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05 July 2013

Great expectations

Great expectations

Photo Egypt protest 2013: WikiCommons - Lilian Wagdy

Who could have imagined that two years on from the delirious celebrations of the Arab Spring, the massed protesters in Tahrir Square would now be celebrating a military coup to oust their democratically elected government? What a turnaround.

No doubt the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood will provide a welcome respite for the suffering Christian population of Egypt, but the country is now deeply and angrily divided, and a spiral of violence seems inevitable. Even worse, if Egypt follows the path of Syria, a civil war would almost certainly plunge the whole of the Middle East into chaos.

What went wrong? As the Arab Spring turns to winter, are we seeing the end of a disastrous experiment with democracy? Or is democracy itself at fault? Has it failed to deliver? After all, you really can’t blame the Egyptians for rebelling against a constitution and laws being imposed that were not in the election manifesto.

Democracy is clearly an imperfect process, or as Winston Churchill noted, "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried". Without the right moral and ethical conditions, it can and will be abused. Sometimes you really don’t get what you voted for – think of David Cameron and gay marriage for an example closer to home.

In Egypt, factors such as history, culture, politics, the economy, and religion are all playing their part in this crisis. But, what is also fuelling the turmoil is a palpable sense of disappointment and frustration – a sense that hopes for a better future in Egypt are fading. Proverbs 13:12 says: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life." But where did the hopes come from? Television, the internet and the ability to travel have all broadened our horizons. They have also brought ideas and visions of freedom, justice, peace and prosperity to hitherto closed and oppressed societies. The result is that the world now is awash with great expectations. The problem is that most governments are seriously limited in their ability or desire to realise them.

Today, across the world hope is being tested to destruction, and in common with the Arab Spring, a pattern or cycle of discontent seems to be emerging. In countries with fast-growing, web-literate, young populations with expanding middle classes there is now widespread impatience about the pace of ‘progress’. Last month in Turkey, a local grievance about planning permission for a supermarket began to attract a variety of campaigns and protests until it eventually mushroomed into mass rioting in Istanbul and other cities. In Brazil, protests about government spending on next year’s World Cup timed to coincide with the football matches of the Confederations Cup began to gain momentum via new social media. Within the space of a week millions of people were marching about a vast and incoherent range of issues, and violence soon accompanied them.

Optimism about promises of a better future is a dangerous thing in a fallen world. While it’s true that aspirations and the struggles are always necessary to improve human conditions, when ‘progress’ is assumed as inevitable – ie that today is better than yesterday just because it’s today – history has shown time and time again that the only things guaranteed are disappointment, disorder and misery. This is because, as the philosopher John Gray has observed, the secular idea of progress is simply a pale copy of the Christian belief in the Kingdom of God – the narrative that we are moving towards a conclusion in history. The problem for secularism is that, without God, without the Alpha and Omega, there isn’t actually a destination to progress to. When hope has no focus all we can measure is change, so everything must change constantly. And when our high-speed broadband expectations demand a political quick fix, nations often end up swinging between the instability of perpetual revolution and the stability of a dictatorship.

Proverbs 11:7 says that: "Hopes placed in mortals die with them; all the promise of their power comes to nothing." The weight of expectation is bearing heavy on the Egyptian people. We should pray for peace to come and for freedom to prosper, particularly religious freedom – and we should pray that expectations are tempered by experience.

And what about our own expectations for the future? What are we putting our hope in? Where does our hope come from? Hope in God doesn’t disappoint, because "those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint" (Isaiah 40:31). This means that when we offer hope, we should also be mindful to offer an introduction to Jesus. After all, he is, the hope of the nations.

Dave Landrum is the director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance.