If you Google the phrase “Egyptian sectarianism” or some variant thereof, you are likely to get over a million hits. The narrative of Egyptian sectarianism is as popular as it is misleading. Egypt’s sectarian tensions are a manifestation of a deeper identity crisis. The key to understanding Egypt today, and possibly any future salvation, is in understanding its evolving bi-nationalism. The first half of the 20th century is often called the “liberal era” in Egypt, and Egypt today is shaped by the failures of that era, which was hardly “liberal”. The era generated the two currents that dominate Egypt today. The first, best known and most studied, is political Islamism; the attempt to infuse political discourse with religion. Yet there is a second, countervailing current of infusing religion with a national identity. This is a far less discussed current, yet as critical to Egypt as political Islamism. It is worth a slight detour to understand this current, one adopted largely, but not solely, by Copts.
A few months ago I watched a parish priest of an American Coptic church give a tour of the church building to some neighborhood leaders. He started with a summary common to most Copts, especially immigrants. His words, almost verbatim, were “ We American Copts are immigrants from Egypt. We follow the rites of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church. We are modern people who never lost touch with our ancient roots, which go thousands of years back to the earliest history of the Nile valley”. These words are notable for what they emphasize and what they lightly skip over. Taken together they are a declaration of national identity as much as a religious one.
National identities are created and are constantly revised to reflect social and historical forces. What they provide is a mental template for each member of the nation to identify with others that will never be met; present, past and future. Any phrase that starts with “We [substitute any national identity here] are …” involves dearly held generalizations. How the Copts became a nation is a complex and winding story, linked closely with Egyptian history, their attempts to come to an uneasy peace with modernity, the tumultuous history of their Muslim brethrens in Egypt, the halting attempts to modernize Islam and the rejection of modernity by an influential fraction of Egyptian Muslims. To recognize this national identity is neither to praise it nor condemn it, but to attempt to come to terms with what exists. Identity is never exclusive as the many “hyphenated” people attest. And in a global world it is often possible to have multiple identities struggling to coexist within a single individual. But invariably in critical moments, when choices must be made, one identity will claim more loyalty than others.
In the 1850s the Copts were freed from the formal strictures of “dhimmitude” and let loose to face societal prejudice, both subtle and coarse, and the waves of Protestant missionaries who sought to convert them from their ancient ways. Some of these missionaries were well-meaning; others were the soft end of the colonial spear. Regardless, the Church saw them as a threat and made various attempts to change and modernize. The most powerful of these attempts, and the most successful, was the “Sunday School” movement. As its name indicates, it borrowed the Protestant concept of Sunday School instruction to reform the flock, purge the clergy of ignorance and venality and make the average Copt as literate as any Christian in his theology. Many of the leaders were remarkable men; well-educated, resourceful and dedicated. They joined monasteries and rose as Bishops until they finally took control of the Church. But the requirement of celibacy for Church leaders meant that many others worked on the periphery of the Church, contributing in other ways. These were men and women of varying skills and inclinations; some pious, some secular, and even a few non-believers. Yet they created the discipline of “Coptology” in the 20th Century along with many in the West. They researched languages, wrote histories, transcribed ancient hymns into modern musical notation, built museums and established institutes of learning. Consciously or otherwise they came to resemble the German intellectuals of the early 19th century who created German nationalism through literature, the arts and sciences. More than a few were educated abroad and had other “lives” before settling into their roles as Coptic intellectuals. They were driven by a combination of factors: the persistent discrimination against Copts by state and society, the rise of militant Islamism that saw no place for Copts in the body politic or even the nation, the rise and fall of Arabism which the Copts never bought into, and the failure of the Egyptian “liberal” nationalist movement of men such as Lutfi El Sayed, which, in spite of its emphasis on secularism, quickly adopted anti-Coptic views for electoral gains.
