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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 02   01-15 June 2012

Professor A. R. Momin

Stand-Off in Egypt’s Presidential Election

The results of the first round of the presidential election in Egypt, held on 23-24 May, 1212, appear to be clearly fractured. In all 13 candidates contested the election and about 46 per cent of the country’s 50 million eligible voters cast their votes. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi, who got 25.3 per cent of the vote, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force commander who briefly served as prime minister during the last days of Hosni Mubarak and who garnered 24.9 per cent of the vote, emerged as frontrunners. The leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi won 21.5 per cent of the vote, followed by Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, formerly of the Muslim Brotherhood who was backed by the Salafis as well as a section of liberals, who got 19 per cent of the vote. Former foreign minister Amr Mousa stood fifth with 11.1 per cent of the vote. Announcing the results, the chief of the Higher Presidential Election Committee, Faruq Sultan, said, “No candidate won an outright majority, so according to Article 40 of the presidential election law, there will be a run-off between Mohammed Mursi and Ahmed Shafiq.” The run-off is scheduled on 16-17 June. Shortly after the announcement by the election commission, thousands of people began gathering at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, protesting against irregularities in the election. A part of Mr Shafiq’s office was set on fire by protesters. Demonstrations were also held in the Nile Delta and Alexandria where protesters tore up Mr Shafiq’s posters and banners.

The most important feature of the presidential election is that it was the freest and fairest election in Egyptian history. Barring a few irregularities, the election was by and large fair and peaceful, in contrast with widespread rigging and malpractices that characterized elections during the Mubarak era. Former US president Jimmy Carter, who led a delegation of election observers, said the poll and Egypt’s democratic transition had been “encouraging.” A fairly large number of women participated in election campaigns and rallies and turned out to vote at polling stations. Regardless of who becomes the country’s president in the run-off, the election represents a momentous step towards democracy. It is note-worthy that more than 65 per cent of Egyptian voters cast their vote in favour of the three pro-revolution candidates. Votes garnered by candidates who represented the old regime amount to less than 35 per cent. Mr Mursi and Mr Shafiq together got less than half the vote, while secular-minded candidates got a little more than half the vote.

The results of the first round of presidential elections have taken most Egyptians and political pundits around the world by surprise. It was widely expected, following the parliamentary elections held between 28 November 2011 and 11 January 2012, that the Muslim Brotherhood would emerge as a clear winner and that the results of the presidential election would mark a complete break with the legacy of the Mubarak era. In the parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored Freedom and Justice Party had won 47 per cent of seats while the Salafist Al-Nour Party won 24 per cent of the seats. Secular liberals and leftists had won 16 per cent of seats and pro-Mubarak parties just 5 per cent of the vote. More than two-thirds of seats in Egypt’s new parliament are held by Islamic parties. In the parliamentary elections, six out of ten Egyptians voted for Islamic-minded parties. This figure dropped to four in ten in the presidential election. The Islamic-minded votes were clearly split. All three runners-up have alleged widespread irregularities in the election and submitted petitions to the presidential election commission for suspending the election results. However, their petitions have been rejected by the election commission.

The social, economic and political situation in Egypt during the past 16 months has had a significant bearing on the presidential election. The economy scenario looks gloomy. GDP growth has declined from 5 per cent to 1 per cent in the span of a year. Foreign direct investment has declined from $6.4 billion in 2010 to 500 million in 2011. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have dwindled from $36 billion in 2010 to $10 billion in 2011. The country is faced with mounting debts, which necessitates a likely devaluation of the currency, which in turn will inevitably lead to a sharp rise in the prices of food and other goods. Inflation now runs into double digits. Tourism is one of the major sources of revenue, and some 15 million Egyptians depend on tourism. The political turmoil, the collapse of the government and political uncertainly have led to a 30 per cent decline in tourism. Unemployment has risen from 10 to 15 per cent, while youth unemployment is now at an all-time high of 25 per cent. There is a pervasive atmosphere of insecurity, instability and uncertainty in the country. There has been a lingering tension and mistrust between the new parliament and the military leadership.

