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Zehra Zaidi: Amidst Egypt's turmoil and killings, the plight of the Copts is a sign of its endangered future

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.

Screen shot 2013-08-17 at 09.20.55Spending 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 sectarian violence.

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.

The 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 another. The 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.

There is 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;

"Proactive 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."


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