Jim Crow In Egypt

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.

Maged Atiya


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