Shall We Bid National Unity Farewell!!

In Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

In an attempt to come out with a reasonable justification for the recent religious and sectarian tension in Egypt, most of the intellectuals, political activists and advocates that were asked suggested the withdrawal and inefficiency of the democratization process as a main cause, in addition to the police-like approach of the Egyptian regime, the significant rise of the Islamist agenda, the cultural fragility characterizing the Egyptian society, as well as the escalating fanaticism of the Christian right-wing. This conclusion was the outcome of a seminar that was organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies -CIHRS- within the framework of Ibn Rushd Salon on April 30th 2006 under the title “Shall We Bid National Unity Farewell?”. The seminar was moderated by Mr. Bahey Eddin Hassan, CIHRS Director, who pointed out that the matter in question aims primarily at drawing attention to the deplorable reality, which was uncovered in the most recent violent repercussions in Alexandria. Mr. Hassan argued that Egypt has started to witness mounting sectarian tension since the early seventies, starting with the “Al-Khanka” events in November 1972.

Mr. Hassan suggested that the real paradox in the latest Alexandria events lies in the fact that the thousands of Muslims who were supporting the man accused of assaulting Christian worshippers as he brandished his sword and cried out “My life in Sacrifice of Yours, Messenger of God!” in protest to the caricatures posted in the Danish newspaper; these thousands do not, obviously, view Coptic Egyptians as their fellow-patriots but rather as people following a religious belief different to theirs, thus questioning their patriotic belonging.

The events of Alexandria as well as similar previous events were good grounds for explaining both the negative and positive developments that have occurred in the religious-tension matter since 1972, regardless of the extremity of such events. These events also raised questions concerning the degree of cultural deterioration that the Egyptian society has reached and which was flagrant in Alexandria, where it was semi-religious war between people holding out the Cross and others who held out the Qur’an. Did this issue receive more attention than it should have through biased and partial media organizations and the so-called foreign conspiracy agents, whether the Mosad, the Imperialists, or the Coptic Immigrants? Or is it a real profound societal predicament that should be dealt with carefully?

The Egyptian government, on the other hand, admitted 34 years earlier that the problem exists and formed, in consequence, a committee headed by the late Gamal Al-Oteify to handle this issue in 1972. Yet, as Mr. Hassan pointed out, the reports and recommendations of that committee were totally ignored. The question then, Mr. Hassan continued, was whether the government was simply unable to carry out these recommendations or if it benefited from the continuation of that problem? Mr. Hassan asked the presence what they thought the reasons were for the government not to have come out yet with a draft law that would ensure real equality between all religious parties in Egypt in an attempt to diminish all forms of discrimination in society?

Mr. Youssef Sidhom, Editor-in-Chief of the Watany Newspaper, pointed out that he has always been apprehensive of the politicized phrase “National Unity” which was usually used in formal statements to embellish and cover up for the corrupt reality that Egypt lives.

Sidhom added that the “National Unity” phrase was always quoted in politics, while the real evil was left to spread uncontrollably, and the gap between Christians and Muslims was left to widen. Citizenship, he affirmed, is the way to save Egypt. We should try assiduously to define what citizenship really implies and to set forth clear criteria for it. Mr. Sidhom pointed out that following the tragic incident of the priest’s wife and the second sit-in in the courtyard of the Cathedral, some sensible members of the Press Syndicate gathered in an attempt to call out for the establishment of an Egyptian Council for Citizenship Rights, following the example of the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), since the latter was still under question.

Among the reasons that led to the continuation and aggravation of these unholy episodes of violence, Sidhom argued, was some kind of political will to balance the shortcomings and failings between both parties – the Christians and Muslims, to which end they contrived the political phrase “sectarian sedition” so as to describe every unholy strike that Egyptian Copts sustained against their places of worship, entities or rights, especially in the countryside and small communities. He further expressed his concern that the countryside and small communities are really out of the circle of control of the civil state, and are rather governed by religious fanaticism and the police-governed state.

