Lurking Dangers to the Arab Spring

August 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ramzy Baroud, Gulf News

Arab revolutions are currently facing real dangers, which vacillate between lack of prioritisation, stagnation and foreign intervention.

In Egypt, there have been deliberate attempts to divide the objectives of the revolution into blurred ideological classifications. A chasm is already growing between ‘liberal’ and Islamic forces regarding the identity of the state. Endless debates have ensued regarding the best course of action pertaining to elections, the constitution and more.

The trial of former president Hosni Mubarak has been marketed as a major victory for the revolution. Undoubtedly this is a historic event with great psychological impact. Many in Egypt were suspicious that the military was trying to co-opt the revolution, and some believed that Mubarak was continuing to run the country from his Sharm Al Shaikh mansion. With the world having now seen Mubarak in prison garb, some of these rumours are being quelled.

Still, it must not be forgotten that Egypt’s problems are multi-faceted, running deep into the very fabric of its political and social structures. Its already threadbare economy was also further devastated by recent events.

Presenting Mubarak on a stretcher for ‘conspiring to kill protesters’, and then falling into the trap of disputes around political semantics will not resolve the country’s many problems.
The Yemeni people persist between clear objectives and unclear strategy. Yemen was already teetering on the brink of ‘failed state’ status before the February revolt. The opposition is clearly failing to unify the revolutionary efforts of the people. The aim has been to create a meaningful political platform capable of translating the just demands of millions into a clear roadmap.
This has no room for Ali Abdullah Saleh and his discredited government. A delay of nearly six months has allowed regional and international forces to impede the popular process aimed at democratic reforms. Frustrated by the ineptness of the opposition, and worried about the devious role played by outsiders, the ‘youth of the revolution’ moved to establish their own transitional political body.
This move seemed to create more confusion rather than actually address the challenge of political centrality. Saleh and his ruling party are feeling emboldened once again and are bargaining politically with a nearly-starved population. As for Libya, it has turned into a battlefield. Although the people’s original demands for democracy are as genuine as ever, linking the heart of the revolution to Nato’s central command has more than tainted the uprising.

It has also raised the spectre of western intervention in Libya. The billions of dollars spent to ‘liberate’ Libya will be recovered through political and economic leverages later on. This will prove very costly for any new Libyan government.

Three Principles

The Syrian revolution has been most inspiring. Despite the extremely violent behaviour of the army in its attempts to subdue the uprising, the people remain committed to three major principles: the rightful demands of their revolution, the non-violent nature of their efforts, and non-interventionism. That said, foreign intervention does not seek people’s permission; it seeks opportunities.
It is guided by a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. As for violence, even noble revolutions with noble demands have limits. How long will the Syrian people endure before resorting to arms, at least to defend themselves against the government’s thugs?

There are other Arab countries that are also experiencing their own upheavals. These are divided between betrayed revolutions (for example, Bahrain), revolutions in the making, and bashful reform movements (Jordan, Morocco, Algeria, and others).

True, each revolutionary experience remains unique. The socio-economic specificities of a wealthy Gulf country are different from those of a poverty-stricken country like Morocco. Still, Arab countries have much in common. Aside from shared histories, religions, language and a collective sense of belonging, they also share experiences of oppression, alienation, injustice and inequality.
The third UN Arab Development Report, published in 2005, surmised that in a modern Arab state, “the executive apparatus resembles a black hole which converts its surrounding social environment into a setting in which nothing moves and from which nothing escapes.”

Things didn’t fare much better for Arab states in 2009, when the fifth volume in the series claimed: “While the state is expected to guarantee human security, it has been, in several Arab countries, a source of threat undermining both international charters and national constitutional provisions.”

It is this shared fate that makes an Egyptian woman protest the violence carried out by the Syrian regime, and which drives a Tunisian man to celebrate the trial of Mubarak.

Coupled with a joint understanding of their history — which includes the struggle against colonialism and continued oppression in the neo-colonialist era — the Arab sense of solidarity is almost innate.

There is no question that in a post-revolutionary Arab world, a new collective sense of identity will emerge, this time without the manipulation of a single charismatic leader.

Revolution is a process, a progression of realisations borne out of experience. It seeks real and lasting change. It spans in its outreach from the realm of politics into the specificity of identity and self-perception. Because Arab revolutions are real, they also represent a real danger to foreign powers and their local alliances.

The self-seeking concoctions will use all their power to impede the process of change and reforms in the Arab world. This helps to explain the shedding of doubts on the authenticity of the youth movement in Egypt; the collective punishment of Yemenis; the brutalising of revolting masses in Syria.

