The French historian and educator Fernand Braudel used the term “longue durée” (or the plurality of historical time) to describe how changes in the deep socio-economic and technological structures of civilisations play out over long periods of time. He postulated that such shifts are as vital in determining the history of societies and nations as major political events and crises which give priority to long-term historical structures over events.
His name sprang to my mind few days ago as we all watched Egyptians in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other parts of the country celebrating the first anniversary of the 25 January 2011 Revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and set forth many changes that would have simply been unthinkable twelve months ago. After all, not only has Egypt rid itself of a president, it has also elected a new Majlis al-Sha’abParliament). It has witnessed many demonstrations, some of them peaceful and popular whilst others bloody and violent, with the young men and women who ignited the revolution struggling to maintain the focus on their objectives in order to prevent the country from sliding into further corruption, nepotism, oppression, misrule, discrimination and top-down governance.
But there have also been fears across many communities. As the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cosy up for the next stages of drawing up a constitution and electing a president, there are indications that important cross-sections of Egyptian political and civil society might well be marginalised again. For instance, instead of just repealing the 1981 Emergency law, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi announced that the military government would limit its use of extrajudicial arrests and detentions to “thuggery”. There has also been some alarm about the continued interrogations of foreign-financed groups, including the US-based National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House, in that such moves target the much-cherished and hard-won freedoms of thought and expression that the likes of Naguib Sawiris, a businessman and founder of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, have advocated for in the ‘new’ Egypt.
Equally seriously, Egypt’s foreign currency reserves have fallen from a peak of $36 billion to about $10 billion and could even run out soon. The currency is under severe pressure, and a steep drop in the exchange rate could bring painful inflation and more social unrest. Youth unemployment is about 25 per cent, a dangerous situation where 60 per cent of the citizens are under the age of thirty - so much so that SCAF have now resurrected a loan request for a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, despite the fact that there were initial fears it might infringe upon Egypt’s sovereignty and introduce further austerity measures in the country. So with mounting debts, negligible growth and dwindling foreign reserves, Egypt’s military rulers and the new Parliament face a potential crisis that could still undermine a peaceful political transition.
In the midst of all those turbulent and portentous changes, I am not at all surprised by the Statement (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16213) issued by His Grace Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, on the first anniversary of the uprising at Tahrir Square. This statement comes almost a month after the Alexandria Memorial Service held at the Coptic Church Centre in remembrance of all those killed in an explosion in the Church of Saints Mark & Peter in Alexandria on 1 January 2011. The statement is a thoughtful and cautious one that addresses a turning point in Egypt’s contemporary history and keeps afloat the living hope that a cohesive nation would come about once the dust of the revolution begins to settle down. I believe that the most striking sentence in this Episcopal statement is the call that the reforms - once implemented - should instil “a sense of citizenship, ownership and responsibility into every Egyptian; ceasing to focus on the person's religious or political stance, but more on his or her contribution and accountability to a single nation state and equality before the law.”
As a high-ranking Egyptian cleric, Bishop Angaelos should clearly articulate his hopes and fears. And let us be candid enough to admit that there are fears among many Egyptians - not least the Egyptian Coptic Christians (largely Orthodox, but with considerable Catholic and Evangelical communities) - that a deal between SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood might affect radically the direction in which the country is steered in the next twelve months. After all, it seems to me that none of the potential presidential candidates who have declared themselves eligible are acceptable to either body, and many pundits have opined that the sole exception might well be Mohamed Selim Al-Aawah, an Islamist lawyer with controversial anti-Coptic sentiment and a blurred association with the regime of the ICC-indicted Sudanese President Omar Bashir.
In those past twelve months, I have often written that those ‘revolutions’, ‘revolts’ or ‘uprisings’ spell out a nascent form of Arab revivalism that has awakened ordinary peoples’ thirst for dignity, citizenship rights and economic as well as social justice in the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. But how will this take shape? Perhaps one valid formula was provided by an Egyptian youth organiser who spelt out his key demands with four rhyming Arabic phrases: “An elected parliament that represents me, a president chosen by the citizens, an independent and fair judiciary that protects my citizen rights, and socio-economic policies that empower me.”
The future of Egypt remains uncertain and is fraught with unpredictable pitfalls and possible setbacks. It therefore requires a combination of political vision and birr as much as the persistent resolve to move forward and to take calculated risks whilst always avoiding the precipice. Perhaps this is one model for a reborn nation that the likes of Wael Ghoneim, author of Revolution 2.0, have called for in the past year. In fact, the popular mantra that ‘we are all Khaled Sa’eed’ posted on countless Facebook pages in memory of one victim of the Egyptian revolution applies equally to Christians and Muslims - in Egypt certainly, but across the whole region too.
However, this mammoth task can only be achieved through inclusiveness, accountability, transparency and the willingness to forgo the arrogance of power and pursue instead the necessary reforms that would entitle Egyptians - and all other Middle East and North Africa peoples - to become full citizens enjoying equally their God-given and man-made rights.
In his Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, Jack Goldstone linked the occurrence of revolutions to slow demographic processes. This is not unlike Fernand Braudel’s concept of the “longue durée”, and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa region have certainly learnt the meaning of patience. So is it not only idoneous that we too should share that sense of patient but cautious optimism with them as we watch history unfold in front of our eyes?
© 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