17-04-2013 02:53AM ET

Edge of the precipice


Edge of the precipice

Once again, a word of warning is due. The current political management of the country is taking us to the edge of the precipice. Mistaken are those leaders, who are currently in charge of this country, if they think that by pushing us into the unknown they will end up having it all. Mistaken are those who believe that the refusal to listen to others is in their favour. Mistaken are those who think that by doing what they wish, no matter what, they are going to win. The abyss is deep and has room for all of us. When the avalanche begins, no one is going to be safe.

The way the state dealt with the events in the town of Khosous, and later at the Coptic Cathedral, are signs of something worse than ineptness, and a harbinger of things to come. The horrors of sectarian strife are not new to this country, for they have been festering under the former regime. One of the worst mistakes of the old regime was that it saw this peril as a security issue, sending the police to handle it instead of taking real steps to defuse real tensions. The statement in the recent constitutional amendments about citizenry being the basis of statehood was good, but it is not enough.

The second mistake that the old regime made was its continual flirtation with the religious current, an error that the regime paid for with its life, and we are still paying for until now. Because of the errors of the former regime, the meaning of citizenship was not translated into laws and practices giving us a true civil state. We have failed in making citizenry, and citizenry alone, the basis for all transactions between citizens and the state. What happened in Egypt over the past few days is a symptom of irresponsibility in high places, of indifference that can lead the state to the verge of collapse. The language used by officials and the decisions they made are serious reminders of a profound, underlying malaise.

Take, for example, the sudden zeal with which the police addressed the volatile situation around the Coptic Cathedral during the recent funerals of the slain from Khosous. The same police force that acquitted itself so brilliantly in defence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters in Muqattam failed miserably in defending the country’s topmost religious sanctuaries, first Al-Azhar, and again at the Coptic Cathedral. Instead of protecting the Cathedral, the police started to lob its recently imported tear gas canisters indiscriminately, thus fanning the proverbial flame of discontent. Actions such as this cannot be taken back, nor forgotten.

Adding insult to injury, one presidential adviser spoke up. In a singular act of political insensitivity, Essam Al-Haddad released an English language statement, apparently to appease world public opinion that is probably regretting the blessing it once gave to the country’s new Islamist overlords. In his statement, Al-Haddad accused Christian mourners of instigating the clashes. According to the presidential adviser, the mourners were the ones who started the fight. They were the ones who assaulted pedestrians and motorists on Ramses Street. And it was their actions that provoked counterattacks by remarkably well-armed and prepared bystanders.

The presidential adviser added that surveillance cameras fixed to the roofs of the Cathedral and nearby buildings corroborate his story. As usual, no Muslim Brotherhood members or allies were blamed for the events. The usual suspects, according to the presidential adviser, were people who don’t belong to the Brotherhood and its allies. How many times have we heard this before?

Egypt is backsliding on citizenry, as well as on other matters. Citizenry cannot be upheld with sweet talk. We need laws that can be enforced. We need laws that guarantee that this country belongs to all its citizens, not to one group — however mighty and holy that group may be. The state we live in now aspires to be Islamic. When it writes laws, it seeks authorisation from the country’s topmost religious institution. The state we live in now wants the economy to be Islamic, dress to be Islamic, television and radio programmes to be Islamic. We even have commentators who call themselves “Islamic thinkers”.

The aim of the ongoing Islamisation is to silence the opposition and portray it as an ungodly nuisance. Muslims who don’t want to be part of the Islamisation drive become castaways. Non-Muslims become dispensable. Women are written off as cosmetic or homebound auxiliaries. As for artists, intellectuals and the creative class, they are assigned to the bottom of the heap.

Religion becomes a racket when the authorities pose as guardians of the holy. This is why it is essential to keep religion out of politics, which is not the same as keeping religion out of society.

Religion is historically part of society, for it is at heart a communal practice. Religion can be a cementing force that energises society, and we must not belittle its powerful influence in the community.

But the state is not society. The state is the administrative apparatus that organises life within society. Therefore, the state must remain neutral on matters of religion. It must not take sides on questions of faith. Its role is to protect people, not creeds.

The claim that “the state’s religion is Islam” is overblown, pretentious, and a self-serving ploy. The state doesn’t go to the mosque, nor does it pray. It doesn’t perform hajj, nor does it pay zakat. Most Arab and Islamic countries include a mosaic of religions and ethnicities. It is therefore essential for these countries to desist from taking sides on religious matters. A state that sides with one religion is by definition a state that sides against a section of its citizens. It is, by implication, a state that disrespects citizenry, equality and the law.