“Christian Brotherhood” Formed in Egypt on the Model of the Muslim Brotherhood

Andrew McGregor

July 12, 2012

As Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood attempts to consolidate its political control of Egypt’s presidency and parliament, the formation of a new “Christian Brotherhood” was announced on July 5. The new movement does not have the endorsement of the Coptic Orthodox Church and is described by its founders as either a “sectarian” or a “liberal and secular” organization that will or will not seek political power, depending on who is asked. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, which is still officially unrecognized in Egypt, the new movement will register with the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs to obtain legal status. The announcement came at a time of growing sectarian tensions and protests following incidents such as an attack by bearded Islamists on a Coptic woman in the Cairo suburb of Ma’adi for not wearing a veil (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], July 7).

Though it is only being activated now, the idea for a Christian Brotherhood movement was first advanced in 2005 by Coptic lawyer and activist Mamdouh Nakhla, the director of the Kalema Center for Human Rights (Cairo) and political analyst Michel Fahmy. The two were later joined by Amir Ayyad of the Maspero Youths Union for Free Copts, who played an important role in organizing the group. According to Fahmy, the movement was activated after the election of Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad al-Mursi as Egypt’s new president to “resist the Islamist religious tide… We created our group to create a balance in the Egyptian political scene.” (al-Arabiya, July 5; Bikya Masr [Cairo], July 5).

Mamdouh Nakhla

Mamdouh Nakhla described some of the goals of the new movement in a recent interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 7). Noting that the political model of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been very successful in Egypt, Nakhla insists that the Christian Brotherhood (CB) will follow this model, at times almost slavishly – for instance, the CB’s political wing will be called Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Hurryiya (Justice and Freedom Party)in imitation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s izb al-urriya wa ‘l-Adala (Freedom and Justice Party).  The CB will also be led by a “Supreme Guide,” just as in the MB.  According to Nakhla, “We have been convinced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in coming to power, particularly as this group is still officially illegal. This is why we intend to implement this same idea, utilizing even the same hierarchy and positions, which may even have the same names…” The Coptic activist even suggests an alliance with the MB could be possible:

We are prepared to politically ally with them and take part in elections with them on a joint list, which could be called the “Egyptian Brotherhood” list. We may support their presidential candidate in any future elections, on the condition that presidential and ministerial posts are shared between us. Therefore, if they were to win the presidency then the vice president would be a member of the Christian Brotherhood, whilst if they form a government, ministerial portfolios would be shared between us, each according to their [parliamentary] proportion.

Ahmed al-Deif, a political adviser to the new Egyptian president, said in late June that al-Mursi was considering the appointment of two vice-presidents, a Copt and a (presumably Muslim) woman (Egypt Independent, June 26). The idea, however, ran into opposition from Egypt’s Salafists, who oppose such appointments but would permit the appointment of a Copt as a presidential adviser (Egypt Independent, July 2). The main candidate for a Coptic vice-presidency is Dr. Rafiq Habib, a Coptic intellectual who is vice-president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the leadership of which describes him as “a valued and very much respected member” (Ikhwan Web, August 10). Nakhla notes that Dr. Habib has joined the Muslim Brotherhood “and is promoting their views; in fact sometimes he is even more unwavering in this than the members of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau themselves!” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 7).

While reaction from the Muslim Brotherhood is still forthcoming, Nakhla does not expect any opposition to the Christian Brotherhood from that quarter: “They cannot object to this idea, for if they object, then this means that they must dissolve their own organization.” Surprisingly, Egypt’s Salafists have expressed no objections to the new movement; according to Salafist Front spokesman Khalid Sa’id: “As long as they [the Christian Brotherhood] work within a legal framework, in accordance with their religion and their faith, and aiming for the country’s interests, there is nothing wrong with it” (al-Arabiya, July 5).

Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Guma’a has urged al-Mursi to address the fears of his Coptic “brothers” as part of an effort to form a consensus based on the “common, national, Egyptian civilization” (Al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], June 27). So far, al-Mursi appears to share the Mufti’s opinion, meeting with interim Coptic pope Bishop Pachomius only two days after being declared the victor in Egypt’s presidential election.

The new president’s outreach efforts stand in contrast to the heated days of the two-stage election, when al-Mursi and other members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party accused the Copts of “betraying the revolution” by voting exclusively for Air Force General and former Mubarak administration prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, despite ample evidence that the Coptic vote was split between a range of candidates (Egypt Independent, May 29). Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the Coptic Orthodox Church remained aloof from the momentous events of last year’s Egyptian revolution, unable or unwilling to split from its traditional cooperative approach to the Mubarak regime.

This article first appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Al-Qaeda Cell on Trial as Ethiopia becomes a Religious Battleground?

