The rumors of US interference in Assiut probably started with an article titled "The American embassy occupies Assiut," Sout Al-Umma, April 28, 2003 [AWR week 17, art. 3]. The Sout al-Umma article is extremely negative and one wonders if not at least part of it is the consequence of rivalry between different parties in Assiut. The article is very negative about Dr. Muhammad Abdel-Mata’al, the chairman of the Assiut businessmen Association who is accused of being very close to Americans to the extent that he, according to the article, almost serves as a puppet. It is not the first time some Egyptian media singled out individuals for extreme criticism. Hafez Abu Seada, general-secretary of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights was first accused in al-Usbua of accepting money from the British Embassy for the preparation of a report on al-Koshh (which both he and the Embassy denied) and was subsequently arrested. Much negative press in most media preceded the arrest of Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim in 2000. Maher el-Guindi, former governor of Giza, was removed after he had first become the target of much negative press. He was later sentenced for corruption but, observers wonder, was he the only one? Was he singled out? It is not difficult to find more examples whereby much negative press preceded the arrest or severe harassment of individuals. In the previous cases the involved press often based their stories on a mix of rumors and facts and gave them sensational titles such as "the American embassy occupies Assiut."
This is not only sensational but also inflammatory because of the strong anti-American feelings in Egypt following the US policy towards Israel and the Palestinians and the US-led war against Iraq.
The authors write: "The Assiut governorate has turned into a playground for the American Embassy. It does not find any difficulty in doing what it likes there. It has even found people to help it. One of these people is Dr. Muhammad Abdel-Mata’al, the chairman of the Businessmen Association in Assiut.
It is reported that Abdel-Mata’al printed calendars displaying a photo of President Bush. However, an embassy official responsible for the US aid denies this. Still, after the war on Iraq, he sent a telegram congratulating the success of the US forces to control Iraq. It is known that the association receives US aid and received 160 million EgP last year."
The statement that the Assiut governorate turned into a playground for the American Embassy must have angered the governor of Assiut and consequently must have created frictions between the governor and the chairman of the business association.
AWR contacted Mr. Philip Frayne, spokesman of the US Embassy in Cairo. He responded "I do not know if Abdel-Mata’al, printed such a calendar, but we haven’t seen it. It seems to me it would be up to the association to confirm or deny something concerning them, not us. Neither have we received any telegram of congratulations from Mr. Abdel-Mata’al." But in an atmosphere where the great majority in Egypt opposed the US-led war on Iraq such an accusation is serious.
Mr. Frayne said "the Assiut Businessmen’s Association administers AID’s small and micro-enterprise loan program in the Assiyut governorate, just as the Alexandria Businessmen’s Association does in Alexandria. They have received approximately LE 200 million in loan money since 1996, a seven-year period, and have made thousands of small loans to people who otherwise would have no access to credit. The program is very closely audited by AID’s auditors. AID has many different activities in the governorate designed to assist poor Egyptians, including family planning programs, health clinics, and training for doctors and nurses at Assiut University. All of these programs are approved by the Egyptian government and the local Assiut governorate."
Sout al-Umma states that the US has a special agenda for Assiut because some 25% of the population of Assiut is Coptic and Assiut is the birthplace of Islamic extremism. Their interest in Assiut, according to the article, increased after US Congress issued the Freedom from Religious Persecution Law in 1998. Frayne finds "such an accusation baseless. If interest were measured by amount of AID programs or Ambassadorial trips, then our "interest" would clearly be much greater in Cairo and Alexandria (two predominantly Muslim cities) since we devote so much more time and resources to these two areas."
The allegation is inflammatory because similar accusations were made by late president Sadat who, in the late seventies, alleged that the Copts wanted to create a Coptic state in Upper Egypt with Assiut as their capital. These allegations resulted in those days in Muslim-Christian tensions in Assiut. Sadat’s allegations had no basis but were the result of extreme tensions between Muslims and Christians in the late seventies. Some extremist Copts in the countries of emigration do indeed believe they should have a Coptic state but their numbers probably do not exceed the hundreds. The great majority, including activists as Michael Mounier, president of the US Copts Association, does not believe that a Coptic state is feasible and thus they focus on equal rights.
