Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 January - 1 February 2012
Issue No. 1082
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Copts: The picture is not all bleak

While strife between Muslims and Copts continues, by all measures the Coptic community made great strides forward via the 25 January Revolution, writes Sameh Fawzy*

One year after 25 January Revolution, one can look back to assess the pros and cons for each segment of Egyptian society. Over the past 12 months, Egyptians from all political shades, social positions and religious affiliations expressed their demands and chagrin. Copts are among the outspoken groups.

During the 30 years of the Mubarak regime, Copts increasingly expressed discontent over restrictions on building and repairing churches, political underrepresentation, their lack of share in key positions in the state apparatus, being an easy target in sectarian clashes, and a subject of unceasing and fanatical Islamist rhetoric that outwardly strips them of citizenship rights. They strongly voiced unhappiness over the way the regime reacted towards their outcry, but the outcome always was little.

Driven from a strong sense of prejudice, some Copts have been radicalised and appeared as unable to develop convincing arguments in the public sphere, spending years in hotly disputed debates with their radical Muslim counterparts. This poisoned the atmosphere and helped the regime transform the whole debate over citizenship rights into a mere battle between fanatics on both sides.

The Mubarak regime introduced a real model of divide-and-rule politics. As bureaucratic as politically insensitive, Mubarak dealt with all country problems from a narrow-minded perspective. He appeared as a "moderate president", while widening the gap between Egyptians, cutting off all forms of bridging social capital that unites people regardless of their religious affiliations. He persecuted Islamists and suppressed Copts for the sake of political equilibrium. Both groups carried negative feelings against each other. For Copts, the regime insisted Islamists were true enemies, but wanted to forcibly convert them into Islam, or leave them second-class citizens. On the other side, Islamists received the message from the regime that Copts want to be "state within the state", that their church refused to abide by the law, and they sought foreign intervention in domestic affairs.

Not surprisingly, the problems that occurred over "conversion from Christianity to Islam" were politically motivated. The regime used to incite Salafist groups to confront, demonstrate and even attack Christians. On New Year Eve 2010-11, a blast left 23 dead and dozens injured in the Two Saints Church in Alexandria, a disaster that cursed all Egyptians, and still nobody knows the perpetrators, although the potential of the attack being a regime-brokered sectarian incident is not totally dismissed.

Mubarak left Copts mourning. When demonstrations erupted on 25 January 2011, less than one month after the disaster in Alexandria, the Church's top clergy asked Copts not to participate in the nationwide uprising, but a number of them overtly refused to listen. Copts realised that the revolution was a chance to break out of Mubarak's "sectarian cage". In Tahrir Square, Christians met with some political groups for the first time, particularly Islamists. Symbols of national unity adorned the revolutionary square, and Christians who face obstacles in freely building and repairing churches could pray while their Muslim countrymen safeguarded them. Copts honoured the revolution with martyrs just like Muslims.

The initial experience Egyptians came out with from their 18-day uprising against Mubarak and his cronies is that "sectarianism" was a product of the regime ousted by Egyptians in Tahrir Square. But this was wishful thinking. The intolerant atmosphere and politics that prevailed for decades cannot be easily uprooted. To do so requires political will. Also reformed public policies, and real public demand for tolerance. Less than a month after Mubarak stepped down, sectarian incidents erupted again. A church was demolished, another burned down and a third was attacked while under reconstruction. Meanwhile, some Islamists, not all, started to revisit fanatical debates that occurred between Muslims and Christians in the 1970s.

The worst event was in Maspero where more than 30 persons were killed in addition to numerous injuries. Copts started to worry about the revival of political Islam. The last issue of Al - Karaza (The Outreach) at the end of December, the mouthpiece of the Coptic Orthodox Church, posed in its editorial -- believed to be written by Pope Shenouda himself -- worrying questions about the future of Christians in Egypt under the rule of Islamists. In sum, Copts who held expectations that the 25 January Revolution would pull them out of marginalisation, discrimination and prejudice, worry about their future amid reports of an increasing number of Christian applicants for migration visas to Western countries.

The situation is not entirely bleak, however. For the first time since four decades, the problems of Copts are categorised as political, and have to be dealt with by political organisations rather than the security apparatus whose upper hand during the Mubarak era prompted much hatred. The new role assumed by the grand imam of Al-Azhar through meetings with public figures and intellectuals, and the "Family House" meetings, which include all religious communities, supports diversity and moderate jurisprudence that relies on the acknowledgment of Islam as a state religion, while respecting all other faiths and freedom of religion. The last parliamentary elections, which witnessed the landslide victory of political Islam, also observed the election of seven Christians for the first time for decades.

Islamists themselves seem to differ over the Coptic situation. While the Muslim Brotherhood announces its desire to build ties with Christians, taking a few symbolic steps on this track, Salafist groups, who are newcomers in Egyptian politics, still take a hard stand on the issue. Islamists who want to establish relationships with Western countries seem to be keen to avoid any confrontation with Copts. In my view, religious strife will diminish, since the newly elected members of the parliament, who are believed to enjoy popularity, will try to contain sectarian problems and establish good relationships at a local level. The Coptic youth who stepped out of the church will not return back, and will gradually develop a new trend in the integration of Copts into public life.

This can only happen if the government has the political will to solve Coptic problems, however. Islamists are eager to turn over this unpalatable page in Egyptian modern history, and Copts themselves are willing to integrate into politics, leaving behind inherited fears of Islamists. Deep-rooted problems cannot be solved overnight, but Egyptians have to be courageous enough to start addressing the sectarian issue, with a strong belief in citizenship and modernity.

* The writer is a political analyst.

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