Events in Egypt over the past few days have both shocked and saddened, and as reports of continuing incidents and civil disturbance increase we pray fervently that peace and security may return to that land.
Revolutions are destabilising events and come in many shapes and sizes. The Egyptian revolution of 1952 was a military coup by the Free Officer Movement, which established the military regime which was to hold power for the next 59 years. It lacked democratic legitimacy and was both corrupt and venal. The 2011 Revolution, however, was a popular uprising more in keeping with the spirit of the 1919 Egyptian revolution in its embracing all sections of Egyptian society in a patriotic movement to restore freedom and justice. It is worth noting that initially the Muslim Brotherhood declined to support this uprising, but once it saw the rapid success of this momentum for change, it offered its support.
Much has been made of the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, but it is important to recognise that democracy is more than periodic recourse to the ballot box. Having achieved a narrow victory over his main rival on a turnout of just over half of the electorate, the new president might have endeavoured to use his position as a means of unifying and reconciling a fractured society. In his inauguration oath he swore to “respect the constitution and law, to take care of the people’s interests, a complete care.” Later, in an emotional speech in Tahrir Square he announced, “I came to you as I believe that you are the source of authority and legitimacy which is above all. There is no place for someone, an institution or for an authority to be above this. The people are the source of all authority, judge and decide, convene and insulate … There is no authority that is above this.”
Although he resigned as Chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party as he had promised during his election campaign, which gave him the opportunity to serve as president of all Egyptians, his concerns and sympathies proved to be narrow and sectarian. Sadly, it soon became clear that the electorate had actually installed the Muslim Brotherhood in office and that the real power lay with its Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, whilst Mohamed Morsi was merely the holder of the presidential portfolio.
During the first year of his presidency the democratic aspirations of the revolution were steadily undermined, culminating in his assumption of unlimited legislative powers without judicial oversight or review of his acts. After the Supreme Constitutional Court’s dismissal of the People’s Assembly for electoral irregularities, only the consultative Shura Council remained of a bi-cameral legislature, yet new legislation was still enacted, including the propagation of a new Egyptian Constitution. Having repeatedly clashed with the judiciary, attempts were made to intimidate the judges and to remove many of them through enforced retirement.
It was as a result of the steadily-growing domination of the Muslim Brotherhood in all areas of the state and society and the encouragement of their narrow vision and divisive social policies, that the popular uprising against Morsi ensued. It expressed the fears of the great majority of Egyptians that their aspirations for a free and just society, inclusive of all, was in danger of being lost for ever. It should be recalled that the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party rose to power through democratic election, after which they consolidated their grasp on the state and cynically discarded the democratic process.
The role of the church
Since the Egyptian revolution of 2011 the religious leaders in Egypt, both Christian and Muslim, have consistently called for justice and reconciliation and both the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar (Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb) and the Coptic Orthodox Church (under the late Pope Shenouda III; Metropolitan Bakhomios as locum tenens and Pope Tawadros II) have worked together to encourage national unity. Following the removal of President Morsi, Pope Tawadros appeared alongside the Sheikh of El-Azhar at the inauguration of the new interim president. Having eschewed political involvement since the beginning of his papacy, he made it clear that he was there to support “honourable people whose sole aim is the interest of Egypt and Egyptians, excluding no one, marginalising no one and excepting no one.”
Western governments have been quick to condemn the violence and loss of life and have called for dialogue. William Hague condemned “the use of force in clearing protests” and called on the security forces “to act with restraint.” As supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are also armed and have been responsible for murdering soldiers in Sinai and armed attacks on police stations, restraint is required from all sides. Invitations to dialogue by Al-Azhar have been completely rebuffed by the Brotherhood, as have invitations by the interim President to reconciliation meetings.
Western media bias
It is disconcerting to note the clear bias of much of the Western media in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. The use of emotive words, such as ‘coup’, ‘massacre’ and ‘legitimacy’, with the failure to report widespread violent attacks on churches, police stations, government offices and neutral cultural institutions, such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, lacks the impartiality one might expect from independence sources, such as CNN and the BBC; as does identifying all snipers as belonging to the army, when live news broadcasts clearly showed armed rebels firing guns. Despite its denial of bias, the Qatar-backed channel Al Jazeera depicts the Muslim Brotherhood in a sympathetic light and, according to one of the 22 staff who recently resigned in protest, “the management in Doha provokes sedition among the Egyptian people and has an agenda against Egypt and other Arab countries.” The Irish media, the Irish Times and the Sun in particular, recently relayed reports from the children of Hussein Halawa, the Imam at Dublin’s largest and most controversial mosque in Clonskeagh, who just happened to be inside the Al-Fateh mosque when it was cleared by the security forces. Headlines such as “Irish family held in Egypt jail hell. Holiday nightmare as relatives fear they’re tortured” hardly suggest impartiality.
