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The uprising in Egypt

"The people are over the moon happy ..."

An American well-acquainted with Egypt offers insights (and calms some American fears) about the recent, amazing uprising there.

PVJ Coordinating Team member Sylvia Carlson sent us this now-widely-circulated email by a former student of a friend of hers. The author, Casondra Sobieralski, described herself this way when I asked her to tell our readers a bit about herself:

I live in Oakland, California. I am a digital media artist, and I have worked several field seasons doing digital documentation work for French archaeologists in Luxor, Egypt. I have an MFA in Conceptual and Information Arts, and my 2005 MFA thesis piece was a 3-projector video installation about the Hatshepsut. My statement for that piece reads: "I went to Egypt seeking the pharaoh Hatshepsut. I thought I was failing, until I realized that I was looking for an ancient Hillary Clinton when I probably should have been looking for a character more like Hatshepsut’s patron goddess of love, play, sensuality, music, and mothering, Hathor. Then I began to see Hatshepsut all around me, in the people of Luxor."

One quick quote from her note, and then I hope you’ll take a look at the whole thing.

The people are over the moon happy that the revolution is happening.  Everyone is nervous about what comes next, but 31 years of (US backed, of course) oppression, corruption, torture, mafia rule, secret prisons within secret prisons, and back room deals with Israel – was ENOUGH!

If you have been especially concerned about the possible gains by the Muslim Brotherhood, click here to jump right to her reassuring words about that question.

NOTE added on Feb. 17 by your WebWeaver:

Casondra Sobieraski has kindly provided us with a few corrections, which I have now incorporated in the text below.

February 10, 2011

I almost was in Cairo or Alexandria for the month of January to work on an online digital heritage project with Egyptians I met in Hong Kong.  

But nope, I am here in the Bay Area.

At least my BODY is.  Egypt is, of course, my soul state, and hence the ol' Ka (in Pharonic belief systems the Ka is roughly equivalent to the astral body) has been mostly in Luxor, a bit in Cairo.  So I have been quite exhausted and a space cadet this week, scrambling around feeling like a snail shell with no snail inside.

Many people have been asking me questions, and I have been trying to answer as best and as expediently as I can.   But it is very hard to offer insights or opinions or reports because everything is changing so quickly, and so many reports I am receiving are contradictory.  I'm talking here about reports from Northern California ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt), reports from AlJazeera, and reports from the ground – i.e. friends in Luxor and Cairo.  

I have been frantic all week gathering, sorting and disseminating information about the state of antiquities.  Again, there are many contradictory reports out there, and Zawhi Hawass' (he has been the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but Mubarak just gave him a new title)  reports contradict a lot of the other reports from archaeologists and ARCE.  Dr. Zawass was faxing his reports to Europe to be posted on line when Mubarak shut down the internet.  

[Oh, and a thank you to Google here.  When the cell phone communications were cut, they created a system to allow for landline voicemail to convert to tweets!  Here is something I have never said before and may never say again to Little Brother Growing Ever More Towards Big:  GOOOO GOOGLE!]

I cannot list a week's worth of flurry, and this may still be amended, but here are some highlights:

– NOTHING has been damaged in Luxor.  The people defended the sites on their own until the SCA could send support. Looters at Karnak Temple were thwarted by the people. 

– Damage within the National Museum in Cairo was quite limited because the army secured the museum quickly.  Original reports said that Tutankhamen's grandparents had their heads ripped off. Later reports said these were nonroyal mummies.

– Reports of looting in Saqqara are vastly contradicting.

– Originally reports were that there was damage at the pyramids at Giza, but the extent was unknown.  Later reports revised this, and said only equipment was damaged, not the pyramids.

– UCLA's archaeology team is out.  They were in Armana, and didn't want to leave, everything was calm.  State Department made them fly home.

– Part of John's Hopkins (under Betsy Bryan) team left right away, part of the team stayed.  At this point, they must be gone, too. (They work at Mut, near Karnak temple in Luxor, East Bank.) 

– The European teams all reported to each other.  Our colleague Hourig from the German Mission, who oversees excavations at Amenhotem III's sites in Luxor (West Bank), is still there last I heard, and wants to be.  Really, there is no danger for archaeologists in Luxor. 

– Our lead archaeologist, Philippe, was already back in Paris because his father died about a week before the revolution started.

And, of course, I have been racing all about trying to reach local friends, which took a while with the communications systems impeded.   Everyone in Luxor is fine – Luxor has remained pretty mellow – but they ask for our prayers for Egypt.  Everyone is quite excited to get that mother*$^%$*% out of there.  But people are still disappearing, and people are still getting threatening calls from the "police" (it's all a mafia structure).

The tension was palpable even last December/January when I was in Luxor. Every year it gets worse.  I'm not a tourist, and I have built trust with locals over the years, so I get told more than I possibly WANT to know.  

