For decades, Egypt’s Copts have found a safe, comfortable and joyous haven in the one place where dreams come true, where good always triumphs over evil, where justice is universal, and where all things negative can be banished with the rub of a lamp or a wave from a wand.
The imaginary world of Disneyland has been a home for the Copts at least since the mid-1950s following the coup that overthrew the monarchy and ended British colonial presence in Egypt. From that point forth, the discourse of national unity between Muslims and Christians became a façade for state policy. But Disneyland has a way of twisting stories to make them more palatable, agreeable and friendlier. For instance, the story of Cinderella was once a German fable by 19th Century brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm which described the stepsisters trying to deceive the prince in his search for his love by cutting off parts of their feet to get the slippers to fit. Disney’s retelling of the story of Peter Pan was also lightened up significantly from its early script by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, omitting any tragic incidents. In the original story, Neverland (actually Kensington Gardens) is where the heartbroken Peter Pan lives. He has missed his childhood and cannot relate to kids. When Peter isn’t playing, he is busy building graves for the children who get lost in the night, burying them in the garden under little headstones. Certainly not the exuberant tale of festive nighttime escapades across distant lands that presides in Disneyland.
Just like Peter Pan and Cinderella, the Copts too have their own fairytale story in Disneyland. A story that has been embellished for maximum gratification, amusement and delusion. The fable of interfaith harmony where Coptic rights are respected, their civility acknowledged, their rituals tolerated, and their identities celebrated has stood its ground for many years and even has its own mascot. Like Disney’s Mickey Mouse ears, the “crescent and the cross” has served as the logo of Coptic utopia, affirming the commitment of all members of Egyptian society, officials and citizens, to equality under the law. Any attempts to call to question this myth are barred completely.
Last year at an conference at Durham University in the UK, I spoke about Copts and language. Following my presentation, an Egyptian colleague expressed his reservations about my discussion and argued there was no such thing as Copts. Since the term itself was Greek for “Egyptian,” he asserted that as an Egyptian Muslim, he too was technically a Copt. Of course, he was both well-meaning and etymologically correct. Yet by forcing his assertion of the inseparability of Muslim and Christian in Egypt, he effectively erased the latter. His comment highlights a widespread naivety about an identity that has been in the making for over two thousand years. Denying the existence of a Coptic identity invalidates any case made by Egyptian Christians about predicaments they face due to their faith. One cannot make a case about something that doesn’t exist. Donald Duck cannot sue someone for discriminating against talking birds.
A similar conversation happened exactly a year ago with a group of my Muslim friends about the Naga Hammadi shooting. Trying to highlight the grievances of the Coptic community to them, I was met with a combination of shock and disapproval. Any attempt to highlight the disenfranchisement of Copts is treated as if one were reiterating foreign imperial allegations. My attempt was met with responses such as, “but my boss is a Copt” or “Sawiris is a Coptic success story in Egypt” and the always classic “but our economy is run by Copts, look at Yousef-Boutros Ghali.” The immunity of a few does not dismiss the plight of the many. The logic of these arguments resembles the polemic which writes off Islamophobia in the US because Obama had a Muslim father or the reigning Miss America is Muslim.
In reality, Copts are underrepresented in real life and fiction. Few notable athletes in Egypt’s history have been Copts, and a dwindling number feature on the silver screen. Egyptian cinema rarely presents Christians and when it does, they are often grossly caricatured. Nevertheless, there is a stubbornness to the discourse of national harmony.
While the “crescent and the cross” may suggest equality, few Copts would attest to it behind closed doors. Before the 1952 Coup, Copts played an active and visible role in Egyptian politics, comprising around 10 percent of parliament. Today that has dropped to a miniscule and negligible unofficial quota. In 2011, virtually no Copts are elected to political office. Those who serve in any governmental capacity are appointed by the president, largely to save face and demonstrate the Christian minority has representation. The rest have simply resigned themselves to abandon civic life. So politically speaking, there is barely a cross next to the crescent. Hence, the government has conditioned the Copts to understand that without the NDP, they have no political status, forcing them into complete allegiance and loyalty.
There is a mosque for every 770 Muslims in the country and those are the ones registered by the state, not the makeshift structures that were converted into places of worship under the authorities’ nose, most of which no Egyptian official in his right mind would dismantle. Even public spaces in the country have been converted to places of worship for the majority. It is not uncustomary to see entire hallways in government buildings and whole street blocks turned into communal prayer areas.
So if Muslim worship is everywhere, where do Christians practice their faith? By contrast, there is a church for every 3,100 Christians in Egypt and all have to be registered with the state and must have their papers in order or risk facing the same orders as the Omraniya case some weeks ago. All forms of prayer are performed inside the walls of churches not outside them. So even in supplication to the same deity, the crescent’s prominence is so vast it often overshadows the cross.