Arab revolutionaries must be wary of all of these challenges. They must prepare for all grim possibilities. With unity being their greatest weapon, the revolutionaries need to remember that a victory in Egypt or Tunisia is an important step in the quest for freedom in Yemen, Syria — and everywhere else.

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Egypt Detains Former Minister over Pesticides

July 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

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Egypt’s former agriculture minister, Youssef Wali, arrested over charges that he allowed the import of cancer-causing pesticides. (File Photo)

CAIRO, July 10 (Reuters) – An Egyptian investigating judge ordered a former agriculture minister detained for questioning over accusations that he allowed the import of cancer-causing pesticides, the state news agency MENA reported on Sunday.

The agency said Youssef Wali, who served as agriculture minister under former President Hosni Mubarak from 1982 to 2004, was also suspected of squandering 200 million Egyptian pounds ($33.6 million) of state funds by selling a plot of land to businessman Hussein Salem for less than the market price.

MENA said Wali is accused of “bringing in 37 brands of pesticides that were proven to cause cancer”. It said the chemicals had been banned  from entering the country in 1996, but were allowed entry in 1998 under Wali until 2004.

Wali has denied the charges.

Prosecutors have been investigating business transactions of officials under Mubarak since mass protests forced him to resign on Feb. 11.

A prosecutor froze Wali’s assets in April in connection with the sale of 100,000 feddans (420 million square metres) of land to Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal in a deal which Egyptian authorities suspected had also violated the law.

Salem, a close aide to Mubarak, was arrested in Spain last month on an international warrant, suspected of squandering public funds by selling gas to Israel below market prices.

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INTERVIEW-Brotherhood Says Won’t Force Islamic Law on Egypt

June 9, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO, May 29 (Reuters) – The Muslim Brotherhood wants a diverse parliament after elections in September and is not seeking to impose Islamic law on Egypt, the head of the group’s newly formed political party said in an interview.

The Brotherhood, which has emerged as a powerful force after years of repression under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, has said it does not want a parliamentary majority, although rivals see it as well placed for a dominant position.

With secular politicians struggling to mount a challenge, Western investors are concerned about what a shift to an Islamic-leaning government would mean for Egypt, which relies on receipts from Western and other tourists and where tension between Muslims and the Christian minority have flared.

“We only use Islam as the basis of our party … which means that our general framework is Islamic sharia … We don’t issue religious rules in individual cases,” said Mohamed Mursi, head of the Brotherhood’s newly formed Justice and Freedom Party, which will contest the vote.

Liberal Egyptians in particular worry that the group could use for its own ends the second article of Egypt’s constitution, which makes sharia, Islamic law, a main source of legislation.
Egypt’s military rulers suspended the old constitution and introduced an interim one, but that article was unchanged.

Mursi, speaking in the group’s new five-storey headquarters in Mokattem on the outskirts of Cairo, dismissed such worries.

“We want to engage in a dialogue not a monologue,” he said. “The Brotherhood does not seek to control the parliament … We want a strong parliament … with different political forces.”
But he said Islamic law could have a place in a civil state in Egypt, where about 10 percent of the 80 million population are Christians. “Islamic sharia guarantees the rights of all people, Muslims and non-Muslims,” he said.

Mursi said he would stick by the Brotherhood’s pledge not to field a presidential candidate or support any Brotherhood member running, as one has already said he will do.

“The group said it will not field a candidate for the presidency or support one if decides to do so independently,” he said.

No Economic Platform Yet

The Brotherhood’s new offices are emblazoned with its emblem of crossed swords, a scene unimaginable in the Mubarak era when its members were rounded up in regular sweeps and it worked from two cramped apartments in Cairo.

Mursi, head of the engineering department in Egypt’s Zaqaziq University, led the Brotherhood’s parliament bloc in the 2000-2005 parliamentary session. The Brotherhood used to field its candidates as independents to skirt a ban on its activities.

The Brotherhood, which has spread deep roots in Egypt’s conservative Muslim society partly through a broad social programme, held 20 percent of seats in the 2005-2010 parliament.

It boycotted last year’s vote because of accusations of rigging, which rights groups said had been a feature of all votes under Mubarak.

Mursi said an economic platform had not yet been drawn up as the party, formed in April, was still organising itself.

But some secular politicians and other Egyptians are concerned that women and Christians could be sidelined and that alcohol could be banned, which analysts say is a concern as many tourists to Egypt are non-Muslims wanting a beach holiday and who might be deterred if alcohol is not served.

