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Contested Citizenship in Egypt

[Panelists at conference titled “Citizenship and Minorities Under the Rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. [Panelists at conference titled “Citizenship and Minorities Under the Rule of the Muslim Brotherhood." Photo from]

Clashes over the Khusus killings in Egypt are the most recent of a long list of tragic sectarian episodes since 2011. Paul Sedra is right that “the impulse to lay the blame for this sectarianism at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood is strong and…not without justification.” It is small wonder that the Brotherhood’s hyper-politicization of religion and religious difference at this juncture in Egyptian history would enable the radical escalation of conflict between individuals during what might under other circumstances be rudimentary or even banal interactions.

In Sedra’s estimation, the tendency to look upon Coptic Christians in Egypt as members of a unitary and unified community, led by the Coptic Orthodox Church and in need of protection, perpetuates Copts’ status “as a distinctly sectarian constituency.” For the first time in Egypt’s history, the Church is constitutionally designated the warden of Coptic Christians in matters of personal status irrespective of an individual’s self-proclaimed affinity with the Patriarch. The drive to link religious affiliation with Egyptian identity, Sedra contends, hinges on the issue of citizenship and the idea that Copts are not fully Egyptian. This designation prohibits their appearance as “equal before Egyptian law and the Egyptian state to their Muslim compatriots.”

In light of these considerations, Sedra asks provocatively: “Has citizenship got a future in Egypt?” Sedra claims that “important conversations about citizenship simply are not happening in post-revolutionary Egypt” and “in the few places where they have occurred, conversations about Egyptian identity have remained strikingly unsophisticated and ill-informed.” Is the future of Egyptian citizenship really this bleak?

A recent meeting of Egyptian politicians, academics, and activists suggests it may not be. Conversations organized around rethinking citizenship in Egypt are not as widespread as we might hope or expect, but they are occurring. As mentioned below, various campaigns are in fact agitating for broader understandings of national belonging. The real question however is a matter of degree: how far are Egyptians today willing to go to question the boundaries of citizenship? 

The Cairo-based Middle East Freedom Forum (MEFF) held a conference in Heliopolis on “Citizenship and Minorities Under the Rule of the Muslim Brotherhood” from 30-31 March 2013. Coptic Solidarity, a US-based advocacy organization, was one among many groups that assisted in advertising the event, which received considerable media coverage in Egypt. Panel themes ran the gamut. From political participation to religious freedom to gender inequality and religious discrimination, conference speakers touched on nearly every hot-button topic to emerge from the constitutional debates of the last six months.

Among the presenters was Hossam Issa, professor of law at Ain Shams University and a vocal advocate for reclaiming public funds embezzled by the Mubarak family. He spoke on the forever elusive “minority question” and emphatically denied the cursory role often attributed to Coptic Christians in fashioning the modern Egyptian nation-state. Citizenship in Egypt, he claimed, is inevitably connected to the issue of language. And insofar as Copts speak Arabic, maintain an Arab culture, and historically participated in constructing and reviving that culture, they cannot be excluded from citizen status. “Besides,” he asked, “how can we know a Copt from a Muslim on the street?” Why in other words, must we assess whether one holds Coptic versus Muslim values, and what is the difference anyway? Does it matter?

Of course the perception of difference in Egypt matters quite a lot. Under Hosni Mubarak, the custody battle over Andrew and Mario Ramses made headlines. The courts debated whether the twin brothers, born into a Coptic family and who considered themselves Christian, must be forced to convert to Islam after their father became Muslim. Copts during this time also faced significant limitations in building and renovating churches, as well as holding services that required presidential approval.

Though we may be tempted to attribute the recent prevalence of state-sponsored sectarian events to the Brotherhood’s social conservatism, these occurrences in fact signal the continuation of Mubarak-era state management of religion. We need only look as far back as October 2011 to the Maspero massacre that was marked by heavy military and police violence against unarmed protestors and resulted in at least twenty-four deaths, December 2012 when Alber Saber was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to three years in prison, or most recently to March 2013 when Abu-Islam Ahmed Abdullah was faced with charges of “defaming Christianity” and referred to the Cairo Criminal Court.

These events hinge on the political salience of “Muslim” and “Christian” identities, as well as an assumption of their internal coherence, in such a way that is consistent with religious governance under Mubarak. And though Issa argued, “there is no such thing as a Coptic minority,” his call for a more expansive citizenship grounded more firmly in nationalism leaves little room for de-linking religious affiliation from national belonging. The boundaries of citizenship in his view remain tied to the coherence of Muslim/Coptic and Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomies. Magdi Khalil, the MEFF conference convener and the organization’s executive director, maintains a similar outlook. Often cited as a spokesperson for Egyptian Copts within US media and policy circles, Khalil insists they are Egypt’s persecuted minority. He thereby reifies an assumption that Coptic Christians not only belong to a homogenous community but also give primacy to their religious identity and experience it in the same way.

