayeb said it's important to counter these messages.

“Al Azhar, which has for hundreds of years managed to preserve and promote Islam’s real values of tolerance, moderation and knowledge, will have again to step up to shoulder its responsibility in the face of extremist currents that distort our image and refute their false claim to be acting in our traditions and interests,” said Al Tayeb.

Funded by the Egyptian government and the United Arab Emirates, the Observatory has grown to a staff of nearly 100 people who monitor jihadist websites, and debate sheiks who issue extremist fatwas.
The Observatory has taken on the seminary’s task of spreading the “true meaning of Islam” in multiple languages including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili and Chinese.

“Our main goal is to reach Muslims all around the world and to be Al Azhar's eye on the world and the world's eye on Al Azhar,” said Riham Abdullah, an Islamic studies professor at the university and supervisor of the Observatory’s Urdu department.

“We began with English, Urdu, and Swahili," she added. "People forget that most Muslims are not Arabs and do not speak Arabic. Our newest language portal is in Hebrew.”

Videos, multimedia slideshows, frequently updated news feeds which condemn both jihadist attacks and incidents of Islamophobia populate the Observatory’s multilingual web page that extends its reach via social media outlets including Facebook and Twitter, officials say.

“This approach reflects a change to the pattern in which Al-Azhar was operating,” said Ziad Akl, a researcher at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Egyptian government. “The observatory shows that the institution is no longer satisfied with reacting to radical claims when a Jihadist terrorist launches attacks.”

“Through the Observatory, Al-Azhar is thoroughly and meticulously searching for radical content and responding to it, which means that the Observatory allows Al-Azhar to take initiative,” Akl said.

Despite recent substantial territorial setbacks in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State is still calling on supporters across the world to stage attacks in their defense, with the organization releasing a new audio online recording this month.

Its “Sinai Province” branch remains active between the Suez Canal and the Gaza border and last month, it tweeted out a claim of responsibility for an attack that killed 20 Egyptian soldiers.

Some analysts say Al Azhar’s historic role and its status as a traditional institution and as an Egyptian government-directed body hinders the Observatory’s ability to reach disaffected youth who have adopted anti-establishment political and religious mindsets.

“Developing narratives to counter extremism are obviously very important but I am not sure that Al Azhar is the right institution for the job,” said Khaled Diab, the Egyptian-Belgian author of “Islam for the Politically Incorrect."

“People vulnerable to radicalization are suspicious of and distrustful toward formal institutions – and Al Azhar is very much part of the establishment,” said Diab. “This causes shaky street credibility among disenchanted segments of the population, and the explicit positioning of the Observatory as a counter-terrorism effort sounds a bit like preaching to the choir.”

Diab also said that the Observatory’s effort to demonize and discredit the Muslim Brotherhood by likening it to Islamic State limits its grassroots effectiveness.

Last month, the Observatory accused the Muslim Brotherhood of following the lead of the Islamic State and other terror groups in an attempt to “spread chaos, implement secret agendas, and trying to threaten Egypt’s peace and security.”

The Observatory's remarks came in response to a Feb. 23 statement issued online by the Muslim Brotherhood calling for a "revolution in Egypt that will put an end to oppressors and retaliate the death of martyrs.”

Meanwhile, Al Azhar officials say they don't take all the credit for recent gains in combating digital jihadists. But they add they do have a role to play.

“What I can say is that over the past two years, we have seen a decline in the volume of propaganda released by IS online as well as major losses in territory," said Mohammad. "And I think that by challenging both jihadi and Islamophobic ideologies, the Grand Imam and Al Azhar have renewed our place at the center of Muslim discourse.”

Photo: March 4, 2019 - Egypt Online Observatory - Cairo, Egypt - Islamic studies instructors and language specialists monitor and counter jihadist online messaging at Al Azhar University's digital center just blocks away from its original 10th century mosque and madrassa.
Credit: Jacob Wirtschafter/ ARA Network Inc. (03/04/19)

Story/photo publish date: 03/28/19

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

Egypt’s new capital on a operatic scale - figuratively and literally

EGY190209JW003CAIRO - Since 2950 BC, Egypt’s pharaohs, sultans, and kings have moved the country’s capital 25 times in an attempt to restructure governance, reflect geo-political changes, or reinforce an image as a transformative leader.

Now 23 centuries after Alexander the Great transferred Egypt’s seat of power from the Nile city of Memphis to Alexandria in the north, President Abdel Fattah el Sisi is building a massive $45 billion national administrative center in the desert 50 miles from downtown Cairo.

Critics call The New Administrative Capital grandiose and unsustainable. However, supporters say construction has helped drive unemployment to below 10 percent– the lowest since 2011 when a popular rebellion toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

"Cairo’s infrastructure is really old, and the government had two choices,” said Mohamed Abdalla, president of Coldwell Banker, Egypt. “Either fix the old water, transport, and other systems in a 1,000-year-old city or start building something that can absorb the growth and make us competitive with the rest of the world.”

Egypt’s population is rising at the staggering rate of two and half percent annually, producing more than two and a half million people every year. That means this nation of 101.17 million must accommodate a population roughly the size of Houston annually.

The sheer force of its population growth will likely place Egypt at number seven in the world’s top 10 economies by 2030, according to a Standard Chartered Bank survey released in January.

Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Cairo alone costs Egypt 3.6 percent of its annual GDP, according to the World Bank. And the UN’s Water Development report found that 35 percent of the city’s water is leaking out of dilapidated pipes.

“I had my doubts about the project when the government first started talking about it,” Abdalla admitted. “But I’m much less worried now seeing how things are developing.”

As contractors rush to build highways, offices and housing many say there is a new energy in Egypt over the project.

“As a matter of fact, it is bringing a lot of excitement to the real estate market,” said the Coldwell Banker executive as officials here point to the completed construction of the first 10,000 housing units

Developers surveyed by the Cairo real estate researchers Investgate reported last month that they had sold 24 percent of the available single-family homes, 40 percent of the condos and 100 percent of the available duplexes and townhouses in the new city.

And the sales figures drive an argument that el Sisi needs to build even more new cities to accommodate exponential growth in Africa's third largest economy.

The new capital’s first phase extends over 65 square miles–Washington D.C. is sixty-one square miles – and 80 percent of that land has been sold to developers since President el Sisi committed to the project in 2015.

Eventually some 20 residential areas will be built to accommodate 6.5 million people.

A three-phase plan foresees a 270 square mile city–the size of Singapore – for 36 government agencies, foreign embassies and major companies.

“The Egyptian government is the largest employer in Africa,” said Cairo management consultant Hesham El Abd. “By forcing the civil servants to move, el Sisi can reduce the bloated bureaucracy and finance this game-changing project. Local and international investors are happy to see him meet both of these goals.”

Fifty thousand civil servants –of nearly 5.5 million public sector employees – were notified in January that by next year they will be reassigned from their downtown Cairo offices to freshly built buildings in the new city.

“Once the ministries move, their downtown facilities become a revenue stream for the state which can sell or rehabilitate them for housing or commercial use,” said Ahmed El Helay, government relations coordinator for Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD), the state-owned corporation building the new city.

ACUD’s shares are allocated in a 49 to 51 percent split between Egypt’s Housing and Defense ministries.

Last month Egypt’s president dedicated the new capital's grand mosque which can hold 16,000 worshippers. The Al-Fattah al-Aleem mosque is now Africa’s largest– and is inscribed with el Sisi’s middle name.

Next month the president is scheduled to inspect the administrative capital’s opera house– a multiplex the size of 42 rugby fields with theaters, a contemporary art museum and a huge library.

Some Cairo residents say their megacity of nearly 30 million people – is being sacrificed for an easy fix: They point to decades of neglect of the city's infrastructure, historic buildings and a lack of rules and vision to maintain affordable housing.

10 Tooba, an urban studies think tank, has published reports demonstrating that the same amount of state funds are allocated to the desert suburbs where only 2 percent of Egyptians live as on the infrastructure for existing cities in the Nile Valley – including Cairo – which house 98 percent of the population.

“The New Capital siphons away financial and technical resources which can be redirected to serve local communities where they already live,” said Omnia Khalil, a planner and urban anthropologist at 10 Tooba. “It’s being built for certain social classes and excludes the majority of ordinary people who should be the target of development.”

Open debate over the new capital and other megaprojects has become increasingly restricted after the Egypt’s parliament passed a broad censorship law in June banning websites deemed to "compromise national security or the national economy."

But foreign critics including Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington have slammed the new city as another authoritarian measure by el Sisi who is on course to push through constitutional amendments allowing him to stay in power for another 12 years.

“It might be that by 2020 or thereabouts, Sisi will ensconce himself in his new gated Green Zone, surrounded by just enough military officers, civil servants, and foreign diplomats to create a faint hum of traffic, but far enough from the jostle and bustle of Cairo that he need never worry about another angry crowd protesting outside the presidential palace,” said Dunne.

Back in Cairo, Gamal Bekheet, a 65-year-old year poet says he supports the idea of building a new capital city.

“And above all else I wonder how the city can bear this dry name, The New Administrative Capital," he said. "It clashes with everything that is beautiful about it.”

Photo: New Administrative Capital, Egypt - February 9 2019 - Fifty thousand civil servants – out of nearly 5.5 million public sector employees –were notified in January that by next year they will be reassigned from their offices in and around downtown Cairo to freshly constructed buildings in the new city.
Credit: Jacob Wirtschafter/ARA Network Inc. (02/09/2019)

Story/photo publish date: 03/07/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Libya's Benghazi slowly rising from the ashes

LBY190209MD01Benghazi, Libya - Hassan al-Mogharbi usually tries to look at the bright side. On a recent day, he stood on the empty, exposed concrete platform that was once his bedroom and pointed across the street.

"Five families used to live there," said al-Mogharbi, 43, who with his wife and six children fled the fighting in this city in 2014. "Now, that building is gone. So I consider myself lucky."

This area in downtown Benghazi was once the epicenter of the "New Libya": It was where the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi began in February 2011 – on Courthouse Square just next to Shahat Road where al-Mogharbi lives. It's also where years of war raged
between Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) and a coalition of armed groups including Islamic State, and left the city in ruins.

It's been a little over a year since the fighting stopped. And residents like al-Mogharbi are trickling back, hoping to rebuild, and get on with their lives. It's a monumental task: According to the residents, 70 percent of the homes on Shahat Street have been destroyed. Al-Mogharbi's house, like many others, is missing its roof, walls and everything inside.

"When I saw it for the first time, I couldn't stay – it was too painful," said al-Mogharbi of his home. Still, he's buying tools and building materials in the hopes of repairing his house. He says he wants to bring his family back in six months.

In fact, many residents here are infusing new meaning into DIY repairs, and it's easy to mistake residents for construction workers these days. Al-Mogharbi, who works as a civil servant in the Ministry of Health, spends his spare time looking for reinforcing bars and other wall supports littering the lots of bombed out buildings to fix his house. It's dangerous because of unexploded mines left by Islamic State but he has no choice. The price for new ones has more than doubled over the past five years due to skyrocketing demand, and he, like most of his countrymen, is already barely making ends meet as it is.

And he can't expect to receive any help.

Nidal al-Kaziki, spokesman for the city, estimates that reconstruction of the town will cost about $36 billion, and that families should get $700 per square meter depending on the size of their home to help with reconstruction. He quickly adds that the municipality doesn't have the money. The city would appeal to the federal government for funds but that poses another problem.
Which one?

Libya currently has two administrations: The international community only recognizes the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. But it has no power or authority in eastern Libya including Benghazi. The other one, the Tobruk government based in the East, does. But it has no money.
Representatives of the Lebanese firm, Solidere, which rebuilt downtown Beirut after its civil war ended in the 1990, say the problem in Benghazi goes beyond the ruin.

"The main issue is that there is no law which defines who owns this or that land, so it is hard to attract investors even if the project is huge," one Solidere official told the Washington Times privately.

Meanwhile, the streets are dangerous. Cables hang freely on the streets and electric panels sizzle when it rains, a major hazard, especially for children. Abdurahman Saad, 60, says bought a PS4 video game console to entice his grandchildren to stay inside.

Meanwhile, his apartment remains unusually intact.

"A sniper lived in the building," he said, by way of explanation.

Saad says he prefers not to think about what happened in the building during the fight. “I like to speak with my neighbors who came back about what will happen in the future, how the area will be rebuilt, and how fast, not about what the terrorists have done inside our walls."

Looking to the future, the city is abuzz over possible elections later this year. Libya needs to be united with one government, most agree, for the country to move forward. Here, many look to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army, as the only candidate that can defeat terrorists and get the country on track.

"Haftar liberated us. He has been the only one to fight for Benghazi, meanwhile the Tripoli government and the international community did nothing," said Adel Sherif, 55, who returned to the house in Benghazi in October where he, his father and his grandfather were born. "But we needed to get back to a normal life."

Analysts say Haftar's LNA is using the desperation in the east and especially in Benghazi to position itself to takeover nationally.
"The LNA is an organization modelling itself off the Egyptian army and seeking to be the dominant authority in all areas under its control, heavily involving itself in Benghazi’s civil administration and economy," said Tarek Megerisi, an analyst in Libyan affairs at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The creation of the LNA investment authority and the LNA’s past behavior suggests that the LNA will not engage in the thoroughly planned, inclusive and transparent reconstructions process Benghazi needs, but rather seek to politicize it and profit off of it," he added
Regardless, to fully rebuild, Benghazi needs the energy of its residents, money and the rule of law.

So far, at least, it has peace, residents say.

Hamed Hassi, a famed local singer, plays for his friends almost every day at the Benghazi Café, a hopping venue that faces the Mediterranean Sea.

"We come to remember how it was before the war, when the area was the heartbeat of Benghazi," said Hassi, recalling how the neighborhood known for its boutiques, cafes and the waterfront promenade where families used to stroll.

"Now, we cannot look at the streets, it's too painful to see how it is destroyed," he added. "That's why we come to this café where you have a nice view of the sea, it's soothing.”

Still, some say that in spite of devastation, they are happy to be back in Benghazi.

"It was very frustrating to rent a small apartment far from home while other people use your property for destruction," said Saad. "So, as soon as it was possible, we came back.”

Now, he added, "We want our life back as it was before."

