I spent my childhood and youth, up to the time I graduated from university, between Rod Al-Farag, where our family home was located, and Shobra, where I went to school.
Both neighbourhoods (though Shobra above all) are foremost among those historic districts of Cairo that physically embody the unique, cohesive national fabric of the great Egyptian people, both Muslim and Christian.
Half of my friends from childhood up to the present day are Copts, as are half of the excellent teachers and professors from whom I received my education.
This experience taught me the true essence of this tolerant people and their common bond of mutual affection and respect as equals.
I will never forget how reverently the Muslim merchants in our neighbourhood regarded the local nuns and, for example, how the kind local baker took delight in surprising his Christian customers with the delicious baked goods he prepared especially for them for Lent.
I was not blind to that minority of extremists on both sides or to the existence of problems here and there. But life in Shobra was truly splendid and the memories from those days infuse my soul.
Because of such precious personal experiences, I was horrified when the ogre of sectarian strife began to rear its head in the 1970s.
But I made a bet with some friends who, at the time, expected that blight to spread from Al-Zawiya Al-Hamra to Shobra. I had faith in the solidity of the Egyptian national weave. It might sustain some shocks, but its immune system was strong enough to sustain the toughest crises.
I won that bet. But the strife reoccurred. It was obvious that the exploitation of religion for political ends was the root cause. The Islamist movement was being used, at the time, to offset and suppress Nasserist and leftist trends.
As a result, hardline Islamists acquired increasing influence as certain authorities nurtured them and gave them the leeway to do as they pleased. I was aghast at the fanatics who were bussed in on Thursday nights from distant provinces to spend the night in my local mosque in Mohandessin so that they could attend the Friday sermons and prayers led by their charismatic leaders the next day.
This was how those Islamist leaders’ influence spread throughout Egypt.
At the same time, the role of the state as public service provider and caretaker was receding and the Islamists moved in to fill the void, winning another avenue to expand their influence.
They gained huge prestige among the simple poor and underprivileged who found those religious extremists by their side, helping them deal with their day-to-day hardships.
In this manner, the Islamists’ built their popular base which would manifest itself in the 2005 legislative elections and in their ability to hijack the 2011 Revolution for a while.
Although the fight against them began under president Hosni Mubarak, after the open-door policy towards them brought the assassination of president Anwar Al-Sadat, the successes were restricted to the security dimension.
The campaign never extended to the roots — to the houses of worship, the schools and the media. After the overthrow of Mubarak, the sectarian phenomenon increased while the Islamists hijacked the political scene. It was a way to flex muscle and intimidate opponents.
It increased further after the people seized back control over their revolution. This time it was a form of revenge.
In light of the above, I find nothing new in the recent incident in Dimshau Hashim village except in one respect. Such incidents, like their predecessors after the June 2013 Revolution, reflect a significant irony, which is that they occurred under a leadership that introduced a qualitative shift in the approach to handling the sectarian question in Egypt.
To me, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s actions in this regard, which emanate from his proper understanding of the essence of Islam and his deep faith in the true principle of citizenship, are among the most important, if they are not the most important, of his accomplishments for which he will go down in history.
Some people may not appreciate the value of the unity of the Egyptian people and the weight this value carries as a component of Egypt’s strength.
Anyone who does not agree with me, here, only has to take a look around us in this region where they can see the catastrophic effects of the lack of national cohesion.
Unfortunately, a number of institutions have not kept pace with the qualitative shift that the president introduced. The religious establishment has yet to reform its discourse and educational curricula in a manner conducive to the fight against the logic of religious fanaticism and we still hear some Friday sermons that serve the fanatics’ designs.
The government educational establishment has yet to free its curricula of material harmful to national unity. Nor has it added to its curricula the type of material needed to strengthen this unity.
The media establishment has yet to fully undertake its responsibility in this regard while the security establishment has so far not done all it could to pre-empt the destructive acts of extremists.
Therefore, if we want to break the vicious cycle of sectarian strife, it is absolutely essential to close the gap between the outlook and actions of the political leadership and what is happening on the ground.
The biggest irony is that the extremists wreak their destruction in the name of “protecting Islam” whereas their actions are as remote as can possibly be from the text and spirit of Islam.
I should hardly need to remind people that freedom of belief is an authentic principle in Islam as is explicitly borne out by Islamic scriptures.
The Quran also states that the Christians are closer to the Muslims because of the prophet’s marriage to a Copt from Egypt. Indeed, the prophet, himself, said that to harm a Copt is to harm himself personally.
One cannot help but to be struck by the fact that the attacks against Copts always begin with attacks against them while they are performing prayers and religious rites.
Now, if the Lord established the principle of freedom of faith, by what right do a handful of fanatics who distort the meaning of Islam prevent affiliates of the other faiths from exercising their most basic religious rights? How can such people escape justice?
It troubles me that so much of what enlightened people are asking for today are demands decades old. One feels as though state and society are moving as slow as turtles on this critical issue, while their adversaries, the remnants of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organisation, continue to move with persistent stealth. That should make us concerned.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Enhancing Egyptian unity