SBU Friar Utilized for Expertise on Egypt

HNP Communications In the Headlines

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — Michael Calabria, OFM, a lecturer in Arabic and Islamic studies at St. Bonaventure University, has been a frequent resource to the media on coverage of the Egyptian revolt.

He says that while the media has paid considerable attention to the current story, it hasn’t given much coverage to the conditions that led to the revolution. He called the situation in Egypt “a perfect storm” of events that set the stage for the departure of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

He described components of the storm as high unemployment, overwhelming poverty, an overcrowded population living in a small geographical area, lack of basic human rights and a multi-billionaire dictator in a country where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Michael gave these comments recently during a presentation at SBU. In the past few weeks, he has also presented at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, and was interviewed by WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y., WJTN in Jamestown, N.Y., and St. Anthony Messenger Press. An expert in Egyptian culture and politics, Michael lived there from 2001 to 2002, and has traveled to the country regularly since 1981. He has directed and taught an English as a Second Language summer program at a Coptic Catholic Seminary in Cairo since 2004, and is pursuing a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic studies.

He recalled where he was on Oct. 4, 1981, when former President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, putting his vice president, Hosni Mubarak, into power. At the time, Michael was studying at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., having just returned from Egypt where he was doing archaeological research.

“The significance of what happened is tremendous,” he was reported as saying in the AmericanCatholic.org article. Writer John Fesiter quoted Michael: “This shows, not only the Arab world, but also the rest of the world, that people can remove a corrupt and tyrannical government through peaceful revolution. That’s no small thing.”

The Voice of the Egyptian People 
Michael told the SBU audience at the Feb. 15 presentation, titled “Egypt’s Awakening: An Insider’s View of a Revolution,” that it wasn’t one circumstance or one group that caused the revolt, but rather, many things. “No one group pushed the agenda,” he said. “It was a movement of the Egyptian people.”

It started with a peaceful protest, then the protesters continued, “day after day, sacrificing their jobs, putting their lives in danger — it’s truly significant.”

Using the Egyptian words for “go,” “enough,” and “freedom,” Michael described the people’s chanting in Tahrir Square, which literally translates to liberation. “Three hundred people lost their lives so that they might be free.”

Michael, 49, provided much context and background on life in Egypt in his presentation, which can be watched in its entirety on YouTube. He showed a slide of a famous statue near Cairo, which features an ancient sphinx and modern-day peasant woman, two icons that Michael says define Egypt today.

“It is called ‘The Awakening,’ and it is my hope that one day it will rest in Liberation Square.” This is a symbol, he said, of a new Egypt, a young Egypt, where the sphinx or the peasant woman will no longer be silent. “This is the face of a new Egypt — courageous, emboldened, tech-savvy.”

Historical and Cultural Background
Michael also gave Egyptian history, which, he said, is important in understanding why the revolt happened. He cited three decades of emergency laws that robbed people of their constitutional rights, police brutality and government-sanctioned torture, the arrests and murders of critics and political opponents, labor unrest, growing poverty, widespread unemployment among young people and a political system and constitution that effectively blocked opposition to the Mubarak regime. Other points he shared included:

Egypt is the most populous country in Arab world, with 80 million people
98 percent of those people live on only 4 percent of the land
The population is 90 percent Muslim and 10 percent Christian; the largest Christian minority in the Arab world
40 percent live in poverty

In addition to these facts, Michael, who joined the Franciscans in 1998, said the Egyptians did not have many human rights. Articles in their constitution gave the military a great deal of control.

To the contrary, Franciscans, he said, have a special devotion to building peace between Christians and Muslims, just as St. Francis of Assisi promoted Christian-Muslim peace in the Middle Ages.

Today’s Franciscan movement is a witness to society, Michael told St. Anthony Messenger Press. “We don’t join the popular media portrayal of an Islamic group as ‘the enemy’ simply because they have the word Muslim in the name of their organization,” he said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the revolution.

Rather, he said, Franciscans support events like the recent Tahrir Square protest, in which Christians and Muslims “joined in peaceful demonstration, holding crosses and Qu’rans together, in a sign of Egyptian unity.”

Michael ended his lecture by leaving ample time for questions and answers.

— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.