The future of the “Arab Spring” held back by poverty and fundamentalism


In Egypt and elsewhere, the new attempts at democracy risk failure because of the enormous poverty, ignorance, fundamentalism. The West can not just sit back and watch or take on policing duties. It should intervene in the economy, education, joint projects between Christians and Muslims to show that coexistence is possible

Rome (AsiaNews) – Many media outlets are expressing real concern and a certain pessimism regarding the Arab revolution, highlighting the dangers that Christians are running in these countries. There is concern that Salafist groups and Islamic fundamentalists are taking power or influencing politics, thus jeopardizing the lives of Christians. The Arab Spring is challenging the East but also the West.

A “spring” with an ideal, but without a party

My impression, looking especially to Egypt, is that this spring is real, and shows that the desire for change towards democracy and freedom is widespread in the population.

In Syria and Libya we even see that there are people ready to lay down their lives for this ideal. It is undeniable that these movements have a local base, they are not manipulated from abroad.

But there is another aspect: because the movements are not an organized party, rather an ideal of life, once they have given voice to their desire, they are not able to turn it into a political project.

As a result, the opposing movement intervenes, those who do not want a radical change or no change at all.

The first risk that Arab Spring runs is of organized parties winning the elections: the party that was in power under Mubarak, or Islamic parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which have changed names and have been approved, or the new recognised Salafist party, the most extremist Islamic movement.

The Tahrir Square revolt is real: Christians and Muslims worked hand in hand and this is the wish of the majority of the population. But how to turn this desire into a state policy?

Wael Farouk, in an article published last week on AsiaNews (see Freedom is Islamic fundamentalism’s greatest enemy) clearly emphasizes that the first problem is an economic one, and it is true. Moreover, the primary motivation of the youth movement was exactly that: the economy. If we want to encourage the democratic movement, then other countries – the Arab Gulf and Western – need to invest in Egypt, to encourage an economic recovery, support for investments and tourism (the primary source of income in Egypt)

Learning true freedom, without radical or religious fanaticism

The other problem the movement must face is fundamentalism. It is also true that freedom is the enemy of fundamentalism, provided that it is widespread in all aspects: freedom to depart from the rules (without going against the law), freedom to live one’s faith as one understands it, to express opinions without being manipulated. But I fear that for some years we will have to go through a crisis, because there is no experience or custom of living in respect of freedom in Egypt.

On the contrary, there is a strong radical movement, supported from outside. Every decision that has be taken in Egypt in the direction of radical Islam, was supported, financed, encouraged by countries like Saudi Arabia or fundamentalist personalities. The same Salafist movement extends well beyond Egypt: it is present in Syria, Jordan, Tunisia, right from the beginning of the Arab revolution. They take advantage of the problems experienced by people to gather strength. They were oppressed by dictatorial governments, but have now re-appeared. Often they re-emerge in opposing Christians. Where there are Christians, they reappear in the Islamist fight against liberal or secularist tendencies. In Egypt, the Salafis have not only attacked Christian churches, but also Sufi (mystical Islam) centres, or moderate Islamic figures.

For several years now , it has become increasingly easy to excite the sentiments of radical Muslims against Christians in the country. In recent decades one topic that always works is alleged conversion to Islam. When they attack a church often this excuse is used, saying: “A woman who has become Muslim is being held captive in this church. The monks, the clergy prevent her from living her life. ”

For months and months great commotion has raised over two women in Egypt, Wafa ‘Constantine and Camelia Shehata, whom the Salafists claim have converted to Islam and are being held captive by Christians in two monasteries [1]. But in the above case, they have declared themselves Christian, yet despite this, the Salafists continue to accuse the Christians of keeping them captive. Now they have found a third woman whom they claim has converted and is being held “captive” in the church of Imbaba in Cairo … and they attacked the church!

In fact, they are all excuses that fuel religious fanaticism in the population. And I fear that this radicalism will not disappear too soon. Perhaps it will always be a minority, in the meantime the Christians suffer, a lot.

True freedom takes time and effort

There is no easy or immediate solution. What’s needed is for Muslims to intervene and say: enough, everyone has the right to follow the religion he wants, change when he wants to change and no one has the right to turn it into a political issue.

Unfortunately, the role of Imams in educating the population is too weak. As long as there was an authoritarian regime, it had the opportunity to order an end to trouble, forcing compliance to the point of controlling the Friday sermons of imams in the mosque. But freedom has its risks and presupposes a path to be followed.

A Muslim friend – a cultured person from Lebanon – pointed out to me that there were revolutions even in Europe and America which cost many lives. “We – he said – are now carrying out our revolution, more than two centuries later, and it will also cost us many lives.”

The tragedy in the last 50 years is that people have not learned to live democracy. This generation does not have a model of a country that knows how to live in freedom with equality and openness to all. In this situation, those who usually pay the price are minorities.

And Egypt is not the most difficult case : Syria is experiencing very serious problems, although so far these problems have not affected Christians.

It must be said that the Christian minority in Egypt also suffers fundamentalism at times, even if it is not used to reacting with violence. But there is an invitation to martyrdom: a traditional song is often sung in the community that goes “We are a martyr church ” …

But luckily there is also a strong tradition in the country that affirms “we are one people”, Muslims and Christians. According to this tradition, Muslims are seen as Copts who have changed religion. All this reinforces the sense of identity as a people, because Egypt (unlike other Arab countries) is not an amalgam of different peoples and tribes, but it one people of both religions. But that sentiment is opposed by fanatical movements.

The reasons for recourse to religion: poverty and ignorance

If this is your situation, I believe that to ensure a future for the Arab Spring, the root causes that generated it must be addressed.

