Ending sectarianism in Egypt

Despite the gravity of the recent terrorist acts in Alexandria, most observers have treated the matter superficially and have shied away from a deeper analysis of the simmering problem of sectarian tensions.

These recent events are indicative of an imminent crisis that cannot be resolved through celebrations of national unity or slogans about close-knit ties between Copts and Muslims. Egypt’s ruling regime is the main reason behind the mounting sectarianism; it must take steps to overcome this crisis through a series of fundamental reforms. Quick fixes will prove ineffective. Only a proper diagnosis of the problem will allow the regime to effectively address the issue.

Egyptian citizens are suffering the consequences of the regime’s inability to resolve large political issues. Rather, the regime only engages in day-to-day administration of the country’s affairs while avoiding serious political problems that can threaten its grip on power. The last 30 years have thus been characterized by a lack of political vision and a failure to adopt political values and set legal guidelines that can restore the confidence of Egyptian citizens in their government.

This explains why many government officials have failed to comprehend the significance Coptic anger. While it’s true, as President Hosni Mubarak asserts, that more churches have been built under his rule than ever before, Copts continue to vent their anger on the streets. They have recently protested the state’s surprising refusal to allow a service building to be converted into a Church and. After the Alexandria attack, Copts came out in mass demonstrations in a manner that was unprecedented.

The Coptic problem in Egypt is not just about legal discrimination or restrictions on the building of churches. Instead, it’s rooted in Copts’ daily interactions in a sectarian environment, which has turned the moderates among them into victims of two fundamentalist discourses. The first, an Islamist discourse, has marginalized Copts politically and culturally from the public sphere and has offended their faith. The second, a Christian discourse, has isolated the Coptic community from the rest of Egyptian society and has entrenched its hatred for the “other”. It is closely connected with post 9/11 anti-Islam discourse that has taken hold globally..

For their part, Muslims have become victims of an Islamist discourse whose primary function has been to block individual reasoning and isolate Muslims from the rest of the world. Sectarian beliefs about Christians are the product of bad ideas spread by some Muslims on the internet, TV shows and religious sermons.

The production of sectarianism in Egypt has developed rapidly over the past few years and has succeeded in attracting a large following on both sides. Egypt will face more conflicts if we don’t recognize that sectarianism has become a widespread problem on the ground and if we continue to blame a small minority for threatening the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

The ruling regime has allowed sectarian problems fester and fundamentalist religious discourses to dominate the minds of Egyptian youth without taking any steps to confront them. This is a grave political failure. For the first time since the revolution of 1919, Egypt is being ruled by a regime that relies solely on security measures to stay in power.

The current political regime has no political vision, unlike many of its predecessors. Before the 1919 revolution, Al-Wafd was a source of inspiration for all Egyptians, Copts and Muslims alike, who brought their religious convictions into a secular political space to fight for independence and the constitution. After the 1952 revolution, Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser won the support of the majority of Egyptians, especially the poor Copts and lower middle classes, by offering a compelling political project. Likewise, ex-President Anwar al-Sadat, who released religious activists from prison, had political orientations that were supported by many Egyptians..

During Mubarak’s rule, religious discourses have come to dominate politics as other discourses have faltered.

With the absence of viable political parties, Egypt has been left with a regime that lacks the appropriate tools to confront the rise of sectarianism. When regime officials tout the number of churches built during Mubarak’s rule, they miss the real issues that are responsible for the current sectarian environment. The ruling regime does not understand the cultural changes that have occurred in Egypt in the past decades. They haven’t grasped the fact that religious authorities have become producers of sectarianism, and have taken advantage of the vacuum created by the state’s absence and the weakness of political parties and civil society organizations.

Ending sectarianism in Egypt must begin with a critical assessment of existing religious discourses, not by quick solutions such as appointing a Coptic governor or university president. The real dilemma will be how to recapture the thousands of young minds that have fallen victim to fake religiosity. This can only be achieved through a strong defense of a civil state. Supporters of a secular political system, who have at once reconciled themselves with religion and those who uphold Egypt’s Arab and Islamic culture, must step forward to stop the sources of Muslim and Christian religious extremism (the former being largely responsible for fueling the latter).

Initiatives that bring together Christian and Muslim youth have started to take shape, such as “Aish wil Malh,” (Bread and Salt), which is a promising example. There have also been other encouraging displays of inter-religious solidarity as more Muslim activists have began to sympathize with Coptic issues. The regime, meanwhile, has cracked down on some of these efforts and arrested activists, rather than viewing them as forces that can help overcome sectarianism.

The sources of sectarianism in Egypt can indeed be eliminated if societal initiatives take root. These efforts must not come from Al-Azhar or the Church; they must be civil and national initiatives capable of saving the nation from the threat of sectarian conflict.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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