Month: April 2011

African Immigrants Held Hostage in Sinai

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Religious bias in Egypt’s universities

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

An oft-told story in Egypt’s science community tells the tale of why Magdi Yacoub left Egypt to become a world famous surgeon in the United Kingdom. An Egyptian Christian, he had his thesis rejected by his Muslim supervisor, allegedly because of religious discrimination. He moved to the United Kingdom in 1962 where he established the world’s largest heart and lung transplant programme. Yacoub was celebrated for his work and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1992.

In January 2011, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak presented Yacoub with the Greatest Nile Collar, Egypt’s highest civilian decoration, in recognition of Yacoub’s distinguished career and contributions to science and humanity. Following this award, his one-time former supervisor reportedly said that Yacoub wouldn’t have achieved all this if he hadn’t rejected his thesis.

After the bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt, on New Year’s Eve 2010, simmering tensions between the Coptic Christians, Egypt’s ethnic Christians who make up around 10% of the population, and Muslim communities came to the fore. Less than one month later, however, the popular revolution that ousted Mubarak’s regime united them in their , determination to build a new Egypt free from prejudice. But the violence that erupted after a church on the outskirts of Cairo was set alight in March 2011 was a reminder that the road to peaceful co-existence is long and the aggrieved calls of Christians rang louder.

Christians in Egypt have long complained of being marginalized in society, last in line for jobs and other opportunities. The science sector is not exempt. According to several scientists, Muslims and Christians, scientists are being favoured for jobs on religious grounds.

*Imad Fahim, a Christian cardiologist, feels there is blatant bias against Christians. “In universities, at hospitals, Muslims are always favoured. Copts are failed deliberately, and we cannot obtain residencies of our choice because we are Christian,” he says.

*Maged Zaki, an embryologist, with the Egyptian IVF-ET Center, is a Christian. He says he hasn’t experienced prejudice. “There is no religious discrimination. There’s subtle class discrimination. If you belong to the ‘right’ class, it doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or Christian.” He’s sceptical of those who play the “religion card”. “Either you’re qualified or not. It comes down to merit.”

Religious segregation in universities

Kasr El Aini is the teaching hospital of Cairo University and one of the biggest hospitals in Egypt.
A gynaecologist by training, *Ahmed El-Baaly was an undergraduate student at Suez Canal University (SCU), Egypt. He talks of departments segregated by religion. “The neurosurgery department is controlled by Muslims, and to my knowledge, there’s never been a Christian resident.”

Somaya Hosny, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at SCU, who’s Muslim, says this is untrue. “Only one or two departments do not include Christian staff, but this is because either the grades of the Muslim applicants, who are 90% of the population, are higher or because no Christian candidates prefer to go to this department.”

Hosny is adamant positions are based on merit. “I’m giving leadership positions to many Christians. We currently have two Christian women working as head of departments. Many Christian faculty members get nationally-funded research grants. This also depends on competence and experience of applicants.”

Nevene Ramsis the female Christian head of the pathology department at SCU, affirms Hosny’s statements. “I did not experience discrimination in my faculty. I am the chair of the department according to my seniority among professors in my department.”

However, Ramsis says the situation is different at the Universities of Cairo and Ain Shams. “I hear many stories where young Christian doctors are prohibited from joining some departments, such as obstetrics, gynaecology or urosurgery.”

Ramsis has two sons at Ain Shams University. “They were advised not to join certain departments as they wouldn’t get their thesis, fellowships or any grants.”

“Consequently”, she adds, “some Christians don’t employ Muslims.”

Ahmed Sonoussy, head biologist at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Cairo University, vehemently denies any segregation or discrimination there. “If you visit my faculty you will see Muslims and Christians working together in the same departments. We are one unit, not separated by religion.”

He led the team which recently produced Egypt’s first avian flu vaccine. When asked if Muslims are favoured over Christians with regard to research grants and opportunities, he reiterates, “Funding is given to scientists who deserve it and are doing good work. It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim or Christian.”

Christian hospitals

El-Baaly, a Muslim, worked part-time at St. Peter Hospital, a private Christian hospital in the uptown Heliopolis neighbourhood in Cairo. “I wasn’t offered a full-time job, since the hospital only hires Christian doctors”, he explains. He adds that Muslim patients are not admitted.

At Cleopatra Hospital, one doctor who refused to be named said their preference was to admit Christian patients, “but we take in Muslims too.”

