Two and half years after the January 25, 2011 revolution, Egyptians still are wondering about their dream of building a modern Egypt. They look around, see the economic successes of China, South Korea and Israel and ask "Why not us?"
It is a reasonable question. The Egyptian economy has stagnated while the rest of the world has moved ahead. Since the 1950s, China has become an economic powerhouse, recently designated by the World Bank as the second largest economy after the USA. Less than 70 years ago, South Korea was a wasteland. Today it is the world's 11th largest economy and has a vibrant, emerging democratic culture. Just 65 years ago, Israel was born. Today it is home to more start-ups and IPOs per capita than any other country in the world.
Sixty-one years ago, when Egypt was liberated from the British occupation and became an independent state, it had massive resources, but unfortunately it chose a different path. The result has been an ugly combination of illiteracy, misery, and corruption. Egypt does not work as a modern nation state. Foreign investors have been driven from the country by social and political unrest. Members of the country's Christian minority, which has historically played a significant role in Egypt's economic development, have seen their lives and property destroyed. And women, who play a transformative role in the education and well-being of their children, are still being badly mistreated.
Egypt has, in other words, declared war on the people who are in the best position to help it develop.
It does not look as if this view will change in the near future. Egyptians have a tradition of blaming their misfortune on Westerners and Zionists, but never look within. They are loath to look at how the decisions they have made contribute to Egypt's failure as a nation-state. Moreover, Egyptian elites are working hard to make things worse by promoting the creation of what R.I. Moore called a "persecuting society:" promoting a mentality that calls for the isolation and harassment of people who deviate from the Islamic norm.
The architecture of this persecuting society is rooted in the Egyptian constitution, as revealed by Dr. Saad El-Din Hilaly, professor of Comparative Jurisprudence at the Faculty of Sharia and Law at Al-Azhar University. Hilaly, who serves as Al-Azhar's representative to the 2013 constitution committee, stated in a October 29, 2013 TV broadcast, that the new constitution will allow people to believe in God or in anything else as long as these convictions remains locked in their heart and not made known publicly. He also stressed that only Muslims are allowed to reveal their faith publicly to preserve a harmonious society.
The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, pictured above, is part of Al-Azhar University. (Image source: David Stanley)
Is it any wonder, in the light of these ideas, that religious minorities, particularly the Coptic Christians, are under continuous attack by Islamists?
The architecture of this persecuting society can also be seen in textbooks used at religious schools overseen by Al-Azhar University, which oversees the education of Muslims from kindergarten to graduate school. The use of these textbooks, which promote Sharia law, is not confined to religious schools or "madrassas," but in all schools supervised by Al-Azhar – in kindergartens as well as medical schools – and anything between. These textbooks teach youngsters that Christian woman should wear metal rings around their neck to distinguish them from the superior Muslim women. Books used in Al-Azhar-run high schools in the 2013-2014 school year teach students that a women's pregnancy can last as long as 4 years. Dr. Ismael Shaheen, deputy head of the Al-Azhar University, defended the use of these textbooks in televised interview on November 16, 2013. When challenged about the use of textbooks that say a pregnancy can last as long as four years, he stated, "This fact was supported by western medical journals." (In a tactic often used by Islamists, Shaheen did not provide the name of a journal to prove his point, but said he would provide a source at a later date.)
What do Egyptians think will be the result of exposing children to such ideas for the duration of their childhood and early adulthood? Fatima Naoot, an Egyptian poet and guest on the same show, answered this question: "They are creating terrorists."
The architecture of this persecuting society can also be seen in the sermons proffered by Egyptian clerics. Sheikh Muhammad Hassan, for example, a popular Egyptian Salafi cleric in the Sunni Muslim world – who earned his PhD form Al-Azhar University in 2011 – recently called upon all Muslims to eradicate all man-made laws in a favor of the Sharia law.
Because of the spread of ideas such as these, Egypt has earned a place at the bottom of a ranking of 22 Arab states with respect to the treatment of women. A report on women published by Thomson Reuters said that 99.3% of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt, and that, "Female genital mutilation is endemic in Egypt, where 91 percent of women and girls – 27.2 million in all – are subjected to such procedures."
Christian girls receive additional abusive treatment under the Sharia laws promoted by Sheikh Hassan: These children are subject to many forms violence such as beating, rape, and mental abuse, and then they are forced to marry older Muslim men. The kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam of underage Christian girls is also endemic.
These abuses of human rights are committed with religious sanction. Sheikh Yasser Borhami, a medical doctor and Salafist cleric in Egypt, claimed that, in general, age does not matter in marriage so long as the girl physically "appears" to be capable of the sexual relationship and the local traditional social order allows it. (In a dispiriting aside, Borhami has appeared regularly on Egyptian television after having spoken with Salafist men who have kidnapped Christian girls from their families. Ostensibly, he tries to obtain the return of the girls to their families, but he usually reports that the girls wish to stay where they are – as Muslim women.)
The consequence is that women and minorities are subjected to different kind of mental abuse, which can be fairly described as intellectual terrorism. Coptic Christians complain that Sharia law is making them second-class citizens in their own country. As the Egyptian human rights activist, Cynthia Farahat, put it in January 2012: "The first class citizen is the Egyptian Sunni Muslim male, the second class is the Sunni female. The third is the Christian male. The fourth is the Christian female. I am a fourth-class Egyptian citizen with absolutely no legal rights."
Coptic Christians in Egypt have been blackmailed by Egypt's ruling Muslims into acquiescing to the oppression they endure. They might speak out, but only to a point, because Islamists assert that there is a divide between the state and churches. Islamists routinely proclaim that Christian churches should remain houses of worship the leaders of which stay out of politics. Mixing politics and religion is apparently a privilege reserved for Islamists.
Anba [Bishop] Bola, the Coptic Church's representative to the committee that is currently re-writing Egypt's constitution, admitted as such in a televised interview that aired on Oct. 8, 2013. During the interview, Anba Bola spoke of telling the committee how the implementation of Sharia law is making Coptic Christians, the nation's inhabitants since before the Islamic conquest, second-class citizens in their own homeland. At a certain point, when he became aware that Al-Azhar's representatives to the committee were offended by his remarks, he evidently decided to throw the democratic process into the trash and stated that, "Al-Azhar should have power to interpret the constitution and that Copts should respect Al-Azhar's interpretations." Bola capitulated to the inevitable – the creation of a persecuting society in the land of the Nile.
Egypt has an abundance of natural resources and is situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe. It should be an economic powerhouse capable of providing jobs and economic well-being for its people, who have suffered enough. But no one in his right mind will invest in a country where persecution – and not the rule of law – is the norm.
Until Islamist clerics learn to follow their own advice and stay out of politics – and allow women and Christians to live in peace – Egypt will remain a backwater. Only when Egyptians look within and admit to themselves that it is their own decisions that are really causing so much unnecessary misfortune, will Egypt be transformed to a modern state.
Michael Armanious, a U.S.-based news analyst and video producer, was born and raised in Egypt.