Sunday, June 08, 2008

Walled communities

It feels like strange times at the moment in Egypt, and has done ever since Mahalla. It feels as if something major is going to happen. The best way to describe it is the feeling you get when someone gives you video footage to watch which you know in advance contains a disaster of some kind, and you spend the entire duration of the video waiting for it, with a knot in your chest.

Everything just seems a little tenser than usual, or maybe it’s just me reacting to the heat which has arrived and which as usual feels like someone has put a paper bag over my head while painting me with warm, sticky syrup. I spent yesterday morning sitting in my own sweat outside a courthouse when the security guards decided that journalists wouldn’t be allowed in to attend the four editors (Ibrahim Eissa et al) trial. A beefy-looking bloke in too-tight jeans and pointed shoes who looked like he’d headed straight to work from a Sa3d el Soghayyar video shoot refused to let us in. He was polite, for once. Another, older, bloke took his job so seriously that he prevented an eight year old boy carrying a backpack from entering the courthouse. The boy came back with his father – who had that unusual burgundy skin colouring – and they again attempted to enter. ‘Ta3limaat’ [instructions] the bloke barked at them, shooing them away. The father stared at the security man with his mouth open before looking down at his son – who was staring intensely up at him – and then conceded defeat.

I was let in eventually, but only after they had established about 45 times that I did not have a camera on my person. When I went upstairs I found a Dostoor photographer physically fighting with the security guard at the court’s door. The photographer objected to the security guard’s grasping of his arm and kept trying to shake himself free, nearly punching me in the process, which was exciting.

The trial was adjourned until the 21st June, when three witnesses will give testimony for the defence. Eissa’s in court today, too, again on the Orwellian charges related to article 188 (publishing false news of a nature to upset national stability) and his lawyers think that a verdict in the appeal will be pronounced during this hearing. They’re not optimistic.

Elsewhere, the media has given much attention to the sectarian war which they allege has broken out in Egypt. I was particularly incensed by the coverage of the Zeitoun incident (a Christian jewellery shop owner and three employees shot dead by unknown assassins who burst into the shop). Much was made of the fact that the man targeted was Christian, and that apparently nothing was stolen. That 1. we know nothing about the gunmen’s identity and 2. Sometimes businessmen make dodgy deals which end up messily are both apparently unimportant factors.

Luckily the monastery wall business in Minya came along and vindicated the rumour-mongers. Umm Nakad was in Minya last year for work and I remember her coming back and telling us about the squabbling. But when does a fight over a wall stop being a property dispute and assume a sectarian character? Is any confrontation between a group of Muslims and a group of Christians sectarian in the Egyptian context?

I was once invited on a church trip by a Christian friend of mine and we went to a church built in the middle of (the rapidly disappearing) nowhere on the Suez Road. The priest there told us the story of a (Christian) teenage boy who had, he said, been killed as he stood in front of a government bulldozer (another dispute over land rights) where we stood in the grounds of the church. I remembered him when Ali Mobarak (killed by the police while standing in his balcony in Mahalla).

This isn’t to say that discrimination at the government level and inter-communal tension do not exist here, because clearly they do. My mother gave me a sort of picture fact-book on Egypt and its history when I was a kid which emphasised the inter-denominational harmony which has reigned in Egypt for thousands of years. My mother’s own experiences in her 1950s/1960s post-revolution Egypt confirmed this. It seems then that the upper class rallied together regardless of religion and that it was how you paid, rather than how you prayed, which counted.

I was shocked when I moved here and discovered the divisions between Muslim and Christian – which are mostly the product of unfamiliarity. Yes of course some Christians have Muslim friends and vice versa but there seem to be great swathes of the population where no such mixing takes place. A Muslim ex-colleague of mine at a place I worked was once sent on a work assignment with another, Christian, colleague. She came back from the task starving hungry, explaining that there were no food outlets in the area they were in but that the Christian colleague had offered her some of his own food.

“I declined,” she told me, and I asked her why.

“Well is it not true that Christians make the sign of the cross over the food they eat?” she replied.

I’ve encountered incidents like this loads of times, Christians who have never had a Muslim friend, and Muslims to whom Christians are a slightly menacing enigma.

I’m happy to report the good news the two ex work colleagues subsequently ended up going out together (i.e. holding hands in his car) for a while, and my ex colleague spent six months reporting to me that regardless of religious denomination, all men are bastards.

The saddest thing about these divisions is that they deflect attention from the fact that religion is mostly immaterial when it comes to getting stepped on and screwed over in Egypt. But maybe that’s the point.


ramy said...

"But when does a fight over a wall stop being a property dispute and assume a sectarian character?"