While the initial focus of the cultural renaissance was on a religious group, it quickly acquired a secular tinge. Some of that was simply the result of the long-standing tension between the clergy and laity within the Coptic community. But there were also other motivations. The secular intellectual Salama Moussa spoke in his autobiography of the shame he felt when he realized that he knows less about ancient Egyptian history than many Europeans. Similarly, many of these thinkers did not want the study of the Copts to be an entirely Western occupation. Others joined in the Western passion for studying and classifying cultures. Where Edward Said saw ill-intent in such efforts, calling them “Orientalism”, these intellectuals saw an opportunity and a way to hedge their cultural bets. This explains why the Copts’ attitude toward the West lacks the militancy of “Arabism” or “Islamism”, even when the British administrators of Egypt detested them or the West seemed indifferent to their concerns. Almost always these efforts made a common link with ancient Egyptian culture, entwining the Christian and Pagan strains in a single identity. Few Coptic demonstrations today fail to conjoin the Cross and the ancient Egyptian “Ankh”.
Any doubt that Copts are a “nation” today can be removed by a close observation of both the Church and the laity. The Coptic Church has a well-defined theology, which it guards jealously against syncretism. It is conservative, and as disapproving of agnosticism and atheism as any Church. Yet it does not make a point to force out those with less than firm faith, and lacks the desire, or perhaps the means, to enforce orthodoxy via coercive methods. Those who wear their faith lightly, or have none, can generally expect the Church to marry them, baptize their children in due course, and observe funeral services at the end of their lives, as long as decorum is observed. But beyond that, those lay people who have drifted from strict belief and observation of theology and practice still identify as Copts. Immigration, while trimming their numbers in Egypt, strengthened their national identity in the melting pots of North America and Australia.
Egypt has endured and enjoyed four elections in the last two years. A small cottage industry arose to interpret these results, almost always along the lines of “Islamists” vs. “non-Islamists” polarization. But there is simpler and more likely explanation. There are three basic blocks of Egyptian voters. The first block consists of those voters who adhere closely to the Egyptian identity, perhaps a quarter or a third of the voters, including all Copts. This block sees Egypt’s problems in a national sense and views religious harmony as both desirable and necessary. The second block is that of committed Islamists, also a quarter to a third of the vote. They view Egypt’s destiny in fulfilling the discourse of political Islam across national lines. They range from the mildly Islamists on the fringe of such movements as the Brotherhood to extreme Jihadists willing to join any fight anywhere where Islam is perceived to be under threat and parade in medieval garb in a willful act of self deracination. The third block, somewhere between a third and half of the voters are the “swing Egyptians”. The elections for the Parliament had the swing voters going overwhelmingly to the Islamists block because they offered a coherent-sounding program of pious prosperity. In the presidential final round the swing voters split between the Islamists and Egyptian blocks. Ahmed Shafiq was perhaps the least understood phenomena of post-revolution Egypt. Many pundits bayed for a “liberal” Egyptian alternative, one which is able to organize and put forth a popular program, and is neither Islamists nor “Mubarak”. Yet Egypt is unlikely to produce a liberal in the Western mold. Shafiq was as authentic a liberal as Egypt could produce at the moment and still manage to win elections. He has a track record of favoring open markets and open religious atmosphere. He was also a capable political organizer, delegating to a young campaign staff, and displayed the aging open-shirt masculinity that many in Egypt thought would bring order back to the unruly streets. When pitted against Morsi, the generic Brotherhood man, the battle was nearly a draw. Shafiq maybe history, but his campaign and tactics could be the future in Egypt.
Egypt lacks the economic prosperity and political openness to become a bi-national state such as Canada or Belgium. Dictatorial rule, by military or other entities such as the Brotherhood, will only aggravate and inflame the national identity crisis. The only way out is to fight a long and determined battle for the loyalty of the swing voters. Future elections may be close, but the trend lines could be dramatically radical. A few close wins by the Egyptians versus a few close wins by the Islamists will yield vastly different historical outcomes.