Maila Mansour, a Muslim quality manager at Cleopatra Hospital, refutes this. “I’m a Muslim and I’m working at a Christian hospital. We are not concerned with the issue of religion. We admit anybody. I don’t think there’s any hospital in Egypt which turns away patients because they’re Muslim or Christian.”

Although Zaki does not think Christians are treated unfairly, he feels there’s an Islamic element that should be removed. “The Hippocratic oath has been altered and contains references to Islam”, he alleges. “The oath should be neutral.”

He is hopeful that any bias will decrease as Egypt transitions towards democracy. “It will take time to erase the past, but Christian– Muslim unity can be achieved. We lived under a dictator who used the divide and conquer rule. Now we want to change that.”

Ramsis is not so optomistic. “Many Muslim radicals have been released from prison and started to disseminate their radicalism among youth”, she says. “It is really a disaster we are facing.”

*These people were given pseudonyms to protect their identity.

Op-Ed The Guardian

Why we’re on strike at IslamOnline

New management in Qatar has hijacked our pluralist site in an attempt to make us follow a hardline agenda. We will not do s

On Monday, there were many on Facebook and Twitter who posted a reminder: “Beware the Ides of March”. I laughed at their superstition. But just as Caesar failed to see the betrayal by Brutus, so did we at IslamOnline (IOL) fail to see the treachery that would befall us on that portentous day.

We weren’t oblivious, nor ostrich-like; we were just trusting. When the new management at al-Balagh Cultural Society, the holding company in Qatar, imposed their dictates on IOL’s editorial tone, and issued guidelines for rather conservative content, the pluralistic body of staff balked at the editorial interference.


Pluralism was what had attracted me to IslamOnline. Impressed the first time I visited its website, I set myself a goal to write for IOL. It was my involvement with IslamOnline that transported me from science graduate to journalist.


Being sent to Lebanon on assignment after the July 2006 war catalysed my future. It created in me a desire to be a news journalist. In 2007, I represented IslamOnline at the Highway Africa conference, where IOL won in the category of Most Innovative Use of New Media. Networking at the conference led me to write for, and land my dream job at SAfm radio in South Africa. In 2009 I returned to Egypt, after being asked to start an internet radio station for IOL’s English site.


As a female, I feel honoured to work at IOL, where women sit alongside men in equality, and where travel opportunities for conferences are not the sole preserve of men, as in other Muslim organisations. As a managing editor, I’m allowed autonomy in setting my editorial agenda.


Heavy-handedness by the board led to the resignation of the site’s general manager and a Qatari, Dr Atef Abdel Mughny, was sent to preside over the Egypt office. Two hundred and fifty employees protested against the behaviour of the board, by signing a petition sent to both the board andSheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, under whose guidance IslamOnline was founded. A chill silence was the response.


A game of Chinese whispers ensued, with talks of restructuring and layoffs. A committee was sent from Qatar to deal with the concerns of employees. However, their presence heightened the speculation, especially after some lower-level staff were laid off. Insidiously, the password to the server was appropriated by Mughny, and the Arabic youth site was transferred to a smaller server. The purge spread, obliterating “luxuries” such as milk and toilet paper. A few employees resigned, afraid we’d all be consumed by the hunger for editorial control exhibited by the board.


Were the rest of us blind to the writing on the wall? No, just trusting. We believed in the soothing words cooed to us by upper management, who pleaded for calm. Since I abhor paranoia and conspiracy theories, I too dismissed the wild notion the website would be shut down; but anticipated downsizing. I thought IOL Radio would be the first to fall, since it was still in a fledgling state. My boss assured me this wouldn’t happen.


So, when we fell down the rabbit hole on Monday, we became cognisant we’d been duped by our own trust. The dominoes came falling down as we learned that Qatar had blocked Egypt’s access to the server. Then it was revealed that a contract – of which nobody seemed aware – between al-Balagh and Media International (which produces the website for al-Balagh) ends on 31 March and will not be renewed, and all employees will be released. The duplicity by Qatar persisted, with promises made to compensate those who resigned. They reneged on the deal a day later.


We vacillated between hope and fear, but never despair. A spirit of resistance reigned. Bound by unity, our hearts were also with those resisting the occupation of al-Aqsa. There were expressions of outrage and disbelief at our inability to cover the al-Aqsa clashes.


While others lamented the impending unemployment of more than 300 people, I also mourned for the loss of opportunity for freelancers worldwide. I had started as a freelance writer, and until this week I was living my dream of building up an internet radio station on a Muslim platform.


