Unrest in Muslim nations: multinationals, dictators and the social doctrine of the Church
by Fady Noun
Fady Noun and Georges Corm analyse the wave of popular unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and the Middle East. The possibility that Muslim radicals could highjack the movement exists but is weak. For the Lebanese economist, the answer lies in the social doctrine of the Church. Still, the fire could spread eastward and reach even the Philippines.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The political situation in Cairo appears to be deadlocked. Thousands of people occupy Tahrir Square, but the army is slowing reducing the perimeter of protest, allowing traffic to resume, at least partially. Hosni Mubarak, who does not appear willing to resign, has raised public sector wages and pensions by 15 per cent. He has also given instructions for a “transparent, independent and impartial” commission of inquiry to investigate the violence that occurred during the protests, especially the attacks against peaceful protesters on Tahrir Square.

As talks continue, there are no signs that a turning point has been reached. The US president has taken a softer line. “Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path, and I think they're making progress," Mr Obama said.

Mubarak’s most likely successor, if there is one, is the current vice-president, Omar Suleiman. Wikileaks claims that he was already Israel’s preferred choice in case of Mubarak’s death. In the meantime, popular protests have also broken out in Iraq and Kuwait.

Against the backdrop of popular unrest in Egypt and other Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, prestigious journalist Fady Noun spoke to Georges Corm, economist and former Lebanese Finance minister, for AsiaNews.

People are following the popular uprising that is shaking Egypt on their TV screens with a mixture of satisfaction and uneasiness. The unrest will probably affect other Arab countries like Yemen, Morocco and Algeria, following the fall of the Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in Tunisia. The Lebanese, who feel close to the Egyptians because of the presence of tens of thousands of Egyptian workers in Lebanon, are following with passion and in real time what is happening in Tahrir Square.

It is easy to understand why people are in high spirits. When a dictator is forced to quit after 20 or 20 years in power—Mubarak has led Egypt for 30 years—supporters of democracy are always elated. Uneasiness is also normal because a popular uprising can be crushed in blood or even worse, turn into a new tyranny.

Why all this unrest? Why now? What is fuelling it? For Georges Corm, historian and economist as well as former Lebanese Finance Minister (1998-2000), the spark in Tunisia was lit by a man who was desperate enough to set himself on fire after he was reduced to utter destitution by an unjust economic system buttressed by a police state.

On various occasions, like many economists and sociologists who studied the Third World, Georges Corm has slammed the authoritarian or totalitarian regimes that rule some countries, and not only in the Arab world, thanks to networks of economic and financial interests “sometimes open, sometimes covert”, in which multinationals and oligarchies got rich, often with the complicity of local governments, plunder national resources with no concern for future generations.

Without adequate job creation, the economies of these countries cannot meet the demands of a labour market flooded by tens if not hundreds of thousands of young people, many with diplomas, whose prospect more often than not is unemployment, emigration or destitution.

“In the Arab world, such a model is all-pervasive,” Corm said; “certainly, in Tunisia and Egypt, but also in Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Algeria and in many Asian nations. A political-military plutocracy is in charge, backed by Western and multinational decision-makers.” For him, Ben Ali’s overthrow in Tunisia was a “divine surprise”.

According to Corm, the responsibility of the current state of affairs falls on the various countries involved as well as the West. As a profound believer in the social doctrine of the Church, he is highly critical of the unfettered capitalism that has swept the planet, the neo-liberalism that rules in some Western industrialised nations. “The neo-liberal wave has led to the creation of plutocracies, and Islamic claims are partially a consequence of these plutocracies,” he said.

Corm’s analysis joins that of Fr Samir Khalil, a Jesuit clergyman and Islam expert, who founded the Center for Arab Christian Documentation and Research at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University. “About 40 per cent of the Egyptian population lives in absolute poverty,” Fr Khalil noted, “with two dollars per person per day, sometimes even less”. Since the start of the year, prices in Egypt have jumped five to thirty-fold. In his opinion, these numbers tell a lot.

