04/04/2011, 00.00
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The "Arab spring" between authoritarianism and Islamism

by Samir Khalil Samir
Hopes for a profound transformation of the Middle East begin to wane. The weakness of the young revolutionaries faced with the might of the army and Islamist parties who want to seize the fruits of change. Christians in Syria, forced to support the authoritarian regimes to save religious freedom. Democracy and secularism seems to be an impossible combination. The positive case of Lebanon.

Rome (AsiaNews) - In recent months, North Africa and the Middle East have been shaken by the winds of the so-called "Arab spring". Especially in Egypt where there were demonstrations of national unity between Christians and Muslims, a desire see more democracy, more respect for human rights, more jobs.

Now, a few weeks since the fall of Mubarak, there appears to be a return to "normal" or perhaps a "normalization": the referendum on new constitution has not changed much on paper, and the army has banned public demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood has become more assertive ...

Even in Tunisia there is the same difficulty in finding a way of government that is not marked by past corruption, and meanwhile a war is underway in Libya, which for the first time ambiguously involves the West. Here follows the thoughts of our expert on Islam.

Is there no future for this Arab spring?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I will mainly concentrate on the situation I am most familiar with, Egypt. On one hand, it is perfectly normal that after the past few months of upheaval people want to return to everyday normality: the reopening of schools so students do not loose an entire academic year, a return to work to spur an economy still in crisis. The attitude of the army is normal and it was predictable: We will support you - they say - but now the country cannot afford to fail from the economic point of view.

The referendum on the constitution was inevitable in its results. It should be noted that the referendum never intended to change Article 2, that of sharia as the foundation of Egyptian legislation, even if young people want it submitted to referendum in the near future.

But if today there were a referendum on this issue, only 30% of people would want it erased. Not because the remaining70% are Islamists, but because people are not aware of it, and conclude that, since Egypt is a country with a Muslim majority, it should be ruled by Islamic laws. It must be said that Egypt does not apply a strict sharia as is the case in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Pakistan. This issue therefore is felt only by those with a most acute sensitivity. In the Arab world secularism is discussed, but many do not even know what it is. The Christians feel the question deeply, but Muslims do not see any problem with it.

Young people who made the revolution are not organized

In Egypt, the only organized parties are those of Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood. They led the vote for the ten points of the referendum, the launch of a new constitution, they scheduled new elections for the month of September 2011. Unfortunately, for those young people who led the revolution, six months is too short a time to organize and still today have failed to appoint themselves a leader. This will penalize them in the elections. Besides, this is inevitable: the country can not remain too long without a new constitution and free elections. In general, therefore, I can say that I do not see any boycott of the revolution, but a simple attempt to channel it towards a return to normal.

Fear of Islamic involution however, is true. The Muslim Brotherhood are visibly churning out propaganda for the Islamization of society: putting pressure on girls without a veil, or scandalizing the population, painting El Baradei [presidential candidate in Egypt - ed] as a supporter of "atheist" and "immoral" secularism. According to an online video, if secularism arrived in Egypt, year by year, the country will be flooded by minkirts, drinking alcohol, drugs, marriage between homosexuals, etc. ..: all of which has nothing at all to do with secularism. This propaganda affects people. In comments on the video, which I consulted, only one comment says; but this is not secularism.

Unfortunately, the party that made the revolution does not know which way to go. They must find a leader capable of being a driving force, otherwise, yes, there is the risk of a setback. The future is unknown.

The Islamists want to seize the revolution

In Tunisia, things are better, from a certain point of view, but even there the Islamist party Ennahdha, founded by Rachid Ghannouchi and banned since 1991, was approved on 1 March 2011. With the party Ettahrir (unauthorized) they are trying to remove secularism. The first act they requested was to allow women with their face veiled on identity documents, which was previously prohibited. Yesterday, April 2, this "right" was voted.

