Op-ed: Copts blamed, again
BY KARIM MALAK
Cairo: A deeper look into the antecedents to the US embassy clashes in Cairo Tuesday is necessary to explain the context in which the attack took place. Yet before that, it is also important to understand what’s at stake, who benefits from what and how all those details intersect.
As a start, it is peculiar that the production of a film deemed “insulting to Islam” would be condemned by the US embassy. With incumbent President Obama nearing the end of his first term and gearing up for an election, this will give ammunition to the neo-conservatives. Egypt seems to be inching closer to parliamentary elections and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is bent on using President Morsi’s term in office to gain another parliamentary majority.
News reports have identified the producer as Sam Bacile, who has told The Wall Street Journal that he is an Israeli Jew living in California. And despite the revelation that Copts in the US were not in fact behind it, according to a report by Al-Ahram Online, the blame seems to have latched on to them with the Coptic Church in Egypt issuing an official condemnation of the movie. Some Copts reportedly even took part in the protests. The link between the movie and Copts, while at best weak, seems to have resulted in a backlash that extends to Copts in Egypt. But this shouldn’t be surprising considering how Copts continue to bear the brunt of political rivalries unrelated to the community. Take for instance how the Shia are used to deflect Iran’s uprising and the delegitimization of the Bahraini uprising. And in Egypt, one need only look at the pre-election rhetoric where liberal and leftist parties were dubbed “parties of the Church”.
Few would agree with the statement that Egypt’s ultra conservative Islamists now have the same interests as US neo-conservatives; but each uses the Coptic card to their own advantage. For the US neo-conservatives the Coptic diaspora is a good example of where Obama has “failed at guiding a transition that has alienated a minority and seen human rights diminish’”. Neo-conservatives indeed continue to bash him over his “Islamist alliance with Morsi”.
On the other hand Egypt’s ultra conservative Islamists across the spectrum, from ex-jihadists to Salafis and their sympathizers, use the Coptic file to define who they are as Islamists. An “attack on Islam” (whatever that means) intersects with the identity of some reactionary Islamists who immediately take the opportunity to mobilize and advance their cause. While both factions may increasingly find themselves at odds with one another in the way they construct their politics, whether in foreign policy or party policies, they come together in the way they subjectify the “Coptic file”. This becomes the currency they use to trade, haggle and continue to advance their agendas. The likes of Glen Beck and Newt Gingrich come to mind immediately as does Nader Bakar of the Salafi Nour party, offering good examples of reactionary politicians. But why is it that these Islamists seem to derive their identity from such events?
To answer that question we must first revisit the “archetypal” depiction of the revolution. For some it may mean “flagman”, the young man who scaled the walls of the Israeli embassy building and took down the flag. For others it is the football fans, the Ultras, and their participation in powerful events such as the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes or the Ministry of Interior clashes following the Port Said football match massacre.
There are many depictions, but the archetypal fantasy seems to present itself strongly in the image of the freedom fighter, the hero pursuing a lofty cause. This is born out of a narrative not stated publicly by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), but which some of its members amplify, their legacy, if you will.
It began with MB leader and former MP Mohamed El Beltagy joining a protest march after Friday prayers on January 28, 2011 at the onset of what would later become the revolution. The march was huge and targeted the police station in Shubra. That is what most people agree on, and despite the fact that what happened later is the subject of debate, most MB members agree that the subsequent burning of the police station had something to do with the protests. The anecdote remains fixated in Egypt’s collective subconscious and has even been transformed into a legacy that is readily deployed along the same lines of the October War as a great source of pride. This isn’t to say Islamists are violent, or to deny the fact that the Ultras have a history of defending protesters adamantly as in the clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud and the Battle of the Camel. Rather this is to confront that contorted narrative that the revolution was peaceful: the ‘selmiya’ fib.
It is no surprise that when the MB is on the defensive most of its members shore up their Battle of the Camel credentials. It is futile to attempt to find out the “truth” when the archetypal depiction after the revolution emphasizes the heroism of protests against the machine. The same can be said of Hazem Salah Abu Ismael. When the presidential hopeful was disqualified on grounds his deceased mother had US citizenship, he rallied for protests at the Ministry of Defense that turned violent and became known as the “Abbasiya clashes”. Once more his “heroism” was used to overshadow a flagrant cover-up of his mother’s dual nationality in violation of the law.
It is therefore perfectly understandable that members of an organization that outlawed protests in January 2011 (The Salafi Da’awa Organization which gave birth to Al Nour Party), would want to rack up some credit and go to these protests. Nader Bakar himself had called for that protest but then backtracked and said that the US embassy called him twice to “condemn the insulting movie” and he in turn affirmed to them the right to “peaceful” protest.
Add to that equation Al Nour Party’s reported sizable resignations, youth protests against the Salafi Da’awa Organization’s hold on the party and you’ll understand why Bakar was only too willing to take to the streets as soon as he had the chance. They are definitely in a bad position considering the recent statement by one of their party clerics criticizing internal party elections and issuing a decision to halt elections indefinitely. The “Coptic issue” then becomes subjectified easily to the whims of those politicians, left and right.
It is probable that the MB will try to issue a statement hinting at the involvement of “unknown assailants”, saying that this was a premeditated attack. The one thing that continues to be absent and unsaid is the absence of sufficient security at the embassy. Only a week ago we saw the police hit hard at a protest in front of the Syrian embassy. It seems that the MB will go to great lengths to avoid the dispersal of an Islamist protest while it is in office. Showcasing the MB as clamping down on “fellow” Islamists will not bode well for them before an election.
The regrettable truth is that the Coptic issue continues to be the currency that everyone, Islamist or not, trades in. Both Islamists and neo-conservatives treat the Coptic diaspora as one voice, one animal, representative of all Copts through time and space.
Karim Malak is a researcher at the American University in Cairo’s Political Science Department and is an analyst on Middle East politics. He is the former political analyst at The Carter Center (TCC), Egypt. He was published in the Atlantic council’s Egyptsource as well as OpenDemocracy. He can be reached at Karimmkarim@gmail.com and on Twitter @KarimMaged.