01-02-2011 - Traces, n. 2


After a revolt that put an end to the 30-year regime, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an expert on Islam explains what kind of "profound renewal is needed now."

After an 18-day-revolt and general strike (that resulted in numerous dead and wounded), President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down as President of Egypt. The news was greeted with a huge outburst of joy by thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square–the heart of the demonstrations. Mubarak has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state but, as this article goes to press, Egypt's destiny is still in the balance, tied to a non-existent leadership. Only over the next few days will it become clear what role will be held by Mohammed El Baradei, the leader of the opposition, and Omar Suleiman, the former head of the secret service who was promoted to Vice-President, and what the army will do.
Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, one of the major Catholic experts on Islam and a lecturer at Rome's Pontifical Oriental Institute and at St. Joseph's University, Beirut, Lebanon, explains what was behind this revolt and what the future could hold. "Discontent in Egypt is not something recent: it has always been there. It was the shock waves from Algeria and Tunisia that catalyzed this wholly unusual reaction."
"The causes of the revolt are essentially two," Fr. Samir explains "First, the enormous poverty, which revealed its full extent with the international crisis. Forty percent of the population of Egypt lives below the poverty level of two dollars a day."
The second cause is political. "There is freedom, but it is controlled. Press censorship, for example, is less than in Tunisia and in Syria, but everything is under the control of the regime." The intellectual class is very much appreciated in the country: nevertheless, it reveals an enormous educational vacuum. There is little formation, so people fend for themselves as best they can. It is this vacuum that leads us to fear the most serious consequence of the revolt–the specter of political Islam. "For the time being, the Islamic movements have been on the margins of the revolt. There is a real fear of a fundamentalist takeover, but with the factors we have presently in hand it doesn't seem likely to be realized, because the movement in the streets is truly a movement of the people." If there is fear, it is because the Muslim Brotherhood, excluded from political activity by Mubarak in order to ensure a secular state, "still has a strong influence over the people." This is the Islamic group that, under Sadat, managed to introduce article 2 into the Constitution (the sharia is the main source of law). Though its members can only stand as independent candidates, these still comprised more than 20% of the Parliament up to November last year. "Islamic propaganda has had a powerful influence on the whole of social life, which has become more and more Islamized, exploiting the government's weakness as regards social reforms."
What most worries Fr. Samir is a radicalized but merely superficial and formal religiosity. Even in this direction, though, there are signs of change. On January 24th, a "document for religious renewal" was published in the weekly Al-Yawn al-Sâbi' (The Seventh Day). The document was submerged in the popular revolt, "but the signatories, well-known Islamic personalities, elaborated 22 very revolutionary points–the interpretation of sources; relationships with women; the rights of Christians; separation of religion and state: all crucial points rooted in the awareness that a change of direction is needed, a profound renewal of society."
For Fr. Samir, the mere fact that the document was published is extraordinary. "It is a sign of hope regarding the revolt; whatever the outcome, Egypt is no longer what is was. People have seen that a change is possible.
A. S.