For Corm, “democratic freedoms” are not the priority of the crowds in Tahrir Square. They cannot hide a reality of utter poverty and unequal access to national resources. This is why he goes back to what happened in Tunisia. “Who was behind events in Tunisia? Not the middle classes. A poor man set himself on fire. The poor then took to the streets to demand freedom. Yet, let us not forget that poverty is the problem, the determining factor, especially if we wish to isolate the extremist Islamist fringe.”

How much a risk is there that unrest will turn into Islamic revolutions? For some, the danger is real. For instance, Fr Samir Khalil argues that Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation founded in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century, have understood that social action is the best recruiting poster for Islamism.

And Islamic movements have never concealed their desire to take power. Iran, in particular, is closely monitoring what is happening in Egypt. Hizbollah’s TV network in Lebanon is live for hours on end.

Ghassan Hajjar, editor-in-chief of Beirut’s An-Nahar newspaper, cited Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi who said that the success of the revolution in Egypt would lead to an Islamic Middle East.

This view reflects a recent statement by Ali Khamenei, who said, “with the will of God a new Middle East is beginning to form and this Middle East is an Islamic Middle East”. For Iran’s supreme leader, the “Egyptian Muslim people has an Islamic past that will lead to great glory on the path of Islamic thought and jihad in the sight of God”.

Likewise, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said during Friday prayers in Tehran that the revolution of the Tunisian people, “All these protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen” are a sign that “an Islamic Middle East is taking shape” and that “this is a new Middle East which is based on Islam” and popular religious demands. These movements, he believes “are inspired by Iran's Islamic revolution and these countries are de facto rocked by the aftershock of the Iranian revolution”.

For Georges Corm, however, there is little danger that some Arab countries will fall to Islamism. Still, “it is clear that existing Islamic movements will have to have space in parliamentary politics”. In his view, these Islamic movements are “Islamo-Democratic” in orientation, like Europe’s “Christian-Democratic” parties.

Egypt has a range of Islamic movements, the former minister said. Only “the extreme wing of this range is extremist. It is fuelled by Wahabism”, which comes from circles in Saudi Arabia that not only provide the doctrine but also money. They should be feared.

“An Islamic risk is weak across the Arab world,” Corm said, “unless Western decision-making begins to exploit some Islamic movements.” This was the case of al-Qaeda, an organisation that was encouraged and helped by the United States to fight the Soviet presence in Afghanistan during the Cold War.

“Muslims are exasperated, as far as Thailand and Philippines, and that is normal,” Corm noted. “The Islamic world has been on a downward spiral of defeat for the past two centuries. There is no single Muslim society that hasn’t been dominated by a Western project or country. But they will not conquer the world.”

At the same time, the expert slams Islamophobia in Europe as “a way to divert attention from the real socio-economic problems of the West, and the rivalry for access and use of scarce resources.” In his view, “neo-liberalism forced the state to disengage from social spending and the economy on the pretext of balancing the budget. Islamic and other organisations took advantage of the gaps that were created. Rich Muslims and Christians have set up their own NGOs, gaining a faithful electoral following. The alternative is the social doctrine of the Church. This is especially true for Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in veritate, a corollary to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

For Georges Corm, respect for the main guidelines of the Church’s social doctrine means, among other things, a better tax system, an inheritance tax, opposition to monopolies, multinationals, corruption and tax evasion as well as resistance to the privatisation of some domains targeted by private interests like mobile phones, etc.

Lastly, in Corm’s view, identity-based claims have led people to forget the depth of the Church’s social doctrine. The Church’s encyclicals are its true treasure. They should guide its action.

Roman Catholics, he notes, should not forget that Christ was born in Palestine, not in Rome. They should respect the religious diversity of the East, and accept as Fr Youakim Moubarac put it, that the monotheistic truth can be seen in three different ways.