Photo: November 29, 2018 - Benghazi, Libya - A typical destroyed building in downtown Benghazi. The area was the epicenter of the war fought between Haftar's LNA forces and a coalition of Islamist brigades and terrorists groups from 2014-2017
Credit: Maryline Dumas / ARA Network Inc. (11/29/2018)

Story/photo published date: 03/06/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

The water politics of Egypt and Ethiopia

EGY damCAIRO – Anxiety over water is growing in Egypt as Ethiopian leaders press forward with plans to build a massive dam that would block the flow of the Blue Nile.

Addis Ababa started construction of the massive Grand Renaissance Dam in 2011 when Cairo was consumed with the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.

Slated for completion in 2022 – four years behind schedule – the $4.8 billion-dollar dam would be the seventh largest dam in the world and Africa's largest hydroelectric power plant.

"It's one of the most important flagship projects for Ethiopia," said Seleshi Bekele, the country's minister of water, irrigation and electricity.

But the 510-foot-tall, 5,840-foot-long structure would give Ethiopia control over the headwaters of the Blue Nile, the source of 80 percent of Egypt’s water.

Egyptian concerns about potential water shortages have put the regional powers at loggerheads, said Mustafa Kamal, an analyst at the government-affiliated Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

“The negotiations have been sputtered and diplomats have not made any progress for almost nine years because Ethiopia will not back down from filling the reservoir and continues to move forward with the project without considering the concerns of the Egyptian side,” Kamal said.

Egyptian officials insist that international agreements signed in 1929 and 1959 give Egypt rights to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year. Sudan, which lies between the two countries, receives 18.5 billion cubic meters annually under the agreements. The Blue and White Nile Rivers combine in Sudan, forming the Nile River that empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Those agreements also gave Egypt a veto on any projects proposed on the river. Egyptians are angry that Ethiopia moved forward in 2011 without consulting them during the most turbulent year of the Arab Spring.

“It was upsetting to see the last Ethiopian Prime Minister take advantage of the chaos in Egypt to push ahead with this project at a time he knew there could be no consultation with anyone in Cairo,” said Ahmed Noubi, who owns a sugar cane farm south of Luxor.

The timetable for filling the reservoir is the most critical problem for Egypt. The faster Ethiopia fills the dam, the less water will flow to Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia could theoretically fill the reservoir to full capacity in three years. But Egypt is insisting on a prolonged timetable of up to a decade.

Egypt is already near the United Nations’ threshold of water poverty, or only 1,000 cubic meters per person.

“In light of the continuous population increase in Egypt, it is certain that we will face many difficulties and a water disaster is in store during the period that Ethiopia fills the dam reservoir,” Kamal added.

But Ethiopian leaders asserted that the dam is necessary to power their fast-growing economy. Three-quarters of Ethiopia lacks electricity.

"It's not about control of the flow but providing opportunity for us to develop ourselves through energy development,” said Bekele. “It has a lot of benefit for the downstream countries."

Noubi agreed but said Ethiopia could have acted differently.

“Ethiopia has a right to electricity, but they could have built a series of smaller dams and we would not be looking at years of drought as they fill the huge reservoir behind the Grand Renaissance Dam,” Noubi said.

Scandals have dogged the project in the past year.

In May, a Nigerian executive and two employees of the company providing cement for the dam died in a roadside shooting as they were driving to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The project’s former chief engineer, Semegnew Bekele, was found shot dead inside his car in July. Around the same time, inspectors found defects in power turbines installed by the Metal and Engineering Corporation, a company owned by Ethiopia’s military.

The Egyptian public has reveled in the setbacks.

“Allah is generous, this is a gift from God to the Egyptians,” exclaimed popular TV talk show host Amr Adib recently. “I tell our brothers in Ethiopia take your time and be patient, no hurry. Even better, dismantle the whole dam, we can send you engineers from here to do it.”

Meanwhile, Cairo has enacted stringent new water saving measures.

Last week, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi inaugurated several greenhouse projects with the ambitious aim of increasing Egypt’s agricultural output fourfold while reducing water consumption by about 60 percent. In October, Egypt’s Housing Ministry signed a contract with the US-based Fluence Corporation to build three small seawater desalination plants for $7.6 million. Sisi has also reduced water to rice and sugarcane field, two staples of local agriculture.

“I think the government is trying to do its very best,” said Hany Hamroush, professor of geology and geochemistry at the American University in Cairo.

Hamroush was worried about how Egypt would replace water that the dam might restrict. But he was also concerned about the stability of the dam, which lies near a fault line.

“Recent studies indicate that the rate of accumulation of mud in the reservoir behind the dam can be really very high and that eventually a huge amount of sediments can accumulate,” said Hamroush. “The accumulation of mud will exert real pressure on the base of the dam. This will make it a risk factor if, God forbid, there is an earthquake.”

Photo: Screenshot from a drone video of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam under construction in November 2017.
Credit: Courtesy of the Ethiopian Embassy in the United Kingdom YouTube Channel. (11/09/17)

Story/photo publish date: 01/02/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Islamic State gone, but corruption is back in Mosul, Iraq

IRQ180414AB001MOSUL, Iraq – Iraqis recently celebrated the first anniversary of the defeat of the Islamic State.

But, as construction cranes slowly rebuild the regions where the jihadists ruled until December 2017, echoes of the insurgency are still rebounding here in the country’s second-largest city.

Residents of Mosul said they are increasingly facing the same corruption that bedeviled their city in the runoff to the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg rise to power in 2014. Government soldiers and local militia groups that run the city routinely commit human rights violations like racketeering, unjust imprisonment and extortion.

"In prison, they threatened not to set me free and that they will accuse me with other terrorist crimes if I did not pay $30,000," said Mohammed Omar, a 30-year-old who has an engineering degree but owns a clothing store. "The longer I delay paying, the more I’ll have to pay.”

Omar's family sold a plot of land to pay the sum. They had been planning to build a house on it so he and his brother could marry and start families.

Security forces arrested Omar in June when they stopped him at a checkpoint and found his name on a list of wanted criminals and jihadists. They beat him and threw him into prison for two months.

But he was falsely identified, he claimed. Authorities routinely arrest people with little evidence other than their names matching those on a list of fugitives. Many Mosul residents avoid passing checkpoints out of fear of their names appearing on such lists.

Around 350,000 people have the same name on a list of 60,000 terrorists, according to Ahmed al-Jubori, a member of parliament representing Mosul who belongs to the Civilized Alliance Tamadon, a coalition of left-leaning political parties.

"There are no accurate statistics on the number of detainees held by Iraq's security authorities," said Mustafa Saadoun, director of the Baghdad-based Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights, who corroborated al-Jubori’s figures. "However…we know about hundreds or even thousands being released every month as false suspects. In Nineveh alone, we have documented 100 cases of mistaken names, but we believe the numbers to be much higher."

Last October, in an attempt to address a rash of false imprisonments, former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered officials not to arrest anyone before checking their four names, a common practice in Arab culture. "This is a measure to stop arresting innocents due to mistaken names and leave criminals and terrorists free," said General Faisal Kazem Al-Abadi, police commander in the eastern province of Diyala, said at the time.

Government forces share the names of the lists, according to human rights advocates, to help militia forces raise money via extortion.
“They knew I am from a well-known family,” said Omar, who was arrested in again in October on suspicion of terrorism but then released without having to pay. “But they kept contacting my family threatening them to get money."

Corruption like Omar’s experience was prevalent before 2014. It was among the reasons why many Mosul residents, who are largely Sunni Muslim, welcomed the Islamic State, who are also Sunnis, when they invaded the city and kicked out the mostly Shiite Muslim government forces.

"Relations between citizens and security forces were bad and unstable because of al-Maliki's bad policies and the sectarian practices of some of the security forces,” said political scientist Ali Bashar of Bayan University in Irbil, referring to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who left office in 2014 in disgrace as government forces ceded territory to the Islamic State. “People's reactions were sectarian, likewise. That enabled terrorist groups to fill the gap.”

In July 2017, Mosul’s residents applauded the government forces when they defeated the Islamic State and retook the city. But the victorious militias are now plundering Mosul like the government forces before them, said Bashar.

"They took control of some buildings and lands, managing resources like gas stations and hauling the debris of destroyed buildings,” said Bashar.

Mohammed al-Nu’aimi, 62, an owner of a gas station in Mosul, knows the problem firsthand.

“I feel as if we are working all the time to pay royalties to the militias,” said al-Nu’aimi. “They force us to pay illegal monthly taxes in large amounts to fund their forces although they receive salaries from Iraq’s government.”

Al-Nu’aimi blamed the militias, which originally formed to beat back the Islamic State, for the recurrent high fuel prices and shortages in Mosul.

"They would block the roads to the gas stations that refuse to pay,” he said, adding that his complaints to local officials have amounted to nothing. “It is a way to force us to pay, apart from filling their cars with gasoline for free and skipping the line at stations. No one can utter a word."

While the militias prosper, the rest of the city is suffering.

Youth unemployment is around 80 percent, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Most of the older, western side of the city is still in rubble. In other sections of the city, regular people are struggling to move on, too.

Last year, Saad al-Jubori, 40, a civil servant at Mosul’s water department, bought a plot of land in east Mosul where he hoped to build a house. But officials blocked him.

“After months of tiring bureaucracy, one of the region’s military officers told me that I would not be allowed to build my dream house because it is located close to a weapons depot and military housing,” said al-Jubori. “Nobody would compensate me. Have they come to protect or strangle us? We were happy when they liberated our city. But now we are living in a new prison.”

As for now, the security situation, seems stable, but such increasingly growing wrath can turn everything upside down.

“The Islamic State was a result of corruption, corrupt military leaders and local tension,” said Bashar.

The same problems were rampant today. He worried Mosul residents or another group might rise up in a new insurgency in response to them.

“These problems should be solved to secure a long-term stability,” he said.

Photo: Nov. 25, 2017 - Mosul, Iraq - Tower of the 19th century historical Clock Church stands sky high as surrounding buildings crumble down in Old Mosul.
Credit: Courtesy of Ali Y. Al-Baroodi/ ARA Network Inc. (11/25/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 12/30/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

In the rural Coptic heartland, shifting Christmas traditions embraced and debated

EGY181912FH002EL-KOSHEH, Egypt – This Coptic Christian village about 280 miles south of Cairo calls itself “Little Jerusalem.”

Around this time of year, many of the village’s 40,000 residents are recalling their frequent pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which always include a stop at Bethlehem’s Nativity Grotto.

“We make our own Papier-mâché scenes of the Grotto of Christmas as a symbol of the holy infant who was born poor in a cave,” said Ne’mat al-Qumos, 52, a vice principal at El Kosheh’s public high school.

Like most other Orthodox Christian communities in the Middle East, Egypt’s 20 million Copts visualize the birth of Jesus as happening in a cave, not the wooden stable in the manger scenes prevalent in Europe and the United States.

El Kosheh’s biggest nativity grotto and nine-foot tall Christmas tree decorate the courtyard of the Church of the Martyrs and the Archangel Michael, the largest of ten congregations in the town.

Evergreen fir trees don’t grow in the Nile Valley, so the Christmas tree is a relative newcomer to a landscape of sugarcane, wheat and cotton fields and date palms.

“The Christmas tree did not arrive here until after the big massacre,” said al-Qumos, referring to inter-religious violence in a January 2000 clash with Muslims from a neighboring village that erupted after the Copts refused to convert to Islam. Twenty-one local residents were murdered. Some were crucified.

Today, the violence persists despite President Abel Fatah El Sissi’s vociferous support for their community, including giving Coptic civil servants the same paid leave to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem as their Muslim peers receive to make the hajj to Mecca. El Sisi has also attended Christmas celebrations in Cairo.

Earlier this month, rogue security guards shot two Christians outside their church in Minya. In November, Islamic militants ambushed three buses carrying pilgrims on their way to a remote desert monastery, killing seven people and wounding 19.

“We needed joy after the bitter grief we lived, and the beautiful lights and adornments of Christmas trees helped us,” al-Qumos said.

Still, as plastic trees imported from China have become ubiquitous in the rural Coptic heartland, shifting Christmas traditions are simultaneously embraced and questioned.

“The tree is certainly a new phenomenon, as is Santa Claus’” said 62-year-old homemaker Angel Marcus. “But I still stick to my grandma’s old holiday recipes of grilled Nile tilapia and mackerel even though many of my neighbors have started making meat dishes like roast beef and Turkey.”

Church historians agree that the original Saint Nicholas was born in Asia Minor in 280. Legend holds that Nicholas spent unexpected in time in Egypt when a storm knocked his Holy Land-bound ship off course to Alexandria. the Mediterranean port city that for the last 1,900 years has served as the official seat of Coptic popes.

“In Eastern Churches, Nicholas’s miraculous rescue earned him the title of the patron saint of sailors,” said Yousra El Gendi, an author of scholarly books on the community. “The red-robed Santa Claus is a new bit of iconography in Egypt particularly for the rural Copts. These things were not seen in Egypt until the British effectively occupied the country in the late 19th century and French Jesuits and Italian Franciscans built hospitals and schools.”

Now El Kosheh’s townsfolk are also discussing controversial proposals to move the date of their Nativity feast.

Because they follow the Julian calendar, this community celebrates Christmas Eve January 6 and feasts are held on Christmas day January 7. Some now argue that this ancient Orthodox community should change the date to the period from December 24 through December 25 as a sign of global Christian unity.

Two years ago, Roman Catholic officials and Copt leaders started exploring steps toward mutual recognition of baptism rituals, pilgrimage sites and even reconciling their liturgical calendars.

Bishop Anba Epiphanius, who was also the abbot of St. Macarius Monastery, was the point man in Coptic Pope Tawadros II’s efforts to reconcile their church with the Vatican.

But in July Epiphanius was killed by two monks with links to a murky group called “The Faith Protectors” who are vehemently opposed to changing the dates of scriptural readings, Christmas and Easter.

The Faith Protectors have gone as far as threatening to disrupt any attempts to move the date of the holiday.

“We are happy with the idea of collective celebration provided that our loved ones come to us in our time to celebrate with us as we also celebrate in the same way that our Apostles gave us, " said the association’s founder, Mina Assad Kamel.

Al-Qumos, the high school administrator, characterizes the Faith Protectors as extremists. But he believed the Coptic church should keep its unique calendar. “Those guys are fanatics,” he said. “I see nothing wrong with Santa Claus and Christmas trees. But I think changing Christmas for some kind of political rapprochement with the West is wrong.”

