Is the Archbishop of Canterbury right on Egypt?

The Archbishop of Canterbury has made a recent public statement, followed by a statement in the House of Lords in which he was at pains to point out that the situation of violence against the Coptic Church is no simple sectarian conflict as it is portrayed in the current media. He is certainly right when it comes to the present protests against a local Governor where Christians and Muslims joined together in the protests, and when Muslims joined in support of the Copts protesting the military involvement in the attacks on the Coptic protestors. The Archbishop is also correct to draw our attention to the fact that over recent years Egypt also has enjoyed something of a reputation for tolerance and acceptance of a variety of faiths. It is certainly good to see some of the nuances of a difficult situation spelt out – and the fact that it is the Archbishop of Canterbury who is drawing these matters to public attention is helpful.

There is however a serious dimension to the current situation in Egypt that is getting less than good coverage. Some of the groups who feel their views are not being heard in Egypt have partisan views that, if expressed and listened to, would make life unpleasant for other groups. The Salafists feel they have not been properly heard in their desire to have Egypt made what many would see as an exclusively hardline Islamic state. The Copts feel they have not been heard in that hardline elements in the community are currently restricting their freedom of religion. The Grand Imam of Al Azhar has indeed defended the rights of the Coptic Christians to worship in peace, but nevertheless the attacks on Coptic Churches have increased since the Spring Revolution started and the deaths and destruction are real. The Coptic Christians have a vested interest in working for a less hardline Islamic dominated community. The Army feel their power is under threat – as is their line to their US paymasters. If their power is diminshed they will be aggrieved and are likely to work for a reestablishment of that power. According to relatively recent Pew Research polls, many in Egypt feel their dislike of Israel has been misrepresented by a previous government anxious to keep peace with Israel in return for substantial aid packaging. It would be foolish to forget that there have been previous military confrontations between Egypt and Israel and the polls of the Egyptian people show there is still widespread antagonism towards the State of Israel. If democracy is supposed to represent the will of the people, this may not be exactly what the Archbishop of Canterbury has envisaged. The foreigners who provide the specialist jobs in Egypt feel they will not be welcome if jobs are allocated according to a nationalistic policy. The Shia are nervous that by allowing the Sunni majority more say, their freedoms will be curtailed. In reality the protection of minorities has to include protecting the rights of those previously in an advantaged position.

Egypt (as with Libya) will no doubt get more democracy as a result of the displacement of the authoritarian government – after all, that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the question is how that will make for a better peace with neighbouring countries like Israel or help minority groups in the Egyptian community?

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