Egypt’s changing landscape
Oct 5, 2012
Oct. 5, 2012
Number 10/12 #01
Egypt is back in the spotlight in this Update, which covers some important new developments in Cairo, the Sinai, and beyond that deserve closer attention. In Egypt after his US visit and speech at the United Nations last month, President Mohamed Morsi held his first interview with state-run media – a soft-hitting, pandering piece which many Egyptians said reminded them eerily of the way Egyptian media once presented Hosni Mubarak. Yet all is not well in Cairo, as the Muslim Brotherhood continues to reshape the country in its image. This week, for example, as Egypt’s new Constitution nears completion, many Egyptian women are up in arms over an erosion of women’s rights in the current draft. Meanwhile, a top advisor to Morsi has reiterated a call for revising Egypt’s Peace Treaty with Israel to allow for the removal of UN peacekeeping forces from the Sinai buffer zone with Israel – and fill the vacuum with Egyptian troops. In the face of these and other rapidly-changing developments, a look at three key reports on Egypt:
First up are veteran Ha’aretz analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, who give a sobering account of the brittle security situation in the Sinai, which shows no sign of improving despite the reported crackdown on Islamic extremist groups on the peninsula by the Egyptian military. While the second half of their analysis deals more with the Palestinian situation, it also refers back to Egypt. Hamas, which is prospering in Gaza, continues to build a rapport with the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo at the expense of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, which are becoming increasingly isolated. According to the analysts, the Sinai – as Gaza’s international gateway – is destined to fill a growing role in Palestinian politics. For more, CLICK HERE.
Next up, at the Asia Times, David P. Goldman, a.k.a. Spengler writes about the impending collapse of the Egyptian economy, which is in worse shape than most people realise. Shortages in food and medicine are already occurring, and Goldman says it is almost certainly just the beginning. Under the current circumstances, he says,Egypt’s hopes for investment and bailout are slim. For more, CLICK HERE.
(Goldman has since blogged a brief addition to this story at PJ Media.)
Finally, increasing oppression of Egypt’s Coptic Christians, including the recent expulsion of Christian families from the Sinai town of Rafah, has raised the question whether any minority religions have a future in the country. At the Times of Israel website, Egyptian activist Maikel Nabil blogs that Egypt’s Christian community is headed down the road of Egyptian Jewry, which is today merely a faint and fading remnant of what once was a thriving community. For more, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- At the Commentary Magazine website, Michael Rubin and Jonathan Tobin have blogged about the unrest that has rocked Iran following the sudden crash of the Iranian rial which lost 30 percent of its value in three days. Rubin explores the possibility Iran may try to spike world oil prices to improve revenue, while Tobin warns not to underestimate the resolve of the Iranian regime to continue its nuclear program, even in the face of the current economic crisis spurred by sanctions.
- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent speech at the UN was much worse than most analysts suggested, Cliff May writes in the National Review.
- The Wall Street Journal has published an Op-Ed by US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the Middle East and Barry Rubin has analysed it.
- In Tablet Magazine, Middle East pundits Aaron David Miller, Walter Russell Mead, Thomas Friedman and Elliot Abrams offer their opinions on where the US should devote its energies in the Middle East after the elections.
- Khaled Abu Toameh says a growing number of West Bank Palestinians are calling for the ouster of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestine Liberation Organisation “old guard” cronies, to be replaced with a new generation of leadership.
- The US has called on the EU to oppose the Palestinian Authority’s bid to upgrade its status to “non-member state” in the UN General Assembly. Meanwhile, the PA now says it is expecting the UN vote to be held on November 29.
- For a more in-depth look at the choices facing Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, don’t miss Tal Becker’s latest policy analysis for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Abbas’s Five Non-Options”.
- Turning to Syria, Jonathan Spyer provides a harrowing report from inside Aleppo, where the hospital he was visiting was bombed by Syrian warplanes.
