As the Middle East erupts in political turmoil, the uprising in Egypt looks even more extraordinary. Was the success of the Egyptian revolution a hopeful sign for other nations, or the exception to the authoritarian rule? Here’s one scholar’s view.
With civil unrest raging in Libya, and freedom protests continuing throughout the Middle East, UrbanFaith wondered about the progress of Egypt in the wake of its successful democratic uprising. Is it on the right track, and does its victory hold lessons for other Arab nations attempting to win freedom from political oppression? We also wondered if any significance might be found in Egypt’s status as an African nation. For answers we contacted Kurt Werthmuller, a Middle East expert at Azusa Pacific University in California. A Christian scholar and avid follower of world events, Professor Werthmuller graciously responded to our questions via email.
URBAN FAITH: What is your reaction to last month’s political revolution in Egypt?
KURT WERTHMULLER: I am thrilled with the events of the Egyptian revolution. It is the first opportunity in a generation, if not longer, for the Egyptian people to have a chance at having a say in their country’s future. It was important that Mubarak’s resignation happen sooner rather than later, although in a sense it was unlikely to happen earlier than it did. His regime went through its entire inventory of anti-opposition tactics — media manipulation, sending riot police and hired thugs (baltagiya) to brutally crackdown on protesters, and so on — and it was not until they all failed, thanks to the peaceful resolve of the uprising, that Mubarak was forced to step down.
The country is now under military rule, in transition to some form of civilian government. From your perspective, what does this mean and what are the implications for the immediate future?
This is the $20,000 question: will the military fulfill its promise to implement structural change in the country, maintain power for itself, or restore the old regime with a shiny new coat of paint? In the short-term, the signs are promising that the military has little ambition for ruling the country indefinitely, and that it is taking steps to rectify the Constitution and prevent a return to authoritarian rule. The main controversy of the moment seems to be the retention of government ministers and parliamentary representatives. Not surprisingly, the military is in no rush to fire the entire government, and the freedom protesters are equally adamant that no one who benefited from or served the old order should remain in power.
What does all this mean for the Christian churches in Egypt?
Again, there are potential short- and long-term implications for Egyptian Christians. Over the course of the years to come, an end to Mubarak’s authoritarianism may come to mean a shift away from the increasing antagonism that has plagued Christian-Muslim relations in recent years. There has always been some degree of tension and discrimination against Christians, but the atmosphere of oppression and paranoia that became increasingly pronounced under Mubarak’s rule has certainly exacerbated this. His regime certainly did nothing to improve the lot of Christians, and his “status quo” was already going downhill quickly — the January church bombing is a case in point.
In the short term, it’s a mixed bag: while the Coptic Orthodox Church — which represents the majority but not all of the nation’s Christians — was conspicuously silent during most of the uprising, and leaning toward the regime when it did speak up, Christians were clearly evident as active participants in the Revolution. Images of Christians linking arms to protect praying Muslims from opportunist thugs, churches holding celebrations for the Revolution, and memorial services for those killed for its cause, both Muslim and Christian — these have been visible and crucial to the new effort toward genuine solidarity, and I am optimistic that this will not be forgotten in the days to come. I don’t mean to gloss over the very real problems which have faced local Christians and will realistically continue to do so, but it’s a microcosm of the Revolution as a whole: there will surely continue to be difficult issues to contend with, but it is an opportunity for things to improve, and the first such opportunity in a generation.
There are obviously lingering questions regarding the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups. What role do you foresee them playing in Egypt’s immediate future?
Simply due to the longevity of the Brotherhood — they’ve been a fixture on the Egyptian political scene, mostly unofficially, since the 1920s — they will necessarily play a role in Egypt’s immediate future. Again, I don’t want to gloss over the Brotherhood, since they would certainly take the country in a wrong direction were they to come to power, and they do enjoy a certain degree of support in some sectors of Egyptian society. However, I think their threat has been grossly exaggerated and caricatured in the Western media. For one thing, their best days are long behind them: with a few exceptions, their leadership is aged and lacking in both charisma and a clear plan of political strategy. They had a brief resurgence on the political scene in 2005, but they’ve spent the last six years waffling and losing to Mubarak’s system. They’re scrambling at the moment simply to secure a voice in the sweeping changes of the moment. Other Islamist groups are less desirable, but also less influential and less organized.
Is Western-style democracy possible in Egypt?
