My departure point here is Sarajevo; Jerusalem of Europe or Jerusalem of the Balkans as it is sometimes called because of its legacy of religious diversity. The city with the deep-rooted traditional culture was the theatre of co-existence between different religions, and also a scene for war and peace, independence and democracy.
Cairo: The capital of Egypt is an open book of civilizations; Jews, Christians and Muslims all lived together. On its land, Egyptians fought foreign occupation, struggled for independence, and resisted autocratic regimes.
Old cities resemble one another.
In Europe, Sarajevo was the only city until recently, in 20th century, in which a mosque, Orthodox church, Catholic church and Synagogue exist within the same neighborhood. In Cairo you find the same obvious picture of religious coexistence. At the heart of ancient Cairo you find mosques, churches and a synagogue very close to each other.
Also, the struggle for freedom in both places is similar although it carries sometimes different titles and names among scholars and politicians.
The shift towards democracy in Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine was described worldwide as “Colored Revolutions” or “Fourth wave of democracy”. Peaceful demonstrations by millions took place in these countries to defend the results of the public elections in which dominant undemocratic regimes were defeated. The beginning was the downfall of Solobdan Milošević in September 2000 after he marred the history of coexistence with blood.
In the Arab World, Western academic and political circles used the term “Arab Spring” to describe the sweeping political changes that happened in 2011, although the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions were in Winter, the term connotes a new beginning, new life, self-change, a prosperous future and also a challenge to make society bloom like flowers in the Spring.
The comparison between “Colored Revolutions” and the “Arab Spring” reveals some similarities. In both experiences, people demonstrated in millions to oust autocrats and to build new democratic systems. This means that the power of the people is still the most irresistible and undefeated force of change.
We experienced the power of people during 18-days of the glorious uprising (25 Jan to 11 Feb 2011). Egyptians were involved in massive protests against the Mubarak regime (1981-2011) for accumulative reasons; poverty, abuse of human rights, discrimination, corruption, etc. The ruling autocratic regime was weaker than its opponents expected and, therefore, collapsed in less than three weeks without causing severe damage.
What does “Arab Spring” mean?
• Radical change made by people to overthrow an autocratic regime.
• New popular action that shakes the power-structure and paves the way for people’s involvement in policy-making, the distribution of wealth and civic engagement.
• Re-explore the authentic cultural heritage and social fabric of society after decades of disintegration and degradation at the hands of oppressive rulers.
• Create a new momentum to make people’s daily life less miserable and more joyful. Happiness coincides with democracy. We have to always remember that people correlated democracy and economy in their main slogan during the revolution; “bread, freedom, human dignity and social justice”.
In addition, the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 has introduced a different meaning for both Muslims and Christians. In Tahrir Square, the symbolic place of the Revolution, people demonstrated to topple an oppressive regime in order to erect a new democratic one. Christians and Muslims, who refused calls for stepping back from participation, enjoyed a rare moment in their modern history to re-explore each other after decades of religious tensions, misunderstanding, mutual fear and lack of trust. The initial experience Egyptians came out with from their 18-day of Revolution against Mubarak and his cronies is that "Religious tensions" were a product of the regime ousted by Egyptians in Tahrir Square and they have no valid reason to continue in the new Egypt. Nevertheless days have proven that this conclusion is a wishful dream.
Post Revolution: Inter-religious Relations
Christians and Muslims lived side by side for centuries. Generally speaking, their relationships are peaceful and they always share the same socio-economic hardships and aspirations. Although there were always ups and downs in Muslim-Christian relations, a noticeable deterioration has accelerated over the last four decades, mainly since the beginning of the 1970s. The most common complaints among Christians are restrictions on building and repairing churches, political underrepresentation and social intolerance.
The 25 Revolution has undoubtedly provided a chance to overcome this inherited legacy, but 18 months after the revolution were not enough to make a tangible positive change on this track.
Religious tensions have been going on since the downfall of Mubarak until today and have proven that the intolerant atmosphere and awkward politics that prevailed for decades still persist and require determined efforts to overcome them. Less than a month after Mubarak stepped down, religious clashes erupted again in different forms. A church was demolished, another one was burned down, and a number of personal altercations turned into religious tensions only because their parts are Muslims and Christians and there is a “fragile” and “Inflamed” atmosphere adding fuel to conflicts.