One in eight Egyptian jobs depend on tourism.

On Christians, he said: “We want everyone to be reassured … that we want to see our Christian brothers elected in parliament … We don’t want one group to control the parliament, neither the Brotherhood nor anyone else.”

Of the party’s 9,000 registered members, he said 100 were Christian and 1,000 were women, adding that the party’s deputy head, Rafik Habib, was a Christian.

When asked if the party could propose a law to prohibit alcohol, Mursi said such changes would be up to parliament to decide, not a single group, such as the Brotherhood.

“The Egyptian constitution is not the constitution of the Brotherhood but … of the Egyptian people,” said Mursi, adding that the constitution “says Egypt’s legislation is based on the principles of sharia, and not its details”.

(Editing by Edmund Blair and Elizabeth Piper)

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Egypt’s Mubarak Set to Go on Trial August 3

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dina Zayed

2011-05-27T143917Z_1705055056_GM1E75R1QWY01_RTRMADP_3_EGYPT

A man sits at his shoe-shine stall as his sleeping child (R) is covered with the Egyptian national flag at Tahrir square in Cairo, May 27, 2011. Thousands of Egyptians converged on Cairo’s Tahrir square on Friday in what organisers called a "second revolution" to push for deeper reforms and a speedy trial for ousted President Hosni Mubarak and his former aides.

REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

CAIRO (Reuters) – Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, overthrown by a popular uprising this year, was ordered on Wednesday to stand trial in August for the killing of protesters on charges that could carry the death penalty.

Mubarak, ousted on February 11 after mass protests demanding an end to his 30 years in power, has been questioned about his role in a crackdown in which more than 840 demonstrators died, as well as about alleged corruption.

He could face the death penalty if convicted on the charge of “pre-meditated killing.”

His two sons, Gamal, who was once viewed as being groomed for the presidency, and Alaa, will also stand trial alongside their father and prominent business executive Hussein Salem.
Judge Sayed Abdel-Azim, the head of the appeals court, said the trial would open on August 3 in a Cairo criminal court.

Egypt’s public prosecutor said on Tuesday that Mubarak was in no condition to be transferred to a prison hospital and would for now stay in a health facility in a Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has been detained since mid-April.

Mubarak was admitted to hospital after reportedly suffering heart problems during his initial questioning.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States hoped Egypt would ensure due process for Mubarak, who was long a close Arab ally of Washington.

While emphasizing that it was up to the Egyptians to decide whether to prosecute Mubarak, she said any trial should be conducted to the highest standard. “Obviously we want to see the rule of law,” she told reporters.

Mubarak’s alleged crimes listed by the prosecutor include pre-meditated murder, abuse of influence, wasting public funds and unlawfully making private financial gains.
His sons and other former top officials are being held in Torah prison on the outskirts of Cairo.

(Writing by Edmund Blair, editing by Alistair Lyon)

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If Cairo Came to Kabul

April 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By David Swanson

Before Tahrir Square happened almost nobody predicted that President Hosni Mubarak would be forced out of office by a movement that didn’t pick up a gun. Had President Barack Obama expected that outcome, he might have publicly backed Mubarak’s departure before, rather than after, Mubarak stepped down.

Obama can be seen as overcompensating for that performance in Libya, but there he is placing faith in weapons. Anybody can do that. Egypt still has a long way to go on its path to a just society. But the question of whether Tunisian-Egyptian movements will find success elsewhere is the question of whether people can take the far more challenging step of placing trust in nonviolence.

Those who believed a nonviolent movement, one that would involve youth and women, could gain power in Egypt, worked for years to make it happen. Those saying it couldn’t be done were not permitted to get in the way of those doing it. Nonviolent strategists like American Gene Sharp advised the organizers of a force that developed completely beneath the U.S. media’s radar. What burst forth earlier this year appeared to be spontaneous. It was not.

It will come as a surprise to most Americans, and indeed to most Afghans, that a dedicated group of Afghan youth has begun building a principled and disciplined nonviolent movement for peace, independence, and unity in Afghanistan. By independence, the Afghan youth mean independence from the United States and NATO, but also from Pakistan and Iran and all other outside control, as well as independence from rule by the Taliban, warlords, and oligarchs of all stripes. By unity, they mean national Afghan unity inclusive of all ethnicities.

Bringing Cairo to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, will not be achieved by occupying a central square this week and gradually increasing the crowd size for months and years as Afghans come to appreciate the value of the movement. Taking over the streets of the capital, if that tactic is employed, will not happen until a great deal of groundwork has been laid. That groundwork will likely involve several steps that have been identified by those working on this project.

