It might seem strange to write about Egypt while the situation in the Ukraine remains so precarious, but having spent last week in Cairo, this blog attempts to ground some of the experiences arising from that visit, before they get lost amidst my efforts to make sense of the politics of the Crimea.
For those interested in the finer details, I was in Cairo taking part in a conference organised by the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS) and the German Protestant Academy Loccum (EAL). This was the third in a series of conferences they have organized since the start, or probably more accurately, the renewal of the ‘Arab Awakening’.
Discussions this time around were framed under the catchy heading of Citizenship and Religion in Processes of Political Transformation – Current developments in Egypt and Arab countries and its impact on Arab-European Relations. Arriving a day early I squeezed in a series of meetings with NGOs and faith-based organisations based in Cairo.
Drawing on the wise advice of the Bishop of Bradford that blogs are meant to be the first rather than the last word on any subject, what follows is a series of over-arching reflections – not all of them I suspect coherent or even consistent. I apologise in advance for the length of this blog.
Reflection 1: Traffic in Cairo is quite literally a nightmare
This might be a strange observation to include here, but since it is a daily reality for the approximately 17 million people who live in this concrete metropolis it can’t be overlooked. It is not so much the congestion that is problematic – although being stuck in a traffic jam on the 6th October Bridge in the heat of summer can’t be good for one’s blood pressure – but rather the difficulty that it poses in planning one’s day.
You really just don’t how long a journey is going to take and therefore how long to leave. Predictability and planning becomes that much harder and impacts on productivity. As I found out to my cost, a journey that should take 20 minutes can take 2 hours.
One of my favourite quotes from my visit was from a Liverpool FC supporting taxi driver who, with a copy of a well-thumbed Koran on the dashboard, said: “The problem with this city is that there are too many cars and too many mosques.” When I said that the easiest way to solve the problem would be to cut the fuel subsidy, he looked at me aghast and said: “Are you mad, do you want to start a revolution”.
Reflection 2: The Egyptian army makes the worst pasta
It’s claimed that the army has control over as much as 40% of the Egyptian economy. It owns football grounds, pasta factories, restaurants and provides services such as managing petrol stations. Some even estimate the military control as much as 80% of manufacturing alone. The Army isn’t just a military institution and a national symbol of unity, it is the dominant economic actor in the country.
This state of affairs is problematic in so many ways, not least because the army has a vested interest in maintaining its economic monopoly. This suffocates innovation, economic reform and market liberalisation.
With Field Marshal Sisi set to become the next President, this arrangement is unlikely to change soon. Yet, without reform it’s difficult to see Egypt meeting the legitimate aspirations of its citizens, especially its burgeoning youth. So far Egypt has decided to reject the reform conditioned loans from the EU in favour of no-strings attached financial support from the Gulf, but this generosity will not continue indefinitely.
Reflection 3: Egyptians are without a doubt very proud of ‘their’ revolution
So much so, perhaps, that they have become blind to its shortcomings. Even in respectable circles, any questioning, however gentle, as to whether the ideals of the revolution have been betrayed leads to a passionate defence that portrays Sisi as Egypt’s saviour, the new constitution as a return to democratic values and the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation that needs to be prosecuted by all means necessary.
Outsiders just don’t understand the uniqueness of the ‘Egyptian revolution’ and the need for it to be studied in its own terms. Europe’s own painful experience of political transition count for little here.
This self-defence mechanism is understandable given the upheavals of recent years, but if it is true that we inhabit the world which our words create, then there is a risk that the prevailing narrative in Egypt will see the country return unconsciously to authoritarian rule.
The democratic space in Egypt is shrinking. As an ‘eradicationist’ tendency takes hold, human rights are being curtailed and the opportunities for even a partial reconciliation with the more ‘moderate’ members of the Brotherhood shut down.
To be fair, there are signs that there is some questioning of the regime by political activist and youth groups, but the impact is limited given the restrictions on press freedom.
This situation creates its own policy dilemmas for Europe’s policy makers. With a country hyper-sensitive to outside criticism, and with Egypt willing to look to the Gulf for outside funding, it will be all to easy for Europe to conclude that it can do little to influence the course of Egypt’s political development. Europe should be wary however, of allowing its own lack of leverage to contribute to a normalisation of an abnormal situation.
Reflection 4: Egypt is a country where your security and prosperity depends on your loyalty
Within Egypt’s unstable mix it is important to consider the situation of Egypt’s religious minorities not least the Coptic churches – orthodox, catholic and evangelical.
All too often the media in Europe present images of burning churches in Egypt as evidence that Coptic Christians are being persecuted because of their faith. This narrative paints a picture of a bubbling sectarian cauldron at odds with reality.
The violence experienced by Coptic Christians is politically motivated. It owes much to the fact that Coptic religious leaders came out so visibly in support of General Sisi’s ousting of President Morsi. To be fair, they had little choice.
As in other parts of the Middle East where Christians are numerically small in size, Coptic Christians have historically found that their security is dependent on showing loyalty to the regime of the day. This arrangement is akin to a secular version of the dhimmi contract between ruler and minority.
The scale of attacks on churches has diminished from its peak last year, but attacks still continue. The crackdown on the Muslim brotherhood is fuelling violence rather than curbing it and Coptic Christians remain an easy target because of their numerical size.
This again poses its own dilemmas for churches in the West.
Do we make the case that the Egyptian government is not upholding its end of the bargain and press it to take ever more stringent measures to provide protection and security?
Or, do we recognise that this only perpetuates the cycle of violence and that an alternative non-eradicationist and reconciling strategy is needed? Would such a strategy challenge the prevailing security narrative and in so doing create its own problems for Coptic churches?