Future economic assistance to Arab states should be linked to respect for freedom and liberty, a senior leader of an Egyptian Christian organisation has said.
“You underestimate the people and you overestimate the rulers,” the Rev Dr Andrea Zaki Stephanous told a session on relations between Europe and the Arab world at the 1-5 June 2011 German Protestant Kirchentag (church convention) in Dresden.
He is the general director of the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services.
The once-every-two-years Kirchentag is Germany's biggest Protestant event, gathering tens of thousands of people for five days of debates, worship, music and cultural events.
Egyptians had been living both under the poverty line and under a “line of fear”, until the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, Stephanous said. “Now the people have been able to destroy the line of fear.”
Still, he warned, “No one can predict the future of the Arab world.”
He added that Egypt needed a forceful anti-corruption policy, strong opposition parties and the building of a civil society to act as a check on the state.
“There are no real opposition parties. We need to train and build the capacity of opposition parties,” Stephanous stated. “If there are no opposition parties there will be a new dictatorship.”
At the same time, Egypt needs a “new concept of coexistence” for its multicultural and multireligious society, based on a secular or “civil” state.
About 90 per cent of Egypt’s 82 million people are Muslim, and 10 per cent are Christian.
Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution in force until the uprising stated that Islam is the religion of the state and that the “principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)”, Stephanous noted.
“We are not saying this article should be eradicated,” said Stephanous. However, Christians wanted to see an additional reference to Christian principles and human rights in this constitutional article.
Syrian philosopher Sadiq Jalal al-Azm described the uprisings as a “common historical moment” in the Arab world, reaching from tribal-based societies such as Yemen through to urbanised countries like Egypt.
“It's a long time since there was this kind of Arab unity,” al-Azm stated. “Some kind of civil society is imposing itself even in societies like Libya and Yemen.”
The uprisings were creating “integrity and dignity in these police states”, he said.
Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a Social Democratic member of the German parliament and a former development minister, described the events in the Arab world as a “historic turning point”.
She praised the involvement of women, and said that women’s rights must not be rolled back.
At the same time, she called for an end to arms exports to authoritarian regimes, and for new political structures to promote cooperation.
One model, she suggested, could be the Helsinki process of the 1970s and 1980s on cooperation and security between Eastern and Western Europe. This process had linked security, economic and human rights issues.
Elmar Brok, a German Christian Democrat politician who sits in the European Parliament, said the Arab uprisings reminded him of the changes that swept Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.
As with Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the West had followed a “false policy” of promoting stability, he said. “What we need to do is to promote the stability of freedom.”
* For more information about the German Protestant Kirchentag: http://www.kirchentag.de/home.html 
* More from Ekklesia on the Kirchentag: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/kirchentag 
© Stephen Brown, an Ekklesia associate, is a Geneva-based journalist. He is also the author of From Disaffection to Dissent: The Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation as a precursor of the peaceful revolution in the GDR, published in German in 2010 by the Verlag Otto Lembeck, Frankfurt/Main.