So far the demonstrations in Egypt have been remarkable in that there have been few signs of religion. Though widely reputed as one of the most religious countries in the world, protests have been absent of either Muslim or Christian slogans. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities throughout the nation to call for economic reform, lifting the state of emergency, dissolving the Parliament, and dismissing the president. The effort has been driven by social media-savvy youth from the disenfranchised middle and upper classes, but has also involved the urban man on the street. It has not involved Allahu Akbar.
The reality of the secular nature of these protests provides both its strength and its potential weakness. The strength is seen in the unmasking of the typical government plea and Western fear that if democratic change is introduced in the Arab world, the result will be Islamic rule and law, detrimental to Western interests. This position was articulated recently by Egyptian Finance Minster and Copt, Yūsuf Butrus Ghālī, in an op-ed to the Washington Post in the lead-up to the legislative elections. He wrote concerning his ruling National Democratic Party,
The main alternative to our vision is offered by those who would steer the country away from economic liberalism, religious tolerance and social progress and toward greater fundamentalism, eventually creating a religious state in a country that has always embraced diversity. Imagine for a moment an Egypt in the hands of fundamentalist mullahs, fomenting instability and allied with rogue regimes.
Certainly it is too early to tell in which direction these protests will evolve, or if they will succeed at all. The fact that they have not been religious, however, has prevented the government and its allies from squelching the outcry in defense of a secular state. Instead, their call is clear – it is a vote of no confidence in the ruling system, a pining for freedom and democratic reform. Whether they are right or wrong is another matter, but without religious overtones there is no confusion about their purpose.
The potential weakness in the secular nature of the protests is that Egyptians are largely not secular people. This is not to say that the average citizen favors an Islamic state or Christian independence; rather, it is that events and their importance are filtered through a religious lens. Will they rally behind a secular cause?
It is difficult to be precise about the makeup of the demonstrations. Certainly, tens of thousands of people are bound to include elements of every stripe. Yet observations suggest that poorer, lower class Egyptians – the majority of society – have not dominated the scene. This is in line with the general assessment of Egyptian character as anti-revolutionary and fatalistic. Though a generalization to be sure, until sixty years ago Egyptians endured the presence of foreign rulers on their soil since the days of Alexander the Great. Are they liable to join an uprising now? Can an uprising succeed without them?
In the past few days of protests the numbers have dwindled as the opposition has fortified. Friday, however, portends as a decisive day, potentially in one of two directions.
The first direction is signaled by the return of Muhammad al-Barād‘ī. The Egyptian statesman and would-be presidential candidate has drawn the ire of many opposition figures for his extended periods abroad, away from the struggles of the Egyptian street. For his part, he has stated that if the people lead, he will follow, but that otherwise, he cannot take on the ruling party alone. Apparently, enough people are leading, and al-Barād‘ī has announced he will participate in the protests on Friday, and seek to manage the anticipated transitional change. Himself a secular figure, he could prove to be a rallying point and titular head of an otherwise largely leaderless movement. Yet will the Egyptian street support him? It is an open question.
Yet, why return Friday? The second direction is signaled by the social media call of protestors to conduct a nationwide demonstration following the conclusion of Friday prayers. In and of itself, this is not a call to religion, simply to organization. The youth movements driving the protests tend to be secular in orientation in comparison to the population at large. Yet as millions of Muslims gather to pray in the mosques, if mobilized they would be an unstoppable force exiting en masse in demonstration against the government. Here is the key question: What slogans will they be chanting?
Before exploring this question it is useful to survey the few expressions of religion that have emerged around the demonstrations. Following the self-immolation that spurred on the uprising in Tunisia several Egyptians acted similarly. Islamic authorities here, however, were quick to condemn such economic or political suicide on religious grounds. Meanwhile the Muslim Brotherhood put forth an Islamist perspective that the Egyptian regime must quickly reform to preserve its control.
Yet despite initial indications, the Muslim Brotherhood maintained that it did not organize a presence during the Police Day protests. Another group that declined to participate was the church of Egypt in all its denominations, which, though no official statement was made, urged through senior bishops, priests, and pastors that Christians not join in such sedition. Instead, the Orthodox Church held an exceptional mass on Police Day to pray for Egypt. Meanwhile, many Islamic scholars from the Azhar ruled that participation in the protests did not conflict with Islamic law.
As the demonstrations continued but waned in numbers, Twitter chatter created a strategy to regroup from a position of strength, suggesting the next large demonstration organize around Friday prayers. Today this sentiment picked up steam. The Muslim Brotherhood, of which individual members joined in protest but had no official participation, declared it would join in but not seek to dominate the Friday gatherings. The rumor-slash-plan then prompted the government to warn protestors against using the mosque as a launching pad for anti-government activity. Meanwhile, there has been significant Christian backlash against the stance of the church, and many Twitter postings of solidarity with Muslims, to ‘guard their backs’ as they pray. Perhaps some were inspired to reciprocate Muslim efforts to stand as human shields and participate in Christmas mass following the bombing of the church in Alexandria.
