Bobby Kennedy often noted the inscription chiseled by a conscripted worker into one of the building blocks of the Great Pyramid, “none had the courage to stand up and speak out.” Recently, it seems, a salutary change has taken place in the Egyptian character. No longer are they afraid to defy unjust decrees and egocentric, self-serving rule by Pharaoh.
During the insurgency, January 25 to February 11, the new Egyptian spirit was manifested in many ways. Particularly inspiring to persecuted Christians in the Middle East was the Sunday Mass midway through the revolution. For an hour, Cairo’s now famous Liberation Square became a church. It was a moving scene as Muslim protestors ringed the Coptic mass to protect the congregation against pro-government thugs.
“This is for all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, and I am proud to be Egyptian today because we are showing the world how important our country is for all the people who live here,” said Farid, a 33-year-old Christian. “In the name of Jesus and Muhammad we unify our ranks,” Father Ihab al-Kharat said in his sermon.
After Mass, Muslim protesters began chanting “We are all one,” or “one hand,” in a direct contradiction to the perception that Islam is all about jihad.
The first populist insurgency in Egypt in more than five millennia, has created something of a rift among conservatives in the USA. Glenn Beck is among those who see an oppressive tyrant as the lesser of two evils. More dangerous, from this perspective, is a democracy in which the Muslim Brotherhood can put a hat into the ring. Others, however, like Ron Paul, oppose a meddling U.S. foreign policy, and particularly deplore the propping up of dictators.
The term, “conservative,” is almost as overspread and ambiguous in our culture as words like tolerance, love, and patriotism. On the question of whether to laud or lament the downfall of Mubarak, conservatives fall into two general categories: (1) Defenders of the status quo when it bolsters international stability as represented by the American empire, i.e. pax Americana. (2) Enthusiasts for the spirit of 1776, i.e. emulation of the founding tenets of our own Republic, and of the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence.
Leftists in America are similarly split between self-styled pragmatists and idealists. The leading imperialists – Obama, Biden, Clinton – stand in contrast to Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now,” and Thom Hartmann, the radio talk show host. From the outset, both Goodman and Hartmann broadcast decidedly in support of the populist insurgency. But on the third day of the revolution, Vice-President Biden blurted out what the Administration and preceding Administrations have been mouthing for 30 years. Mubarak is no dictator and should stay in office, said Biden. Only after Mubarak’s resignation did President Obama stop straddling the fence and give wholehearted endorsement to the protestors.
Christians too are divided. The fear-mongers among us worry about national security, and thus resemble the trepidatious Loyalists during our War for Independence. It was their propensity to play it safe which prompted Benjamin Franklin’s remark on safety vs. liberty. A people, said he, who prefer security to liberty deserve neither, and they stand to lose both.
During the American Revolution, both the Loyalists and the Patriots avowed pious principles. But I submit that the Loyalists loved God and country less, to the extent that 1 John 4:18-21 applied to their motives. For prioritizing fear, says the Apostle, diminishes both love of God and love of neighbor (and of fellow citizens).
Thus the valor of Egyptians rising to claim freedom ought to engender love for those courageous insurgents. Their eighteen day uprising should be seen in the best tradition of our forebears’ fight for liberation from the tyrant, King George III. Let us draw inspiration from what happened in Egypt, much as Lech Walesa inspired us in 1989, or earlier heroes like Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce, Toussaint L’Ouverture, George Washington.
But what about the Christian minority in Egypt, the Copts, who constitute upwards of ten percent of Egypt’s population? During Hosni Mubarak’s iron rule, no full scale pogroms against Copts occurred; although his autocracy failed to prevent the car bombing that killed 21 and injured 79 outside the Saints Church in Alexandria a few weeks earlier. Nonetheless, the proposed rationale is that it is better to have a strong man refereeing imperfectly between Christians and Muslims, than have a more democratic climate with the minority at the relative mercy of the majority.
On the contrary, however, the Coptic / Muslim unity during the revolution highlighted the flaw in the view that Muslims and Christians must always be a loggerheads. This fallacy has been exposed before. In 1995, the world witnessed an alliance formed between Islamic nations and the Vatican at the Beijing women’s conference. Mary Ann Glendon, leader of the delegation from Vatican City, exercised her diplomatic skills to bring together nearly all the Muslim delegates to outvote the EU and U.S. delegates on abortion, population control, and “sexual rights.”
The fear-firsters tend also to see Muslims as more supportive of violence generally than are Westerners. Osama bin Laden has done a lot to cultivate such a stereotype. But eighteen days of peaceful protest by Egyptian Muslims challenged this image.
Granted, in response to provocation by Mubarak’s henchmen – the police and pro-government gangs – protesters did indeed fight back. They did burn down the NDP building, the ruling party headquarters which supported despotism under the guise of democracy. They did attack the police stations from which Mubarak’s Gestapo sallied forth to attack peaceful protesters. They did use force to detain police in plain clothes – agent provocateurs – implicated in looting to discredit the uprising.
But clearly, such revolutionary violence was mainly in reaction to unprovoked attacks by the government and its supporters. In fact as the crowds grew larger and increasingly unassailable, they exhibited remarkable peacefulness and displayed orderly non-violent demeanor. They policed themselves and disarmed protestors before they could join the massive encampment in central Cairo. They embraced and applauded the army (as opposed to the police), and the army returned the feeling. It was a feature of the revolution remarked upon by many media sources, and attested to by innumerable eyewitnesses.
The contrast with Iraq is also instructive. In the war torn land of old Mesopotamia, we saw no alliance of Christians and Muslims against the common foe. Instead the perception among Muslims was that Iraqi Christians were associated somehow with military occupation by the U.S. – an ostensibly Christian nation.
Iraq is very much about division – between Christians and Muslims, as well as between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. It is a discord exacerbated by the British after World War I, and accentuated by Americans today.
As for Egypt, had President Obama backed Mubarak to the hilt during the uprising, the Iraqi dynamic might have prevailed among more of the protesters. To be sure, they were incensed enough by the “made in USA” labels found on tear gas canisters fired at demonstrators.
Fortunately anti-Americanism, and anti-Christianity by association, was little to be seen on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities. Instead we witnessed a blessed deliverance, with insurgents marching in tandem under the crescent and the cross.