But 31-year-old truck driver Malam Allam, who hauls the boxes of plastic trees 40 miles from the provincial trading center of Sohag to El Kosheh, said the date change is inevitable and would be inspiring.

“Modern transport and technology is erasing the difference between the countryside and cities and even between Egypt and Europe,” said Allam. “Pope Twadros sees this as something beautiful, and I agree to unify Christmas with the Western world so we all celebrate Christmas at the same time.”

Photo: EL-KOSHEH, Egypt - Upper Egyptian shopkeeper Mousa Khory arranged Christmas tree decorations for the upcoming holiday celebrations.
Credit: Fady Hadny/ARA Network Inc. (12/18/2018)

Story/photo published: 12/26/2018 

A version of this story was published in the Religion News Service.

Soccer, ultras and civic duty in Morocco

MoroccoTeamCASABLANCA, Morocco - On that glorious night, they stood on their seats for almost the entire game, arms aloft, shouting, cheering, booing and, most of all, singing. Lyrical chants filled the air that chilly November evening. There was a sea of green - their team’s color - on their shirts and on the flags they waved. Artistic graffiti decorated the stadium.

The fans shared an immense love for and loyalty to the Raja Athletic Club of Casablanca (RCA). They sang and sang until the final whistle, savoring every word of songs that expressed the passion in their hearts. Raja was facing AS Vita Club of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the first leg of the CAF Confederation Cup final, one of Africa’s major soccer tournaments.

It was hard to focus on the action on the field because the supporters captured most of our attention in the stadium. The most engaged ones filled Curva Sud, an area in the bleachers where the hardcore fans known as “ultras” traditionally watch the games. The seats are cheaper, the view isn’t great, but it’s where every diehard fan wants to be. Even the Moroccan players, as they warmed up before kick-off, filmed the crowd with their smartphones, seemingly in awe of the enthusiasm.

One man in a green cap had driven from Marrakech, a journey of 150 miles. Another took the one-hour bus ride from a neighboring city. Some kids walked to the stadium. Two women who haven’t missed a single game this year brought their young cousin along. Families filled the stadium hours before the game started. A space that was once almost the sole property of men is seeing more women. Recently, there has been an online campaign against sexual harassment—in which the Raja ultras themselves participated, vowing to make the stadiums safe for women.

During the second half of the game, the tension mounted. Raja finally scored. The air smelled of smoke bombs set off in celebration. Then a revolutionary chant exploded in the stadium. In unison, they sang in Moroccan Arabic “Fbladi Dalmouni,” or “In my country, I suffered from injustice.” The lyrics are astonishingly controversial for a country where jails are filled with hundreds of prisoners of conscience. This defiance spoke of economic hardship, a lack of freedom, and an ardent desire for change.

I spoke to Zakaria Kamal, a PhD student in sociology, who had traveled from Mohammedia, a city nearby - a trip he has made countless times since he was a boy. He said that the resentment heard in the singing is born out of frustration with life under a restrictive government. “These days, the national anthem feels like a way to force patriotism onto us, so our reaction has been to boo,” he explained.

“In this country, we live in a dark cloud. We only ask for social peace,” the crowd chanted uproariously. “They left us as orphans, waiting for the punishment of the judgement day. Talents have been destroyed, destroyed by the drugs you provide them. How do you want them to shine? You stole the wealth of our country and shared it with strangers.”

In Casablanca, there was a time when people locked themselves in on nights of soccer games for fear of the city descending into chaos as fans swirled through the streets, destroying everything in their path. But in recent years in Morocco, a country of 35 million people, soccer fans have developed a sense of civic duty, a political consciousness.

In September, when the Moroccan Royal Navy killed a young college student, Hayat Belkacem, as she tried to cross illegally into Spain, soccer fans in Tetuan in northern Morocco marched from the city center to the stadium dressed in black T-shirts and chanting, “We will avenge Hayat,” and “The town wants to know who killed Hayat.” They went on to boo the national anthem in the stadium, a game that was playing live on national TV. Some were arrested and jailed, including the man who called for the protest.

And this sort of political activism in soccer stadiums across the country hasn’t wound down in the weeks since then. The song “Fbladi Dalmouni” has become a cultural phenomenon since its release in 2017, and by this past summer it had evolved into a rallying cry of an entire generation of Moroccans fed up with the lack of opportunities in their country. One video of fans singing it has had more than 3.5 million views on YouTube.

Soccer protest is not a new phenomenon in Morocco. As far back as the 1920s, when the country was under the rule of the French Protectorate from 1912 to 1956, soccer stadiums offered a place to display resistance to the colonial power—and this tradition has persisted since independence, according to Abderrahim Bourkia, a Moroccan sociologist who has written at length on the soccer ultras. “The ultras have always ‘overlapped’ between football, social and political demands and have often shown their ability to mobilize and politicize in a summary and limited way the stands of stadiums,” he said. And the state has never figured out, in his view, how to handle such open displays of dissent.

Today, the North African kingdom is in the midst of a seismic but uncertain shift. Social tensions are growing—and so is the crackdown.

In 2011, when dictators were ousted from other countries in the region, such as Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Moroccans also demonstrated in the streets and won some reforms. King Mohammed VI responded to the protests at the time with dialogue and pushed for constitutional reforms and new elections. But he largely ignored demands for real democratic change, including fighting corruption and a more equitable society. Today, the discontent hasn’t quietened down. If anything, it has morphed into unrest.

The last two years have seen a rise of protest movements that have been met with harsh repression, as Human Rights Watch recently denounced in a report on the trials of protesters in the Rif region that the group deemed unjust. In the north of the country, months-long protests started in late 2016, following the death of a fishmonger at the hands of the police.

Protests have erupted in other parts of the country, such as Jerada, a mining region that has been plagued with unemployment since a large coal mine closed nearly two decades ago. Desperate people in the area have been extracting coal illegally under very dangerous conditions. The death of several miners sparked protests in 2017. In response, the government jailed demonstrators.

Across the country, the protesters’ demands are essentially economic. They want better services and economic opportunities. Instead, hoping to boost the economy, the state favored major infrastructure projects along the Tangier-Marrakech corridor, including modern highways, a new port, and a free trade zone near the city of Tangier. But these measures have done little to curb unemployment.

Many journalists and activists have paid a price for speaking up. The Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly criticized the harassment and unfair trials of Moroccan journalists in recent years. In the face of the arrests of protesters, Moroccans have found innovative ways to voice their anger without taking so many risks. For example, a popular boycott of major suppliers of milk, bottled water, and petrol forced the companies to lower their prices. At the same time, severe criticism of the system—and the king himself, a previously extremely sensitive subject - has emerged on social media. Soccer protests have also become one of the less risky outlets to voice discontent.

Rather than making efforts to placate citizens, though, the state shows no sign of backing down. Morocco just decided to reinstate compulsory military service (rescinded in 2006), a costly venture in what seems to be a clumsy attempt to solve youth unemployment and, possibly, quiet critics. But the official response has only fueled popular anger. On July 29, Mohammed VI used his throne day speech to issue a stern warning to critics of the state. Just minutes earlier, that same evening, soccer fans were chanting “Fbladi Dalmouni” along the coast in the Casablanca stadium.

Some weeks ago, I received an email from my friend the Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa, one of the few politically outspoken intellectuals here, drawing my attention to the way that song had gone viral. A measure of how far the song has traveled, literally, was a recent video posted by Moroccans who sang “Fbladi Dalmouni” as they made an illegal crossing to Spain.

“This song has moved me in inexpressible ways,” Taïa wrote. “It is powerful because of its simple and direct words, by its political audacity, and by the revolution it intends to initiate and reactivate in Morocco.” He saw in it irrefutable proof that the Arab Spring was not dead, but more alive than ever. “Its incandescent fire is still there, in their hearts and consciences,” he told me. “This political and postcolonial song gives me a huge amount of hope.” His feeling has been echoed in a message that members of the group Gruppo Aquile, which wrote the song, sent me via Twitter. They didn’t want to meet in person, fearing for their safety.

The band, themselves Raja ultras, said that the team is their main muse, but they also find inspiration in their daily lives - and that is how their lyrics end up being political, because they inevitably address whatever is hurting Moroccan youth: the feeling that they’re insignificant, that it hardly matters whether they’re alive or dead.

“Behind the title ‘Fbladi Delmouni’ hides the difficulty of living, the feeling of being a foreigner in your own country,” they wrote me. “Before being a supporter of a football team, we are Moroccan citizens. We live in a dying society, and the youth is asphyxiated.” The song, they said, was written at a time where there were mounting confrontations with the authorities, which were restricting fans’ activities in the stadium: giant banners called tifos were banned, and other flags and displays were forbidden. They don’t feel that they represent the entire supporter base of their club, but they still find pride in the thousands of people their song has touched.

Casablanca’s Raja Athletic Club’s fans were banned from stadiums in 2016, after two fans were killed during crowd clashes at a game against Chabab Rif Al Hoceima. That ban was finally lifted only a few weeks ago.

Maha Nabil never misses a game. She was raised by a single mother in a family that has supported the RCA for decades. A native of Casablanca, she has been on a sabbatical from working in sales management for a few months, using her free time to help unaccompanied minors who fled their homes to settle on the beaches of Tangier in the hope of making the crossing to Europe. And when she’s not visiting them, she’s supporting her team.

I accompanied her to the November final in Casablanca. Earlier that day, she took me, along with another RCA supporter, Karim, around Derb Sultan, one of the oldest working-class neighborhoods of Casablanca, where people share the love for the two local teams (the other being Raja’s historic rival, the Wydad Athletic Club), a love that colors the walls with stunning graffiti.

The excitement of the game was already palpable that morning. Stall-holders had set up tables to sell flags, jerseys, and all sorts of accessories. Young men already dressed in green were gathering to start the three-mile hike to the stadium. Nabil hadn’t eaten all day; she was too anxious. Before the game, we stopped at her apartment so she could pray. “I can never go to a game without praying first,” she told me. But she was also worried about the ultras. A large number of riot police were deployed at the stadium, ready to intervene.

“They are against the system, and dozens of policemen are standing in their faces,” she said. “They’re trying to provoke them.”

Some observers see similarities to the part played by soccer fans in the uprising of Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution in Egypt. But according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and a specialist in soccer and politics in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco is different from Egypt, where there have been a series of deadly clashes between ultras and the police. In Morocco, the ultras have largely been tolerated, aside from occasional arrests.

“Nothing rivals the intensity of emotions of religion but soccer,” Dorsey said. “You can’t close down the mosque and you can’t close down the soccer pitch.”

Besides, the ultras have been resistant to cooptation and infiltration by the state - unlike many labor unions and other citizen associations across the country. For now, the authorities let the fans sing. They can’t arrest so many thousands of people.

As for the young people who fill the stadium, it’s not clear whether they’ll ever be willing to participate in some more concrete form of opposition. At times, their song almost seems to celebrate lost hope. “You have destroyed an entire generation,” goes the refrain. “You want to kill us, but we are already dead.”

Photo: Nov. 11, 2017 - Mohammedia, Morocco - Screenshot of a video recording Moroccan football fans celebrating Morocco's qualification in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia in the port city of Mohammedia, Morocco.
Credit: Courtesy of Moon Productions Youtube Channel. (11/11/2017)

Story/photo publish date: 12/20/2018

A version of this story was published in the New York Review of Books.

Texas man contributing in Libya's reconstruction road

LBY170921MD005BEIDA, Libya – Civil war, the Islamic State and waves of African refugees bound for Europe have made this country one of the most unstable in the world.

But the chaos is not deterring Michael Guidry, a former Texas state trooper who manages the Guidry Group, a Houston-based crisis management company. Guidry is trying to build a new $1 billion port in Susah, a coastal town 20 miles northwest of Beida, the country’s fourth-largest city.

For years, Guidry’s core business has been protecting corporate clients from kidnappings in unstable countries. He’s now turned to infrastructure investment in high risk areas where he sees potential for security stabilization and economic growth. Three years ago, he won a contract to build the deep-water port in Susah. He now hopes to break ground in 2020.

“At the moment we are the only American company working in Libya but I’m hoping we can start to pave the way for other U.S. firms to assist us in rebuilding the country,” Guidry said. “I don’t think it’s good for America if the Russians or Chinese get in before us.”

Guidry’s work is a sign of how Libya is poised to return to economic growth if it can avoid more widespread violence.

Farmers have resumed cultivating grapes, peaches, almonds and pistachios in this region around 120 miles east of Benghazi, for example.

That activity comes as Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Hafter declared victory over rival militias and Islamist fighters in the eastern harbor city of Derna and handed control of the oil ports under his authority to the country’s national oil corporation this summer.

“Hafter and the Libyan National Army did the impossible when his fighters took on ISIS the so called Islamic State and freed the east,” Abdalla Alhasse, a 40-year-old financial and trade consultant in Beida, referring to Hafter, who brought in enough fighters and heavy weapons to dislodge the Islamic State. “We want help for business and to build our country.”

But Alhasse had little time for the European diplomats who met in Palermo, Italy recently to discuss the future of Libya. The Europeans said they would help the country hold nationwide elections in June 2019. But they couldn’t broker an agreement between Algerians and Egyptians over who should train Libyan security forces, and Italian and French negotiators disagreed over how the elections would be held.

“The Palermo talks were more an event for the Italians to confirm their status as a power broker in Libya,” said “They are basically arguing with French over who gets to profit from our oil resources.”

Other experts felt American involvement could tip the scales towards growth, especially if President Donald Trump wanted to find a replacement for Iranian oil after he reimposed sanctions on Tehran. Washington has agreed to let China, India and six other countries keep buying Iranian oil despite the sanctions, but only temporarily.

“With almost 50 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves – the largest in Africa – and at such high quality that you can actually put it in an engine and it will run straight away – we can help the world escape from the Iranian alligator,” said Ahmed Shebani, a construction engineer from the western city of Misrata and founder of the Democratic Party of Libya.

A secular leader who calls for “separation between mosque and state” and civilian control in a country run for four decades by military dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Shebani said Libyans want American administrative expertise and professional management.

“We Libyans can finance this plan from our sovereign funds,” said Shebani “It is imperative that the American administration manage these funds to prevent theft and embezzlement and we are desperately in need for technical assistance from Washington to disburse this money and provide the technical expertise.”