According to Mr. Sidhom, the previous events were not to be called sectarian sedition if compared to their peers in Ireland, Lebanon, or Yugoslavia, for seditions are based partly on a balance between two powers or blocs, equal in number and might. On the contrary, Christians in Egypt are the ones constantly under criticism, who are demonized in preaches, called infidels and made outcasts.

Sidhom observed that efforts should be made to mobilize a single Egyptian bloc that isolates insidious outlandish groups, pointing out that there is a societal problem representing the pan-Egyptian concerns. The Coptic file, he added, ought to be removed from the Egyptian security records to be included in the Egyptian societal concerns one as it is only an inseparable part of the general concerns of all Egyptians, affirming that this will be the first apt step on the road towards true citizenship.

Sidhom suggested that solving this problem necessitates enhancing the role of the state, the religious institutions and the civil society. The state should act as a true patron of all citizens without discrimination or bias. He argued that the policies of the Egyptian regime do not sponsor equality between Muslims and Christians, especially with regards to the right to build and preserve places of worship. Mr. Sidhom added that no matter how many laws are suggested and discussed to solve this issue, the last of which was promulgated last December, this problem could only be solved through a unified law that would govern the establishment of the places of worship.

Sidhom added that there are certain Islamic discourses preaching tolerance, while others are loaded with fanaticism. Egypt, over time, managed to produce a tolerant version of Islam under which Copts could live for centuries; this tolerant Islam can be revisited, where all citizens will be given equal rights.

The state, he affirmed, does not act neutrally with citizens in terms of their rights to occupying high-level or leadership posts; religious identity preponderates over meritoriousness. The Copts, he continued, are being increasingly marginalized in media and education; a lot of negative thoughts are being implanted in Muslim children’s minds, murdering their innocence and damaging their relationship with their Christian peers. Sidhom asserted the urging need to revolutionize the educational institution in Egypt, and act against teachers who sow negative and discriminatory thoughts and ideas in their students’ heads. Thirty years of accumulated injustice against Copts has led the Church to polarize and console Copts, a grave phenomenon that needs to be considered carefully as it poses a serious threat to reform. Church played the role of the consoler with its community; but instead of restoring them back into society, it contained and isolated them, either in fear or as a desire to control them.

Mr. Sidhom also added that under totalitarian regimes, the role of the civil society shrinks, although it has an indispensable role to play in bridging the gap between the different categories of Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, through daily life activities, not just over Ramadan-specific banquets or exchange of felicitation cards in the different occasions.

Mamdouh Nakhla, Director of Al-Kalima Human Rights Center, followed pointing out that the current issue was not a problem forty years ago. Yet, he affirmed that the answer to the proposed question is an unconditional accord: Farewell to National Unity. Mr. Nakhla warned that Egypt might be approaching an atrocious civil war if things remained as they are, as Christians would start defending themselves. Nakhla enumerated fourteen incidents of violation against Egyptian Copts since the Deir al-Mahriq events in 1995, ranging between massacres, rows and assaults against churches. He argued that there are certain reasons behind these attacks, central to which is the extremist education instigating Muslim children not to accept others; besides, Christian religious texts are absent from educational curricula, while Qur’anic verses and Prophetic traditions are highlighted, with an emphasis on what is Islamic and Qur’anic. Nakhla added that some newspapers and books freely insult Christians and their faith, with the shadow of the Egyptian security authorities lying around these publications. Mr. Nakhla was personally accused of fanaticism because he filed a lawsuit against the “Hamayouni Decree” and demanded that the national personal identification card becomes religion-free.

He argued that building churches should not provoke negative sentiments for Muslims, accusing official media of racism, as it hosts extremist Muslim clergymen, and constantly blames the Church. Nakhla indicated that government officials accuse Christians of extremism and sectarian sedition, while it is simply the fault of improper security treatment. Mr. Nakhla declared his support to positive discriminatory laws, in line with the law that the United States of America applied on Black Americans, in order to allow them to occupy high-level posts so as to restore their rights in different contexts.

