A Catholic’s reflections on Cairo

| Mike Haasl | March 2, 2011 | 0 Comments

Anti-government protesters celebrate atop a tank in Tahrir Square after the announcement in Cairo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. CNS photo / Yannis Behrakis, Reuters

As the drama unfolded in Tahrir (“liberation”) Square in Cairo, Egypt, for days I joined in the world’s awe at the hundreds of thousands who gathered to demand an end to the autocratic reign of Hosni Mubarak and its three-decades-old “emergency law.”

I kept asking myself the question, What does this re­markable movement have to do with me as a Catholic, and why am I being so captivated by it?

As a member of a people of sacramental faith, I try to be attentive to expressions of God’s passion for dignity and hope bubbling to the surface in the world.

When I watch movies, I always get emotionally choked up when I see scenes of people sacrificing their own safety and well-being for others — and I see those experiences as people responding to God’s invitation to selflessly love.

Taking a stand

As I learned that each one of the multitudes of people who decided to go to Tahrir Square each day were putting their lives on the line for a pie-in-the-sky ideal that might well end badly, I saw in their commitment an incredible expression of God’s invitation to selflessly love.

How was it possible for three decades of iron-fist dictatorship to succumb to nonviolent protesters who carried no weapons except that of persistent courage?

Theorists of active nonviolence know that all governments rest on the consent of the governed — the obedience to the nation’s laws.

When individuals withdraw their support for what they view as unjust laws, those individuals are subjected to harsh consequences.

When massive numbers say, “I will not obey your oppressive decrees,” the governing bodies’ show of force and intimidation and bloodshed intensifies, the resolve of the protesters usually weakens and the movement collapses.

When the Mubarak government tried that strategy it did result in harsh consequences — indeed, more than 300 were killed, hundreds more were detained, including some with torture — but it surprisingly only served to increase the numbers of people in the square.

That the strategy didn’t work in Cairo is a testament to the courage of the people, to the restraint of the local military — many of whose members sided with the people — and to the increasing billions lost in tourist revenue.

The fact that the protesters were able to remain nonviolent in the face of a violent response served to attract admirers and support throughout the world. Some even say that this event has helped to “mainstream” nonviolent action as a means to overcome powerful, unjust systems.

On the side of change

In a recent edition of The Catholic Spirit, two articles related to this caught my eye.

The first was the looking back at how the editor of the diocesan paper continually supported the movement for civil rights in the South in the 1960s, even when this wasn’t a popular stance with some of the readers.

The second was how the Catholic Church in the Middle East will likely lose many young people because the church leadership did not support this movement toward rights and democracy for fear of repercussions.

Standing on the side of change for the sake of justice will always have its detractors, particularly for those who benefit from the status quo or those who fear the repercussions.

But our faith calls us to take a stand for justice and dignity — just as Jesus refused to participate with Jewish laws of Sabbath and ritual purity when they detracted from health and human dignity — even when it might cost us. Our faith calls us to selflessly love our neighbors, most especially those who are weakest in society.

Challenging questions

When I reflect back on the situation in Egypt and the Middle East, I see not only the face of God, but I am challenged by some troubling questions.

How was it that I did not know that our own government  — through both Democratic and Republican administrations’ foreign policies — was sending $1.5 billion of mostly military aid per year, the second most to any country in the world, to prop up a dictatorship which was using an “emergency law” to detain thousands of people without charge?

Why was it that our presidents and secretaries of state were often shown embracing the likes of Hosni Mubarak whose corruption resulted in $70 billion in his offshore bank accounts?

Why was it that our government was embracing a transfer of power to Mubarak’s hand-picked Vice President Omar Suleiman, who had been the point person on the extraordinary rendition program in which our government was sending suspects to be tortured in Egypt, and who was known to be directly involved in torture?

I recognize that stability in order to ensure the flow of oil to continue our economy is a value, but if the cost is collaboration with dictatorships where human beings are not allowed to be free, where do we as Catholics come down?

While I am joyful in the celebration of God’s love and freedom bubbling to the surface, I also feel called to be more attentive to other areas of our world where people are oppressed, particularly with the assistance of my own government.

I find this democracy movement in Egypt calling me to open my eyes and heart in a new way.

Mike Haasl promotes global solidarity at the archdiocesan Center for Mission. He can be reached at haaslm@archspm.org.

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