Security and Policy Analyst Wolfgang Pusztai, chairman of the Advisory Board of the National Council on US-Libya Relations, said American support will be needed for a stabilization period lasting as long as six years before the country would be capable of providing security and achieving economic progress.

“The American main focus with regard to Libya until now has focused on counterterrorism operations,” said Pusztai, who was optimistic about a UN-sponsored summit in January when international negotiators would iron out plans for the June vote. “We hope the convention in January could be a real chance to change the path of the efforts for stabilization and mechanisms to use oil revenues as a glue to keep the country together.”

Meanwhile, the American administration slapped sanctions last week on Misrata militia leader Salah Badi after determining that the warlord was undermining Libya's government and stability.

"In August 2018, Badi ordered action against rival militias aligned with the GNA [the UN-backed Libyan government] exacerbating instability in Tripoli," the State Department said in a statement. "In addition, forces under Badi's command have used Grad rockets in highly populated areas, causing indiscriminate destruction and casualties, including emergency responders and ambulance workers.”

Shabani acknowledged that the security situation was precarious.

“Sometimes we do get in the crossfire between the different warlords,” he said. “These guys have strangulated the capital of Tripoli and we are locked up in our houses while they constantly keep taking new wives and fill their bellies every night with roasted lamb.”

But entrepreneurs like Guidry rather Italian and French officials were most likely to help, he added.

“We need American support to eliminate the threat that the warlords, the counter-revolution and the old Arab order all pose to democracy and the rule of law in Libya,” he said.

Photo: September 21, 2017 - Sirte, Libya - Damaged buildings along a road by the coast. Holes filled with grey cement on the walls are stigmas of the 2011 battle during Libya's revolution.
Credit: Maryline Dumas / ARA Network Inc. (09/21/2017)

Story/photo published: (12/12/2018)

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

South Sudanese see hope in new peace deal

SSD011018001JUBA, South Sudan – John Achiek Mabior lost his father in his country’s five-year-long civil war.

“He was shot on his left thigh and later died of the gun wound,” said Achiek Mabior, a 30-year-old Juba resident, adding that he was lucky. “Many lives have been lost since the war started. People are suffering because there’s no provision of basic needs by the government.”

But despite South Sudan’s moribund economy, tribal conflicts, periodic famines and other hardships, Achiek Mabior is hopeful about a peace deal signed last month by President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar.

“I am overjoyed because peace has finally been restored in our country and this mean we will now rebuild our lives and people will live in harmony,” he said.

He said it has been his wish to see the warring parties reach the deal to end the conflict that has worsened poverty in the country.

Kiir and Machar signed the deal in Ethiopia on September 12. It’s not the first time they reached a truce. But fighting re-erupted after those previous deals. While violence has continued in various parts of the country in recent weeks, South Sudanese officials said that fighting reflected local conflicts rather than civil war.

Eight African countries in the region as well as the African Union are serving as guarantors of the peace. The deal also more extensive power sharing than previous agreements.

“The process allowed for those who didn’t have an opportunity to have their voices heard to begin putting across their various viewpoints,” said South Sudanese Vice President Taban Deng Gai in a recent speech at the United nations.

Eunice Amer Manyok and her neighbors in the capital have suffered so much, she said, they had to be optimistic or else would fall into despair. It was clear that neither side would win the war, she added.

“As women of South Sudan, we have suffered enough,” Amer Manyok said. “enough is enough. This is a time we now need to implement this peace agreement fully.”

A recent U.S. State Department-funded study found that almost 400,000 people have died in the civil war. Half of those people died in fighting. Disease, lack of healthcare and other disruptions to public services claimed the rest.

Amnesty International also released a report this month accusing government forces of carrying out war crimes in northern Unity state, a rebel stronghold. The report described soldiers burning civilians alive, slamming children to death against trees and other horrors.

Under the deal, Machar will regain his position as vice president. Amer Manyok felt that move would satisfy rebels and potentially reign in errant government soldiers.

“This one alone has given us a lot of hope and faith that the president and opposition leader will work together,” said Manyok, who is chairperson of the Women's Block of South Sudan, a loose coalition of local women groups campaigning for the women’s rights,. “So I think now enough is enough for them and this is why I think they will implement this peace.”

Dennis Scopas, another Juba resident, also felt that a transitional period of eight months under the pact would help the parties rebuild trust as they implement the agreement in the next three years.

“The eight months will address a lot pending issues such as the number of states, bills and permanent constitution among others,” Scopas said, referring to issues that Kiir and Machar are supposed to iron out.

University of Juba Political Scientist James Okuk said the agreement would hold because both sides are fatigued. “People are tired of war and you can’t mobilize young people anymore to go and fight the massive war like they used to do,” Okuk said.

The government is also running out of cash amid punishing sanctions imposed due to human rights abuses perpetrated during the fighting, Okuk added. The rebels are finding it hard to sustain their effort after years of fighting, especially if they have been crossing into neighboring countries where they must elude foreign forces.

“Survival outside in the neighboring countries is very tough for the opposition,” said Okuk. “Both the warring parties are facing tough economic sanctions directly or indirectly and that sanction don’t allow them to pursue war further.”

Lastly, the African Union is seeking to make a test case of South Sudan as part of their campaign to end wars and rebellions in Africa in the next two years. “The African Union wants to see to it that this war comes to an end,” he said.

Not everyone was positive.

Atem Simon, a Juba-based journalist, had little faith in the African Union or anyone else who was supposed to guarantee the peace. Their promises haven’t help in the past, he said.

“The lack of the international community’s political will and financial support toward the South Sudanese leaders will hinder the implementation of the deal,” Atem said. “It is not going to lift people’s suffering.”

But Thomson Fontaine, a citizen of Dominica who is deputy chief of staff of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, which is monitoring the peace deal, hoped renewed oil pumping would help revitalize the country’s economy and convert naysayers like Simon.

“Full compliance to the agreement is very critical to build confidence and provide an enabling environment for the much-needed focus on the growth of the economy among other things,” Fontaine said.

Photo: September 10, 2018 - Juba, South Sudan - A woman hold South Sudan flag as it wave in the air after receiving South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir from Juba International Airport recently in Juba, after returning from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia after signing the final revitalized agreement to the end the five years strife in the world’s newest country that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of others from their homes.
Credit: Majak Kuany/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: October 8, 2018

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Arab leaders skeptical about Trump's 'Deal of the Century'

Oct 2, 2017-Gaza, Palestine an old woman holding a poster of Abbas as a way to support the reconciliation. (Photo by Mohammed Atallah | ARA Network Inc.)CAIRO - Even as the White House moves to unveil its’ “Deal of the Century” vision for Middle East peace, it’s increasingly clear that that Arab enthusiasm to partner with President Donald Trump on a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is faltering.

The central thrust of the plan – which Arab leaders have reportedly asked the Trump administration to withhold – is to focus first on an economic development program for Gaza with similar incentives applying to the West Bank only if Palestinians concede permanent control over Jerusalem with large settlement zones for Israelis and a limited sovereignty arrangement that is several steps short of full independence.

But after a year of shuttle diplomacy and multiple meetings with leaders in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Amman and Cairo, American envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have failed to convince Egypt or other key Arab states that the US can broker a fair solution.

“Most of the Arab world – including Egypt and Saudi Arabia – have rejected the US-proposed Deal of the Century,” said Saad El Gammal, head of the Egyptian parliament's Arab Affairs Committee.

El Gamal and other critics of the emerging deal say detailed planning for a free trade zone or building power and desalination plants in Gaza before tackling the political questions of Jerusalem, borders and refugees is side stepping core Arab concerns.

“Trump’s claims of ongoing support to the peace process are entirely false,” said El Gammal pointing to the administration’s move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May and American efforts this summer to shut down UNRWA – the UN refugee agency assisting Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan.

The refugee quandary emerged again last week amid reports that Kushner proposed that the more than 2 million registered Palestinians living in Jordan no longer be listed as “refugees,” a word that implies a right to return to land inside Israel.

It’s a disappointing turn around for Arabs who remember the May 2017 photo op in the Saudi capital Riyadh where President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt, King Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Trump jointly grasped an illuminated globe at an anti-terrorism summit.

President El Sisi had particularly high hopes to co-broker a Middle East solution with the Americans, securing a good relationship with Trump and reaping economic benefits from a new arrangement in the region that would place Egypt at the center of a regional energy hub and attract international – especially Saudi – investment.

“Working together we can find a solution to the problem of the century in the deal of the century,” Sisi told Trump in an April 2017 White House summit.

But peace seems as elusive as ever.

Over weekend, two Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire and another 60 injured at a protest along the Gaza border amid ongoing Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire.

Israel has faced a summer long assault from Gazans with incendiary kites and balloons burning fields in farms bordering the Palestinian enclave that is also adjacent to the Egyptian-controlled Sinai.

“The continued escalation against unarmed civilians in the Gaza Strip and the tension it causes has dangerous implications for regional security and stability, “said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry after an Aug. 7 meeting with Greenblatt, a lawyer with 20 years of service in the Trump Organization – and no prior diplomatic experience. “The basic living needs of Palestinian refugees cannot be separated from any concept of a lasting, fair, and comprehensive solution.”

Shoukry’s sentiments are echoed in Jordan where UNRWA provides direct assistance to 1.1 million Palestinians in 10 refugee camps whose population includes those who fled in the 1948 War that created Israel.

“The right of return of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, these are red lines for all of us,” said Sadah Habashneh, a member of parliament from the southern Jordanian city of Karak. “It is impossible for Jordan to be party to such an agreement, as it will be the most harmed by the so-called ultimate deal.”

In July, the US State Department released nearly $200 million of military aid for Egypt withheld previously over human rights concerns, a move that has tempered the official critique in Cairo of the Kushner-Greenblatt plan.

“Our policy regarding the "deal of the century" is clear,” said El Sisi in a July 29 speech at Cairo University. “We say (Israel should pull back to) the pre-1967 borders and a Palestinian state should be established with East Jerusalem as its capital, and I just want to tell you that we are quietly playing this (peacemaker) role with the parties on that issue.”
But reluctance to accept Egyptian efforts to mediate a truce between the nationalist PLO administration in the West Bank and Hamas – the Islamist faction – is an ongoing source frustration for Cairo where security officials have tried to support a return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza.

Egypt has failed to bring the different Palestinian factions together in a series of “reconciliation talks” since Deal of the Century plans first emerged after Trump’s election.

“It’s obvious that what the US and Israel mean by reconciliation is not what Egypt means,” said Mohamed Gomaa, a researcher specializing in Palestinian affairs at Al Ahram Center, a Cairo think tank close to the El Sisi administration. “Israel wants to see the Palestinian center of gravity move to the Gaza Strip and establish a long-term functional sharing of the West Bank. But Egypt wants a Palestinian national unity government operating between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the National Security Council began canvassing the State Department and other US government agencies seeking volunteers to join the Kushner- Greenblatt Mideast peace team as they move to publicly announce details of their plan already shared with Arab leaders.

But these efforts are not going to raise the dim view of the “deal” pervades the hookah cafes and television talk shows regionwide.

“So far, no one has come out to tell us the full details,” said Ahmed Abdeen, a 31-year-old Cairo political commentator and frequent guest on the Al Araby TV satellite channel. “But it looks like a quasi-state for the Palestinians that legalizes the Israeli occupation.”

“I do not think that the US position today can be called mediation since mediation means neutrality to help reach a solution," he added. "America under Trump's administration has adopted the Israeli position completely.”
A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

In Iraq, children go to school and increasingly, the alter

IRQ-childmarriageISTANBUL – For young women like Farah Ismail in Baghdad, marriage was tantamount to a financial transaction.

“My father is a contractor who went bankrupt,” explained 22-year-old Ismail. “We went to live in my uncle’s home. His wife suggested that it would be smart for me to marry her brother.”

“Dad felt this marriage was a way to show his gratitude to that family – it was his way to pay back the favor. I was only 13, while he was 30,” Ismail said, adding that her relatives at the time gave her cold comfort about her imminent wedding night. “On the day when the Sheikh came to make the marriage, I cried a lot and loudly. They were just laughing and saying, ‘What’s wrong, he will not take you right now.’”

It's stories like these that underscore how times have been hard for women in Iraq.

Between 2013 and 2017, falling oil prices, the rampaging Islamic State and other internecine conflicts shrunk Iraq’s GDP from $235 billion to $197 billion.

In same period, early marriage for young women and girls skyrocketed.

Early marriage figures for Iraq are startling.

In 1997, 15% of Iraqi women wed before 18, according to government statistics. That was six years prior the U.S. invasion that toppled its brutal but secular dictator Saddam Hussein.

By 2016, two years after the outbreak of a sectarian Sunni vs. Shiite civil war and the rise of the Islamic State who by then had imposed a harsh version of Islam on around a third of the country under its control – Iraq’s early marriage figure jumped to 24%, including nearly 5% who married before age 15.

Now child advocates worry that the recent inconclusive Iraqi election – and the disarray it has left in government – will allow advocates of early marriage to reintroduce a popular bill allowing the different sects to set their own age of consent.

Advocates fear child marriage will rise even more.

About one in five girls in the Middle East and North Africa marries before age 18, according to the United Nations. The practice varies across the region, from as high as 32% in Yemen to 3% in Algeria.

“It’s important to underscore the impact of conflict on the incidence of early marriage,” said Ivana Chapcakova, a child protection specialist with UNICEF in Iraq who runs programs to reduce gender-based violence like sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation and child marriage, including in refugee and internally displaced communities.

Iraq’s religious and ethnic conflicts have dispersed 3.3 million civilians, forcing families to flee their homes, separating breadwinners from their traditional trades and compelling children to drop out of school.

A 2017 study by the global anti-poverty group Oxfam found a direct correlation between the rise of child marriage in Iraq and war-induced poverty and terror.

Many survey participants said arranging girls to marry their cousins was a coping mechanism to prevent daughters from wedding Islamic State fighters. Others said giving daughters as child brides to jihadists would ensure their safety, access to public services in occupied territory and livelihood opportunities for the entire family.

In those circumstances, marrying off a mouth to feed makes sense, said Basma Habib, a feminist activist from Sulaymaniyah, a part of Iraqi Kurdistan where Islamic State cells still operate despite the military collapse of the caliphate in the past year.

