The Foreign Ministry released a statement this past Thursday that was entirely without precedent, and yet it received practically no media attention amidst the political turmoil the country is currently experiencing. According to the statement, “Beyond overlooking the violent and dangerous reality of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins, a number of foreign governments and international media outlets have also chosen to overlook the recent increase in killings and attacks that are once again targeting Egypt’s Christian community.”
Observers of Egypt’s Coptic community could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief upon reading this pronouncement by the Egyptian government. What is so remarkable and, indeed, bewildering about the statement, is that the Egyptian government has repeatedly and forcefully denied the existence of sectarianism on Egyptian soil for decades. For an arm of the government to reference Copts as a target of violence — much less reference the Copts as a distinct community at all — is a stark departure from a long-standing policy of refusing the acknowledgment of sectarian divisions within Egyptian society.
This refusal of sectarianism has long remained a practically unquestioned pillar of Egyptian national identity. That the Foreign Ministry should so blithely disregard the once-firm taboo on sectarian discourse surely means that the Egyptian polity has crossed a Rubicon of sorts. But can one count this as a step towards the greater frankness and transparency that Egypt’s revolutionaries demanded back in 2011?
To the contrary: The ministry’s statement represents the sort of reflex support for the government in power for which Egyptian state television has become particularly notorious. By criticizing foreigners for ignoring the plight of Egypt’s Copts, the Foreign Ministry sought merely to further the indictment of the Muslim Brotherhood as a criminal, terrorist organization — an indictment that Egypt’s military government has vigorously advanced for the six weeks’ of its existence.
The Brotherhood has denied involvement in the widespread attacks on churches that followed the dispersal of the Cairo sit-ins, despite repeated instances of sectarian incitement and hate speech against Copts in the speeches of Brotherhood leaders. Whatever the nature of Brotherhood involvement in these attacks, the government must answer for how they could have taken place at all: Where were the police at a time when one could have expected sectarian tensions to flare?
One cannot help but doubt that this outrage will ever be properly investigated, given the whitewashing of the Maspero massacre, the bombing of Alexandria’s Two Saints’ Church, and the further instances of sectarian violence that have plagued Egypt since the revolution. But setting aside the question of justice, what I find most worrying about the current crisis are the assumptions that seem to undergird political discussions of the Copts.
There is a widespread cynicism — dare I say, almost sarcasm — about the notion of equal citizenship for Copts before Egyptian law. In place of the serious debates about citizenship that once preoccupied Egyptian intellectuals is a tokenism of unprecedented magnitude. Indeed, I would venture that “the Copt” has become a practically empty signifier in Egyptian politics.
Fewer and fewer Egyptian Muslims have the experience of lived relationships with Copts, for a host of reasons that I have explored in my research. Under such circumstances, the pronouncements of political leaders about the figurative “Copt” displace understandings of difference born of everyday interaction. Whether in the rhetoric of the Brotherhood or the government, opportunistic references to the figurative “Copt” amount to a dehumanization of Copts that makes the burning of churches conceivable.
I have long criticized the government taboo on acknowledging sectarianism, because that taboo has prevented serious and much-needed discussion of problems in Coptic-Muslim relations. But with the figurative “Copt” emerging on the media landscape, there is one aspect of the taboo that I miss — the sense of gravity that the taboo imparted to questions of sectarianism in Egypt. No longer an essential part of the nation, the figurative “Copt” has now become a “problem” — one that the state apparently has to address.