FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Election in Egypt: litmus test for Arab Revolution
, May 28, 2011
The January Revolution which forced the resignation of Egypt’s former President, Hosni Mubarek, will be put to the test in elections to be held in September 2011.
The popular uprising which led to the overthrow of President Mubarek was the result of deep-seated grievances experienced by the country’s 83 million people against a corrupt and authoritarian regime which had pocketed much of the national wealth or diverted it to spending on the military, leaving tens of millions of people living on the breadline.
Soaring prices of essentials, including wheat and oil, fuelled the popular unrest, not the Muslim Brotherhood or al Qaeda.
In the forthcoming elections, the question is whether Islamist extremists, such as those of the formerly illegal Muslim Brotherhood, will be able to exploit the popular will to entrench a more extreme government in the country through their Freedom and Justice Party, or whether a new popular government will emerge in its place.
Eyewitness accounts of recent violence directed against the Christian minority in Egypt show how this fits into the current political situation.
Religion is an important issue in Egypt. Although the official figures put Christians at just 10 per cent of the population, with Muslims comprising the other 90 per cent, Christians consider that this figure is an exaggeration, used by the Sunni Arab majority to marginalise and oppress the Christian minority, and other Muslim minorities.
The official name of Egypt, the Arab Republic of Egypt, reflects this.
Christians are believed to comprise around 20 per cent of the population, the overwhelming majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox. The Copts are the original Egyptians, who have been suppressed since the Muslim Arab invasion in the 7th century.
Coptic Catholics comprise only about 150,000 people: they are a minority of the minority.
Despite centuries of restrictions on their religious and political liberty — and at times outright persecution — the Copts have maintained their religious traditions, while adopting the Arabic language for day-to-day discourse.
Additionally, there are millions of followers of Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism which is largely apolitical, and is regarded as heretical by many Islamic scholars, particularly those from the Wahhabi tradition, which Saudi Arabia has exported to the rest of the Islamic world, including Egypt.
Additionally, there are an unknown number of Shia Muslims who are also persecuted by the Sunnis.
The January 2011 revolution in Egypt was a popular uprising against a government which had failed to fulfil the aspirations of millions of its citizens, half of whom are aged 25 or under.
The attacks on churches and Christians in Egypt reflect the breakdown in law and order over recent months. The army and the police have been ineffective in protecting Christians who are extremely vulnerable, and no one has been brought to justice.
This is a complete change from what happened immediately after the January revolution. At that time, ordinary Egyptian citizens patrolled the streets, to ensure there was no outbreak of lawlessness. However, as time has gone on, Muslim extremists have threatened moderate Muslims, and the police and army seem unable or unwilling to intervene.
Christians have been oppressed in Egypt for a long time, including during the Mubarek era, but recent outrages show that the situation has deteriorated. Three churches have been burned and Christians have been killed. In other cases, young Christian girls have been kidnapped, and in at least one case, a young Christian girl was attacked, her head was shaven, and she had acid poured over her body.
In another instance, a shop owned by the Church and rented to Christians was forcibly occupied by Muslims, who thereupon drove out the Christians.
One of the major causes of the breakdown in law and order is that 14,000 criminals previously held in prison in Egypt had been set free since Mubarek’s overthrow.
They have disappeared into the 15 million people living in Cairo, one the largest cities in the world.
Christian parishes in Cairo have provided hospitality and support for refugee families from Sudan, who have fled to Egypt. There are about two million Sudanese refugees in Egypt, many of them living in Cairo.
They are all poor, living below the poverty line. “What we can do for them is providing some food, clothing and medicine,” a local charity worker has said.
They have no health insurance and find it very difficult to get medical treatment, including surgery. Many suffer from anaemia, because of poor diet.
Their future will depend on both the election outcome in Egypt, and on the attempts to negotiate a peace settlement between the predominantly Christian south of Sudan, which voted for independence, and the Arab north, based on the capital, Khartoum.
(News Weekly readers can support Sudanese refugees by sending donations to the Salesian Missions Office, PO Box 264, Ascot Vale, Vic. 3032.)