Yet again news comes of Coptic families expelled from their villages, this time in Beni Soueif and Minya, part of the terms of customary reconciliation agreements reached in meetings of local residents, clerics, and state representatives.
The locals and clerics who take part in these sessions believe they’re doing the right thing because it protects families and villages in Upper Egypt by preventing a small-scale dispute from degenerating into a violent sectarian conflict. So they choose flawed solutions to ward off what they see as the greater evil. That’s why I don’t blame those who in fraught circumstances seek to defuse sectarian tension and shut down the strife before it begins. The state, however, is something else. State institutions should be censured for sanctioning the outcome of a customary reconciliation that compels a family to leave its village because one of its members may have done something shameful, provocative, or illegal.
Expulsion from one’s village is not a penalty recognized by law. In fact, the Constitution considers it a crime so serious that it is not subject to a statute of limitations. Banishing an entire family because one of its members may have infringed social or moral codes or even committed a crime is also a flagrant violation of the constitutional principle of personal criminal liability.
Expulsion is collective punishment levied on people who did nothing wrong, assuming that an actual crime was even committed. The reality is that most of these incidents begin with no more than rumors, innuendo, or a foolish indiscretion, which religious zealots exploit to inflame strife and settle old accounts. But either way, the state should not participate in, sanction, recognize, or implement any decision to expel any citizen from his hometown. Doing so is tacit recognition that the principle of citizenship is meaningless and that the state’s authority to protect its citizens is powerless before social pressure and hardline religious currents.
These evictions are nothing new in Upper Egypt, although they have increased since the revolution due to the security vacuum, the spread of weapons, and the rise of religious extremists who feel empowered to enjoin the good and forbid the evil. The state often yields to reconciliation deals involving evictions to avoid confrontations, though in rare instances it has implemented the law, brought offenders from both sides to justice, and protected those who are not directly involved in the dispute.
Currently, few Christian Egyptians doubt that the state and its institutions stand against the return of religious rule, or question the state’s zeal to protect the rights of Copts and their place in society. This was symbolized by the president’s greatly appreciated visit and speech at the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya during the last Christmas mass. But prevailing media and official discourse views any criticism of the state as an attempt to undermine and destabilise the regime, support the Brotherhood, or weaken popular support for the president and the government.
As a result, any talk of the failure to uphold citizenship or to protect Christians is viewed with apprehension - like talk of the constitution, justice, and liberties - and liable to draw accusations of sowing discord or breaking with the national consensus. Sadly, those who pay the higher price of this silence are poor residents of villages located far from the centers of government, power or influence.
Sectarian tension exists and can flare up at any moment, fed by existing economic and cultural conditions. The gap between Muslims and Christians is real and has been fostered by decades of suspicion, superstition, and the conflict over limited resources. But the problem cannot be dealt with by remaining silent about violations or by relying on state agencies alone to manage the issue using the same means that created the problem in the first place.
Society must confront the issue. Laws protecting equality and prohibiting discrimination must be issued, and the state must allow civil society to play its role in raising awareness, building bridges of trust, and creating early-warning systems that can monitor imminent sectarian conflict, address the root causes, and deal with its consequences.
Ziad Bahaa-Eldin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 2 June.