Millions Will March
Report on IFOR Delegation to Egypt, January 2012. Hope Against Hope – Egypt Part I
With the successful installation of the new Egyptian Parliament yesterday, there is good evidence that the Egyptian revolution is moving forward as predicted by many of those we met while in Egypt earlier this month. Tommorw will be the next test, as there was wide-spread expectation the January 25, 2011 anniversary would be celebrated peacefully in the streets.
Two years ago we joined 1,200 people from 40 nations to seek access to Gaza through the Raffah Gate on the Sinai, on the anniversary of the Gaza War to stand in solidarity with Palestinians in protest of the horrors of occupation. Access was denied to the majority of us and the future looked hopeless.
Today that gate is open and goods are flowing to support construction and development in Gaza. And Egypt is a very different place. Yet the situation is, in many ways, more desperate and the reliance on hope in an uncertain future more intense.
Our delegation of twelve (eleven Europeans and myself, representing five branches of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation), met with a dozen organizations over a six-day period ranging from senior Confessional leaders to political and governmental representatives, and including a range of NGO and academic groups. Without exception they were energized and proud of what the Egyptian people have accomplished in overthrowing an autocratic bureaucracy and beginning an open journey to an alternative future. And also without exception they were anxious and concerned about what shape that future would finally take. They all agreed, almost no one would have predicted the success of the Revolution in 2011, and no one is confident that they know or can predict the outcomes of 2012.
The biggest concern is the continuing control of the Army (the SCAF) which is viewed as threatened and therefore dangerous, corrupt, pervasive, duplicitous, resistant to change, and yet in the end reducible to civilian control under continuing pressure of the Egyptian people. One long-time dissident noted that in militarized dictatorships the army always hates civilian leadership and the transition to civilian control and leadership is fraught with danger. Another life-long dissident and one of the founders of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party spoke rather to the questionable competence of the SCAF referencing interminable meetings reaching few conclusions.
Organizer and blogger, Egypt’s “Facebook Girl” Esraa Abdel Fatah, at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, agreed that while the SCAF is undependable – changing rules to suit its needs – the extended election process being an illustration – the changes worked in favor of their organizing strategy of a cascade model of grassroots leadership training from village to village across Egypt.
There was also very general agreement that the secret service, while operating without a name or public identity, is accountable to the SCAF and more active than ever. Its reach apparently extends outside of Egypt, tracing one participant in an IFOR event to foreign shores. It is particularly attentive to foreign visitors and residents which is seen as a residual intent to blame outside forces for the Revolution. Some ex-patriot residents are more careful now about their movements and engagements than before the Revolution.
The next biggest concern is for the nature of pluralism in post-revolutionary Egypt, especially at the Confessional level. The Christian minority is still substantial enough, and diverse enough in its own right, to bear most of the burden of this concern. But “secular” and moderate Muslims also voiced concerns about the potential issue of greater influence on social conventions and personal status freedoms from the Salafists, a very conservative Wahhabist strain of Islam with strong links to Saudi Arabia.
Most people we spoke to saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a long-struggling, patient, conservative but responsible religious and political presence which has earned a right to take leadership in the new Egypt. While not completely confident, most believe the Muslim Brotherhood will be the Parliamentary contingent that ensures the new constitution preserves the first four articles of the 1971 Constitution which protect much of the personal liberties of the various Confessions that make up Egypt’s social fabric. They expect initial constitutional changes to focus on limiting the power of the president moving forward.
There is a clear courtship of sectarian leadership, grounded in historic interfaith dialogue practices, which is testing the strength of their shared ties during the period of transition. The Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarchate, SB Gregorios III, for example, who could have been in his offices in any number of countries which come under his See, from Egypt to Turkey (Alexandria to Antioche and including Jerusalem), met with us for an hour prior to an appointment with the Grand Mufti Ali Gomar at Al Azhar. The Patriarch — who spoke in fluent German, is in his late 70s, and of Lebanese-Syrian heritage — showed more flexibility and vision than some of his younger colleagues we met, one of whom characterized Islam as an ideology inhospitable to democracy, rather than a religion. This was but one of a number of examples of differences of opinion within faith communities which were sometimes greater than apparent differences between faith communities. Younger Coptic priests, for example, were quicker to join the Revolution than their seniors, and significant numbers of Muslims find the Salafists refusal to engage in dialogue problematic if not repugnant.
The third major concern, and the globally common ticking time-bomb, is the problem of poverty. Embedded in a severely-corrupt economic system, an educational system which leaves more than 30% of the population illiterate, a demographic distortion of a huge, unemployed youth population, and an infrastructure worn frayed if it ever were firm, the urgency of issues worry everyone. We have and will continue to see evidence of concern over subsidized prices for food, fuel, and fundamental services toppling short-term governments in Egypt and all across Africa in the news every day. Today is it Nigeria or Southern Sudan, tomorrow it could be Egypt which erupts in anger and frustration.
But the source of hope, in the face of such trials, is the triumph of the nonviolence in Tahrir Square last January and the recently completed Parliamentary elections in which 70% of the electorate voted. Social Scientist and founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, noted that the rate of participation challenges the proposition that universal literacy is required for democratic processes to work.
Esraa Abdel Fatah and her colleagues Salem Tarek and Yuweida were the first of many we met to voice the belief that today the people believe they were and will be heard and that is the democratizing force which gives them hope and confidence that Egypt will successfully transform itself to a transparent and free society. It is an expectation that may take many years, even a succession of Parliamentary elections. There seems to be an inherent understanding that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.
Our delegation host, Magdy Garas, head of Caritas – Egypt, could also point with justifiable pride to the work of this charitable NGO with street children, with mothers and their babies in neo-natal clinics, and with preschoolers in five cities across Egypt, to the capacity of Egyptians to address their situation creatively and compassionate. And Samy Nashad, in his 25th year as national executive of the Egyptian YMCA, could point to their branches in 25 cities across Egypt as one more place where rising leadership received their early training in community development demonstrating a fully available a proficient Egyptian capacity to succeed.