Watani talks to the Rev. Dr Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Evangelical community in Egypt and an authority on political Islam
“We have entered a new phase after the fall of the political Islam; we expect a new form of relationship between religion and politics.” This is according to Reverend Dr Andrea Zaki, vice-president of the Evangelical Church of Egypt and director of the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services (CEOSS).
Dr Zaki made the comment on the current political situation in an interview with Watani. Of all people, he can be said to have perfect insight into the situation: 17 years ago he prepared a comprehensive study on political Islam, citizenship and minorities. He predicted years ago that political Islam groups would come to power.
Watani talked to Rev. Dr Zaki about the aftermath of the overthrow of the MB-led Islamist regime in Egypt, which was ousted by the military upon the demand of some 30-million Egyptians. What followed was a vengeful war of terror by the Islamists against Egypt. Copts especially were targeted; close to 100 churches and Coptic homes, businesses, and shops plundered and burned in a two-day rampage. The horrendous crimes, which must be strictly and firmly dealt with as outright crime, revealed that once they failed, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-led Islamists resorted to a cowardly attack against those who—owing to the mere fact that they are in the minority—are the weakest in the community; those who do not carry arms to defend themselves. Yet the Western media brushed over the tragedy of the Copts, mostly mentioning it as an afterthought in news items on Egypt, and sympathised with the Islamists whom the media falsely alleged were peaceful, unarmed, and victims of army and police excessive violence.
To start with, is the activity of CEOSS subject to the will of the various political regimes?
CEOSS is a non-governmental organisation which despite being a Christian entity serves Egyptians at large, not only Copts. Beyond doubt, a regime which believes in the role of the civic society—NGOs for instance—offers them broader space. The 30 June Revolution has called for healthy NGO activity to work side by side with the government, not as a follower.
What is the role of CEOSS in communicating with the West to relay the real picture in Egypt, especially when it comes to the attacks against Copts and churches?
We lost several of our property; among them our branch in the Minya town of Beni Mazar and our Nile Boat in Minya, which were both burned down. We contacted our partners and donors in the West: the Church organisations and the NGOs, and we explained the situation on the ground in Egypt, and the plight of the community here. In my capacity as vice president of the Evangelical community in Egypt, I contacted churches in Germany and Denmark, with whom we enjoy cordial relations. Our Church also issued several statements in the US on the Egyptian situation. I also gave an interview to German TV. I believe that our role is effective because we are independent and not a governmental organisation.
What is your opinion on the West sympathising with the MB?
When I was interviewed on German TV, I spoke about the West’s double standards. I asked if Germans found it acceptable to attack and burn churches and terrorise civilian Egyptians for the sake of the political interests of one group—in this case the Islamists. I said the West spoke about democracy and human rights, but when Egyptians demanded just that and overthrew their Islamist oppressors, consequently falling victim to acts of violence and terrorism at the hands of the Islamists; the West looked the other way round. The German commentator said he was glad that I was addressing the conscience of the West.
I have been told by a public figure at the US Congress that American public opinion on Egypt is already shifting as a result of what the MB are doing to Egypt. There is already a change in EU policy; US policy will change too, even if slowly.
How do you see the reaction of the Copts vis-à-vis the attacks and painful losses they have suffered? They neither protested nor asked for any outside help.
The Copts’ reaction is epic. They re-enacted the 1919 Revolution when Copts, together with all Egyptians, were prepared to pay any cost to defend the independence of Egypt. Between the 1919 Revolution, the 30 June 2013 Revolution in which Copts joined in force, and August 2013 when they were attacked with a vengeance, the Copts have exemplified the concept of true citizenship. Citizenship is not a grant by the constitution or the ruler. It is an inherent value, and expresses itself in joint struggles with fellow citizens. The looted and burnt churches and homes, and the bloodshed were part of all this.
Mind you, Copts weren’t against the MB, quite the contrary; but the MB lied through their teeth, broke all their promises, and went back on all their pledges. Following last May’s attack on St Mark’s Cathedral, a symbol of Christianity in Egypt, Copts—together with the wide majority of Egyptians—realised the regime should go.
No one can question Coptic patriotism; they call for peace and well-being and are role models for genuine love. Their future is linked to moderate Muslims, who are the majority in Egypt.
There was a general view among Copts that the Evangelical Church had been courting the MB before their downfall. How true is this?
In 2012, the Evangelical Church took the unprecedented initiative of paying a visit to the MB. A joint statement ensued, and it was one of the best on paper. But the MB went back on all the agreements that related to citizenship rights and coexistence just a month from our meeting. This made us decide to halt dialogue with the MB and, since May 2012, there has been no communication or official or secret meeting between the Evangelical Church and the MB. When the MB president Muhammad Mursi came to power in June 2012, we dealt with the MB with love and tried to foster good relations with them, but it was obvious that their policy was against inclusion. After the attack against St Mark’s, we realised sectarianism was part and parcel of their thought.
What about Rafiq Habib who was a prominent member in the Evangelical Church, yet joined the MB and was vice-head of their Freedom and Justice Party. Did he put any pressure on the Evangelicals?
Dr Habib is his own master. For some 20 years he enjoyed a close relationship with the MB, but he represented only himself and had no influence over the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals joined every Egyptian public effort that led to freedom.
Do you think, in light of the huge support Egypt has received from Arab neighbours, that Arab Nationalism may be revived to counter Western plans?
Arab Nationalism is part of our heritage and has nothing to do with politics. In a political form, it cannot make a comeback. But there is a realisation in the region of the importance of political stability that far precedes Arab Nationalism. At one point, political interest proves more important than ideology. King Abdullah Bin Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia said that Egypt was at the heart of the Arab nation.
Seventeen years ago you earned a Ph.D. on political Islam, citizenship and minority groups. Why did you choose this complicated topic?
Political Islam was expected to rule one day, and since I care about the cause of minorities I decided to study their situation from the perspective of political Islam in power. After the 25 January 2011 Revolution the MB presented themselves as a righteous political group that could replace a corrupt regime, but this is now history.
You mentioned in your studies that political Islam voids the political role of Christians, whereas it was obvious that a number of Copts managed a significant political input during the Islamists’ year in power.
Political Islam uses religious identity as a basis for political participation; but Egypt was already a secular State before the Islamists took over so, for pragmatic reasons, they gave Copts a nominal chance. The FJP gave a certain space to Copts; the Salafi al-Nour Party excluded them altogether. However, the space given to Copts severely diminished once the Islamists entrenched their power, in view of the Islamist sectarian outlook.
The MB have failed. What now?
The relationship between religion and politics will never go away. It will emerge in some other form. The MB had a golden opportunity but they blew it. They created instead a huge controversy about the relationship between politics and religion. Egyptians have always been from time immemorial devout people; their faith has always been a positive force. After the 30 June Revolution they became very sensitive to the exploitation of religion in politics. I expect there will emerge civic regimes that respect and honour religion, but will keep it out of politics. Egypt will be a leader of a big change in the Arab world.
So, does this spell the end of political Islam?
I think it is the end of political Islam only as we know it. I expect political Islam will reappear in renewed, different forms. It will perhaps adopt the positive role of inspiring regimes to achieve justice.
4 September 2013