This is simply not the case. As scholars writing on the civil war in Syria and post-independence South Sudan have shown, attributing to religious difference an overtly political determinism obscures rather than clarifies the multiple affiliations that individuals may actually hold. Where Syrians stand in their allegiance to the Bashar Assad regime does not primarily depend on their religious affiliation, just as being South Sudanese and Muslim is not a contradiction in terms. In the Egyptian context, the Maspero Youth Union is another case in point. Coptic youth established the group in 2011 to oppose the church patriarchy’s control over their political activities. In a move entirely inconsistent with Khalil’s depiction of Copts as Egypt’s persecuted minority, these youth—at once identifying as Coptic but in defiance of their church—sought to stake a claim in the revolutionary momentum that was and continues to be under way. 

Outmoded perceptions of religious difference were also reflected at the MEFF conference in conversations on party politics and political representation. Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, a Mubarak-era dissident who co-founded the Democratic Front Party in 2007 and was co-chairman of the conference, argued that Egypt unequivocally needs a political party with an Islamic basis. The question, according to Harb, is “whether the Muslim Brotherhood adequately represents the continuation of this legacy in Egyptian politics.” Harb responded categorically in the negative. What is needed, according to Harb’s assessment, is an Islamic party that accommodates its Islamic heritage and represents a moderate form of Islam unique to Egypt’s history and people—the Brotherhood does not offer the requisite “authentic Egyptian Islam.”

One is left wondering where exactly to begin measuring such national religious authenticity. Which histories do we consider or ignore, which definitions do we employ or discard, and who is authorized to make these determinations? How can Egyptians possibly reach consensus on such terms? And who would be excluded if they did? Indeed, Harb’s matter-of-fact insistence on the need for a democratic, Islamic party is based on the notion of agreement rather than a plurality of opinions. For him, the assumption that there is an authentic Egyptian Islam is beyond question when in fact to answer his question is dangerous. 

We need to question that assumption. To ask whether the Muslim Brotherhood is fit to carry on the legacy of the Egyptian democratic, Islamic party should be set aside in favor of Harb's next series of questions: “What are the creative ideas necessary right now to propel Egypt forward at this critical historical juncture? Is the Muslim Brotherhood qualified to lead Egypt forward economically, socially, and culturally? Which policies are needed to rid Egypt of illiteracy? Which policies are needed for Egypt’s economic revival?” This line of questioning all but abandons the emphasis Harb highlighted earlier on the composition of Egyptian political parties. What is really at stake, it seems, is not who leads Egypt forward but which ideas and practices they generate and inspire. 

If we are to take Harb seriously that those who are committed to rebuilding Egypt are also striving to correct the mistakes of the past two years, this will require rethinking citizenship in terms of generational divides. The contemporary Egyptian polity is comprised of individuals who have lived under the rule of King Farouk (1936-1952), Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970), Anwar Sadat (1970-1981), and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011)—or some combination thereof. This means that in a country with roughly eighty-five million people, about sixty percent of the population has known only Mubarak (and Mohamed Morsi) as president. The significance of this generational divide was at play even among conference participants. Issa, who maintains a generational proximity to ideas prevalent under King Farouk, lamented the status of today’s Coptic Christians and referred to France as the epitome of what Egypt might strive to one day become. This comparison stems from Western colonial competition over Egypt during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which to varying degrees led some members of the intellectual elite to privilege ideas of Western liberalism and secularism.

As Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram’s academic journal Democracy Review noted at the conference, Egypt has neither a single culture nor a single understanding of citizenship. Though she represents a younger generation than Issa, the overlap between individuals coming of age in Egypt during the Nasser and Sadat years stands in stark contrast to those who lived exclusively under the Mubarak regime. It was under Nasser that members of the Muslim Brotherhood were imprisoned and tortured after a series of assassination attempts, only to be gradually released by Sadat in his campaign to quell nationalist agitators less than a decade later. And yet, it was in 1980 that the 1971 constitution was amended to designate Islam the principal source of legislation. Under Mubarak, the process of “functionalizing Islam,” a term coined by American anthropologist Gregory Starrett, in school curricula and social programs that date back to British colonialism would reach new heights. 

The point is that any investigation into contemporary understandings of citizenship must account for the various co-constitutions of religious affiliation and national belonging that emerged at different points in history. While managing religious diversity has been a state prerogative for decades, the politicization of religion and religious difference, especially along Muslim/Coptic and Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomies, has varied from one regime to the next. And insofar as these religious affiliations became and continue to be markers of national identity and belonging, they are simultaneously integral to how many Egyptians understand the boundaries of citizenship. A practice of thinking citizenship anew will at the very least involve disaggregating each side of the binary.

Sarah Carr and Aalam Wassef’s new media campaign to combat sectarianism does just that. So do other examples in popular culture and popular protest that are agitating for broader understandings of national belonging, such as comedian Bassem Youssef’s searing commentaries on the Brotherhood, solidarity prayers organized by the 6 April Youth Movement against sectarian violence, and recurring displays of merged crosses and crescents. Though not all done “in the name of citizenship,” these are important interventions that open up new spaces for productive disagreement and debate.

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