Egypt after the shock

Hassan Abou Taleb , Wednesday 5 Jan 2011

The bloodshed in Alexandria was not sectarian - it was national, bringing our country's flaws and problems to the fore. Where do we go from here?

Egypt is going through a delicate period these days. The New Year's Eve terrorist attack was not only a shattering moment for the country's Chritians but also for every person living here. The explosion not only destroyed the Saints Church and part of the neighbouring mosque and property, it also generated an avalanche of sorrow, pain and questions.

This was an attack that could have been seen on the horizon and that we had hoped would fail. Yet, it did not, shattering with it the hopes that the new year would bring forth genuine new beginnings. By doing so, it reminded us that there remain many unresolved issues which must be addressed quickly and adamantly. We have no more time to waste on contemplating our options – time is quickly running out.

Now we must ask: Where does Egypt go from here? Though a simple enough question, it symbolizes the multi-faceted crisis that our nation is in.

In the aftermath of the bloodshed, we are witnessing different challenges merge and combine, to include terrorism, religious fanaticism, sectarian tensions, foreign threats to national unity, and the shortcomings of the political process.

Our challenges go beyond the church bombing and the cold-blooded murder of civilians. And it is essential that every Egyptian and Arab citizen realize that the targets of the attack were Egypt, its national security and its entire population – Christian and Muslim.

Targeting from abroad exploits all of Egypt's flaws by taking advantage of mistakes that have been made and manipulating both real and imagined tensions. The country therefore faces an immense challenge and it will not survive it if the current status quo continues, providing for only the narrow interests of a certain party or a group. To overcome this critical predicament, we must rely on all Egyptians to take up significant action to relentlessly address past and present mistakes and flaws.

The attack in Alexandria cannot pass quietly, and its aftermath cannot be limited to the realm of security measures set to discover the identity of the perpetrators. This situation requires a comprehensive formula that is not acrimonious, reactionary, or dismissive – on which the entire country unanimously agrees. We have often called on the wise to conduct an incisive dialogue to benefit the country, and now is again the time to demand this.

Egypt is in need of new perspective. For quite some time now there has been talk about gradual reform and transformation towards democracy, but, in truth, Egypt is maintaining an extended interim period. This must cease, putting an end to instability that has plagued the country's policy, political parties, elections, economy and society, and mollifying the volatile relationship between the nation's different components.

One asks where Egypt is today, after 25 years of gradual reform. What gains have been achieved and what more can be expected? There is no alternative but to discuss these issues transparently and responsibly. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, but rather complimentary. Transparency without responsibility is dangerous and may spark extremism, doubt and despair. This is already the case with many segments of Egyptian society, among both the poor and the wealthy.

An immense problem Egypt faces today it that of national unity, or lack thereof. In its modern history, there have been two unrelenting core issues which can be neither ignored, not dealt with lightly. They require constant awareness, a high sense of responsibility and rational, impartial action. First is the issue of water and relations with Nile Basin states. Second are national unity and the ties between the two components of society – Muslims and Christians.

The second issue is especially worrisome because of conflicting feelings about who is responsible for the tensions and the altercations between the two groups. These agitations are portrayed by some inside Egypt and many abroad as the persecution of a minority group by the majority, and as a state going up against a group of its citizens. These images are exploited by those who call for foreign interference and for wielding pressure on the government and on the country as a whole. These images come about as a result of the state's obstinacy in dealing with the Coptic community in general, as with specific cases such as church construction. These claims are sometimes exaggerated or intentionally misleading. Conversely, there are those who believe that the state is negligent and not firm enough in its dealings with eruptions caused by hot tempers or pre-meditation.

Either way, there remains little room for mature and rational solutions, leading to a situation in which the country undergoes volatile periods, affecting its march towards the future and undermining its credibility. This state leaves the door wide open to threats and terrorism such as the recent attack in Alexandria, which injured Muslims and Christians alike.

The bombing allowed religious and political institutions abroad to have the audacity to call for direct action to protect Christians in Egypt and the Middle East. It was also a pretext for those who demand guardianship for all Egyptians, as if we were back to the detested colonial era. Additionally, it gave weight to imperialist ideas about the clash of civilization and the clash of Muslims and Christians across the country.

Transparency and responsibility require that we admit that there are many who are responsible for this reality – politicians, clerics, activists, media people, official institutions and others in civil society – who are sometimes negligent in their duty to deal with such a sensitive and vital issue. But it cannot be neglected or dealt with causally, or be used as a tool for incitement and instability for the sake of insincere and temporary adulation.

There is much ignorance and brazenness in dealing with this matter. Some people carelessly and unnecessarily stir up passions, while other parasites and schemers pounce on the current state so as to secure gains that would otherwise be unattainable. These are irresponsible acts which tempt opportunists to execute their terrible deeds against the country, as they did in Alexandria.

There is a burden on security agencies, leaders, decision makers and clerics to lead us out of this predicament; if they do not, the price will be too high. National unity is besieged with trouble and social problems, which are present in every home in Egypt, irrespective of creed or beliefs.Unjust distribution, which all Egyptians feel, does not distinguish between Muslims and Copts; unemployment invades every household; poverty is evenly dispersed among everyone; and the urge by the young to leave the country is not specific to any religion or creed.

The Alexandria bombing did not distinguish between Muslims and Christians either; out of the 22 killed, 13 were Muslims. This symbolizes that the combined blood of Egyptians should confront terrorism. But we must be cautious of overreacting, disrespecting the state and its symbols, dismissing all that unites us, or acting as if this was a sectarian attack rather than a terrorist one.

All this, combined with the shameless violations seen in the recent parliamentary elections, explain, to some extent, Egypt's image abroad. In the Arab and international consciousness, Egypt is a big and influential country that has been a leader in the region throughout history. But that is not the case today. Anyone who participates in academic conferences about the region or reads what is written in the world media will find the truth quite disturbing.

There is a great need for domestic reform in order to correct Egypt's image abroad. Many reports about Egypt are pessimistic and aggressive, and express concern about the future of Egypt and the entire region. The image of Egypt which is touted by despicably influential international media organizations is a combination of political and intellectual extremism, and lack of confidence in the country, its institutions, government and policies. It is also portrayed as a country with fragmented national unity, stunted political movement, token opposition and disconnect between political parties and the people. Even if many of these claims are untrue, that is the image which every Egyptian must prove is incorrect through diligent work, not just disgust and finger pointing.

I believe this image will not change the reality. Are there any challengers?


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