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Middle East and Africa

Copts and Muslims of Egypt: How Today’s Emergency Came About

In our visual era, which images are to be trusted? Those of Tahrir Square in January and February, where Muslims and Copts displayed their brotherliness, the other was accepted, and National Union was sacred? Or, conversely, those of last October 9th, with raging six-ton armoured vehicles, mercilessly crushing and killing Coptic protesters? The images of burnt churches?



Without opinion polls, one would think that the majority of Copts have chosen the latter view, and with good reason. What was seen and heard on October 9th was appalling. The repression of the demo unleashed pure hatred, accompanied by frightening actions: the official media, not contented with their ad nauseam slander campaign on an (imaginary) Coptic attack against the military police, inconsiderately invited 'honest citizens' to come to the square and protect the army against demonstrating Copts (with a heavy stress laid on this word). When asked for an opinion, many 'experts' [showed to have] too easily gobble[d] up the official inanities about Copts armed to the teeth battling against the army. They roughly said that the Copts were gathering what they had sown and accused them to have blown up some 'minor incidents' (a burnt church). A Muslim Brother politician interviewed by the Arab BBC during that night did not question the official version on Coptic aggression because he, in Alexandria, had seen what they did: they demonstrated by brandishing crosses. More generally, there are many who seem entrenched in prejudice: they cannot see that the official version doesn’t hold water for a minute, and that even if it were true it would not excuse such a brutal repression. Here and there, on that night, Coptic businesses were attacked, as well as the Coptic hospital, where the bodies of the victims were transported. That was very close to an Egyptian version of the Night of Broken Glass.



Nevertheless, it was avoided. The truth has been trickling down through word of mouth, starting from the distinguished Muslim and Coptic personalities who headed the demo; but also from journalists, and local Muslims and Copts. So it was possible to see an indignant Salafist brandish a cross as a sign of solidarity. It was possible to see many intellectuals, middle-class and commoners participate in the distress of the Copts and protest on their behalf. So the public authorities had to get back on track: they had to admit that the dead were innocent Egyptians and that the media coverage had been « incorrect ». They expressed their condolences, made gestures. Of course, it was a 'limited recalibration'. Now they are talking about agents provocateurs attacking the army. Nothing suggests they actually ask why and how so much violence was possible – if they do it, they do, it is in private.



But the question is precisely how so much violence was possible. How come so many honest people, so many worthy citizens could believe the media version and still today be in denial of the facts? I am not so naïve as to buy the explanation of the benefits of a communication free from constraints other than those of the best argument, which would allow a recollection. I am aware of the wisdom of the Muslim maxim: sedition sleeps, cursed be those who rouse it; or the Catholic one on doors which would better remain unopened.



From within this limited picture it would be impossible to retrace the history and evolution of the representations, discourses, intellectuals and ideas which made possible, plausible and audible the narratives, stereotypes, spurious stories and discourses of hatred currently prevailing in the two communities. I shall just make two considerations: one is that there are honest and worthy people, both Coptic and Muslim, currently believing horror stories about fellow-citizens who are not their co-religionists; and the other is that each community should start to examine its conscience, clean its own house, fight back its own nonsense, and question one of the most obscurantist and reactionary forms of information control.



However, I can also point to some milestones. I remember that the process of Coptic emancipation was started by the dynasty of Mohammed Ali, with the important abrogation of the poll tax by Said in 1855, culminating in the anti-British riots and the union sacrée in 1919. The original ambivalence of concord and fraternization between communities, within the picture of the great Wafd nationalist party (1919) has been highlighted by Laure Guirguis. Wafd’s discourse on secularity and secularization is surprisingly more... islamic than normally thought. The Egyptian monarchy and the 1923 Constitution neither dismantled the structures of the confessional State, nor questioned the existence of a number of personal statutes. They modernized structures and plans, adapting them, as far as possible, to the dictates of equality, the idea regulating citizenship.



