Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another View of What is happening in Egypt

What follows is from Kairos Journal. It is a strong reminder that what the media of the world reports, whether western or otherwise, is not necessarily the whole story or even the most important part of the story. Pray for the people of Egypt and in particular for the Christians who are likely to be persecuted as a result of whatever happens in the new Egypt.

It Ain’t Necessarily So in Egypt

Once while visiting a remote location in Indonesia, I came across a Caucasian traveller who closely resembled a friend of mine: tall, blond hair, brown eyes, and around my own age. I walked up to him to start a conversation, only to discover that he was Russian and had no understanding of English. My preconceptions, based on my own experience and context, had led me to completely misjudge the situation.

Today the western press is awash with commentary on the fast moving crisis in Egypt, with parallel though slower developments in neighboring Arab states: Jordan, Syria, Algeria, and elsewhere. We see thousands of demonstrators milling in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, calling for the resignation of long-serving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and associated confrontations with pro-Mubarak forces. Democracy is at work, it seems. The people are speaking. After decades, even centuries, of various kinds of autocracy throughout the Arab world, at last the winds of democratic change are blowing, perhaps ushering in an unheralded era of people’s representative government.

At least, that’s what it looks like to us westerners who are attuned to free elections, choices of political parties, and relatively open government. Indeed, such a peaches-and-cream mindset seems to be infecting the well-intentioned, if na├»ve, statements issuing from the Obama White House. But are we shaping our interpretation of the Egyptian crisis to fit a western political mold? We need to take a closer look at the actors involved in the momentous events in Egypt and its neighboring states.

In an interview with BBC Indonesian News, an Indonesian student involved in the Cairo demonstrations reported that students of diverse faiths and groups (liberals, Muslims, Christians, Bedouins from Sinai) were assisting and guarding each other, regardless of their faith or ethnic identity. “We are demanding the formation of a democratic and free country after Mubarak falls,” he said, adding “if any new government does not bring in democratic processes, we will return to the streets in protest.”

Despite this student’s optimistic zeal for the cause of democracy, a potential new despot stands in the wings, one whose message resonates with many in the Arab world and who could be quite difficult to unseat. The leading candidate as an alternative is undoubtedly the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful movement of political Islam that was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has since come to permeate the Arab world, spawning anti-democratic forces such as the Palestinian Hamas, as well as the great ideologue of Islamic militancy, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).

Many commentators have compared the present Egyptian situation to the 1979 revolution in Iran. Indeed, much can be learned from listening to the interpretation of the current crisis in the Arab world by Iranian post-revolutionary authorities. In his January 28 Friday prayer sermon, prominent Iranian cleric Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami declared that the popular uprisings in the Arab world would usher in an Islamic Middle East based on the Muslim religionand religious democracy rather than a fulfilment of the hopes of the West.1 Though the Shi’ite Iranian regime and its Sunni Muslim Brotherhood fellow-Islamists don’t agree on everything, they certainly share this vision.

But how are we to know which is to prevail: the kind of democratic vision of the students or a Muslim Brotherhood despotism resembling the Iranian experience? Curiously, a very relevant further point of reference can be found within the heritage of the West itself: the French Revolution of 1789.

As in today’s Cairo, in 1789 desperate masses who had long suffered under the autocratic French monarchy streamed into downtown Paris and overthrew the King. While this event gave birth to modern French democracy, it took considerable time to flower because of the absence of deep-rooted democratic traditions within French society. Here again is another key point of similarity with Egypt today. Decades of autocratic rule have done nothing to prepare the masses for this seminal moment.

Once the French King’s head had been lopped from his shoulders, the popular movement fragmented and quickly led to the terror of Robespierre and his cronies. Within a decade, another autocrat had seized the reins of power and crowned himself Emperor. That man, Napoleon, led the French into 15 years of war, with resulting huge social cost to France.

As we witness today’s popular demonstrations in the Arab world, let us not mistake what we see because we assume it resembles our own more recent democratic traditions and points of reference. The emergence of an alternative despotism in Egypt is at least as likely as the establishment of truly representative government; indeed it is probably much more likely, with the powerful Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings and playing its cards very strategically. Should that occur, the Middle East, and the wider world, would enter an extended period of high tension and uncertainty. Christians should pray for a positive outcome to the present Middle Eastern mess.

Footnotes:
1

“Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami in Friday Sermon: A New Islam-Based Middle East Is In the Making; Unrest Is Aftershock of 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran,” Middle East Media Research Institute Website, January 28, 2011, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/4956.htm (accessed February 9, 2011).

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