Chawkat Moucarry, 2012
What is known as ‘the Arab Spring’ covers a reality that is as diverse as the countries that have
witnessed popular uprisings since late 2010 up until now. In some countries the political regime
has changed (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt); in others significant political reforms have been initiated
(Morocco, Yemen, Jordan) whereas the uprising is still met with repression by shaking regimes
in Syria and Bahrain. The situation in all these countries is different yet there are common
features in terms of their history, the root causes for the uprisings, their ambiguities, positive
outcomes and, last but not least, the challenges they present to the populations in general and to
the Church in particular, at least in the countries where a national church enjoys an official status
(Egypt, Syria and Jordan).
Up until WWI (1914-1918) Arab peoples in the Middle-East and North Africa had been ruled by
and large by the Ottoman Empire with Istanbul (former Constantinople) as its capital. This fourth
Islamic Empire came to power in 1299 following the collapse of the Abbasid Empire based in
Iraq. For the first time in their history Arabs were ruled by a non-Arab power. Although it was an
Islamic state many Arabs (Muslims and Christians) resented the Ottomans and fought together
against them to gain independence.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed and was succeeded by the secular republic of Turkey founded by
Mustapha Kemal Ataturk (‘the father of the Turks’) who was deeply influenced by European
nationalism and humanism. Under his leadership Turkey became the first Muslim-majority
country to be governed by a secular state. He abolished the caliphate in 1924 and since then the
Muslim Nation, umma, has no governor, not even a figurehead, to represent the Muslim
community (at least the Sunnis).
Instead of gaining independence with the downfall of the colonial power Arab peoples were
subjected to the Allies who won WWI, namely the British and the French. Under the 1916
Sykes-Picot Agreement, the whole region was divided into two major zones of influence, British
(Palestine, Egypt, Iraq) and French (North Africa, Syria, Lebanon). It was then a mere formality
to request from the League of Nations to endorse this agreement by giving an official mandate to
the British and the French to rule the region.
Causes: injustice, bad governance, corruption
The 1940s marked the start of the independence movement which led to all peoples in the
Middle-East and North Africa gaining their independence, with the noteworthy exception of the
Palestinian people. The struggle for independence against colonial powers involved both
Christians and Muslims and was based on Arab nationalism of which Islam was but one
dimension. Nationalist parties and leaders came to power immediately after independence (as in Algeria and Tunisia), or some years later after they got rid of the post-colonial regime (as in
Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya). These new regimes were faced with huge economic, social and
educational challenges, all aggravated by a high birth rate. They were not prepared to deal with
these challenges and eventually they all proved unable to address them adequately. Instead of
engaging their countries in a democratic process which could have offered an alternative to their
peoples, they used and abused their patriotic credentials to stay in power at all costs including
repressing and sometimes killing their opponents. Their failure was best demonstrated in the
defeat of the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel won a spectacular victory against the Egyptian,
Syrian and Jordanian armies. Not only did these regimes prove to be incompetent but they
became increasingly authoritarian and corrupt favouring their ‘clients’ such as party members,
ethnic groups, religious minorities, the military and some business people. No wonder their
unpopularity also increased and spawned various opposition groups which were generally treated
All this underlines the many causes for the Arab uprisings. Political, social and economic
frustrations were bound to burst one day; in fact they have been surfacing for many years but
they were always met with denial, repression, unfulfilled promises, half-measures, and
scapegoating, with Israel and western politics providing the near perfect goat. The real question
is, why did it take so long for the uprisings to happen?
The IT revolution and globalisation have undoubtedly played the role of a catalyst. Never before
did our world look such a small village with people through social networks being able to
connect worldwide within seconds. With mobile phones and internet no country can any longer
efficiently close its doors to the outside world. Any event is potentially accessible to everyone on
the web. As a result, people felt empowered to share their struggles as well as their dreams.
Young people in particular took the lead in these revolutions. They had been exposed to and
attracted by the universal values championed in western cultures (freedom, democracy, human
rights). Soon they were joined by many other groups such as human rights activists, political
opponents and various Muslim groups including religiously minded people who reject western
materialism, moral decadence and hegemony.
The domino effect has also played a part. People felt emboldened by the successful and peaceful
revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. They took to the street in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria,
Morocco, Jordan. After all, all these countries have a lot in common in terms of their recent
history, culture, socio-economic situation, religion, education level and ongoing political
I have often heard the same sentence said by many people: the wall of fear has been destroyed.
