I had the opportunity of being present for the Christmas Coptic mass at the Abbasiya Cathedral last Tuesday and witness the president’s surprise and historical visit, the first of its kind, and the significance of which will be remembered for years to come.
I was not surprised by the warm welcome given the president by worshippers and guests. I whispered to a friend sitting next to me that every Christian in Egypt—from the wealthiest to the most modest—would feel as proud as if the president had visited him personally. The occasion was deeply symbolic: it expressed the president’s intention to be the president of all Egyptians and his appreciation of the support given him and the new state by the Church and Pope Tawadros, despite advice from many that the pope should avoid throwing his full weight into the political arena. The president’s speech affirmed national unity and rejected divisions between Muslims and Christians. And the difference with the conduct of the former president was not lost on those watching the event as they remembered how he had failed to build bridges of trust with the Christian community, which saw him as the president only of his own tribe and community.
It’s no wonder, then, that the visit had such a positive impact and was seen as inaugurating a new stage of closeness and concord. Yet, while I appreciate the value of this gesture and its significance in the current circumstances, there remain several pressing issues that must be addressed if we wish to go beyond the symbolic to achieve tangible gains.
To begin with, we must turn a fresh page of unity and accord between Egyptians and heal still festering wounds. This will not happen unless the state announces the findings of investigations into the major sectarian incidents of the past few years, identifies those responsible, takes appropriate legal action, and fulfills its promise to rectify the losses sustained in them.
That addresses past concerns. As for the future, the noble sentiments voiced by the president during his brief visit must be translated into actions that realize equality for all Egyptians. The first priority is to draft a comprehensive law prohibiting discrimination in all areas of life, including in appointments to state office and jobs, as well as guarantee equality in employment in the public and private sectors and uphold freedom of belief and worship. A law must also be issued regulating the construction and renovation of houses of worship and prohibiting all forms of forced displacement and customary reconciliation when it aims to cover up sectarian crimes—and this law must be applied to all without exception. The National Council for Justice and Equality, which monitors cases of discrimination and potential sectarian flashpoints, should be revived, while civil mechanisms should be animated to promote friendship and fellowship between Muslims and Christians.
With all of its positive import for the realization of citizenship, the president’s visit, if not joined to an easing in the political climate, will mean the return of the old ways of managing sectarianism whereby the state protects Christians and their churches and gives them some measure of political and parliamentary representation in exchange for their loyalty to the regime, their disengagement from politics, and their willingness to see the church as both their religious and political representative and accept coordination between the church and the security apparatus in sectarian matters. This logic is no longer operative, after Muslims and Christians took to the streets in droves and staged two revolutions. They have claimed the right to full citizenship, going beyond the old model of sectarian protection to enjoy full political and personal rights without discrimination or restriction.
The president’s interest in promoting accord between confessional communities in Egypt is a fine beginning, but I hope it does not stop at accord between Muslims and Christians. I hope attempts are made to bring together all Egyptians, deeply divided between the old guard and revolutionaries, youth and elders, rich and poor, women and men, Islamists and proponents of the civil state. Egypt does not need appeals to love and friendship between Muslims and Christians alone, but a comprehensive national reconciliation that will alleviate the divisions and strife that have come to sabotage every effort toward progress, development, and comradeship.
So kudos to the president for his decision to attend the holiday mass, but I hope that it’s just the beginning of a greater shift.
- 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 13 January.