Hard-hitting questions for Egypt’s Morsi

The Associated Press brings us the latest from Cairo:

Islamists approved a draft constitution for Egypt early Friday without the participation of liberal and Christian members, seeking to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel with a rushed, marathon vote that further inflames the clash between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.

The move advanced a charter with an Islamist bent that rights experts say could give Muslim clerics oversight over legislation and bring restrictions on freedom of speech, women’s rights and other liberties…

The Islamist-dominated assembly that has been working on the constitution for months raced to pass it, voting article by article on the draft’s more than 230 articles for more than 16 hours. The lack of inclusion was on display in the nationally televised gathering: Of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives.

For weeks, liberal, secular and Christian members, already a minority on the 100-member panel, have been withdrawing to protest what they call the Islamists’ hijacking of the process.

You should read the whole thing. It’s a lengthy piece with tons of reporting. I love how the reporters give specifics. So that’s your example of good reporting from Egypt.

I also wanted to highlight this piece by Time. Three reporters got a huge get — the chance to interview the man who just went “temporary dictator” on his country. He’s asserted that all his decisions are final, can’t be appealed, and can’t be overturned by courts. He’s further said that no judicial body can dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution.

So what do these three reporters ask the man who used to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s enforcer? Here’s what they came up with:

You’re on the world stage now.

What was it like to deal with president Obama during the Gaza cease-fire?

Is the Muslim Brotherhood in fact a democratic organization?

Last week’s decree created a lot of controversy. If you had it to do over again, would you handle it differently? Revise it?

This year, 2012, was a big year, a lot happened. Many hail you as a statesman, others warn you’re a new pharaoh.

Is there enough of a buy-in from the society at large on the constitution?

But what about the political environment around it? Don’t events of the last week indicate a society pulling part rather than coming together around it?

As the fourth question shows, this interview definitely took place this week — after the events of last week that provoked global outrage. Should I assume they were only allowed to ask questions that wouldn’t raise the ire of Morsy? What do you think of these questions?

‘Moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian power grab

Protests broke out in Egypt in recent days over President Mohamed Morsi’s unilateral decree assuming widespread powers that may not be challenged or questioned. The Associated Press carried a list of some of those powers, beginning with:

- All laws and decisions by the president are final, cannot be appealed, overturned or halted by the courts or other bodies. This applies to decisions he has made since taking office in June and any he makes until a new constitution is approved and a new parliament is elected, expected in the spring at the earliest.

- No judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the assembly writing the new constitution. Both are dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists and several cases demanding their disbanding were before the courts, which previously dissolved the lower house of parliament.

Cairo’s English-language paper Al Ahram reports that “the decree also protects the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) and the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) against dissolution by court order.” Al Ahram is a great source for news right now if you’re interested in what’s going on in Egypt. It was there I learned that the chairman of the Shura Council said Morsi went too far with his declaration. He’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Faith and Justice Party, so his disagreement was something of a surprise.

Morsi, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood activist and the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state, says not to worry, that the decrees are totally temporary. Somehow the non-Islamists of Egypt aren’t convinced. I’m just wondering if dictators always insisted that their power-taking was temporary or if that’s just a 20th-century innovation.

Morsi’s timing for the power grab wasn’t totally off. He just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, leading to plaudits from a variety of leaders. Morsi has enjoyed significant support from the United States, ever since he ran against even stricter Islamists.

Which leads me a larger journalism question. I wonder if journalists have been led off their game a bit because Morsi is supported by the United States and/or because the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed less strict in tone an substance than certain Islamist elements in Egypt. I first noticed this earlier in the year when some media types described the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” I noticed that others were resisting that description, even while acknowledging that the Muslim Brotherhood was less strict.

The New York Times has covered the Egypt story thoroughly throughout the year and I appreciate the way reporter David Kirkpatrick has focused on specific examples to define the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular niche within Egyptian Islamism. I had wanted to highlight this Q&A the paper ran between readers and reporters after a brief interview of Morsi was published in September. Kirkpatrick’s answers really show his reportorial style. It’s clear he has a good grasp of the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, as evidenced in this weekend’s story about judge’s revolting:

What set off the battle was the year-end deadline for the Constitutional Assembly chosen last spring to draft a new constitution. There had been rumors that the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised to dissolve the assembly in a ruling next Sunday. Top courts had already dissolved both an earlier Constitutional Assembly and the Parliament. All three bodies were dominated by Islamists, who have prevailed in elections, and many of the top judges harbor deep fears of an Islamist takeover.