- Returning once again to Egypt, Nicolas Pelham, Jerusalem correspondent for The Economist, has published a 42-page paper for Chatham House about the deteriorating situation in Sinai and where he sees Egypt, Israel and Gaza’s interests lie in the changing landscape.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
Beyond last week’s dramatic media coverage of the female soldier deployed with the Karakal infantry battalion credited with helping to end a terror attack, and the subsequent Facebook correspondence between her and a female colleague who hid when the firing began, the incident last Friday in which Israel Defense Forces soldier Cpl. Natanel Yehoshua Yahalomi was killed gives Israel cause for concern.
This was the third military operation carried out by Islamic organizations on the Egyptian border in the past three months. In other incidents, an Israeli worker engaged in the construction of the border fence was killed, and extremists attacked an Egyptian base and killed 16 Egyptian policemen there.
Israeli spokesmen are remaining diplomatic, loath to hint in public about what Israel’s security establishment has concluded. But the truth is that Israeli security officials are convinced that steps reportedly taken by the Egyptians to quell extremists’ terror activity in the Sinai peninsula region have had negligible effect.
Even after the widely publicized operation carried out by Egyptian security forces in Sinai, during August and September, dozens of armed Bedouin were able to launch an attack on an Egyptian security compound in El-Arish. Such developments indicate that Egypt’s government has not displayed the will or ability necessary to bring order to the region.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi exploited the murder of the 16 policemen near Kerem Shalom on August 5 to carry out a purge in his army intelligence forces. Yet the shock caused by this massacre, perpetrated during the iftar meal held to end a religious fast, did not compel Morsi to take the serious measures needed to restore order to Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership is more concerned about holding onto power in Cairo, and in cities along the Nile; rampages conducted by groups influenced by Al-Qaida in the Sinai Peninsula are a lower priority to Egypt’s new government.
Morsi tried to engage with extremists in Sinai, but the negotiations led nowhere. Attacks on Egypt’s army in Sinai have escalated during the past two weeks. Palestinian security officials claim that Islamic Jihad activists in Sinai have threatened to take action against Morsi on three different levels, should Egypt’s president continue to pressure them: they threaten to attack tourist targets around the Red Sea; sites in the Suez Canal region; and also various Egyptian cities. Along these same lines, sources claim that the explosion that occurred on September 22 at the Talkha train station constituted a message sent by extremist organizations to the Muslim Brotherhood.
At Ismailia, on the western bank of the Suez Canal, authorities uncovered a huge arsenal of explosives, which were apparently to be used by extremists for an attack on the canal.
Meantime, IDF forces remain on alert along the Egyptian border. Security officials doubt that last Friday’s attack was the last of its kind. As the extremist organizations see it, they have strong reason to conduct reprisals against Israel – among other things, extremists want to avenge the killing of one of their major operatives, who died due to a mysterious explosion which occurred while he was traveling on his motorcycle in Sinai a month ago (Israel has not acknowledged any responsibility for this incident ).
The problem here is clear and ominous: we are talking about increasingly expansive activity undertaken by highly radical organizations that view Israel as an accessible target, in a period when a new Egyptian government has not shown much determination to bring such militant terror actions to an end. This problem is linked to Hamas’ situation in Gaza. Israel killed three Palestinians in the Strip last week, in an aerial action. The three militants belonged to an extremist Islamic group, one that Shin Bet security service officials claim had been planning to launch a terror attack from the Egyptian border against an Israeli target. Yet, like another incident that occurred earlier this month, it appears the three men also had links with Hamas.
For practical reasons – particularly a desire to refrain from a military standoff with Israel, which might jeopardize its rule in Gaza – Hamas is reluctant to initiate terror attacks directly. However, Hamas maintains contact with extremist groups in Sinai, and it appears to be indirectly involved in actions taken against Israel. Israel and Hamas are aware of the organizational affiliation of militants who are killed in operations; officials from each side are aware of what the other side knows.
As things stand, it seems that Hamas will find it difficult to restrain violent actions undertaken by militants in Sinai who have some connection to it.
Israel is also caught in a trap. It has very limited freedom to act in Sinai, due to fears of a conflagration with Egypt’s government. Should Israeli officials gain information about plans to launch a terror attack from Sinai, the main plotters of which are situated in Gaza, they would prefer to strike against the Gazan militants before the action is initiated in Sinai. On the other hand, another killing of operatives in Gaza would escalate tensions with Hamas. Despite the basic interest shared by Israel and Hamas in the continuation of relative quiet, the chances of an eruption of violence on the Gaza border in the near future seem to be rising.
