Not my president
BY JOSEPH FAHIM
My name is Joseph. I’m a liberal Coptic Christian writer. Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s newly elected president, does not represent me, nor does he represent the 10 million Christians who refused to vote for him, or his party, at this month’s presidential election.
Mohamed Morsi is not my president, and he’ll never be.
Like millions of Christians, I sat home on the day Morsi’s victory was announced, watching the festivities in Tahrir Square from a distance, overwhelmed with a sense of alienation. How did it go so wrong? How did we allow ourselves to compromise so much? Unlike some of my liberal Muslim friends, I could see no silver lining in this farce.
Before I dwell further, here’s a little background about my family. The wave of immigration in my family started half a century ago with my eldest uncle, now a prominent, published geologist living in Texas. My uncle graduated from the Faculty of Sciences, Alexandria University and was tenured in Cairo University after graduation. In the early 1960s, he was denied a promotion by his senior professor, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, simply because he’s a Christian. When he received a grant to study in the US, he left and never looked back.
My entire family followed in my uncle’s footsteps, making America their new home. Since his departure, my uncle came back once in the past 25 years. He still has good memories of his home country, occasionally reminisces about singers Asmahan and Farid Al-Atrash. But he has never forgotten or forgiven the discrimination he was subjected to, and naturally, the Brotherhood remain his bogymen.
My large family, spread out in Texas, California and Philadelphia, are all conservative republicans unaware of the daily realities in Egypt. I usually avoid talking politics with my family for obvious reasons, but in May, as the results of the first round of the presidential election began to show on the TV screen, I was dragged into countless discussions about the future of Egypt under Islamist rule, the Mubarak trial, and, most pressing of all, what my family dubbed “the failure of the revolution.”
My uncle did not look disappointed or distressed; he was agitated and frustrated, paranoid even. I tried to explain before that the MB are not as extreme as the American rightist media make them out to be; that Morsi, as terrible a choice of president he is, will not lynch every Copt in the country. But he didn’t want to listen. He couldn’t, and he’s not to blame. Fifty years since he left Egypt, my uncle remains bitter, wounded and unforgiving. His experience is a narrative shared by thousands of Christians.
Fear and hatred are not born overnight; they have deep roots in direct or indirect experiences. Nearly every member of my middle-class family was subjected to one form of discrimination or another that propelled them to leave the country. Coveting a better lifestyle was surely part of their choice, but the most imperative motivation behind their departure was the desire to be treated as equal citizens, to experience a freedom they were not privileged enough to enjoy in their homeland.
Their exaggerated fears were passed on to the next generation whose members maintained an ambiguous relationship with the motherland. Such fears are still shared by many Copts in Egypt who either experienced discrimination first hand or are surrounded by people who were.
Are these fears unfounded? It would be patronizing to say so.
In the first round of the presidential election, the vast majority of older Copts voted for former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. That’s a fact. My own mother was among the minority backing Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi. The younger generations were split between Moussa and Sabahi. The choice of candidates made sense. The younger generations are more proactive, less politically attached to the Church and less fearful than their parents. The older generations, on the other hand, remain scarred by decades of bigotry, injustice and marginalization.
Lest we forgot, the rising sectarianism was not, as many misleadingly continue to report, an independent product of the Mubarak regime. The real beginning of the Coptic malaise commenced the day Sadat declared himself the Muslim president of an Islamic state. Prejudice was a fact of life long before Mubarak and Sadat, but the real fracture in the country’s social fabric did not occur until the latter decided to impose the religious identity on the nation’s social mosaic. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was given the freedom to emerge from the dark by Sadat in the 1970s, is seen by many Christians as the group responsible for the Islamization of Egypt and the growing radicalism. Mubarak was, without a doubt, an enemy for many Christians, but the MB were the bigger enemy; a vigilante group that altered Egypt’s societal DNA.
Politically, Egypt’s past dictatorships have exploited Islamists to gain popular support, using them to intimidate society at large and to crush the secular opposition in specific. But most Christians refuse to see it this way.
All but a handful of Copts I know in the US are convinced that Christians were safer under the Mubarak regime. Most of their provocative remarks reek of ignorance; an inability to see the bigger picture, to decode the complexities of a nation more divided than ever. Nor can they admit that the military leadership is responsible for the calamity we’re facing. Copts, here and abroad, still regard themselves as a minority under threat of persecution. Religious identity, the biggest disease of the Sadat legacy, continues to trump the national one.