Western-style democracy is certainly possible in Egypt, although it will likely look more like a European parliamentary system than an American one. It is true that civil society has been strangled to near-death by the Mubarak regime and his predecessors, including Sadat, but there are some sectors of Egyptian society that have long hoped, dreamed, and planned for the day when the chance for genuine participatory governance could be realized. Egypt does have a well-educated upper and upper-middle class albeit small, and many of its 20- to 40-year-olds have studied abroad in the U.S. and Europe or in regional Western-style settings like the American University in Cairo. They have both studied and experienced political freedom. They have played a crucial role in this Revolution, and democratic reform will have a better chance at success if they remain involved in the months to come.
The other key to this question is media access: even for Egyptians who haven’t had the opportunity to travel and study abroad (which are most of them), they now have broad access to global media via satellite networks and the web. There may not be a computer in every Egyptian household by any means, but there is a satellite dish on top of nearly every residence in the country: networks such as Al-Jazeera have given the Egyptian masses an unfettered look at their own government’s lies (unheard of twenty years ago), and it’s now clear that those masses had enough. Very few Egyptians want to become a new Iran, fewer still want to go the way of the Taliban, and the only real alternative — short of falling back to the old authoritarianism — is a move toward a democratic process. Those who cry “Islam is incompatible with democracy!” miss the point. First, this assumption is by no means a given, and there are certainly elements of Islamic tradition (if not much of its history) that could lend themselves well to democracy. Second, this statement also assumes that all people who are Muslims act only according to Islamic doctrine or theology: the Islamic world, including Egypt, has profoundly changed over the last century (despite lingering Orientalist assertions regarding its 7th-century mindset). There is no reason to assume that change cannot continue on a democratic path.
It’s easy sometimes for Americans to overlook the fact that Egypt is a part of Africa. What is the country’s relationship to other parts of the continent, particularly the sub-Saharan nations? Is there any sort of camaraderie with those other parts, or do the people of Egypt identify more as Middle Eastern Arabs than Africans?
Egypt has an awkward relationship with the sub-Saharan continent. It is inextricably tied to its southern neighbors, as periodic (and worsening) diplomat fights over Nile water rights certainly attest, but Egyptian society clearly has its eyes set firmly to the north and east (an occasionally skimming North Africa to the west). Egyptian society as a whole has a much closer sense of shared culture, tradition, and outlook with fellow Arab nations than with those to the south (with the exception of the Sudan, with which Egypt has a long and perhaps even more awkward relationship). It is hard to pin down a clear reason why this is so, other than to point to the natural barrier of the great desert and to note that even back into antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages, Egypt has always been far more closely attached to the Mediterranean world than the African one. That has remained as true in the modern age as it was in the Hellenistic world. The main exception to this: soccer, since Egyptians love participating in (and often winning) the African Cup.
It started with Tunisia and Egypt, but now we see rumblings in Bahrain, Iran, and most violently in Libya. What do you think is at the root of this current wave of freedom protests in the Middle East?
The root of these protests is twofold: first, it is a reckoning for the authoritarian regimes that rose to power in the mid-20th century and have managed to cling to power with a combination of political oppression, constitutional appropriation, and diplomatic finesse. Second, it is a manifestation of deeply held resentment of the oppression and socio-political marginalization that the societies under these regimes have experience, a dynamic that has been building for years beneath the surface.
There are many reasons that this is coming about now, but there are two worth pointing out for discussion. First is the inability of state security apparatus to stem the tide of open information, through non-state Arab media outlets (such as al-Jazeera) as well as through the Web (blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Second is a critical mass of well-educated and (more importantly) well-informed people in each country who fully understand the benefits of participatory governance and the reality of their own state’s exclusionary tactics — and they are profoundly disillusioned and angered to action by the regime’s unwillingness to relinquish its control. Once the ball began rolling, the true fragility of these regimes has been uncovered: for example, the brutality we see in a place like Libya is a sign of desperation, not strength.
Where do you think it’s all headed?
I’m very reluctant to predict where it’s headed, since there’s no one formula or inevitable outcome to any of these upheavals. I will note, though, that this is an age of regional revolution that’s really impossible to compare to others in ages past: this is not 1789, 1917, or 1979, and we should understand each societies’ upheaval on its own terms without creating an artificial parallel to the past. Historians like to say, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” In this case, I’m saddened that so many media pundits (including historians themselves) seem to be looking to the wrong lessons from the wrong histories!