I’ve heard it in many places even in places where the uprising is being repressed. There is
undoubtedly a new freedom in the air. People are no longer afraid of talking politics in places
where in the past this topic was almost taboo. People used to distrust each other for fear that
there might be someone listening, not necessarily a stranger, even a friend or a family member
could be a spy. Such was the level of fear and suspicion the dictatorship had managed to
propagate in society.
As a result of this new situation elections have taken place in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, and
unlike previous elections they were not rigged. To the surprise of many these democratic
elections (like the Palestinian elections in 2006) have been won by Islamic parties. The
constitution in these countries is being revised to take on board people’s aspirations to live in a
genuinely democratic regime which respects the dignity of all citizens, their rights and their civil
liberties. True, regime change is by no means a guarantee for economic and political reforms and
for social justice, and yet without a democratic regime these are much more difficult to achieve.
Ambiguities: internal and external
As a result of the uprisings, there is a heightened sense of insecurity among people in general and
among minorities in particular, especially Christians. Several recent events have shown this
feeling among Coptic Christians is not unfounded; on 9 October 2011 twenty-six people were
killed in Cairo in a single demonstration against the burning of a church in Upper-Egypt. Crimes
have been on the rise as criminals are less afraid of being caught and punished. The economy has
also slowed down; this has badly affected countries which heavily rely on tourism such as Egypt
and Tunisia. Many Egyptians claim that nothing has really changed, with Mubarak being
replaced by the military council. Reports suggest that prisoners of the old regime are being
tortured in Libyan jails, and militias still control the street rather than the police. In Syria terrorist
groups are operating to precipitate the country into chaos to achieve their own agendas.
External ambiguities include the fact that for many years western countries have been doing
business with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia providing even weapons to these regimes. The NATO
military operations to topple the regime in Libya went far beyond the UN resolution 1973 and
were very costly in human lives, with over thirty thousand deaths; the country’s infrastructure
has been completely destroyed. President Obama chose to deliver his remarkable speech to the
Muslim world (4 June 2009) from Cairo where Mubarak’s grip on the country was in full swing.
Saudi Arabia, so critical of the Syrian regime, sent troops to Bahrain to protect the Sunni regime
from falling in a Shi’i majority state; and the Saudi kingdom is not what we can call a democratic
regime by any standards. Yet, it is one of the closest allies of the US in the region. The hostility
of the Gulf states to the Syrian regime has a lot to do with Syria’s alliance with Iran, a Shi’imajority
country perceived as a threat to the stability of the region. The former Yemeni president
has enjoyed a rather lenient treatment, unlike the Syrian President, for no other reason apparently
than his cooperation with the US in their fight against al-Qaida. Last but not least, if the same
standards were applied to Israel and to Arabs the Palestinian people would not be still suffering
from a brutal Israeli occupation and oppression.
Challenges: the need to engage with Muslim fellow citizens
Many challenges are facing Arab peoples at these testing times, and Christians in particular.
Arab Christians represent no more than 5% of the Arab population, which means around 15
million. They are found in all the countries of the Middle-East, with Egypt having the largest
Arab Church. As a religious minority they feel more vulnerable and their loyalty is sometimes
challenged because of their connections with former colonial powers still perceived as Christian.
Experience shows that it is much harder to build a new regime than to bring down an old one.
Ironically, under an authoritarian regime people felt safer if they were prepared to either avoid
politics altogether or to work with the ruling party. As a minority Christians by and large have
chosen the first option, some got involved in politics and a few opposed the regime. What should
be our attitude towards current events?
Jesus Christ told his disciples that they were his witnesses in the world (John 17:11). This means
we have to get involved in the affairs of our country even, and especially when it is going
through turmoil. The fact that it is more difficult to do it under such circumstances is no reason
for retiring into our comfort zone.
Understandably Christians, especially Christian leaders, are very cautious about any change in
the status quo. In Syria and Iraq in particular, thanks to the Ba’ath party which is a secular party,
churches have been relatively well treated more often than not Church leaders turned a blind eye
on the regime’s failures and their prophetic voice has hardly been heard. Was this attitude
legitimate? And was it effective? Is it not selfish to take a stance based on our sole interests?
Christian ethics is founded on loving our neighbours as ourselves (Luke 10: 25-37); in other
words, we need to consider the interests of the national community as a whole including people
from other faith and ethnic backgrounds, which in the case of Syria includes the Sunnis, the
Alawites, the Kurds, the Armenians, etc.
