By Alan Holdren
“We don’t have an intermediate choice” between Islamism and democracy, says Cardinal Patriarch Antonios Naguib about the future of Egypt.
For the head of Catholics in Egypt and the Pope’s right-hand man on the ground, Egypt is destined to be either a nation where freedom, equal rights and democracy prevail, or a Muslim state in which these values are intrinsically compromised.
The head of Coptic Catholics in Egypt spoke openly to CNA about the high stakes transition that comes on the heels of the Tahrir Square protests that forced Hosni Mubarak to resign his 30-year presidency.
Cardinal Naguib was relaxed as he took a coffee break from his second day of meetings with fellow bishops to hammer out the concluding documents for last October’s Vatican synod for the Middle East.
He now calls that two-week long meeting about the present and future of Christianity in the Middle East a “prophetic vision and voice,” in light of the widespread uprisings in Middle Eastern and North African nations.
The synod called the people of the Middle East to strive for the shared values, said the cardinal.
One recurring theme of the synod discussions was the fundamental importance of a healthy space between religion and government to allow for the protection of religious and personal freedoms.
A referendum passed by the large majority of Egyptians on March 19 shows there is a hesitation in the nation to separate government actions from a religious foundation.
Nearly 78 percent of the population voted in favor of an partial amendment of the constitution which concentrates on modifying the powers of the president. Those who oppose it say it does little to bring about the civil and social change demanded by the February and March protests in Cairo.
Cardinal Naguib said the referendum result shows the deep influence of Islamists in society.
“Unfortunately, it was presented in a religious light,” he said. “Instead of speaking about political and social choice, religious vision and choice was spoken of – which for me and for many falsified the orientation of this movement for change.”
Before the vote, an “Islamist current” presented the referendum in the streets and the mosques as a choice for or against Islam – a vote for or against an afterlife in paradise, said the cardinal.
Put in such a way, “the overwhelming choice was for religion and paradise – which is very normal,” he observed.
“This approach confused the orientation and direction of the process” and twists the original scope of the movement that brought about the change, he said. The Coptic cardinal explained that he sees the fusion of the religious and political realms as “a mistaken vision.”
In a recent speech to the German parliament, the cardinal said that from the moment it became clear that the protests would be successful “we have seen figures and forces, completely absent at the beginning, appear and even dominate the scene.”
“The most visible of these are the Muslim Brothers who seem to wish to confiscate the revolution.”
The original objective of the movement, he told CNA, was “democracy, a civil state, equality, a state and an order based on equal rights and responsibilities for all, on the real participation of all, the exchange of government and authority. All of the components of a modern civil state.”
Twenty-two percent of voters asked for this through a complete overhaul of the constitution. They included Muslims and politicians who harshly criticized an unwillingness to bring about greater change.
The fact that more than 40 percent of the voting population turned out for the vote was also very significant. This “massive participation” – by Egyptian standards – was unprecedented and could have never happened under the previous regime, said the cardinal.
Still, those who hope for a democratic state are looking to the future with what he described as “a bit of apprehension.”
The Islamist influence witnessed before the referendum vote “causes a little fear for those who don’t want the process to be guided by a religious vision, pressure, and authority … And, this is the fear for the future which is also repeated for the successive phases.
The cardinal is putting a lot of weight on these “future phases” in which he hopes a definitive change of the constitution will be carried out.
After parliamentary elections in September, a commission will be formed to address the scope of the modifications. From this step will come the guidelines for the new president.
“These are the three stages, three moments that are definitive for the future,” Cardinal Naguib said.
The elections, he concluded, will have an effect on the entire Middle East, which looks to Egypt as a model.
“If there is pressure on choices by religion that come in to dominate the other civil and political aspects, certainly we will be heading into a religious state,” he said.
“For this, I’ve always said, ‘How will the future Middle East be? One of the two. Either democratic, civil and modern, or Islamic.’”
“We don’t have an intermediate choice.”