Ever since Napoleon, world powers saw Egypt as critical to their interests. The current world power, the United States, is no different. Its policy leaves a lot to be desired, however. The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli once quipped that “Chemistry is too hard for chemists”. Similarly, the US Egypt policy is too subtle for American diplomats. The policy has two faulty assumptions. First that buddying up to Islamists will moderate their behavior and make them friendly to the West. That assumption fails the empirical test as well as underestimating the degree to which Islamists are faithful to their Manichean ideology. The second faulty assumption is the belief that openly favoring any faction will tarnish it. This is an odd form of self-loathing, charming in waifs with guitars, but unseemly for a world power with unrivaled economic, cultural and military dominance. It is really very simple. The security of the world and the West is best served with the defeat of the trans-national Islamists in Egypt. Ditching these two assumptions will clarify and strengthen policy. Compared to other areas of concern, such as Syria or Iran, Egypt is not very complicated, at least if you recognize the existence of two Egypts rather than a single one.
- Maged Atiya
The US prospered in the relative isolation of a magnificent continent. When it began to assume its current role as a world power it did so with uneasy tension between its values and its interests. Such is the prickly perch of power. Egypt today is a happy exception in that the declared values of the United States coincide with its perceived interests. However, this coincidence seems to have escaped the attention of the current policy makers.
The US was silent while the Egyptian constitution was rushed through last fall. That constitution is a mediocre document, brined in ill-will, and put together by buffoonish men afflicted with bigotry both ancient and modern. But the bitter fruits of that document will haunt us for some time. As Americans we need to see that our government responds with clarity and strength, both to uphold our values and guard our interests.
The Egyptian constitution is designed to strangle the cultural and religious life of Christians (mostly Copts) , who will be expected to “know their place” in the new Egypt. One legal and effective means will be to charge any “uppity” Copt with “insulting Islam”. The victim can be hauled to prison and the dock on the mere testimony of a jealous neighbor, an aggrieved business partner, or even a student given a low mark. Even if freed after enduring the initial ordeal, the victim will have suffered enough to guarantee silence, and others will see an edifying spectacle, knowing that any expression of sympathy or strength will earn the attention of the state for “breathing while a Copt”. Even worse, a supporting position by any one else, or the the Church for that matter, can cause a riot sure to inflict collective punishment on many for the perceived misdemeanor of one.
We have seen that in the US before. It is called “Jim Crow”.
The US needs to respond forcefully to every single such incident. There should be expression of outrage and shaming of the authorities. Better yet, the US can offer asylum for such victims. There is little downside to this and plenty of upside. On the upside, the US will be identified with freedom and dignity, even among its critics. If the price of speaking out against the religious bigots is a one-way ticket to the US, then surely more and more people will speak out, to the improvement of both countries. The Egyptian authorities may complain privately about “interference”. That should be brushed with the wave of the hand. They might even warn ominously that it is “unproductive” as it may empower worse bigots to take over. Again, the US can remind them of the fate of Mubarak who similarly warned, and that there is a downside for the current rulers as well, the least of which maybe breaking bread with Mubarak in jail. If Egyptian authorities publicly complain about US “meddling” they will seem weak as there is little they can do given their current need for foreign support. In any case, bullies will respond to strength better than to weakness. We will be aligning our interests with those who support our values, with the clear recognition that the current bigots will eventually harm our interests as well as our values.
American Copts can assist by contacting their elected officials on every level, asking them to publicly acknowledge their support for the civil rights of Copts and liberal Muslims in Egypt and their disapproval of religious Jim Crow laws. Those on the left side of the aisle seem to need special attention.
There is no easy solution to Egyptian intolerance, but inaction is the worst possible response.
Samira Ibrahim, the Egyptian activist, is being honored tomorrow along with 9 other women at the US State Department. The First Lady will be there. Given the flap over what she may have said on her Twitter account it might be useful for her to settle the issue with a few simple remarks, something along these lines will do.
“Thank you for honoring me today with this award. In recognizing me you are expressing faith in the future of my once great country, Egypt. I come today from an ancient land in the throes of a new revolution. My country has struggled with the effects of decades of misrule and centuries of stagnation. We have allowed our education to decay and our social discourse to grow crude and divisive in spite of our increased religiosity. I, like many other young Egyptians, have fallen into this trap at times. But it is never too late for any one to change. It is never too late for any woman to stand up for the rights of women and those who are religiously different. We can affirm the rights of the Palestinians without de-humanizing the Jews. We can denounce one crime without denying another.
