The Pope And The Generals

In a private email, which was published in a public newsletter after a series of unintentional errors. I remarked that the sight of Pope Tawadros II at the July 3 2013 news conference announcing the removal of President Morsi made me ‘wince“. It is worth elaborating on that remark.

There is a rising current of incitement against the Copts by many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some supporters have gone to rather ugly lengths, accusing the Copts of “crusader conspiracy” to remove Morsi. There were many other religious leaders at the news conference, including Sheikh Al Azhar and several Salafi Da’wa leaders, so that singling out the Copts reflects more on the inherent attitudes of the Brothers than on the actions of the Pope. Incitement also predated the removal of Morsi and was in many ways a factor in the Egyptians’ rising fear about the direction the country was taking under the Brotherhood. Still the question remains, was Pope Tawadros wise in taking the public stage?

In a previous post I have indicated strong distaste for extra-legal means of removing elected officials and, specifically, ambivalence about the events of July 3. The reaction to the Pope’s distant embrace of the Generals is equally ambivalent.  One can argue that the Pope, through the intrinsic nature of his office,  should have sought the protection of heavenly rather than earthly powers. One can also argue that as a man of God he should remain above the political fray. One can question the wisdom of an open embrace of the removal of President Morsi and the effective disenfranchisement of the Muslim Brotherhood given their history of incitement and occasional violence. Those and many other questions can trouble the mind. But in the end can we really fault the Pope?

To fault a man requires a certain amount of empathy to place one in his shoes. That empathy, however, prevents a clear judgement on the Pope’s decision. He must be privy to the daily acts of harassment and attack that his flock experiences.  He can not remain indifferent to these, even if he urges peaceful responses and saintly patience. The day before his investiture he told a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that he wants to stay out of politics and expects only two things from them: freedom and justice. They delivered neither. The attack on the Papal seat and Cathedral on April 7 was a terrible shock, amplified by the indifferent reaction of the Morsi government. It is doubtful that he urged the military to intervene, as officers are not in the habit of consulting Popes, least of all in Egypt. He did not join the American ambassador in supporting Morsi. But then again, it was unwise of her to speak on the matter with him. We can assume he was not coerced into showing up at the news conference, as Coptic Popes are generally immune to coercion. We must assume that he saw it as his duty as an Egyptian. As best we can tell, Pope Tawadros behaved as many  average Egyptians would.  There is of course a catch, he is the head of an increasingly international, rather than a national, Church, and many of those who wish his flock ill refuse to countenance the notion of an Egyptian polity, preferring a more international Islamic “Umma”.

At the heart of the matter is a question posed decades ago and remains unanswered; what are Copts to do about the increasingly Islamicized public sphere ? To Western observers Copts are often lumped in with “liberals”. But the community as a whole is socially conservative, and like much of Egypt, is not yet invested in what we might call “classic liberalism”.  Their reaction so far has been to create their own social space, or immigrate. Neither has worked to stem the tide of attacks against them. No Coptic social space is immune to attack now, regardless of how discreet it might be. Immigrant Copts (“Aqbat Al Mahgar“) are singled out for special abuse among many Islamists, attributing to them exceptional and unrealistic abilities to move Western governments. Those governments are at best indifferent to the Copts’ predicament, seeing it as a lesser disaster than others in the region.

If Ghettos and immigration are unrealistic options, then what is left? Wisely the Copts have refrained from solutions favored by their neighbors, such as forming militias or building Statelets. One hopes they will continue to display such wisdom.  Another option, asking for foreign protection, is also something that the Copts have consistently refused, although ironically, it is now the Brotherhood that is asking for such protection.

Given these meager options it is possible to see the appeal of embracing the Generals, especially with their ultra-nationalistic pronouncements.  The only remaining realistic option is for the Copts to convince the rest of Egypt that their predicament is also Egypt’s predicament, and hope they will manage to sway enough people to preserve a united nation. It is in light of what Egypt is, not what we wish it to be, that we should judge the Pope’s actions. The flock is fond of seeking the Pope’s prayers, but in this instance it maybe the Pope who needs their prayers.

Tarik Ramadan, the grandson of the Brotherhood founder, said it best in a recent post

In the face of this tissue of lies, the non-violent demonstrators—women and men, secularists and Islamists, Copts and Muslims, agnostics and atheists—are the true expression of the Egyptian awakening. They must stand upright, unarmed; reject lies, propaganda and manipulation; they must become masters of their destiny

May his friends listen to him.

— Maged Atiya

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