“There’s a reason we see higher rates for early marriage in displaced persons camps,” said Habib. “Poverty also forces parents to get rid of their daughters thinking that she might obtain a better life and protection of a man.”

Muslim societies place a high value on a women's “honor" before marriage, she added. “Families want to marry daughters off earlier to get rid of the danger that their girls might get a bad reputation,” she said.

The religious argument for early marriage carried the day in Iraq’s parliament last November when lawmakers favored a measure to allow each of country’s religious groups to set their own legal age for a girl to wed. For the majority Shiite sect of Iraqi Muslims, that age could be as young as 9. Just 13 of the 170 lawmakers present voted against it.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blocked a final vote needed to enact the law.

Currently the Iraqi parliament is disarray since lawmakers failed to extend the legislative term until they approve a recount of votes from the May election.

But there’s the widespread expectation is that Shiite Muslim religious politicians will reintroduce the bill when parliament reconvenes this autumn.

Islamic Virtue Party lawmaker Hamid Al-Khudhari, a sponsor of the Iraqi marriage bill, has declared that marriage is “the best way to protect young women from rape and harassment by giving them the security provided by a husband and the blessings of religious matrimony.”

Critics insist lowering the age of consent for marriage age legalizes child sexual abuse and denies girls the opportunity to pursue education or join the workforce.

“The law violates international human rights conventions and is humiliating to women and enables pedophilia,” said Siham Wandi, a former Iraqi diplomat and child protection advocate. “I see no religious justification for such a law.”

But throughout the Middle East, fundamentalists have moved to try to lift marriage age restrictions put in place in an earlier era when secular states set limits with the goal of improving the status of women, emphasizing opportunities for work and education aligned with nation building development goals.

Late last year President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the “mufti law,” which allows religious officials to perform marriages once males and females reach puberty. The most recent U.N. statistics from Turkey show that 15 percent of women in the country marry before the age of 18.

In Egypt, Salafi clerics in rural areas have clamored to lower the marriage age from 18, arguing girls mature earlier.

Women should be younger than the men they marry, said Mahmoud Bahi El-Din, a leader of Ma’zun Sharia, an Egyptian group of conservative Sunni clerics.

“It’s unjust to make the age of marriage identical for men and women,” he said. “A girl’s womanhood develops early, so there should be at least a two-year difference between the bride and groom. A girl doesn’t have to marry a guy her age.”

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi opposes such a measure – in part due fears in Cairo of a population explosion. El Sisi has called on lawmakers to criminalize child marriage.

Still, more than half of girls in the countryside marry before turning 18, according to the National Council for Women, an Egyptian government agency. The country's Ministry of Religious Endowments- the state funded Muslim authority – suspended an imam in October after learning he had performed more than 20 marriages of underage girls.

“I was wed at 14 in a marriage arranged by my parents,” said Nuha Oum Ahmed 35, now living in Cairo with her husband and with three daughters. “These matches were considered normal in the small villages of Upper Egypt. None of my daughters will marry before they are 18 and I will let them choose their own husbands.”

Reversing the trend will be difficult, said Chapcakova, especially because its victims are often young, uneducated and disempowered politically and socially. “Breaking away from the thinking that there is some benefit to girls from child marriage is going to take a long time and will demand a comprehensive approach,” she said.

Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.

Photo: This picture was created by a young girl during an art session at one of the safe spaces supported by the UNFPA in Kurdistan region, Iraq. Credit: UNFPA
Story/photo publish date: 8/13/18

A version of this story was published by Public Radio International

Egypt's "Two-child policy"

EGY170913003CAIRO – The economy is forcing Egyptian authorities to become increasingly explicit about family planning, one the most private of matters in this traditional, majority Muslim country.

As Egypt’s population hits the milestone mark of 100 million, President Abel Fatah el-Sissi is rolling out a campaign called “Two is Enough.”
Supported by the United States and United Nations as essential for Egypt’s economic development, the campaign is not like China’s harsh rule limiting children. Instead, authorities are doing their best to persuade young couples to stop at two kids.

“The two biggest dangers that Egypt faces are terrorism and population growth and this challenge decreases Egypt’s chances of moving forward,” el -Sissi said recently.

Egypt’s unemployment rate fell from 11.3 percent in the first quarter of last year to 10.6 per cent in the same period this year, according to the most recent government statistics. But the country still needs to create jobs for almost a million people entering the workforce annually.

Even more worrisome, Egypt is already at the “water poverty” line, or what the United Nations defines as acute water scarcity. The country’s water shortage is likely to worsen when Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir behind the Grand Renaissance Dam expected later this year, a move guaranteed to reduce the volume of water in the Nile River as it flows northward toward Egypt.

In addition to a media campaign encouraging fewer births, the “Two is Enough” campaign is giving maternal and child healthcare services and cash support to 1.15 million women in the country’s poorest families.

“I heard about the campaign on Facebook,” said Rosie Bakhoum a 25-year-old mother of one in Sohag, one of the 10 governorates in Egypt where the birth rate is more than 3 children per woman. “The ideal number of kids in rural Upper Egypt is still four (to work the land) but I think this program will succeed because honestly, economic conditions are forcing us to have smaller families.”

The government is calling for fewer babies amid sharp increases in the price of food and transportation in the wake of a three-year, $12 billion bailout program inked by el-Sissi's government and the International Monetary Fund in 2016 that proscribed cuts to state subsidies for gasoline, electricity, and water and devalued the Egyptian pound.

To help cash-strapped officials in Cairo, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is providing the Egyptian government with $19 million over the next five years to help state-run clinics and public health non-profits increase contraceptive use and improve women’s health. The United Nations Population Fund has also allocated about $6 million dollars for reproductive health services in Egypt this year.

“We know that USAID family planning programs have made tremendous impact in the past,” said USAID Mission Director Sherry F. Carlin, referring to how fertility rates fell from 5.8 children per mother to three under former President Hosni Mubarak. “We stand poised again to be a part of the solution to the rapid growth in Egypt’s fertility rate.”

The push is a reversal from recent Egyptian policies.

In the six years between Mubarak’s forced departure during the Arab Spring and el-Sissi's current initiative, family planning projects were not well funded, and the birth rate started rising.

Support for birth control was pulled during the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, whom el-Sissi overthrew in July 2013. Since then, state funding for healthcare has been slow to bounce back during Egypt’s six year-long economic crisis.

Women’s rights advocates also argued that legalized abortion must be an option for the government to slow population growth to its target of 2.4 children per woman.

“The campaign needs to reach beyond 10 governorates – young men need to be included in education efforts – and abortion needs to be a legitimate and legal option for women in addition to contraception,” said Nada Nashat, an attorney at the Cairo-based Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance.

But Egyptian law bans abortion. Women who undergo abortions and doctors who perform them can face three or more years in prison.
Already under fire by Islamic fundamentalists for promoting more equality for Coptic Christians and battling Islamic State jihadists in the Sinai, el-Sissi is unlikely to move to legalize abortion any time soon.

But officials acknowledge that gaps in medical service must be bridged for the “Two is Enough” program to succeed.

“The role of nurses is particularly important given that up to 30 percent of women may stop using birth control because they cannot access advice when it is needed,” said Randa Fares, a coordinator for population programs at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the government's central welfare agency.

Other key economic and cultural barriers to reducing family size remain.

“Many believe more children offers more economic support in old age,” said Fares, referring to how millions of Egyptians enter retirement without a pension in Egypt. “Also driving up birth rates is competition between sisters-in-law over who has the most children and concerns that if they do not give birth to a son, husbands may take another wife.”

Nader reported from Sohag.

Photo: September 19, 2017 - Luxor, Egypt - A local boy rides the Nile ferry. With Egypt’s population set to double over the next 50 years scientists and policymakers are increasingly worried about water security for the country's youth.
Credit: Mina Nader/ ARA Network Inc. (09/19/17)

Story/photo published date: 07/05/18)

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Once a de-escalation zone, Syrian city is now a "dumping ground"

SYR-130617AAISTANBUL - Idlib is under siege from within and without.

Since January 2016, Syria’s internally displaced have arrived in the northwestern city and its surrounding province bordering Turkey at the rate of one person a minute as they flee fighting in their country’s civil war, according to the United Nations.

Meanwhile, jihadist groups who control much of the region are seeking to impose their version of Islamic law on residents and refugees in Idlib.

This week alone, roadside bombs, targeted assassinations and firefights claimed 163 lives in Idlib, according the London-based Syrian Observatory.

Multi-sided battles that include the Free Syrian Army, the Al Qaeda-affiliated Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the terror group’s main chapter in Syria, another Al Qaeda-linked militant group called Haras Al Din, or the Guardians of Religion, and remnants of Islamic State forces are a daily occurrence. While Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a militia led by Al Qaida’s former Syrian affiliate, has faced military setbacks in Idlib in recent months, it still controls about 60 percent of the territory.

“The situation in completely out of our hands and we are exhausted from this continuous war and displacement,” said physician Ali Kamal, an evacuee from the rural Homs province town of Waer that surrendered to Syrian government forces last April.

Last year, Idlib was declared one of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria included in a Russian-sponsored agreement brokered between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and rebel forces. But people on the ground said the agreement was a farce.

“How can you call this a de-scalation when a Russian missile destroyed a 12-storey building where we operated a clinic?” said Kamal, who works for a network of health centers supported by the Syrian American Medical Society in Idlib. “Meanwhile the criminal gangs and extreme groups are kidnapping specialist physicians and asking for ransoms.”

The jihadists are giving the Russians a pretext to attack and a reason for Western donors to pull back from efforts to assist Idlib civilians. Tragically, that’s hurting locals.

“HTS does not have a base within the local population,” said Ammar Kahf, executive director of Omran for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, referring to Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. “Most of the local population rejects them and we are publishing our field study in July documenting how many state that they are publicly against HTS and how many are coerced into to collaborating with them.

The extremists number less than 10,000 fighters, he added.

“It’s important not to exaggerate the size of HTS,” Kahf said. “What the Russians have done is, haphazardly target the civilian populations in those regions, risking hundreds and thousands of lives. What the United States needs to do is empower residents and the anti-Assad armies to consolidate and eliminate the Al Qaeda groups in the north.”

This month, a group of civilian activists in the provincial towns of Ma’arat Al Nu’man and Saraqib took the initiative to exclude jihadist groups from their neighborhoods by posting “termination of contract” notices on trees and electrical poles that tell foreign fighters that they are not welcome in Idlib.

“People are sick of foreign commanders constantly intervening in local affairs,” said Samir Mansour, an activist who prints and posts the notices. “We are showing that these foreign fighters are not welcome in Syria, and they have been the main reason behind the air attacks.”

In January, the students of Free Aleppo University, an independent higher education center that has relocated forty miles from Syria’s second largest city to Idlib, successfully staged demonstrations that prevented the replacement of deans and department heads by functionaries backed by Islamist militias.

“We are about training students to fight against all kind of injustice, said Free Aleppo University Law Professor Abdulkafi Alhamdo. “But our biggest problems now are Russian and Assad regime bombing together with the scale back in assistance from Western donors because they don’t see how we are defeating Al Qaeda and the other extremist groups in the classroom, hospitals and town councils”

But the White House froze some $200 million dollars for civilian projects in Syria in March, citing fears of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham influence and a desire to see other nations.

The holdbacks included money for the White Helmets civilian search and rescue teams who help recover people from bombed-out buildings and other rubble, support to restore of water and power and efforts to remove unexploded weapons from agricultural areas.

Ammar Khaf, the Istanbul-based Syria analyst, believed the Idlib requires coordinated Western military intervention.

“Eliminating HTS and Haras El Din will require infiltration and elimination using the anti-Assad Syrian forces supported by the Americans and the Turks and precision logistical support for targeting the leaders of these groups, especially the foreign elements,” Khaf said. “We also need to make sure that residents have access to basic services like water and gas because it’s clear that HTS is using control over these resources as a revenue stream for themselves and for control over civilians.”

A version of this story can be found in the Washington Times.

Flowers and joy for Saudi Arabia's new female drivers

KSAWomenDrive18JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – The sound of engines revving filled parking lots in malls and elsewhere in this Red Sea port city on early Sunday morning as the desert kingdom lifted its ban on women driving.

“As an independent woman, driving is one of the main aspects of my life that’s been missing,” said Shefa Mohamed Aldwelah, a 26-year-old Saudi woman who was preparing to take to the road in her car. “With it, I will be able to open the door to new horizons.”

Parking spaces painted pink were unveiled in the run-up to the historic move. Car companies like Ford and gasoline retailer Shell launched advertising campaigns that featured female drivers who are now potential customers.

"Our sisterly women drivers, we wish you continued safety," flashed the roadside digital signs operated by the government's department of motor vehicles. Police officers handed out roses to women entering highway ramps at midnight.

Saudi King Salman lifted the ban as part of a package of reforms designed to loosen the rigid rules governing the ultra-traditional Islamic country’s society and economy. The king’s son and successor, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has spearheaded the reforms amid unstable oil prices that have threatened to destabilize the country’s political order.

The lifting of the ban might already be paying dividends.

"We are already seeing more women in our showroom," said Maram al Hazar, a manager at Al Jazirah Vehicles, a Ford dealership in Riyadh. "Many of them say that they are on waiting lists for drivers’ education classes that are already booked for the first half of 2018"

Saudi women have been seeking the right to drive for years.

“I’ve waited long enough and now to know that my daughter-in-law, and granddaughters, will have a normal life I feel at peace," said Layla Moussa, 67, who has three granddaughters. “I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime.”

But civil rights activists noted that Saudi activists who have fought to overturn the ban remain imprisoned for challenging the ban in the past.

“There can be no real celebration on June 24 while the women who campaigned for the right to drive and their supporters remain behind bars,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said Saudi authorities had arrested and detained a handful of female and male women’s rights campaigners in the run-up to the end of the driving ban.

But many Saudi women were less concerned about civil rights and more elated about the practical implications of driving.

“It’s going to make things much, much easier – going to work, dropping the kids off to school and just having the choice to go out whenever we want to,” said Nada Farsi, an instructor in the dental school at King Abdulaziz University and mother of two. “Before, we’d have to wait for the Uber driver if it was too hot to walk. It could take up to an hour to wait. Now a ten-minute drive is exactly that: a ten-minute drive.”

