By Gerald Butt
The Arab world is turning over a new page at last. Not since Britain and France created nation states in the Middle East at the end of the first world war has the region experienced such an upheaval. It is still early to say what will be drawn on that blank page in terms of the shape and character of political systems. But as numerous groups jostle to form parties to contest elections, there are signs that the Middle East's tiny and dwindling Christian community will not be among the beneficiaries. Egypt is a key country to watch as it sweeps away the legacy 0f the Hosni Mubarak era, characterised by suppression of any group that challenged the dominance of the ruling party. With the president gone, the shackles are off. Among those exploiting this freedom are Egypt's fundamentalist Islamic groups – the Muslim Brotherhood, Gama'a al-Islamiya and others. All stress, as they form political parties, that they support the idea of a civil, rather than an Islamic, state.
In the past, Gama'a al-Islamiya carried out acts of terrorism – including killing 58 foreign tourists at Luxor in 1997 – as part of its campaign to establish Islamic rule in Egypt. So how come the change of heart? "We want a civil state ruling with justice," said one of its leaders, Naji Ibrahim. "We are not afraid of this freedom because we are holding the strong message of Islam, which has an inherent strength that is stronger than any other idea."
So, a civil state to begin with, but ultimately the implication is that Islam would be triumphant. With the Muslim Brotherhood, too, the most organised group, the professed desire to see secular rule continue in Egypt runs counter to its charter. This envisages an Islamic state throughout the Middle East, while at home the Brotherhood aims to "convey the mission of Islam to the people as a whole". There is no mention of Islam's duty to protect ahl al-Kitab (people of the book, Christians and Jews).
So, not surprisingly, Coptic Christians are suspicious. Naguib Gobraiel, a lawyer for the Coptic Church, believes the Muslim Brothers are seeking "to delude people and make them think that their paradigm is not fundamentalist but conforms with the values of citizenship".
But by forming their own – faith-based – parties, the Islamic groups are only conforming to the pattern elsewhere in the Arab world where democracy already exists. In Iraq and Lebanon politics is ensnared by sectarian divisions. As Iraqi Sunnis and Shias vie for power, the country remains in a state of collapse. Those at the bottom of the heap – including the Christian minority – are unrepresented and vulnerable. The Christian exodus continues. In Lebanon the growing power of the Shia Hezbollah organisation is challenging the Sunni establishment and the increasingly nervous Christians. Again, the Christian community is in decline.
The irony is that Arab Muslims and Christians took to the streets together en masse to demand change – without heed of political or religious leaders. What is needed on the new blank page of Arab politics is a movement that can incorporate the diversity of these protesters, cutting across sectarian lines.
In the absence of such a movement, Arab Christians risk being driven still further to the margins of society, while Sunni and Shia Muslims compete for influence. The most tempting option for Christians, under these circumstances, would be an air ticket out, weakening still more Christianity's presence in the region where it was born. So, the "Christian" west should, perhaps, be careful in applauding too soon the historic changes in the Middle East.