Discussion Question: Religious Undertones in Egyptian Protests?
Over the past decade, Egyptian Copts have fallen victim to increasing discrimination and persecution, most recently with the January 1 suicide church bombing that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more. Do the current anti-government demonstrations in Cairo have religious undertones?
Apart from bewilderment, the talking heads on TV seem to be in a fog of shock. John McCain put it about as plaintively as anyone when he said on February 1 that the Egyptian crisis is "one of the most difficult times in our history." His statement makes little sense unless A) he has confused us with Israel, or B) he is presuming this is the rapidly rising crest of an Islamic wave in the Middle East.
The immediate cause of the street protests in Cairo is Tunisia. There a sad incident of a poor street seller setting himself on fire after his stall was closed led to an explosion of anger against the corrupt rule of President Ben Ali, who promptly fled. The global economic collapse of two years ago may have cut into our savings a little but for the billions of people in the Middle East and elsewhere it has tipped them into desperation. I've seem figures that put over half the Egyptian population at less than $20 a month. Such people have a survival problem and need to act quickly. In a more controlled society it is natural to blame the authorities, and this they are doing big time.
Our media is fickle and it now seems obligatory for them to describe Hosni Mubarak as a dictator; a word seldom used before by them to describe the "strongman" who kept the Sadat-brokered peace with Israel alive and has been a staunch ally. We forget that Egypt has a parliament and that he represents not just the power of the highly respected army, but has been supported by the cultural and economic elites; and used that power in a determined struggle to keep Egypt from ending up where it is now.
There was once Egyptian euphoria and the greatest modern expression of Arab nationalism when Nasser and his fellow officers expelled corrupt King Farouk. That nationalism survived the humbling handed down by the British during the Suez crisis. It did not survive the military defeat of Nasser's successor Anwar Sadat, who was defeated not just by Israel, but by the no-holds-barred U.S. military airlift to resupply the Israelis. It was this thumb in the Soviet eye moment that settled the U.S. support for Israel and convinced the loser Sadat to sue for peace with Israel. Since then we have celebrated the very fruitful alliance with Egypt and not bothered much to think beyond how well Mubarak has maintained Sadat's peace.
Sadat was killed by a radical army faction influenced not by frustrated nationalism but by radical Islam—the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood is in some ways the most significant and dangerous Islamic movement in the world. While Saudi money funds Wahabist causes worldwide and Pakistani/Afghan zealots are problematic even for the military, it is the ideology and long-term planning of the Brotherhood that is influencing events and consolidating support for the caliphate. While we fear a much diminished Elqaida, it is worth remembering that both Osama and Ayman were products of Brotherhood training and that they are only a part of its goal.
Mubarak has repressed the Brotherhood, with only sporadic allowances for its existence. He has trod a fine line at times between keeping it out of formal politics and allowing it some limited civil role. The Brotherhood claims non-violence—even though its plans lead directly to violent struggle. Somewhat like the Black muslims in America, the Brotherhood gain much public support through neighborhood programs and Muslim pride initiatives. Consequently, their actual political support in Egypt, while not overwhelming, would make them a major party. They have recently reached the point where it was obvious that they were about to challenge the regime.
Turkey is lurching toward a more fundamentalist government. Its elections have become an ideological battleground between Islamists and the inheritors of the westernizing Kemal Attaturk, the architect of modern Turkey. Nowadays Islamists say incorrectly he was Jewish—guaranteeing the marginalisation of all that is modern Turkey. In some ways, while Tunisia may have inspired the Egyptian uprising by actual example, I believe that the shift in Turkey and the challenge to Western assumptions is more relevent in understanding what the Brotherhood and their ilk are accomplishing.
2011 began badly in Egypt with the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria and other provocations. While harassment of Copts is not new, it was understood that this incident was connected with the upcoming election and a calculated assertion of Islamic identity. If not the Brotherhood, then Alqaida itself was a likely culprit. And Egypt has shown signs of Islamic radicalization in recent years: witness the massacres of tourists near the pyramids and the bombing at Sharm el Sheik. We saw it all, but chose to think Egypt was secure.
I checked on YouTube and the evidence is there that the demonstrations were anything but spontaneous and invariably began after prayer in the mosque. Now the latest news reports indicate that the Brotherhood is openly declaring their support.
None of us know the future, but some things can be deduced. First, Aljazeera will likely continue to stoke the situation by their sensationalist, anti-West tilted style. I am inclined to see them more of the catalyst than the social networking--which relates more to ability for likeminded to gather and organize, but less effective at indoctrination and inciting to action. If Mubarak or his designated deputy can hold it together till September, I think it certain that the Brotherhood will emerge as a major player. But like the Bolshevik revolution, they likely will not be able to assert real power till more moderate forces are seen to fail. And watch Russia. They do not have much vested interest in Egypt, but it was once a client state of the Soviet regime and their renewed involvement could greatly enhance their prestige and lead to Suez Pt2.
This is not good for religious freedom. The Copts will no doubt lose what little protections they had. Radical Islam is sure to make itself felt in daily life. And whoever rules Egypt will not be likely to heed outside calls for tolerance, much less able to show it. And Israel surely has cause to worry. A politically damaged Egypt is not likely to send the tanks across the Suez anytime soon. But the rhetoric will pick up: and Hezbollah and Hamas will surely be emboldened.
It's just as well that Obama does not seem to subscribe to a dispensationalist viewpoint. Not so sure about John McCain.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Editor, Liberty Magazine
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."