Reconciled to separation
After a number of years in which the Palestinians have sought the establishment of a “safe crossing point” between Gaza and the West Bank, it appears that just such a route has been found. “N,” a resident of Ramallah, told Haaretz this week that he intends to visit the Gaza Strip: “I take a plane from Amman to El-Arish – there is now a direct flight between these two cities – and from there I travel to the Rafah border and cross into Gaza,” he said.
How does he make the journey from Rafah to Gaza? “Through the tunnels, of course,” N explains. Asked if it’s dangerous, he replies: “Dangerous? Are you kidding? There’s a motor-scooter taxi service – one brings me from the Egyptian side of the border to the Gazan side of the tunnel, no problem.”
A review of the circumstances in Gaza revealed that this information is correct. Yet even though safe passage has now been established between Gaza and the West Bank, it appears that reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has never been farther away. Several factors have come together in past months to exacerbate the fight between the two organizations.
Hamas has undergone major changes in the past week, some of which will have a direct impact upon the chances for rapprochement between Palestinian politics’ main forces. The most dramatic change was the quiet ousting of Khaled Meshal as director of Hamas’ political bureau. Meshal, who officially announced this week that he has no intention of fighting to retain his leadership post in the current, hotly contested, election campaign, has been a consistent supporter of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Along with Fatah head Mahmoud Abbas, Meshal is signed to the “Doha agreement,” under which Abbas was supposed to serve as leader of a unity government until the staging of national Palestinian elections.
In fact, the Doha accord was what led to the end of Meshal’s political career. After he left Damascus, and lost the political-financial patronage of Syria and Iran, he basically turned into just another political functionary in Hamas. The Gazan Hamas leadership, under the direction of Sheikh Ismail Haniyeh, was determined to scrap the reconciliation accord with Fatah, even if doing so meant a direct showdown with Meshal. The bottom line is that Haniyeh won this clash with Meshal.
The latter’s exit also symbolized the weakening of Hamas’ military “chief of staff,” Ahmed Jabri. According to Israeli officials, Mohammed Deif, an operative active since the 1990s, has played an increasingly major role in Hamas’ military wing; according to Palestinian security sources, two other old-new players have been challenging Jabri in Gaza: Yehiye Sinwar and Ruhi Mushtaha, two of the prisoners liberated in the Gilad Shalit deal last October. Ironically, Jabri – who was instrumental in the finalizing of the Shalit exchange and the freeing of the two – inadvertently created an opposition force in Hamas’ military wing.
Another change that jeopardizes prospects for national Palestinian reconciliation involves the rise of the Islamic government in Egypt, and its close links with Hamas. Top-ranking Palestinian sources report that, over the past few weeks, Hamas leaders – particularly Haniyeh – have tried to convince Morsi and his colleagues in the Egyptian government to establish a free-trade zone in the Rafah-El-Arish area. These sources view the lobbying as part of a Hamas attempt to foster symbols of sovereignty, and to separate once and for all from the West Bank.
During a visit last week to Cairo, Haniyeh tried to persuade Egypt’s leaders to allow Hamas to have security responsibility in the Rafah-El-Arish zone, the sources say. Such a move would relieve the Egyptians of a major headache – dealing with the extremists in northeast parts of Sinai. The sources say the very fact that leaders in Cairo agreed to receive Haniyeh was fraught with significance. Such a reception, they explain, constitutes Egyptian recognition of Hamas sovereignty on the Gaza Strip, and willingness to discuss various trade-agreement proposals.
Warnings relayed by Egypt’s general intelligence service, its foreign ministry and other government branches dissuaded Morsi from acceding to Haniyeh’s proposals regarding a free-trade zone, these Palestinian sources say. Yet the Hamas-Egypt alliance continues to consolidate, and Fatah officials in Ramallah seem increasingly isolated.