But it could all come to an inglorious end. Calling for more religious content, but behaving in this manner towards employees, is an insult to the ideals on which IslamOnline was built.


The clash between homogenous and pluralistic Islam is one of great importance. At IOL we make local news global, truly connecting Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. We offer content far more diverse and inclusive than that of other Muslim websites.


One defining chant rang out on Monday: “Where is Sheikh Qaradawi?” He finally answered the call on Wednesday, at the 11th hour. An emergency meeting was held where he revoked the decisions of al-Balagh’s general manager, Ibrahim al-Ansari, and his deputy, Ali el-Amady. Both were duly suspended and a Qatari woman, Mariam al-Thany, has been appointed general manager. But these are only interim measures; a meeting of al-Balagh will be held in two weeks where they will be put to a vote.


Meanwhile, the strike continues until we are given access to the website’s server and normality is regained.


We float in limbo. We can only wait and see what the final answer will be, and play our part in perpetuating the truths as we believe them to be.


Pluralistic Islam must win.


Dancing to an African Beat


South African artist Thandiswa Mazwai.


By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla/Special to Daily News Egypt May 26, 2010, 4:57 pm
Egypt has always been in a unique socio-political, geographic position. Situated at the very north of the African continent, and bordering the Middle East; it is regarded as both an African nation as well as a Middle Eastern one.

Egyptians are firmly rooted in the Arab world, and few have any conception of an African identity. Egyptians do not perceive their country as African, nor themselves as Africans; they are Arabs in an Arab country.

Despite Egypt winning the African Cup of Nations football tournament a record seven times, there remains an absence of African pride, and almost an implicit rejection of the idea of an African identity. It took a South African musician and her band to instill a new sense of belonging.

Multiple award winner Thandiswa Mazwai was the closing performance for this year’s Spring Festival organized by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (Cultural Resource). From May 6 to 22, artists and authors from 15 countries entertained and enlightened audiences in Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut. Last Saturday, Mazwai, together with her band members, literally had the mixed Egyptian and expatriate crowd dancing to an African beat.

Dressed in a traditional African dress made of shweshwe fabric, and with her hair braided into a Mohawk, decorated with coins; Thandiswa is a modern African sensation. Her Converse clad feet stomped the ground, while her tongue ululated the joys and sorrows of this continent.

Born in Transkei, a Bantustan created by the apartheid government for Xhosa speaking people, Thandiswa grew up in Soweto in the 1980s. It was Soweto which bore painful witness to the brutal killing of schoolchildren protesting against being taught in Afrikaans instead of English in 1976, the year she was born. Soweto became the heart of the resistance movement, and Thandiswa was a child of the struggle.

She started her career as lead vocalist for kwaito band Bongo Maffin in 1997. In 2004, she released her first solo album “Zabalaza,” a mix of kwaito, gospel and jazz sounds. It took her five years to produce her second album, “Ibokwe,” which blends traditional Zulu and Xhosa melodies with contemporary pop and jazz tunes.

In her song “Nizalwa Ngobani” (Who Has Given Us Life?) she pleads with young South Africans to remember that struggle, and the leaders who led South Africa to freedom: “The world changes, revolutionaries die, and the children forget. The ghetto is our first love and our dreams are drenched in gold. We don’t even cry. Have you forgotten where you come from?”

Hailed as the Miriam Makeba of this generation, she paid tribute to the late Mama Afrika, by singing Makeba’s signature tune, “Qongqothwane” (the click song), sung when a girl is married. She endeared herself to the audience, encouraging them to sing along. The crowd was eager, merrily stumbling over the myriad of clicks in the Xhosa language, which appear deceptively easy to pronounce.

From the struggle to marriage to the bittersweet drink of love in “Ingoma”. The catchy repetitive chorus “Ngoma we Ngoma we” with its fast rhythm fading to a beating of the drums had the audience up and dancing by their seats.

The South Africans at Geneina Theater could not resist the call of the music of their homeland, and made their way to the area in front of the stage. Whilst the Geneina staff tried keeping people off stage, Thandiswa welcomed them. The rest of the crowd danced their way down too, and then it was a concert to write home about.

Mazwai’s daughter, Malaika, made a brief appearance on stage, dancing with her mum. The backup singers Nogwazi and Slindile performed a traditional Xhosa dance, exciting the crowd with their twisting of waists, shaking of hips, and raising of legs.

There was palpable disappointment when the final song was announced, and the band was called back by a thunderous encore.