Assiut had traditionally a strong Coptic presence but this is rapidly decreasing. In 1925 approximately 80% of all Copts in Egypt lived in Upper Egypt. Today this is less than 50%. Nicolas Hopkins estimates the number of Copts in Upper Egypt to be around 11% of the population [Hopkins, Upper Egypt; life along the Nile, Moesgard Museum, Arhus, 2003, page 12]. This may be higher in Assiut but the figure of 25% is probably too high.
Assiut was the location of the Coptic Congress in 1910 in which Copts asserted their rights. This congress was highly criticized by Muslims. Sout al-Umma blames this congress for having caused "sectarian conflicts." They also blame Protestant missionaries to have been behind this. But does this not again make the link to the US? Is president George Bush not strongly backed by US Evangelical Christians and doesn’t he allow them to send missionaries to Iraq?
Thus making allegations that the US Embassy has a special agenda for Assiut and mentioning the Copts and the Freedom from Religious Persecution Law cannot do but anything else but creating fear that the US government, anyhow believed to be biased towards Christians, may revamp the old "plan" to create a Coptic state in Upper Egypt.
To make things worse Sout al-Umma writes that Gamal Assad, a Christian who is not on good terms with the Coptic church hierarchy and a former member of the People’s Assembly, said that when the law for protecting religious freedom was issued, Americans tried to establish many relations in Assiut. When such a ’prominent’ Christian says so it must be true, isn’t it?
But how reliable are the statements of Gamal Assad? According to the paper he claimed that the American ambassador has paid many visits to the governorate and was keen on meeting some religious figures. He presented them the Freedom House Award.
Mr. Phil Frayne categorically denies that the US Ambassador presented the Freedom House Award to any person. Bishop Thomas of al-Qussia, a diocese in the governorate of Assiut, received this award in the US. He has been criticized for this because the Freedom House is an NGO with close relations with US Coptic activists and is believed to be very biased. The Freedom House may have good relations with many Congressmen and people in the US government but they are not a governmental organization and thus the US Ambassador won’t be able to present them with their reward.
Assad also claimed according to Sout al-Umma that the Ambassador paid several visits to Assiut. Frayne, however, says the US Ambassador visited Assiut only once since he took office in the summer of 2001.
Sout al-Umma writes the US Ambassador visited many places in Assiut in January this year including a school in Al-Qussia. "It is strange that the ambassador of a big country like the US is interested in visiting such a school in a small town. This shows that the US is planning to do something in the governorate. To accomplish its plans, it uses many means, such as, US aid and the issue of minorities."
The school in Al-Qussia is the language school of Bishop Thomas of al-Qussia. It is one of the very few language schools in the governorate and bishop Thomas is a man with lots of international contacts, including several Ambassadors of western countries. He invited the US Ambassador and invited other Ambassadors of other countries and other foreign guests before him. Bishop Thomas has an excellent guesthouse and always encourages foreigners to visit his projects, including this language school. The bishop also had for years foreign teachers working in this school, making this school very different from other schools in the area.
Mr. Frayne finds "the tone of the Sout al-Umma cynical and suspicious. We have no secret plans whatsoever. All our AID programs are discussed thoroughly with the Government and they agree on them before we start anything. Our Ambassador, being the Ambassador to all of Egypt and not just Cairo, has made it a point to try and visit as many governorates as he can. He has done perhaps half of them so far. Everything is very transparent in these visits -- there’s no hidden motive at all. Is it a bad thing to use our own resources to try to help economically unfortunate Egyptians throughout the country lead more fulfilling and prosperous lives?"
[We have sent this article several times to the Assiut governorate with a request to comment. They every time claimed they had not received the fax while the fax number and the name on the fax were correct. It has all appearance the press attaché of the governorate prefers not to respond without saying so directly. It seems the approach is better not to respond instead of giving a response which might not be liked by particular parties].