God and Caesar in the Middle East & North Africa

By Harry Hagopian
17 Oct 2011

Populus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur! Attributed to the Roman satirist Petronius, this mediaeval aphorism can roughly be translated as “The people want to be deceived, therefore they will be deceived”. This thought flashed through my mind on Sunday 8 October 2011 - dubbed Bloody Sunday - as I followed the confrontations that pitted Coptic Christian demonstrators against the Egyptian army at Maspero - named after the French Egyptologist Gaston Camille Charles Maspero - in Cairo.

Mind you, such tensions are not fresh in Egypt in terms of their regular frequency and intensity as we have previously seen from Imbaba to Atfih, and this latest episode of violence - resulting in 25 deaths and 329 injuries - was sparked by the torching last month of the Coptic Mar Guirguis church in Edfu, a city in Aswan governorate in southern Egypt.

Paradoxically, those horrid scenes we saw on our television screens stood in sharp contrast to the signs of solidarity a few months earlier when the cross and the crescent congregated at Tahrir Square demanding together an end to a presidential dictatorship and claiming citizenship rights for all Egyptians - Muslims and Christians, secular or religious. At the time, some pundits predicted a new conviviality being born between Egyptian Muslims and the [roughly] 10 per cent of Egyptian Christians. So what is it that occurred to re-transform that drama of togetherness into this trauma of bitterness?

If one follows the reams of analyses on this particular incident, the finger of accusation would point squarely at the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in Cairo. This is the same military that played a pivotal role during the demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak when it refused to fire on peaceful protesters and was widely applauded as a highly-respected and competent body that would oversee a peaceful transition to democracy.

However, nine months into the 25th of January revolution in Egypt, the reputation of this military council has been tarnished severely. It is increasingly at odds with the people and even seems to be contributing toward instability. Today, many Egyptians fear that the ruling military will spare no effort to retain power and prevent ordinary citizens from exercising their political rights. In fact, the news conference held by two generals to explain the latest incidents failed to mount a plausible let alone transparent version of events.

Many contradictions coloured the generals’ rebuttals, not least a failure to admit that some of the dead were either crushed by military vehicles or shot at by soldiers as evidenced by witnesses and autopsies. Not only that, but latent fears that the SCAF are resorting to the tricky political machinations of the Mubarak era were exacerbated further when Major-General Mahmoud Hegazy, speaking of the military, stated, We will keep the power until we have a president - in other words quite possibly till 2013.

However, I still do not buy fully into the thesis that this resurgent sectarianism is a sudden phenomenon that is exclusively the fault of the SCAF. After all, sectarian rifts and ethno-religious clashes have often in the past been stoked by despotic rulers in Egypt and across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as a means of ensuring their own staying power. Instead, I would suggest that a more radical, albeit gradual metamorphosis is taking root. With the overthrow of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan presidents, and with the sustained challenges against other unreformed regimes, we are in effect witnessing perceptible shifts in the political paradigms of this region.

Simply put, the Arab Awakening of the MENA peoples against their dictators and totalitarian regimes is now assuming a more conservative and religious nature. And herein lies the real challenge for the future: it is no longer a struggle between a liberal (read lay) school of thought versus an Islamist one, but rather between a Turkish model of Islamist governance that is akin to a ‘democracy’ versus a more conservative Iranian-style brand that is better suited to a ‘theocracy’. The parameters have simply shifted region-wide and whoever succeeds in wresting control of this region and its orientations will also write the next chapter of its history.

It is in this interplay between the ‘might’ of God (a substantial proportion of religiously conservative men and women) and Caesar (the military) that many indigenous Christian communities are seeking their compasses today. Will the future be better or worse for them? Are the choices of modernity and diversity simply incompatible? Do Christians stay loyal to ruthless regimes in the hope that they will be “safeguarded” from further marginalisation? Or will they throw in their lot with the demonstrators calling for change and risk ending up more weakened or even forced out of the region altogether? Will the whole region tilt toward an austere form of political Islam where ethno-religious and political boundaries do not line up perfectly? Can local Christians eventually achieve parity in citizenship rights for their communities too?

The people want to be deceived, therefore they will be deceived: in the midst of this teratoma of political excesses and intrigues, the peoples of the MENA have clearly risen up against the yoke of oppression and are seeking to define new forms of popular sovereignty. I would defend the right of the majority to exercise freely its choices and preferences in each and every country so long as those choices and preferences do not turn predatory and ride roughshod over the rights of the smaller local communities too. So for a start, let us listen to all the local voices as they express their hopes and fears, and let us also be intellectually honest enough to admit that the road ahead might end up being quite a long and bumpy one with painful jolts and imponderables. But let us also pray that we have the resolve to stay the course.

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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