The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East
In June of this year, Egyptian scholar Dr. Mariz Tadros – Fellow at
the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex (UK)- gave
a talk in Zurich entitled “Egypt’s Post-Arab Spring Transition: The
Challenges of Social Pluralism.” Her talk was part of Christian
Solidarity International’s lecture series on “The Future of Religious
Minorities in the Middle East.”
The videos of all talks and the press releases are online:
The Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger interviewed Dr. Tadros. Please find
below an English translation of the interview.
TAGES-ANZEIGER, 2 July 2016
Original article in German:
“THE REVOLUTION WAS WONDERFUL”
An interview with Mariz Tadros by Christof Münger.
War and chaos prevail in the Middle East. Despite that, the Egyptian
sociologist Mariz Tadros is glad the Arab Spring happened. Above all,
the situation for women has shown some improvement, she says.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak five years ago,
there were high hopes all around for a democracy. But today Egypt is
a military dictatorship in civilian garb. What went wrong?
TADROS: Egypt should have followed the example set by Nelson Mandela.
He opted for a new start and a state that included all segments of
the population rather than one based on hatred, revenge and
punishment. But in Egypt, first the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be
violent, then it was the turn of the military that forced President
Mohamed Morsi from power. The Mandela path was closed off.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: When would the opportunity have existed for Egypt to
follow in Mandela’s footsteps?
TADROS: In 2011, just after the fall of Mubarak. At that point all
parties could have been integrated into the government, including
Mubarak’s followers. Although those forces that had violated human
rights should have been brought to account. Unfortunately, the
opportunity was not seized, due to an informal alliance between the
military and the Muslim Brotherhood. It consisted of the army not
standing in the way of the Muslim Brotherhood assuming power, and the
Muslim Brotherhood in turn not holding the military accountable for
human rights violations. This alliance ultimately broke down in 2012,
as their interests were just too dissimilar. A second opportunity
offered itself when Mohamed Morsi was elected. Morsi had met with
representatives of the non-Muslim parties in the Fairmont Hotel in
Cairo two months earlier, promising a fresh start with a pluralistic
government, if the non-Muslim parties agreed to support him. This
opportunity also came to naught.
TADROS: When the Muslim Brotherhood took power after Morsi’s
election, they marginalised the non-Islamic forces that had opposed
Mubarak. In addition, they put Morsi under pressure to hand out
important posts to the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamist movements were
supported, but non-Islamic ones were not.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: Now Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is president, a former
general who likewise does not respect human rights. Is that better?
TADROS: Yes, it is better than under his predecessors. Egypt is
without doubt an authoritarian regime, and the goals of the
revolution of 2011- bread, freedom and justice – are far from being
achieved. For example, there are problems with freedom of the press,
and the right to demonstrate. On the other hand, women today have far
more rights than under Morsi, even though there is by no means gender
equality in Egypt. Religious minorities such as the Shiites or Coptic
Christians, the group to which I belong, are also better protected,
even if we still do not have equal rights. Poor Copts living in poor
villages have yet to see an improvement in their lives. But when
President Sisi attends a Christmas Mass, this is a sign of
recognition and symbolically important. Neither Morsi nor Mubarak
ever did anything like this.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: In the West, we often hear of sexual assaults by Arab
men, especially in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The attacks on women on
New Year’s Eve in Cologne were also shocking. Is it difficult as a
woman, particularly a Christian one, to live in an Arab country?
TADROS: As an Egyptian woman, I often feel safer in Egypt than in the
West. If I am out late in Great Britain, for example, and walk by a
pub when drunks come out, it can be very unpleasant. Sexual
harassment can take place anywhere, although there are also
differences within the Arab world. The situation is bad in Saudi
Arabia and Yemen, but in Lebanon it is better. In Egypt, there were
two types of sexual harassment after the revolution. One was
politically motivated – this occurred above all in Tahrir Square. It
was obvious that Islamist groups wanted to use sexual violence to
keep women off the streets, so that they no longer raised their
voices. Then there was socially motivated harassment, which increased
when safety could no longer be ensured, and also because the Islamist
movements gained in prominence. If women went out unveiled, they were
derided as whores.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: Did the so-called Arab Spring accomplish anything?
TADROS: Yes, it did. In Egypt, women are now more willing to speak
their minds. Twenty years ago, this was unthinkable, because their
families forbade it. Today we increasingly see support for women who
speak out. Following the election victory of the Muslim Brotherhood
in 2012, only 3 per cent of the deputies in parliament were women.
Today Egypt has the highest female representation it has ever had,
almost 15 per cent. The sexual assaults have also decreased. Whereas
under the Muslim Brotherhood, the response was that women who were
harassed in the street should simply stay at home.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: How would you explain the macho behaviour seen in
Cologne, for example – does it have more to do with Islam or with the
TADROS: I do not think it is a question of religion. More important
is the existence of a functioning constitutional state. In the West,
people risk a prison sentence if they molest a woman or openly
express racist thoughts. Even more important, however, is that this
kind of behaviour is not tolerated by Western society. In contrast,
the rule of law is not consistently applied in the Arab world, and
perpetrators are not denounced. The responsibility for this lies less
with Islam as a religion than with Islamist movements. In other
words, those political forces that want to introduce Sharia law and
dramatically restrict the rights of women. The Islamists have never
accepted that the physical integrity of a woman is inviolable,
irrespective of the type of clothing she wears. They demand that
women respect their Islamic culture, but it is they who determine
what that culture is.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: In spite of the Arab Spring, war and chaos prevail in
the Middle East today. Do you sometimes wish that the revolution of
2011 had never taken place?