Many Tunisians feel themselves to be"Muslims" and some young people reject "secularism". The intellectuals are different: They want secularism. But most of them see this problem through the eyes of immigrants in France: living in a secular country limits Muslim festivities, bans on the veil, promiscuity is permitted...

Christians’ concern for the future: democracy and secularism

Concern for the future of Christians arises particularly in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, where there are local Christian communities. In other countries there are Christians, but they are foreigners and migrant workers.

In Egypt, the issue is very serious. When the referendum on Article 2 is held [the sharia as the foundation of all laws - ed], we will see if there is any progress. A few weeks ago I talked to Tarek Heggy [liberal Egyptian writer and entrepreneur-ed], and he told me that "it will take at least 10 years to delete this article." And this will certainly be a disappointment for Christians.

In Syria, despite all the riots, perhaps nothing will change. It must be said that the Christian bishops do not want anything to change: the Assad regime (Alawite) ensures safety and secularism, since by his authoritarianism he outlaws radical Islam. Those opposed to Assad are not minorities or Christians, who fear the rise of a Sunni regime. Those fighting (and they are the majority), are the enemies of Assad, in short the Sunnis - who feel excluded from power - and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been repressed for decades.

As Christians, we want freedom, democracy, justice, as well as secularism, religious neutrality that is, we want everyone to be regarded only as citizens, not as a Muslim, Christian or otherwise. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, having to rule over strong groups and fanatics, secularism can only be imposed by force. Thus it is for Assad, thus it was for the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, for Mubarak in Egypt.

Where the system is weaker, it must necessarily make concessions to Islam. We are consequently caught between two opposites: democracy with secularism or Islam. We Christians want both, democracy and secularism, but in practice for now in the Middle East are unable to affirm them together. Therefore Christians, in the end prefer to have an authoritarian regime, but one that guarantees them at least a minimum of religious freedom.

This is the drama of the Middle East. In Europe, secularism and democracy went hand in hand, in the Middle East they are in opposition.

A positive example: Lebanon

Faced with this situation, it seems important to mention the only positive example, that of Lebanon, where there is both a democracy and secularism, respectful of religion, totally different from Western secularism. A few days ago (April 2) the Sunni Mufti Mohammed Rashid Kabbani went to Bkerke - home of the Maronite Patriarch since 1823 - to meet the new Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rahi (see photo). The mufti proposed a large Islamic-Christian meeting to be held soon in Bkerke, “because Bkerke - he said - is the national and spiritual headquarters around which all the Lebanese, Christians and Muslims converge". Because Lebanon is still without a government, the mufti thinks in this way they can strengthen the "spiritual and social communion to rebuild the social fabric".

The only country where there is harmony between the two, is Lebanon. And though Christians have now fallen to about 35% of the total population, Muslims agree they keep their political presence at 50% of the seats. The reason: they realize that the Christian presence is beneficial to society, and therefore ask them not to emigrate to the West!

Among the countries where there is calm, there is Syria, where there is an authoritarian, but secular, rule and Jordan, where, thanks to the king, there is a certain balance. In Egypt there are many who want to live together and hold demonstrations with the cross and the Koran, but there are also those who stirred up by the imams can destroy the churches in the blink of an eye.

Final Reflection

The problem is that the Arab people are not ready for democracy. I fear they will have to go through civil wars or Islamic dictatorships (as in Iran) to realize that those are not the solutions. But there is some hope: those who in Egypt want a society inspired by Islam, however, refuse an image like that of Saudi Arabia or Iran.

So far, the only country where Christians and Muslims speak and interact as peers is Lebanon. Elsewhere the Muslim voices that defend democracy and neutrality in religion are still too few. Especially rare are the voices of imams who advocate the separation of mosque and politics, religion and state.

Finally, religious education in schools is still too tied to the culture of the past and the patterns of the first millennium. It lacks an openness to modernity associated with the re-interpretation of religious sources. A new hermeneutics of the founding texts is urgent. But are there the teachers? ...

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