Perspective

Reflections on recent events in Egypt

In Brief: 
  • There is no shortage of self-interested forces aiming to prevent Egyptians from determining their own future, whether colonialism, religious orthodoxy, or consumerism
  • It is vital, therefore, that all Egyptians endeavor to achieve a broad consensus on the operating principles that can shape a new model for society
  • A mature society demonstrates one feature above all others: a recognition of the oneness of humanity
  • From that flow other essential principles, such as the equality of women and men, universal education, and a balance between science and religion
  • What is needed is a broadly based national conversation, extending to the grassroots, on these points

The events of recent months have provided us, the Bahá’ís of Egypt, with an opportunity we have never experienced before: to communicate directly with you, our brothers and sisters. We rejoice that we are able to make a humble contribution to the conversation which has now begun about Egypt’s future and to share some perspectives, drawn from our own experience and that of Bahá’ís throughout the world, as to the prerequisites for walking the path towards lasting material and spiritual prosperity.

Whatever directly motivated the rapid change that has occurred, the outcome demonstrates the collective desire of us all, the people of Egypt, to exercise greater control over our destiny. Our collective history, as Egyptians, Arabs, and Africans, has taught us that there is no shortage of self-interested forces in the world that would prevent us from determining our own future or, alternatively, would invite us to voluntarily abdicate this responsibility. Colonialism, religious orthodoxy, authoritarian rule, and outright tyranny have all played their part in the past. Today, the “gentler” force of consumerism and the erosion of morality which it fosters are equally capable of holding us back, under the pretense of making us more free.

A global phenomenon

The events that have taken place in Egypt can be seen as a response to forces that are, in fact, drawing the entire human race towards greater maturity and interdependence. The movement towards greater maturity is a global phenomenon.

What are the choices before us? Many models of collective living are on offer and being championed by various interested parties. Are we to move towards an individualistic, fragmented society, wherein all feel liberated to pursue their own interests, even at the expense of the common good? Will we be tempted by the lures of materialism and its beholden agent, consumerism? Will we opt for a system that feeds on religious fanaticism? Are we prepared to allow an elite to emerge that will be oblivious to our collective aspirations, and may even seek to manipulate our desire for change? Or, will the process of change be allowed to lose momentum, dissolve into factional squabbling, and crumble under the weight of institutional inertia?

Too often, change brought about by popular protest eventually results in disappointment. This is not because the movement that provided the catalyst for change lacks unity—indeed, its ability to foster unity among disparate peoples and interests is the essential feature that ensured its success—but rather because the realization quickly dawns that it is far easier to find common cause against the status quo than it is to agree upon what should replace it. It is vital that we endeavor to achieve broad consensus on the operating principles that are to shape a new model for our society.

A mature society demonstrates one feature above all others: a recognition of the oneness of humanity. How fortunate, then, that the most abiding memory of recent months is not of religious divisions or ethnic conflict, but of differences being put aside in favour of a common cause. Our instinctive ability, as a people, to recognize the truth that we all belong to one human family served us well. Nevertheless, to develop institutions, agencies, and social structures that promote the oneness of humanity is an altogether greater challenge. Far from being an expression of vague and pious hope, this principle informs the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. Its genesis lies in the recognition that we were all created out of the same substance by the one Creator, and therefore, it is indefensible for one person, tribe, or nation to claim superiority over another.

The ramifications of this fundamental truth are so profound that many other vital principles, essential for the future development of Egypt, can be derived from it. A prime example is the equality of men and women. Does anything retard progress in our country more efficiently than the persistent exclusion of women from full participation in the affairs of the nation? Redressing this balance will by itself bring about improvement in every aspect of Egyptian life: religious, cultural, social, economic, and political. Like the bird that cannot fly if one wing is weaker than the other, so humanity’s ability to scale the heights of real attainment are severely impeded so long as women are denied the opportunities afforded to men.

Nowhere could the equality of the sexes more helpfully be established than in education, which exists to enable men and women of every background to fulfill their innate potential to contribute to the progress of society. If it is to succeed, it must offer adequate preparation for participation in the economic life of the nation, but so, too, it must possess a robust moral dimension. Education cannot be allowed to be the means whereby disunity and hatred of others are instilled into innocent minds. With the right approach, it can also become an effective instrument for protecting future generations from the insidious blight of corruption that so conspicuously afflicts present-day Egypt.

Related to the topic of education is the interaction between science and religion, twin sources of insight that humanity can draw upon as it seeks to achieve progress. We possess a proud history of fostering a spirit of rational and scientific enquiry—with admirable results in the areas of farming and medicine, to name but two—while retaining a strong religious tradition and respect for the values promulgated by the world’s great faiths. There is nothing in such values that should incline us toward irrational thinking or fanaticism.

Our nation is blessed by an abundance of youth. Conditions must be nurtured so that opportunities for meaningful employment multiply, talent is harnessed, and possibilities to progress are accessed on the basis of merit, not privilege. Disenchantment will grow if, because of persistent corruption, inequality, and neglect, the efforts youth make to improve the conditions of families, communities, and neighborhoods are thwarted at every turn.

Each individual comes into the world as a trust of the whole, and the collective resources of the human race should therefore be expended for the benefit of all, not just a fraction. Neglect of this ideal has a particularly destabilizing influence on society, as extremes of wealth and poverty exacerbate existing social tensions and provoke unrest.

Consultation: the challenge

The challenge before us, then, is to initiate a process of consultation about the principles that are to inform the reshaping of our society. This is a painstaking task. However, we can be confident that every sincere effort invested for this purpose will be richly rewarded by the release, from our own selves, of a fresh measure of those constructive energies on which our future depends. In such a broadly based national conversation—engaging people at all levels, in villages and in cities, in neighborhoods and in the home, extending to the grassroots of society and drawing in every concerned citizen—it will be vital that the process not move too quickly to the pragmatic and the expedient, and not be reduced to the deals and decisions involved in the distribution of power among a new elite who would presume to become the arbiters of our future.

The ongoing and wide-scale involvement of the population in such a consultative process will go a long way towards persuading the citizenry that policy-makers have the creation of a just society at heart. Given the opportunity to participate in such a process, we will be confirmed in our newly awakened consciousness that we have ownership of our own future and come to realize the collective power we already possess to transform ourselves.

The Bahá’ís of Egypt

[Editor’s Note: The following is an abbreviated version of an open letter sent by the Bahá’í community of Egypt to their fellow citizens in April 2011. The full letter can be read at: http://www.bahai-egypt.org/2011/04/open-letter-to-people-of-egypt.html]

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