Pent-Up Anger

Dr Mohammed Abdul Moneim Abul-Fotouh, member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, pointed out that certain pent-up anger is rankling within the Egyptian society, for reasons related to culture and education as mentioned by the two former speakers, Mr. Nakhla and Mr. Sidhom.

Mr. Abul-Fotouh stressed that the state is the sole entity to blame for the Muslim-Copt religious tension and violent events, due to the indiscriminate injustice inflicted upon both parties and the flagrant disrespect for Egyptians as citizens. He noted that state oppression is not confined to Copts alone, but is also inflicted against a considerable fraction of Muslims, pointing out to the unjust treatment against members of the Muslim Brotherhood Group who are denied access to certain jobs because of their affiliation to the group.

Abul-Fotouh further expounded that the same thugs who beat the Brotherhood candidates during the latest parliamentary elections, attacked the Copts during the recent Alexandria events. The Copts are not a minority, he argued, rather they make up the fabric of the nation, and can hardly be segregated socially from Muslims. However, Abul-Fotouh admitted that there are advocates of extremism on both sides, considering that state animosity and combat of the Muslim Brotherhood might be one of the main causes for the rising fanaticism.
Abul-Fotouh highlighted the systematic weakening of the official religious institution, represented in Al-Azhar, affirming the necessity of a political will against sedition between Copts and Muslims so as to avoid foreign intrusion that either parties might seek for resort, stressing the serious consequences of such intervention upon the Egyptian society at large, irrespective of faith.

Affirming that no Egyptian should be persecuted based on religion, color, race or political ideology, Abul-Fotouh pinpointed that rights and obligations should be based on the principle of citizenship, regardless of any other considerations. He branded the public role in confronting the crisis as still weak. Mr. Abul-Fotouh highlighted the significance of the numerous meetings that were held between Copts and Muslims following the victory achieved by the group in the latest parliamentary elections, hoping that the recommendations resulting from these meetings and gatherings would be carried out. He warned as well not respond to those elements who benefit from triggering the sedition to achieve certain interests.

Abul-Fotouh pinpointed that the complexity of the problem lies partially in the fact that some Copts use a discourse that seeks foreign aid, the matter which provokes large groups of Muslims. He indicated that the absent role of the already-weak state gave way to certain groups to deal with this issue without any intrusion or guidance from the part of the state. Neglecting moderate Islamists and their agendas lead foreign thoughts to flow into society. Mr. Abul-Fotouh noted, however, that extremism is part of the human nature, whether among Muslims or Christians, however, danger remains if it threatens the peace and coherence of society.

Police State

Dr. Mohammed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, started by emphasizing that Egyptian patriotism is currently experiencing a grave period of recession and that some studies indicated that 90% of the Egyptians take the religious factor as their primary reference. Mr. Said argued that there are certain reasons for the increasingly growing religious violence phenomenon, the first of which is the setback that the Democratization Process in Egypt has witnessed, as well as the increasingly police-like nature of the state, both of which could be dated back to the late sixties around the time when the former Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser gave up the 30 March Draft Statement, and crushed the Student Movement in November 1968. The police state started to appear in Egypt clearly ever after, especially under the following president Anwar El Sadat, until it reached its current shape in the eighties on, to turn by all means into a real enemy to national unity.

Mr. Said added that certain doubts need to be seriously examined to find out the extent to which the security authorities manipulate the National Unity file. He pointed out that the state governs the people with the mentality of the imperialist, engaging in clashes with citizens, just like what happened during the latest events with the judges’ protests. Mr. Said stressed the necessity of reaching reconciliation similar to the one effected in South Africa, pointing out that such reconciliation can only be realized through eliminating tyranny as a start.

