Egypt: Restoring faith in national unity
©2004 K. Maes
II – Sacred unity
Egypt is an ethnically (or, better said, culturally) homogenous society. Thousands of years of continuous history as a distinct nation – even when it was reduced to the status of a province in powerful empires from the Roman to the Ottoman – have ensured that Egyptians see themselves, first and foremost, as ‘children of the Nile’.
That’s not to suggest that Egyptians are some kind of pure-blooded race – we are as mongrel as they come. Positioned at the crossroads between three great continents and at the heart of the ancient world, all manner of occupiers and tourists have left their mark in Egypt’s crowded gene pool. Even today, many Egyptians have parents or grandparents who are Arab, Turkish, Albanian, Armenian, Indian, French, English and more.
But Egypt has this way of making newcomers live by its norms. This covers religion.
Ethnically and culturally, Egypt’s Muslims and Christians are hardly distinguishable. It is no accident that the etymology of the word Coptic the Greek word ‘Aiguptios’ which is itself derived from the Ancient Egyptian Hut-ka-Ptah (Estate of Ptah) in Memphis.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in traditional Upper Egyptian village life, where one community may frequent the local mosque and the other the local church, but beyond that, they are indistinguishable in the way they walk, talk, eat and dress (even the women dress in the same black galabiyas and headscarves). At the modern, liberal end of the scale, they are also hard to tell apart. One amusing sign of this is the way many Christians use Muslim turns of phrase in their normal conversation, such as “saley ‘ala el-naby” (pray to the prophet), “ahlef ‘ala el-mushaf” (I pray on the Quran), etc.
A kind of madness
While I was in Egypt last month, worshippers in three churches in Alexandria were attacked. Several were injured and one elderly Copt died of his stab wounds. The chasm between official fantasy and rational possibility seemed to have widened to absurd proportions.
In a country where, according to the official discourse, people of different religious persuasions live in complete social and spiritual harmony, anyone who attacks a member of another faith must naturally be mad and a loner. However, insanity seemed to have bestowed the culprit with the ability to bend time and elude the police, as he reportedly used public transport to move between the three churches, which are located across town from each other, in record time, and managed to get past the security at the door without being noticed.
This official version of events may have been more convincing if Alexandria were a peaceful haven, but it has a track record of Muslim-Christian friction. Last year, a video of a play – which had been staged for one night in a church three years previously – depicting the re-conversion of a Christian who had embraced radical Islam lead to riots in the streets of Egypt’s second city. The fact that the tape surfaced in a district in which a Coptic candidate was set to thrash his Muslim Brotherhood rival was probably more than just a coincidence, despite the Brotherhood’s ostensible attempts to calm the situation.
The government’s willed blindness made Copts feel abandoned and beleaguered, which led to angry sentiments spilling over during the funeral of Nushi Dawood, laying the ground for two days of inter-communal clashes which were brutally put down by the police.
Again and again, the price of denial is shown to be higher than honest admission of a problem, yet the government insists on this policy. This was also the case with the sectarian clashes in Kosheh, a village in Upper Egypt with a Coptic majority, in 1998 and again in 2000. After the murder of two Copts in 1998, the village’s local police force reportedly rounded up hundreds of Christians for questioning, allegedly torturing several of them.
Instead of promising to investigate the allegations and to bring to justice any wrongdoers, the government’s reaction was to deny anything had happened in the village, fuelling suspicions among
The festering situation brought violence to the village two years later, when, in 2000, violent rioting, following an argument between a Coptic shopkeeper and a Muslim customer, resulted in the deaths of 20 Copts and one Muslim.
Read on – II: Sacred unity
ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab