Headed three leading organizations
CAIRO, Egypt––Ahmed el Sherbiny, 66, who with his British-born wife Jackie led the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends, the Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare, and the Middle East Network for Animal Welfare, on March 7, 2019 died at home in Shabramont, Giza, a Cairo suburb, after several years of fighting multiple illnesses that he attributed to too many years of smoking and having become a vegan too late in life.
Posted Egyptian Society of Animal Friends cofounder Mona Khalil, a longtime friend and colleague of the Sherbiny family, “It is with a heavy sad heart that I announce that Ahmed has passed away. May Allah accept him with full mercy and forgiveness. We lost a great man and warrior for animal rights. Farewell dear friend.”
Emailed another longtime friend and colleague Robert Blumberg, to ANIMALS 24-7, “Ahmed demonstrated how vital it is to have a lawyer in an animal welfare organization, and especially so in a developing country. As a lawyer accredited to practice before the Egyptian Supreme Court, Ahmed used his knowledge to navigate the legal system to improve animal welfare. He was involved in the first successful prosecution of an animal cruelty case in modern Egypt, and helped guide the long overdue development of animal welfare legislation in Egypt.
“Ahmed was both idealistic while being realistic and pragmatic,” Blumberg continued. “Although a vegetarian, he understood that animal slaughter for food would continue, so he sought to make it as humane as possible – including being the moving force behind having a fatwah [religious legal opinion] issued against the long distance transport of animals. As a well-versed Muslim, he was able to remind people of the animal welfare issues [addressed] in Islamic teaching.
“Ahmed understood how to work with government officials, and that compromise and incremental steps were sometimes necessary to influence long term improvement in animal welfare,” Blumberg added. “He pioneered the implementation of neuter/return programs in Egypt, fighting a very difficult battle to persuade authorities that killing does not work and that spay-neuter is the only way. Ahmed helped implement humane education programs to influence the next generations. He also campaigned for wildlife protection, the elimination of private zoos, and regulation and inspection of pet shops.
“Ahmed was often frustrated at the lack of progress in improving animal welfare,” Blumberg finished, “even though over time, his incremental steps produced significant change in awareness of animal welfare issues in Egypt.”
Egyptian Society of Animal Friends
Fond of animals from boyhood, Sherbiny met his wife Jackie and became aware of organized advocacy while attending law school in Britain. They became actively involved in animal advocacy by intervening when they saw horses and donkeys being beaten.
Eventually Sherbiny rearranged his law practice work schedule to keep mainly night office hours, so as to devote daylight hours to helping animals.
Ahmed and Jackie el Sherbiny formally incorporated the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends (ESAF), begun earlier by several of their friends, in March 2002. While Ahmed Sherbiny helped many Egyptian anima. charities secure nonprofit status, ESAF became a focal project.
Recounts the ESAF Facebook page, “ESAF started from a flat in Maadi, where rescue cats were kept, while rescue dogs were kept at the boarding area of the Egyptian Veterinary Hospital in Abbaseya.”
“A humble reed-roofed place”
Opening an actual animal shelter took two years, Sherbiny told ANIMALS 24-7, because the founders had difficulty finding an affordable location close to inner Cairo. One day, however, they visited a shelter operated by the Society for Protecting Animal Rights in Egypt (SPARE), opened in 2000 by local activist Amina Abaza, and saw a vacant lot for sale just around the corner, backing into the SPARE property.
“The ESAF shelter started as a humble reed-roofed place,” the Facebook page says, “with no running water or electricity. For two years the staff had to bring water from outside and use generators for electricity.”
SPARE and ESAF by mid-2004 each housed about 85 dogs and 40-odd cats. Each had added surgical facilities, an adoption program, a humane education program, and a mobile unit serving horses and donkeys.
Saw need for collective voice
Associated Press in September 2004 reported the emergence of at least three privately operated roadside zoos along the Cairo-Alexandria highway, and mentioned how Zambezi Rest Stop menagerie owner Tarek A. Makarem entertained visitors by feeding live pigs to lions.
Photographing the practice, Sherbiny recognized the need for legislation that would enable him to prosecute Makarem. Later, Sherbiny was able to help rescue many suffering animals from roadside zoos and traveling shows. But no vehicle then existed through which to seek better animal welfare laws.
To that point, the several dozen small, scattered animal charities serving Egypt had no collective voice, received little media recognition, and enjoyed even less mission recognition among the public, despite the presence in Cairo of two of the oldest humane organizations in the Middle East.
Cairo SPCA abdicated leadership
Founded in 1895, the equine-oriented Cairo SPCA grew to occupy an entire large city block by the mid-20th century, and was a well-funded affiliate of the Royal SPCA of Great Britain until in 1956, during an international stand-off over control of Suez Canal traffic, the Egyptian government evicted all foreign-controlled charities.
Despite losing British funding, the Cairo SPCA continued to prosper for another several decades. Holding the Cairo equine pound contract kept 150 stalls for horses and donkeys full––but after equine-drawn vehicles were banned from inner Cairo to expedite car and truck traffic, the equine pound mission dwindled, along with revenue.
Failing to develop a new mission and funding base, the Cairo SPCA in the 21st century has consisted of little more than an under-equipped outpatient clinic for small animals and under-used boarding facilities for handful of dogs and horses.
Brooke Hospital for Animals
Also––and exclusively––serving equines, the Brooke Hospital for Animals was incorporated in London, England, in 1930 as the Fund for Old War Horses.
Founder Dorothy Brooke, who had recently moved to Cairo, volunteered for three years with the Cairo SPCA, then opened the Brooke Hospital for Old War Horses in Cairo in 1934.
The original Brooke clinic is still in service, augmented by Brooke branch clinics, several much larger than the one in Cairo, serving the working horses and donkeys of Luxor, Aswan, Edfu, Alexandria, Mersa Matruh, and the Nile Delta.
But the Brooke was evicted from Egypt in 1956, at the same time as the RSPCA.
Returning circa 1961, the Brooke has tended to keep a politically low profile.
Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare
Hoping to help draft and win passage of Egypt’s first comprehensive humane law, ten animal charities on June 21, 2004 formed the Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare, electing Sherbiny as founding chair.
An early accomplishment of the Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare was helping the General Organization for Veterinary Services, the government agency that does animal control throughout Egypt, to establish an animal welfare unit headquartered at the Giza Zoo.
The animal welfare unit began with programs to teach the Giza Zoo keepers about animal welfare and to sterilize about 150 feral cats who lived at the zoo. ESAF veterinarians performed many and perhaps most of the sterilization surgeries.
First cruelty conviction in 50-plus years
In March 2008 Sherbiny won the landmark first cruelty conviction on record in Egypt since the British occupation of 1882-1956.
The case began when police investigating complaints about a bad odor coming from an apartment found a dead male monkey, a baby monkey who died hours after rescue, a female monkey who survived, and a variety of ill-kept birds and dogs.
“ESAF filed a complaint accusing the flat owner of neglect and willful cruelty,” Sherbiny recounted later to ANIMALS 24-7. “The case was presented to the court by the district attorney under the agriculture law as neglecting to report sick animals. Based on our memo of prosecution, the judge [instead] decided to apply Article 357 of the penal law to the case: ‘Any individual who willfully kills or poisons without purport a tame animal not mentioned in Article 355, or does the animal any major harm, shall be punished by a jail sentence that does not exceed six months or by a fine that will not exceed 200 Egyptian pounds.’
“The flat owner was sentenced under the penal law code to serve two consecutive 48-hour jail sentences. If the judge had applied the agriculture law,” Sherbiny said, “she would have been fined only 10 Egyptian pounds.”
Long aware that cruelty occurred with little supervision or restraint at the government-operated Bassatin slaughtering complex near Cairo, which supplies meat to the entire metropolis, Sherbiny found an opportunity to intervene after Animals Australia undercover investigator Lyn White in January 2006 obtained video from inside Bassatin showing workers poking out the eyes of cattle and cutting their leg tendons before subjecting them to a version of halal slaughter that clearly flunked the goal of the animals not suffering.
