Citizen strangers

You can’t expect a blind man to drive a three-wheeled car through a stagnant pool of shit and not sink.  The Egyptian government keeps trying, nonetheless.

Yesterday furious Coptic demonstrators took to the streets in Shubra, Maspero, Mohandiseen, Abbaseyya and Alexandria. On the Nile corniche near Maspero a group of around 1,000 men and women attemped to reach the state Television Building  “in order that our voices be heard”.

About a mile further up the corniche Television Building employees stood watching from balconies as walls of thousands of Central Security Forces soldiers were deployed at regular intervals along the corniche, now empty of its usual traffic.

The demonstrators had marched from the working class areas of Imbaba and Shubra into this area of lofty 5 star hotels, corporations and three-figure minimum charges. One man told me that the protest erupted spontaneously without any prior planning. I didn’t have time to inquire about the choice of the Television Building as a destination, whether it was indeed selected as a symbol of the marginalisation of Christian voices in Egypt, or simply a symbol of the state.

In any case demonstrators were stopped some two miles away from the building by a phalanx of riot police. Another row of soldiers then formed on the other side and the crowd erupted, charging at the police. Female protestors took shelter in the doorways of the malls and skyscrapers lining the corniche as tattooed men and boys converted pavements into weapons, which they then launched at the riot police. Some of the soldiers froze, some fled. Eventually they regrouped and began pelting the protestors with the stones that had just been thrown at them, before charging, emitting in unison an eerie battle cry, or hum, as they did.

No arrests were made during this riot or any other protest. Less than fifteen minutes away meanwhile a group of twenty political activists were kettled for nearly eight hours before being released at 3 a.m. The only explanation for this is that the Interior Ministry, for once, realises it only just about has its fingertips on the situation and arrests of furious, grieving people would be an act of remarkable stupidity.

In a taxi yesterday en route to the protest in Mohandiseen I asked the taxi driver whether he knew how we could reach the church where the demonstration was taking place. The driver, a Muslim, assumed that Dr Moftases and I were Christians, and launched into an impassioned monologue expressing his disgust at the bombing which killed over 20 people on New Year’s Eve outside a church in Alexandria and extended his deepest condolences “for anyone we might have lost”.

“My neighbour is Christian and our daughters play together. They come and go between our homes as they want and help themselves to anything in our fridge and my girls do likewise,” he said in almost a pleading tone.

He was clearly a good, sincere man, trying to make sense of the dark acts carried out in the name of his faith. Shortly before we got out, however, he raised the point that “there is something called a Muslim state and there is something called a Christian state” and in the latter Muslims are restricted in their freedom to construct mosques. “There are rules”, he said, in explanation of the recent crackdown on a church in Omraneyya that led to the violent quashing of a protest, two deaths and mass arrests.

For all that there have been admirable displays of solidarity and sympathy by non-Christian Egyptians to the New Year’s Eve bombing Egyptian Christians remain an unknown entity, and this is the crux of the problem. I have a friend who until she was 25 never had a Christian friend, and who initially refused to share food with a Coptic colleague because she thought he made the sign of the cross over it before consuming it.

While I was following Gamila Ismail on her election campaign trail last year we (journalists and Gamila supporters) went into a downtown Cairo church and sat in the pews while Gamila went upstairs, to drum up support from the priest. I overheard one young man, who looked like he was in his early 20s say, “this is the first time I’ve been inside a church”. Then he pointed at a stained glass window representing Mary and Jesus and enquired as to what exactly it meant.

There are plenty of these anecdotes (“Christians worship two gods”) and by mentioning them I don’t mean to suggest that Egyptian Muslims dislike, or in any way disrespectful of Copts. The point is that you cannot really appreciate, or love, something you don’t truly understand, and the Egyptian authorities’ policy has been to construct a walled garden around Coptic culture and tradition while they bleat about the magnificent freedom Egypt’s religious minorities enjoy.

So while Islamic tradition pervades daily life and culture (which I’m not suggesting is wrong) only the briefest glimpses of Coptic tradition are permitted: the annual Christmas sermon by Pope Shenouda is broadcast on state television and recently January 7th (Coptic Christmas) was made an official holiday. Occasional appearances of Coptic characters in mainstream Egyptian cinema are often used as a crude device to hammer home the message to cinema-goers that The Sectarian Problem in Egypt is a Myth and All is Well.

The government does this because the increasing swell of religious conservatism imported to Egypt by returning migrant workers who caught the Wahhabi spirit in the Gulf is the single demand it doesn’t, or perhaps feels it can’t afford to, ignore.

Having token Coptic ministers (but not a Coptic president of course) is within acceptable limits, as are contrived demonstrations of national unity between Muslim and Christian clerics when the latest tragedy occurs.  But it is the ordinary, the routine, which is deliberately ignored in order to pander to conservative sentiment. How many non-Christians know the word used by Copts to describe engagements? How many understand when (the extremely numerous) Coptic fasts take place and what exactly can and cannot be eaten during each fast? How many know how many times observant Copts pray each day?

Muslim and Christian children receive separate religious instruction in school, and are not taught about the other religion. Some Copts I have met allege that official school syllabuses ignore the fact that Egypt was a Christian country until Islam arrived in the 7th century. Inter-faith romantic liaisons are a minefield, particularly in rural areas where, once uncovered, innocent romances can rapidly deteriorate into full-blown sectarian battles. In any case while Christian women can marry Muslim men, Christian men and Muslim women do not have the right to marry.

Egyptian Christians are not allowed to consume alcohol in bars and restaurants during Ramadan or other Islamic holidays. Which is fine, it’s a Muslim state and all – except that foreigners are allowed to drink. The rules regarding the construction and repair of churches are vastly different to the rules regarding the construction and repair of mosques. Certain companies openly discriminate against Copts (likewise however companies which only employ Christians exist). The police response to incidents of sectarian violence against Christians is at best cack-handed and usually aggravates victims’ sense of injustice. And this all plays out against a tired soundtrack of national unity, and cross and crescent, and all is well.

Nothing will improve within the lifetime of this regime. Its education system teaches children that religious separation is normal. Its economic policies have exacerbated the gulf between economic classes. Political repression in all areas of public and private life is predicated on an existential threat from the “other” which for thirty years the regime has used to justify the complete smothering of freedoms. The regime is unable to perceive difference as anything other than a threat, and this is the message that for years has been slowly poisoning Egyptian society. The net result is exclusion, of Copts – and of anyone else “different”. Foreigners in their own lands.

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