What if democratic elections lead to an Islamic regime? The Arab world has not been affected by
secularisation to the same extent as the western world. People are still religiously minded even if
they are not all practicing Muslims. Islam is an important part of their identity. We should
therefore not be surprised if people want Islamic teaching to play an important part in the life of
the nation - the debate is currently raging in Britain about whether it is a Christian nation and
what role religion should have. As Christians we need to be actively involved in the democratic
process if we don’t want it to be hijacked by marginal groups. The majority of Muslims are not
fundamentalist; as with other religions there are some extremists and there are some liberal and
even secular Muslims. Many, perhaps most Muslims are moderate and committed to values such
as freedom, equality, human dignity, democracy, solidarity. We need to engage with them so that
the new regime will be respectful of all citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation.
I am glad that Christians and Muslims are together fighting for democracy in Egypt and Syria.
As a minority who have not always been well treated by the majority, Christians have more or
less developed a ghetto mentality. As a result we have cultivated certain prejudice about
Muslims and showed little understanding of Islamic teaching. We should not let ourselves be
prisoners of the past. We live in a different world and we must look to the future with hope. The
dividing line is not between Christians and Muslims, but between extremists on all sides.
A change in political regime is not an end in itself. At the root of the Arab Spring is a deep
injustice which has increased over the years in all areas of public life, plus bad governance and
corruption. Unless the new regime starts addressing these issues we are heading towards dark
times. We urgently need to work shoulder to shoulder with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Not
only do we have a common humanity but we have a lot in common in terms of religious beliefs
(monotheism and many related themes) and ethical values (e.g. respect for human life, family
relations, sexual standards, care for the poor, hospitality). Let us focus on what unites us rather
than on what divides us.
Many Muslims today are involved in the struggle to adapt Islam to new realities and shared
human values. The examples of Turkey, Indonesia, Bosnia, Senegal, and Mali demonstrate that it
is possible to marry Islam with democracy. The experience of the new regime in Tunisia is also
promising. Islamic countries need not be conservative, oppressive, and backwards. Many
Muslim reformers are engaged in a political and social jihad to address the ills of Muslim
societies (e.g. illiteracy, poverty, superstition). Their struggle is underpinned by an Islamic
principle which derives from the same root: ijtihad, i.e. the process of looking afresh at new
issues presenting themselves to the Muslim community. The issue of democracy is a key one
together with citizenship, interfaith relations, religious freedom, women and many others. They
find in Islamic sources (especially the Qur’an and the Hadith) the seeds for democracy. The
Prophet is said to have been an exemplary leader because he governed his community ‘by
consultation’, shura (sura 3 verse 159). Muslims are expected to follow his example (42: 38).
No revolution has been plain-sailing and Arab revolutions are no exception. Let us hope and
work to minimise the ‘collateral damages’ of these revolutions. If Muslims want to imitate the
Prophet they will need to be lenient with one another, including their defeated enemies, just as he
was: “Thus it is due to mercy from God that you deal with them gently; had you been rough,
hard hearted, they would certainly have broken away from you; pardon them therefore and ask
(God’s) forgiveness for them, and consult them in the affair; when you have made a decision,
then put your trust in God; surely God loves those who trust (in Him)” (3: 159). Like all leaders
new Muslim leaders who want to bring a long-lasting change to their peoples need to come to an
understanding of leadership in terms of servanthood. According to a famous prophetic saying,
“the ruler of the people is their servant”.
This is a good illustration of converging Muslim and Christian values. As Christians we believe
that our Lord Jesus Christ is our model precisely because he demonstrated his lordship as a self-sacrificial servant. He is the servant king and he gave his life to save humanity from violence,
evil, suffering, death, hatred and other manifestations of sin:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and
their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants
to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be
slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give
his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42-45)
We believe that God’s kingdom transcends all kingdoms and yet it has to be incarnated in human
reality and history. Let us engage with our Muslim fellow citizens to work out together the
manifold implications of our respective faiths each in our specific context. Our survival as Arab
Christians will partly depend on whether or not we are prepared to engage with Muslim society,
politically, theologically and missiologically, following Christ’s example when he became one of
us. The Church in the Arab world has gradually retired from the public square believing this was
the best way to protect itself. History showed that this survival-strategy was misguided: it led to
a dramatic decrease in the Christian population partly due to Arab Christians migrating in much
higher proportions than Muslims. Let us hope that Church leaders will be bold enough to take
these dramatic events as an opportunity to reconsider the Church mission in predominantly
Muslim societies for the common good of all citizens.