Aired by the Australian edition of the television magazine show 60 Minutes, the Lyn White video influenced then-Australian agriculture minister Peter McGuarin to suspend cattle exports to Egypt. The suspension remained in effect for nearly three months.
Australia was then the major supplier of live sheep to Egypt, to be slaughtered according to halal rules.
Pre-stunning, as practiced in the U.S. and Europe, is not traditionally part of halal and kosher slaughter, which are done by millennias-old procedures originally meant to reduce animal suffering at slaughter as much as possible with Bronze Age technology.
Some religious authorities have declared that pre-stunning is permitted under the kosher slaughter laws proclaimed by Moses and adapted by Mohammed into the halal slaughter laws of today, but the topic is still under intense debate.
Pivotal in obtaining an agreement from the Bassatin management to cooperate with Australian government consultants in reforming the Bassatin halal procedures was a fatwa issued on April 24, 2008 by Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi (1928-2010), then the chief imam and Shaikh of al-Azhar University in Egypt, a central authority in the Islamic world.
Opened the fatwa, “Ahmed el Sherbiny, lawyer before the Court of Cassation and chair of the Egyptian Society for Animal Friends, has presented a letter that includes a request for a legal opinion on two matters. The first matter deals with those people who torture an animal at slaughter by committing acts that are contradictory with treatment with mercy. The second matter deals with long-distance transport of animals from one country to another by means that do not provide for the animal s safety or kind treatment, described in detail,” Tantawi mentioned, “in el Sherbiny’s request for the fatwa.
Laws of halal
“Islamic law requires that an animal at the time of slaughter must be treated with kindness and with procedures that guarantee mercy,” Tantawi affirmed.
“Fulfilling this order requires doing everything that makes the animal comfortable at the time of slaughter. Many authenticated sayings of the Prophet show the prohibition on undertaking to sharpen or hone the instrument of slaughter in front of the animal to be slaughtered.
“For example,” Tantawi wrote, “The Prophet saw a man sharpening his knife in front of the animal who was to be slaughtered, and the Prophet forbade that, and said to the man: ‘Do you want to slaughter the animal twice, once by sharpening the knife in front of the animal, and the second time by cutting its throat?’
“Any action incompatible with kindness to animals or treating them any way other than with mercy at the time of slaughter is forbidden and sinful, and is inconsistent with the kindness to animals that Islam requires,” Tantawi emphasized.
“With regard to the second question,” Tantawi continued, “we advise that Islam’s call for kindness to animals and for treating them with mercy applies to all situations. This includes transporting animals. Transport must be done in a way that is comfortable and ensures the animal’s safety. The means of transport must protect against causing pain to the animal, any threat to the life of the animal, or infection of the animal with diseases contagious to humans or others.
“This rule is inferred from the saying of the Prophet that ‘Humans have the chance to perform a charitable act in their treatment of every living being.’ And also in his saying, ‘A woman went to hell because of a cat that she had confined without leaving it any food, or allowing the cat access to bugs or fruits of the earth to eat.’
“These two sayings of the Prophet, and others like them,” Tantawi wrote, “show that the treatment of animals must be based upon the principle of mercy in every situation, including in transport.”
Middle East Network for Animal Welfare
Arguing that “We need to learn from the west, not depend on the west,” Sherbiny and ESAF meanwhile formed the Middle East Network for Animal Welfare as the organizing umbrella for a series of conferences held in Cairo in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, focused on the unique problems and opportunities presented by working in overwhelmingly Islamic environments.
Animal charities from at least 35 nations in the Middle East, North Africa, and other parts of the world attended.
The first and fourth MENAW conferences addressed the spectrum of regional animal issues. Those in between addressed halal slaughter and equine issues.
Ahmed el Sherbiny “also worked with InterNICHE to promote alternatives to animal experiments in education,” recalled InterNICHE coordinator Nick Jukes. “We jointly organized an alternatives seminar within the MENAW conference of 2010.”