The first time I went to Egypt, if we tried to talk politics to learn, people would say, "Oh you know we can't talk about that!" But wink wink nudge nudge, they'd tell you through a story or something.  In successive years, people got more reticent, and would try to change the subject.  Last year, people would "shhh!" you and take you outside and say, "You cannot even ASK!  Everything is bugged!"  Then they would list all their friends who had disappeared.  Anyone who spoke against Mubarak got taken to the desert in the night and was never heard from again.  

Couple with that the economic tension.  Luxor is normally this happy go lucky free love town full of music and joy and dancing.  (Not only does the goddess Hathor rein supreme, there is also a huge sex tourism situation going on.  Women in their 50s and 60s – especially American and English women – go there for the supposedly legendary lovemaking skills of the Egyptian men.)  Everyone was quite stressed about trying to feed their families.  With the US and European economies down, tourism was down. And without lots of tourists – not even the male prostitutes can thrive!  Usually Luxor is one big love fest, and last year – people were ANGRY and tense.  There was a foul wind from the Sahara...

The people are over the moon happy that the revolution is happening.  Everyone is nervous about what comes next, but 31 years of (US backed, of course) oppression, corruption, torture, mafia rule, secret prisons within secret prisons, and back room deals with Israel – was ENOUGH!   The thing is, THE PEOPLE CANNOT FAIL, or there will be a bloodbath.  I am not sure people in the US can comprehend the level of bravery of the Egyptian people in taking to the streets in the way they are, because we take such liberties for granted.  

One question people keep asking me is, "What about the Muslim Brotherhood?"  

That was my first knee-jerk reaction when the revolution started.  They have been, for many years, the most powerful opposition party.  That's why Mubarak outlawed them. What would happen to WOMEN if the MB got in power?  What would happen in terms of regional alliances shifting?

My Egyptian friends say this will not happen.  They say that there is not enough popular support for the Brotherhood.  And if the Brotherhood DOES get in, and they suck too, then they will just have another revolution and kick them out, too!   My friend from Cairo says the women of Egypt are NOT going backwards.  They have a huge role in the revolution, and they are tons of professional, educated, liberated women out there in the streets fighting for freedom.  

This week I attended a panel -- which my former boss at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies helped to organize -- on Tunisia's Jasmine revolution. It included some of the activists involved in the uprising, and I learned from them that the aim of these revolutions is to give EVERYONE a seat at the table and a voice, from conservative Islamicists to the most liberal progressives and everyone in between.  Because that is what democracy means.  And now that the genie is out of the bottle – I don't think The People are going to settle for anything less.  

But say, worst case scenario, like many idealistic revolutions where things end up worse than before, the Brotherhood or someone of that nature DOES take charge?  DEAR USA, IT'S NOT REALLY THE END OF THE WORLD.  You know what it means?  It means I might not be able to run in shorts anymore in Luxor, but more people in Egypt will be able to eat and get medicine for their babies.  The Brotherhood is NOT a particularly violent group.  

Socially conservative and regressive, yes.  I wouldn't want to live under them any more than I want to live under the "G"OP in America, those pasty bald guys who ALSO love to deny women the right to dignity, equity and self-determination.  Just this week the USA "G"OP in the legislative branch is trying to push women back 150 years [what else is new] by redefining rape to further curtail our agency over our bodies. Yeah, that one is getting covered up by all the headlines being dominated by Egypt. So the people who have the MOST fear of the Brotherhood – are the people who share the most similar social agenda.

But violent, no.  They totally renounce violence except in the case of defense against colonialist domination – or in the case of Israel. (The Brotherhood IS tight with Hamas.) But from an Arab perspective, that's about colonialism.  

The Brotherhood is NOT AlQueda, and in fact they hate each other.  The confusion comes in with the US media because some members of AQ branched off from the Brotherhood.  They share some religious dogma, but they disagree totally on the issue of violence.  And no jihadist group is going to be able to carry enough popular support to gain – and stay – in power.  

Most people seem to think ElBaradei – the Nobel laureate – will emerge as leader.  But again, the pulse is changing minute by minute.

Another question I keep getting: Should Mubarak step down now, or stay put until election time, or until some more orderly process can be put in place for free and fair elections?

I share people's concerns about what chaos might ensue if he steps down immediately.   But if he doesn't step down, I fear more for what pain and suffering he will vengefully inflict while he still can.  See above:  People are still disappearing. People are still getting threats.  I think we need to trust the Egyptian people to get some sort of governing body established, even if it is an interim thing.  They have historical precedents.  They have had sweeping changes and revolutions before.  They aren't a mere 200+ years old, like us.

What should Obama/Clinton do?