Ethnic Unity

First, ethnic divisions will have to be healed. Afghanistan is 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, and smaller percentages of several other ethnic groups. As long as these groups are rivals, it will be more difficult for the people as a whole to challenge corrupt oligarchs. A newspaper editor in Kabul told me he believed that even legitimate, credible elections — something Afghanistan has not had — would not produce a just and stable representative government, because any president would be from one ethnic group and not the others.

Afghans should be so lucky as to have that problem! The reality is that until the ethnic groups unite, and other progress is achieved, Afghans are unlikely to be able to compel their government to hold open and verifiable elections.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the Afghan Parliament, finished third in the official count of the 2009 presidential election. He is Hazara, and the first and second-place finishers were Pashtun and Tajik respectively. But Bashardost told me that he received more support from outside his ethnic group than from within it. Bashardost is a proponent of Gandhian nonviolence, ethnic unity, and national independence. He employs no security guards, cruises around town in a beat-up old car, and holds court in a tent in an empty lot in a particularly poor neighborhood.

Bashardost favors political reforms that would empower the legislature and disempower the president as well as political parties, thus allowing greater representation of minority groups. Bashardost is a powerful voice on the inside of the Afghan government for peace and nonviolence. Here is video of an interview I conducted with him. But Bashardost is not an activist or an organizer. He is a unifying figure, but he is a politician.

Teck Young Wee is another story. He is a medical doctor and a native of Singapore who began working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan 9 years ago and moved to Bamiyan Province in Afghanistan seven years ago. He was taken in by an Afghan family and given the name Hakim. Bamiyan is relatively free of U.S. forces and therefore something of a success story in terms of suffering low levels of violence.

Hakim has been mentoring youth in Bamiyan and elsewhere. The Bamiyan youth, primarily Hazara and Tajik, primarily boys and young men, but including girls and young women and other ethnic groups as well, have established the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers (AYPV). Peace is a radical idea, and apparently frightening to some. Hakim received threats from unidentified sources, and the people of Bamiyan created a warning system to protect him that involved plans to put their own bodies in the path of any violence. The threat has faded.

AYPV have taken steps toward ethnic unity, controversially arranging for college students from every ethnic group to room together. A similar approach of using housing rental policies to integrate the country on a larger scale is something I’ve heard advocated by professors in Kabul.

Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers from Bamiyan in the north have made particular efforts to reach out to Pashtun youth in the south. Peace volunteers hand made cell phone cases from second-hand leather and hand sewed the word ‘Peace’ in the Dari language on them. They sent these to Pashtun youth in Kandahar along with a video message. Then they phoned Pashtun youth leaders to say they had done this out of love and a desire for reconciliation. A Pashtun leader, in Hakim’s words (here’s video), “said this is impossible – he couldn’t believe it.” He said “this is a love you have shown us and we will never forget it.” That’s a powerful statement in a country where the things you most commonly hear people say they will never forget are acts of violence.

Hakim stresses that part of eliminating ethnic divisions will have to be recognizing and addressing the forces that strengthen them, namely the violence of warlords backed by the United States and NATO. Here, as elsewhere, is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Unity is needed to drive out the occupiers, but the occupiers are a barrier to unity. Yet, this is always the way, and such traps have been opened before.

Women Behind The Wheel

A second part of the groundwork that is probably needed is the empowerment of women. A nonviolent peace movement stands a far greater chance of success, experts say, when it includes women and embraces a movement for women’s liberation.

An Afghan film director Sahraa Karimi has produced an engaging and illuminating documentary called “Afghan Women Behind the Wheel”. When she told me the title with a bit of an accent, I thought the last word was “Veil.” It could almost as well have been. The film is about the limited rights and options of women in a country that is not just poor and war-ravaged, but in which many men passionately believe women to be inferior.

The movie has great footage for anyone wondering what life in Kabul looks like, and it tells the stories of a number of women who learn to drive. In a scene that drew laughs from all the Afghans watching it with me, a driving instructor tells them “Another important thing is traffic lights, even though we don’t have any.” He goes on to explain what red, yellow, and green mean. I’m told there are a few traffic lights, but I haven’t seen them.

Something else you won’t see much of is women drivers. The women in the movie are violating a taboo. When they begin driving, vicious rumors are spread about them, including that they are working!

