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?

One Comment on “Incitement”

  1. […] brings no pleasure to have been right twice. In December of 2012 I first warned that anti-Copt incitement will bring a fresh wave of attacks, not by small extremist groups, but by […]

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