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The Tragedy of Egypt's Copts ...

By-Tarek Heggy | 8 August 2010

 (Continuing the analytical remarks on the feelings of unease that certain issues engender among the Copts):

Second, with regard to the widespread feeling among Copts that their representation in public life has shrunk considerably over the last few decades, this is borne out by official statistics.  However, this should not be seen as a deliberate attempt by the regime to keep Copts out of public office.  It should rather be seen as a negative phenomenon that grew insidiously over the years, unnoticed by successive governments and driven by its own dynamics, until it has reached its present unacceptable proportions.  But whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Copts are marginalized in Egyptian public life, and this is a situation that merits serious study.  I, for one, believe that the explanation of this phenomenon lies in the mentality our public officials have developed in recent years, which is characterized by a refusal to admit to the existence of problems, and an insistence on claiming that all is best in the best of all possible worlds.  This mentality is rooted in another cultural specificity, namely a refusal to accept criticism and an inability to engage in self-criticism.  To claim, as some do, that the situation is of the Copts’ own making, that they have become marginalized because they are too passive and too taken up in financial activities, is to put the cart before the horse.  It is true that the Copts are passive and that they are involved in financial and economic activities, but that is a result not a cause - the result of having too many doors closed to them despite their undeniable abilities.
   Although I am deeply convinced of the truth of the above analysis, I am also aware that it is incomplete. The same doors that are slammed in the face of highly qualified members of the Coptic community remain closed to many highly qualified members of the Egyptian society in general.  The political game in Egypt today is open only to those willing to play by certain rules established over the last few decades; these rules are by their nature repellent to skilled professionals with any sense of pride, they are based on personal loyalty, nepotism and other mechanisms having nothing to do with professional abilities.
   Third, with regard to the violent communal clashes which flare up from time to time, most recently in Koshh and, before that, in Khanka   - to mention just two of the many violent confrontations to which our recent history bears witness -, these are the result of a number of factors, the most important of which are:
An official line that seems determined to play down the gravity of the situation, in the mistaken belief that admitting to the existence of such problem would be detrimental to Egypt’s reputation.  In fact, Egypt’s reputation would be better served by confronting the problem head on, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. 
The spread of a culture pattern characterized by ignoring problems, extolling achievements and singing our own praises.
A failure to make use of the many worthwhile efforts made to study and analyze the root causes of such incidents, such as the famous report put out by Dr. Gamal Oteify  on the spate of communal clashes which broke out in the nineteen seventies.  His findings and recommendations could have been put to good use, had it not been for a cultural propensity to dismiss the clashes as a minor problem instigated by external forces for the purpose of destabilizing Egypt. 
   The purpose here is not to accuse or blame anyone, but to present an objective and neutral study which aims, like the late Dr. Oteify’s report, at casting light on some elements of the problem.  To accuse the government of persecuting the Copts would be both illogical and unwise.  But it would equally be illogical and unwise to pretend that they have no legitimate grievances and that their situation is ideal. 
   Therefore, to accuse anyone who speaks of these matters of being an agent of parties hostile to Egypt, or of being involved in a plot against Egypt is simply a bad joke, an insult to the truth and an affront to reason; the style of riffraff, and a reflection of the style of the security services' investigations department, which tends to abandon the heart of the matter and pursue marginal issues related to personalities, suspicions and conspiratorial thinking. 
   This security-service mentality is one of the factors that contributed to the collapse of objectivity and rationality in our thinking, and that made this kind of thinking so far removed from objective and civilized modes of analysis, which are one of the achievements of human civilization; its time has passed. 
   Nonetheless, I was visited a few years ago by a person whose high-level position and job had direct bearing on the Coptic issue; he asked me why I was so enthusiastically involved in what I call in my writings “the Coptic issue”. I told him at the time that as an Egyptian, it was my obligation to do so, and this was also what made me support women's issues in Egypt - because Egypt, which is sick today, will never get on the road to recovery so long as Copts and women do not take part in treating Egypt's problems from a position of full and unimpaired citizenship.  An oppressed person whose rights are denied cannot participate in pushing forward the broken wagon.  I was sure that this visitor did not understand what I told him, because he had been trained to treat the Copts as a threat to Egypt, despite the fact that they are the original Egyptians. 
   At the time, I also told him: “If the Coptic issue is not discussed here, in Egypt, it will eventually be discussed abroad, and if we don't recognize all the aspects of the problem, then the Copts abroad will take their cause from the stage of merely crying out that they are being oppressed, to the stage of calling it a human rights issue; then, many will pay attention to them on an international level, including important decision-makers.” 
   When I was young, I heard the Arab adage: “Most fires start from tiny sparks that people overlooked.” Today, we realize that most troubles result from their having been ignored when they were small.  We demand from the world that they believe our claim of being above reproach in our treatment of non-Muslims and women, and we relish repeating this, while the world looks at our deeds and finds them to be totally contrary to what we say. 
   To return to the issue of the Copts in Egypt, I contend that the fact that most senior officials continue to ignore the Coptic issue will bring Egypt to crises which I can almost make out on the horizon.  They are similar to the crises of others in the region - others who were prey to the temptation of ignoring some problems, and especially of ignoring the realities of today's world, that is, the post-Cold War world. 
   This is a world in which the idea of sovereignty in its old sense, which had been stable for the many decades preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, is no longer of any use to anyone.  There are those who understand this new world, and there are those who are unable to understand and take in all the dimensions of this change… 
   I can think of no better way to conclude than with the following story: In the course of a debate on the Coptic question, someone asked me what the needs and demands of the Copts were. I began with their second demand, and then moved on to the third, fourth and fifth.  But what, he asked, is their first demand?  I replied that what they needed above all was a “social embrace”, in the sense of being made to feel that there is a genuine desire to listen to them and hear their complaints and problems, in a spirit of brotherly love and sympathy based on the belief that they are equal partners in this land, not second-class citizens belonging to a minority that has to accept and bow to the will of the majority.
   For a real and comprehensive solution to the Coptic question, we only need to look back at the time of Sa’d Zaghloul,  who established an exemplary model of communal relations that can serve as a glorious point of departure for a contemporary project to lay this nagging problem to rest once and for all.
   There are good reasons making Sa’d Zaghloul the beloved of the Copts, and we would do well to emulate the example he set so many years ago.  
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