An Arab Springtime? (Part 1)

Egyptian Jesuit Analyzes Revolution Wave

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By Inma Álvarez

ROME, FEB. 24, 2011 ( The revolution under way in the Arab world began Dec. 17 when Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian, set himself on fire to protest a policewoman seizing the scale he used to sell fruit because he didn’t have a permit.

Before igniting himself, it’s said he yelled, “How do you expect me to make a living?” Countrymen sharing his discontent took to the streets in a series of protests that brought the downfall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled Tunisia on Jan. 14.

The movement extended rapidly to Egypt, where a million people gathered for days in Cairo, bringing about the forced resignation of Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11.

In recent days, protests have succeeded one another across the region, the bloodiest so far in Libya, where the Moammar Gadhafi regime is murdering scores of protestors.

Despite the bloodshed and the uncertain future, Jesuit Father Samir Khalil, a native of Egypt and a leading expert on Christian-Muslim dialogue, thinks the unrest implies a “springtime” in the Arab world. Father Samir spoke to ZENIT on this issue.

Part 2 of the interview will be published Friday.

ZENIT: What is your reading of the recent protests in Egypt, which brought down the Mubarak regime, but also those of Tunisia, Algeria, Iran, and now in Libya, calling for an end to the old regimes?

Father Samir: These movements were born more or less spontaneously. One notices that in the main they are made up of young people. There are no political parties or organized groups. It is a massive reaction of the people.

A second point common to all these movements is that they are directed against regimes that have lasted for decades, as in the case of Tunisia (21 years), Egypt (almost 30 years), Libya (42 years), Yemen (21 years), etc. All this almost everywhere means that the people are fed up; they want a change and express it with a “go away!” The mottoes in Arabic say “irhal,” which means “go away,” as if saying “enough now!” The opposition movement to Mubarak is also called in Arabic “enough,” “kefaya!”

The third aspect that impresses me, also common to all these countries, is the motivation, which is essentially to be able to find a job, to create a family, and to live with a minimum of decency. In the case of Tunisia, it all began with the young Tunisian who had studied and couldn’t find work. In the end he decided to buy, with the little resources he had, some vegetables to sell on the street. And it was then that the police arrived and said to him: “You don’t have a permit,” and confiscated all his goods. His life truncated by one blow, when he was struggling to live, he then burned himself alive. And this is what aroused such a movement in Tunisia.

In Egypt we have almost 30 million Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day, unable to live even simply. And this situation is found everywhere.

We see meanwhile the contrast with the leaders, with the rulers — not that they are exempt from problems in life, but that they lead a luxurious life; we have learned that they are very rich, that they have not millions but billions of dollars. Up to now it was all accepted, but now the reaction has come: This cannot be, it isn’t just.

A fourth characteristic that surprised me is that there has been no aggressiveness, as is typical, against anyone. I mean that America hasn’t been attacked, the American or Israeli flag hasn’t been trampled; the people were simply concerned about their particular fate. And there has been no attempt to kill or imprison the heads of government: they are condemned but they are allowed to go. It remains a movement that isn’t against anyone, but for life — for a more decent, more fitting life.

All this leads me to say that it is a real springtime that is being proclaimed in the Arab world and that we hope will end in something positive.

ZENIT: Is it the beginning of a path toward democratization or, instead, to give power to the radicals?

Father Samir: I am inclined to say that we are moving toward a greater democracy. Seeing the photos and videos it is clear that they are not young men manipulated by radical movements, by extremists. It was quite clear in Egypt, for example, that Muslims and Christians were going hand in hand, and the extremists have not succeeded in pitting them against each other. The politicians have been unable to do this; they have disappeared. They tried to a degree to foment a counter-revolution, and then they left. They’re not at all radical extremists.

There was almost an atmosphere of celebration, a celebration of the people. I think they want more democracy. There is a fact that is not noticed in Europe, in the West, and it is that the people in the Arab world are aware, and they write about it every day, that the Arab world is not well at all. That we are among the worst in the world. This feeling is very widespread among intellectuals: What have we done for the good of humanity? And there is an aspiration to be able to live as the other countries do.

The people are very conscious of Europe. The Arab world is very close to Europe. All have relatives who live in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Belgium, in England, etc. and they know that here life is different. They know that here, despite the economic difficulties, there is more justice, that if one needs to go to the hospital for an operation, one can do so even if one is poor: The European democratic system allows it even if one doesn’t pay. One knows that one can be defended by a lawyer, even if one can’t pay. Justice functions both for the poor as well as the rich, or almost! They know all this through friends, and also through the Internet, which people use more and more, or they hear other friends say it. This is creating a very strong call for democracy. This is why I believe that the radical movements (whether religious, communist or other) are not representative in this revolution. And they are not represented.

ZENIT: Your article “Imam e intellettualli egiziani: Rinnovare l’Islam verso la modernita” [Egyptian Imams and Intellectuals: Renew Islam Toward Modernity] awakened great interest on the Internet. In one day it was published by more than 12,400 Arab sites. That document speaks of separation between religion and state, the remodeling of the role of women, and other topics. Is this document symbolic in regard to the spirit of the protests?

Father Samir: I sent the document, published by AsiaNews, to which you refer. It came out on Jan. 24, that is, the day before this revolution [began in Egypt]. That wasn’t planned. As you say, it aroused great interest. In a few hours I found it on 12,400 Arab sites, sparking more than 160 responses in the forum of the weekly review. Then the revolution focused attention on other things. That is why, after the 25th, there are few comments on these sites. Our mind is on other things.

However, also in these movements, separation between religion and state always comes up again; it’s not only in the document with the 22 points. It is an appeal everywhere! In fact I was just reading in a Tunisian forum about secularity, and the majority of the comments are saying: “I am for true secularity in Tunisia.” Some reply, “But Tunisia is quite secular,” and the answer is, “Yes, but on some points it isn’t secular, it does not give liberty not to practice one’s religion openly,” “it does not treat men and women equally in inheritance,” and similar things.

What I mean to say is that this desire to make a distinction between religion and state is a common sentiment. Religion is something good in itself, and we don’t want to impede it, but it must remain in its field, as something private in a sense, which does not enter into national law. Human rights, on the other hand, yes! People are beginning to distinguish between religion, which has ethical principles, and rights, which are the essential foundation of life, both of the individual as well as of groups. They are saying here
that we cannot give up our human rights. And if religious law were to go against human rights, then we prefer human rights before Sharia. I see that more people are expressing themselves along this line. I think that there is a more generalized awareness of human rights, of true democracy and of liberty.

[Translation by ZENIT] [Part 2 of this interview will be published Friday]
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