Attacks on Christians go largely unreported
During President Morsi’s term of office, attacks on Christians became more frequent. Since his removal they have increased alarmingly with over fifty churches attacked, damaged or destroyed in the three days following the Brotherhood’s call for a “Day of Rage.” Vicious denunciations of Christians – now opprobriously labelled “crusaders” – and unrestrained assaults on their property and churches show the true nature of those who support the Muslim Brotherhood. There have been instances of soldiers and Christians lynched by the mob, who then proceeded to desecrate their corpses in the most disgusting manner, in much the same way as Private Lee Rigby was treated by his murderers on the streets of Woolwich. In many instances local Muslim communities have joined Christians in protecting their places of worship, clearly demonstrating that this is not a battle between Christians and Muslims but is a struggle against terrorism and fanaticism. In a recent interview with His Grace Bishop Angaelos on Al-Jazeera, after it was noted that “some Christians have blamed Brotherhood supporter for the attacks”, he was asked if he had any evidence about “who is attacking your churches”. His observations that these attacks, which appeared to be orchestrated and synchronised, and coming on the tail of “certain events”, with the rhetoric, incitement and reported attacks on individual Christians, suggested “some sort of connection”, showed more balance and perception than his interviewer.
In an official statement, the Coptic Church said that whilst it holds in deep appreciation the honourable, friendly States who understood “the nature of the events in Egypt”; it strongly denounced the falsities and errors propagated in the western media. “We invite the media to objectively read the realities on the ground, and to refrain from offering an international or political shield to the bloodthirsty, terrorist groups and all who belong to them. These groups are attempting to spread ruin in our land. We call upon the local and international media to offer the real image of what happens in Egypt faithfully and truthfully.”
The statement went on to say that it strongly stood by the Egyptian police, armed forces, and all the institutions of the Egyptian people in the face of the armed violence and black terrorism from inside and outside Egypt. It denounced the “assaults against the State and the peaceful churches, and the terrorisation of Egyptians—Muslims and Copts—that goes against all religious, ethical and human values. We absolutely reject any attempts to drag Egypt into sectarian strife.”
“If the hands of evil come to Egypt to kill, burn, and ruin; the hand of the Lord is there to guard, strengthen, and rebuild. We put our faith in Divine support, and are confident that it will help Egypt along this critical period, and take her to a better tomorrow and to the bright future of peace, justice, and democracy which this noble Nile people deserve.”
In the light of David Cameron’s visit to Egypt, Abba Seraphim reflects:
I am very pleased to see the Prime Minister has made it a matter of urgent priority to support the current Egyptian government. I hope he will not fail to address the need for the new constitution to give full equality to all Egyptian citizens, with particular consideration to the way in which Christians have been increasingly marginalised over the last three decades.
Since 14 February, when the Egyptian Constitution was suspended, a Constitutional Review Committee has been charged with the responsibility of formulating a new one which will then be submitted to a referendum. It must be a matter of some concern, however, that already fifteen human rights organisations based in Egypt have made protestations about the choice of Judge Tarek El-Bishry as the chairman of the committee. The judge is well known as a leading proponent of political Islam and it is feared that he is unlikely to be sympathetic to the formation of a new constitution with a secular character.
In 1980 the late President Sadat amended the constitution by adding what is now the second article, which stipulates “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation.” This was introduced to appease the Islamicists but it proved fatal both for national unity and for Sadat himself, who was soon after assassinated by the very people he had hoped to appease. Western democratic governments have been quick to hail the recent Revolution but unless it redresses this key issue of inequality the Christians of Egypt will remain at risk. By repealing the second article Islam will suffer no loss to its dignity but will more likely gain the respect of others. A willingness to sacrifice unfair pre-eminence in order to share the rights it enjoys with the disenfranchised has always been the distinguishing mark of civilised and respected governments. During the recent Revolution there were many instances of true national unity with Copts and Muslims working together peacefully and selflesssly for the common good and it was this spirit which earned universal admiration.
“Al-Ahram” newspaper, hitherto the voice of the previous regime, is currently sponsoring an on-line poll to test public opinion on the question of Article 2. Both sides are encouraging their supporters to make their voices heard but this cannot be the authentic voice of democracy as it is not capable of expressing a universal voice, nor is it subject to any adequate supervision to ensure its impartiality. The only poll which is capable of expressing the common mind is a free referendum but even then, the fear in the mind of many is whether the question will even be asked?
The Grand Iman of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, recently warned against any attempt to change the second article of the Constitution, saying it was “not open to change or update. It is among the state constants and any attempt to meddle with it can lead to sectarian strife.” He gave added force to his declaration by asserting that it was “not a statement” but “it is Al-Azhar’s stance.” It is to be regretted that the Sheikh feels it necessary to retain this constitutional carbuncle, something which respected rulers such as Mohammed Ali and Gamel Abdul Nassar never sought to impose, because it undermines the very concept of national unity and is the root cause of sectarian strife.
Egypt is currently a country without leaders but there are many who will aspire to lead a country that is fundamentally tolerant and capable of offering enlightened leadership to the whole region. It is to be hoped that among them will be those who will exhort others to demonstrate their patriotism; not by a narrow desire for hegemony over minorities but by an enlightened vision of national unity that will respect diversity and seek to harness the good will and loyalty of those who have been unjustly sidelined, downtrodden and persecuted when they should have been embraced as brother Egyptians. If this is the outcome of the Revolution, Egypt will earn the respective of all free nations and its people will prosper, but if the Sheikh of Al-Azhar’s blinkered parochialism wins the day, the flame of freedom in Egypt and the whole region will be quenched for at least another generation.