The first is the economy, of which I have already spoken.

The second cause is ignorance, which makes extremist arguments, and religious discourses of the imams more sensitive, because they offer a security linked to religion. The more one is educated, the more one understands that religion is not everything, that religion must also include living together, that it also includes freedom of choice, even if that choice is an error. These are difficult concepts to admit, unless one has a certain freedom of thought and reflection.

In Egypt there is a part of the population that is well educated, but the majority have no education at all, and in recent decades there has been a further regression of education.

The spread of education has not kept pace with its depth. Also because the whole system since the revolution [of Nasser – ed], went in the direction of accepting a low level of education: anyone who achieves up to 50% in their final exam, it is acceptable to be a professor or teacher [2].

The other source of education are churches and mosques. But here the level is no better, as there is fundamentalism both among Christians and Muslims. The point is that in the churches, the “Christian fundamentalism” does not result in violent attacks. Instead, in the Islamic tradition it can lead to violence in the name of God, to defend the true religion.

There is an Islamic site named “True Religion”. Every so often I visit it and it is an incredible example of fanaticism, anti-Gospel, against Christ as perceived by Christians, a sort of apologetic against Christianity. I have tried to talk with them sometimes, pointing out that each has his own dogmas, which are improvable, but unfortunately all education in Egypt is based on the principle “I have the truth and I have to do everything possible to bend you to my truth.” Among Christians, however, this does not lead to the constriction of the other. Among Muslims, instead the path of violence to force what I believe to be the truth is possible, accusing the other of being an “unbeliever (kafir)”.

First verbal violence, then it turns physical.

The importance of Education

In conclusion, an education to the rules of democratic life, with the right to dissent, must be implemented. It should be noted that all our revolutions have been a military nature, for which we have forgotten the respect for the opinion of others. A Muslim intellectual Tarek Heggy, said it will take at least two decades to re-learn democracy. We should be patient, but we must also fight for change.

The youth movement is clear on all of these values and needs, but it should focus in order to combat these causes: employment for all, a higher level of education for all, learning to practice democracy in the family, church, mosque [3] in politics …

This also touches on the West: in the way it has acted, is it responding to these needs? I think not, not in the slightest. The West has not even consider education as a factor, instead they should help to raise the level. Neither do I think they are helping with regards the economy. A project that is also based on generosity is needed to rebuild the economy. Instead rich countries are working very hard for their profits, are being far from generous. Their investments are all for the benefit of a small part, the ruling or business class. But the fruits do not reach the people.

This is one of the reasons that sparked the revolt: in our country there is a class that has become very rich. Why? How is it possible that the gap between rich and poor is calculated up to 100 times? In a European country, the difference between rich and poor is perhaps 1 to 20. This enormous distance that we see is due to corruption.

The West and other countries need to realise that it is in their interest to support equality, democracy, education: these are values that do not bear fruit immediately, but in the long term, maybe in 20 years. Moreover, helping the poor will have a positive impact on the economy because it allows more consumption. If everyone is poor, there is nothing to buy. If people are poor, there will be no incentive to send their children to school, to get them to work immediately.

For all of these reasons, the West can not simply just take on policing duties in Syria, Libya, Bahrain, it must find ways to support the economy, education, democracy.

Likewise, peace is the road to well being. Egypt, long ago chose the path of peace with Israel, because it is more convenient for the good of the population. In other Arab countries the desire for war is still too great, the pride of wanting to “avenge” the enemy. And then, what profit is there in revenge? No peace without justice, said Pope John Paul, but he added, however: There is no justice without forgiveness!

Joint projects for Muslims and Christians

The concern of Christians is how to defuse religious fanaticism. It is true that here and a new way of thinking is emerging. Imam Usama al-Qusi, who led the youth on Tahrir Square, has made dozens of speeches saying it is not necessary to have an Islamic system. Instead there are precise rules on the economy, participation, diplomacy, etc.. He concludes that it is not necessary to be Muslim to lead a country. This type of calm, quiet, real reasoning, that’s what it takes to educate ourselves to coexistence.

Another important element is to launch joint projects between Christians and Muslims. An example: hospitals in Egypt are avoided because of the low quality of healthcare. On the other hand, the nurses are paid so little, that for every treatment – though their duty – they ask for money. From this point of view, any attempt to launch healthcare projects in favour of the population is a very important path of education: this is what makes the Muslim Brotherhood very welcome in some neighbourhoods of Cairo. But even the Christian nuns are highly respected because of their involvement in schools and hospitals.

Creating joint projects between Christians and Muslims, is the way to experience that coexistence is pleasant and helpful for everyone.

[1] There is an in re basis to the issue: the two women, wanting to leave their husbands, became Muslim. This because Shenouda III has made it impossible for Coptic Christian couples to divorce, which is instead allowed in the Orthodox Churches

[2] The Egyptian system, for 50 years or more, has imposed a uniform system of final examination to enter university. Those who obtain the highest level have to study medicine; then comes pharmacy, followed by physics… the lowest level is between teachers and traders. These low level people are also the least paid. In this way, the education system has been destroyed

[3] The Coptic Church is strongly hierarchical, more so then the Catholic Church and lacks dialogue. An example of this stifling hierarchical structure is the question of pilgrimages to Jerusalem. For several years the Patriarch Shenouda III forbade the faithful to go to Jerusalem. The decision is a political one, to express their criticism of Israel. The problem is that anyone who dares to go to Jerusalem – and there are many who go there for religious reasons – can be excommunicated! As a result the faithful invent ways to get around the measure: changing their name, on their return they publish requests for forgiveness in the newspapers, etc … All this shows that we have no formation in freedom and dialogue


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