It is not a strange occurrence, and certainly not an emergency, when a quarrel breaks out between followers of different faiths or sects. These incidents occur everyday in areas of cultural diversity, but they can turn into a genuine threat if they are aggravated, or allowed to develop.
Does this description apply to the clashes between the Copts and Islamists in Egypt?
The truth is we do not know the size of the problem, but we can guess that it is fairly limited, because we only hear of a few clashes in an immense society such as Egypt; where 8 million Copts live amongst a population of 80 million. However, our fears must not be allayed by statistical reports, because political problems are not measured by their number or weight, but rather by their effect. Recently, there have been disagreements over a Coptic proposal to turn a community centre into a chapel, demonstrations over missing women who allegedly converted to Islam, and individuals have been killed. This may reflect congestion and tension within Egypt’s religious community, and this has consequences.
The Copts in Egypt are not a minority, as some may brand them; 8 million is a significant number, and thus cannot be treated as a minority. Neither should the Copts be dealt with on the principle of ‘tolerance’, a concept that is widespread these days, and considered an act of ‘good faith’. In fact, during a conference which I attended last week, one Arab Christian described the word tolerance as insulting. There is a clear difference between individual rights and gifts, and between equality and tolerance. To be tolerant with someone suggests that they are wrong, or different, in some way. A Copt in his own country is neither mistaken, nor a stranger, rather he is a citizen like any Muslim.
In order to understand the ongoing disorder in Egypt, we have to look at the larger picture. In its modern context, the Arab state is an institution that is new to both citizens and officials. Numerous nomadic tribes have fought against the concepts of nationality and borders, on the grounds that they are ‘free’ people, who have lived for many centuries moving from one place to another, without passports or identity cards. Their tribal institution is older than the state, in its modern guise. Similarly, the concept of citizenship is still a matter of discussion, owing to the heterogeneity of its categories in terms of subordination, individual rights, and duties. But Egypt is the oldest of all modern state institutions in the Arab world, and it is almost the only Arab state that enjoys homogeneity in its social structure, unlike the situation in states such as Iraq, Lebanon or Algeria.
The sectarian and ideological tension in Egypt is a characteristic of the present-day situation in our region. It is a natural, historical phenomenon, reflecting internal developments. Such tension becomes dangerous if neglected, under the pretext that it is a mere quarrel that happens all the time, or if it is dealt with only through the prism of security. We do not want to overstate the problem, for Egypt is not like Sudan. The Southern Sudanese are a nation with diverse characteristics, whereas the Copts are Egyptians by virtue of their history, ethnicity, and existence. Even the Southern Sudanese had been keen to remain within the framework of a larger Sudan, were it not for the ruling regimes there. The most recent rulers regarded the Southerners as rebels, thus launching a merciless war against them, killing more than a million people. Inevitably, this has inflamed religious and ethnic tensions. It is by no means possible to compare the condition of a Copt in Egypt, to the condition of Christians in Lebanon or Iraq.
The Egyptian government doesn’t need to be told that it would face real danger if the Coptic issue was used against it, either internally by Islamic groups, who do not care for the consequences of stirring up the masses, or by external forces, including Coptic groups seeking to incite civil strife. Thus it is necessary to review the situation carefully, and ‘fill in the gaps’, with regards to how the problem is confronted. We can see how quickly news of missing Muslim converts, or an unlicensed church construction, can transform into wider political disagreements. One way in which to ‘fill in the gaps’, in terms of confronting the problem, would be to abolish religious identity cards. What is the use of categorizing citizens, according to their religious identity, if the Egyptian regime refuses to discriminate between them in the first place?