Protesters chant slogans against the Muslim Brotherhood. Photo by Y. Weeks/VOA via Wikimedia Commons

Waiting For Help

An interview on Egypt with Father Jean-Jacques Pérennès, head of the Dominicans in the Arab world, scholar of Christian-Islamic relations, and resident in Cairo since 1998.
Luca Fiore

It would be too simple to say that everything has returned to the way it was at the time of Mubarak. And yet, the inflated figures in the Constitutional referendum (98% approval) are reminiscent of the numbers at the time of the rais (leader)–as are the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, the prohibition of demonstrations, and the arrests of the opposition. The smell of military dictatorship is in the air.

It is true that, before the revolution, bombs did not go off in downtown Cairo and demonstrations did not end in bloodbaths, which is what happened on the third anniversary of Mubarak’s deposition. There were 30 deaths and 750 arrests in two days–the kind of numbers that one finds in war reporting.

Egypt is different; many things have happened. Now, over and above all else, a better Constitution exists than the one written by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012. But the dangers remain, and the hopes for real change risk burning up in the political oven.

The best way to make things go badly is to act with the idea that they are going badly. This is the risk run, above all, by the Western countries that are looking on, according to Father Jean- Jacques Pérennès, head of the Dominicans in the Arab world, scholar of Christian-Islamic relations, and resident in Cairo since 1998.

What sort of country is Egypt after the vote on the new Constitution?
It is a tired country. For three years, it has been searching–without success–for political and economic equilibrium. Tourism and foreign investments have collapsed, with enormous consequences on employment. To this is added the lack of security. In the time of Mubarak, we were used to complete security, but it’s not like that today. The country is tired, and needs to find a solution. The people are waiting for some kind of miracle–“the man of providence,” someone who will come to save the country.

Today it is also a broken country.
Yes, there is serious division since President Morsi was ousted. I think that the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood bear a lot of responsibility for it, since they have asked their adherents to resist to the point of martyrdom. They want to go “until the end,” without negotiating. And, on the other side, we are again in the tradition that has seen the military in power since the times of Nasser. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak were all generals. This is not healthy, either–we are not in a normal situation of political negotiation.

In what sense?
There is no real political debate. The government declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a “terrorist organization.” Some of them might be terrorists, given the violence that we have seen–but not all of them. Their exclusion will not favor a softening of their positions. And then there is the fact that, in the days leading up to the referendum, it was practically impossible to campaign for “no.”

Democratic elections brought undemocratic people to power. They were deposed in the name of democracy, but replaced by another undemocratic regime. This is truly paradoxical.
Yes, the people reacted to the danger that, under Morsi, an Islamic regime not disposed to give up power could result. The Muslim Brotherhood was ousted in accordance with the will of the vast majority of Egyptians. This is difficult to make people understand outside of Egypt. In the West, people are scandalized by the military coup. Certainly, it was the military who deposed Morsi, but it was the people who didn’t want him anymore.

“It is important that a country with a Muslim majority says that it does not want an Islamist Constitution.”

What sort of text is the new Constitution? How is it different from the one in 2012?
It is a fairly good text, because the Constitution that Morsi wrote had a very strong Islamic imprint. Religion pervaded the text–not just Article 2 on the role of Islamic law, but also Article 219, which left the possibility of interpretation of the Constitution to judges, with the risk of an Islamist reading of the law. All of that is gone now. Here, too, Westerners say that the power of the military is stronger with the new Constitution. It’s true, but at the same time, there is less religion in the political vision. Then, much will depend on how the principles are carried out in practice. But it is an important step that a country with a Muslim majority says that it does not want an Islamist Constitution. This is interesting–something of modernity is beginning to enter.

But even the Salafis, who are, in theory, the most fundamentalist of the Muslim Brotherhood, approve of the new text. Why?
Opportunism. When the Muslim Brotherhood decided to boycott the political game at every level, this opened up a lot of room to maneuver for the Salafis. They are convinced that the Egyptians have a religious vision of politics, and they think that it’s worthwhile to come to an agreement with the military party, trusting that the people will follow them. We’ll see. In the 50- member committee that drafted the text, there were situations of impasse due to the conflict between a liberal vision and an Islamic vision. But then even the Salafis campaigned for “yes.”

Is there a possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood will involve itself in the democratic process again?
I don’t know. Their anger is understandable– they waited for 80 years to come to power, and then they were driven back underground after a year. Their leaders were in jail, they had been persecuted… But they, too, must be critical of themselves; they must understand why the Egyptians didn’t want them anymore. In my opinion, they made two errors: sectarianism and incompetence. They sought a monopoly of power and did not give adequate responses to the Egyptians’ demands. They spoke of religion and ideology when the people wanted schools, hospitals, and work. The Muslim Brotherhood needs to reflect on this, because they are a part of the political landscape, and they should participate actively in the life of this country.

Is there a democratic path to the pacification of the country?
In order to arrive at a democracy as we conceive of it in the West, it will take a long time. There were some who thought that, in two or three years, we would be able to throw off a system that had worked for 40 years. It will take 20 or 25 years. But there are some positive steps: for example, the people started to go and vote. The voter turnout results are good, stated at 38 percent. If we think that the Muslim Brotherhood did not vote, then that means that potentially 55 to 60 percent of the population is involved in the political process. In the past, no one voted because it was useless, and the turnout was no higher than 10 to 12 percent. I think that this is noteworthy– the people are taking an interest in politics. They have started to go on strike and to stage demonstrations. It is a sign of freedom. I think that what is needed is an education to politics, which happens slowly.

The young people in Tahrir Square and the liberal parties came unprepared to the elections that saw Morsi’s victory. Is there any progress from the point of view of their organization and of contact with the territory?
No, their voice is not heard. It’s terrible. There is no real initiative on their part. And this doesn’t help. Everyone says that the next president will be General al-Sisi, but I fear that, if there is no real change in the first months, the Muslim Brotherhood will take the opportunity to say, “See? The alternative to us doesn’t work.” It is dangerous; we could return to chaos.

Will the economy be the key theme?
Yes, and I think that international solidarity will be very important. In recent months, Europe and America have criticized the deposition of Morsi with the help of the military, bringing economic aid into question. But this is mistaken. The West must continue to help Egypt, because I would not want the only aid to come from the Persian Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. The Egyptians are disposed to listen to our advice, but only if they see that a friendship exists, if they see that we are with them. During these last months, the West seemed like a teacher who was disciplining a naughty student. And this will not work with the Egyptians.

And the Christians? What is the situation, the guarantees for them and their involvement?
The Christians supported Morsi’s deposition. But they paid an enormous price with the attacks on churches last August. It was a great shock for them. However, there are some positive signs. This year, for example, for the first time in history, the President of the Republic sent greetings to the Coptic Pope Tawadros. Everyone noticed the positivity of this gesture. We are hoping. The eight million Christians are an important component of the country. The situation is not dramatic in all of Egypt. There are some very difficult situations–for example, in Minya, in central Egypt. But here in Cairo, we live almost normally. However, it is urgent that we promote political dialogue–it is the only alternative to violence.