I have no doubt there is plenty of behind the scenes stuff that the US is doing. I think one reason the Egyptian military has remained so chill is they are heavily financed by the US. I've read casually (I think in Al Jazeera) that we foot the bill 25%, but I encourage you to do your own research on that. For this reason, I personally expect that the army is taking orders from Obama more than Mubarak, since Mubarak will likely not keep his post, but US funding will remain. One Middle East scholar at a recent lecture, however, suggested that the military is siding with the people because they take an oath to THE CONSTITUTION, not to Mubarak, and they feel Mubarak has violated the constitution. Again, I encourage you to do your own further research if you have questions about this.

In any case, Obama has to APPEAR, at least, that he is staying the heck out of it.  Otherwise, anyone who comes into power will look like a puppet of the US, like Mubarak was, and this will breed anti-US sentiment.  And this just fuels the Islamicist groups.  This struggle is about the right to self-determination.  The Egyptians don't want us to "save" them any more than they want us using them as a pawn with Israel or any more than they want to be sprayed with tear gas canisters that say "Made in USA" on them.  They don't want that condescension. 

One voice I have not heard in this:  Amr Moussa (Secretary General of the League of Arab Nations).   Where is he?  

I may have more comments after Thursday's panel discussions.  But for now – AlJazeera English is where it's all happening:

DIGNITY:  "helplessness transformed into agency and power"

Ashab:  "the people"

Keefaya!:  "enough!"

Power to the People,

Casondra Sobieralski

General Assembly leaders offer a call to prayer

Bolbach, Parsons, and Valentine lift up peoples and nations of the Middle East    [2-2-2011]

General Assembly Mission Council
by Barry Creech, Coordinator, Executive Office and Policy Communications

LOUISVILLE – Jan. 28, 2011 – In the wake of escalating tensions and civil unrest in the Middle East, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders today have issued a call to prayer for the peoples and nations of the Middle East, as well as PC(USA) partners.

The Moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010) Cynthia Bolbach, General Assembly Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons, and General Assembly Mission Council Executive Director Linda Valentine called Presbyterians to pray with these words:

Hundreds of thousands of people have staged protests in the past few days in different parts of the Middle East, particularly in Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria. Today, clashes between protestors and the police have intensified to dangerous levels. Lebanon has been in a precarious situation since the collapse of the coalition government earlier this month. Iraq continues to be the target of suicide bombers and other forms of violence. The failure of Israeli-Palestine negotiations is causing many to lose hope in a political solution for this decades-old conflict.

Please remember all the peoples of the Middle East in your prayer. Please remember those whose lives have been disrupted and those who are afraid during this civil unrest. Please also pray for the governments and political leaders that they might govern fairly, wisely, and with sensitivity to the peoples’ lives and dignity.

Please pray in particular for the Christian minorities in the Middle East, as they often become the scapegoat in the midst of conflicts. Although most of the Middle East inhabitants are Muslims, more than fifteen million Middle Easterners are Christians who trace their Christian heritage back to the apostolic era. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has partnered with Middle Eastern churches for most of the last two centuries. Please join your hearts in prayer for our sisters and brothers with whom we have been made one in the Body of Christ:

A prayer for the nations and peoples of the Middle East

God of every blessing,hear our prayers
for all the nations and peoples of the Middle East:
Guide the people to express their concerns peacefully
and government leaders to respond peacefully;
Inspire all to listen to one another carefully;
Lead all to pursue justice together.

Bless the poor in spirit ...
give them the gift of abundant life.

Bless those who mourn ...
comfort them with your healing presence.

Bless the meek ...
keep them in peace and safety.

Bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ...
feed them with justice and every good thing.

Bless the merciful ...
pour out your mercy upon them.

Bless the pure in heart ...
show them a vision of your peaceable realm.

And bless the peacemakers ...
support them in their holy calling.

We ask all these things in Jesus’ name.


A prayer for our partners in the Middle East

Triune God,
you make us for each other.
Redeem us to live together
and give us gifts to share with one another.
We pray that the people of the Middle East
might know your presence in these troubling times.
We pray particularly for our partners,
those with whom we share in ministry.
Watch over them,
remind them of our care,
and keep them in our hearts;
in Jesus’ name we pray.


Why Jews around the world are praying for the victory of the Egyptian uprising

Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine and chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, affirmed on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011, that there is a growing upsurge of support for the Egyptian Uprising in the Jewish community.

Lerner’s statement begins:

Ever since the victory over the dictator of Tunisia and the subsequent uprising in Egypt, my email has been flooded with messages from Jews around the world hoping and praying for the victory of the Egyptian people over their cruel Mubarak regime.

Though a small segment of Jews have responded to right-wing voices from Israel that lament the change and fear that a democratic government would bring to power fundamentalist extremists who wish to destroy Israel and who would abrogate the hard-earned treaty that has kept the peace between Egypt and Israel for the last 30 years, the majority of Jews are more excited and hopeful than worried.

