As 2011 winds to a close, it’s clear that it has been a year of historic social upheaval around the globe. TIME magazine even chose “The Protester” as its annual “Person of the Year.” And the protests have sprung in diverse places — Great Britain, Russia, and even on Wall Street. But the most dramatic of all 2011 revolts took place in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as ordinary people who once submissively accepted their plights as second-class citizens rose up to confront the oppression of their governments, and in some cases to actually topple once seemingly indomitable regimes. As some have observed, it wasn’t a good year for dictators.
We now call those uprisings the “Arab Spring,” and marvel at how much change has transpired in such a short period of time. But despite the remarkable transformations, some say the revolutionary spring morphed into a bloody summer and now an uncertain winter.
To help put the year’s event’s into perspective, UrbanFaith asked Middle East scholar Kurt Werthmuller to break it down from his perspective. Werthmuller, who previously spoke to us back in March, is a research fellow in religion at the Hudson Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. He was formerly a professor of history at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Werthmuller responded to our questions via email.
URBAN FAITH: Please talk about the origins of the “Arab Spring” and where it is today. How do you view the evolution of the movement?
KURT WERTHMULLER: As commonplace as it is to discuss the Arab Spring as a single movement, it’s important to consider it first and foremost as a series of domestic movements, each one inspired by other uprisings in the region rather than directly connected to them. In other words, the main concerns of those involved in uprisings against their governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, etc. have really been about local concerns rather than regional ones.
Having said that, the euphoria of January and February has long since passed, and the big picture has become one of a series of socio-political — and in some places military — rebellions with very different trajectories. I’ll comment more on individual countries in a minute, but I will readily admit upfront that my optimism has steadily diminished over the months since I last talked to you. While citizens of Arab countries deserve the same political and personal freedoms that most people in the West enjoy, it is clear that the pursuit of those freedoms in the course of the Arab Spring has also brought along some harsh consequences and troubling implications.
What are some of the “troubling implications,” as you see them?
The big story of the late fall was the emergence of Islamist movements as the primary political beneficiaries of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In Tunisia, the Nahda (Renaissance) Party took the lead in that country’s government following a free and open election in October; the party has been quick to assuage domestic and international fears as to whether it will seek to implement conservative forms of sharia (Islamic law), but the truth is that no one will really know what this will mean until the process of actual governance moves into full swing. In Libya, the head of the National Transitional Council that successfully overthrew Qadhafi’s rule announced in late October, within days of the dictator’s capture and death, that their country would be governed by principles of sharia as well. He then immediately proceeded to announce plans to restore legal polygamy, which was banned under Qadhafi’s rule, and to institute specifically Islamic principles in the national banking industry.
Suffice it to say, at this point, as democratic initiatives have brought participatory governance to the region, the results of these initiatives are clearly reflecting the reality that Islamist parties — of a broad spectrum, to be certain, but religious conservatives nonetheless — have amassed far more legitimacy and popularity on the ground than have any liberal, secular, or other groups.
Egypt, of course, was the big success story during the initial uprisings. That country placed its former president on trial in what some viewed as a very chaotic approach to justice. And, of course, the conflict between Christian protesters and the military made headlines back in the fall. Can there be a happy ending to this story?
The democratic process has certainly had its first victories in Tunisia and Egypt, but they have been disheartening ones. I’m writing these responses shortly after the results of the first of three rounds of Egyptian parliamentary elections were made official, and Islamists of various sorts have thundered into a majority. [Editor’s Note: Second-round results were reported in early December.] The Muslim Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its partners reached around 48 percent of the contested parliamentary seats, a result of their stellar campaign season over the last few months, and I readily admit that I deeply underestimated earlier in the year. They were working the streets, making friends, feeding poor families, and selling their political platform while most of the liberal groups failed to resonate with much of the Egyptian public at large. The Nour Party and its Salafi partners (the real hardcore fundamentalists of the bunch) won around 20 percent, while the main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, won 13 percent; this is just over half of the Salafi seats — a massive defeat for those who were optimistic regarding the chances of liberal parties to do well in this first round.
But isn’t this a good thing — the democratic process in action?
The truth is that we don’t know what an Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament will mean, and we won’t truly know until, as in Tunisia, these parties actually begin to govern. But what we do know is less than promising, as even the “moderate” FJP’s electoral platform includes disturbing, highly illiberal items such as insisting on the role of the state in “consolidating the values of chastity and modesty in the media,” declaring the freedom of the press “as long as the publication … takes account of public morality,” and other potentially oppressive implications. In the same platform, it notes that that while Christians should have the right to worship and build churches, “it is essential to find a quick and just solution to the problems of unauthorized and unlicensed churches.” This ambiguous “problem” could easily apply to any non-Muslim events outside of an official property — for example, a prayer meeting in someone’s home, a Christian-led nongovernmental organization, etc. The Western press likes to discuss the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate,” but this is really one in relative terms to the Salafis rather than by any international standard of political, social, or religious liberty.
What might this mean for the Christian churches in Egypt?
The situation for Coptic Christians has been in decline since the fall of Mubarak. Domestic security has broken down across the country, and one of the results of this has been that Salafis — puritanical Islamists who are strongly influenced by radical Wahhabi ideology — have carried out an alarming number of mob attacks on Copts, incited by their equivalent of local fire-and-brimstone preachers, and emboldened by their newfound public presence and a sense that their brand of political Islam is poised to dominate the country. Copts have felt increasingly under siege as a result, and along with the failure of the SCAF to protect them (one need only look to the army’s role in the massacre of Copts on October 9th) or to punish the perpetrators of such attacks, and of course the rise of Islamists to prominence, the future does look increasingly difficult for them.