- When the wall in question is being built by a group of people who are symbolic of the Coptic faith, and when this is dealt with without due sensitivity and understanding of the Copts.
- When monks are trying to build the wall as a result of the authorities persistently turning a blind eye to repeated requests for protection.
- When this kind of incident occurs repeatedly over many years, that is, the targeting of monks, monasteries, and churches.
- When the monks in question--and I have no reason to disbelieve them--allege that they were kidnapped and forced to spit on their crosses and proclaim the "shehada".

"Is any confrontation between a group of Muslims and a group of Christians sectarian in the Egyptian context?"

No. But just because a rogue is an indiscriminate rogue, does not mean that a rogue cannot discriminate.

Forsoothsayer said...

i believe that some christians do make the sign of the cross over their food. whether or not this should prevent a non-christian from eating it is another matter. but people ARE offensively ignorant. but i still think how people pay is more important than how they pray - provided that what they pay are large sums. the alleged middle class is exclusionist as shit. every story i hear about Muslims and Christians sitting together at ahwas is tinged with too-eager assertions that "why, i even go to his house! with his family!" Even.
it throughly incenses me that no one ever, as u pointed out, tries to find out the pertinent facts before shouting and pointing fingers. there are plenty of opportunities for judicious finger pointing, but at least let's ask the questions!

Will E. said...

I don't think that just because there is tension between the government and people, and tension between rich and poor and tension between christians and muslims we should put them all in one batch just because most people are getting screwed over.

Each on its own is a sign to something more serious. But each one happens in certain circumstances for different reasons. In the 1950s/1960s christians were never allowed to hold any key positions btw, and the absence of one kind of tension doesn't eliminate the other, that's what I'm trying to say.

In answer to your question as to when a conflict between a christian group and a muslim group becomes unrelated to religion, it would be when those group of people resent each other for personal reasons rather than religious and cultural.

Amnesiac said...

Hmm. I would still argue that the meaning/causes/significance of a Muslim-Christian confrontation is not always this straightforward.

For example. On Monday a group of Christian shebab announced a demo (on Facebook, where else)protesting against discrimination and the Minya events etc.

They announced on FB that the meeting point would be in hadaye2 el zeitoun metro, and that they would then march to the nearby Sayyed 3adra Church.

As is to be expected, about 20 of them were arrested in the metro, and the protest never happened.

Ostensibly this is an example of a state suppressing the freedom of expression of a minority group. That entrenched discrimination against this minority group in the form of the Haymonic laws exists would only seem to cement this impression.

But is it still faith-based discrimination when we remember that the state tends to have an adverse reaction to any social-networking tool based mass activity? (see: Ahmed Maher, April 6th)

OF COURSE Christians (and all minority religions) are discriminated against in Egypt, both at the state level and in everyday life. That wasn't my point. I wanted merely to suggest that the innate sensitivity of the subject perhaps make us leap to the conclusion that any Muslim-Christian confrontation is linked to religion.

Will E: What if a man from France builds a wall (in Zanzibar) which his neighbour, who is from Angola, claims is on his land/restricting his light or whatever and complains.

Things get acrimonious and insults fly and in the middle of it all the Angolan lets loose an insult related to France. Is this a race-based incident?

(In this example it is assumed that the state has not intervened in favour of either party, btw).

ramy said...

"OF COURSE Christians (and all minority religions) are discriminated against in Egypt ..."

That's all I needed to hear, Amnesiac.

I take your point, and I agree. But for a moment, and please don't be offended, I felt that the question you asked was itself deflecting from the heart of the issue. Your blog was probably an eddy in your stream of thoughts so I suppose I misunderstood.

I thought about the example you mentioned (FB Christian demo) and it occurred to me that Forsoothsayer's opinion would be valuable, looking at it from a lawyer's perspective. Surely you have views about this as well since you are an intimate eye witness. I am not sure myself. Each case will be different. I imagine, as a journalist, your job is similar to a lawyer's who must determine the facts. But even when the facts are known, those involved must be heard to determine individual culpability.

Just thinking ... discrimination could be both generic and specific at the same time. It is generic in it's potential; an institutionalized, legalized, policy driven, military abuse of power. It becomes very specific and exclusionary when acted out. Those who suffer are those without a link with power, the disadvantaged, the weak ... children, women, the disabled, the ill, the poor, Christians, whatever. They would not be discriminated against if they were not any of these things (or combination). I think in a civilized society, these minorities ought to be discriminated *for* since they are by default at a disadvantage. For example, having pavements that are not 3 metres high so that the young, the old and the weak can get on them! To do this I suppose each case must be argued specifically. Your point about the government's blanket suppression is a valid one, but maybe academic or legalistic .. dunno .. unless you're advocating the unthinkable.