Of course, the worriers have a point. Israel has allied itself with repressive regimes in Egypt and used that alliance to ensure that the borders with Gaza would remain closed while Israel attempted to economically deprive the Hamas regime there by denying needed food supplies and equipment to rebuild after Israel’s devastating attack in December 2008 and January 2009. If the Egyptian people take over, they are far more likely to side with Hamas than with the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Yet it is impossible for Jews to forget our heritage as victims of another Egyptian tyrant—the Pharaoh whose reliance on brute force was overthrown when the Israelite slaves managed to escape from Egypt some 3,000 years ago. That story of freedom retold each year at our Passover “Seder” celebration, and read in synagogues in the past month, has often predisposed the majority of Jews to side with those struggling for freedom around the world. To watch hundreds of thousands of Egyptians able to throw off the chains of oppression and the legacy of a totalitarian regime that consistently jailed, tortured or murdered its opponents so overtly that most people were cowed into silence, is to remember that the spark of God continues to flourish no matter how long oppressive regimes manage to keep themselves in power, and that ultimately the yearning for freedom and democracy cannot be totally stamped out no matter how cruel and sophisticated the elites of wealth, power and military might appear to be.    More >>

Reflections on the uprising in Egypt    [1-30-11]

Two people reflect on the current uprising in Egypt, one raising sharp questions from a Reformed theological stance about the US response, and the other asking what this situation says to us about finding appropriate and effective ways of action for change.

God’s Spirit – Moving in the Arab world?

The Rev. Dr. Chris Iosso, Coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy of the PC (U.S.A.), posted an essay on Jan. 29th on the Presbyterian Outlook website, raising the vital question of how we should be open to seeing God’s hand at work in a movement of the people for greater freedom and justice. “Political realists” – which seems to inclujde the current US government – are likely to see the self-interest of the US (or perhaps more accurately, of US and other Western corporate establishments) in “stability” rather than in change. On the other hand, the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr, and our own church’s recent affirmation of the New Social Creed, lead us to support movements for justice, even when they appear to threaten the interests which are so important to our corporate society.

Iosso writes: “The church is morally hamstrung when it cannot see God in the justice energy, the prophetic juice that the street protesters are responding to.” He adds:

Just as the Reformed Churches’ Accra Confession of 2004 so critical of globalization did not exactly predict the credit implosion of 2008, so the Social Creed and other social witness policies opposing wars and support for dictators do not predict specific upheavals today. But these ecumenical messages clearly encourage our government to stop discounting human aspirations across the Arab and Muslim worlds, from Algeria to Afghanistan, and including the Palestinians under Israeli rule. They tell President Obama to make good on what so many Muslims believed was a promise in his Cairo speech of 2009, that the United States would begin to be on the side of freedom for the oppressed.

We encourage you to read Iosso’s essay >>

Change and Conflict

The Rev. Peter Sawtell, Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries, considers the current uprisings as a way into thinking about another question for U.S. citizens seeking ways to advocate more effectively for environmental justice.

This morning's headlines ( tell of "open revolt" on the streets of Cairo. Just a few weeks ago, citizen protests toppled the ruling regime in Tunisia.

In contrast, an opinion column by Barbara Ehrenreich printed in today's Denver Post opens with this paragraph:

Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans' jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. Tell British students that their tuition is about to go up and they take to the streets; American students just amp up their doses of Prozac.

I'm not advocating that we form street mobs and torch public buildings. Nor am I suggesting -- as one reader asked after my Notes on liberation theology --  "handing out semi automatic assault weapons to carry out guerilla warfare against the dominating corporate class as some liberation theologians advocated in Latin America?"

But I do continue to wonder what sort of situation, what sort of challenge to our values or self-interest, would motivate people of conscience to more dramatic action for justice and the ecological health of our planet. It is a question about risk and commitment that I raised in last week's Notes,  and I received some very thoughtful responses. (Eight of the replies are posted on our website.)  

Those wise words from our extended community have helped me see some places where I need to expand last week's reflections. They have helped me see how churches and other faith communities might play a powerful and transformative role -- without all their members getting arrested.     More >> 

What do you think?

Please share your comments with us here –
either responding to these two articles, or offering your own views.
Just send a note!


Some blogs worth visiting

PVJ's Facebook page

Mitch Trigger, PVJ's Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!

You can post your own news and views, or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.


John Shuck’s new "Religion for Life" website

Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister currently serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and lightening up.

Click here for his blog posts.

Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."


John Harris’ Summit to Shore blogspot

Theological and philosophical reflections on everything between summit to shore, including kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology, The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in Flushing, NY.


Voices of Sophia blog

Heather Reichgott, who has created this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:

After fifteen years of scholarship and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy, students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and thoughtful community.


Got more blogs to recommend?

Please send a note, and we'll see what we can do!


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