It is Saturday, 1 January 2011. As is my custom every Saturday, I am writing my column for Al-Ahram (Al-Masaa’i). It was not difficult to decide on the topic. On 27 December 2010, Al-Ahram celebrated its 135th anniversary. As the new year was only a few days away, the coincidence of the two celebrations seemed to offer the perfect opportunity to talk about Al-Ahram and the future.
The story of Al-Ahram is quite unusual. It is the only Egyptian newspaper and, perhaps, the only Arabic newspaper to have remained in existence all this time. It was founded by Salim and Bishara Taqla, two Christian brothers who fled sectarian strife in Lebanon and came to Egypt to seek refuge in the freedom and equality that prevailed between all races and religions. It was the era of national awakening in Egypt, of the emergent civil state based on the principle of equal citizenship, a concept that would long remain alien to Lebanon and other Arab countries. After the Taqla brothers arrived in Egypt they founded a newspaper that still greets its readers every morning.
Al-Ahram’s long epic history and the various ages it has lived through make exciting reading, in and of itself. Add to this its experiences in the hands of various editors-in-chief and Board of Directors chairmen, each of which imparted his own personal imprint, managerial style and ideological outlook, but all of who shared a certain identifiable “Al-Ahramness”.
As for the future, it seemed to offer endless substance for discussion. The speech I had just delivered on Al-Ahram Day was filled with optimism regarding the days that lay ahead. The past, present and future converge in Al-Ahram which, in the immortal words of Taha Hussein, is the “chronicle of the daily life of the Egyptian people”. The newspaper’s task is to faithfully record and transmit the news, interests and concerns that are relevant to the Egyptian people employing the various journalistic arts through the various journalistic media that have now entered the realm of cyberspace.
Unfortunately, the upbeat note that I was about to bring to the Egyptian people’s chronicle on Saturday, 1 January 2011 was dispelled by the bombing in front of Saints Church in Alexandria which, according to initial reports, claimed 21 dead and more than 70 wounded. The tragic incident was horrific in several ways, not least of which is the fact that terrorism has reared its head again after a long absence. People are naturally compelled to wonder whether this will remain an isolated event or whether it marks the beginning of a series of incidents. A tragedy of such a scale and that has visited calamity upon so many families will have dangerous social repercussions.
There are conflicting accounts on the cause of the explosion. At first it was reported that it came from a booby-trapped car near the church; then it was reported that it was caused by a suicide-bomber. Both causes have very disturbing implications. A car bomb suggests the existence of a broad network of transporters of explosives, providers of the car and persons with the knowhow to rig the car with a bomb and the device to trigger it on New Year’s Eve. No less than 15 people would have had to be involved, which would mean that the bombing was the work of a fully-fledged terrorist organisation with command structure, sources of funding and ability to manoeuvre clandestinely on the ground. A suicide-bomber points, at the very least, to the existence of a terrorist cell one of the members of which was used for this attack, which might be followed by others. Regardless of which proves to be the actual cause, which will undoubtedly come to light before this article is published, Egypt is facing another encounter with terrorism. It remains to be seen whether this will build into a wave such as that which struck in the 1990s or whether it will remain confined to isolated and unrelated incidents.
What appears obvious is that a malicious campaign is afoot to stir sectarian strife in the country using terrorism, hate-mongering and other expressions of fanaticism, and generally trying to reproduce conditions that prevail in certain other nearby countries. This context compels us to look beyond the terrorist incident to other incidents that claimed Christian victims. That many Muslims also fell victim in these incidents did nothing to alleviate the extremism and counter radicalisation. We can no longer afford to look at the events at El-Kashh, Naga Hamadi and Omraniya as separate incidents. They form a continuous train that terrorists now want to turn into a means to tear the country apart by driving a knife through our cherished national unity that had drawn Salim and Bishara Taqla to Egypt and inspired them to found a newspaper to serve as the chronicle of contemporary life and as a beacon of secular thought in a polity based on the principles of citizenship and equality.
Evil has reared its head again on the first day of the New Year. While in substance it took the form of a terrorist attack that claimed the lives of both Christians and Muslims, it carries the very painful dimension of an attempt to deliver a debilitating blow against our national unity. This is not about concerns of the Copts, such as their demand for a single law on the construction of houses of worship, equal access to public office, measures to confront fanaticism and intolerance. It is about a drive to expel Christians from the country, as occurred in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon as the consequence of the relentless rise of extremist Islamist fundamentalist movements, the most “moderate” of which seeks to make religion — not the people — the source of power.
There are many diverse issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps we should make it our first task not to confuse them, as important as they all are and as much as they all need to be handled wisely. However, terrorism is our number one enemy now and Muslims and Christians must fight it together. No enemy is more dangerous to development and progress or more capable of draining the material and human resources of our country. Terrorism does not merely aim to sew sectarian strife; it seeks to use sectarian strife to cause the loudest and most widespread turbulence possible. Terrorists are perfectly aware that this incident will spark outrage among Coptic communities abroad and among Christian fundamentalist groups in the US Congress and the West in general, thereby opening avenues for lashing out at Islam and the Muslim people, and for undermining Egypt’s image as a beacon of tolerance, national unity and the modern civil state.
Terrorists know something else as well. The results of the legislative elections led to a rift in the ranks of the civil alliance that fielded itself in the elections after having opted against boycott and defying the law. The terrorists therefore believe that they have a golden opportunity to wreak chaos, preventing the National Democratic Party from putting its economic programme into effect and, simultaneously, preventing civil opposition forces from undertaking the necessary processes of introspection and reassessment they need in order to rally their strength again. The terrorists have seized precisely upon a moment of political disarray that I warned of last week, offering a number of suggestions of ways to remedy it.
We cannot afford to wait. Of course our security agencies will take immediate action to hunt down and apprehend the criminals involved. However, experience has taught us that the efforts of security forces alone will not put an end to terrorism. This task requires a concerted political, economic and social drive that brings into play all sectors of society. What we need is a national programme based on three pillars. The first is to fight terrorism until we have uprooted it completely, as we had done before. All political forces and all sectors of the media have a role to play in this campaign. The second is to safeguard the highest possible degree of national unity. This is a battle against the forces that seek to sew sectarian strife and to divide the national polity along sectarian divides, in the manner that prevails in so many countries around us. It is a battle for Egypt as a single, unified nation, as it has always been. The third pillar is for all rational forces to gather together in the interests of rebuilding the civil alliance, which now must be not just an alliance to confront the spectre of a fascist theocracy but also an alliance to fight all bent on disseminating chaos and violence in the country.
This is not the first time our country has been struck by terrorist violence. On each occasion Egypt proved that the authentic values that attracted Salim and Bishara Taqla continue to prevail and that failure is the lot of those bent on destroying national unity. Egyptian national unity is much stronger than some think, as the forthcoming days will bear out.