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What’s in store for Egypt?

16 February 2012

MRG’s Communications Intern Sofia Nazalya attended a panel discussion marking the first anniversary of the Egypt uprising and found some interesting perspectives and a decidedly mixed, but healthy, atmosphere of scepticism and hope for the future.

What is the pulse of the Arab revolt? Where is the revolution in Egypt headed and why did it happen in the first place? These were the themes of ’The Pulse of the Arab Revolt’, an event hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) to mark the launch of their new publication of the same name, and indeed to commemorate the first anniversary of 25 January, a day that Egyptians the world over will not soon forget.

Since the results of the Egyptian election that saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party capturing 47% of the seats, and the Salafist Al-Nour party taking 25%, much has been said in the media regarding the ‘rise of Islamism’ in Egypt, ranging from a cautious yet anxious wait-and-see approach, to a categorical rejection of Islamists across the board. There are those who argue that the latter approach oversimplifies the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and risks spurring the more extreme.

Egyptian Copts praying at Tahrir Square. Credit: Wikimedia

In my last blog on the Amazigh in Libya I wrote about the importance of protecting indigenous rights in Libya and the danger a hyper-nationalist state would pose to these rights. Is Egypt heading towards hyper-nationalism? Mariz Tadros, one of the panellists at the event and a Research Fellow at IDS, reflected on this question. She noted that there were instances where both the Army and the Islamists have accused Copts of being ‘divisive’ forces and those who champion women’s rights as ‘agents of Western imperialism’. Even though Egypt’s revolt began with calls for social justice, Tadros notes that the current framework for social justice still excluded certain elements of society – notably women and the minority Copts.

And indeed this exclusion has meant the ongoing repression of the Copts. Copts have had a turbulent history within Egypt, having faced discrimination for decades. Just a month before the fall of the Mubarak regime, 21 people were killed and 70 injured in a suspected suicide bombing during a New Year’s Eve church service in Alexandria.

But while there is now a freedom from fear in the region, as noted by Ramy Aly, a panellist and a Research Fellow in the School of Global Studies, the same cannot be said for the Copts. The death of 27 protestors, mostly Copts, during the Maspero demonstrations in October 2011 against the demolition of a church, spelled a new wave of fear for the minority community. It must be noted however that it was the Army that inflicted the violence in this instance.

Maspero demonstrations in October 2011, which led to the death of 27 protestors, mostly Copts. Credit: Gigi Ibrahim

How do we understand this situation of intolerance and violence coming from both secular and religious forces? Aly points to an embedded culture of militarism as the underlying problem. He argues that the removal of Mubarak has not removed the laws and social norms that have existed in Egypt for years, with the reality on the ground seeing the extension of war-based values, practices and ideologies. Any mention of minority rights is seen through the prism of ’national security’, as though by ensuring the victory of minorities and the empowerment of women, the revolution would ultimately fail.

One common thread ran through all the panellists’ arguments: Even though the dictator has been wrestled out of power, policy has yet to change. Without legislative development Aly argues, a vacuum of rights and freedoms will continue to exist. So what now is the shape of things to come for minority rights? The answer depends on several things, not least how one construes the term ‘Islamists’ – in itself perhaps a counterproductive term since it makes little attempt to recognize the many differences between the various camps.

With the  Muslim Brotherhood gaining such strong support amongst Egyptian voters, they have the mammoth task of doing Egypt’s revolution justice. Tadros argued that the Muslim Brotherhood may be forced to open their terms of social justice, being the majority party in Parliament. Aly points to the current move away from militarism, best demonstrated with united calls for the end of military rule, as a reason for hope for the protection of rights and freedoms. Maha Abdel Rahman, another panellist and professor at Cambridge University, observed that the past year had seen high levels of politicization amongst the Egyptian people, the foundation for a people-powered democracy.

This perhaps is the new framework for Egypt, away from the out-dated model of entrenched elitism. Whatever one’s opinion is of the Muslim Brotherhood, the reality is that the question of minority rights will be a litmus test to prove that they are capable of leading a true democracy.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.