Reflections on events in Egypt

An interview with Abba Seraphim

Q. How do you view the current demonstrations in Egypt ?

A. History shows us that all repressive regimes can only maintain a grip on power for a limited period of time. Like a volcano waiting to explode, the underlying tensions seeks a crack in the surface and then everything suddenly comes bursting out. No country can be totally isolated from its neighbours and the unrest we saw in Tunisia has spread to Egypt and its effect is already having an impact on other countries. I was impressed, however, by the calmness of the protesters in the early stages but the escalating violence and injury to people and property is now very alarming.

Q. Do you think that President Mubarak should go ?

A. I have already expressed my view that I believe the present government has lost its moral authority and retains power by electoral fraud and military repression. However, Tony Blair was right to remind us that President Mubarak is not Saddam Hussein, although he has presided over a corrupt and stagnant administration for three decades and a new generation of educated Egyptians have grown up who want to control their own destiny. It is not uncommon for political leaders to believe themselves indispensible and to try to hang on to power for too long but in truly democratic countries their term of office is limited by statute or they can be voted out. Egypt’s constitution provided for this but President Mubarak changed it and has now outstayed his welcome. Recent tragic instances have showed us that the Egyptian government was not ensuring the security of all its citizens and this has been a serious failure to fulfil a primary responsibility of government.

Q. Do you believe that America is still influencing events ?

A. Egypt has suffered from foreign interference for too much of its modern history and I am very conscious of Britain’s role in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which sadly did not put Egypt’s interests first. However, Egypt is a proud nation and they did manage to reassert their independence before American influence and patronage tied them into a rather too close alliance. America and its Western allies have been complicit in winking at the totalitarian nature of the Egyptian government and the human rights abuses in Egypt and by so doing they have also lost some moral stature. Efforts to push for greater democratisation have been too half-hearted and now seem to be an afterthought.

Q. Is there a danger that if Mubarak goes now things will descend into chaos ?

A. There are signs of that chaos already appearing with vicious street battles between warring factions, the absence of proper policing with widespread reports of looting and rape as well as the serious damage being done to businesses and the economy in general. All parties profess a devotion to national unity and to achieve this there must be give and take. I would hope that President Mubarak will complete his term and be allowed to go into honourable retirement. He has served his country for many years and is not without some achievements and by going peacefully he may regain some respect from his opponents. We may justly criticise him for his failures but I dislike the crude abuse coming from some quarters. If he goes early, then the Vice-President will assume power in an orderly way and he should invite representatives of all the leading opposition groups to play some part in the reconstruction which must immediately follow and to pave the way for constitutional change and free and fair elections before the end of the year.

Q. Is there a danger that the Muslim Brotherhood or other religious fundamentalists will be the principal beneficiaries of these changes ?

A. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been a banned party, it nevertheless managed to field “independent” candidates and to gain 88 seats (20% of the total) in the 2005 elections. In the latest, 2010 rigged elections, they gained only one seat (0.2% of the total). Obviously, support is still there and it is something which needs to be faced. Currently the Muslim Brotherhood professes a commitment to greater democratisation and if a new Constitution can be brought in before the elections we have to trust that the majority of Egyptians will back that and it will serve as a safeguard against any form of extremism.

Q. Do you have any views about what form that Constitution should take ?

A. The 1980 amendment introduced by President Sadat, which states “Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation” is discriminatory and contradicts the aspirations of non-Muslim citizens. The rights of all Egyptians to practise their religion must be respected but no faith should be preferred over another if there is to be true equality. National unity cannot be achieved by preferring one section of society over another and this is the soundest way to ensure that religious extremists do not gain control.

Q. How should Coptic Orthodox Christians react ?

A. In all societies there will be diversity of opinions, so Copts do not form a monolithic block vote. We have seen instances of Copts standing guard over mosques during these demonstrations and I know of very encouraging reports of Christians and Muslims working harmoniously to protect their local communities. The Coptic Church has always encouraged national unity and that vision is symbolised in the old motif of the conjoined cross and crescent expressing that sense of Egyptian unity which was so strong in the early twentieth century. Copts have been participating in peaceful demonstrations and Pope Shenouda has always condemned any resort to violence.  I feel sure that Copts will be at the forefront of support for the wounded and the vulnerable during these difficult days. The shameful and degrading violence of the past two days is something which cannot be justified under any circumstances.

Q. What can those of us do who are not living in Egypt ?

A.  As Christians we know the power of prayer and it is always our first resort. We not only pray for our friends and relations caught up in events, but we pray for the victims of the violence and that the politicians and leading figures in Egyptian society will be given wisdom and guidance in their judgements and actions. At the present, most Coptic Churches in the diaspora are observing a time of prayer and fasting. It is encouraging also how many Christians of other traditions are telling us that they too are earnestly praying for a peaceful and just outcome. Egypt is a great nation and they are a proud people. We pray that out of these troubled times a long and lasting peace may result so that freedom, justice and tolerance may flourish.