Denounced by Islamists
The 2008 MENAW conference on Long Distance Transportation & Slaughter was widely denounced among the international animal rights and vegan sectors for purportedly endorsing killing animals for meat.
At the same time, Sherbiny recalled to ANIMALS 24-7, “I was accused that the conference and myself were against the Islamic religion and the conference aim was to criticize the Islamic Sharia regarding Eid Al Adha sacrifice.
“My response toward these allegations and accusations,” Sherbiny said, “was that I myself and the conference were not against the Islamic religion, but that I as a Moslem person am against cruelty and horrific practices during the slaughter of animals, and against unnecessary violence and pain,” as specifically directed by Mohammed in prescribing the rules of halal.
Stood up for pigs
Islam forbids eating pigs, as “unclean.”
Though Mohammed himself did not sanction cruelty to pigs, pigs have historically been a persecuted species in Egypt, especially by religious zealots.
The Coptic Christian minority, however, have traditionally fed pigs on urban refuse.
Conflict between Islamicists and Copts in June 2009 flared into massacres of about 160,000 of the 170,000 pigs then in Egypt, led by government veterinarians in purported response to outbreaks of a form of “swine flu” that swine rarely get and had never verifiably passed to any other species.
The start of the pig cull on May 2, 2009 met violent resistance.
“Police were deployed in force around the Cairo slum district of Manshiyet Nasr where hundreds of residents, mostly Coptic Christian rubbish recyclers, fought running battles with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets,” reported Mona Salem of Agence France-Presse.
Sherbiny scolded Egyptian parliament
Impounded pigs were trucked away to be killed at the Bassatin slaughterhouse complex. There, because the pigs were not to be eaten, the government veterinarians who were supposed to enforce the halal rules decided that the halal rules need not be observed.
Tens of thousands of pigs were killed with cruelty so extreme that it was documented and denounced by leading Egyptian media, and by Sheikh Salim Mohammed Salim, head of the fatwas committee at the Al-Azhar University.
Speaking for the Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare, Sherbiny urged the Egyptian parliament to “speed up passing the suggested animal welfare legislation which was submitted to the Minister of Agriculture two years ago. Had the legislation been adopted,” Sherbiny said, “the present cruelty could not have taken place.”
Ousted from Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare
Within a month, in June 2009, the Egyptian Directorate of Social Affairs ordered that Sherbiny was to be removed from the leadership of the Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare, and that a new board including representatives of animal use industries was to be elected, under the direction of a halal slaughter expert.
The Egyptian Directorate of Social Affairs acted not only in response to Sherbiny’s positions on halal slaughter and the pig killing, but also because Sherbiny and other EFAW member organizations had become vocally critical of the traditional GOVS practice of poisoning or shooting street dogs and feral cats, upon receipt of complaints.
Arguing that the Egyptian Directorate of Social Affairs had overstepped its legal jurisdiction, a risky contention in a deeply conservative nation with an authoritarian government, Sherbiny on March 23, 2010 won a complete reversal of the June 2009 order.
Fed working animals at the pyramids
But the Hosni Mubarak government that had ruled Egypt since 1981 did not last much longer. Mass public protests deposed Mubarak on February 11, 2011.
The disruptions of tourism that followed left the Giza pyramids riding stables without feed or funds.
Already holding weekly clinics for working horses, mules, and donkeys near the Giza pyramids, ESAF and the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals expanded into feeding both equines and camels until the tourist industry recovered toward the end of the year.
British-funded organizations quit
Initially the Brooke Hospital for Animals helped, but despite raising $21.7 million in 2010, more than 165 times as much as ESAF and ESMA combined, refused to contribute anything toward feeding camels, and quit helping to feed horses, mules, and donkeys in April 2011, calling it a self-defeating practice.
Both the Brooke and the Donkey Sanctuary, another British-based animal charity with Egyptian operations, initially disputed the need to feed the Giza pyramids working animals at all, but participated temporarily for about eight weeks, after the London Daily Mail published photos purporting to show horses who starved to death within sight of the pyramids.
