It’s no wonder the terrorist attacks on Christian families in Sinai last week sparked such anger and so much sympathy and solidarity with the victims of sectarian violence.
The situation is dire, and the attacks seek not only to terrorize Christian families, but also to divide society, fuel strife, and escalate the war in North Sinai to a new level of violence.
The immediate popular response has been admirable, as demonstrated by the people who headed to the city of Ismailiya to meet the displaced families and offer material and moral support.
Statements from politicians and party heads rejecting terrorism and cleaving to national unity were also important, as was the aid the state offered to the families, as tardy, reluctant, and inadequate to the gravity of the situation as it was.
But these short term efforts are not enough. They must be followed by more far-reaching interventions in the long term.
The sad truth is that this emotional and media outpouring is repeated every time a sectarian or terrorist attack targets Christians or inflames strife: passionate feelings are aroused, followed by fiery articles, statements of grief and condemnation from political forces, generous donations, and state intervention to mitigate some harm.
But soon enough, the media and public attention wanes and things revert to the status quo.
Meanwhile, the displaced remain far from their homes, the perpetrators go unpunished, and sectarian tension persists.
It’s therefore vital to distinguish short-term efforts from long-term measures to address sectarianism and the terrorism that seeks to exploit it to divide society and further the gap between Egyptians.
To begin, the state must move beyond its regular talk about renewing religious discourse to take genuine measures to confront the inflammatory, discriminatory rhetoric prevalent in school curricula, the media, and even on the tongues of some officials.
Putting this off with claims of political inexpediency is unacceptable. The priority of preserving national unity supersedes all expediency and accommodations.
It’s also time to issue a comprehensive law prohibiting discrimination of all types and guaranteeing equality. If the state and parliament fail to follow through on this constitutional entitlement, we must all make every possible effort to demand it and pressure them. Otherwise, the concept of citizenship will remain incomplete and without real legal protection.
The state also continues to make the mistake of refusing to enable civil society organizations to play a more effective role in raising awareness of rights, reaching out in areas affected by sectarian tension and working to defuse it, and using early warning instruments that can help achieve national peace.
As long as the state views all civic activity with suspicion and hostility, it will continue to face singlehandedly complex social issues that can’t be addressed solely by conventional tools of power.
Moreover, the state needs urgently to take a resolute stance on the infringement of Christian citizens’ rights given the tacit endorsement of customary reconciliation, displacement, and the prohibition of worship in the name of maintaining social peace, stability, and mollifying hardline currents.
It’s either one law that applies equally to everyone without exception or distinction between Muslim and Christian, or anarchy and the law of the jungle.
Finally, sectarianism can never be resolved with more sectarianism. The Egyptians displaced in Sinai are the responsibility of the state, which should take the lead in protecting them and guarding their interests.
They are not charges of the church, which should not be the umbrella under which representatives of the civil state act. This is not to slight the church or blame those who turn to it in their plight. It is to underscore the danger of relying on solutions that further entrench, rather than resist, sectarianism.
The terrorist assault in Sinai is not an ordinary sectarian act, but a serious terrorist crime that comes in the midst of a raging battle that has claimed dozens of victims.
We shouldn’t follow the path laid out by the terrorist groups responsible for these crimes. Immediate measures to assist and support the victims should be commended, but this time, let’s not stop there.
*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 27 February.