In actual fact, however, this 'union sacrée', or symbiosis, was supported by institutions, space logistics and daily practices aimed at organizing and facilitating coexistence. The 'indigenous' Coptic and Muslim areas, as opposed to the upper-class ones inhabited by 'Europeans' or 'Western' people, formed the strongholds of nationalism. There life was crowded, with people talking to and visiting one another. The State education system, gradually replacing the traditional, ulema-controlled one, became accessible to the new middle-class Egyptians, whatever their religion. High-school students demonstrated together, did sports together, studied together: they got to know one another.



But the post-1945 period would see the erosion of what had made this union possible. I shall not dwell here on the emergence of the identity issue (with Egypt still a Muslim Country) and its implications – a question conveyed, expressed and valued by the Muslim Brothers; I remember what is less visible: one of the main social events of the last 10 years has been the emancipation of women, who have then been able to access education, the work market and choose their husbands. The emergence of women in the public sphere would be one, if not the main, cause of the implementation of community structures. Effectively, this fact implies the possibility of interreligious marriages.



Considering personal statutes and legislation, all mixed marriages are an advantage for the Muslim community and a loss for non-Muslim communities ‒ if the husband is a Muslim, the children will be Muslims, while a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam in order to marry a Muslim woman. In this situation, slowly but surely, some social practices begin to take place in order to take the Coptic woman away from the gaze of the Muslim man (for example, a Coptic father will take his children to a Coptic doctor), to facilitate the social mixing of men and women within the community (churches create clubs attached to places of worship). Besides, the main flaw of the successors of President Nasser was their indifference to the terrible decline of the Egyptian education system, at a time when school was the integration factor and space par excellence. The degradation and extension of the urban space have begun to question the daily pattern of life, the community life which once was the foundation of national unity. Finally, within the Coptic community, the internal equilibrium between large landowners and clergy is broken to the latter’s advantage through the blows inflicted to the former by Nasser’s reforms.



Such evolution was perhaps difficult to counter. It was, however, irredeemably precipitated by President Sadat’s political choices. Nasser’s successor, who wanted to recover the Sinai territory (occupied in 1967) and terminate the partnership with Egypt’s embarrassing Soviet godfather, needed Saudi Arabia abroad and Islamists at home. In order to destroy the strongholds of the Left in the university by riding the big wave of religiosity and 'return to God' that followed the defeat of 1967, Sadat would favour – at least – the emergence of a pluralist Islamist movement, of radical Islamist narratives, too often fuelling one or more disgusting anti-Christian discourses. The more extreme Islamists were not just contented with 'breaking the leftists': their extortions to damage the Copts – from a racket presented as the re-establishment of the jizya [poll tax] to the burning of churches and the murders – became more numerous. Above all, the State, under instructions from the summit, looked away. The wound is deep and will never heal. Such practices have resurrected the Coptic solid « victim» tradition and the cult of their own martyrs, whereby the environment is perceived as unanimously hostile and there is a preference to looking inwards.



Many observers are very critical of Pope Shenouda III’s management of the relations with the State, on account of his too frequent resorting to 'arm-wrestling', and doing everything he could to 'antagonize Sadat', and who has above all been preoccupied with the consolidation of the clergy’s power over the community whilst fostering, within it, the spread of ideologies as distasteful as his opponents’ anti-Christian discourses. I am not certain that all these critiques are fair but am not such an expert as to form a clear judgement about him. I only want to point out that he may not have all the freedom which is attributed to him: I would say that there is a tendency to believe that he lies at the origin of all the 'errors' of his community – or even at the origin of its demands, including the most unrealistic – and that actually remains unproved. On the other hand, his hostile attitude towards Israel would earn him the solid support of the 'Egyptian intellectual community', Muslims and Copts alike: in fact, many Muslims from this community sympathize with, and show their support to, the Copts’ main vindications.