I stand here with nine other women, nearly half of them are Muslims and almost all of them are not from the West. We all need to forge an authentic path to progress and prosperity, but we can do so without denying the brilliant contributions of the West. And above all we need to recognize that we will be at last free only when everyone of us is free at last”
A post from some weeks ago (Incitement) detailed the current atmosphere of incitement against Copts. A few respondents asserted that it was “alarmist”, that in fact the current political leaders do not support such behavior. Perhaps, but they also do not stop it.
A constant feature of religiously motivated incitement in Egypt is that it starts against the Copts and then widens to incitement against all liberal voices. The knife attack on Naguib Mahfouz and shooting death of Farag Fouda attest to that. There is a lesson in this, especially on the day that Pope Tawadros II spoke sparingly but strongly about the doleful constitution.
The current violence in Egypt has a proximate cause in the Islamists desire to ram a constitution through; a retrograde one that discounts the idea of a social contract in favor of divine mandates. It is impossible to underestimate that danger. A government designed to protect the lives of citizens is a vastly different edifice from one designed to further God’s mandate. Egypt need not relive the horrors of such an experiment. It is good and well to condemn such incitement, but a more rational course is to remove the root of it. The ugly incitements against “liberals” by TV-empowered loud mouths is rooted ultimately in the same mentality that produced that constitution. Get rid of one and the other will slink back to where it belongs.
Incitement against Copts has a long and sad history in Egypt. Such incitement is not intrinsic to Islam and indeed it was missing from much of the early history of Islam in Egypt. It began to gather strength under various complex historical and economic factors. The darkest moment of such incitement was in the late 13th century and the 14th century. The new Mameluke rulers lacked legitimacy and inciting against Copts gave the population a safety valve that kept the rulers safe from the fury of the mob. This searing history was to lead Copts to 500 years of steep decline and almost extinction.
In the last 200 years incitement grew and waned in synchronicity with attempts at modernization and the invention of a new national dialog and identity. The 1919 revolution, the “liberal” age between the two World Wars , and even to some extent the 2011 uprising, all saw attempts at seeing Muslims and Copts as partners in the same enterprise. Incitement never vanished, sometimes it lurked in the fringes, while at other times it became more prominent. The nature and methods of incitement have undergone a subtle evolution in the last 40 years. We can detect three distinct stages, each increasing the danger to the Copts and to Egypt.
In the 1970′s and 1980′s the disciples of Sayyd Qutb (and most of the current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood are his disciples) railed against the “crusader” West and the secular rulers. In the case of the rulers Qutb introduced the innovation of Takfir to counter standard Islamic prohibition against Fitna. Copts were seen as an instance of the Christian faith and perhaps an ally of the secular rulers. Incitement was vaguely and imprecisely targeted and given complex and often vague reasons.
At the beginning of the 21st century a new form of incitement came into being. Instead of the generalized words of Jihadi groups, usually published in obscure venues, we see a more immediate incitement of private citizens against their neighbors. The immediate reasons were often very small, even trivial. A slightly modified Church, or a fight between two traders, a disagreement about a cross-faith romance, were all reasons for citizens to commit murderous acts with impunity, and even the feeling that they are satisfying religious obligations. This evolution reflected the weakness of the state, its frequent venality, and the influence of fringe TV preachers looking for followers. As such it was often in smaller towns or far away provinces that such incitement took place.
The third evolution of incitement coincided with the Muslim Brotherhood attempting to assume the reigns of government. Announcements from various officials of Islamist parties, and hangers-on, portrayed Copts as an intrinsic danger to the nation. They are often trotted out to distract from the failures of the movement, often announced to large crowds at heated rallies. In that form incitement harks back to the 14th century. We see plenty of examples. Safwat Hegazy, a man close to power and a member of a panel on human rights, is perfectly comfortable addressing a rally of Brotherhood members and threatening the “Copts” and “Church” in inflammatory and specific terms. Gehad El Haddad, a party spokesman and a scion of a wealthy Brotherhood grandee and a presidential adviser, coordinates his tweets with a large crowd of bused-in Brotherhood members in Heliopolis, a neighborhood with a large Coptic population, while his father is rubbing elbows with American leaders at the White House. We see the official organs of the Brotherhood congratulating Western Christians on Christmas day in English while issuing fatwas against congratulating Copts in Arabic.
