A few weeks before the burning of the church in the village of Soul and the protest by Egyptian Copts at Maspero holding up the cross, a reader called Megalli Gerges wrote a letter stating: “We are here… we are the Copts!” In it, he highlighted the pressing issues facing Egypt after the January 25 Revolution: “Creating a democratic political system and a civic state which is neither military nor religious, starting with a new constitution which protects without exclusion the right of citizenship, including the rights and freedoms as well as political, economic, social and cultural rights.”
Without detracting from the role of domestic and foreign forces in launching a counter-revolution by instigating a security vacuum, the mayhem of professional rights, institutional turmoil and intimidation by thugs, I reiterate that undermining the rights of citizenship was the primary reason behind Egypt’s revolution of dignity on 25 January. The revolution symbolised Egyptian national unity and, after the youth launched it, the people embraced it and the army protected it.
Continuous attempts to ignite sectarian strife since the launch of the revolution can be explained by what Egyptian Christians believe to be detraction from citizenship rights or threats against them, which is based in some truth but also much malicious agitation. There is also the ideology of political Islamist groups who want a Caliphate nation and the rule of the clergy, although these calls are confronted by an obstinate wall of national unity which has been impenetrable throughout Egypt’s centuries’ old history.
No doubt, the decision by the Egyptian Armed Forces to rebuild the Soul church on the same site is a definitive step towards building a state of co-existence, and so is its dialogue with representatives of Egypt’s Copts, proving it was not biased towards political Islamist forces when forming the committee on constitutional amendments. It also means that creating an Egyptian state of co-existence and protecting the country’s national unity requires the new Political Parties Law to be firm in banning parties that are based on religion, promote a theocracy, undermine the principles of a civic state or do not recognise all citizenship rights outright.
Safeguarding Egypt’s national democratic revolution requires researchers, intellectuals, thinkers, media figures and teachers to fight ignorance about the foundation of Egyptian national unity, which is something I attempted to do before the revolution. In an article entitled ‘Religion is for God and the Nation is for Everyone is the foundation of Egypt’s composition’, published in Al-Ahram on 3 March, 2010, I stated that “the great slogan of Egyptians which states ‘Religion is for God; the Nation is for Everyone’ was not born during the 1919 Revolution, but was the basis of the formation of Egypt more than 5,000 years ago when Egyptians – despite varying beliefs – established the first central state and nation in history.
“Accepting and respecting the other who embraces a different religion was the axis of unity between Upper and Lower Egypt, or what the Founding Fathers called the two regions, or two lands. This acceptance and respect of the other was demonstrated by building temples and worshiping each other’s gods across the country. Despite the multitude of beliefs in Ancient Egypt, the united crown of both regions in Egypt remained in place, and the co-existence of these multiple worshippers was the strong foundation which maintained Egypt’s unique political, national and cultural unity.”
Both the Muslim and Christian youths of the January 25 Revolution should keep three truths in mind, as should all the people who embraced the revolution. First, that only the ignorant would deny that the principles and goals of religions were, are and will always be at the core similar to the values of Egyptians before and after they became Muslims and Christians. This is acceptable in creating political parties since the revolution, but not the notion of a religious state. This is an alien idea to Egypt, and so is the rule of the clergy or ruling in the name of religion, except in Pharaonic times during the 21st Dynasty when the priests of Ancient Egypt ruled in the name of Amon Ra from Tiba (modern Luxor). This is known in the Christian West as the rule of ‘Divine Authority’ and in Iran as the rule of the clergy.
Egypt has been familiar with religion, its values and principles, since the dawn of history when Egyptians believed in creation, accountability and fear of God thousands of years before mainstream religions. It was in Egypt, which embraced Christianity, that the Church of Alexandria was a pioneer and bastion of national resistance against Roman occupation. After the Arabs invaded Egypt, Al-Azhar was established in Cairo, becoming a beacon of defence against the Crusader and Mongol invasions.
Second, our judgment of Egypt’s rulers should be based on how well or poorly the nation fares, and how much justice or injustice the people are exposed to, whether Egyptians themselves or other peoples. The
Egyptian nation was formed and its national and political unity was undivided for thousands of years with only a few exceptions, because ‘Religion is for God; the Nation is for Everyone’ was at the core of its composition since the beginning of civilisation until today’s revolution.
There were many expressions of national unity at Tahrir Square despite sectarian tensions which preceded the revolution, and despite attempts to hijack the revolution by using slogans which divide rather than unite.
We must always remember that the future Egypt, which is taking shape in front of our eyes, will not rise unless it is based on the principle of co-existence. Without this guiding principle, countries such as Iraq and Sudan have disintegrated while others are also threatened with division.
The third fact is that Egypt is unfamiliar with religious fanaticism. It is neither accustomed to bloody religious wars or sectarian massacres, such as those witnessed in Europe, nor inquisitions. Although religious discrimination and vilification are rare, they came from abroad and were quickly rejected, as noted by Al-Aqqad in his book about Saad Zaghloul. He first points to the period of religious discrimination during early
Christianity and the second during Shiite rule during the Fatimid era which eventually died out.
Ka’b Al-Ahbar wrote that Egypt is a country exempt from strife and that multiple religions precluded religious fanaticism, since they came and went and ended with co-existence, making religious tolerance an essential value. Although national crises are a harsh litmus test of national unity, the Copts have proven that even if they are no more Egyptian by ethnicity than most Muslims, they are no less Egyptian in their patriotic sense.
According to Gamal Hemdan, the author of The Personality of Egypt, Egypt’s sectarian problems were in the past only created or promoted by occupiers and, contemporarily, are the byproducts of decades of political breakdown and corruption.