Two Sorrowful Scenes at a Church Funeral

While attending the funeral of my colleague’s aunt at St. Mark’s church in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, a woman in attendance approached me asking if she could ask a question. While I was expecting a question about my position on the course of events of July 3, 2013 and after, this delicate woman’s voice launched accusations at me by posing the question, “Are you sir, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?” a question I denied saying simply, “No ma’am.”

Of course, at this sad moment I didn’t have the chance to exchange words with this woman, or repeat for her some of what I have written on the subject. This includes my objection to the military’s intervention in politics, opposition to the forced dispersal of sit-ins, and condemnation of human rights violations. This is in addition to security measures taken by the state unrelated to political or organizational affiliation. Moreover, I did not have the opportunity to defend democratic and liberal principles, or make clear their moral precedence and real ability to help the state and Egyptian society avoid the risks associated with the acute crises gripping the country.

I didn’t have the chance to explain that the risk of violating rights and disparaging freedoms is that it can turn into an oppressive and exceptional political reality that poses a threat to all citizens, regardless of their opinion or stance. It can also create a stifling community beyond just the current debates for and against the steps taken after July 3. In the absence of justice, when the state, its institutions and agencies are controlled by a ruling elite, the scope and influence of that elite inevitably widens, as those who clap, cheer and remain silent in the face of human rights violations can help perpetuate threats and injustice.

My anger, the result of tyrannical remarks aimed at excluding others, making generalized accusations, and engaging in collective punishment, didn’t allow me to speak to the humanitarian, rational side of this delicate woman. I didn’t have the chance to condemn the catastrophic mistakes made by the Muslim Brotherhood, or emphasize the need to hold accountable those among their ranks who can be proven to have violated the law, or committed or incited acts of violence, through a disciplined and prompt legal process.

I didn’t have the chance to, at the same time, emphasize the riskiness of officially sanctioned forms of violence, or the mistake of violating human rights based on the rule of law, in addition to disparaging the freedoms of those affiliated with a particular group, as some state institutions are currently doing. And my anger didn’t let me truthfully convey my opposition to many of the practices of the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious right in the period starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments held in March 2011, continuing through my rejection of the tyrannical constitutional declaration and 2012 constitution, and ending with my participation in the events of June 30. It appeared however that this woman’s memory had blocked out all of these, as a result of the nonsense spread by “experts” about sleeper cells, a fifth column and others who sought to falsify and attack the public conscience.

The principles of democracy and liberalism as I understand them obligate me to defend the rights and freedoms of those with whom I differ on the religious right, in addition to challenging attempts to dehumanize them, while at the same time enabling them to participate in politics and public life, on the condition that they renounce violence and fully respect peaceful behavior and the rule of law. They must also accept a separation between religion and politics, in addition to religious advocacy and political partisanship, in a way that allows religious identity to serve solely as an intellectual foundation for one’s values. They must stop falsely employing religion for political purposes, a practice contrary to freedom, pluralism, and the decision to grant equal rights to men and women, whether Muslim, Coptic, Jewish, Baha’i, or anything else.

When the church prayers and funeral service ended, and the attendees began to leave, I overheard a discussion between an elderly man and woman. The man, whose face was filled with sadness, said, “Thank God they didn’t shoot at us while we were coming out of the church,” with the old woman adding by way of consolation, “Yes really, we’re all here.”

The semantics surrounding their conversation points to the existence of a painful and dangerous societal and political reality, whose implications go beyond the most recent criminal attack against the Church of the Virgin Mary in Warraq, Giza. This attack was most likely what prompted the statements made by this man and woman. The series of criminal attacks launched after July 3 against Coptic churches, particularly in Upper Egypt, which led to injuries and several deaths, damaged buildings and facilities, pushed hateful sectarian violence to the forefront of society once again, forcing us to recognize and deal with all of society’s deficiencies.

Sectarian incitement and the promotion of inhumane, intolerant statements that belittle the rights and freedoms of Coptic Egyptians and the application of equal citizenship has recently turned into a political act. Parties and organizations of the religious right, and those media outlets affiliated with them, have been complicit in this to varying degrees and in different forms.  These same parties and organizations have engaged in sectarian incitement (against Shi’a), and ideological incitement (against liberals and secular movements). The absence of the rule of law, and the failure to hold accountable via a prompt and disciplined judicial process those who have incited, implemented or justified acts of sectarian violence, is a phenomenon that goes back to the 1970’s. Together, this creates a sick societal state in which acts of sectarian violence are low-cost and easily repeated. This will remain the case as long as the consequences of such attacks are limited to outrage, condemnation and the usual celebrations of national unity. 

Since January 2011, there has been a failure to protect Coptic rights and achieve full equality for men and women. Achieving such rights and equality can only take place through the application of laws and procedures designed to fight discrimination and provide a united legal foundation for the protection of freedoms and religious beliefs (building and repairing places of worship for example). This should be done by clearly employing the principles of equality and criminalizing discrimination, either on the basis of religion or sect, in a way that does not exclude those who are not members of the three major faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism). A string of successive setbacks and frustrations has occurred for Copts – for them specifically but also non-Muslims in general – who, after the January revolution, were more keen on participating in public and political life outside the walls of the church, seeking to engage with political parties and in societal activities.

These frustrations were reflected in decreased levels of Coptic representation in parliament in 2011-2012, a fact which shocked them, along with the rejection of legislative proposals put forth to remove religion from personal ID cards, in addition to a unified law regarding places of worship. The 2012 constitution, which paved the way for the creation of a religious state, did not see a need for affirmative action to increase the number of Copts and other minorities represented within legislative and executive institutions and public agencies. The elected president in 2012 and 2013 did not seek to serve as the president of all Egyptians. The religious right, which was in power between 2012 and 2013, was implicated in terrifying acts of intolerance and sectarian incitement, in addition to the dehumanization of Copts, Shi’a, Baha’i and others. Civil and secular parties and movements were unable during this time to pressure the government for the implementation of true equality. However now, these parties, which now are in charge of amending the constitution, have agreed to exercise a monopoly on Coptic affairs through their religious institutions.

The result has been that pronouncements about Copts’ traditional fear of politics have returned. Their search for security has been guaranteed via the country’s military-security complex, which once again controls the state and public affairs. However this complex will never contribute to the triumph of equal rights and freedoms, or allow for the creation of a civil state or a society based on citizenship, something which we all require for salvation from the current crisis. Indeed, this is a is needed in order to preserve civil peace, live side-by-side, and reclaim our lost humanity.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

This article originally appeared in Shorouk 

Image: Photo: Coptic protest October May 2011 (Maggie Osama)