One after another, Abbas’ allies in the Arab world seem to be separating themselves from him. Egypt is under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Jordan, King Abdullah II’s next steps are hard to anticipate; possibly, he could choose to lessen internal ferment against his rule by moving closer to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar’s Ambassador to the Gaza Strip, Mohammad Al-Emadi, visited Haniyeh’s home this week to announce a $254 million project to develop Gazan infrastructure. This notification came at a time when the Palestinian Authority lacks the funds to pay workers’ salaries. One can imagine how the Qatari announcement will boost Haniyeh’s status within Hamas.
Palestinian Authority sources suspect that the U.S. government is conducting quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations with Hamas, using Morsi and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as intermediaries. These well-placed sources explain that Washington has delivered messages to Hamas about its willingness to cooperate with the Islamic organization, should it accept conditions stipulated by the Quartet on the Middle East.
And as icing on the cake, despite the fact that the Netanyahu government has offered some economic assistance to the PA, it appears to being doing its utmost to undermine Abbas and his regime politically. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s unbridled attacks on Abbas have caused many PA officials to harbor the logical concern that Israeli officials would welcome a Hamas takeover in the West Bank.
One top PA official told Haaretz this week that, paradoxically, the political outlook of Israel’s government currently bears a stronger resemblance to that of Hamas than of Fatah: “Both you [Israeli officials] and Hamas talk about temporary solutions. Lieberman and Hamas rule out talks based on the 1967 borders. And, to a certain extent, Hamas today is prepared to accept a type of temporary government in the West Bank because, as it sees things, the real solution – i.e., Israel’s destruction – will occur in the future.”
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“No one cares about the Palestinians,” I wrote in this space two years ago , and since then the world has stopped funding them. As a result, the Palestine Authority is collapsing, comments Khalid Elgindy, a former PA adviser, on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, about “the wave of Palestinian protests that swept through the Israeli-occupied West Bank this month [and] … virtually paralyzed life in Palestinian cities, with scenes reminiscent of the first intifada”.
The PA can’t pay salaries because international donors, including the Gulf States, haven’t sent promised aid:
A rapid infusion of cash from the international community and Israel may buy the PA some time, but it cannot kick the can down the road forever – especially if a recently released World Bank report is right that a more severe fiscal crisis will take root if donor countries fail to act swiftly.
Even if the PA manages to hobble along for a few more months or years, a weak and divided Palestinian leadership with questionable domestic legitimacy will be in no position to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Israel or make that agreement stick. This week’s mass arrests of Hamas activists, carried out in the wake of the protests, speaks to the PA leadership’s deep sense of insecurity. 
International donors are weary of Mahmoud Abbas’ sorry little West Bank kleptocracy, while the squeeze on the state budgets of all the industrial nations makes it harder to shake loose money for an unpopular destination. The World Bank warned on September 19 of a “deepening Palestinian fiscal crisis” and issued an “urgent appeal” to donors. 
Diplomats and bureaucrats at international organizations will issue press releases, wring their hands, make promises and then break them. No-one is going to write a check to the Palestine Authority.
The question is: when will the world also grow weary of Egypt? With liquid cash reserves down to a month or two worth of imports in July, Egypt began bouncing checks to oil suppliers in August, and has stopped importing some urgently needed items. The latest shortage to plague the Egyptian economy is infant vaccines. (See North Korea on the Nile, Asia Times Online, August 28, 2012.) The news site AllAfrica.com reports:
Cairo – Tens of thousands of children are at risk because of a vaccine shortage in Egypt, pediatricians warn.”The longer the government fails to immunize these children, the more vulnerable to disease they are,” Eman Masoud, head of the Pediatrics Section at Abul Riesh University Hospital in Cairo, told IRIN. She said a delay of more than one or two months in obtaining vital vaccines like MMR, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, can put children’s lives in peril.
Over the last two weeks, parents have lined up at many of the government’s 5,000 health offices which vaccinate children for free, only to be told: “The vaccines are not available.” (Shots are, however, available for the equivalent of US$50 at private clinics.) 