Andrew McGregor

May 31, 2012

Ten Somalis and one Kenyan are currently under trial in Addis Ababa for their alleged involvement in an al-Qaeda bombing plot after weapons and training manuals were seized in the Bale region of southeastern Ethiopia last December. The Kenyan, Hassan Jarsoo, has admitted his role in the alleged plot, but the others, who allegedly include several members of the army of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, have denied their involvement. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia (Walta Info Online [Addis Ababa], May 20; Africa Review [Nairobi], May 22; AFP, May 18).

Ethiopia is one of the earliest homes of both Christianity and Islam, with its 85 million people being roughly 60% Christian and 30% Muslim. These communities have traditionally lived in harmony, but in recent years Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians and Sufi-based Muslims have come under destabilizing pressure from external sources, primarily from American backed Christian evangelists and Saudi/Kuwaiti backed Salafists. Both of these trends have caused dissension in the religious communities by describing traditional Ethiopian forms of worship as deviations if not outright heresy and insisting that their adherents must convert to these new, more fundamentalist forms of worship. Ill-considered intervention by the central government has only inflamed the situation, and the result has been a growing wave of religious violence in a nation that has prided itself on religious tolerance. 

Islam arrived in Ethiopia even before it had firmly established itself in Arabia, as the Prophet Muhammad urged his persecuted followers to flee Mecca in 615 and take refuge in northern Ethiopia, where he promised they would find protection from its just king and his Christian followers. While many returned when Mecca became safe for Muslims, there is some evidence that others stayed in Ethiopia, founding the first Muslim community in Africa. The first muezzin (prayer-caller) in Islam was the ethnic Ethiopian Bilal ibn Rabah (a.k.a. Bilal al-Habashi), one of the Prophet’s closest companions. The Ethiopian city of Harar is regarded in some traditions as the “fourth-holiest city in Islam,” with mosques dating back to the 10th century and over 100 shrines.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament in April that the government was “observing tell-tale signs of [Islamic] extremism. We should nip this scourge in the bud” (Reuters, May 10). In response to fears of an incipient Salafist movement to establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia, the government is attempting to make a little-known and non-threatening Islamic sect known as al-Ahbash the dominant form of Islam in the country, a solution that has inflamed Sufis and Salafists alike.  The Ahbash movement was founded by Abdullah al-Harari (a.k.a. Abdullah al-Habashi, 1910-2008), a Harari scholar of Islam whose views were regarded locally as divisive, resulting in his being forced to leave for Lebanon in 1950. Al-Harari founded al-Ahbash, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, in the 1980s. Ethiopian Salafists have complained the government is importing Ahbash imams from Lebanon to teach local Muslims that Salafism is a non-Muslim movement (OnIslam.com, April 29).

Abdullah al-Harari

The leading Islamic religious authority in Ethiopia is the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC). Salafists no longer participate in the Council, which is in the process of having its representatives replaced by government appointed members of the Ahbash sect. Even authorities such as Dr. Ali Jum`ah, Grand Mufti of Egypt and Professor of the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence at Cairo’s al-Azhar University, charge the movement with having “strange deviant views that have never been expressed by any Muslim sect, group or movement,” including the free intermingling of the sexes, unrestricted cooperation with non-Muslims and the issuing of fatwa-s that contradict the Koran and Sunnah. Salafists and orthodox Sunni scholars also charge al-Ahbash with allowing intercession with the dead (saint-worship), overlooking the need to observe the five pillars of Islam, declaring Salafist-favored scholars such as Ibn Taymiyah, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Sayyid Qutb to be kuffar (infidels) and obscuring their true beliefs by failing to commit them to print (OnIslam.net, April 22). Seven Muslims were killed and scores wounded by Ethiopian police in late April when security forces surrounded a mosque in the Oromia Region in an attempt to arrest Salafist Shaykh Su’ud Aman following protests against the government’s efforts to impose Ahbashism (OnIslam.com, April 29; VOA, May 21).

As in many other parts of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have built numerous schools in underserved regions while Ethiopian workers have found employment in the Arabian Peninsula, where they have been exposed to highly conservative forms of Islam that differ greatly from those traditionally practiced at home. The religiously-inclined can find employment in Saudi-sponsored mosques in Ethiopia after taking advantage of generous scholarships to study Salafist Islam in Saudi Arabia. Local imams suffer from an educational and financial disadvantage in countering the Salafist scholars.

To offset the growing Salafist influence in Ethiopia, the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa attempted to have two works by Khalid Abou el-Fadl, a Kuwaiti Islamic scholar who teaches in the United States, translated into Amharic, Oromo and Somali, but were unable to find translators willing to undertake the work. The failed effort was part of an attempt to use “cultural programming” to turn “public opinion against activists who seek to overturn the existing order and import a brand of Islam that breeds conflict through its corrosive teachings that run counter to more orthodox interpretations of the Koran.” [1]