The Muslim Brotherhood is undoubtedly the most popular social and political force in the country. However, its popularity has been dented by its inability to assert itself against the decision of the army generals to appoint an interim government and its vacillation in fielding a presidential candidate. The biggest, and worrisome, surprise in the election is Mr Shafiq’s wide margin of votes. He served as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and was forced to resign under pressure from youth groups that spearheaded the uprising. He has unabashedly declared Hosni Mubarak as his “role model.” Shafiq’s support base comes from the Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10 per cent of the population, the beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime, including the super rich class and corrupt civil servants and police officers, the security services and the Westernised elite. A large majority of Coptic Christians voted for him. He received financial and other support from Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. He has cleverly played on popular fears and apprehensions about an “Islamist” takeover of the country, lawlessness and political instability.

The prospects of Shafiq’s victory in the run-off on 16-17 June are extremely worrying for large numbers of Egyptians, who feel that his victory would fritter away the gains of the revolution and would revive the sinister legacy of the Mubarak era. It is feared that he would try to restore the autocracy, which was so characteristic of the Mubarak era, with the support of the military and the intelligence and security services. Shafiq has earned notoriety for his repressive and authoritarian behavior while in office and has been linked to numerous cases of corruption. At a luncheon meeting hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce a few days before the presidential election, he suggested that he would use executions and brutal force to restore order within a month. He mocked the new parliament, which is dominated by the Islamic-minded Brotherhood and the Salafis, and accused them of harbouring hidden militias to use in the event of a civil war. He was pelted with shoes as he visited a polling station on 23 May.

Shafiq enjoys the tacit backing of Egypt’s military leadership. The Egyptian military operates a far-flung commercial empire and many of its operations and dealings are shrouded in secrecy. It has enormous economic and political clout and its operations are not subject to any parliamentary scrutiny or government auditing. The military generals are incredibly wealthy and all of the top men in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are said to be millionaires. They are not required to pay any taxes.

The Muslim Brotherhood has vowed to defeat Mr Shafiq in the run-off and has started reaching out to other candidates to consolidate the vote against him. It has so far gained the support of the Salafist Al-Nour party, which had supported Abul Futuh in the first round. At a press conference on 28 May, Mr Mohammed Mursi said he wanted to establish a “democratic, civil and modern state” which guaranteed the freedom of religion and right to peaceful protest. He assured the Coptic Christians that “they will have full rights that are equal to those enjoyed by Muslims.” In an attempt to dispel apprehensions about the suppression of women’s rights under the new dispensation, he said that “women have a right to freely choose the attire that suits them.” He promised to form a “broad coalition” government and said that Egypt’s new constitution would be written by a panel that truly represents the diversity of the Egyptian society.

The next few weeks will be extremely trying and crucial for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Egypt.

Salafis Clash with Police in Tunisia

Since the departure of the Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and the subsequent formation of the Ennahda-led coalition government, the role of religion in government and society has become the most contentious and divisive issue in Tunisia. Tunisian society has become polarized between the moderate Ennahda party and the hardliner Salafis. The Ennahda Party announced on March 26, 2012 that it would not support making Islamic law the main source of legislation in the new constitution and that it would maintain the secular character of the state. The Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said, “We will respect the traditions of our visitors in their food, and clothing and lifestyle.” The Salafis, on the other hand, are demanding the introduction of Islamic Shariah in its entirety and a complete ban on the sale of alcohol and are becoming increasingly assertive and aggressive.

Hundreds of Salafis went on a rampage and clashed with the police in the Tunisian town of Jendouba on 26 May, 2012, following a protest march over the arrest of four of their associates who were held by the police for attacking alcohol shops in Sidi Bouzid a few days earlier. Some of the protesters were armed with swords, clubs and petrol bombs. They set fire to the police station and attacked bars and stores selling alcohol. The police had to fire tear gas shells to disperse the rampaging mob.

Anti-Government Protests in Malaysia

On 28 April, 2012, thousands of protesters took out a rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, demanding electoral reforms to ensure free and fair elections. The rally—one of the largest in the country’s recent history--was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, popularly known as Bersih, which consists of 84 organisations. Bersih says the existing electoral system unfairly favours the governing coalition. The police fired tear gas shells and used water cannons to disperse the protesters and arrested 471 people, who were later released. Some of the protesters sustained minor injuries. The rally was a manifestation of an undercurrent of discontent across large parts of the country and assumes added significance in the context of the general elections which are likely to be held in June this year.

