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Has Citizenship Got a Future in Egypt?

[Demonstration in Cairo near the Maspero denouncing religious sectarianism. 8 May 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy] [Demonstration in Cairo near the Maspero denouncing religious sectarianism. 8 May 2011. Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy]

The sectarian spectacle that dominated so much Egyptian television coverage – at least that of the private networks – on Sunday, was unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. Even at the lowest points of modern Coptic-Muslim relations, the Coptic Cathedral and Patriarchal headquarters have not experienced the sort of siege that was violently imposed by plainclothes assailants and their abettors in the police, as mourners commemorated the lives of four Christians lost to sectarian violence in the Qalyubiya village of Khusus a day prior.

I say “spectacle” not to minimize the human cost of the siege – at the time of writing, two individuals were said to have lost their lives and at least ninety had suffered injuries in the attack – but because, I suspect, the power of the images transmitted from the Cathedral siege may exceed even that of the images transmitted from Maspero during the military’s massacre of Copts there in October 2011. At stake was the very center of the Coptic Orthodox Church, where the relics of the Church’s founder, Saint Mark, are housed. For Copts to observe smoke rising from the Cathedral compound was thus profoundly shocking – to say nothing of the chilling sight of Copts, seeking to help protect the area, having to display their tattoo crosses to gain entrance to the compound once the siege had begun.

I have written before in these pages about Egyptian sectarianism, its modern origins and recent manifestations. The impulse to lay the blame for this sectarianism at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood is strong and, in my view, not without justification, particularly given the sectarian incitement in which the organization has engaged since its rise to power. Indeed, only two weeks ago, Amnesty International issued a press release directed at Egypt’s rulers whose title read, “Egypt’s Coptic Christians must be protected from sectarian violence.”

But the language of that title points to a tendency that, I would venture, bears nearly as much responsibility for the current violence as the Brotherhood. The notion of “protection” referenced by Amnesty conjures up an image of Coptic Christians in Egypt as an inert, monolithic bloc – a bloc whose leadership is assumed to reside with the Church. What is missing here is the notion of citizenship – the notion of Copts as Egyptian citizens, equal before Egyptian law and the Egyptian state to their Muslim compatriots. 

The irony of this language of “protection,” as deployed not only by Amnesty but a wide variety of human rights organizations, is that this language is central to the Muslim Brotherhood’s own conception of Copts and their place in Egyptian society. Indeed, if one is to take the constitution produced by a Brotherhood-dominated assembly as a guide, Egypt’s current rulers conceive of Copts not so much as equal citizens but as a distinctly sectarian constituency that is best left in the hands of the Church. For instance, Article 3 of the constitution vouchsafes control of the personal status affairs of the Coptic Orthodox to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, regardless of whether particular Copts are, in fact, believers or not.

All in all, the way in which Copts are discussed, both in Egyptian public discourse and in the international media, seems stuck in the nineteenth century, with commentators still relying on the conventional wisdoms of the millet paradigm – according to which Ottoman rulers relied upon clerical leaders to represent the political interests of their respective sects. Under these circumstances, how can one possibly have a meaningful conversation about citizenship – about how the Egyptian revolution might shape conceptions of Egyptian identity?

Despite the hopes that accompanied the January 25 Revolution in this regard, important conversations about citizenship simply are not happening in post-revolutionary Egypt. What makes this all the more remarkable is that, at nearly every previous revolutionary juncture in Egypt’s modern history – 1882, 1919, and 1952 – there was a serious and sustained engagement with the issue of citizenship. Indeed, one might have thought that, not least given its Christian minority, Egypt would have been the Arab uprising context most likely to confront the citizenship question.

And one cannot blame the near-complete absence of muwatina, or citizenship, from Egyptian public discourse on a lack of opportunities or catalysts for discussion: Quite apart from the Coptic-Muslim tensions that have plagued the period since the revolution, and quite apart from the constitution-writing exercise and subsequent referendum campaign, there was Essam al-Arian’s “invitation” to Israel’s Egyptian Jews to return to Egypt, as well as the controversy that has plagued the screening of Amir Ramses’s film Jews of Egypt in Egyptian cinemas. In the past two years, there have arisen countless “openings” to debates about citizenship, and with the rise of Egypt’s private independent media, there has emerged the space in which to have these debates. Yet, in the few places where they have occurred, conversations about Egyptian identity have remained strikingly unsophisticated and ill-informed.

I cannot help but wonder: Has citizenship got a future in Egypt?

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