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Arab spring turns to Christian winter

2011 October 14
by Paul Vallely

The resignation of Egypt’s finance minister in protest at the killing of 25 people by the Egyptian army yesterday has raised the temperature in an already over-heated situation. The largely peaceful revolution which overthrew the country’s then president, Hosni Mubarak – sweeping forward a tide of change throughout the Arab world – is in danger of descending into chaos and violence in the region’s most important country. We should be worried.

The Egyptian army, which stepped in to take charge, to popular acclaim, is at the centre of the growing crisis. Sectarian tensions are rising, strikes for higher salaries have become common among teachers, workers, doctors, nurses and bus drivers. Unemployment, poverty and inflation are high and economic growth low. In a country where more than 20 percent of the population exists below the poverty line – and the very poorest rely on groups like Muslim Brotherhood for food, medicines and schooling – the potential for trouble is growing rather than receding.

The violence against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority is in part merely a symptom of all this for they stand to lose more than any other group in a country where the future could hold anything from a liberal democracy to an Islamic republic but where a drifting continuation of  military rule increasingly appears the most likely option.

Those killed were Christian demonstrators who were protesting against the burning of a church in southern Egypt. Low-level discrimination against the Copts has been common for decades but the Islamist revival in recent times has heightened tensions. Still they were to some extent protected under the Mubarak regime which made gestures of support to the community, making Christmas an official holiday and allowing the building of new churches. It was part of President Mubarak’s approach of keeping order through divide-and-rule tactics plus a heavy-handed security machine.

The fear is that, now that the lid of oppression is off, inter-community violence might increase, much as it did in Yugoslavia after Tito. After the fall of Mubarak, a number of anti-Coptic riots of growing violence broke out in various cities which the army appeared to tolerate. More recently troops have looked on as churches were burned. Now the army-controlled media has been encouraging Islamist radicals to take the law into their own hands against the “Christian mob”.

This is only part of the worry about the Egyptian army. Its senior officers have repeatedly said that they wish to hand over power to civilians as soon as possible. But the timetable of transition keeps being extended. They are now are talking staying in office for at least a year, and maybe much longer. Foreign investors are being concerned by their erratic economic decisions. Now they have crushed a peaceful demonstration demanding justice leaving protestors dead and 500 more injured.

The omens are not good. The Copts constitute between 10 and 15 per cent of the population but they are far better educated than the majority Muslim population. Many are fleeing the country. Some reports suggest that  60,000 Copts have gone since Mubarak fell. Egypt as a whole will suffer if the Arab spring turns to Christian winter as it has in Iraq where over half the Christian population – some 400,000 people – have been driven out for fear of Islamist pogroms.

Egypt should be a model for the right kind of change in the Arab world. That could still come to pass. Political lobby groups have come together recently and demanded of the military that it institutes a representative civil government with an end to emergency laws and the trial of civilians in military courts. They have presented the army’s ruling council with four possible detailed timelines to civilian rule by the middle of next year. Egypt’s top brass must now adopt one of those timetables, simplify the complex voting procedures and speed up the process of electing a president. Democracy is a delicate bloom. It will not be nurtured without the co-operation and collective efforts of all parts of Egyptian society. But that process needs to begin soon.

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