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy. The country’s population, which is 27.5 million according to the 2010 census, is ethnically diverse, consisting of ethnic Malays (50.4 per cent), indigenous tribal communities known as Orang Asli (11 per cent), Chinese (23.7 per cent), and Indians (7.1 per cent). The Chinese have dominated Malaysia’s business and commerce for decades. The ethnic Malays and the indigenous people are officially designated as Bumiputera (‘sons and daughters of the soil’). The status of Bumiputera has also been conferred on certain non-Malay indigenous communities such as ethnic Thais and Khmers, as well as the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak. The New Economic Policy and the National Development Policy provide preferential treatment to the Bumiputera in education, scholarships, employment, housing and business.

The World Bank reckons that despite Malaysia’s impressive per capita annual income of $10,000, the country has the largest income disparity in all of Southeast Asia. The government’s preferential policy towards the Bumiputera has created widespread resentment and disaffection among the Chinese and Indian communities. In consequences of the government’s economic policies, which are widely perceived to be exclusionary and discriminatory, a fairly large number of Malaysians of Chinese descent have migrated overseas. A 2010 Work Bank report estimates that about one million Malays, mostly educated, professional Chinese and Indians, have left the country since independence. An estimated 70,000 ethnic Chinese, who have been working overseas, have renounced their Malaysian citizenship over the past two decades. On November 25, 2007, thousands of ethnic Indians gathered at Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers to express their disaffection and discontent over the government’s unconcern about addressing their grievances and root causes of their marginalization. The demonstrators were dispersed by the police with tear gas. In the 2008 elections, ethnic minorities largely turned away from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, depriving it of a two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time in four decades. Recent events point to the lingering tension between the yearning among the ethnic Malays for a Malay-dominated Malaysia (“Malay-Malaysia”) and the growing demand among the non-Malay ethnic minorities for an inclusive, civic national identity (“Malaysian Malaysia”).

The situation has been complicated and exacerbated by the growing rivalry and friction between the government and the opposition. Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister who is emerging as the leader of the opposition, has been campaigning against the New Economic Policy and arguing in favour of an alternative, inclusive policy based on economic criteria rather than on ethnicity. A significant challenge to the ruling party has come from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS), which enjoys strong support in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. After the 2008 elections, PAS joined hands with two other opposition parties, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Democratic Action Party, to form a coalition called Pakatan Rakyat, which now controls four states in the country. There is an increasing debate and controversy in the country about Malaysia’s Islamic identity and about the role of Islamic laws in the country. Islamic legislation passed by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in some state legislatures has been blocked by the federal government.

Curbs on the Veil in Canada

Canada was the world’s first country to adopt multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971. The country’s multicultural policies are constitutionally protected through the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 and the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Multiculturalism was adopted as Canada’s official policy during the premiership of Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the context of the country’s long-established ethnic and cultural diversity, large scale immigration and Canada’s commitment to liberal democracy. Canada’s multiculturalism emphasizes equality irrespective of the distinctions of race, class or creed, recognizes the country’s diverse cultural heritage and seeks to ensure its protection, safeguards the rights of aborigines and minority groups, and accepts both English and French as official languages. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms recognizes the collective rights and identities of specific ethnic groups as part of citizenship.

The presence of Muslims in Canada goes back to the 1870s. The first mosque in the country was constructed in Edmonton in 1938. There are 55 mosques in the country. Canada’s Muslim population is estimated to be around 500,000, making up about 3 per cent of the country’s population. The majority of Muslim population is concentrated in Ontario. The overwhelming majority of Canadian Muslims are migrants from Lebanon, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia, Algeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Yemen, Albania and Turkey. Unlike large parts of Europe and the US, Canadian Muslims experience much less of racially-motivated discrimination and Islamophobia. Canadian Muslims are visible in public life, including politics, education, civil society and the media. A Muslim woman, Fatimah Houda-Pepin, was elected to the Quebec National Assembly in 1994. Naheed Nenshi, a 38-year-old Harvard-educated Ismaili Muslim of Indian origin became the mayor of Calgary on October 18, 2010. Under Section 2(a) the Charter, Muslim girls and women are allowed to wear the headscarf in schools and the workplace. However, since Canada follows the federal system of government, provinces have the freedom to enact their own laws. Thus, the French-speaking province of Quebec has banned the wearing of face-covering veils or niqab in schools and hospitals.

