Egypt: Who benefits most from tensions?
Massimo Campanini 20 October 2011

Coexistence between Coptic Christians (and other Christian minorities) and Muslims in Egypt is a centuries-old tradition. When Muslim Arabs conquered the Nile valley in 632, most of the population were Coptic Christians and remained so for a number of centuries. It is in fact probable that it was only around the 10th or 11th century that Muslims became a majority, although later on the numeric gap between Christians and Muslims progressively increased. Muslims did not apply particularly serious pressure on Egyptians to convert to Islam. Although there are no totally reliable statistics, Coptic Christians are now between 10 and 15% of the population, and Muslims are therefore between 85 and 90%. With the exception of a few quite sporadic periods of tension, coexistence between Coptic Christians and Muslims has been peaceful.

It is worth bearing in mind that at the time of the Fatimid (969-1171) and Ayyubid empires (1171-1250), Christians often held high-ranking positions in the administration, while the patriarchs of the various denominations enjoyed the consideration of the sultans. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Christians still played a significant role in the country’s managerial class and even included one prime minister, Butros Ghali, and were well represented in trade and liberal professions. From an anthropological and social perspective as well as that of customs and traditions, very little distinguishes Egyptian Christians from Egyptian Muslims. Customs, traditions and behaviours are shared by people of different faiths and basically render them undistinguishable.

Relations between Coptic Christians and Muslims deteriorated during the 1970s due to the converging of two opposing tendencies, with on the one hand the development of radical or extremist Islamism, which from a Muslim perspective exasperated the differentiation and contrast between believers and non-believers. One of radical Islamism’s most uncompromising attitudes is in fact that of opposing (also within their own ranks) those who practice and share the real faith and those who must be considered unbelievers. Some of the most extremists have thus applied to Christians a conventio ad excludendum.

On the other hand, Coptic Christians have found a leader who is, in a sense, a hardliner, in the current reigning Pope Shenuda III. Shenuda has emphasized the individuality and originality of Christians compared to Muslims, and Egypt’s Christian origins and identity, demanding (for the moment unsuccessfully) a fixed number of seats in parliament for Christians. Without encouraging them, Shenuda did not stop extremist rumours among Coptic Christians themselves, stating that Islam is a “ridiculous religion” and complaints about the excessively high number of mosques. Within this framework, Christians’ perceptions of being class B citizens, of suffering discriminations and injustices, and of feeling as foreigners in their own country, have became even more acute. The presidencies of Sadat (1970-1981) and also Mubarak (1981-2011) often either resorted to Islamic rhetoric as a form of legitimization, or ambiguously attempted to place Islamic institutions under state control. This unquestionably favoured increased privileges for Muslims and, to a certain extent, claims made by Coptic Christians are legitimate (there are for example laws that restrict the construction of churches and the constitution explicitly states that the head of state must be a Muslim etc).

It is, however, wrong to pose the problem of recent sectarian clashes between opposing religious factions, from the December 31st 2010 attack in Alexandria to the more recent clashes between Coptic Christians and the police, in terms of the Muslim majority’s lack of respect for the Coptic minority’s religious freedom.

On one hand, there are no real restrictions to professing the Christian religion. Anyone visiting Cairo or Upper Egypt sees no real restrictions to the religious and aggregating functions of churches. On the other hand, the motivations for the clashes appear far more complex, ambiguous and perhaps also therefore more dangerous.

It is well known that events surrounding the attack in Alexandria have remained obscure and that reliable sources have hypothesized the murderous attack as even being carried out by security forces. As far as the recent incidents in Cairo’s Maspero district are concerned, one should not be surprised to learn that Coptic protesters were infiltrated by agents provocateurs who intentionally wished to provoke a reaction from the troops. One explanation for both cases can be found in Egypt’s internal situation. For some years now, since before 2010, the country has experienced quivers of revolts, intense and widespread social clashes accompanied by the opposition’s reorganization and greater influence.

By encouraging denominational tension, those in power may have had an interest in justifying further repression, thereby restricting freedom of expression and political alternatives. Taking advantage of unease experienced by Coptic Christians and the rigid positions assumed by more extremist Muslims, this meant strengthening the police state that allowed Mubarak to rule for thirty years. It was a dangerous game that changed its façade and characteristics after the Tahrir Square uprising of January 25th 2011, the fall of Mubarak and the beginning of a delicate transition phase between an autocratic and dictatorial period and a potentially democratic stage in the work of the institutions. This time, in the Maspero district, events involved even risking sparking civil war so as to stop the democratic transition process, once again opposing Christians and Muslims so as to break the oppositions’ united front. Who was behind the clashes this time? On one hand forces loyal to Mubarak could perhaps not be described as definitely disbanded and defeated, while on the other, the army itself may have been showing characteristics that no longer comply with the people’s demands and is no longer neutral regards to the demands made by insurgents. Instead, it has an attitude addressed at preserving the armed forces’ privileges in the economic and political sectors or even to ensure that “everything changes so nothing does” maintaining Mubarak’s regime without Mubarak and the most compromised members of the old regime.

This may sound like political fantasy, but, I reiterate, I do not believe the profound reasons for inter-denominational tension are really linked to religious issues. One must bear in mind that there is a strong sentiment of Egyptian national identity, with ancient and profound historical roots, and that, in the 20th century. Anti-British battles that saw an alliance between the secular WAFD and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the myth established by Nasser and his plans for Egyptian hegemony over the Arab world fuelled nationalist sentiment. On the other hand, the profoundness and exclusivity of the Egyptian national sentiment could or should be capable of uniting Egyptian citizens for a shared growth and reform project and set aside, if not forget, religious and denominational differences.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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