Last year Egypt added a 16th day – Police Day – to its official list of public holidays. It may prove that this designation will backfire on the government.
The day was created to honor the memory of fifty police officers murdered by the British in 1952, which provoked an uprising eventually leading to the Free Officer’s Revolution and establishment of the modern Egyptian Republic. Since then, however, the police have been a primary object of contempt for opposition figures and the general man on the street, who consider them the enforcers of the Emergency Law, by which, it is said, the government squelches all opposition. Others say the Emergency Law is necessary to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, such as government supporters and members of the National Democratic Party. They believe the police allow the people to sleep soundly at night. Many Egyptian Christians, meanwhile, find the police and security forces to be biased and unresponsive when aggression is directed at their community or churches. Regardless of religion, though, the complaint of random arrests and brutality is circulated widely.
Inspired by the recent uprising in Tunisia, and frustrated by what were understood as deeply fraudulent legislative elections, Egyptian opposition figures have chosen to launch nationwide protests on the occasion of Police Day. The reverse symbolism is poignant – demonstrators will demand the repeal of the Emergency Law and the dismissal of the Interior Minister. Additionally, they call for a rise in the minimum wage and terms limits on the presidency. Activists hope that, as seen in Tunisia, initial protests for limited concessions might lead to a wholesale rejection of the regime.
Will they succeed? Over 80,000 Egyptian Facebook users have pledged to participate. So have leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized opposition party in Egypt. They will be joined by the Wafd, Karama, and Ghad parties, the movements of April 6 and the National Association for Change, as well as representatives of the labor movement. Reluctant presidential hopeful Muhammad al-Baradei has signaled his approval of the protest, but will not participate.
Trepidation is understandable. The government has announced the demonstration to be illegal, and will deal strictly, though within the law, against any violators. At least three activists have already been arrested for promoting the campaign. Fresh in the minds of any protestor will be the recent deaths in police custody of Khalid Sa’eed, accused of drug dealing but purported to have informed against police corruption in drug deals, and Sayyid Bilal, an Alexandrian Salafi rounded up after the church bombing on New Year’s Eve. Investigations into their deaths are ongoing.
Other objections are raised. The Tagammu Party rejects the protests on the grounds that the nation’s policemen deserve a day of honor. Meanwhile, the ruling National Democratic Party has announced its intention to hold a counter demonstration of loyalty to President Mubarak, in which half a million of its younger members will participate. Additionally, the heads of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches in Egypt have urged their members not to join the protests, but instead to devote the day to prayer asking God to bless Egypt.
The weight and immediacy of the protest is in the air, especially in light of the events in Tunisia. One friend, an older gentleman, believes that nothing substantial will happen, though some may try to force the issue. He said this, however, on his way back from the bank, where he withdrew money ‘just in case’. Another friend spoke of the protest by listing a litany of common Egyptian complaints about the government. A sensible journalist, he spoke with a passion which betrayed his normal demeanor. Yet he has a wife and children, a reasonable income, and much to lose. Even so, he was itching to participate for the benefit of his country. Wisdom is necessary.
Yet where should wisdom lead? Certain factors suggest that a Tunisian style uprising is not imminent. First of all, the Tunisian demonstrations were by all appearances spontaneous developments arising from a disenfranchised lower class. Efforts at imitation in Egypt, however, are led by political elites looking to move the masses. Perhaps they will succeed; public frustration with government is widespread. More likely, however, is though the social media dissemination of dissent is spontaneous among the upper class, it will fail to mobilize greater society to any substantial degree.
Second of all, when the Tunisian demonstrations began to gain steam, they were joined by the middle class, which transformed an originally economic protest into one fully political. Critical mass was reached, and the president fled. Here, however, the middle class will be asked to lead, not support. Their cause is political, not economic. Though certainly the poor in Egypt could stand a drastic improvement in their condition – far more than in Tunisia – will they follow the comparatively rich into an unknown future, for political freedoms that do not generally concern them anyway? Can the family man mentioned above command their allegiance? Will he even be willing to try?
In which light, then, should the decision of the church to abstain from protest be understood? Church leadership is also frustrated with the government, especially following the use of live ammunition on Coptic protesters in Umraniyya, a suburb of Cairo. The Alexandria attack, however, may have served as a reminder that church security is tied to good, secure governance. Perhaps a known stability is preferable to a chaotic, unknown future.
The government can also be seen as solidifying its relationship with the church following the Alexandria bombing. The prime suspect in the Nag Hamadi Christmas killings from last year was recently sentenced to death – the first such sentence rendered against a sectarian criminal in modern Egyptian history. Furthermore, the government has stated that a new law to govern the contentious issue of church building will be introduced soon. For its part, the church has rejected the efforts of the US Congress to conduct a special hearing on the Alexandria attack as interference in domestic affairs – exactly the same language used by the government. The church’s longstanding position is that Coptic affairs are a matter of concern to Egypt only, interpreting even sincere international efforts at assistance as detrimental to the national unity between one people of two religions.
It can also be said that the Bible itself is an anti-revolutionary document. Many verses encourage believers to submit to the king, whether he is just or unjust. While undercurrents of protest exist in Biblical interpretation, the Egyptian church perspective is well within the mainstream of historical Christian understanding. It may well be within the mainstream of wisdom as well, but this is a pragmatic, political matter. Should the church throw its hat in with the uprising? Where will the repercussions be greatest should the effort fail, or succeed?
Fr. Matta al-Miskeen represents a minority position in the church today, but one that has been forged by an intense monastic spirituality. In his book ‘Church and State’, he urges Christians to become full participants in the life of society, and devote themselves spiritually in the life of the church. A mixing of the two identities, however, pollutes the two streams in which Jesus said to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar, and the things that are God’s, to God’. Though now deceased, he recognized the increasing politicization of the church, and warned against it.
As things stand now, the church is tied to the ruling political establishment, no matter how frustrated it is in this relationship. Alliance with government makes proper sense; after all, having suffered through sectarian and terrorist attacks over the past three decades, it is only the ruling power that controls the forces of security. Witnessing great police commitment to defend the sanctity of churches during Christmas Eve services testifies to this fact.
Yet Matta al-Miskeen hints at the greater strategy. If the church is apolitical, then individual Christians can be as political as they desire. The government can trust the church not to mobilize its members, either for or against government policy. Society, including the Muslim majority, can trust the church to urge its adherents toward morality and cooperation. Then, if a Christian becomes a government loyalist, he is free. If a Christian takes opposition leadership and calls for regime change, he is free. For his actions he is responsible to God, as well as the state and society. Yet this responsibility is his, it does not belong to the church. The church is responsible for nurturing the spiritual life of believers, not securing their political rights.
Police Day is January 25. Tension is afoot. Different strata of society have chosen sides, and the church has declared its allegiance. Perhaps the day will pass insignificantly; perhaps this is the first step towards Tunisia. Will society follow the lead of the elitist agitators, no matter how deep their dissatisfaction with government? Will Christians follow the lead of the church, and continue their submission to the ruling powers? For all involved, where does wisdom lie?
For the good of Egypt, may the right answers become clear. May all have the courage of conviction and the goodness of heart to act on such wisdom.