Driving presents challenges, of course, said Aldwelah. But she was prepared to face them.

“I am afraid of driving for the first time,” she said. “But it is not driving in this country that I am afraid of. It is the fact that I am sitting behind the wheel. I believe that every single licensed person around the world went through the same fear on their first ride.”

Photo: Saudi police officers welcoming the new women drivers with flowers and roses on the the first day that women are allowed to drive in the religiously conservative country.
Credit: Courtesy of Twitter user Romeu Monteiro (06/24/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/24/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Saudi women ready to hit the road on June 24

Courtesy of the Saudi Ministry of TransportJEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Remember that old insult about female drivers? Well, in a twist, Saudi Arabia is hoping that by allowing women to legally drive for the first time this month, the country is going to bring their tragic accident rate down.

“Did you know that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest accident rates in the whole world and that’s why safe driving is so important to us,” said Haifa Jamalallail, president of Effat University, whose 17-year-old daughter died in a fatal crash on a Saudi highway.

“Statistics show that women are generally safer and more defensive drivers than men," she added.

Last fall, Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman announced that women would be allowed behind the wheel for the first time in the last remaining country that still bans women from driving.

Soon after, Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud said the lifting of the ban would reduce the number of accidents in a conservative Muslim country with one of the worst car-crash mortality rates in the world.

"Women driving cars will transform traffic safety – it will reduce human and economic losses caused by accidents," he said.

The country has tried to bring down accident fatality by reducing speed limits, investing in more traffic signals and road-side digital over-limit warnings, and creating tougher penalties for moving violations – these helped Saudi Arabia climb back from its 2010 record with the highest road accident death toll in the world to 34th place in 2017.

But still, a male-only driving population killed more than 9,000 in 2016 – mainly due to speeding. 

Meanwhile, even as Saudi Arabian officials hope women drivers reverse a testosterone-fueled road fatality rate, they also want the ban's reversal to boost female employment and revitalize auto sales – these declined due to austerity measures caused by shrinking oil income from falling oil prices over the past few years.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers study released in March forecasts benefits for the Saudi economy as new women drivers simultaneously enter the automotive and job markets.

“Issuing licenses for two to three million women also empowers them to join the workforce and the disconnect between job opportunities and access is about to end,” said Hala Kudwah, a lead consultant for the group in Saudi Arabia.

The influx of women drivers in the kingdom is also set to benefit US automakers like Ford, which ranks as one of the top five brands in Saudi Arabia. It's already changing how they think about their business models.

“Features are tailored to markets and in Saudi Arabia the entire population of drivers had been male with both data gathering about vehicles and marketing always done from a male perspective,” said Crystal Worthem, Ford’s Middle East & Africa Marketing Director. “That is changing as women start driving and you will see different segmentation trends and features – a little bit less about power and a little more about driver assistance technology, comfort and most importantly, safety.”

Meanwhile, as the driving ban goes away June 24, private driving schools in the kingdom are reporting a surge of prospective female students, while women-only universities such as Effat in Jeddah have already been offering drivers ed. Ford has been working with administrators to get students ready for the road via their Driving Skills for Life course.

Because of her daughter's death, Effat's Jamalallail says she is particularly invested in the road safety aspect of the Ford program: "Our goal is that our student change the culture in the roads by practicing safe driving,” she said.

Students practice on a campus lot wearing specially designed “fatal vision” goggles to show the effects of fatigue on performance and simulated conditions synonymous with night driving.

“The frightening thing is that any mistake behind the wheel might cause the loss of a soul,” Dima Najm, a 21-year-old film major at Effat University, a graduate of the hands-on Ford course.

Meanwhile, she expressed pride at her achievement:

"Some of my sisters already have an international license so I'm proud to be first in the family with a Saudi one," she said.
Some future female drivers say they are excited about getting behind the wheel – finally.

“I’m not scared about my own handling of the car,” said Sarah Ghouth, a 22-year architecture major who has been training to drive. “The fear is more about risky drivers on the roads.”

“Still I feel confident because of the training we got at the university and lucky because my brothers are taking me to practice out in the desert,” added Ghouth. “They are actually happy to teach me because it means in a few weeks they won’t have to be driving me around anymore. My dad will be happy to see less money go to ride app companies.”

Mobile ride services are big in the kingdom where women are reluctant to hail taxi cabs on the street.

In 2016 Saudi Arabia’s government investment arm put $3.5 billion into Uber which splits the ride app market in the gulf states with Dubai-based Careem.

Eighty percent of Uber’s Saudi riders are women and while both personal transit firms have launched recruitment campaigns to train female drivers, many women here say they are thrilled at the prospect of no longer needing a ride service or asking their fathers or brothers to take them shopping or to work.

“Not every family can afford a driver who will take care of their daily errands,” said Aziza Zare, a Jeddah architect, who received her license earlier this month. “I calculated what I pay for these service apps every year and it adds up to about 30,000 Saudi Riyals ($8,000) so driving myself will save me time, money and will keep me in control of my schedule.”

And for young Saudi women learning to drive, getting behind the wheel has ignited a sense independence never felt before in a culture laden with gender-based restrictions and taboos.

“Since we finally achieved this, I think we can go anywhere and achieve anything,” said Najm.

A version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Egypt's new tool against terror: Women leading mosques

CAIRO, Egypt - Women attend Ramadan worship services at the historic Al Azhar mosque. Nearby Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology as well as the state-run Ministry of Religious Endowments are promoting women’s participation in preaching, mosque governance and liturgical music. (Photo: Mohamed Salah|ARA Network Inc.)CAIRO – Four years ago, President El Sisi called on state-supported clerics “to improve the image of Islam in front of the world.”

They listened.

And now, Islamic religious authorities here are doing so by allowing women to be heard, in in mosques and Muslim schools as preachers, part of governing boards and singers in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

“These measures show that Islam can grow in an open encounter with other faiths,” said Wafaa Abdelsalam, a 38-year-old female physician appointed by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to give two sermons a week at a pair of influential mosques in the Cairo suburbs. “The audience for my Ramadan talks has been mostly upper middle-class women who until recently have felt they have had nobody to talk to about how Islam fits into their lives.”

About 70 percent of mosques in Egypt have separate prayer areas for women, according to the Endowments Ministry. But the move to introduce women preachers – called wa’ezzat in Arabic – is the first time females have formally addressed worshipers in these spaces as officially sanctioned clergy.

“Religious education here is a chance for women to ask me questions about personal matters, including marriage problems, and to debate the merits and drawbacks of the choice to wear or not wear the hijab headscarf,” said Abdelsalam.

The wa’ezzat were following sermon guidelines set by the Endowments Ministry, she added.

The push to promote women in Egypt's religious sphere -- backed by scholars at Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology -- arises from Egypt's fight against terrorism: El Sisi has challenged theologians to examine texts that have been used to justify terrorism.

Meanwhile, the Endowments Ministry -- which holds power over financial grants and clergy appointments in more than 110,000 mosques in this nation of 90 million Muslim and is at the forefront of a crackdown on extremism -- last month moved to ban unlicensed male preachers from delivering homilies in more than 20,000 storefront mosques known locally as zawyas.

Zawyya preachers have been suspected of propagating fundamentalist views among women as well as men to advance extremist beliefs.

“We can’t leave the field of Islamic women's education to non-specialists,” said Youmna Nasser, one of the new female preachers appointed by the government.

The ministry has trained around 300 female preachers in interpreting the Koran and other Muslim texts and public speaking.

Meanwhile, the Endowments Ministry plans to name two women to the governing boards of each mosque next month with the aim of boosting attention to issues related to females, children and the family in religious work.

“The steps we are taking now are to affirm women’s rights are based on principles recognized by Islam in the past but were neglected over time,” said Abdul Ghani Hindi, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs who said officials were currently training 2,000 more female preachers.

“True Islam strengthens the women's’ status which is why we started training courses for female preachers and are trying to find out more about women's views about how mosques are run,” said Hindi.

Another important shift toward expanding women’s voices is happening at Al Azhar University, which has grown beyond its original role as an Islamic seminary to provide general education in fields including medicine and engineering to more than 45,000 students in Cairo and at satellite campuses in seven provincial cities.

Bucking conservative fatwas prohibiting men from even listening to the sound of women singing, Al Azhar has formed a co-educational choir that performs Muslim spiritual hymns both on and off campus.

"My dad was afraid that people's views of me as religiously observant would change, and that neighbors would see me as deviating from the traditions of Islam," said Umniah Kamal, a 21-year-old business major at Al Azhar, who is part of the choir. “But my mom encouraged me to join the chorale and even suggested some of the religious songs we are performing.”

University officials insist that including young women in their college chorale will make Islam more relevant to a new generation.

“Those who say the chorale reduces Al-Azhar's image of piety are wrong,” said Ibtisam Zaidan, the university’s female artistic director. “We are using the performing arts to bolster Al-Azhar as a beacon of Islamic life and learning.”

“There is no text in the Quran that prohibits singing these songs," added Zaidan. “The young ladies dress conservatively, wear headscarves and stand separately from the young men during the performances.”

While the Al Azhar Chorale has won artistic accolades – they captured second place in an April competition hosted by Egypt’s Youth and Sports Ministry – the mixed gender performances and government appointments of women to leadership roles in mosques has stirred up opposition among traditionalists.

“Drafting women as public representatives on mosque directors boards, encouraging them to issue fatwas and the outrageous formation of that mixed gender musical team at Al-Azhar are all ideas imported from the West,” said Sameh Abdul Hamid, a Cairo preacher from the puritanical Salafist sect.

“It’s all part of an effort by Arab governments to erase our Islamic identity and disrespectful of our belief that the way to strengthen the status of women is to safeguard their position in their homes,” said Abdul Hamid.

Photo: CAIRO, Egypt - Women attend Ramadan worship services at the historic Al Azhar mosque. Nearby Al Azhar University, the traditional seminary of mainline Sunni theology as well as the state-run Ministry of Religious Endowments are promoting women’s participation in preaching, mosque governance and liturgical music. Credit: Mohamed Salah/ARA Network, 6/11/18
Story/photo publish date: 6/20/18

A version of this story was published by Religion News Service

A quiet Ramadan as Egyptian government closes 20,000 mosques

EGY250518AT001CAIRO – Traditional Ramadan lanterns illuminate city apartment blocks and huts in country villages, and grocers do a brisk business in selling the traditional dried fruit and nuts eaten to break the daily fast at sunset.

Volunteers, meanwhile, brave Cairo’s traffic, standing at intersections handing out water and dates for commuters who need to break their fast on the road, and thousands of mosques and Islamic charities set up picnic tables in the streets every night, providing food for the poor.

Even so, Ramadan – which started last week – is more quiet than usual in Egypt this year after the government imposed a ban on the preaching of sermons at more than 20,000 local mosques.

Authorities have also stiffened penalties for mosque whose minaret loudspeakers announce anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

“There are now more than 110,000 mosques in Egypt,” said Ministry of Religious Endowments spokesman Jaber Taya. “With the numbers growing all the time, our ministry has taken steps to monitor violations of sermon guidelines, especially when it comes to the unacceptable promoting of extremist groups.”

The clampdown stems from President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s campaign against terrorism, and officials are targeting storefront mosques known locally as “zawyas” to prevent extremist incitement that has occurred during extended after-dusk prayers and recitations of the Quran.

When ex-President Mohamed Morsi and his allied Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt from June 2012 to July 2013, hundreds of zawyas popped up in violation of codes requiring distance between mosques, said Ghani Hindi, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the chief state body overseeing Muslim religious practice. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to impose sharia Islamic law the basis of Egypt’s legal system. Their agenda sparked inter-religious clashes between Muslims, and between Christians and Muslims.

The military ousted Morsi in 2013, paving the way for El Sisi’s rise to power. But the zawyas remain. Most receive state subsidies to this day.

“Since then, the storefront mosques have been used for political organizing and unqualified preachers are giving religious instruction, putting their speeches out on loudspeakers especially late at night during Ramadan,” said Hindi.

Zawya attendees insist the blanket directive shutting down sermons at their mosques is unfair.

“I am very saddened,” said Abdul Aziz al-Ghafar, a 43-year-old teacher who attends the Rahman corner mosque in Heliopolis, a northern suburb of Cairo.
“The ministry made a generalized decision that had nothing to do with what was going on at my mosque," he added. "Our worship leader performs a great service to this neighborhood, giving us a place for prayer and interesting Quran instruction. Yes, some mosques turned to platforms defending the Muslim Brotherhood, but every imam deserves the respect of individual observation and feedback.”

While Ramadan is a time of fasting, spirituality and prayer, the Middle East also usually sees an uptick in terrorism during the holiday. In Egypt, the victims are often Christians.

Last May, jihadists attacked three buses filled with Coptic Christians, killing 28 pilgrims on their way to the Saint Samuel the Confessor monastery in southern Egypt.

Off-script Islamic preachers are also often accused of spreading intolerance in Egypt during the holy month.

“It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief,” said TV preacher Sheikh Abdullah Roshdi recently.

Meanwhile, authorities are firing scores of zawya preachers for violating the guidelines imposed by the El Sisi administration and straying from the topics authorized by the Religious Endowments Ministry.

The government imposed a nationwide testing of imams to “measure their skills as public speakers and religious educators.” That same directive, to upgrade speaking skills and further supervise content for imams, added that “any imam who is not qualified to deliver public speech and lessons in Islam will be barred from the pulpit.”

The government’s defenders insist the ban on sermons in the storefront mosques is a necessary step to get divisive politics out of the pulpit. “President El Sisi is calling for a renewal of religious discourse to show the tolerance of Islam for other religions,” said Usama al-Abd, a former president of Al-Azhar University, the main seminary in Sunni Islam.

Many disagree.

“I was suspended from my position after saying in a sermon that I thought Mohamed Morsi was a president who was only seeking to reform Egypt,” said 37-year-old imam, Abu Khalid, in the Nile Delta. “An Endowments Ministry official reported me to the higher ups. I have not been allowed to preach since March.”

Ministry of Religious Endowments officials said that in addition to random inspections, they also set up a telephone hotline for complaints about “immoderate discourse from citizens.” Closed circuit television cameras with audio recording capabilities have been installed in thousands of mosques, too.

El Sisi’s supporters say the zawya sermon ban and other measures makes sense since it’s impossible for the government to monitor every mosque in Egypt.