Copts are asking themselves: Are we better off than we were a year and a half ago? Do we feel more secure now? Do we feel more equal now?
I could never bring myself to answer those questions because, simply put, I don’t perceive myself in religious terms. There is no doubt in my mind that Mubarak and his regime had to go and as an Egyptian, yes, I do feel safer now than I did 16 months ago.
This brings us back to the fateful hour when Morsi was announced the winner of the first real presidential election in Egyptian history. For most Copts I know, this was doomsday. The Morsi win means a further Isalmization of the nation, loss of personal freedoms and more discrimination. I was showered by phone calls from friends and family slamming me for invalidating my vote, for allowing the MB to hijack the nation and turn into a religious state. Many are fearful of the implementation of Sharia as the main source of legislation, many are anxious of the possible loss of Egyptian identity; many are terrified of Egypt turning into another Iran. For the lower classes, Morsi’s win means a continuation of the harassment they suffer every day. A few families I know are re-considering immigration again; some were so petrified that they started selling their assets for nothing in order to find a quick way out of the country.
I do not harbor the same fearful feelings about the Brotherhood as most Christians. I am not afraid of Morsi, or his party; I will not allow anyone to violate my rights as a citizen of this country and I will raise hell if anyone does. And no, I do not believe Egypt will be transformed into the next Iran and I’m confident that the opposition, which has been growing and gaining momentum over the past few months, will not allow Morsi, or his cronies, to alter the identity of Egypt. The days of a single ruling party, or a president who is beyond accountability, are long gone.
Yet at the same time, I cannot see any benefit in Morsi’s election, whether for Copts or Muslims in general.
I do not have any respect for our newly elected president; a member of a failed group with no vision that exploited people’s weaknesses and ignorance for political gain; a party that, in its brief six-month rule, became the laughing stock of the world.
I have no reason to trust the MB, as do many Egyptians. Apart from heading the Freedom and Justice Party, Morsi has little political experience and his program doesn’t offer anything revolutionary, anything truly inspiring.
Morsi will be obliged by the entire Coptic community to accomplish what other leaders before him failed to do: to issue clear-cut laws that improve their conditions and preserve their citizenship rights.
Under Morsi rule, will Coptic history be finally taught in schools? Will a unified law regulating the building of houses of worship finally pass? Will any Copt be appointed as head of any university in Egypt? Will religious conversion be protected under the law? You could give Morsi the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not optimistic, and neither Morsi nor his party have given me any reason to believe otherwise.
Since Morsi was declared the winner last week, I’ve been bombarded with stories about Coptic girls in poor neighborhoods told to cover their hair and others told by their Muslim neighbors that no one will come near them “as long as they behave.”
Whether or not these stories are true is any one’s guess, but they do reflect the undeniable Coptic panic, a feeling of helplessness and marginalization, fears that were not allayed by Morsi’s speech on Saturday at Cairo University.
The most pressing danger is not Morsi or the laws his party and their Salafi allies might push for; it’s the influence of what he represents on extremists empowered by his victory to run amok, on the various lobbies and pressure groups adamant on taking control of the country and amplifying the role of religion in politics. The ripple effect of a religious state will not be felt by the middle and upper classes; it’s the economically deprived and isolated communities that will be hit the hardest.
Many Copts are starting to develop theories about the MB’s strategies to monopolize the economy, a
far-reaching plan engineered by business tycoon Khairat El-Shater to control the supply of basic goods in the country. “It won’t matter whether they’ll be in power or not in four years,” a bunch of friends told me recently. “By then, they will control all agents of change, they will control the soul of the country, and it will reflect on the everyday aspect of life in here. By then, they can shape the face of the country and no one will be able to stop them.”
Some may regard the Coptic agenda secondary to the bigger issues like boosting the economy, eradication of poverty and improvement of education. But an unjust, discriminatory society is bound to collapse sooner or later and unless Morsi and his party, which will surely return to power, draft firm laws that guarantee Copts their rights, that put an end to this mounting feeling of marginalization, and that treat all citizens as equals, the widespread wave of violence witnessed last year will come back even stronger.
Next year, I’ll be back in Texas for Christmas. My uncle will be waiting to know all about Morsi, all about the new Egypt. He’ll remain wary, confused and nervous about the country he once called home. I just hope that next time, he won’t strike me with the line I’ve long dreaded: I told you so.
Joseph Fahim is the Arts and Culture editor of The Egypt Monocle.