As the deadlines loomed in recent weeks, the assembly’s Islamist leaders began to rush the debates. The assembly had already beaten back the efforts of ultraconservative Salafis to significantly expand the role of Islam in government. But in the last two weeks, many members of the non-Islamist minority began complaining of strong-arming and quit the assembly, slowing its deliberations and hurting its credibility.

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he issued his decree to give the assembly a two-month extension and protect it from judicial dissolution, so that its members could work out compromises and avoid the formation of yet another assembly. His supporters accuse many in the assembly’s non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet in order to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat.

“They are afraid of democracy, really,” Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in an interview this month. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”

Mr. Morsi’s critics say he could have found a less confrontational tactic to achieve his goal. But in denouncing his decree on Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists.

If interested in an alternate view about which party has trouble with the difficulties of democracy, read this EUObserver analysis from Koert Debeuf. Reuters had more over a week ago about the Christian and liberal opposition within the Constitutional Assembly, leading to resignations. While only 10 percent of the population, stories this weekend seemed to give short shrift to the Copts in Egypt who have voiced significant concern about their fate under growing Islamist power.

What do you think about media coverage of the situation in Egypt, both from this weekend and throughout the year? Do you think media outlets have had blinders on about the Brotherhood or the ease with which Islamism blends with democracy? Have you seen any other good coverage worth highlighting?

And for the Copts, the winner is … the winner is?

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First things first: I would like to stress that, while I am a member of an Orthodox Christian parish with historic ties to Arab Christianity, I do not speak Arabic.

That said, I would think that this language deficit would make me a highly unlikely candidate to cover a major news event in which the climactic moment was going to hinge on an announcement in Arabic. At the very least, I would think that — if given this assignment anyway — I would certainly want to have someone seated right next to me who is fluent in Arabic.

What am I talking about? Since there was no embed code for the following BBC report, GetReligion readers will need to click here in order to see the influential global network’s coverage of the rite used to select the new leader of Egypt’s Coptic pope. So click on over and watch that video before continuing with this post.

Meanwhile, here is the top of the BBC online text:

Bishop Tawadros has been chosen as the new pope of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, becoming leader of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. His name was selected from a glass bowl by a blindfolded boy at a ceremony in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral. Three candidates had been shortlisted.

The 60-year-old succeeds Pope Shenouda III, who died in March aged 88. He succeeds as attacks on Copts are on the increase, and many say they fear the country’s new Islamist leaders.

The other two candidates were Bishop Raphael and Father Raphael Ava Mina. They were chosen in a ballot by a council of some 2,400 Church and community officials in October. Their names were written on pieces of paper and put in crystal balls sealed with wax on the church altar.

Once the crystal ball had been selected and opened, a large scroll of paper was unrolled containing the name of the new pope — written in Arabic. The BBC announcer was placed in the awkward position, as the congregation applauded its approval, of not knowing who had been selected.

Did the executive producers expect the name to be written in English?

Clearly, the BBC crew was not having a good day. If you compare the BBC coverage with the Euronews clip attached to the top of this post, you will notice something else strange. Apparently, while Bishop Pachomius was showing the Arabic scroll to the congregation, a portrait of the monk selected — Bishop Tawadros — was shown on a large screen.

Either (a) the unlucky BBC announcer did not recognize the face of the winner or (b) the reporter was not on site for this event and the camera crew producing the live feed he was using framed their shot so narrowly, and held on to it, so that the large digital image of the new pope could not be seen. D’oh!

The story text is not bad, even if it is rather mildly worded. This passage struck me hard, as someone who has been following the plight of the Coptic believers for years.

The new pope has studied in Britain, and has also run a medicine factory, the BBC’s Jon Leyne in Cairo reports. He is a man of broad experience and with managerial skills, our correspondent says, adding that he will need all those talents to lead the Copts as they face an uncertain future in a country now debating the role of Islam following last year’s revolution. …

Coptic Christians have long complained of discrimination by the Egyptian state and the country’s Muslim majority. But when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year and succeeded by the Muslim Brotherhood, their fears grew.

In October 2011, 25 people died in clashes with the security forces after a protest march in Cairo over the burning of a church.

Suffice it to say, there is much, much more that could be added at that point in the story, in an age in which the Muslim Brotherhood is now considered the moderate party in Egyptian life. To dig into the background material, try clicking here or here.