It’s actually very hard for anyone to find a job in Afghanistan, and driving lessons cost a good percentage of the average annual income. Some of the women in the movie are in fact working, one in a health clinic, one in a school, and one decides to become a taxi driver. She describes an unloved childhood and a forced marriage to a man 18 years her senior, a man who abused her. She enjoys the sport of Kabul driving, not a skill easily learned by anyone. Her story resembles the others’ — fathers prefer sons, sons inherit property, marriages are forced.

The taxi driver sees driving as the one thing she is able to do, and she is terrified of not being able to afford the gasoline to continue doing it. She dreams that cars might run on water. The same woman builds a house herself and loves it, but is afraid that her stepfather next door might hurt her or her children, and so lives in an apartment. Better times and changes come into her life, which is quite touching and revealing.

I certainly hope to see many more women driving in Afghanistan. If women are going to lead a movement, as they must, to reject both the U.S. occupation and the Taliban, they cannot remain in the position of children always asking for a ride.

A third part of a successful movement will be the educating and organizing of youth. In Afghanistan, 68% of the country is under age 25, and the life expectancy at birth is 44. A nation this young will rise or fall with the actions of youth.

This is almost certainly an advantage, in that youth have fewer years of trauma, bitterness, and ideologies of vengeance to overcome. While some of the leading members of AYPV lost family members to the Taliban, it is the youth more than their elders who carry less weighty memories and resentments. Watch this video of Afghan kids at an orphanage and you will feel more confident about Afghanistan’s future whether you want to or not. Watch this one of Afghan shepherd boys with slingshots and the possibility of David nonviolently halting Goliath’s assaults may appear within reach.

While Hakim is their mentor, the young men of AYPV are the leaders of this budding movement. They are thoughtful, experienced beyond their years, relentlessly energetic and upbeat. Abdullah, age 15, whose father was killed by the Taliban, recently explained his desire for peace and nonviolence from all sides to a defender of the US/NATO occupation. The icy response was that the Taliban ought to have killed him as well. Abdullah was told that he was too young to know real suffering. But the younger man was the wiser in this conversation, responding without anger or hatred and opposing the maintenance of a vicious cycle of violence.

One morning earlier this month, four members of Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers spoke to a college class in Kabul. The professor with the loudest voice argued that the United States and NATO wanted the good of all people. Faiz, age 20, was among those who spoke up in response. Speaking to elders is not part of the tradition these young men have grown up in, but they believe it has become necessary. Some eyes were opened. About half the class, by the end of the session, seemed to believe that peace might be possible.

A fourth important step is precisely that of persuading Afghans who have no experience with peace that peace is indeed possible, and that the nonviolent tools of peace are powerful enough to bring it about and to resist violent seekers of power, whether Afghan or foreign.

The U.S. military encourages Afghans to believe that only foreign violence can prevent domestic terror. Here’s a video showing U.S. advertisements for war in Afghanistan. A poster shows an Afghan baby with the words “suicide bomber or doctor?” The Peace Volunteers reject the notion that one violent force is needed to hold off another.

Afghanistan’s history has much to draw on in countering the idea that violence is inevitable. In particular, there is the history of a nonviolent Pashtun army under the leadership of Badshah Kahn resisting the British occupation of what was then the Northwest Frontier of India and is now Pakistan. A new film telling this story should be viewed by all Americans, but more importantly by all Afghans.

Imagining peace in Afghanistan is made difficult by decades of war, by traditions of honor and vengeance, by the current ubiquity of violence, but also by factors that dominate the lives of Afghans while often slipping from the minds of the rest of us. Afghans are hungry, miserable, suffering, and scared. Many have little or no electricity, healthcare, or potable water. In Afghanistan 850 children die every day.

There is no difficulty in motivating Afghans to protest in anger. But organizing a disciplined campaign of nonviolence moved by justice, while free of anger, may prove — as it usually is — more of a challenge.

A fifth factor is the building of alliances abroad, something the AYPV have been busy with, hosting dozens of foreign peace activists in Afghanistan, scheduling global conference calls on Skype, and sending messages far and wide. Here’s a video of U.S. peace activist Kathy Kelly speaking in the United States last week about her visits to Afghanistan.

The U.S. embassy has refused visas to members of AYPV who have been invited to visit and speak in the United States. What possible harm can the U.S. State Department believe would come from Americans meeting a few Afghans face-to-face and hearing about their plans for nonviolent activism and peace? Former Afghan member of Parliament Malalai Joya recently had a visa to the United States accepted following intense public pressure; so such reversals are possible.