Christians are now outspoken about their own grievances and problems. Reports indicate that a number of Christians migrate to other countries, while others insist to remain, and struggle for democracy and equity hand in hand with their Muslim fellows.
Christian migration is always a warning sign for Muslim-Christian co-existence. Muslim Intellectuals and politicians across the region express deep concern about this phenomenon, which affects inadvertently the image of Muslims as unable to coexist with other faiths.
Egyptians are at a cross-road; either to build an inclusive democratic system that accommodates all citizens or to reproduce the Mubarak regime but in a different shape.
In other words, Egyptians have to choose one of two models: citizenship or tribalism. Citizenship means that all Egyptians are equal before the law and they are entitled to the same rights and obligations irrespective to their religion, social status and political allegiance. On the contrary, tribalism means discrimination against certain groups of citizens in favor of others because of religion, political affiliation or social conditions.
Citizenship Vs New Tribalism
Islam as a religion, in essence doesn’t include racial, political and religious tribalism nor does Christianity, but religious political ideologies have justifications and reasons for that. This is one of the swelling fears among Egyptians today that the intellectual framework of hard-liner Islamic groups may embody some sort of tribalism in which members of the group become authentic citizens while others would not be entitled to full citizenship.
Al Azhar declaration, issued in the mid-June 2011 provides substantial grounds for building a new Egypt based on equity, modernity and justice. Over the last 18 months, Al Azhar has turned to be a real inclusive platform for the future of Egypt, accommodating different Islamic groups and parties, Christians, secular intellectuals and government officials: This is a process that makes it a real representative for Egyptian aspirations for democracy, social justice, freedom and equity. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians accept and support this declaration as a genuine translation of citizenship (1).
The new president Dr. Mohamed Morsi, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, repeatedly promised to solve the problems of Christians and sustain cross-religious ties. Although there is no major deterioration in Muslim-Christian relations since the new president came to power except “ordinary” conflicts Egyptians have been accustomed to for decades, there are no official concrete steps taken to address problems of Christians.
Furthermore, the new constitution is currently being drafted amid a controversial debate over the unbalanced structure of the committee charged with this mission. If the draft constitution meets the expectations and aspirations of Egyptians for a modern state this will definitely help ease fears. On the contrary, if it reflects a tendency towards limiting women’s rights, and restricting freedoms, particularly freedom of religion and freedom of speech, this will add more fuel to antagonism and polarization in Egypt.
In sum, Egyptians who struggled to remove a despotic regime, are eager to build a new system that relies upon citizenship, good governance, human rights, equity and freedom. Problems of Christians, although they cannot be disentangled from the whole nation conundrums, introduce a “litmus test” for the new regime. It is time for deeds rather than words because procrastination always produces worse consequences and sends confusing messages to citizens.
On one hand the government has to develop “institutional mechanisms” to deal with religious tensions. Christian concerns can only be addressed through public policies reflecting political choices and involvement from state institutions. This mechanism should be viable, accessible and capable. There is a committee on social Justice that was functioning for sometime during the transitional period concerned with Muslim-Christian relations, and now there are strong demands to re-establish it under the auspices of President Mohamed Morsi.
On the other hand, there is an essential role for religious leaders from both Christian and Muslim communities to facilitate relations and overcome problems. Al Azhar along with churches have exerted efforts to sustain inter-religious relationships during the turmoil of the transitional period, and they must continue their role with more courage and enthusiasm.
A “Citizenship Pact” is the only possible and safe “avenue” for Muslims and Christians; binding them together in a unity of mutual understanding, respect for each of them and acknowledgement of religious diversity.
On Monday 20th of June, Dr. Ahamed El-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar announced “the Statement of Al-Azhar and the intellectual elite on the future of Egypt”; the statement was the result of a consensus between Al-Azhar’s prominent professors and a group of intellectuals reflecting different political and cultural shades, and religious affiliations on the basic pillars of building modern Egypt.