Lawrence Solomon: Egypt’s reformer

(February 4, 2011) Next to a Western leader, Hosni Mubarak has a deplorable record on human rights. Next to just about any other Arab leader in the world today, the man is a teddy bear.

During the Mubarak regime’s 30-year rule, Egypt has fought no war with any neighbouring country. That isn’t the case with Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Chad or the Palestinians, or with important non-Arab countries in the Middle East such as Iran. Neither did Mubarak invade communities within his country at odds with his regime, as occurred elsewhere in the Middle East, Turkey’s brutal suppression of the Kurds being but one example.

Throughout the Muslim Middle East, Christians under persecution have been fleeing for decades. In some Muslim countries, the religious cleansing of Christians is near complete. The Christian population of Syria, 33% in 1920, is now down to 10%. Turkey’s 15% in 1920 is at 1% today. Iran’s Christian population is at 0.4%, Gaza’s is at 0.2%. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, though they too have been mercilessly persecuted over the decades, stand out in stark contrast. Before Mubarak rose to power, the country’s Copts seemed destined for a fate similar to Christians elsewhere in the Middle East, effectively barred from so much as repairing their churches.

Mubarak, alone among Egypt’s many leaders over the last century, reversed what had been a relentless erosion of the Copts’ rights. He allowed hundreds of church repairs and even the construction of some new ones. He returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church more than half of the 1,500 acres of land that the state had seized in 1952 for the benefit of Islamic institutions and indicated an intention to have the rest returned. He decreed that churches and mosques should enjoy equal legal rights, and reintroduced into school curriculums the role that Christianity had played in Egyptian history. State media not only ended propaganda directed against Christians, it allowed live broadcasts of Easter and Christmas services.

Most of all, and much more than any of his predecessors, he attempted to physically protect the Copts against the continual violence that they faced from the country’s Islamic extremists, the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite public opposition in a country with widespread Islamic sympathies, he systematically tracked down those who murdered Copts and punished them. A terrorist attack this past Christmas that claimed 23 lives was the first the Copts suffered in 12 years. Little wonder that Egypt’s Christians — who number as many as 18 million in a country of 83 million — have been all but absent in the anti-Mubarak street demonstrations and have been praying in their churches for his continuance in power.

Unlike Iran, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq, Egypt under Mubarak has not sponsored terrorism — to the contrary, Mubarak has been a steadfast ally in the war on terror, leading to at least six assassination attempts on his life at the hands of Islamic extremists.  Unlike the Syrians’ crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the town of Hama in 1982, which killed tens of thousands of civilians, many as a consequence of chemical weapons, Mubarak cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood mostly by jailing opponents and banning them from elections, not by wholesale slaughter of innocents.

The Arab protesters now on the streets of Cairo are calling for democracy, but what does democracy mean in a country that has only experienced dictatorships over its 5,000-year history? Polls of Musim Egyptians taken by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and at the University of Maryland provide us with insights.

Muslim Egyptians as a whole do want democracy — polls show 59%  view democracy as “very good.” But in the Egyptian mind, democratic rule implies something very different than it does to Westerners. Almost three-quarters of Muslim Egyptians wants to see the “strict imposition of Sharia law,” more than half want men and women segregated in the workplace, 82% want adulterers to be stoned, 77% view whippings and cutting off of hands as proper punishment for theft, and 84% favour the death penalty for Muslims who leave their faith. All told, 91% of Egyptians want to keep “Western values out of Islamic countries” (80% strongly), and 67% want “to unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or caliphate.”

The coexistence of democracy and Sharia law should come as no surprise: The chief proponent in Egypt over the last decade advocating democracy has been, in fact, the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

If it comes to power, this organization, which has spawned most of the world’s Islamic terrorist groups, would bring Egypt a brand of democracy that would dash the West’s hopes for Egypt, starting with a rollback of social reforms. Mubarak officially banned female genital mutilation in 2007 — Egypt had had the world’s second-highest rate at 97% — leading to an immediate drop in the rate to 91% in just one year, according to the World Health Organization. Under the Muslim Brotherhood, that ban would likely be reversed, as would plans to return lands now controlled by Muslims to Christians, as would the relative tolerance shown Christians in worship and education.

Mubarak’s economic reforms could also go by the boards. According to the International Monetary Fund, until recently Egypt had one of the Middle East’s fastest-growing economies, thanks to sweeping reforms that Mubarak introduced in 2004, among them slashed personal and corporate income tax rates, privatizations that put more than half of the banking sector in private hands, reduced barriers to trade, and improvements in corporate governance. The World Bank, as a result, deemed Egypt the top reformer in its 2007 Doing Business report. Corruption remains a problem in Egypt, but less so than many might believe. According to the global Index of Economic Freedom, Egypt is no more corrupt than Argentina.

Egypt’s economy did falter recently, dropping from an impressive 7% to 8% growth in GDP per year to 4.6% last year, and leading to the unrest on the Arab street. This unrest, in turn, led to demands by Western leaders for Mubarak’s ouster. The West’s leaders, ironically, will be accomplishing their goal indirectly because Egypt’s economic woes were largely of their making: It was the global recession, caused overwhelmingly by irresponsible Western policies, that lowered Egypt’s growth rate and it was the West’s use of food crops for ethanol production, in an attempt to reduce its oil dependence, that led to grain shortages and uncontainable hardship for Egypt’s poor.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the author of The Deniers.

Financial Post, February 4, 2011

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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