The Revolution Has Begun

Whether a nonviolent movement will succeed in Afghanistan we have no way of knowing. Whether the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers and others inspired by them will play a major role, I certainly can’t say. Briefly visiting Afghanistan has imprinted the views of a small unrepresentative sample of Afghans on my mind in a way that no reading about the nation can do; and even those who live there are unable to predict the future. If a nonviolent movement achieves power, the basic sequence of events is hard to foresee. The U.S. military could be forced out before a representative government is established, or vice versa. Or everything could come at once. The point I want to make is that such a thing is completely possible and that it may have already begun.

The small group of thoughtful, committed citizens that Margaret Mead said can change the world has already begun working toward peace and justice in Afghanistan. They’ve begun small. Here’s a video of the Peace Volunteers installing an illuminated sign with the word for ‘Peace’ on the side of a mountain. Here they are planting trees for peace last month. Here’s a candlelight vigil. And here is a slideshow from what I hope will be the first of many marches for peace in Kabul — this one held on March 17th of this year.

The march was covered by all of the local television stations in Kabul as a startlingly new phenomenon. Peace? Who even dreams of such a thing, much less proposes a strategy to build it? Police surrounding the marchers with batons and riot gear were a less unusual sight.

Of course, there have always been marches and protests in Afghanistan. As in the United States, such events receive far less media attention than do acts of violence. But most such demonstrations do not propose nonviolence, peace, and love. They oppose particular campaigns of violence and are generally considered at risk of spawning violence of their own. When I was in Kabul earlier this month, students at Kabul University held a march against the U.S. occupation. I would have loved to attend and speak against the crimes of my own government, but as an American I was strongly urged to go nowhere near an event at which being an American could get me killed.

The Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers have sought to send their message of nonviolent opposition to war to the heart of the empire. Here’s a video of U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in Bamiyan telling the AYPV that he will deliver their message to President Obama. Here’s a video of Congressman Keith Ellison promising the same.

The messages send out by the AYPV are eloquent and important. The immediate actions they advocate include establishing an international mediation team, a cease fire, a peacekeeping force, crisis teams, a unity campaign, restorative justice, and clean elections.

In another direct appeal the Afghan youth implore:

“Humanity has taken too long and lost too many in implementing non-violent, civil ways to resolve human conflict. We human beings can do better than repeatedly resorting to force and war to address human hurts and needs. Stop the killings, stop killing one another, stop killing the people. Stop killing us.”

David Swanson is the author of “War Is A Lie.”

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Sheikh Tantawi Passes Away

March 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

muhammad_sayyed_tantawi1 Egypt’s top cleric dies, aged 81

Egypt’s foremost Muslim cleric, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, has died, aged 81, while on a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Sheikh Tantawi was the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar mosque and head of the al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s centre of learning and scholarship.

He died of a heart attack in the Saudi capital Riyadh, where he was attending a prize-giving ceremony.

Sheikh Tantawi had infuriated radical Islamists with his moderate views on women wearing the veil.

His body will be taken to the Saudi city of Medina, the burial place of the Prophet Muhammad, for burial, Egyptian authorities said.

An adviser to the Sheikh told Egyptian television Sheikh Tantawi’s death was a shock, as before leaving for Saudi Arabia he had seemed in “excellent shape and health”.

A member of Sheikh Tantawi’s office, Ashraf Hassan, told news agency Reuters that Mohamed Wasel, Sheikh Tantawi’s deputy, was expected to temporarily take over leading the institution until the Egyptian president appointed a new head for the body.

Sheikh Tantawi was appointed to his position by Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in 1996.

But as a government appointee, he was always forced to negotiate a careful path between his religious imperatives and his government position, the BBC’s Christian Fraser in Cairo says.

He was vocal in his opposition to female circumcision, which is common in Egypt, calling it “un-Islamic”.

Last year, Sheikh Tantawi barred female students at the university from wearing the full-face covering niqab veil.

He also caused upset other Muslim scholars by saying that French Muslims should obey any law that France might enact banning the veil.

His views on the veil prompted Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to accuse him of “harming the interests of Islam”.

He has also condemned suicide attacks, saying extremists had hijacked Islamic principles for their own ends.

“I do not subscribe to the idea of a clash among civilizations. People of different beliefs should co-operate and not get into senseless conflicts and animosity,” he told a conference in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur in 2003.

“Extremism is the enemy of Islam. Whereas, jihad is allowed in Islam to defend one’s land, to help the oppressed. The difference between jihad in Islam and extremism is like the earth and the sky,” Sheikh Tantawi said.    

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