Despite the proliferation, within each community, of unsavoury narratives continually consolidating negative 'others’ images'; despite the daily practice of constructing community spaces; despite the multiplication of discriminations, on a daily basis, by State agents as well as Copts; finally, despite the relative frequency of violent incidents (sometimes veritable pogroms), the 'confessional question' remained a taboo until 2004, when it suddenly became one of the main issues for public debate.



The emergence of this question and its multiple facets have been analysed by Laure Guirguis, in a thesis of forthcoming publication. Here I do not intend to study the positions of ether party but just to remember that the Coptic hierarchy has not always displayed great wisdom or ability to judge. Beside some disconcerting verbal excess on part of some of its personalities (the Anba Bishoy, the Church’s number two for example) who should have, considering their position, be cautious, its management of incidents relative to conversions (real or supposed) to Islam on part of priests’ wives willing to leave their husbands has been disastrous – the aforesaid wives are no longer visible and this confirms opinions and rumours about their kidnapping. Finally, the Coptic hierarchy has often given the impression of being arrogant and exploiting the fragility of a system anxious to please Washington, as well as preparing for an 'hereditary transmission of power'. This, naturally, does not mean that Muslim (State or religious) actors have behaved much better – the wisdom and humanity of the last two great imams of al-Ahzar are an important exception confirming the rule.



Now there is an emergency situation. The main evolution of the last twelve years is the 'democratization' of interreligious incidents. These are no longer restricted to fanatical Islamists feeling the need to 'get their own back' on the Copts. By now, they oppose people who live in the same area. All neighbourhood quarrels risk degenerating – and it is a miracle that this doesn’t happen more often. The main incidents derive from either of two causes: A) the building of a church, which is now undermining the State: given the practical impossibility of obtaining authorization to build churches, the Copts build 'illegal' churches – I do not intend to enter the petty debate on the 'necessity' of these places of worship, wanted because they are needed or simply because they are forbidden; often, such (so- called) 'illegal' churches are set fire to by a population 'annoyed' by their presence – a form of intolerance, by the way, unimaginable 50 years ago; B) the love stories between people of different religions, especially if they result in the young woman leaving her family home. Neither of the two 'communities' seems prepared to recognize the individual’s right to happiness – but the Coptic community can somehow be excused on account of losing some of its members with each mixed marriage.



This gloomy picture explains the actual panic that has seized the Coptic community who knew that, despite its flaws, Mubarak’s absolute regime constituted some form of protection and provided a welcome dose of liberalism. If Mubarak may have made concessions to obscurantists, he was not one of them. He certainly did not give the problem the attention it deserved but he did not, unless the contrary be proved, deliberately make it worse. This panic was heightened first with the Maspero episode – the army was, in the Coptic subconscious, the stronghold of the national link, the representative of Egypt’s Nation-State, the ultimate protector. A protector who overnight became an executioner. It happened overnight, but that night would leave deep marks. In certain provincial towns all the families who had the means emigrated, and over 93,000 Copts left Egypt after last January. There is no way of knowing whether this is temporary or not.



There is no need to further darken this already gloomy picture. It must be observed that the intellectual community, the intelligentsia, is very sensitive to this problem and many of its members who have often taken the side of the Copts have been able to find the right words, rarely misjudging the situation. Even more reassuringly, if the Copts have the general support of those Muslims who 'do not have a problem with the notion of equal citizenship', they are increasingly supported by the even more numerous crowd of those who reject this notion and have no true love for Christians but are appalled at the maltreatments inflicted on the Copts and firmly and strongly condemn the murders and the church burnings, declaring that Islam 'is not that' and that they want no more of 'that'.



There is still a lot to do – among other things, a Coptic update – without minimizing the danger: we have seen how some hundreds of militants have managed, from September 11th 2001, to spoil the relationships between Islam and the West for at least a decade. This said, we must not underestimate the energy and vitality of Muslim humanism, the extremists’ first and foremost target.