In many ways, the future of Egypt will be shaped by how the government and the majority of Egyptians treat the country’s minority Christian community. Will Egypt be an open, tolerant, and creative society? Or will it be closed and intolerant, looking backward? This is choice that Egyptians must make.
A few months back I accepted an invitation to speak at a mid-June conference organized by Coptic Solidarity, a U.S. organization. I did so because I was eager to address the challenges facing Egypt, in general, and its Coptic community, in particular. A few days before the event, however, I received the final list of the conference speakers and the topics to be discussed. After reviewing the list, I felt obliged to cancel. What follows is what I had hoped to discuss at the event and why I found it necessary to inform the organizers I would not participate.
While I am not by profession an “Egypt scholar,” I have visited the country dozens of times, conducted extensive polling of Egyptian public opinion, and, on several occasions, lectured at the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies. Like any person of Arab descent, I love Egypt and its people, and appreciate the enormous contributions Egyptians have made to Arab culture and world civilization. I will never forget the expression Jesse Jackson often used to describe Egypt. He called it “an essential hinge on which hangs the future stability of three continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa.”
What concerns me today is that the hinge is rusted and in danger of fracturing. Six years of turmoil following the upheavals of the “Arab Spring” have taken a toll on Egyptian society. The ossification and corruption of the Mubarak government gave way to an elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the policies of which created an existential crisis for many Egyptians. As they saw their vision of an open, pluralistic, creative Egypt giving way to a closed, less tolerant system, they rebelled. The result was a military takeover that gave way to an elected government that has become increasingly repressive, only serving to deepen societal divisions.
All of this has been clear from our polling. Six years ago, Egyptians told us that their top concerns were jobs, education, health care, and an end to corruption and nepotism. During the brief tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, a decisive majority told us that they disapproved of that party’s efforts to transform Egypt. They wanted change, but decisively favored national dialogue and reconciliation as the way forward. Today, three-quarters of Egyptians say their country is moving in the wrong direction and have little confidence that the future will be better. More ominous, our polling also shows demonstrably less tolerance and acceptance for people of other faiths.
All of this unrest, uncertainty, and discontent has had repercussions for Egyptian society. Some supporters of the deposed Brotherhood have struck out at Christians — accusing them of complicity in the military action.
One can hardly fault the Coptic leadership. They were and are in a bind. The intolerant policies of the Brotherhood most certainly put them at risk. And while the significant gestures of the new government have indicated respect for Christians and offered them signs of protection, mass repression and failure to improve the quality of life have only served to fuel greater discontent, exacerbating sectarian tensions.
Feeding off this discontent, violent extremist groups have committed repeated heinous acts of terror against Christians in an effort to further aggravate the already deplorable situation. And so, we find the country today locked in a vicious cycle of repression and violence.
Friends of Egypt are also caught in a bind. Those who understand Egypt’s important role have attempted to buttress the state by providing substantial investment to develop its struggling economy. But they cannot, by themselves, force the government to make the right decisions and change direction.
This was the dilemma I had hoped to discuss at the Coptic Solidarity event and then, just a few days before the conference, I received the final program and list of speakers. I was troubled to find that the session at which I was to appear had changed. I was prepared to address issues facing the Coptic community in Egypt and how we might act to support policies that both protect them now, while helping to move Egypt toward becoming a more open and tolerant society that respects the rights of all its citizens. Instead I discovered that the title for my session had been changed to — “The Indigenous Culture of Violence and Impunity” — implying that there was something endemic in Egyptian or Muslim culture that was at fault.
While I knew and respected some of the event’s invited speakers, I was deeply concerned with others, some of whom represent groups that are on the Southern Poverty Law Center list of hate groups in America. These are individuals and organizations that have made a career out of spreading hurtful anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda. They do not work to promote positive change in Egypt and to help build a more open society that will protect the rights of all. Instead, they are more focused on waging a war on Muslims and Islam, in general.
Association with individuals and groups that fan the flames of hatred and division does not help protect vulnerable Christians in the Middle East. It may even put them at risk. I, therefore, felt compelled to withdraw from the event.
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