Mr. Said explained that the second reason for the rise of religious tension in Egypt was due to the recent rise of the Islamist Agenda, and the accompanying pursuit to use it in place of Egyptian patriotism, thus filling the vacuum created after the fall of Nasserism as an ideology. He argued that the manner this project was crystallized relied on excluding Christians from the political arena, and using systematic violence against them. Mr. Said pointed out that Muslims, in particular, inherited certain incomprehensible deeply-seated hatred against Egyptian Copts, giving examples from Medieval texts and jurisdiction that might explain the violent treatment Copts used to receive during that epoch. In line with that middle age treatment, and specifically in Upper Egypt in the Eighties, complex systems of emirship were imposed, and some Christians were forced to pay the per capita tax (Jizya) once again. He affirmed, however, that the Mulsim Brotherhood group did not often have a hand in such incidents.

Mr. Said affirmed that only in the early nineties were the Brotherhood able to develop some sort of awareness regarding this issue, expressing his comfort about what he described as transformations in the heart of the Islamist Agenda, which started to expurgate itself from the unhealthy spite against Christians. Meanwhile, Mr. Said expressed his fear that there is no guarantee that the thoughts expressed by moderate thinkers like Dr. Abdul Moneim Abul-Fotouh will ultimately preponderate within the Muslim Brotherhood group.

Mr. Said then pointed out that the third reason for the rise of religious tension in Egypt is the cultural fragility of the Egyptian society only enjoying vestiges of modernism while sticking to a medieval cultural legacy of sticking to unexplained sectarian animosity, particularly in Upper Egypt and Sinai. He held that a final reason lies in the maximal fanatic attitude on the part of the Christian right-wing, pointing out that through the Church, various attitudes were crystallized, some of which are undeniably humane and sophisticated. On the other hand, some of these attitudes are extremist at heart in the sense that they seek and collaborate with foreign agents and have their own symbolic violence and racist ideologies. Mr. Said then highlighted the need to conduct an in-depth study on the development of the infra-culture of the Coptic Community, since while there are some who firmly believe that “God is Love”, others are loaded with potential violence due to a huge lack of political action. Mr. Said expressed his hopes for a new national rally that seeks to revive Egyptian national unity, restoring democracy, resuscitating society and disenchanting it from medieval absurdities.


Mr. Negad El Borai, head of the “Group for Developing Democracy”, then took over expressing his full approval to Mr. Said’s analysis, affirming that national unity phrases are only meant to impress, and to cite the 1919 revolution events (where Egyptian Copts and Muslims were united to expel British colonizers) is misguiding. Mr. El Borai added that freedom of belief is not embedded in the Egyptian society whatsoever and that national unity no longer exists as a notion. Mr. El Borai then reminded the presence of the revolt mounted against the declaration of the so-called Document of Evangelism, despite it being a document of religious freedom that permits every party to promote their own beliefs without attacking other beliefs. Muslims and Christians, however, each in their manner, want a religious state. Christians, he contended, went fatally astray when they resorted to violence, unaware of the demonic plan plotted to entrap them. Mr. El Borai explained that Christians gained a lot of benefits and privileges through the violence they endured before, namely, such as obtaining immigration visas. He then pointed out that only when embassies started to deny them visas, they turned into violence.
Mr. El Borai thought, however, that there are several measures to be taken that can help deal with this issue, after acknowledging the existence of this issue as a severe problem and realizing that it will not be solved through exchanging “void formal compliments”, rather, the effective handling should be through the willingness of both parties to compromise, so that Muslims concede the hardliner attitude towards building churches, for if Christians were free to build churches, over time churches can turn into hospitals or educational centers beneficent to the whole society, when enlarged.

Mr. El-Borai added that the other solution is to stop broadcasting and publicizing the Islamic programs on official television, as people watch satellite channels so as to access the kind of information they need as it is more available, so it is not necessary on official television. Mr. Borai then pointed out that Christians are required to give certain compromises as well, on top of which is to realize that they live in an Islamic state – without prejudice to citizenship – so they should stop seeking foreign aid, as matters then get more complicated, and foreign support disappears from the scene. Mr. El Borai finally called for pushing the Copts to integrate into society and to get out of the Church cocoon, and finally encouraged the separation of state and religion.

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