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from issue no. 03 - 2011

The Arab uprisings and the Turkish option

The evolution of the political landscape in the Arab countries may happen with Islam passing through democracy.

In line with what is happening in Erdogan’s Turkey.

An interview with Maroun Lahham, Archbishop of Tunis

Interview with Maroun Elias Lahham by Gianni Valente

What has happened has surprised even him. Maroun Lahham, a Palestinian from Jordan, Archbishop of Tunis since October 2005, really did not expect that out of Tunisia would come the great upheaval that has been shaking the Arab countries for two months. Those days in February were full of uncertainty and worry, with the curfew confining him to the walls of his residence, the demonstrations, the tear gas and tanks positioned in front of the cathedral, in the Place de l’Independence. But now the situation is calm. Difficulties, uncertainties and the din of the ongoing war in neighboring Libya have muted the tone of what the so-called “Arab spring”. And maybe it’s the moment to attempt a first interim judgment on what has happened so far.

Mohamed Ghannouchi, Prime Minister at that time, with Archbishop Maroun Lahham in Tunis, 20 February 2011, after the murder of Father Marek Rybinski [© Afp/Getty Images]

Mohamed Ghannouchi, Prime Minister at that time, with Archbishop Maroun Lahham in Tunis, 20 February 2011, after the murder of Father Marek Rybinski [© Afp/Getty Images]

In Tunisia the spark that ignited the revolt had a social character: rising prices, unemployment and poverty.
MAROUN ELIAS LAHHAM: Yes, but after two days the protest had already widened to include political issues, starting with exasperation with corruption. The speed with which the uprising spread from one country to another is a sign that the tension was evidently building up underneath the apparent calm imposed by the regimes. There was a spark, but the piles of wood and dry leaves had already been there in the whole region for some time.
But are the uprisings in the Arab world really so similar?
The situations are obviously different in many ways. But there is at least one feature in common: there is a generation of young Arabs who can no longer bear to live in a state of silent subjection under oppressive regimes, with corrupt functionaries blocking the way to economic, political and social development. Many of them have studied and are well aware of the global dynamics of today’s world. This generational element is a historical fact that one must take account of, without overdoing it.
What is the current situation in Tunisia?
Now the situation is calm, but the economy is at point zero and the tourist industry, a mainstay of the country, is virtually stationary. This explains the mass exodus of young people.
According to the Italian and the other European governments the Tunisians who arrive in boats are not refugees but illegal immigrants who must be kept out or returned to their own country.
I can’t speak on the political and legal aspects. But as I see it the human aspect must also be taken into account. The people trying to get to Europe are not terrorists, they are largely young people who have studied, many have college degrees. They’re people who have lost their jobs. Tourism provided jobs for 450,000 young people who are now all unemployed. Many of them have always dreamed of going to Europe, and now they’re doing so because the borders are less guarded. If they are sent back, they will try to do it again. We’ll also see from this whether Europe is a political and cultural entity truly capable of tackling problems. Meanwhile, Tunisia has taken in 170,000 refugees fleeing from Libya: earlier came Filipinos, Pakistanis, Eritreans, Egyptians, and then began this Libyan wave... The Tunisians have given formidable evidence of being receptive. People prepared food at home and took it to the refugees. Our nuns also went to the refugee camps to prepare food every day for ten thousand people.
How do you see the future? Is there a class of leaders that can really replace the regime of Ben Ali?
After Ben Ali three governments have followed on one another, and the current one is lasting because there are no members of the old regime in its ranks. In July there will be elections for the Constituent Assembly. You can see how much people want to participate from the explosion of parties and political symbols, already more than fifty have sprung up.
Isn’t there a risk in that of sectarian fragmentation, as happened in Iraq?
Now everything is possible. I expect and hope that over time many of these small groupings come together around a clear and more definite program of national interest and prosperity. The government has said that during the election campaign it will not back any of the political parties in the running. A great many of the groupings born out of the wave of enthusiasm will disappear, because they have no money. However it would be an honor for Tunisia to become the first Arab country with a truly secular and democratic constitution.
Such an uncertain and fragmented scenario may favor the local Islamist party.
The Islamic party Ennahdha in fact appears to be well organized, even if it’s been officially allowed only since 1 March this year. It had been banned since 1991, but apparently continued its activities underground. Currently it’s using a pluralist and democratic language, claiming new spaces and new forms to express publicly its religious vision. One may credit them, but keeping one’s eyes open. So far, there had never been moderate Islamic parties, all Islam political groupings aimed in fact at the creation of an Islamist regime. The novelty is that there’s now a different historical model on the scene, that of Erdogan’s party in Turkey which is achieving a coming together of Islam and democracy. Let’s hope that this example will be followed by others. The evolution of the political landscape in the Middle East can only happen if Islam moves through  democracy, that is, through the evolution of political Islam. In partial analogy with what happened in the West, in the encounter between Christianity and modern democracy.
Libyan refugees in the Ras Ajdir refugee camp, on the border between Libya and Tunisia, 12 March 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Libyan refugees in the Ras Ajdir refugee camp, on the border between Libya and Tunisia, 12 March 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

You Catholic bishops of the Maghreb have nevertheless made a common appeal expressing your concern about the western-led military intervention in Libya. “We know that war solves nothing, and when it breaks out, it is just as uncontrollable as the explosion of a nuclear reactor... The first victims are always the poorest and most disadvantaged”.
That intervention may rekindle anti-Western sentiments of which the Arab uprisings have so far remained free. Whether we like it or not, it will look like a new crusade. And it may stir the call for holy war against the “invaders” which has always been a strong argument of the fundamentalist forces.
How have the Catholics experienced this moment in Tunisia? A few days after the uprising, there was the barbaric murder of the Salesian Father Marek...
That really upset us. And in the early days of the uprising there was some concern. The Catholic Church in Tunisia consists almost entirely of foreigners, so none of them were personally involved in the protests.
But in general, what may be the consequences for Christians of the changes taking place in the Arab countries? May they end up saying that it was better before?
I don’t know how it will end. But I think that if processes of democratic enlargement are really set in motion, there’s no point and it is not right that Christians be on the other side, or nourish anachronistic wishful thinking. Not even the search for protection in the West seems desirable or appropriate to the situation.
So what then?
Christians can simply stay where they are, sharing the hopes and fears of all. As was the case in other circumstances, such as in the period of Arab nationalism. By participating in historical processes, they can also collaborate with our Muslim brothers in an attempt to make the mechanisms of a democratic system adapted to local conditions take root in the Arab world.
Some commentators fancy that the Christian minorities in Arab countries can teach the secular nature of politics and democracy. Isn’t there a danger of nourishing pretensions to social influence?
I don’t see that risk. In Tunisia, and more generally in Arab countries, we Christians are humble by nature...

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