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?
The past few weeks have brought both Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood face to face with their worst fears. Egyptians have long feared that once the Brotherhood cadres took over the levers of the state they would attempt to “Ikhwanize” it and run it solely for the benefit of the group and perpetuation of its power. The Brotherhood feared that once it took over the state it would not marshal sufficient talent to man all the offices and run into the resistance of the entrenched bureaucracy. Both fears came to pass in a daily drama worthy of Pirandello.
The litany of comical errors is deliciously long. The Central Bank governor seems to have little interest in overseeing a program of “Islamic banking”, probably because he has too many problem to manage without adding an invented problem to his docket. The entire staff of the Public Prosecutor office rose up against the new Ikhwangi-appointed boss and forced him out. The new provincial governors, drawn from the ranks of the Brotherhood and with the approval of the Guidance Bureau, have proven to be largely inept. Most have taken their queue from President Morsi and took to preaching as their favorite activity. The ineffectual attempt at rigging the referendum vote was done without either finesse or cynicism, and as a result, showed both weakness and lack of moral standing. Even the simple details, such as publishing the text of the vote in the official press at the appropriate date, have gone unnoticed, leaving them with the option of either invalidating the vote or persisting in its lawlessness. Their public spokesmen, mostly drawn from the presentable sons and daughters of the leaders, muttered gibberish incessantly and with such conviction and vehemence that one came to doubt their sanity or even their very existence. Such drivel can only be generated from a poorly programmed computer.
If the Brotherhood wanted to establish a dictatorship then it is clear it would be a farcical one. Unfortunately the joke is on all Egyptians.
There once was a tale, told often by the Brotherhood, and listened to appreciatively by outsiders, that the Brotherhood is a viable and “technocratic” group capable of ushering Egypt into a new age of progress, the vaunted “Nahda“. But the Brotherhood is not a meritocratic society. It is cult. The values it seeks are not of creativity, daring or entrepreneurship. It seeks obedience and loyalty.
Egyptians were once furious at the prospect of Gamal Mubarak becoming President, seeing him as simply the undeserving well-bred son of the boss. Now they are furious at the prospect that their “Second Republic” has no Founding Fathers, just Foundering Brothers.
A painful aspect of President Mursi’s speech is the feeling of helplessness it leaves in its wake. It is decidedly important that a civilian Egyptian President actually finishes his term and hands power to the next fellow ( and let us face it, it will be a fellow for quite a while). But Dr. Mursi shatters any such dream. Can Egypt really suffer four more years of upheaval and failure? Yet it is wrong to demand that an elected man is ejected out of office merely because he is lousy at his job. And, in any case, at this moment Egypt has no functioning constitution, or even a parliament, that would allow a legal process of impeachment.
There is little to recommend Dr. Mursi, other than perhaps the private and wholly unverifiable virtues of being a good husband and father. He is famously stubborn, even for an Egyptian male. His public utterances are flowery, meandering, and overstuffed with words lacking in meaning. Whatever precision of thought he might possess is reserved for the few or the Americans. He has charted no course but seems to jerk the wheel in any conceivable direction. He is clearly not the man to lead Egypt through a difficult time. His opposite numbers do not exactly shine, and we will never know what they could have done under the present circumstances. To complicate things further, Dr. Mursi has never shaken his membership in a secretive cult-like organization.
So Egypt is stuck, a hostage to the man it elected to serve her. The country made a serious mistake in allowing Mubarak to stay a dozen years too long and in forcing him to leave a few months too early. A lame duck Mubarak may have made for a differently difficult transition, but at least the delicate and critical fiction of a legal hand-over of power would have been sustained. But honesty recognizes that Mubarak is to blame for creating a generation with many activists and few politicians.
If there is any hope in a bleak week it consists of faith in an Egyptian good nature that will prevent descent into chaos or sectarianism, keep the country adrift but not capsized, while a whole new generation masters the skills of negotiation and political navigation.
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.