Egypt sees hope for the future, despite religious tension

06 July 2011

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

SIX months after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt still faces many challenges — not least the emergence of religious tension.

None the less, a director of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), the Revd Dr Andrea Zaki Stephanous, says that the prevailing mood is positive. “There is some impatience and dis­ap­pointment that we are still en­countering difficulties. But if we had the choice between the former regime and the revolution, we would choose the revolution.”

Dr Stephanous said that the top­pling of President Mubarak had enabled the Egyptian people “to experience the deep meaning of freedom for the first time. The corrupt political regime that gov­erned and oppressed the country for a long time has been removed. The hoped-for democracy is nearer than at any time in history.”

Notable features of the revolution were its inclusiveness and its totally Egyptian character. Among the vast crowds in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, and elsewhere, could be found Muslims, Christians, and secularists intermingling with one another, all chanting Egyptian slogans.

It was a matter of much sur­prise when religious tension devel­oped in the aftermath of the revolution. “We did not anticipate this, precisely because of the nature of the public participation in the toppling of the regime,” Dr Stephan­ous said. “Religious tension is wrong in the context of the revolution. People do not want religious extrem­ism.”

Another concern, for Christian and secular Egyptians in particular, is the loud public voice of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafi and Jihadist Islamic groups, most of which were proscribed by the former regime. Their emergence into the public domain, Dr Stephanous said, “is a source of anxiety for Christians. A number of families have emig­rated, or are seeking to do so. But we believe this is wrong. We want Christians to stay and prove that they are part of this country and its future, alongside Muslims and everybody else.”

The absence of street security is another problem that Egyptians have faced since the revolution. But more pressing still are daily economic difficulties. The collapse of the tourism industry has affected mil­lions of Egyptians, leaving vast numbers without work. At the same time, demonstrations and strikes continue to disrupt business. Adding to the problem is the fact that petrol is in short supply in some areas.

CEOSS is working — in partner­ship with Christian Aid — to pro­vide financial and other support for the growing number of poor Egyp­tians. “The situation is under control right now,” Dr Stephanous said. “But if it continues like this for another three months, then I fear for what might happen. There could be food riots.”

In the coming months, the focus will be on parliamentary, and then presi­dential, elections. One of parliament’s first duties will be to draw up a new constitution. Because many Egyptians believe that the Muslim Brotherhood’s recently formed Freedom and Justice Party will dominate the new parliament, and therefore influence the character of the constitution, there is a grow­ing public call for elections to be post­poned, to allow other parties more time to prepare.

The timing of the elections was one of the issues ratified by a referendum in March, and, thus far, the interim military leadership has ruled out a postponement. The poli­tical analyst Wahid Abdel-Maguid, who is based in Cairo, supports the argument that the timetable should not be changed. “One should not underestimate the ensuing negative effect if it turned out that the results of Egypt’s first free and fair refer­endum in its history were invalid,” he said.

“Citizens, many of whom stood in long queues for hours, took part in the poll because they expected that their votes would have some value for the first time. So, if we said to them that, in fact, the referendum was valueless, then this would come as a blow not only to them, but also to the democracy to which they aspire.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups are also pres­sing for the elections to go ahead as scheduled. Despite public fears, the Brotherhood insists that the Free­dom and Justice Party does not have a religious agenda, citing the fact that ten of its founding members were Copts.

The Egyptian journalist Dr Mamun Fendi says that the organisa­tion is being duplicitous: “Nobody in Egypt recognises this as a ‘Freedom and Justice’ party, not even the Muslim Brotherhood themselves. It is an extension of the Brotherhood — a party based on religion that goes right against the constitution. The ten Copts are partners on paper only.”

Dr Stephanous believes that the elections — whenever they are held — will throw up some surprises. Islamic groups are making a lot of propaganda, and “the Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly do well. But so will other parties. The silent majority want a civil state, and they don’t want one group hijacking either the revolution or the state.”

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