Currently, Muslim women in Canada who wear the face-covering veil may choose to show their face to a female security officer. They are also allowed to vote in elections without showing their face. Now this is set to change. In December 2011, Canadian authorities decreed that Muslim women aspiring for Canadian citizenship would not be allowed to wear the face-covering veil while taking the oath of citizenship. The Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney justified the ban, saying citizens should take oath in full view of their fellow citizens. “Allowing a group to hide their faces while they are becoming members of our community is counter to Canada’s commitment to openness, equality and social cohesion,” he said. Kenney added that judges and MPs had complained that it would be difficult to make out if the veiled applicant was actually reciting the oath.

The response of Canadian Muslims to the ban appears to be divided. Some fear that this might be a prelude to a blanket ban on face-covering veils in public, as it has been done in France and Belgium.

The controversy over the face-covering veil in Canada has been simmering for some years. In 2009, a 32-year-old Canadian Muslim woman filed a suit in a lower court, alleging that her cousin and uncle had repeatedly sexually abused her when she was a child. The lower court ordered her to remove her veil during the proceedings. This sparked a controversy in the local Muslim community. She went in appeal to the Superior Court, which quashed the ruling of the lower court. The matter went to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2010, which upheld the ruling of the Superior Court. The Ontario Court of Appeal said that Muslim witnesses should have the chance to explain their religious convictions and make a case why removing the veil would be contrary to their religious beliefs. However, the court added that they must remove their veil to testify if the court decides that the veil came in the way of a fair trial. “The right of a Muslim woman to wear a veil or niqab while testifying in a criminal trial may be determined by judges on a “case-by-case assessment,” the court observed.

There is disagreement among Muslim jurists, in the past and at present, about the face-covering veil or niqab. While some consider it mandatory, others say it is a matter of local custom and therefore of choice. The renowned Egyptian scholar Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi says that a woman’s face and her hands are not part of her awrah (parts of her body that should not be exposed in public). In his view, the face-covering veil or niqab are not obligatory. The majority of scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and at Az-Zaytunah University in Tunisia hold the same view. In 2009, Egypt’s foremost scholar and jurist, Sheikh Muhammad Said al-Tantawi, former Rector of Cairo’s famed Al-Azhar University, banned female students from wearing the face-covering veil at the university. “The niqab is a tradition and has nothing to do with religion,” he said. He also suggested that French Muslims should comply with their country’s laws in the face of the government’s move to ban the full-face veil in public places. A leading Saudi scholar, Sheikh Aed al-Qarni, while condemning France for banning the face-covering veil, said that “If Muslim women are in a country that has banned the niqab, or if they face harassment on account of it in such a place, it is better that they uncover their faces”

A Hindu Expert on Islamic Calligraphy

Anil Kumar Chowhan, a Hindu living in Hyderabad, is an artist and painter by profession. He began his career by painting billboards and banners in Urdu. In the course of his career he was drawn to the elegance of the Arabic script. Though he did not know the Arabic language, he diligently learnt the script and with dedication and practice became an accomplished calligrapher.

Chowhan has a special interest and expertise in Quranic calligraphy. Over the past 15 years he has done calligraphic work, free of charge, in more than 100 mosques in Hyderabad, Secunderabad and adjoining areas. A large frame depicting the “Sura Yaseen” of the Holy Quran, calligraphed by Chowhan, adorns the main hall of Hyderabad’s reputed Islamic seminary, Jamia Nizamia. A fatwa from Jamia Nizamia has authorized Chowhan to write Quranic verses, with the stipulation that he should do so in a state of cleanliness and should perform the ablutions before writing the sacred verses.

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