What happened in Dahshour last week confirms that there is a deep problem in Egyptian society. What I call "the sectarian syndrome" bluntly describes the crisis between Christians and Muslims. The current environment is unhealthy to build bridges between the two sides. The reactions by President Morsi and other organisations in Egypt, such as the Shura Council (upper house of parliament) and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights are good and necessary, but they are not enough to end the repeated clashes between the two sides in different regions, such as Koshh, Al-Zawaya Al-Hamra, Atfiah and others. There are structural changes needed to tackle the roots of the problem.
Although the president's reactions can be described as wise and sincere, he repeated the same emotional and security rhetoric to the crisis. He called for a firm application of the law against perpetrators. He also said "I call on my Muslim brothers and my Coptic brothers to return to each other and for my Muslim brothers to provide security for the Copts."
This response deals with the current clashes and tension in this area, but not putting an end to this prolonged crisis of Christians in Egypt. What is needed is a package of short- and long-term steps as well as steps that can be taken in between.
In the short term, President Morsi should start appointing Christians in leadership positions, such as vice president, governors, chancellors of universities and others. This step will consolidate trust in Christians as citizens. It will also encourage Christians' strong sense of "belonging" to Egypt. Thousands of Christians left Egypt during Sadat’s era because of discrimination against them. This was also repeated during Mubarak’s reign and the same carried on after the January 25 Revolution. Copts need to be equal citizens in order to stay and build the future of Egypt with Muslims. Morsi should be brave and fend off any of his critics, especially Salafists, by taking courageous decisions with regard to appointing Christians in key position across the board based on their qualifications and not their religion.
In the medium and long terms: media, education and religious institutions are the key to end this continuous situation between the two sides. Antonio Gramsci, the well-known thinker, argued that changing the people’s minds required efforts on the part of the media, educational institutes and religious establishments. Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims, should change the stereotypes about each other. Raising the awareness about the importance of coexistence between them to build the country and achieve prosperity for all is crucial.
The burden is huge on both the Islamist education and information ministers. The minister of education should add the Coptic era in the history books that are taught in schools and universities. There is a need to know about this era in order to enlighten all Egyptians about the existence of Christians in Egypt and their contribution to Egyptian history. There is a need for weekly values session in schools for all pupils to enhance the efforts of peaceful coexistence in society. If young people grow up on tolerance and accepting others, it will be hard to brainwash them through false teaching. Media should have special programmes on state TV to challenge the radical religious discourses. Additionally, new rules should be established to stop some channels' messages of hatred that incite sectarianism. Religious institutions, particularly Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church, have a big role in achieving this goal. The tolerance, love and coexistence discourse is vital in order to eradicate the extremist messages by both Christians and Muslims.
Finally, it is difficult to change people’s minds and attitudes, but it happened in other countries and it can work and succeed in Egypt. The president, ministers of education and information, Al-Azhar and the Church should have a joint vision and a roadmap to end those disturbing clashes through challenging the sectarian mind set.