A solemn winter for the silenced and impoverished minority community of Egypt
Exacerbated by a series of explosions over the long weekend of 9 – 11 December, 2016, Egypt’s endemic state of political unrest continues to plague the country amid growing economic woes. Not only is Egypt currently suffering from the worst economic crisis in decades, the population is also feeling a tremendous hike in prices at the same time as consumers are unable to secure a stable supply of everyday commodities such as sugar. With this political volatility, sectarian tensions seem to be rising again after St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo was targeted earlier this month, which left 25 worshippers, mostly women and children, dead. In the so-called ‘City of a Thousand Minarets’, St Mark’s Cathedral occupies a special place, since it is the seat of Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Copts account for about 10 per cent of the country’s population and are among the oldest Christian communities in the world. The attack on Sunday before last is, thus, a major setback in Egypt’s struggle to steer clear of political revolution and turmoil.
Unfortunately, this was not the only attack on Coptic Christians in recent years. On New Year’s Day in 2011, a bomb went off outside Saints Church in the port city of Alexandria, leaving 23 worshippers dead and wounding more than 90. A string of smaller attacks on Copts across Egypt, often in rural areas, has since reinforced a sense of both resistance and helplessness amid this beleaguered community, which has often been marginalised in the political, societal and economic spheres. While Copts have indeed long been subject to discrimination (sometimes latent and subtle, at other times blatant and lurid), their situation has worsened considerably in the wake of the coup d’état against former president Mohamed Morsi. Because Pope Tawadros sided with the military in 2013, some of Morsi’s supporters and Islamist sympathisers have seen Christians as complicit in, or even collectively responsible for, the ousting of the only democratically elected president in Egyptian history. Of course, the intricacies and vested interests of Egyptian politics are not reducible to mono-causal explanations, but in the often-heated political climate of the Arab world’s most populous country voices of moderation are few and far between.
In the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the country’s political situation has been notoriously unstable, giving rise to sectarian strife (fitna ta’ifiya), causing ubiquitous economic decline and emboldening political hardliners who prefer order and obedience over freedom and individual choice. Apart from Morsi, all Egyptian presidents since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 have had a military background, and either maintained or implemented prerogatives for the country’s armed forces. Since the military has been the main breeding ground for Egypt’s most senior politicians, it is not surprising that most of them would choose a rather heavy-handed approach to such matters as national security or terrorism-related issues.
Apart from small protests, many Copts indeed abstain from large-scale political activism. Journalist and political commentator Mona Eltahaway recently described the precarious position of Copts in Egypt, who continue to trust “that such docility will protect the community from more violence”. But while the regime may welcome a docile Christian community in a country stricken by political unrest and the cumulative effects of decades of economic mismanagement, covert supporters of the former Morsi-led administration may interpret the Copts’ stance as tacit support for the armed forces and their political agenda. As a consequence, the Coptic Christians find themselves between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, politically active Copts may arouse suspicion from various sides; on the other, keeping quiet neither solves the community’s problems nor guarantees its political representation and social visibility.
Despite this rather bleak picture, Coptic life both inside and outside Egypt is more diverse than these stories of marginalisation and gross political calculations may suggest. For example, the late Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922-2016) was a Coptic academic, diplomat and former secretary general of the United Nations (1992-1996). In addition, Naguib Sawiris, together with his brothers Nassef and Samih, not only ranks among Egypt’s most successful businessmen, but is also the founder of Hizb el Masriyin El Ahrar, or Free Egyptians Party. And the surgeon Magdi Yacoub is a world-renowned scientist, who has been at the forefront of cardiothoracic surgery for several decades now.
As these prominent personalities show, Copts are by no means a homogenous group. Just as the trajectories of other ethno-religious minorities, their lives intersect with the complex texture of, and tensions within, the Muslim majority that surrounds them. At the foot of the Mokattam Hills in south-eastern Cairo, there is a toxic shanty town where the Cairo’s rubbish collectors, or zabbaleen, live and work. Ubiquitous, yet hardly ever praised for their essential services rendered to the Egyptian capital, these informal and loosely organised rubbish collectors scour Cairo on a daily basis in their pick-up trucks and donkey-carts before they take their spoils to the so-called City of Rubbish, or Zabbaleen City. In this little-known and impoverished district, Christians comprise roughly 90 per cent of the population, forming a tightly-knit community in which incomes and life expectancies are low. These hardships notwithstanding, the zabbaleen have created lasting monuments to their spirituality and way of life. Hewn into the rocks and caves of Mokattam Mountain, there are several cave churches catering to the inhabitants of the City of Rubbish, as well as attracting tourists to a spot well off the beaten track. Among them is the Monastery of St Simon the Tanner, which is the largest church in the Middle East with a seating capacity of 20,000.
In more ways than one, then, Coptic Christianity is intricately interwoven with Egypt’s pulsating capital and the country as a whole. Though, like the zabbaleen, its adherents may not be among society’s most visible and prominent echelons, it is now high time to recognise their unique presence both inside and outside Egypt.
Image from: http://bit.ly/2irTz6j (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
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