Copts have a serene faith in God’s plans and the inevitability of their survival. Still, such incitement will take its toll, both on them and on Egypt. As economic conditions worsen, the temptation of finding scapegoats increases. Fascist movements in Europe often ranted against the “cosmopolitan Jew” as the cause of all economic ills. An obscure preacher recounting the wealth in various Coptic families and contrasting that with the general poverty, sounds ominously similar.
The question for the Brotherhood, and indeed the world, is where such incitement will lead. The Muslim Brotherhood is exceptionally opaque, and we can not be sure if the incitement is part of its policy or a symptom of its failures. But to the extent it is allowed, and to the extent that the world is willing to accept this duplicity, Egypt can easily become an unstable and perhaps a failed state. Does anyone want to see this outcome?
On a dark day in Egypt when a rump constitution filled with ill-will is rammed through in a rigged vote, the Obama administration decided to utilize a major press forum to redouble its support for the nascent Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship. The author of this blog supported Mr. Obama with time, effort and money, and has tried to see his nuanced approach as possibly the wise course for a leader facing a complex region. Nevertheless, there is a point at which a cautious policy ceases to have coherence and becomes an indolent desire to do nothing. In the New York Times report, extensively quoting “administration officials” there is one exceptionally appalling sentence
“There are no black hats and white hats here, there are no heroes and villains. Both sides are using underhanded tactics and both sides are using violence.”
As you read this sentence and ponder the last few weeks of Muslim Brotherhood violence against peaceful demonstrations, as well as the incendiary rhetoric of such Brotherhood mouthpieces as Safwat Hegazy and Wagdy Ghoneim, the only word that comes to mind is ‘shame‘. Obama, and his policy makers, have just placed El Baradei and Morsi in the same moral category. Obama, and his policy makers, have just placed Wagdy Ghoneim and Pope Tawadros II (who refused to opine on politics) in the same moral category. Obama,and his policy makers, have just placed the Copts and those who publicly call for lynching them in the same moral category.
When violence comes, and the innocents die, let us remember Obama’s hats. They will do little to cover his shame.
At the break of the American Civil War, the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, had plenty of reasons to support the South. He feared that the rise of a powerful American industrial state would weaken England’s international empire. He needed an independent agrarian South to feed the voracious mills of England with cotton, and also feared an Irish sympathetic America would hasten Irish independence. History would show him right on all these fears. He also had plenty of reasonable sounding arguments for why he can support the South. Self-determination was certainly one of them. After all, the US was created from the English empire by that very same reason.
Yet he did not support the South. Some of the reasons had to do with deft maneuvering by the Union, but mostly he could not bring himself to reverse almost a century of English aversion to slavery. In the short term he went against the obvious “hard” interests for softer moral reasons. His moral decision saved England in the end. If he had supported the South, and his support would in all likelihood have guaranteed a split America, there would have been no United States rushing to aid England in dire instances in the century to come, when its very existence was threatened.
President Obama is a well-read and intellectual President. He would do well to reflect on Palmerston when dealing with the current Egyptian situation. There are plenty of “geopolitical” and practical reasons to side with the Muslim Brotherhood attempt to take over the state. There is also a perfectly reasonable sounding argument of “listening to the ballot box”. But in the end, if America were to need Egypt’s help in the future, real serious help, who is likely to come through? The Muslim Brotherhood with their narrow, exclusivist, anti-Western, and often anti-Christian, views or the progressive liberals who look to America for inspiration on how to run a modern state?
Answer that question please, Mr President. Answer it in the wee hours of the morning when all serious decisions are made in a man’s heart, well before his brain justifies them.