Economist offers rare insights into Salafists

I have a friend who once worked for Time (actually, several people fit under that umbrella) who once made a very interesting observation about the state of foreign news in that newsweekly, which was once famous for its excellent, sweeping coverage of world affairs.

This correspondent noted that for several years, as Time coverage of foreign news declined, it was rather easy to chart a corresponding rise in the subscription totals over at The Economist. In other words, if you subtract this form of serious news in THIS publication, then it is highly likely that you add people who are seeking that form of news to the subscription rolls over HERE.

This equation, alas, doesn’t work very well for religion news because, well, nobody in the news-magazine world is blazing a bright religion-news trail, at the moment.

Still I wanted to note a recent Economist article (yes, after several decades I recently cancelled Time and subscribed to you know what) that offered a few paragraphs of real, life, informative material about the doctrinal and lifestyle implications of one of the major conflicts that is shaping modern Islam. As frequent GetReligion readers know, this is something that this blog has been pleading for journalists to do for the eight-plus years we have been in business.

The goal, in this typically crisp and newsy Economist piece, was to describe some of the conflicts between the old Islamist guard (think the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) and the rising tide of fervent believers who are being called the new “Salafists.” As is often the case, the Economist team opens with an essay-form, summary lede that sets the scene:

TO SELL an idea it helps to keep it simple. This explains the appeal of Salafism, an increasingly wide, bold-coloured stripe on the very broad spectrum of modern Islamism. Its most garish manifestation has been painted in blood by the jihadist brand of Salafists, most notoriously by the holy terrorists of al-Qaeda. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have deep Salafist roots, as do the rowdy gangs in Tunisia that have lately trashed bars, cinemas and the American embassy. Yet while Saudi Arabia’s dour Salafist version of Islam, Wahhabism, shuns political life and abhors democracy, the Salafists’ Nour Party in Egypt has played politics eagerly and effectively, capturing a quarter of the votes in last year’s general elections.

What links these groups is a belief that Islam has been weakened by centuries of accumulated intellectual baggage. Muslims should dump most of it, the Salafists say, and revert to the ways of their salaf, or forebears.

So here we are: What are “the ways” of the past?

God is in the details. Thus, what do the old ways look like in practical terms? This one-page article offers an short, clear, summary of how the 5,000 or so sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad are being interpreted by these strict believers:

In some matters this makes life easy. One should obviously eat with the right hand only, as Muhammad reportedly did. Men should grow beards. Women should cover up. And one should abhor such “innovations” in Islam as Shiism and also Sufism, with—in Salafist eyes — its silly rituals and unhealthy adulation of sainted leaders. Yet choosing which 1,400-year-old saying to apply, or which venerable act to follow, is not always easy. This is particularly so when it comes to the ever-changing intricacies of politics.

For instance, whereas one of al-Qaeda’s better-known tactics has been suicide-attacks, plenty of Salafist scholars condemn the act of suicide itself as an abomination. Some rejected the uprisings that overthrew the “infidel” rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, just because they were sparked by the suicide of Muhammad Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor. Other Salafist preachers agreed with Saudi Wahhabists that it is a sin to go against the wishes of any ruler. But more pragmatic Salafists embraced the Arab spring as a God-given opportunity.

The experience of Egypt’s Nour Party is telling. Though educated, city-dwelling Egyptians were shocked by the success of a party founded only last year, Nour has built on a tradition of Salafist sermonising and mosque-building that goes back a century. Long popular among the poor for their uncompromising views, Salafist preachers had lately been boosted by a surge in private cash from the Gulf. This financed not only fancy websites and some two dozen satellite TV channels, but also a network of charities rivalling that of the milder-mannered Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, Economist readers will not be surprised at this tide of information — backed with few if any specific attributions from sources. That’s a problem, from my point of view, but the publication speaks with this kind of authoritative voice and its readers accept that.

Clearly, if would be easy for other newsrooms to back up this kind of reporting with a wide, balanced array of sources linked to names and titles. The American model of the press is a plus, when doing that kind of work.

The article goes on to show, in practical terms, what Salafist faith looks like today. There are glimpses of Salafist hypocrisy as well.

It’s very basic, informative material. It’s also the kind of reporting that one rarely sees about the divisions and complexities that exist inside the Muslim world. Non-Muslims need to know more about this complex reality, in order to make sense of some of the world’s conflicts. This is what journalism is supposed to do.


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