Archive | January, 2011

Egypt: The police, the army and the people

29 Jan

All eyes are on Egypt today, and by the time I post this note, the political situation may have radically changed. Tens of thousands of protesters are pressing President Mubarak to leave office, not satisfied by his half-hearted stalling tactic of firing his cabinet. As Saturday ticks away (Cairo is seven hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time), the wind seems to be blowing against his staying for long. Only a handful of people know what’s being said behind closed doors in government offices in Cairo, Washington, the U.N., Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The street battles between protesters and police have been well documented and shown around the globe, especially on Friday, despite the Egyptian government’s shutdown of the Internet, cell-phone service and social media in an attempt to cut off communication between groups of protesters and between Egypt and the rest of the world. By contrast, the protesters are welcoming the Egyptian army when soldiers are dispatched to Cairo, Alexandria and other cities. Compare and contrast this image, taken  yesterday, with this one, from today. (Hover over the links to see photo credits.)

I’ve been wondering why the difference: Why welcome the soldiers and fight the police since they are both controlled by the same government, at least in theory? It turns out, not surprisingly, that there’s a history. Thanks to Wikileaks‘ release of diplomatic cables, we can get a sense of what the Egyptian people have had to deal with during Mubarak’s three-decade-long rule.

First, the Egyptian police. A cable from the American embassy in Cairo to the U.S. State Department on Jan. 15, 2009 summarized:

Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have criticized GOE (Government of Egypt)-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution.

The cable provided numerous examples, including this and this.

The Egyptian military, by contrast, has been more benign or at least less terrifying to its own people. The army lost some stature after the Arabs’ failed 1967 war with Israel, but in the time since then, the military has re-fashioned itself in other ways, possibly being overlooked because of its diminished role. Whatever the reason, to put it roughly, it looks like the military has been going along to get along with the Mubarak regime (and profiting handsomely as they did so) — and biding its time. This week, maybe, its time has come. The Egyptian civilians in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities are certainly acting as if the army is on their side.

From a Sept. 23, 2008 cable from the American embassy:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises.

Later in the same cable:

The military still remains a potent political and economic force. Its recent interventions, using the MOD’s (Ministry of Defense’s) considerable resources, to produce bread to meet shortages in March and extinguish the Shoura Council (upper house of Parliament) fire in August (2008) demonstrate that it sometimes can successfully step in where other government agencies fail. The military helps to ensure regime stability and  operates a large network of businesses as it becomes a  “quasi-commercial” enterprise itself. While there are  economic and political tensions between the business elite and the military, the overall relationship between the two still appears to be cooperative, rather than adversarial.

As of Saturday morning in the U.S., at least for amateurs like me it’s too early to know how things will go in Egypt, but the military is the big wild card. For the time being, however, it’s clear that the Egyptian protesters — and probably most Egyptians — know who are their internal institutional enemies and who, they hope, may turn out to be their best friends.

Photo: Gallo/Getty image, via Al Jazeera (English).

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Don’t be surprised: An Alabama governor, Irish bishops, and a certain Florida pastor

23 Jan

You remember Gomer Pyle, don't you? "Surprise, surprise, surprise!"

From this week’s news, file the following under “Don’t Be Surprised”:

1. The newly inaugurated governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, shouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself immediately in public-relations hot water after telling a church audience on Martin Luther King Day that only Christians were his brothers and sisters. The new governor, who’s a Southern Baptist, apologized to his constituents two days later. Theologically, he’s very much in line with mainstream evangelical theology — that is, that Christians have been uniquely adopted into God’s family through Jesus Christ. But any suggestion of being exclusive or of favoring one group of constituents over another is not politically savvy — or even that advisable at the duly elected leader of all the people of Alabama.

2. The Vatican shouldn’t be surprised (and most likely isn’t) that the disclosure of a confidential letter from a Vatican official in 1997 to Irish bishops re-opened wounds, sparked yet more controversy about clerical abuse and was mostly misunderstood if not altogether falsely reported. The letter, obtained by an Irish TV network and released to the Associated Press, warned the bishops of likely consequences if they followed through with their proposed policy of reporting all charges of child abuse to police. Victims groups and at least one American lawyer who is working to sue the Vatican on behalf of a victim, said the letter was a “smoking gun” that proved the Holy See was encouraging a cover-up.

The Vatican said the letter simply alerted Irish clerics that their proposed policies had implications under both civil and church law, but it never advised them not to report abuse. Reading the one-and-a-half page letter, it looks like the Vatican has a point. To judge by the coverage, especially when it first hit the headlines, some of the reporters on this story either didn’t understand “Vaticanspeak” and the workings of Roman Catholic Church machinery — or they didn’t want to. (To read about the problems with the reporting on this story, check out this post, which gives me a chance for a shout-out to friends at the Get Religion blog, a good place to find critique of how the mainstream media covers religion.)

3. Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who drew worldwide attention last fall when he pledged to burn copies of the Koran on Sept. 11, should not be surprised that the British government denied him entry into its country. He planned to speak at a February rally protesting the rise of Islam in the UK as well as visit his daughter who lives there. The British government said he was denied a visa because it “opposes extremism in all its forms” and  thinks his views would “foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.”.Jones, of course, protested the decision, calling it “sabotage of the basic human rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression” as well as proof of “the effectiveness of the threat of militant Islam in the UK.” About 2.7 percent of the UK’s 62.3 million people are Muslim (compared to 0.6 percent in the US), according to the CIA World Factbook. When I lived in England in the 1980s, we could already say, accurately, that there were more Muslims than Methodists in Britain.

Are there any other threads running through these stories? Maybe, to paraphrase the most famous line from Cool Hand Luke, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate … well.

Singing that other anthem

17 Jan

I attended a local prayer breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. last Saturday (Jan. 15). It was a fine, enjoyable and inspiring event, attended by a few hundred people from a variety of church and ethnic backgrounds, including a healthy representation of civic and church leaders. A couple of  choirs sang and a couple of local young African-American leaders spoke.

One of the first things the gathering did was sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” described as the “African-American National Anthem.” But I have to confess that as I stood there singing, I felt bothered by the idea of an “alternative” national anthem. 

The notion of “hyphenated Americans” has always bothered me. E pluribus unum: I’m a fan. (I’ve got Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson on my side, for whatever that’s worth.) But there I was, singing an alternative anthem. I appreciated the spirit and intent of the breakfast, and so I wasn’t thinking “Bah, humbug.” But I wasn’t thinking, “Hip-hip-hooray!” either. Wasn’t the kind of separation this song implied exactly opposite of what the good Dr. King preached?

But when I stopped mentally stroking my chin and wagging my finger long enough to focus on the words, a few lights turned on.

For instance: If someone wanted to compare this “anthem” and the official American national anthem, it would be a religious slam dunk for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is wall-to-wall biblical allusions and expressions of faith in a God who promised to redeem captives. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by contrast, describes a battle scene. That difference alone should give folks a moment’s pause. If we want to think of  the U.S. as a Christian, peace-loving nation, we couldn’t guess that from our national anthem. Taken at face value, the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice” are much more biblical and universal.

But there’s more to songs than lyrics, of course. These anthems carry almost two centuries of emotional and symbolic baggage. “Lift Every Voice,” written at the start of the 20th century, spoke specifically about the black experience in the U.S., less than a generation after slavery had been abolished. So when I sing or hear that song, I hear it differently than someone who can trace his or her family back to a slave or to a lynching victim or to a Selma marcher. That history doesn’t make the song a good candidate for an actual national anthem. Even so, it’s healthy for me to hear it and sing it. It’s a song that is deeply rooted in is piece of American history that is both shameful and noble.

I still wish it weren’t nicknamed a “national anthem” — we have only one of those. On the other hand, African-Americans and other minorities were treated as a separate nation within our borders for so long, I shouldn’t be too harsh and not at all surprised. History is hard to escape.

Here’s the first stanza; you can click here to read all the lyrics.

“Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.”

The video is not of our prayer breakfast. (We sang well, but nothing like that.) It’s the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2009.

Welcome to RPM

17 Jan

Welcome to RPM: Religion, Politics, Media.

When I showed the template for this new blog to my friend Jose, he laughed.

“Why don’t you  just name it ‘All the Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About’?” he asked.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I see his point. Not the stuff of traditionally polite conversation. So thanks to Jose, I might adopt a lightning rod as the official RPM icon.

It’s no secret that religion, politics and media are magnets for controversy — especially when two or more of those topics intersect. And do they ever intersect, maybe more than ever. Other blogs, columns and sites deal with these topics, and I’m glad for them. (Well, most of them.) I hope RPM contributes high-quality information and insight as well, and provides a platform for good discussion and debate. With that goal in mind, RPM will include a variety of content, adding new material at least twice a week: Commentary. Reporting. Interviews. Long pieces and short ones. Video and audio. And, I hope, your comments, suggestions and critiques. Your views will add breadth and depth to the conversations here, so please feel free to join in (but on topic and with respect and good manners, of course).

In short, I hope RPM grows to be an enjoyable, helpful and regular part of your read-and-response diet. Let me know what you think. If this is a valuable site, please pass the word to friends. Best wishes.

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