But it is the crimes against Copts that grab headlines and sour relations most. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 52 anti-Christian incidents were reported between 2008 and 2010 and all have gone unpunished. These are not to be confused with incidents “involving” Christians, but rather these are what in other countries would be referred to as “hate crimes.” It appears that while the government has punished the Islamic opposition over the years, it has also tolerated many of the fundamentalist groups that openly demonize Christianity and express disdain for the Copts. Today, a growing number of Egyptian Muslims feel they have more in common with Pakistani Muslims and German converts to Islam than they do with Christian Egyptians.
In many instances, the state has benefited from pitting the Muslim and Christian against one another. By showing the Copts that radical Islam is on the rise in Egypt, the state asks for complete loyalty in return for promising Copts physical security at their places of worship, essentially making them clients to an unreliable and oppressive security apparatus. Over the past few years, the Copts have realized that the government has actually violated its long standing agreement with them. It no longer protects them, supports their causes or speaks to their interests. Hence, they have now taken the grave risk of no longer supporting the NDP and confronting the government’s security as is evident from the last few days of incessant furor against the police.
Many Muslims have hardly contemplated Coptic concerns before and are perplexed at the sight of enraged Christian youth on the streets. What they must know is that the Copts have been jarred and jerked out of a 50 year snooze and are declaring at the top of their lungs: “Yes, there is a Coptic problem and it needs to be resolved.” These are not the diasporic Copts that we peg sectarian problems to. These are the disgruntled Coptic youth of Egypt, from Sidi Bishr to Luxor. Ignoring their anger, as opposed to addressing it, is itself a recipe for sectarianism.
Coptic expressions of dissent may be uncomfortable for many Muslims, but they should not be. When disenfranchised Muslim youth in Paris riot against marginalization or against a face veil ban, how do we view their dismay? Is it a threat to the delicate religious balance of France or a call for sectarianism? Unlikely. Instead, we see it as a civil rights movement demanding equality. Shut out from public life for decades, Copts have bottled up their aggravations and now emotions are boiling over. Muslims should not fear Coptic activism. It is not a threat to national unity and it is not a condemnation of Islam. Quite simply, it is a community in rage, and rightly so. Let them vent. Listen to their qualms. Understand their plight. Help them heal their wounds.
Many Muslims have already declared their solidarity with their Christian brethren, not just in their right to mourn and get angry, but in sharing their woes. Some have gone as far as deciding to go to churches on Christmas eve to act as “human shields.” These along with the heartfelt condolences are a major step towards healing the gaping wounds caused not by the tragic events of 1 January, 2011, but rather by the decades of living in utopia. However, the real stand will come after the tears have been shed and the blood dried, when it is time to press for change in Egypt. This will start with acknowledging that Copts exist, have equal rights that must be protected, and that the state’s ineptitude in determining its priorities vis-à-vis all its citizens will have grave consequences.
Sadly, evidence of this ineptitude still abounds. A heated exchange occurred in the Shura Council just a couple of days after the explosion and with Coptic nerves boiling. Top state officials debated Tagammu Party leader Refaat al-Said regarding a unified law for building places of worship. While al-Said argued it was time to finalize the law which would make it comparable for all faiths, the top NDP brass responded that terrorism should not be an incentive to amend laws on mosque and church construction. What the NDP fails to understand still is that this has nothing to do with terrorism or the bombing but rather the state’s responsibility to provide equal rights for all its citizens. This blunder is a sign of blatant impunity and disregard for justice.
One upon a time, a pan-Arab ideology superceded factionalism in Egypt. Today, this has been replaced with an amalgam of contradictions--a schnizophrenic state. Egypt is a nation for all faiths but Islam is the official religion, it is a republic but there is no true transition of government, it is an Arab nation but has largely disowned its commitments to Arab causes, it is civic yet doctrinal, and neoliberal yet illiberal. Perhaps out of this New Year’s cataclysm, the nation may find its bearings and create a novel paradigm for a truly plural identity.
In the meantime, the same old tired slogan of “the crescent and the cross” was dusted off and used as an improvised emergency flag waved only when fear of sectarian tension requires cosmetic concealment. We, Egyptians of all faiths and stripes, should insist and ensure that the “crescent and the cross” not be evoked to uphold the status quo but rather, per its original and untarnished purpose in the 1919 revolution, to bring everyone together to advance a new path. Instead, let it be the symbol of a genuinely new Egypt, not the fantastical state-manufactured Disneyland that the Copts are now abandoning en masse.
Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. Egypt Independent
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