TADROS: The revolution was wonderful! It was a huge transformative
and historic event in Egypt. The experiences of 2011 and 2013 showed
that the people have the power to topple a president. This has given
hope to many. It is an important signal worldwide that people can
make a difference.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: But the aftermath of the Arab Spring has been a
disaster: Libya is a failed state, Syria is in the grip of civil war,
Egypt is a military dictatorship, and a great many Islamic State
terrorists come from Tunisia.
TADROS: Part of the problem is foreign intervention. The United
States is responsible for the chaos in Iraq, which made the rise of
the Islamists possible. Furthermore, the West supports regimes that
discriminate against sections of the population on religious or
ethnic grounds. The West must also be held accountable for the chaos
in Libya. After the fall of Gaddafi, the country was simply left to
the militias. And who sells weapons to these militias? The terrorists
do not manufacture them themselves. In Syria, the civil war worsened
because of the intervention of the West and Iran.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: Yet many critics of Barack Obama argue that the
United States should have intervened more and much earlier to end the
TADROS: The West could have averted the humanitarian disaster, but
not with military intervention. The major relief agencies,
particularly the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), warned
of a major refugee crisis at an early stage. In addition, they told
the Americans and Europeans a crisis could be prevented by relocating
the population away from the war zones. The international aid
organisations even submitted a plan to accomplish this, and that plan
would have worked.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: However, the West would have had to defend such areas
militarily from the air.
TADROS: No, because these areas were controlled by Assad. The United
Nations agencies would have been able to deliver relief supplies
there. However, they were not allowed to, on the grounds that it
would have strengthened the Assad regime, and the West wanted to get
rid of Bashar al-Assad. Up to that point, 7500 people had been
killed. Today, there are half a million dead. I am not saying the
West is responsible for the civil war. But the current humanitarian
crisis could have been averted if the West had not insisted on
TAGES-ANZEIGER: What can a country like Switzerland do today?
TADROS: Switzerland should have understanding for the refugees. I
appreciate the security concerns, but it is difficult for deeply
traumatised people to return home. It would therefore be wonderful if
Switzerland could accept refugees, and help them to settle. In
addition, international assistance should be better coordinated.
Often we do not know who is helping whom and why. Not all aid is good
aid. For example, Saudi Arabia uses foundations to support radical
groups. We know only that aid involves a lot of money and power – it
is a black hole. The so-called Islamic State (IS) has created an
entire network to siphon off aid money.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: Is the IS collateral damage of the Arab revolution?
TADROS: No. The rise of radical Islamist organisations is a
consequence of the lack of security along the borders of the Middle
East. These groups do indeed have more scope due to the war in Syria,
but in fact they have been pursuing their goals for a long time.
Their ideology preceded the start of the Arab revolution. The rise of
the jihadists is not a result of democracy being unable to prevail.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: In the West, IS is seen as the main problem in Syria,
especially since the attacks in Paris, Brussels, Orlando and now in
Istanbul. How can this problem be resolved?
TADROS: The IS is merely one form of jihadist ideology. This ideology
can be expressed in various ways. If the IS is defeated, there will
be 1000 new Islamic States. Therefore, it is high time that Al-Azhar
University in Cairo, the highest Sunni authority in the world, not
only condemns the IS attacks as un-Islamic, but also declares these
terrorists “infidels”. If it did so, the IS would no longer be part
of the Ummah, the community of all Muslims.
TAGES-ANZEIGER: Would that help?
TADROS: It would be worth a try. But Al-Ashar University is reluctant
to adopt a firm stance. And the result of this reluctance is a grey
area. So a person can be an outsider who has committed terrorist
acts, and yet still belong to the wider community of all Muslims.
Half-hearted measures are not good enough. It is not possible to
condemn the jihadist terrorists themselves, without also
simultaneously denouncing the organisations and the ideology behind
TAGES-ANZEIGER: Why is it so difficult today to imagine peace in the
TADROS: Despite everything, there are signs of hope, people who
resist by campaigning for human rights. The Arab Spring was not just
a passing phase. In 2011, it was fashionable in the West to care
about the Arabs. At that time, many academics, activists and
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) wanted to work in the Arab
world. But now nobody comes, and nobody cares about us. Everyone says
it is a disaster and that they are emotionally exhausted. This is
very painful for me. It is more a question of solidarity than money
or technical assistance. It is the duty of Switzerland to assist
progressive groups in the Middle East.
ABOUT MARIZ TADROS
The 40-year-old Egyptian sociologist teaches at the University of
Sussex but still travels back regularly to her homeland. Her writings
include a ground-breaking book on the Muslim Brotherhood. She visited
Switzerland at the invitation of Christian Solidarity International