Sectarianism: Pandora’s box
Egyptian society oscillates between admitting it has a “sectarian” problem and denying it. When I say Egyptian society, I ask you to think beyond Cairo, Alexandria and urban areas. I am talking about areas that have witnessed what some international commentators would call massacres.
Immediately one may ask what does the international community have to do with this; it’s an Egyptian problem. It is precisely this attitude of keeping “family problems within the family” that Egyptian society is symptomatic of. I will later come to the international element and the fascination that the West has with “sectarianism.” But first a brief synopsis of Egypt’s “sectarian” events.
It is widely understood that incidents of “sectarian strife” are either unreported or end up being solved through mediation (“adet arab” is the term used to denote traditional reconciliation sessions); where a village elder, preferably someone from outside who does not have a stake in the issue, comes and hears out both sides.
This very rarely solves anything. An example of said hearing took place after the incident at Al-Amriya which resulted in the forceful eviction of Coptic families and a yard sale of their belongings. The parliamentary committee tasked with investigating, denied the incident and morphed into another tribal hearing.
This is not surprising at all and in fact shows you the extent to which “sectarianism,” the discourse, is dominant. This modern snapshot of a sectarian incident is probably a mirror image of the chain of events in any “sectarian” incident; the same holds for Al Kush’h, Abu Kurkas and even in urban areas such as the incident of Al Zawya Al Hamra. After Morsi came to power a few extremists went round the homes of Christians in Minya and banged on Christians’ homes chanting “al islam howa al hal” (Islam is the solution). This is not something new. In fact many extremists go round funerals of Christians killed in “sectarian” incidents and ululate. The insistence of tribal hearings is another way of keeping the problem within the village.
Thus the narrative that these things evoke is always that this is “normal,” the tribal hearing normalizes it into something part and parcel of rural life; something far from the truth. The state in the 80s used this narrative adeptly by saying that this is petty crime in Upper Egypt: “Hundreds more die in family feuds in Upper Egypt, this is not sectarian.”
This has a half truth to it; Muslims have fought Muslims in feuds across decades, Sufis suffer at the hands of some hard-line extremists, not Muslims, because this is by no means a representation of all Muslims. Framing it that it is, however, contributes to that narrative of a binary that is a tug and pull between Christians and Muslims. The sad reality is that all of Egyptian society is “sectarian.” Christians have an intra-sectarian element between Protestants and Orthodox; anyone from the Levantine community in Egypt can tell you that. Sufis themselves live in their own “enclaves” and have their own festivals, which some Copts do as well such as St. George’s festival (Mulid Mari Gerges). Azharites also balk at the Sufi festivals which they manage in government mosques and hold as a concession to local village leaders. They have the tough job of striking a balance between the Salafis who out rightly denounce it while Azharis seek to regulate it. I will not even mention the exclusionary attitude towards Nubians and Bedouins because that deserves an article in its own right. Democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim has documented this greatly.
So if all of Egyptian society is segmented into an enclave then is “sectarianism” an imagined structure? Why do some people deny it and others pronounce it as seemingly “inherent” of Egyptian culture? Why is that some of society’s elites do nothing but engulf themselves in the issue despite never having suffered from it?
The issue goes back to perceiving the binary of denying the incident altogether. Denying attacks against ethnic enclaves makes Egypt homogeneous; it makes it seem as if Sufis are a “minority” as well, so are Bedouins and Nubians. The deployment of the term minority itself gives an allergy to some people because it is a power claim that these people exist and have a voice; a marginal one that can be addressed by having their own personal status law, for example. It also opens up the Pandora’s box of Egypt’s identity since the British invasion.
If we go along Tariq Al Bishri’s narrative we see that sectarianism is an “invented” phenomena (different than imagined) because it is a colonial development. However that is a very contorted reading of history that also denies it somewhat; Al Bishri neglects that the British also took part in battles between Christians themselves inside the laymen council elections and the sensitive issue of missionaries converting Orthodox Christians. The British accentuated the problem but by no means “invented it.” The British may have a lot to do with that Pandora’s box, they are responsible, for example, for the horrible census method that led to coining the Christian percentage of 5 percent which prevented the state from doing any census since 1976. Ironically, in all hard line narratives that talk about Al Nasara (Nazerthites, a term meaning those who hail from Nazerth where Jesus was born assuming all inhabitants there are Christians) say that their percentage is in that range; so while some like Al Bishri criticize them others use their statistics. This shows you the extent to which this issue is like a Greek tragedy with its irony.
This leads to the other side of the coin those who talk about “sectarianism” as a rampant every day facet of life in Egypt. These hard-line Christians talk about hard-line Muslims as being a representation of all Islamists. They also talk about them as if they are neo-imperialists who are there to rob Egypt from their rightful owners: the Coptic Christians.
This is also a contorted narrative around Egypt; other ethnic enclaves have left and their architectural heritage bears testimony to that. The Swiss, Italians, Jews, Greeks and Armenians are but a few who have left their mark on Egypt. Thus proponents of the Sectarian narrative accentuate their suffering while their diasporic communities promote immigration where they recreate their own Egypt in exile. This is where the international dimension gets distorted and Egypt’s local government gains good currency, ironically, by saying that the diasporic reaction to “sectarian” incidents from abroad shows that it is a Zionist mechanism for intervention. After all what does the USA have to do with Christians in Egypt?
Thus the binary gets recreated.
Karim Malak is a researcher at the American University in Cairo’s Political Science Department and is an analyst on Middle East politics. 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.