Suresh Mathew meets some of the Egyptians who are working to build trust amid the fires of revolutionary change
Amidst all the extraordinary scenes as the Arab Spring unfolded last year, one of the most poignant was that of Muslims protecting Christians, and Christians protecting Muslims from police violence, while at prayer during protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
Egypt has a Christian population whose roots go back thousands of years. But, like much of the Middle East, the last few decades have seen increased tensions. In the case of Egypt, many suspect Hosni Mubarak’s regime of deliberately trying to stir up trouble for Christians, perhaps in an attempt to deflect the anger which was building against the corrupt dictatorship.
Throughout all this time, a small but dedicated group inspired by the ideas of Initiatives of Change was previously known) have been working to build dialogue and trust between Muslims and Christians, and between Egypt and the West.
One of them, Dr Nagia Abdelmoghney Said, was born into a family of liberal intellectuals. Her mother, Enayat Hakeem, was one of the first women to stand for election, when women were granted the right to vote in the 1950s. Her father, Abdelmoghney Said, was twice imprisoned for his writings against British occupation, once sharing a cell with Anwar El Sadat. An advocate of labour rights, Said’s book Arab Socialism, was translated into many languages.
Nagia’s parents were introduced to the ideas of Initiatives of Change, then known as Moral Re-Armament (MRA) around the time of their engagement. Nagia grew up attending MRA meetings in Cairo and Alexandria. She remembers her parents taking her to the IofC conference centre in Caux, Switzerland, when she was almost six years old.
However, it was the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963 that led to her to conclude that hatred must be removed from people’s hearts. At a youth leadership course in Caux she was challenged by the thought that, ‘Egypt was the birthplace and crossroad of civilization, the crossroad of imperialism, the crossroad of revolution and independence. Could it also be the crossroad of moral renaissance?’
In 1972, she approached the Ministry of Youth proposing a programme of student exchanges between Egypt and the UK through the British Arab University Association. This had been set up by one of the early MRA pioneers in Britain, William Conner, with the support of the Egyptian Ambassador to the UK, Kamal Reffat, a former Minister of Labour. Reffat was an old colleague of Nagia’s father and knew of MRA. The Minister of Youth, Dr Kamal Abulemaged, approved the exchange programme and assigned his assistant, Mohsen Hussein, to head the first delegation of Egyptian students to Caux and Britain. Since that time, ‘Baba’ Mohsen and his wife ‘Mama’ Lamia have become much-loved parent figures to generations of young Egyptians who have been exposed to the vision and values of MRA/IofC through the student exchanges and other programmes. In 1988 this group was formally registered as Egyptian Moral Re-Armament (EMRA).
Before the Arab Spring, this team was working with Nigerian peacemakers Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye on developing early-warning and rapid response systems in response to the growing Muslim-Christian tensions. After the tragic bombing of a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011, EMRA members were among those forming human shields to protect Churches from attacks during the Coptic Christmas celebrations the following week. They printed and distributed a poster: ‘Mosques and Churches embracing each other on the land of Egypt’ and launched an educational initiative to abolish illiteracy based around the principles of Responsibility, Relationships and Respect for life. It is a tool to promote shared values, trust-building and dialogue.
Nagia, who is currently Vice-President of EMRA, says that in this ‘transitional’ phase, the perspectives and experience of IofC are needed more than ever. ‘The current situation is grave, demanding wisdom and self-restraint.’She quotes the South Sudanese General Joseph Lagu on the need to struggle for justice without bitterness.
As well as the literacy project, EMRA is also working to produce and screen a documentary film showing Egypt’s interfaith heritage and history with IofC, and Nagia is updating a multimedia presentation, Egypt, New Hope that she first put together when she was a student.
‘The majority of Egyptians expect instant changes,’ she says. ‘They are frustrated that the transitional government has still not succeeded in responding to the growing litany of demands. However, Egypt has held parliamentary elections, Presidential elections are due soon and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is expected to hand over its powers to the newly elected President. Unfortunately, although the revolutionaries and political parties, new and old, had earlier agreed on the goals, they have differed on the means to be adopted. The majority of the people have become impatient. They want to see the fruits of the revolution instantly. They want a magic formula to eradicate corruption, instant measures to regain stolen public money, instant economic reform, prompt trials for the accused and punishment for the proven guilty.’
In November last year, just before the parliamentary elections, these tensions erupted into violent clashes in Tahrir Square. At least 23 died and around 1,500 were injured. Again, EMRA members responded quickly, helping collect medical supplies to treat the injured. ‘Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,’ Nagia wrote at the time. ‘Only God can give us the power and the vision to be able to heal the wounds, achieve justice without bitterness and build a better future for all, based on true democracy and human values.’
A month later, EMRA presented a paper to an international conference on Human Rights in Cairo, drawing on the reconciliation and bridge-building experiences of IofC in South Africa, Nigeria, Lebanon and Egypt. Then in January 2012 a large EMRA delegation, including some of the Tahrir Square ‘revolutionaries’, attended the Dialogue on Democracy hosted by IofC in India. There they drew inspiration from struggles in other parts of the world: Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi sent a video message; Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim came just hours after being released from prison; South Sudan’s Vice-President spoke about the challenges of bringing healing after decades of war; and Rajmohan Gandhi spoke about the ‘almost miraculous’ nature of India’s democracy which his grandfather, the Mahatma, had helped bring about.
Today, Nagia says, ‘we need a miracle of the spirit. We need to approach and appeal to the good side in each of us and revive our conscience. We need to repent, forgive and reconcile. We need to lose the fury but not the fire, in order to find guidance and direction.’ She quotes the late Sheikh Mohammed Metwally Elsharawy: ‘A true revolutionary revolts to bring down corruption and then calms down to build glory.’