It feels like strange times at the moment in Egypt, and has done ever since Mahalla. It feels as if something major is going to happen. The best way to describe it is the feeling you get when someone gives you video footage to watch which you know in advance contains a disaster of some kind, and you spend the entire duration of the video waiting for it, with a knot in your chest.
Everything just seems a little tenser than usual, or maybe it’s just me reacting to the heat which has arrived and which as usual feels like someone has put a paper bag over my head while painting me with warm, sticky syrup. I spent yesterday morning sitting in my own sweat outside a courthouse when the security guards decided that journalists wouldn’t be allowed in to attend the four editors (Ibrahim Eissa et al) trial. A beefy-looking bloke in too-tight jeans and pointed shoes who looked like he’d headed straight to work from a Sa3d el Soghayyar video shoot refused to let us in. He was polite, for once. Another, older, bloke took his job so seriously that he prevented an eight year old boy carrying a backpack from entering the courthouse. The boy came back with his father – who had that unusual burgundy skin colouring – and they again attempted to enter. ‘Ta3limaat’ [instructions] the bloke barked at them, shooing them away. The father stared at the security man with his mouth open before looking down at his son – who was staring intensely up at him – and then conceded defeat.
I was let in eventually, but only after they had established about 45 times that I did not have a camera on my person. When I went upstairs I found a Dostoor photographer physically fighting with the security guard at the court’s door. The photographer objected to the security guard’s grasping of his arm and kept trying to shake himself free, nearly punching me in the process, which was exciting.
The trial was adjourned until the 21st June, when three witnesses will give testimony for the defence. Eissa’s in court today, too, again on the Orwellian charges related to article 188 (publishing false news of a nature to upset national stability) and his lawyers think that a verdict in the appeal will be pronounced during this hearing. They’re not optimistic.
Elsewhere, the media has given much attention to the sectarian war which they allege has broken out in Egypt. I was particularly incensed by the coverage of the Zeitoun incident (a Christian jewellery shop owner and three employees shot dead by unknown assassins who burst into the shop). Much was made of the fact that the man targeted was Christian, and that apparently nothing was stolen. That 1. we know nothing about the gunmen’s identity and 2. Sometimes businessmen make dodgy deals which end up messily are both apparently unimportant factors.
Luckily the monastery wall business in Minya came along and vindicated the rumour-mongers. Umm Nakad was in Minya last year for work and I remember her coming back and telling us about the squabbling. But when does a fight over a wall stop being a property dispute and assume a sectarian character? Is any confrontation between a group of Muslims and a group of Christians sectarian in the Egyptian context?
I was once invited on a church trip by a Christian friend of mine and we went to a church built in the middle of (the rapidly disappearing) nowhere on the Suez Road. The priest there told us the story of a (Christian) teenage boy who had, he said, been killed as he stood in front of a government bulldozer (another dispute over land rights) where we stood in the grounds of the church. I remembered him when Ali Mobarak (killed by the police while standing in his balcony in Mahalla).
This isn’t to say that discrimination at the government level and inter-communal tension do not exist here, because clearly they do. My mother gave me a sort of picture fact-book on Egypt and its history when I was a kid which emphasised the inter-denominational harmony which has reigned in Egypt for thousands of years. My mother’s own experiences in her 1950s/1960s post-revolution Egypt confirmed this. It seems then that the upper class rallied together regardless of religion and that it was how you paid, rather than how you prayed, which counted.
I was shocked when I moved here and discovered the divisions between Muslim and Christian – which are mostly the product of unfamiliarity. Yes of course some Christians have Muslim friends and vice versa but there seem to be great swathes of the population where no such mixing takes place. A Muslim ex-colleague of mine at a place I worked was once sent on a work assignment with another, Christian, colleague. She came back from the task starving hungry, explaining that there were no food outlets in the area they were in but that the Christian colleague had offered her some of his own food.
“I declined,” she told me, and I asked her why.
“Well is it not true that Christians make the sign of the cross over the food they eat?” she replied.
I’ve encountered incidents like this loads of times, Christians who have never had a Muslim friend, and Muslims to whom Christians are a slightly menacing enigma.
I’m happy to report the good news the two ex work colleagues subsequently ended up going out together (i.e. holding hands in his car) for a while, and my ex colleague spent six months reporting to me that regardless of religious denomination, all men are bastards.
The saddest thing about these divisions is that they deflect attention from the fact that religion is mostly immaterial when it comes to getting stepped on and screwed over in Egypt. But maybe that’s the point.