“Still there just aren't enough resources to check on all the zawyas,” said Abdul Aziz Mohammed Diab, a health ministry inspector in Sharkia, in the Nile Delta. “Other public institutions including hospitals and schools need the funds more than many of these half empty mosques that get taken over by extremists.”

Islam Barakat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an opponent of Morsi’s Islamist agenda, thought the El Sisi administration was overreaching with the sermon ban.

“We need to move toward liberating the religious domain from the authority of the state,” Barakat said. “Now the security agencies are determining who gets appointed and who is excluded and some imams are informing on others to advance their own position.”

Worshipers who find community and solace at local zawyas believe the government is using the larger mosques to promulgate its policies, like drafting state-paid preachers to drive up voter turnout in last March’s presidential elections.

"The current government repeats the same means of control and monopoly used by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Yasser Abdul Aziz, a 54-year-old construction engineer who attended a zawya in Al-Mataryia, around nine miles east of Cairo. “Simple people like me have no interest in any political parties since they all are just about promoting their own private affairs. We come to the mosque to learn, and to pray.”

Photo: May 25, 2018 - Cairo, Egypt - Imam Mohamed Saled recites the Quran at state-funded Estkama Mosque in the Cairo suburb of Giza.
Credit: Amr El Tohamy/ ARA Network Inc. (05/25/18)

Story/photo publish date: 05/25/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

Palestinian youth disillusioned by aging leadership

Oct 2, 2017-Gaza, Palestine an old woman holding a poster of Abbas as a way to support the reconciliation. (Photo: Mohammed Atallah| ARA Network)RAMALLAH, West Bank – As many Israelis and American celebrate the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem, Palestinians youth protest while worrying that their nation’s aging leadership has handicapped their dreams – and their future.

They point to the Palestine Liberation Organization recently elected new members of its Executive Committee, its top 18-member top decision-making body. But in stark contrast to the median age of 20 among residents in the West Bank and 17 in Gaza, the average age of committee members is 70.

“It is obvious that the old people are monopolizing most of the political positions,” said Duha al-Jafari, 21, a psychology student at Birzeit University near Ramallah in the West Bank. “Youth are detaching themselves from Fatah (the largest secular nationalist group dominating the West Bank) and Hamas (the Islamist organization running Gaza), and they have lost trust in these parties who have yet to achieve anything.”

That dissatisfaction comes as partisan politics is failing to produce new younger leaders, economic opportunities for youth or movement on the Palestinians’ ultimate goal of an independent state sitting on land that would include settlements now under Israeli control.

It’s not clear who will replace 83-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority who also chairs the PLO’s Executive Committee. The committee’s number-two, Saeb Erekat, 62, received a lung transplant in Virginia in October.

Disputes between Fatah, the Abbas-led political party that runs the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist terror group and political party that dominates the Gaza Strip, have prevented elections to be held in either territory for more than 12 years

Meanwhile, in Gaza, youth unemployment stands at 62 percent. In the West Bank, Israeli officials are preparing to authorize more settlement outposts in the 61 percent of the territory that has been under Israeli occupation since the country won the Six-Day War in 1967.

The unresolved issues rankle most strongly in Gaza where 70 percent of the population have parents or grandparents who fled or were expelled from land that became in Israel in 1948.

Gazans have staged protests as part of the Great Return March on the Israeli-Gaza border in recent months to mark the 70th anniversary of the 1948 war and demand their land back. Many Palestinians claim that independent activist Ahmed Abu Ratima, 33, and other youths initially organized the march but Hamas has taken them over.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Wednesday that Israeli army snipers had killed 63 demonstrators since the march started. According to the ministry, 77 percent of the casualties are under the age of 35.

Palestinian youths have taken action in the wake of the violence.

Last week, hoping to convince Israelis of the need for a fair peace deal, 25-year-old Fatima Mohammedan organized an alternative and peaceful demonstration on the border that diverges from the confrontational Hamas message.

“We wanted to convey a message to the whole world that we are people who want Israel to lift the siege,” said Mohammedan. “As a youth activist, my goal is to spread peace, serve my own society and work to bring democracy to Palestinian politics.”

The young have other leaders who might steal Abbas’ thunder.

Today, Ahed Tamimi, a 17-year-old Palestinian girl from the West Bank of village of Nabi Salih, is the most well-known face of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settlements. She is currently serving an eight-month sentence for slapping an Israeli soldier last December while she claimed Israelis were confiscating her village's lands and water.

“Tamimi has become an icon for Palestinian youth who believe the path forward is resistance on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, and diplomatic and legal warfare at the United Nations and International Criminal Court,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Many young Palestinians feel the wellspring of support for Tamimi reflects the beginning of the end for Fatah and Hamas.

“We need to be more independent from the mainframe of the political parties as they are bureaucrats,” said Belal Sultan, a 26-year-old business administration student in Gaza City. “For now, all these leaders can give are empty promises and sometimes provide part-time jobs.”

Older Palestinian leaders said they heard Sultan’s message.

“American president Trump’s one-sided support of Israel is driving the youth to resist,” said Saleh Ra'fat, 73, leader of the Palestinian Democratic Union and member of the PLO Executive Committee. “We are trying to cultivate young leaders in our party and prepare them for elections which need to happen soon to activate their role.”

But Palestinian youth are already be moving on.

“These young people are depressed and looking to change the situation by going to checkpoints and being involved in clashes with the Israelis,” said Afnan Nedal, a 24-year-old teaching assistant at Al-Quds University.

“The only thing that we gain out of these clashes is more injured, killed and imprisoned youth," Nedal added. "With the youth staging a revolution over this dismal life, I’m not sure if this moves the Palestinians further away from statehood or closer to it.”

A version of this story can be found on The Washington Times.

Workers from NYU Abu Dhabi are at risk, according to report

NYU Abu Dhabi TwitterA new report from a faculty-student alliance at New York University charged the university's Abu Dhabi campus has not taken adequate steps to eliminate the possibility of forced labor years after the issue first surfaced.

Sahiba Gill, a law student set to graduate from New York University this month, was the main author of the 129-page document, which alleges that thousands of workers who helped build NYU's $1 billion Abu Dhabi campus starting a decade ago are still owed millions of dollars. The report, "Forced Labor at NYU in Abu Dhabi: Compliance and the Global University" was released by NYU's Coalition for Fair Labor. The report reviews previous documents on the issue, public statements made by NYU administrators and faculty members, and what is publicly known about NYU's monitoring of labor practices on the Abu Dhabi campus in recent years.

"There is no reason NYU shouldn't be able to support modern, 21st-century labor and compliance standards," Gill said in an interview. "Available evidence shows they have not."

"Forced labor" refers to situations where workers are coerced through threats, intimidation, violence or inability to leave a job because the workers' employer holds their passports. Often workers are charged high fees for getting a job and, if they do not have the cash, loaned the money at high interest rates by their recruiter, making it difficult for them to ever leave employment. In Gulf countries, workers who don't speak English or Arabic are at especially high risk of such exploitation.

NYU strongly denied the report's findings, saying in a statement that its "assessment is neither right nor fair" and that the report's title was "both incorrect and inflammatory." The university statement went on to say the Abu Dhabi campus "has a strong set of labor standards and a robust compliance monitoring program in place."

NYU Abu Dhabi hires outside companies to provide workers for maintenance, cleaning, landscaping, food services, and many other roles.

The labor-coalition report is the latest in a string of charges about labor conditions for workers at the campus and in similar projects in Abu Dhabi, including a 2014 New York Times report. Human Rights Watch has also published reports about labor conditions for the predominantly South Asian workers recruited to work on Saadiyat Island, where the NYU Abu Dhabi campus and other cultural institutions have been built. NYU has said in the past that most lapses were due to subcontractors that it did not have direct control over. In 2015, the president of NYU at the time, John Sexton, said "We acknowledge the lapses, will learn from them, and will attempt to rectify them." (See related Al-Fanar Media article Report Finds Mistreatment of Workers Building NYU Abu Dhabi Campus.)

The new faculty-student alliance report says that says the risk for forced labor "remains significant" and the risk would be lower "if due diligence was enacted." It also charges that NYU Abu Dhabi failed to reimburse fees paid by workers in order to be considered for the jobs as far back as 2009, as it promised to do.

Among the report's recommendations: NYU Abu Dhabi should more actively ensure compliance with local laws, better assess the risk of forced labor, and move more effectively to remedy violations. The report suggests that NYU Abu Dhabi check directly with workers to see if they are in possession of their passports—unless the passports have been given to the company employing them for paperwork relevant to their employment—and make sure the workers did not pay recruitment fees and are not in debt for those fees.

Gill, who lived in Abu Dhabi for two years, said she became aware of the labor issues when reports first started surfacing in 2013 and 2014 and that she had followed the issue closely since then. The report, which she said represents eight months of work, was reviewed by a dozen NYU faculty members before its release.

NYU had been planning to release a compliance report on NYU Abu Dhabi labor standards next month, but it instead released that report—entitled "External Labor Compliance Monitoring at NYU Abu Dhabi Report"—in the wake of the release of Gill's Coalition for Fair Labor document. The university report was produced by Impactt Ltd., a 20-year-old London-based ethical trade consultancy.

The Impactt document is based on audits of 15 contractors employing more than 800 workers on the Abu Dhabi campus over a 16-month period ending in March 2017, with two limited follow-ups through March of this year. The report said it identified 87 cases of non-conformance to labor rules, but that 77 of them had been rectified during the course of the study. Of the remaining ten, seven involved contractors no longer associated with NYU in Abu Dhabi. Overall, the report said, it found "a good level of compliance among contractors and a high level of satisfaction among workers."

A survey done for the report found that NYU Abu Dhabi workers were happy about access to English lessons and sports facilities and generally felt they were treated with respect. But they often did not feel they were paid enough. The Impactt report also recommended that the university work harder to make sure workers have their own passports and are paid for overtime.

In an interview, Gill said she applauded release of the university's compliance report, but said "It is clear systematic reforms are still needed to bring labor standards to an adequate level."

Since the close scrutiny of labor conditions on the campus in 2014 and 2015, labor activists believe the attention devoted to the issue and follow-up monitoring faded, until this month. Paula Chakravartty, one of the professors who reviewed the report prior to its release, told The New York Times she believed "that as public pressure moved away, the issue was put on the back burner."

A version of this story has been published in Al Fanar Media. 

Iraqi Shiite militia leader becomes kingmaker after elections

ISTANBUL- In an upset for Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s Victory List, the Sa’iroon alliance of Moqtada Al-Sadr – a Shiite cleric, who 14 years ago ran a militia against U.S. troops – and Iraqi communists held the lead Monday night in six of Iraq’s 18 provinces and came in second in four others.

Al-Abadi struck a conciliatory tone despite his thrashing at the polls in hopes he could keep his post in coalition negotiations aimed at excluding Iranian-backed militia leader, Hadi Al-Ameri and his Conquest Alliance from dominating Iraqi politics.
“We are ready to work and cooperate in forming the strongest government for Iraq that’s free of corruption,” Mr. Al-Abadi said.

While the poor showing by Mr. Abadi and his electoral allies may jeopardize an additional term, hundreds of thousands of uncounted votes could alter the final result in his favor.

Full results were due to be officially announced late Monday and the early ballots of some 700,000 security personnel and diaspora remain uncounted, meaning Mr. Al-Abadi could still get a boost.

The electoral sweep for Sairoon – a youth-oriented bloc that emphasized social inequality over sectarian grievances – puts the 44 year-old Sadr, often called an Arab nationalist and thus an opponent of both the US and Iran, in a position to determine Iraq's next leader.

Sadr has led two uprisings against U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. once labeled him and his Mehdi army as the greatest threat to Iraqi stability.

Because he was not on the ballot as candidate himself, Mr. Sadr is prevented from leading the next government.
But the strong showing in early returns underscored the frustration that voters had with the prior governments.

“Most of the candidates in this coalition were new and didn't’ participate in the political process before,” said Amer Ahmed, 30 an employee of the Iraqi electric company and a Sa’iroon supporter. “The young generation basically formed their own electoral list…we will transform the government and society.”

In a country where the median age is 19, only 20 of the 328 Iraqi lawmakers in the outgoing legislature are under the age of 40.

Still, that voter frustration also translated into the lowest turnout since Iraq was invaded by the US 15 years ago. Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said turnout was 44.52 percent, significantly lower than in previous elections.
Regardless of the participation rate, analysts said regional strategic implications of the results are significant.

Sadr, a Shiite leader was the unlikely beneficiary of Saudi largesse in an attempt to dilute the strength of Tehran's pick -- Al Ameri's Fateh group.

Just a year ago Al-Fateh fielded ex-fighters from Iranian-backed militias to battle Islamic State alongside Iraq’s struggling national army and US supported Kurdish peshmerga forces and Al Ameri reaped electoral benefits among Shiite hardliners for “protecting the honor” of Iraq.

"The biggest surprise was the lead of Sa'iroon rather than Al-Abadi's List, it is an obvious indicator of the American-Saudi support to Sa'iroon,' said said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. 'They contained contradicting ideological parties, like communists and liberals, under a single frame, non-Islamic in appearance, although it is."

Some fear the results put Iraq squarely in the middle of Washington-Tehran disputes, especially because of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal with Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

“Personally, I am afraid of the psychological instability of this man [Sadr] and his stances waver too easily,” said Abderrezak Al-Nuaimi, 33, year Baghdad physician. “It’s going to be difficult to get together a coalition. I think the winning List of Sadrists might forced to form a narrow government by themselves unless the Americans prepare the ground carefully.”

Other Iraqis worry that a breakdown in coalition talks could lead to more violence as party politics turns into a fracas between armed groups.

“I am afraid of the repetition of violence against civilians," said Aws Ibrahim, 22, geology student at Mosul University. “All the parties have armed wings and now they are disputing over how to divide what the cake.”

Ibrahim is particularly worried that the previous Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki will turn to violence having failed completely at the ballot box.

Many blamed government corruption under Mr. Al-Malaki for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the 2014 ISIS capture of Mosul, Tikrit and other territory as well as substandard education, health, and infrastructure conditions in Sunni neighborhoods that comprise 35 percent of the country.

Meanwhile jubilant Sa’iroon supporters celebrated their effective get out the vote effort and the rejection of Iranian domination by much of the Shiite electorate.

