Four years on: Have we made any progress in sectarian issues in Egypt?

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Tuesday 6 Jan 2015

As Egyptian churches celebrate the Christmas mass tonight, we ought to reflect on the status of Copts and other Egyptian Christians and the progress made toward equality and non-discrimination over the last four years.

Egyptian Christians joined the January revolution to express their rejection of social oppression and corruption and to demand justice, freedom, and equality. This grew into an unprecedented engagement with politics and participation in elections on a national, not sectarian, basis. Then came the shock of Brotherhood and Salafi victories and their control of parliament and the presidency, which nascent civil parties proved unable to counter. This gave way to a period of wariness, then anger and protest, ending once more in widespread participation in the revolt against Brotherhood rule, after the Brothers demonstrated their insularity and clannishness, imposed a religious constitution, and sought to change the identity of the state. Copts paid a high price throughout these years in deaths and injuries, torched churches, and displaced families, while political actors jockeyed for power. It’s not surprising, then, that as the new state consolidated its rule, political interest and participation would decline—true of both Muslims and Christians—to be replaced by support for the current regime and anticipation of the promised return of security, stability, and economic growth.

How did citizenship and equality fare throughout all this?

Inarguably many gains were made in this period, in part due to Christian political participation and the claiming of their rights. The Brotherhood constitution was supplanted by a new charter—written with the participation of the major Egyptian churches—restoring the civil character of the state, and the current government includes three Coptic ministers. In addition, the new constitution has clear provisions upholding equality, non-discrimination, and freedom of belief, and gives Christians at least 24 seats in the coming parliament.
But despite these significant constitutional gains, Egypt continues to face substantial sectarian challenges on the political, social, and cultural levels.

There is little chance that Christian candidates will win parliamentary seats apart from the constitutional quota, they are unlikely to head sovereign ministries, and only few senior positions in the state bureaucracy will be open for them. The construction and repair of churches is still subject to restrictions under Ottoman-era laws, and there is still no law prohibiting religious discrimination. In short, Christians enjoy numerous and important constitutional rights and benefits, but they are contained within strict sectarian borders that cannot be overstepped; and these serve to regulate sectarianism in society rather than overcome it.

On the social and cultural front, society is still divided along clear, deep-seated sectarian lines into nearly separate worlds: private kindergartens and schools, doctors and clinics, jobs, and even grocers, barbers, and pharmacists—all of them segregated by sect. Egyptian youth meet their peers from other religious communities only in public schools and hospitals, during military service, and in the civil service. It is only in the public sector that the opportunity for a shared existence presents itself. In the private world, an invisible barrier divides the two parts of the nation, while ignorance of the other feeds extremism, bigotry, and discrimination.

So how can we defeat sectarianism and build a society where justice and equality prevail?

This is possible only by continuing the path begun on January 25, 2011, when both Christians and Muslims championed a national, non-sectarian reformist agenda based on justice, freedom, and equality rather than a confessional quota system. We must also realize that the decline in political and party participation and a reliance on sectarian solutions cannot build a state based on citizenship, but can only further entrench sectarianism in society and public life.

The constitutional and legal gains made thus far are no small thing, but the challenge today is to not stop there. We must build on these gains by passing an anti-discrimination law (particularly religious discrimination), providing equal job opportunities in the public and private sectors, regulating the construction and renovation of houses of worship, and encouraging civic associations and educational institutions to strive for Christian-Muslim rapprochement and coexistence. We must realize that political, partisan, and union activity is necessary to build bridges between citizens to bring them together on social issues that go beyond their sectarian enclaves. It is the responsibility of the state and political forces to foster this and take a clear stance against sectarianism and discrimination whatever the short-term electoral or popular cost.

Today’s challenge for us, Muslims and Christian seeking to build a genuine civil state, is to not rest on the constitutional advances, but to cling to the dream of a new society that rejects sectarianism and moves forward toward full citizenship, equality, and non-discrimination.

With well wishes for Egypt and all Egyptians on the Prophet’s birthday, Christmas, and the New Year. 

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 6 January.

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