The events in Heliopolis on December 5 2012 can find no more eloquent explanation than this snapshot of a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer silencing a woman.
Within a few days Bishop Tawadros will be enthroned as the new Coptic Pope, Tawadros II. For Coptic Popes, like Catholic Popes, and indeed monarchs in general, the name they take is sometimes a hint about their influences , leanings, and even hopes. The reader who thinks that the choice of “Tawadros” is purely coincidental should read no further, for this post explores the times of the only other Coptic Pope with the same name in the 2000 year history of the Church.
Tawadros I (731-743) was the forty-fifth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark. A gentle man of few and well-considered words, he dedicated his life to service of the community and clergy. He succeeded his mentor, Alexander II, after a a short interregnum. Alexander II ruled the Church for over 25 years (705-730), an unusually long time for that period. He was a powerful Patriarch who involved himself in many of the political struggles of his day. His selection process involved new innovations and was approved by the Umayyad imperial powers in Damascus. His reign started with the Umayyads, the last purely Arab series of Caliphs, at the height of their power and influence, and with the Muslim armies poised to invade both Europe and Byzantium. His tenure was marked by stormy relations with the Caliphs, and even periods of banishment and arrest. The Egypt he lived in was still largely Christian; but the wave of conversions to Islam was gathering strength. Along with conversions, a number of revolts against the imperial powers, known as the Coptic Bashmuric revolts, marked the last stage of active Coptic resistance to the new Muslim overlords. By the end of Alexander’s tenure the Umayyads were a spent force and the center of Islam was shifting to Baghdad.
Tawadros I reign marked the furthermost incursions of Islam into Europe, with Charles Martel stopping the Moors at the Pyrenees, and the Umayyads faltering at the walls of Byzantium. From that point forward, Islam was to become a less Arab enterprise, and Islamic civilization was to take on the manners and values of many of the conquered nations, Persian, Moorish, Central Asian and Turkic.
Yet Tawadros I reign was a brief period of peace squeezed between the rise of Islam (and end of the Dark Ages) and the beginning of the Medieval age. Charlemagne and Haroon El Rashid were a century away, the Crusades three centuries hence, and the Ottomans more than seven centuries as well. Tawadros I was also the only Coptic Pope to affect a return of Chalcedonian Christians to the Coptic Church.
As always, where some see accidents of history, the faithful credit the hand of God.
A decade or so ago, President Mursi was a rising Member of Parliament, fond of fiery speeches excoriating Ministers for failures large and small. Now as President, his alacrity with words as a powerless politician seems matched by indolence of action as a Chief Executive. No wrong in Egypt can raise him from his prayer rug or distract him from his weekly sermons. He is becoming the “Ma’lish” President.
One can list the many ills that seem to leave President Mursi satisfied to do nothing. If the Sinai degenerates into a lawless frontier, then his natural reaction seems to be “Ma’lish“. If the country’s economy continues to spiral downward, threatening to leave the poorest bread-less, that seems to be no reason for alarm. If the lawlessness of Salafis allows them to kidnap children and forcibly marry them off , then perhaps “reconciliation” between parties is best. Enforcing the law seems to be none of his business as a President. On and on the litany goes.
But then something small happens, something that seems to demand a shout in the face of the new normal. That small thing is the proclamation by a Salafi attention-hound of his desire to tear down the Sphinx and the Pyramids.
Let us first rest assured that the Pyramids are not going anywhere. The Mamelukes used them as a quarry to build Mosques, and they are still standing, a testament to Egyptian solidity in the face of parvenu invaders and small bore religious fanatics. But that is not the point. The boast by the witless beard is an offense and a crime. If an American fundamentalist threatened to raze the Capitol or a British fanatic proclaimed his desire to bring down Stonehenge, you can be sure they will be paid a visit by the police and perhaps find themselves in the dock on charges of terrorism.
But not in Mursi’s Egypt. Tamam, Ma’lish, Kulu Kwais.
Law and order is a prerequisite for freedom, and like freedom, it demands vigorous defense. Most of all by the men at the top.