3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Sharing a true traditionBy Mustafa El-Fiqi *
It was a heartwarming, convivial setting in which to inaugurate the beginning of a new century. Due to overlapping holidays, Egyptian Muslims and Copts settled around their dining tables in order to break their fast in unison. The reverent yet festive air was replete with joyful anticipation and festive communion. But, then, as though a storm had suddenly run havoc over their repast and snuffed out the flickering candles that lit the solemn, joyous celebrations, sectarian violence blowing from a small village in Upper Egypt cast a dismal pall over the communal merriment.
All Egyptians, without exception, were horrified. In their stupefaction, they also realised that such outrages must be stopped. The atrocity in Al-Kosheh, they know, is an aberration in a country envied for its high degree of demographic homogeneity and social cohesiveness. But they are also well aware of how such incidents are exploited in the perpetual attempts to undermine their national stability.
I personally spent many years studying the history of Egyptian Copts. I was particularly interested in the manifestations of Coptic-Muslim solidarity and unity of purpose during the liberal period spanning the revolutions of 1919 and 1952. Indeed, it was this well-attested phenomenon and its underlying Egyptian values that I chose as the topic for my doctoral thesis when I was a student of political science at the University of London some 30 years ago. I was also proud to have had the opportunity to collaborate with the Islamic jurist and historian Tarek El-Bishri and the renowned intellectual William Soliman Qilada on the publication of One People, One Nation. The book, which appeared about 20 years ago with an introduction by Boutros Ghali, chronicles various chapters in the history of Egyptian national unity and serves as further testimony to how deeply-rooted and strongly ingrained the sense of communal identity is.
Then, about 15 years ago, I wrote to Al-Ahram commenting on the growing fad of religiously inspired bumper stickers. The stickers, I felt at the time, were an insidious if naïve attempt to divide the Egyptian people. It was ironic to see this fad played out on our motorways, while Muslim and Christian homes nestle together in crowded neighbourhoods, their tombs jostle against one other in the graveyards and their blood is so intermingled as to make Christian and Muslim indistinguishable. The minister of interior responded quickly to my appeal and banned the bumper stickers on the grounds that religious observance should remain a private affair and in order to affirm that all Egyptians are equal before the law.
Today, national consciousness should progress with the spirit of the times. As Egyptians come to terms with the demands and mechanisms of modernisation, it is only natural that they should draw even closer together and that all manifestations of sectarian fission should disappear. It also follows that, if policy and wisdom are joined to steer us towards a contemporary vision of society, free from the ills of the past, Egyptians should assume the joint responsibility of safeguarding the unity and cohesiveness of their national heritage.
If we are to come to terms with what happened in Al-Kosheh, however, we must understand, first, the unique character of Upper Egypt; second, the nature of sectarian blackmail; and third, the need for new, non-traditional solutions.
The distinct character of Upper Egypt is closely related to the tribal origins of the populations that settled in the southern Egyptian Nile valley. The strong adherence to inherited customs and traditions combine with a mesh of powerful clan bonds to give that predominantly rural region a unique character. Its administrative centres, villages and hamlets reverberate with the names of certain families that have held centre stage in political leadership and parliamentary representation for generations in modern Egyptian history.
Upper Egypt has also been a reservoir of outstanding talent. No small proportion of the country's political and intellectual elite had initially made their way to Cairo from the south. Indeed, that narrow strip of the Nile Valley nurtured a large number of national luminaries, from Menes, the Pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt, to Abdel-Nasser, the leader of the 1952 Revolution. In this century alone, it has given rise to such intellectual and political personalities as Abbas El-Aqqad, Taha Hussein, Mustafa Lutfi El-Manfalouti, Mohamed Mahmoud Soliman, Makram Ebeid and Sheikh El-Maraghi. Upper Egypt is also the cradle of many old and prominent Coptic families: Ghali, Doss, Wissa, Khayyat and Abdel-Nour are only a few of the symbols of Egypt's political and economic life in the past two centuries. Nor should we forget that Christianity originally entered Egypt from the south, and that the Holy Family made its way deep into Upper Egypt. It is little wonder, therefore, that Upper Egypt should have a higher concentration of Copts than the Delta and the urban centres of the north.
This ancient religious plurality and record of distinction epitomised Upper Egypt until the 1952 Revolution. The Agrarian Reform Law and subsequent anti-feudal measures dislodged the south's leading families, while other factors contributed to changing the demographic face of the south. Among these were intermarriage and the increasing prevalence of the nuclear family over the formerly tribe- and clan-dominated social structure.