“The celebrations of Sadrists in Baghdad was so huge today and their anti-Iran slogans were blatant,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. “Sa’iroon support to Abadi could fade away as they were Baghdad’s biggest list, but if the USA is able to contain the Sadrists somehow, they are likely to present a prime minister [Abadi] with another term.”

Meanwhile, regardless of which candidate takes the lead now, many are just gratefully it wasn't one of the more militant groupings such as Al-Fateh.

“Nobody remembers the bad qualities of those on the head of this list who played with people’s feelings under the name of “fight and martyrdom,” said Thaer Qasim Jaber, 37, a graphic designer in Baghdad. "They feel sympathized with because they are a Shiite majority…and was linked with fighting ISIS and this made it acceptable in the society.”

A version on this story has been published in The Washington Times.

ISIS poses a problem for upcoming Iraqi elections

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionBAGHDAD – Iraqi politician Faruq Al-Jubouri was optimistic about his country’s future.

The 42-year-old agronomist was running as a member of the non-sectarian National Alliance in parliamentary elections on Saturday, May 12 – the first ballot since the Iraqi central government and its allies, including the US, defeated the Islamic State two years ago.

But on Monday, May 7 a gunman shot Al-Jubouri dead. Shortly after, ISIS claimed responsibility on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, declaring they killed the father of three sons because he was an atheist.

Former prime minister Nuri Al Maliki is also running but neither he nor his State of Law bloc are not expected to garner a large share of the vote. Al Maliki left office in 2014 in disgrace for his handling of the ISIS threat.

“Faruq was an agriculture professor interested in plans for our future, not a typical vote-buying politician offering jobs and goodies,” said his cousin Omar Ali Al-Jubouri, 33. “He wasn’t handing out mobile phone company gift cards or giving cows and sheep away to get elected.”

The death of a promising legislator is a sample of the violence that has flared up in Iraq faces in the runup to Saturday. Last week, the jihadists released a video showing a point-blank execution of two get-out-the-vote campaigners in a town 35 miles north of Baghdad. Most recently, the threatened to attack polling stations.

ISIS appeared to be leveraging Sunni-Shiite rivalries to disrupt and undermine the legitimacy of Iraq’s fragile democracy.

"We warn you, Sunnis of Iraq that these Shiites are taking power,” ISIS spokesman Abul-Hassan Al-Muhajer told an extremist website. “Anyone who participates in the vote will be considered an infidel, a disbeliever deserving of death.”

But Al Muhajer’s warning falls on deaf ears in much of the Sunni community today, said Hisham Al-Hashimi, an independent Iraqi scholar and expert on Islamist groups.

“The real problem that afflicts ISIS is their loss of their base,” said Al-Hashimi. “Their beliefs and methodologies have less and less traction in a community that has enjoyed a gradual return of normal daily life and is now focused on working seriously for Iraq’s reconstruction and stability.”

Iraqi authorities have detained dozens of terror suspects, restricted vehicular movement and deployed of thousands of police and army troops to guard polling stations.

“The Baghdad Operations Command is stopping the movement of trucks typically used in mass explosions and motorcycles used for targeted killings as part of a comprehensive plan to stop terrorism,” said Iraqi Major General Jalil al-Rubaie.

Those measures did not stop ISIS from sending a suicide attacker after Zeytoun Al-Dulaimi, a 63-year-old National Alliance member of parliament from southern Baghdad on Tuesday, May 8. Al-Dulaimi survived the attack but five other candidates have been killed and seven have been wounded.

Many Iraqi women are concerned about the consequences of the vote.

“Some political forces have worked and are still working to legislate laws trying to prevent women from playing a significant role in development and rebuilding our country,” said Shorouk Al-Abayachi, an incumbent candidate with the secular political group Tamadun.

Some religious parties have proposed minor marriage, selling widows and other so-called traditions, said Al-Abayachi. “I am terrified that these politicians want to take us back to the past in the name of tradition and religion while the block important laws to protect women from domestic violence,” she said.

The elections will also be a test for al-Fateh, a hybrid between a militia-and-political party whose Shiite Muslim ideology resembles that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Al-Fateh fighters appeared after the Iraqi army failed to stop ISIS in 2014. Today, they’re running as candidates.

“There is one phrase spreading among people – that Al-Fateh is the protector of your pride, meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Anas Al-Sheikh, 24, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

Al-Fateh’s role in pushing ISIS back has helped its leader, 63-year-old leader Hadi al-Amiri, to become a viable alternative to current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Al-Amir would presumably empower Iranian interest in Iraq. He never held a post in the Iraqi army but received military training Iran that he put to use against the Islamic State.

“Iran’s influence has grown among the Shiite population after their military advisors brought the militias victory against ISIS,” said Jasim Wadi, Baghdad University political scientist.

Fears of that influence have led Saudi Arabia to take the extraordinary move of supporting Iraq’s government, Wadi added.

To curb Tehran’s reach, Saudi Arabia is backing a slate led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadr, who at the time of the U.S. occupation cooperated with Al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops. Sadr is now leading a new non-sectarian multi-party bloc Sa’iroon that surprisingly also includes Iraqi communists.

“Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” declared Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a recent visit to Baghdad.

Back in Al-Qayyarah, Al-Jubouri’s supporters have vowed to prevent his assassination from blocking their vision of a peaceful and united Iraq.

“Al-Jubouri’s battle was against ISIS and radicalism for the sake of coexistence and promoting Iraq’s national identity,” said neighbor Rayhan Al-Mosulli. “We should go to the ballots to revenge his death.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Inspirational Iraqi youth support new generation of political leaders, despite reasons for disillusionment

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionISTANBUL – Despite earning an international relations degree from a prestigious British university and growing up as the daughter of Iraq’s former prime minister, Sarah Ayad Allawi feels the same political frustrations of other 29-year-olds in the country.

Only 20 of the 328 Iraqi lawmakers are under the age of 40. They are the voice for an underrepresented demographic, representing only 6 percent of the parliament in a country where the median age is 19.

Allawi wanted to run as a legislative candidate of the National Accord political party, the party of her father Ayad Allawi, interim prime minister from 2004 to 2005, in the elections Saturday. But a minimum age of 30 disqualified her for entering the race. The rule serves as check on the political power of the young, she says.

“You can be certain that I will be 30 by the time this next parliament has its first session,” she said.

Iraqis in Allawi’s generation grew up knowing only conflict and limited economic opportunities. Now they are getting a chance to change their wounded country, even if it is sometimes only by voting -- so far. They are part of a new, and growing wave, of activism in the wake of militant threat against activists stretching back to 2003 – when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Young voters say they are getting active because they want change.

“The Iraqi people are ready to pick new faces,” said first-time voter Mohammed Saleh, 22, a computer engineering student in Baghdad. “The youth especially are tired of the corrupt politicians.”

The May 12 parliamentary race is the fourth since the 2003 US occupation and the first since the Iraqi government drove the Islamic State out of major cities like Tikrit and Mosul last year. Iraqi officials say 24 million out of its population of 39 million are eligible to vote. Among them are 4.5 million Iraqis who will cast ballots for the first time.

“From what I see and hear from youth on the ground and in social media, I think there is a real chance for change,” said Saleh, who supports Sa'iroon, an electoral alliance between supporters of the 44-year-old influential and independent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the secular Iraqi Communist Party.

The unlikely alliance between Iraq’s communists and Shia activists has a history.

The two groups worked together to overthrow King Faisal II in 1958 and coalesced again in 2016 to lead protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square demanding Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi deliver on his anti-corruption promises.

Such off pairings are a result of disgust over poor-quality services, education, healthcare and public security due to corruption.

Transparency International ranks Iraq near the bottom at 169 out of 180 in its global corruption index. Many blame government corruption for the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of the Islamic State's capture of Mosul, Tikrit and others in 2014

The army’s failure led to the rise of self-protection forces like Al-Fateh, a largely hybrid militia-and-political party whose Shiite Muslim ideology resembles that of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Hadi Al-Amiri, 63, the Iranian-trained head of the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council political party, runs Al-Fateh. He is supporting several candidates under 40. Many served in the militia last year in the fight against Islamic State.

One Al-Fateh candidate, Mohanned Al-Temimi, 37, posted an online video claiming that his visit to China as a wholesale apparel broker gave him a solid background in global affairs while his service to the Al-Fateh militia proves his readiness to fight for Iraq’s national interests.

Still, political violence has led many young Iraqis to say they will not vote.

“I will not vote because the entire system is corrupt,” said Yassir Adnan, 22, a medical student, in Karbala. “Our constitution is not humanistic. It contains many discriminating clauses based on religious and ethnic identity and age.”

In Kirkuk, Salah Al-Kanaan, a 35-year-old computer operator at a refinery company, said he understands the reasoning behind calls to boycott the election but worries that Iraq’s sectarian deadlock will continue if too many young people refrain from voting or choose to vote for parties based on their religious affiliations.

“Youth, especially those participating for the first time, will decide who wins,” Al-Kanaan said. “If they choose carefully, things could be great. If not, we will have a catastrophe on our hands.”

Young Iraqis needed to leverage their political support for opportunities to run as candidates and shape policy, said Ali Bashar, 31, a youth organizer and international relations professor at Bayan University in Irbil.

“Today, youth represent the key to electoral victory,” said Bashar, one of the founders of the Nineveh Political Youth Forum, a new education and advocacy movement which tried to develop talent in communities in order to field candidates, and has made efforts to get out the youth vote.

“All parties and political blocs are making an effort to recruit this demographic they believe they need to gain power in parliament.”

Engineer Mohammed Abbas, 36, is one such recruit. He participated in a December session of Bashar’s political youth forum and is now running as candidate with Prime Minister Abadi’s Victory Alliance in the upcoming election.

“Just because a candidate is young does not mean he is better,” Abbas said. “I hope people vote for me based on my record of community service and my professional qualifications as an engineer to advocate and guide our country’s reconstruction program.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.

Iraqi election may check Iran's desire for greater regional influence

Campaign banners for various candidates line a street in Baghdad ahead of the upcoming electionBAGHDAD – Perhaps the greatest irony of the American occupation of Iraq was that ousting former president Saddam Hussein’s in 2003 empowered not only the country’s Shiite majority but also gave Iran a political foothold in what had been a bastion of Arab power in the region.

But there are signs that members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family – stalwart defenders of Sunni Islam in the region – are likely to be more pleased with the outcome of Iraq’s parliamentary election on Saturday than the Shiite clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran.

Political splits inside Iraq’s Shiite community, which comprise around 65 percent of the population, have created an opening for Saudi-backed candidates to contest politicians with ties to Iran.

“Saudi Arabia seems to have understood, even if late, that the strategic depth to combat Iran should be through Iraqi politics,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil.

Few contest the current reality of Iran’s military influence in Iraq.

“Iran’s superiority in Iraq was on full display as its agents commanded most of the militias that pushed ISIS out of Mosul and other cities,” said Hussam M. Botani, chief analyst at the Son’i El-Siyasat Center for International and Strategic Studies in Istanbul. “Now it’s supporting the Popular Mobilization, also known as the Al-Fateh Alliance [a militia-affiliated political group], to strengthen its superiority in politics and try and change the government in Baghdad.”

Iranian-trained military commander Hadi Al-Amiri, 63, runs Al-Fateh. He also simultaneously serves as the head of the military wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an umbrella organized for militant Shiite groups.

If Al-Amiri’s party scores an upset Saturday, their success will reflect how the Shiite masses give him credit for driving ISIS away from the gates of Baghdad, said Anas Al-Sheikhli, a commercial television director in Baghdad.

“There is one phrase spreading among people: that Al-Fateh is the protector of your pride, meaning that they kept ISIS away from the women in your family,” said Al-Sheikhli. “But when you look at their program, it’s obviously not for Iraq, it’s for Iran.”

Some Al-Fateh officials have even indicated support formal confederation with Iran. Officials in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s administration hinted Saturday that Tehran-backed parties may be attempting to interfere with Iraqi electronic voting devices.

“Intelligence information revealed attempts of some influential political parties to disrupt electronic voting devices in order to resort to manual counting to falsify the results,” the chairman of the Iraq’s parliament's security and defense committee, Hakim al-Zamili told the Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

But as Iran flexes its muscles in Iraq, some Shiite Iraqi politicians have found an opening to turn to wealthy Persian Gulf countries for support for bringing Iraq securely back into the fold of Arab nations.

The 44-year-old Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Sadr, who at the time of the US occupation tacitly cooperated with Al Qaeda to plan attacks on American troops, is now seeking the backing of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to lead a new non-sectarian Sa’iroon multi-party bloc that includes Sunni Arabs, secular Iraqis and even communists.

Sadr met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last July and walked away with a $10 million public pledge to assist Iraqis displaced by interreligious violence .

It’s understood in Baghdad political circles that Sadr also won private assurances of support for his efforts to create a joint Shiite-Sunni electoral list to push back against Iranian dominance.

"Sadr and bin Salman agreed to continue using a language of moderation and to get rid of this sectarian discourse," said Sadr's spokesman, Salah al-Obeidi. “A breakthrough was also made when Bin Salman admitted mistakes were made in the former Saudi administration that, helped Iran dominate Iraq."

The Iranians oppose the Sadr-Salman alliance.

“Iran will not allow the liberals and the communists to govern Iraq,” declared Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a recent visit to Baghdad.

The scrambled alliances have raised hackles in traditional Shiite quarters – with the mullahs’ Hezbollah Brigades and Al-Fateh organizing demonstrations to protest plans for a proposed Saudi crown prince to visit Baghdad.

A high-profile visit by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne, on the other hand, would be a massive public relations victory for Sunni Arabs and others who oppose Shiite extremists.

"Iraq has a very important role in the Arab world and we support reconstruction efforts there” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in February at ab international donors’ conference held in Kuwait to help Baghdad’s reconstruction efforts in the wake of the war against the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia pledged $1 billion in loans and $500 million in export credits backing. Iran pledged nothing.

“This is not just happening because the Saudis are smart,” said Ali Bashar, a political scientist at Bayan University in Irbil. “The Trump administration told the Saudis to change their policy towards Iraq and engage the Shiites here as well as their traditional Sunni friends. Saudi Arabia has realized that Sunnis are not able to directly face the Iranian influence. It changed its tactics towards supporting some Shiite powers to face that influence.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 
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