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Lessons in Peacebuilding from Northern Ireland

Avila Kilmurray
Avila Kilmurray

From my recent article on Arab West Report, reporting a visit to Egypt by Avila Kilmurray, a veteran peace activist from Northern Ireland. The lecture was arranged by the American University in Cairo, hoping for cross-pollination of ideas.

Her lecture was entitled, ‘Peace Building during Religious Strife: What Can Citizens Do?’ But even the title demands questions about the Egyptian particulars. Is Egypt’s religious strife the suffering of Copts at the hands of Islamists following the deposing of Morsi, or the longer patterns of discrimination and neglect on the part of the state? Or, is the strife the suffering of Islamists after the coup and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, or the longer patterns of discrimination and exclusion on the part of the state? Others would deny there is religious strife at all.

Within these options Kilmurray would counsel not a definition, but a participation. Citizens are free to label the troublemakers as they wish, but they must share a common purpose toward community peace. But a further recognition is necessary, at least from Northern Ireland’s experience. It will prove especially controversial in Egypt.

Kilmurray stated that early citizen initiatives sought to exclude the extremists. There was only one problem: It did not work. As long as the sponsors of violence remained outside the process peace proved elusive. Solutions began when they were brought into the room.

Kilmurray presented in November, 2013, before the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, but while official and popular sentiment was very much against them. They cannot be brought into the room now; what then are the possibilities for peace?

From this foundation relationships can be built, so that any proposed solutions to conflicts become mutually agreed upon, not forced. Otherwise, the culture of blame, which runs rampant when each group speaks among themselves, can result in accusation and acrimony when together.

Simply agreeing on these principles does not ensure success, however. Activist peacemakers from all sides must take care not to move too quickly. Otherwise their hopeful but perhaps reluctant constituencies grow uneasy and divisions will creep into each camp. Their commitment will be especially tested when sponsors of violence erupt again in community disturbance.

At times like this, it may be necessary for their representation to withdraw, but not absolutely. As meetings continue between normal citizens on both sides, those connected to groups of violence are to be briefed, so as to be part of the process, if from afar. When the time is right they must be encouraged to reengage, for no success can come unless every faction of society sees itself represented in these community groups.

The acrimony is present, and violence has erupted again. Are there any backdoor channels currently operating between anyone in the government and Brotherhood leaders, whether in prison or abroad? During the process of crafting the constitution, the participation of the Salafi Nour Party ensured that some Islamists could see themselves involved, though many others labeled them as hypocrites and opportunists.

But few mixed community groups exist; the above only describes the very limited official sessions. Here is one example of some citizens who are trying.

To progress, Kilmurray notes, they must leave out the politicians. But to succeed, they need them.

Community peace groups, therefore, had to have a positive agenda. Many took up the cause of human rights, holding accountable both militias and police. They also tended to operate without politicians, giving participants of sense of responsibility and risk taking that eluded electoral leaders. They would hold protests in the street condemning violence. But they would also work behind the scenes to craft a shared narrative history of ‘the troubles’, in order to work their perspective into society’s official institutions.

Participants in community groups were aware that peacemaking must not be surrendered only to the politicians, or else their rhetoric might become just one more tool in the political power grab. But lasting peace cannot be achieved without politicians, for they operate within government to make lasting agreements in the name of the divided peoples.

So perhaps this is too late, if it was feasible anyway. But from the conclusion:

Kilmurray did not speak about Egypt, but a number of her remarks engender reflection on the current political and sectarian struggles. Given the current rule of an army backed government that deposed the Islamist Morsi from power following popular demonstrations, especially critical will be any role for his Muslim Brotherhood.

I imagine Kilmurray would draw a distinction between participation of Brotherhood politicians and of citizens, both members and sympathizers. Of the former she would likely take little interest, for they, like their rivals, are involved in the back-and-forth power struggles that were unhelpful in Northern Ireland.

Instead, she would likely counsel the desperate necessity for greater civil society involvement in the issues of peace. Dialogue groups exist among clergy, and human rights groups exist as per the issue chosen. But where are the community groups that are deliberately inclusive for the sake of local relations and development?

Such groups must bring together Copts, liberals, Salafis, Sufis, Baha’is, Nubians, the non-religious, and yes, the Muslim Brothers, she would likely advocate. Here, Egypt’s challenge is potentially greater than Northern Ireland’s, for in Belfast the population is relatively evenly divided. In Egypt, the presence of any of these groups might offend the sensibilities of others right from the start on a conceptual basis. And furthermore, the inclusion of some tiny minorities might appear more a political statement than a representation of an actual community.

But community groups are not chiefly for the political statements. It might be hoped that local citizens within the above factions might bear less grievance against their neighbor. And if the tiny minorities are not present in any particular local community, there is no representation necessary. As the circles widen, however, all must be included.

This is another of Egypt’s challenges: 85 million people would engulf Belfast. Finding appropriate citizen participation to speak peace to the nation is a herculean organizational endeavor. But to start small, in each community, is the task at hand. Hold together, and hold to account. However Egypt’s sectarianism is to be defined, this is the beginning of the solution.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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