It is also important to note that, in spite of its ancient historical roots, Upper Egypt's standards of living are generally lower than those prevailing in the Delta. In this, Egypt is no different from many other societies in which the country's north has enjoyed relatively greater economic advantages than its rural south. In Egypt, the topographical contrast between the narrow band of Nile valley furrowing its way between rocky cliffs, and the broad expanse of fertile Delta land, visibly underscores the disparity in natural resources. Yet, it must be stressed that the government has demonstrated increasing concern over recent years for developing and industrialising Upper Egypt. The High Dam, the Aswan Steel Project and the new mega-development projects in the south are major steps in this direction. Simultaneously, however, the relative poverty of Upper Egypt has rendered it more vulnerable to major changes in social structure.
It is important to understand that the evanescence of the traditional leading families created a vacuum that was eventually filled by elements ill-equipped to fulfil the stabilising role of the older social structure. Indeed, the very marginality, extremism and lack of established expertise that characterised the new elements more often than not were a direct cause of the rise in violence, the disappearance of the long-cherished spirit of religious tolerance, and the retrenchment into such pernicious and outmoded customs as the feud. The police force alone, however praiseworthy its enormous efforts in maintaining the peace, is unable to furnish that much-needed equilibrium in the social structure.
Social transformations aside, it would be no exaggeration to contend that the absence of political involvement and the decline of political party activity are jointly responsible for much of what has transpired in the south. One can only mourn the passing of those days when Makram Ebeid Pasha, a Copt, overwhelmingly defeated his opponent, Yassin Ahmed, syndic of the Prophet's descendants, in the parliamentary elections of a predominantly Muslim constituency. Those were the days when people cast their ballots on the basis of a candidate's record of action and integrity in defence of the national cause. Echoing the rallying cry to unity, their political convictions prevailed over all other considerations, from affiliations in creed to any other affiliations that could have been exploited to divide them.
Sectarian strife has always been a means of blackmailing the government, whether instigated by Muslims or by Christians. By artificially casting the government in an antagonistic relationship to church or mosque, interested parties seek to feed public opinion abroad with the erroneous impression that the government is lacking in respect for human rights and discriminates among its citizens on the basis of religion. The net result is that the government, and ultimately the nation as a whole, is doubly victimised. It suffers from the impact of bad press on its external relations, particularly with the West, and it agonises as the result of the tragic consequences of ignorance and extremism at home.
One could argue that the state is responsible for the sluggish pace of social development and the absence of sound conduits for political participation, and that the highest priority should be given to addressing these shortcomings. While it is true that national security agencies have acted with laudable speed and efficacy whenever such incidents of violence have erupted, what is needed is that proverbial ounce of prevention to forestall the need for the security cure.
The fact remains, of course, that social development is a long and complex process entailing the interplay between economic and cultural factors, in which education has a major role to play in the gradual reshaping of social mores and values. In other words, it is unreasonable to expect Egyptian society to change overnight. Further, the responsibility for absence of effective conduits for political participation cannot be laid at the threshold of the government alone. Other parties are equally at fault, including the representatives of the opposition.
In my opinion, what is essential at this stage is to remind the public of the historical relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Copts. After all, Egypt has no real history of religious intolerance. Indeed, the vast majority of Egyptians absolutely reject the ideas that give rise to sectarian strife; Muslims and Christians alike have expressed exactly the same sense of outrage and horror at the tragedy in Al-Kosheh.
At the same time, it must be said that the government has already acted responsibly and effectively with regard to the Coptic situation in general. It has decentralised decision-making regarding the construction and renovation of Coptic churches. The question of Coptic agricultural trusts is being resolved rapidly. And it was delightful to watch the nationally televised Christmas and Easter services. Such actions testify to the government's impartiality and commitment to the principle of equal citizenship in the administration of domestic affairs.
At this juncture, however, we must also transcend the customary reciprocation of good will on religious occasions. The reaffirmation of the spirit of national unity demands that we probe the embers that lie beneath the surface and investigate those elements in our educational system, media and cultural life that could cause them to ignite. It is also time that we restore a certain balance to the history of our national movement, indeed of all the epochs that have passed in this ancient Nile valley. Just as President Mubarak reinstated Mustafa El-Nahas in the place he merits as one of the nation's great nationalist leaders, I ask for greater focus on the role of Egyptian Copts throughout Egyptian history, for ultimately, all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian alike, can take pride in this.
Furthermore, it is extremely important that Muslims and Christians develop an awareness of each other's concerns, the functions of their respective religious institutions, the actual teachings of one another's creed. It is vital to clear the air of falsely inspired misconceptions and suspicions in order to pave the way for a modern state in which religious worship can flourish through the relationship between the individual and God. All Egyptians are equally proud of the Nobel laureate physicist Ahmed Zuweil and the universally reputed surgeon Magdi Yacoub. That is because we share a common sense of pride in being members of a single nation, a nation that has valued tolerance since the dawn of history and understood the meaning of a single cause since the birth of humanity.
* The writer is an expert on Egyptian political history and a top ranking Egyptian diplomat.