The photos actually showed a longtime government-designated carcass dump near the pyramids, including the remains of horses who died from disease even before the anti-Mubarak protests began, Cairo activist Dina Zulfikar told ANIMALS 24-7.
But ESMA cofounders Mona Khalil and Susie Nassar meanwhile sent photos showing emaciated horses in the pyramids area.
“We are in a very difficult situation”
The conflict over feeding whetted longtime friction between the Egyptian animal charities and the Brooke because the Brooke does not respond to after-hours emergency calls, and over a then-20-year-old Brooke policy of not performing surgeries on horses that are expected to take longer than 20 minutes, in the belief that horses requiring longer surgeries tend to have a poor prognosis for recovery, and should be euthanized instead.
Asserted Brooke chief executive Petra Ingram, “Sadly some animals at the pyramids were in a poor condition before the crisis. To go on feeding is unsustainable in the long-term, creating a dependency culture, distorting local fodder prices, and adversely affecting the ability of local farmers to sell their produce.”
“We are in a very difficult situation,” Sherbiny acknowledged. “We cannot stand by and watch the animals starve, even though we realize that feeding them could be perpetuating the problem.”
Meanwhile, Sherbiny negotiated a June 2011 memorandum of understanding among the Cairo Veterinary Service Department, ESAF, ESMA, and SPARE “to launch a pilot trap-neuter-release program to reduce the population of street dogs in the neighborhood of Medinat Nasr,” he emailed to ANIMALS 24-7.
“The goal of the pilot program is to test and develop a TNR program in this area that will become a model that can be replicated in other Cairo districts,” Sherbiny said, “to provide a humane alternative to using mass poisoning and shooting to control street animals.”
“New era for animal welfare”
After nearly three years of lobbying, Zulfikar, Khalil, and Sherbiny exulted in December 2013 when Article 45 of the new Egyptian constitution recognized a government duty to protect wildlife habitat, endangered species, and animal welfare.
In addition, Sherbiny told ANIMALS 24-7, “The Minister of the Academy of Scientific Research & Technology has formatted a committee by a ministerial decree to establish rules and regulations relating to using alternatives for experiments on animals. This committee is not looking to end experiments on animals now,” Sherbiny specified, “but rather to control the experiments. Of course, the long-term goal would be to end experiments on live animals if possible, even to use alternatives. We consider forming of this committee a definite step forward to a new era for animal welfare.”
Freedom of speech vs. religion
In January 2016, however, amid a resurgence of Islamicist conservatism, Egyptian writer Fatima Naoot was found guilty of insulting Islam for criticizing mass public slaughter of animals at the 2015 Eid al Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, in a Facebook posting. Naoot was sentenced to serve three years in prison, and was fined 2,000 Egyptian pounds, amounting to $255 in U.S. currency.
Though Naoot was not associated with any of the Egyptian Federation for Animal Welfare member organizations, the verdict threatened their ability to continue to monitor, expose, and criticize conditions at Bassatin and the 446 other licensed halal slaughterhouses in Egypt.
Even more, the verdict inhibited any response the annual Eid al Adha and Ramadan curbside slaughters, in which many Egyptians participate as a perceived religious duty, despite government attempts to confine slaughter to designated supervised locations.
“Naoot broke the law”
In his personal opinion as a lawyer, Sherbiny agreed with the court that “Naoot broke the law by insulting the religion, which does not allow freedom of speech at all.”
Article 98F of the Egyptian penal code, Sherbiny noted, prohibits propagation of “extremist thoughts [uttered] with the aim of instigating sedition and division or disdaining and tempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto, or prejudicing national unity or social peace.”
However, Sherbiny continued, “The new Egyptian constitution protects freedom of speech.”
Article 65 of the two-year-old constitution, Sherbiny explained, provides that “Every person has the right to express his opinion by speech or by writing or by pictures or any other means of expression and publication.”