It’s hard to get accurate readings on Egypt’s economic free-fall, but according to the country’s importers association, the reluctance of banks to provide trade financing to Egyptian firms has cut imports in half since the January 2011 revolution, and now threatens essential food supplies. The government claims to have six months’ of wheat stockpiled and recently bought additional supplies, but other staples, including beans, sugar and cooking oil.
Ahmed Shiha, the head of the Cairo Chamber Commerce importers’ group, warned earlier this month that Egypt has been living off inventories of key food commodities, according to the Egyptian news site el-balad.com. 
After the 2011 revolution, importers stocked up on food out of fear of devaluation. Now they are having trouble obtaining letters of credit to replace their diminishing supplies. Especially vulnerable is Egypt’s provision of beans, the biggest staple after bread. High dollar prices and dwindling cash reverses could lead to a 40% reduction in the supply of imported foods, Shiha warned. Egypt imports half its total food consumption.
By its own estimate, Egypt needs $12 billion to get through the next year. Some private estimates quoted by the Egypt Independent put the gap at twice that much.  Every few days, the Egyptian government hails another multi-billion-dollar aid package from a foreign donor, but none of these packages appears to entail much ready cash. Qatar deposited $500 million in Egypt’s central bank in August, and promised another $1.5 billion, which is yet to appear.
Egypt announced that Turkey had promised $2 billion in aid, but Turkish press accounts doubt that Egypt will spend any of that money in the near future; $1 billion is reserved to finance the operations of Turkish firms in Egypt, which does nothing for Egypt’s urgent import requirements. The other $1 billion, the Turkish newspaper Star wrote on September 15, is just an advance on the prospective $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 
Turkey still owes the IMF $5 billion from its borrowing after the 2008 crisis, so it will expect repayment out of the IMF money – if the IMF loan ever comes through. In the meantime, the $1 billion will sit in the central banks’ display window and won’t be spent.
The Barack Obama administration offered the Egyptians $1 billion (half of which was debt forgiveness rather than ready cash), but shelved the proposal after the attacks on America’s Cairo embassy until after the November elections. Saudi Arabia seems to have no intention of funding the Muslim Brotherhood, the monarchy’s most dangerous internal opponent.
For the moment, it really does seem like Egypt is living on diminishing stockpiles, as the Chamber of Commerce’s Shiha warned. Egyptians will have enough bread to go around, but not much to put on it, and not enough gasoline to distribute it.
Some problems simply can’t be fixed. In the past, I have argued that the Palestine problem is hopeless but not serious. Roughly one in four Palestinian men between the ages of 20 and 40 is paid to carry a gun, and a putative nation whose economy is based on the imminent prospect of violence does not have first claim on scarce international resources.
Meanwhile the living standard of Arabs in the so-called Occupied West Bank is double that of pre-crisis Egypt; compared with Egypt or Syria, it is an oasis of peace and plenty.
After years of intoning that the Palestine issue was the crux of the world’s security problems, the world has left the keys in the wreck and walked away from it. And the Oslo process is ending with a whimper rather than a bang.
Egypt is a different matter. The notion that the world will find $1 billion a month for Egypt – let alone $2 billion – seems whimsical. The catastrophic decline of a nation of 80 million people is something the world has not seen in some time, and policymakers would be wise to take precautionary measures.
1. Obama in more trouble than Netanyahu over Iran, March 16, 2012.
2. Why Palestinians Protest: The PA Leadership Is Not the Only Problem, Foreign Affairs, September 20, 2012.
3. World Bank Warns Of Deepening Palestinian Fiscal Crisis, World Bank, September 19, 2012.
4. Egypt: Vaccine Shortage Hits Egypt’s Children, AllAfrica.com, September 14, 2012.
5. See el-balad.com.
6. Hunger economics: Do rising food prices mean trouble ahead?, Egypt Independent, September 20, 2012.
7. Mısır’ın istikrarına bizden 2 milyar $, Star, September 15, 2012.
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After the Egyptian military took power in the country 1952, it started its campaign against Egyptian Jews, launching its propaganda against Jews in all the state-owned media. It freed all the terrorists who had committed violence against Jews before the coup, and jailed liberals and seculars instead. It encouraged aggression toward the Egyptian Jewish minority, which led to new terrorist attacks against Jewish individuals and properties in Egypt.