It is interesting to note the unique religion-state relationship that exists in Egypt, which makes ironic much of the above news. Islamic institutions such as the Azhar, Dār al-Ifta’, and the Endowments Ministry which supervises all mosque activity are all under the authority of the government. As such, no matter their attainment in scholarship and erudition, these high officials and most imāms in the country can be understood as civil servants. Their job involves representing the government. As such, the allowances granted to join in the protests represent a significant departure from the government position. No one would maintain that official Islamic scholars always toe the line, but in the middle of a crisis of legitimacy, their statement is substantial.
From an opposite perspective, so is the stance of the church. While Islamic institutions and mosques are in some sense an extension of government bureaucracy, the church is fully independent. Its churches and financial endowments exist outside the sphere of government control and supervision. So while the church and state have maintained an often strained but inherently stable relationship of cooperation, the decision of church leadership to abjure participation in the protests was fully voluntary, at least officially. As Rev. Radi Atallah of the Attarine Evangelical Church in Alexandria explained, there are nervous wonderings that these protests could be an activity of the Muslim Brotherhood, but that as a rule, if minorities join protests in the wrong direction, they could lose everything. It is the wiser course of action, he believed, for the church to simply observe. Individual Christians, though, should be allowed diversity of thought and action, as long as their participation remained peaceful at all times.
This comparison calls for a return to the original question: What slogans will they be chanting? Given that the majority of mosques are overseen by government affiliated imāms, it is fully unlikely that Muslims will receive encouragement to protest during the Friday sermon. Scripting guidelines for the sermon will be a tremendous task for the government, which must walk a fine line between not becoming overly political as if it were a press release, while urging the faithful to personal piety and respect for order. In all likelihood, the sermon will be received by most of those itching for protest as irrelevant. Their minds are made up, but will the sermon help or hinder the expansion of the movement? Perhaps for these it will be irrelevant also. The movement has been largely secular; the exit from the mosque as a location will not change this.
Yet, there are hundreds of mosques that are not affiliated with the government. In these the imām simply represents the makeup of his constituency. Many perhaps are simply pious Muslims with no Islamist leanings, but many others are decisively such. These will rally hard against the government, and may whip their followers into a religious frenzy. If these began chanting Islamic slogans, will other normal Muslim protestors follow? Might it marginalize Christian supporters? Could it lead to sectarian clashes?
Some Twitter statements have encouraged Christians to exit their churches into demonstrations, but timing issues will complicate matters. Friday mass typically ends around 11am, while during winter months the mosque sermon and prayers finish around 1pm. Christian numbers will likely be statistically insignificant in and of themselves, if indeed they protest. Yet if they move toward the mosque to wait and possibly defend, how will this be received by security forces? Will there be an effect on the national unity of the protests? Will it change the nature of the slogans?
These are some of the issues at stake for the protestors on Friday. If calmer heads prevail, unofficial leaders of the movement will take all steps possible to limit the religious nature of the demonstration. Having a religious nature is part and parcel of being Egyptian, and thus the addition of religious sanction, no matter how unofficial, can only aid their chance of success. But religious fervor in a charged, highly emotional climate can easily get out of hand. There has been significant sectarian tension in Egypt in recent years, even weeks. There have also been efforts to combat this through emphasized national unity. But if things go wrong, especially in poorer areas, there is potential for clashes. This must not be overstated lest it fuel the fears of authorities and Western analysts. Egyptians, like all human beings, tend towards rationality and moderation. Yet like all human beings, they are capable of error and excess. There is no Egyptian or Islamic predisposition to violence, but all should be wary of simple human nature.
In this vein, to end the text where it began, it is of utmost importance for protestors that their image on Friday does not yield to a preponderance of Islam. This is to speak nothing against the faith; it is that many – through misunderstanding or deliberate distortion – may seize on this transformation to label the demonstrations as a threat to the prevailing world secular order. A sectarian clash would spell the end of world sympathy; even simple Muslim slogans with no vitriol towards Christians could be interpreted as evidence of a sinister plot for Islamic regional dominance. It is understood that in suppressing the protests the government has shot itself in the foot; on Friday, protestors will have opportunity to do the same. In coordinating activity at the mosque they stand the chance to multiply their numbers and influence; they also stand the chance, however limited, that things could spiral out of control.
Besides, the world waits for what will come. Is the Muslim Brotherhood lurking in the background, allowing the idealistic youth the stage so that they with their greater organizational prowess and appeal to religion may win the popular struggle in the end? This is the fear of many Christians. Is it legitimate? Is the Brotherhood democratic, or do they play at democracy? If successful, will the protests lead to greater freedom, or to chaos? Is the ruling system in Egypt the best guardian for the interests of the Egyptian people? On Friday, answers may begin to appear. The day may be decisive, in any number of directions. Religion has been on the sideline of this story so far, but on Friday, it may make an appearance. Tension is high, as are expectations. Let us pray for the good of all. This is right religion; it must also be the foundation for decisive conduct.