But the law conflicted with the constitution
“There is a conflict between Article 98F of the penal code and Article 65 of the new constitution,” Sherbiny explained. “The constitution is the highest legislation and all codes must match the constitution. Otherwise, the legislation should be considered unconstitutional and null and void.”
In summary, Sherbiny told ANIMALS 24-7, “Naoot committed a crime according to penal code article 98F, which doesn’t comply with the Egyptian constitution Article 65. We believe that the newly established Parliament will amend the penal law to fit with the constitution.
“Naoot has an excellent chance before the appeal court,” Sherbiny concluded.
Sherbiny predicted accurately. In November 2016 Naoot was released on appeal, after serving six months of her prison sentence.
Kept going despite health failures
Suffering from health issues for many years, Sherbiny collapsed and was hospitalized due to complications of diabetes while attending the 2007 Asia for Animals conference in Chennai, India.
Sherbiny credited quitting smoking and adopting a raw food fructarian vegan diet with helped him to remain vigorously active for another 10 years, but by mid-2016 he was reportedly able to walk only short distances, carrying oxygen bottles.
Nonetheless, Sherbiny took on the challenge of organizing a fifth Middle East Network for Animal Welfare conference, after several attempts to pass the responsibility on to committees in other nations failed.
The first four MENAW conferences built momentum for humane progress throughout the Islamic world, including in some nations whose animal advocates could only follow the proceedings by monitoring social media.
Waves of change
“But then waves of change swept the Middle East and diverted attention,” wrote Sherbiny to potential conference sponsors. “We had to repeatedly postpone the next Middle East Network for Animal Welfare conference,” originally planned for Beirut, Lebanon in 2011, because the conference hosts could not guarantee the safety of the participants.
“There have been bright spots in Middle East animal welfare,” Sherbiny continued, “but there has been no platform to exchange ideas and lessons learned in the unique Middle East environment.”
ANIMALS 24-7 chipped in the first $500, a fortune for us, toward the conference organizing costs, challenging others to match or exceed it.
Back & forth
The initial response from ANIMALS 24-7 readers and donors was encouraging, but within days Sherbiny moved the intended conference site from Cairo, a relatively safe city, easily reached from almost everywhere, to Amman, Jordan, a difficult location, in anticipation of getting logistic support from the Princess Alia Foundation.
Then, when that fell through, Sherbiny postponed the conference and moved it back to Cairo.
By then the initially enthusiastic ANIMALS 24-7 reader support had evaporated. As pledges were withdrawn, ANIMALS 24-7 was obliged to withdraw from participation.
The fifth Middle East Network for Animal Welfare conference was finally held in March 2017, attracting just 60 participants. A sixth MENAW conference supposed to have been hosted in Dubai in 2018 apparently never materialized at all.
In the years preceding the “Arab spring” of 2011, the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt especially, appeared to be enjoying a “humane spring,” reviving concern for animal rights and welfare which had been expressed by the cat-worshippers of Pharoanic times; by prophets from Moses to Isaiah recognized in Torah, the Christian Bible, and the Q’ran; by the vegan mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras, a Greek citizen of Egyptian background; and of course by Mohammed.
The Islamic world appeared to be rediscovering the meaning of Hadith 4:538, a saying of Mohammed, narrated by Abu Huraira, who was among Mohammed’s most trusted friends.
Recounted Abu Huraira, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘A prostitute was forgiven by Allah, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for it. So, Allah forgave her because of that.”
Hadith 4:538 goes beyond just promising a reward for helping animals. This saying of Mohammed promises specific forgiveness of sin to those who help animals, even if the sins are multiple and as grave in the Islamic cultural context as prostitution, compounded by the prostitute having removed her head covering and dipped her shoe into a well.
These are all offenses which in parts of the Islamic world are still punished by stoning or flogging.
In essence, Hadith 4:538 states that practicing compassion for animals is more important than obedience to even some of the most basic social norms.
Hadith 4:538 indicates as a cultural goal the education of a society in which everyone is compassionate toward animals, and therefore no one is stoned or flogged.
Achieving this was Ahmed el Sherbiny’s lifelong ambition.