Between 1954 and 1956, 80,000 Egyptian Jews were expelled from Egypt, but not before they were robbed of their property. After that, Egypt revoked their citizenship, forbidding them from returning to their homeland. Of course, before they left, Egyptian authorities forced them to sign papers saying that they had been treated fairly and were leaving of their own will. There are currently around 300 Jews living in Egypt, isolated in an environment that is hostile to them.
The Christian minority in Egypt (known as Copts) reacted in a very selfish way at the time, choosing not to interfere in the crisis so as to avoid any harm. They thought that if they took the side of the dictatorship, they would be safe. Obviously, it didn’t work.
After the Egyptian military expelled Jews and outlawed Bahais and Shias, they started their campaign against Christians. The Egyptian regime has maintained since that time a very fundamental understanding of Islam, and forced it through the media and the education system. Violent attacks against Christians became increasingly frequent, and most of the time no one was prosecuted.
The Egyptian regime created an uncomfortable situation for Christians in order to force them to leave the country. And the evidence shows that it worked. Some 4 million Egyptian Christians have emigrated from Egypt over the last 60 years, representing one-third of the entire Coptic population, and comprising nearly 75% of Egyptians living abroad.
But Egyptian authorities are not satisfied with that. After Mohammed Morsi acceded to power, he decided to speed up this process. The Egyptian regime used the film “Innocence of Muslims” to start a huge propaganda campaign against Egyptian Christians. And of course, Christians in Egypt are becoming increasingly isolated under this propaganda. Violence against Christians occurs every day, and the state usually takes the side of the Muslim murderers.
It isn’t inconceivable that as a way of protecting this operation, the Egyptian state sponsored the attacks on foreign embassies. A group of poor thugs were paid and led to the American Embassy in Cairo to attack it, while they didn’t know where they were, or why they were there. Similar attacks occurred in other countries in which the Egyptian Intelligence has power. Not a single attack on a foreign embassy occurred outside the sphere of Egyptian influence. But Western countries cared more about their own interests in Muslim countries, and as usual surrendered to the racist blackmail of the Egyptian regime.
The Egyptian state is also excessively using the laws forbidding criticism of Islam. At least five Christians are now imprisoned in Egypt under the accusation of “insulting Islam.” Ayman Youssef Mansour, a 22-year-old blogger, was sentenced in October 2011 to three years because of comments about Islam on his Facebook page. Gamal Abdou Masoud, a 17-year-old kid, was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment last January because he was tagged on Facebook in a picture that criticized Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Makarem Diab Said, a teacher from Asyut, was sentenced in April 2012 to six years’ imprisonment, because he said some aggressive words against Islam during a quarrel with one of his colleagues at work. Bishoy El-Beheri was also sentenced this September to six years’ imprisonment on two charges: insulting Islam, and insulting Morsi, the new president.
But perhaps the most poignant is the case of Alber Saber, a 27-year-old atheist from a Christian family. He was a hyperactive person since before the revolution. I first met him after I was released from prison last year. After that, he repeatedly asked me to launch a big campaign in Egypt to spread secular ideas. He was super-active on social media, criticizing religion and promoting atheism. Alber was arrested on September 13, and is now being tried under accusations of “insulting God” and “insulting Islam.” We are leading an international campaign on Facebook and Twitter calling for his freedom, in the hope that people will realize that dictatorships never stop. As long they exist, there will be new victims every day, and this new victim can be anyone.
The aim of the Egyptian regime in using this charge against Christians and atheists from Christian background is to create a status of panic and intimidation among Christians and to make them leave Egypt. Obviously, it’s working. Tens of thousands of Egyptian Christians are leaving their homeland every month, and Western countries are opening their doors to them in the knowledge that they could soon face genocide in their country.
Will Egyptian Christians face the same destiny as Egyptian Jews? Will the Egyptian regime manage to get rid of Christians and other minorities? Do the Muslim Brothers want to exclude Christians from the voting process because Christians usually vote for secular parties? Will Egypt lose more and more of its diversity? Only time will tell.