The recent elections certainly and understandably solidified these concerns for many Copts. The concept of citizenship is the Copts’ best hope, but it is almost a meaningless term in Egypt: decades of authoritarianism crushed any sort of civic consciousness, and confessional politics (i.e., one’s religious affiliation) are instead far more powerful. The success of the Islamists will not mean a genocide of Christians as some have suggested; it is more likely that we will see gradual, more stringent restrictions placed on Copts, possibly creating more pressure on them to convert or leave. We will also likely see the stricter enforcement of apostasy and blasphemy laws that prevent Muslims from converting to Christianity, from expressing alternative Muslim viewpoints, or — in an ironic turn following the revolution — from expressing political dissent. Salafis have led a number of terrifying, localized attacks on Copts and their property in the last several months; this pattern may continue or even increase, especially if intolerant Salafi preachers and their mobs continue to be emboldened by their newfound clout and by the legal cultural of impunity for such violence throughout the country.
What can Coptic Christians do to overcome this?
As a result of these anxieties, many Copts are either actively seeking to emigrate or openly talking about the prospect. But this will not provide a long-term solution. There are 8 to 10 million Copts, after all, and the U.S., Europe, and Australia can absorb only so many of them. My colleague Samuel Tadros has called this a “Coptic Winter,” and it’s not hard to understand the appropriateness of this term.
This will amount to a difficult turn of events for Egypt’s Christians, and it will also mean a sad direction for Egyptians in general. After all, as we know from our own painful experience in American history, true democracy cannot flourish without the protection and inclusion of minorities as full and equal citizens. I understand on one level why average Egyptians have voted so widely for the Islamists, but I fear they are choosing a dangerous path into intolerance and socio-religious oppression.
Where are things going in the Syrian uprising?
Syria is quickly moving closer to a civil war than a protest movement, especially since the Assad regime is violently digging in its heels even as defectors from the military have formed their own armed rebellion (the Free Syrian Army, or FSA). It’s a brutal situation, quickly moving into a worse-scenario. Non-Muslims may suffer greatly if things continue to spiral down into more violent territory: for example, the Assad regime itself belongs to the Alawi minority (a heterodox offshoot of Shi’ism), and it relies on this community for its base of power. However, it has also traditionally fostered good relations with other non-Sunni communities to contribute to that power base, including the variety of Christian sects in the country (10 to 12 percent of the population).
The local Christian community, representing several different denominations, has been deeply fearful of relinquishing this alliance. If they support the opposition and the regime survives, they fear that their security will be devastated; if they support the opposition and the regime falls, they fear that the country will move into the Islamist camp (like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya). Either way, fear is at the center of the equation for the Christian minority.
Can you comment on the potential long-term effect of the “Arab Spring” regime changes for Israel?
Islamist organizations universally argue for armed Palestinian resistance against Israel and tend to grumble when even the Palestinians themselves sit down at the negotiating table. So, the Islamists’ official ascendance in regional politics will certainly change the status quo with Israel. Again, we just don’t know how this will practically play out. The FJP includes a number of realists, and unlike the more strident rhetoric of most Salafis, they do not seem to be in any great rush to discontinue the check for $1.3 billion that the U.S. sends Egypt every year as part of the Camp David agreement.
But we should not use this tempered realism to underestimate or whitewash the extent to which all Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood and their regional offshoots, are disinterested in pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Regardless of where one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I find it quite impossible to see this as anything but dangerous.
Here in the West, we’ve been confronted lately with the weaknesses of democracy — the polarization, social disaffection, and legislative gridlock. Do you think the protesters in these Arab countries recognize democracy’s weaknesses as well as its strengths?
The concept that democracy won’t solve every problem is more of a problem for the Western media than it is for the populations directly affected by the Arab Spring. The focus of the media here in the U.S. has been on elections, elections, elections … But what are we missing as a result? Many people in Egypt, for example, more clearly understand elections as a means to an end, rather than the end itself. Almost every political party there includes a strong message of social justice and economic equality in its platform. Ideas such as “reform” and “renewal” have run throughout the Tunisian and Egyptian election seasons, evidence that people see the elections as the beginning of something new.
This is also key to understanding the success of Islamist parties, such as that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular ideologies and regimes have ruled most of the region for decades, and people have suffered from brutal authoritarianism, from widening economic disparity, and from crippling corruption. Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt have been brilliant in speaking precisely to these grievances, and it seems that many voters have seen them as the most likely to bring solutions, a 180-degree turn from the past. Liberal parties, most of which are led by socio-economic elites, have simply done a terrible job of convincing average people of the same. The real tragedy here is that as those same voters may have willingly exchanged one form of authoritarianism — corrupt military dictatorship — for another, in the shape of Islamist-dominated states in which women are relegated to the sidelines, free speech and free thought are restricted, and religious minorities are officially downgraded to second-class status or simply squeezed out altogether.
What do you think American Christians should keep an eye on the most? Are there particular things that should be at the top of our prayer lists when we think about the developments in the Middle East and Northern Africa?
Pray that Christians in the Middle East find the ways, means, and courage to stay, and that other countries swing their doors wide open if it comes to the point that staying is no longer an option. Iraqi Christians have fled the violence in their country literally by the hundreds of thousands over the last few years — many of them took refuge in Syria, which is now on the brink of a devastating civil war. Let’s pray that other believers in the region are not forced into similar, unbearable scenarios.
We should also pray beyond just our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, of course. In this respect we should pray earnestly that Muslim, Christian, and other citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and beyond, will come to more clearly see that following the path of the Islamists will not bring them economic prosperity, social justice, and political freedom. In my opinion, it will almost certainly lead them to greater subjugation, isolation, and misery.