To visit Egypt today and to meet those living there does not offer a real answer to these questions but leads to an affirmation: stagnation reigns in the country, both in the towns and the countryside. From Cairo to Luxor, the situation is catastrophic. The decay of an economy in free fall is particularly evident in the collapse of tourism, the losses of which already amount to some billion euro. And yet, despite this situation, the Egyptians speak of thawra, of revolution. Those coming from abroad can see that there has been a revolution by the fact that one can cross Upper Egypt by car or train without being accompanied. One can visit various villages without the security forces linked to the notorious Emn Dawla of the Interior Ministry having to be informed or being forced to have an escort as happened before.
In fact the Emn Dawla, which numbered tens of thousands of agents with the task of gathering information on citizens and proceeding with their arrest, has been abolished. There is no doubt that a revolution has taken place, so much so that the Salafites, one of the hardest and most radical wings of Sunnism, have been increasingly visible since the fall of president Mubarak. Their number is perhaps the same but they appear more often since there has been the thawra: they can be recognised by the ritual white tunic and the typical beard without moustache. Suspected of having worked for the counter-revolution, the Salafites have a clear political plan, similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood: to build a Muslim state in Egypt, a concept nevertheless that has never been clearly defined.
But given the situation, Egypt cannot make do with ideological debates. It needs a revolution more than ever that will allow its population to have access to development and to the vast wealth of the country. In Upper Egypt in particular, with its famous towns like Minieh, Assiut, Luxor or Aswan and its forgotten villages of farmers, there is evident need for a profound change from the socio-economic point of view. A change that is irreversible.
Just outside the town of Tahta we met a foreigner, an agronomist with a long experience working for the NGOs, who since January has been helping the peasants to learn new farming techniques. He explained to us that today the peasants must relearn the art of cultivating their land rationally which at present is overexploited. Until a few generations ago people were in fact able to rationally manage the land, but now indiscriminate building reduces the arable land to the point that big families are left with plots that are too small.
The only possibility for young people is to emigrate. Emigration is synonymous of freedom, liberation from the constrictions of a patriarchal system. The most ambitious dream of going abroad, but their journey often stops in Cairo in the overcrowded quarters of Shubra or Embaba. In this way, month after month, the villages are emptied of their young people and only the elderly, women and children are left. One of the consequences of this emigration is that in some villages 40% of the families depend on the wage that the women earn with their work.
In the towns in Upper Egypt unemployment is very high, no jobs have been created since Mubarak planned to concentrate industry in the area around Cairo. For decades new quarters of huge proportions have been springing up in the desert surrounding the megalopolis. The buildings rise up everywhere just like mushrooms, constructed in height and in width, new floors being added to the existing buildings. In other towns and villages the same thing is now happening. Since the thawra has eliminated government control and has weakened police power, building goes on illegally, not respecting regulations.
For the Christians, this situation brought about by the revolution seems to offer a moment of relief: it is finally possible to repair a church or a school belonging to a religious congregation without having to present an official written application to the President of the Republic (who did everything to hinder the realisation of projects, small or large, coming from Christian environments). Areas have been fenced off to create projects for the disabled or the elderly, and laboratories whose objective is that of training the young in professions sought by the local market. It is important to take advantage of the margins of freedom offered by the thawra, as this freedom of action could suddenly be swept away with the next elections. Projects are also under way aimed at inviting Muslims to meet their Christian fellow citizens half-way, with the goal of healing the wound that Egypt is now suffering from: religious segregation, rooted in the mentality from childhood and aimed at converting others or at excluding them. In this climate Christians and Muslims avoid and mistrust one another. The Christians fear above all that they will be swallowed up by Islam, the conqueror, who reduces them to being second class citizens. The authorities often deny that the Christians are persecuted, so how can the presence of the armed guards in front of the churches be explained? The ordinary people see things differently. Since the revolution, the Christians live in constant fear owing to the numerous street muggings of which they are victims and the molestation of women. It must be said that this fear is justified. But the withdrawal of the Christians into themselves is also dangerous. Among the numerous challenges that await Egypt, the Christians are called upon to become a community that is committed to a political plan along with other things which will foster the exercise of citizenship and contribute towards the transformation of the country. A difficult challenge, since from the birth of modern Egypt, from Nasser to Mubarak, the citizens have been used to passiveness and indifference before a political life that has been manoeuvred and managed by the authorities in office. Today the thawra finally offers each citizen the possibility to engage in a political plan. The Christians, even though making up a minority that does not reach 10% of the total population, in a country with 80 million inhabitants, must stand the test of responsibility and imagination before the threats of the Muslim fundamentalist groups. They attempt to limit the action of the Christians to within the walls of the church with all sorts of provocations, as happens in all the Islamic states.
The thawra has increased insecurity in the urban quarters along with criminality, of which the Christians are often the victims. But it also constitutes a real opportunity to mobilise people in view of the next elections. The dioceses are taking up initiatives in this direction; they train leaders above all who have to make the citizens aware of the stakes at play in the elections. Time is getting short and the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised group of the country, are certainly not hoping that other groups are preparing for this historic event that should lead to real elections in which the people could actually choose and propose candidates of different orientations.
In a country in which the women are often confined to the house, in which the patriarchal system is deeply rooted in traditions that suffocate individual initiative, in which the illiteracy rate and absence of schooling concerns 60% of the total population, and where the only concern of the people is survival, the efforts of the leaders, even if only to assemble people, is colossal.
Despite this situation the Church is right in pursuing its task of the training – not of homologation – of consciences, as the Bishop of Minieh reminds us. This work has been going on for some time in the villages and the urban quarters with the aim of urging the Christians, especially the young ones, to meet and get out of the family circle and to gather in activities and summer camps to reflect, talk and exchange opinions. The tendency to withdraw into oneself, into one’s own religious identity and one’s community of belonging is present among the Muslims to the same extent as it is among the Christians. This tendency can be seen in the high number of disabled that are born from marriages between blood relations. A nun who has worked with the disabled for over forty years, explains that these marriages between blood relations have always been a means of self-conservation for the Catholic Copt community which is scattered all over Egypt.
The change of mentality and the openness towards others, which does not mean the denial of one’s faith, are the true revolution which Egypt needs.
This is what the Church has been trying to do for some decades now. According to the Bishop Emeritus of Sohag, the Church also started its own revolution when it began to urge the faithful to reflect on the type of society that they wanted for their country. The thawra today grants the Egyptians freedom of expression, something that has never been seen in the history of the republic. The Arab spring will be a real thawra, a revolution, if all the currents and forces of the country take part in that surge of conversion that was ushered in at Piazza Tahrir by the young of all religious confessions not willing to give up the ideal that they discovered also through Internet and the modern communication media: the possibility to build their life, to make choices, to express themselves freely, to grow, travel….