Zehra Zaidi was a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in South West England at the 2009 elections and has been a development consultant on governance and democratisation for UNICEF and the British Council.
Spending the winter of 2012 in Cairo, I felt compelled to
make a trip down to Giza and soak in the
pyramids which were practically emptied of tourists since the political unrest. My ears pricked up when one tourist asked whether
it was true that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to cover up the Pyramids in wax
as being un-Islamic. “No, no, no” one of the tour operators laughed, “That
won’t happen; those views are a minority amongst the Muslim Brotherhood. Don’t believe everything you hear”. What, I asked, of the reported erosion of the rights of minorities and women? “We are going through democracy for the first
time. It won’t be easy but at the core, we are a multicultural society”.
Fast forward, then, to this month, following the military
overthrow of Morsi’s government: his supporters
have entrenched their positions with staged sit-ins, with the military intent on
dispersal. And earlier this week, the military’s assault on Islamist
enclaves – widely condemned by the international community – was brutal. Whatever one’s views of the Brotherhood, their policies
and their record of incompetence in power, the fact remains that the removal and
imprisonment of a democratically elected President (however many Egyptians took the street imploring the military to do
that) was only ever going to lead to furious protests.
It is difficult for people in the West to understand the complexity of the situation on the ground, which is far from
black and white. However, one group has unequivocally found itself
trapped in the crossfire: the Christian Coptic community, which makes up nearly ten percent of Egypt’s population. Outraged by
the crackdown, Morsi’s supporters have orchestrated
nationwide attacks on Christian targets. 47 churches were burned on
Wednesday, with a host of other Christian institutions, homes and businesses
attacked across nine Egyptian governorates.
Coptic leaders have been blamed for
supporting the military takeover. In the city of Assuit, some two hundred miles south of Cairo, 40
cent of its million-strong population is Christian. Since Morsi’s removal, many have seen their
homes, stores and churches vandalised with graffiti, featuring anti-Christian
slogans or large painted crosses. Copts have taken to staying home at night,
shutting businesses, cancelling church activities or even, in the case of richer
Copts, leaving altogether.
The situation has been compounded by
ineffectual local authorities and widespread poverty. Other cities have reported shootings, most
tragically the recent death of ten year old Jessica Boulous. The rhetoric coming
from Morsi supporters has been widely criticised, and led to a coalition
of 16 Egyptian rights groups demanding that the authorities do more to protect
the Christians and enforce the law by holding those responsible for acts of
Muslims and Christians have lived side by
side in the country, but that is not to say that there haven’t been flashpoints in the past,
particularly during the 1980s and 1990s during Sadat and Mubarek’s time in power. What really changed under Morsi’s regime was constitutional
protection. The former Egyptian Constitution of 1971 contained ambiguities
regarding the relationship between religion and state. The 2012 constitution
changed the law in this respect. It preserves a clause from the 1971 constitution, Article 2, which declared
Sharia as the main source of legislation.
However, an additional Article 219 defined Sharia as to "include general evidence and
foundations, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines
of Sunni Islam and the majority of Muslim scholars." Article 219 thus became
one of the organising principles in the section pertaining to “state and
society matters”. For the first time, the scholars of al-Azhar University had to be consulted in all
matters related to Sharia.
Moreover, a new Article – Article 43 – limited
the right to practice religion and to establish places of worship of Muslims,
Christians and Jews. This article appeared to organise
Egyptians far more along religious divides as opposed to equal citizens, and
also failed to mention other minorities like Baha’is. Last year, Ibrahim Ghoneim, Morsi’s
Education minister, said that Baha’i children could not enrol in
public schools, on the basis that it violated the Constitution which only
recognises the Abrahamic religions. Four Shiite Muslims in Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo were lynched earlier this year following months of hate speech.
Small minorities keep a relatively low profile. Copts are by far the largest and most visible
minority, and therefore in many ways have been an easy scapegoat. Many Copts
felt that the Morsi regime was not doing enough to protect them from religious
hate crimes and sectarian rhetoric. The
military regime led by General Abdel
Fattah al-Sisi has now put together a committee of
legal experts to amend the constitution.
However, ensuring unity and
tolerance in daily life, vital to any roadmap to stability, will be much harder than constitutional reform.
The political upheaval in the Arab world is, of course, far
more complex than a battle between so called liberals and Islamists. Many Egyptians rejected the increased Islamisation of their country, but
would not line up with any political faction.
A sizeable group of the population does not even vote. Of the 50 million eligible voters (in a population of over 80
million), only 24 per cent voted for Morsi. In the first round of the election. Three liberal opposition candidates collectively garnered 54 per cent of the
vote compared to Morsi’s 24 per cent.
Ask most Egyptians, they will call themselves Egyptians.
End of. The same used to be said for
Iraqis or Syrians. Egypt is still far,
far away from being engulfed in the sort of sectarian terror overtaking some of
its neighbours, but it is reaching a critical tipping point where violence can
only beget more violence. It
is important that there is an inclusive approach from all sides in the
political crisis, as well as restraint so that a broad consensus can emerge
that satisfies all parties and where they can put grievances genuinely
aside. Failure to do so, given the extreme polarisation we are seeing, could lead
to civil war, large-scale loss of life and the destruction of the economy and
national infrastructure. It
would not only set Egypt back decades, but affect the rest of the region.
international community has struck a careful path at the moment: categorically
condemning such violence and calling for national peace and reconciliation, but also being careful not to side with one group to the exclusion of
language we use around religion and politics also needs to be carefully calculated.
There is a difference between, on the one hand: the domestic recognition of
the right to practise faith, at a time when religious people feel that they faced with far more entrenched secularism and
views that seemingly erode faith altogether; and, on the
other hand, the solution of many ‘liberals’ and minorities such as the Copts – namely, a secular state with religion kept entirely to the private
domain, with communities regulated by their own religious and personal laws in
certain private circumstances.
a subtle difference here – plurality and tolerance being key. However, amidst the polarisation between secular and religious and liberals and
Islamists, those subtleties can be lost. We must strive to help countries like Egypt reaching a political
settlement; ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood, who won power through the
ballot, continue to see the value in the democratic process and, above all else, support middle eastern countries in
doing more to promote social cohesion, tolerance and unity.
Sceptics will say that such efforts will never bring back
once vibrant communities: after all, Jews in Egypt have dwindled to less than a few dozen. However, the message of tolerance is powerful. That we recognise the historical
contribution of past communities and faiths is important. It implicitly ensures an admiration of other cultures and humility in relation to our own achievements. Passing that message onto the next generation is important, even more so
when the dust settles on the turmoil engulfing that region. In the words of Bishop Angaelos, a bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom;
efforts must be made towards promoting inclusion for all members of society so
that this new phase of Egyptian history can be built upon true unity,
collaboration, and reconciliation."