From the Editors
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On 23 January 2011, President Hosni Mubarak strolled to the podium of Egypt’s ornate police academy auditorium to deliver his annual Police Day address. Just five days later, after a great wave of popular protests had all but shattered the very security forces he had come to celebrate, Mubarak would appear on television in the guise of a weary and disappointed father, grasping to comprehend the treachery of his beloved children. But in this his last public address before the outbreak of revolution, the aging president took the stage with an air of calm bravado.
After thanking the assembled audience of officers, ministers, and National Democratic Party elites for their dutiful ovation, Mubarak began by congratulating the police for having caught the suspected perpetrators of the New Year’s Eve church bombing that had left twenty-one dead and over one hundred injured in the coastal city of Alexandria. In the twenty-minute speech that followed, the president raised a plangent call to vigilance against the ubiquitous and enduring threat of terrorist plots on Egyptian soil. The most recent attack, he warned, represented an effort to “drive a wedge” between Copts and Muslims by conjuring sectarian strife, “an abhorrent phenomenon, foreign to our society and fueled by ignorance and fanaticism.” Mubarak, the military hero then invoked his comrades’ historic role in driving off the forces of colonial oppression and Zionist encroachment and reminded them of their sacred duty to protect the nation’s unity.
This inadvertent swan song showcased the calculated double logic with which Mubarak’s regime had managed and exploited religious tensions in Egypt for the better part of three decades. On the one hand, as a timeless and looming danger, sectarian strife provided yet another raison d’être for a paranoid security state acting under the mandate of a near-permanent Emergency Law. On the other, as an alien phenomenon or mere symptom of terrorist schemes, conflict between Egypt’s religious communities could merit no serious discussion. Accordingly, any substantive efforts to address and engage the actual causes of animus between those of different faiths could only ever appear as dangerous plots to summon the sectarian bogey.
In the weeks prior to Mubarak’s Police Day address, popular responses to the Alexandria bombing had overwhelmingly rejected the former claim while embracing the latter. Throughout early January, a series of massive protests in predominantly Coptic neighborhoods had taken the regime to task for failing to provide the security that supposedly justified its repressive tactics. Many voices in the independent media had, moreover, accused the regime of systemic neglect towards the safety of the Coptic community. At the same time, public campaigns to promote “religious toleration” openly echoed the state’s own sober calls for national unity. Overnight, the iconic image of a crescent embracing a cross appeared on government billboards across Cairo and on profile pictures all over Facebook.
Though it would be difficult to specify the effect of these campaigns on the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets several weeks later, conscious enactments of national unity and religious harmony proved vital to the strategies of protest that ultimately drove Mubarak from power. The crowds that swelled into Tahrir Square favored the rhythmic national soccer chant over religious slogans. Sometimes under conditions of extreme duress, protesters of different faiths consciously embodied the ideal of mutual toleration by providing space and protection for each other at prayer times. During those eighteen days, national unity became a basis for revolutionary legitimacy, a moving declaration that the “people” demanding the overthrow of the regime included all of Egypt.
But in the months since Mubarak’s resignation, invocations of wihda wataniyya—national unity—have played a troublingly ambiguous role in the complex politics of transition. By raising national unity to the status of an unassailable revolutionary value, the new military government has consistently labeled forms of ongoing political dissent as invidious threats to Egypt’s cherished integrity. Drawing on language identical to that used in Mubarak’s Police Day address—and the many that preceded it—official discourse has assailed various forms of critique as efforts to “drive a wedge” between Egyptians. When, in early March, a growing number of human rights organizations and revolutionary youth groups began to question the military’s liberal use of exceptional tribunals, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] warned against efforts to break the “one hand” of the army and the people. And when the momentum of the Tahrir demonstrations carried over into a steady succession of smaller strikes and protests organized around more specific issues and demands, the government accused participants of pursuing particularistic, class-based interests injurious to the country’s already-enfeebled national economy.
Most recently, the government’s evolving narrative about the gruesome 9 October massacre of Coptic demonstrators in front of the state media headquarters at Maspero offered a chillingly concise reprise of Mubarak’s double logic. As the bloody clash between military police and unarmed protesters unfolded in the street below, state media announced that the timeless threat of “sectarian strife” had reared its ugly head again. They then fanned the fire by urging “honorable citizens” to protect the army against its supposed Coptic assailants. But when a haggard Prime Minister Essam Sharaf appeared on television several hours later to begin the government’s damage control campaign, the deep-rooted passions of a sectarianism just trumpeted by state media were magically transformed into a foreign conspiracy delivered by a “hidden hand” seeking to rend the fabric of Egyptian society. By the next day, talk shows on state television had taken up the new campaign for national unity. In several cases, they specifically invoked the memory of Muslims and Christians praying side by side in Tahrir Square as evidence that the bloodshed at Maspero had been the work of a malicious third party.
Undoubtedly, the Maspero massacre has galvanized a new and wider public outcry not only against the incident itself but also against the military’s general handling of its transitional powers. A host of commentators from across the political spectrum have lambasted state media for their heinously cynical coverage of the clashes at Maspero. Faced with a flood of independent video footage showing uniformed soldiers mowing down their own compatriots, many have dared to question the army’s own repressive tactics towards this and other demonstrations. But amidst this recent outpouring of incisive critiques, the old slogans about national unity and mutual toleration have, with a few notable exceptions, gone unquestioned. Again the symbol of crescent and cross has multiplied like a collective amulet to keep divisive forces at bay.
Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with harmonious coexistence as a collective ideal to be actively pursued; quite the contrary. Yet in their current form, appeals to national unity are less an affirmation of a shared aspiration than symptoms of a fear long cultivated by the old regime. Implied, but rarely voiced, in these calls for mutual toleration is a claim that the sole alternative to an empty national unity is a state of unmitigated chaos and sectarian violence. It is hardly surprising, then, that beyond the rehearsal of tired platitudes about Egypt’s long history of happy religious tolerance discussion of the evolving relationships between the country’s religious communities is still a monumental taboo.
That fear remains one of the greatest obstacles to realizing the transformative potential of the past nine months. In demanding the overthrow of the old regime, millions of Egyptians asserted their right to disagree with the aging figurehead of an ossified dictatorship. But in calling for something new and different, they claimed a no less fundamental right to disagree with each other. Under Mubarak, such disagreement represented an untenable threat to the ruling order itself; in a truly democratic society the open acknowledgment of difference, however fraught and contentious, would mark the starting point not of discord but of politics itself. From this perspective, the sectarianism at once denounced and denied by the conservative forces that continue to hold Egypt’s revolution in check names a void produced by decades of authoritarian rule. To be sure, the grievances arising from an unhappy history of systemic discrimination and mutual distrust are very real, and their resolution would, under the best of circumstances, require a long and complex process of dispute and negotiation. But what the double logic of wihda wataniyya condemns is the very possibility that groups of ordinary Egyptians might find ways to describe those grievances in concrete terms, to demand rights protected by written law, and to argue about their very different experiences of a common history all within a shared framework of political struggle. It is that vision of a union forged out of genuine political participation, however slow and painful, that has proven so inspiring to protest movements around the globe in the months since January. Amidst the din of the “one hand” and the “hidden hand” clapping against each other, the voices for that right to disagree have lately sounded faint. They will need to grow much louder if Egypt’s revolution is to become worthy of its name.
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