“I am an African” was a magical potion wafting through the air. “I want to be South African!,” proclaimed Egyptian-Australian Heba.

Mazwai is aware she has chosen the less popular route to fame. She sings in a language few are familiar with. “The world is interested in the political situation in South Africa. I’m interested in freedom,” she told Daily News Egypt. “My subject material may not be popular, but music makes it easier to deal with serious issues.”

Although the words may not be understood, music does not require language, and Mazwai represents an authentic view of South Africa. Her outlook is simple, “I want the audience to have a spiritual experience. Music is meant to create magic between us and the audience. Music is divine.”


Remnants of the Future


Silence lies at the core of Uriel Orlow’s communicative work.

By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla /Special to Daily News Egypt March 23, 2010, 2:00 am

Who will write our stories when we are gone? Will we be chronicled in history books, or will we be forgotten footnotes? Swiss artist Uriel Orlow is drawn to the stories that aren’t told; the discarded footnotes of a time past, which are the remnants of the future.

Speaking to Daily New Egypt, he says, “I’m drawn to the leftover dregs. When the party is over, I want to tell the story of what’s left behind.

Currently in Cairo on a Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council residency program, Orlow screened and discussed his latest work, “Remnants of the Future, at Darb 1718 last Monday. Despite the blustery wind, the audience braved the cold at the outdoor evening screening; huddling into cozy beanbags, tightly wrapped in the shawls provided by Darb.

As a prelude to the film, Orlow showed a series of death masks – including Lenin, Tolstoy, Eisenstein and Mayakovsky – made by Sergey Merkurov, a Gyumri-born sculptor. The masks are displayed at a site close to the film’s location. “Let those who have something to say come forward and be silent, appears on the screen.

Silence lies at the core of Orlow’s communicative work. Focusing on the visual artistry of storytelling, Orlow has created an evocative piece of almost silent film. “Every place has a way of showing itself, of telling its own story, he explains. Accompanying the visuals is the sound-scape by Mikhail Karikis, using the radio waves emitted by dying stars (pulsars), which still reach us after the star has died.

Described as a contemplative sci-fi documentary, “Remnants of the Future is set in the town of Mush, a discarded housing project just outside of the north Armenian town of Gyumri and named after the once flourishing Armenian town in Eastern Anatolia, which in 1915, during the Armenian genocide, became the site of massacres and deportations.

Construction of the ‘new’ Mush began a few months after the major Spitak earthquake in 1988, which destroyed many of Gyumri’s housing blocks and left thousands of people homeless. Promised to be completed within two years, construction of the new Soviet-style suburb eventually came to an abrupt halt as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian construction workers were recalled by Moscow.

The landscape speaks of barrenness, but potent symbols of life are clearly visible. The film uses the timeframe of a single day, from dawn to dusk. As an artist, Orlow finds inspiration in what others may perceive as desolation.

The sun rises on a wide screen shot of concrete shells, starkly grey against the rosy hues of dawn. A flock of birds chirp life into the frame. The human presence is introduced with a burning cigarette butt.

Mush is a ghost town brought to life, with washing waving limply on a line strung between buildings, with people moving lethargically from dawn to dusk.

“The only sign of vigorous life, says Orlow, “is a blue plastic bag flying in the wind. But there are children too, playing in a time-warp, waiting for the future.

The inhabitants make their living by selling the stolen scrap metal. Both the birds and metal are symbolic of life, malleable in nature. Orlow refers to the place as ‘inverted ruins.’ decayed before completion. “But life continues, and nature takes over.

It is fitting that Orlow ends the film by using the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a disillusioned Soviet revolutionary. The people of Mush are visited by the Phosphorescent Woman, a time traveling character from Mayakovsky’s play “The Bathhouse, which was intended as an attack on Soviet bureaucracy.

“The first-time shuttle for the future leaves at midnight, intones the voice.

The future can only be accessed by knowing the past. Orlow is masterful in allowing the silence to speak, documenting that which isn’t told.

“I’m attracted by absence rather than presence, he reveals. Orlow’s next project will tell the story of the absent footnote of the ships which were passing through the Suez Canal, and got caught in the Six Day War of 1967. They were eventually held there for eight years.

He’s also fascinated by the rich history of downtown Cairo, leaning toward the less famous; choosing the absence of fame of Groppi over the infamous presence of Café Riche.

Orlow’s work can be found at


Friday in Benghazi

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Migrants at Egypt-Libya Border

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