The recent bombing outside a Coptic church in the Egyptian seaport of Alexandria that claimed 21 lives and 96 injuries sent shock waves throughout Egypt and made headlines around the world.
Much of the global media has limited its interest in the story to the bombing itself and the subsequent angry street protests by Coptic youth; more savvy journalists included some discussion of government negligence and the context of sectarian strife that plagues Egypt today.
Still, an integral part of the story remains untold outside of Egypt: the strong response of everyday Egyptians – Muslims and Copts.
A popular storm of anger, defiance, and national unity is sweeping the country expressed by political leaders, members of the clergy, movie stars, students, and men and women on the street all reiterating one resounding theme: this is an attack against Egypt and all Egyptians.
While sectarian strife – even violence – is a serious problem in this mostly Muslim nation with a sizable Coptic population, Muslims and Copts generally live in peace side by side and have for many centuries.
Egyptians of all stripes seem to concur that the Alexandria bombing – the most serious act of terrorism in a decade – is an attack on the Egyptian way of life with the intent to drive a wedge between faith communities and push the nation into turmoil.
“This is not just an attack on Copts, this is an attack on me and you and all Egyptians, on Egypt and its history and its symbols, by terrorists who know no God, no patriotism, and no humanity,” said Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt.
“This cannot be classified as religious extremism, this can only be classified as religious apostasy,” said sheikh Khaled El Gendy a popular Muslim TV personality. “I do not offer my condolences to Christians, but to all Egyptians and to Egypt, All Copts are Egyptian and all Egyptians are Copts; their places of worship are national places of worship, a bomb that targets them bleeds us all.” A high ranking member of the Coptic clergy who sat beside him echoed his words.
“An act like this is wholly condemnable in Islam. Muslims are not only obligated not to harm Christians, but to protect and defend them and their places of worship,” said Imam Ahmed Al Tayeb the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Egypt’s seat of Orthodoxy.
“Let us hang black flags from our homes and black ribbons on our cars to mourn this cowardly attack against our brothers and sisters, let us send a symbolic message of defiance against those who are trying to divide us”, said a visibly enraged Adel Imam, Egypt’s most popular living actor, a Muslim, and a long time advocate for Coptic rights.
The message was not much different on Egypt’s most watched talk shows that were abuzz with Muslim and Coptic guests in the studios and on the streets, expressing their solidarity with each other and defiance against what they see as a common enemy trying to drive a wedge between Egyptians.
Muslim college students in Alexandria and Cairo have vowed to join Copts at their upcoming Christmas celebrations (January 7th for the Coptic Church). “We will be there with signs bearing the Crescent and the Cross, celebrating with them, standing with them, and falling with them if necessary,” said a young, veiled student leader surrounded by her colleagues.
As an Egyptian, I am as invigorated by the current mood in Egypt as I am distraught by the bombing. However, I pray that this welcome surge of unity and camaraderie is seized and eternalized. I hope that it becomes ingrained into our societal fabric and that it is leveraged to induce long needed reforms.
I agree that an attack such as this has the bearings of Al Qaeda and its imitation groups therefore taking us outside the realm of common sectarian strife and into one of national security; nonetheless, Egyptians should see the current atmosphere of empathy as an opportunity to address Coptic grievances and strive towards a more equal society.
We can no longer deny that since the rise of Muslim extremist ideology in the 1970′s, Egypt’s once exemplary Muslim-Coptic relations has deteriorated significantly.
My father tells me that growing up in the 50′s, he often did not know if one of his friends was a Muslim or Copt except by sheer coincidence, and then when he did it mattered little. This was not my experience growing up in Egypt where my religion teacher made sure to warn me against the “treachery” of my Coptic colleagues.
In the 40′s, no one seemed to care that Naguib El Rihany, Egypt’s then greatest comedian and a national treasure, was a Copt; he was simply Egyptian. Likewise, Copts did not bat an eyelid when Omar Sharif, a Christian, converted to Islam in the 50′s, at the height of his celebrity, a far cry from today’s intense reactions against conversions.
As far back as the 12th century, Egyptian Muslims and Copts fought side by side against the Crusaders, viewed then as a national security threat and not a religious war. Together, they stood tall against British colonialism – a lasting image of the period depicts Muslim sheikhs and Coptic priests marching together side by side and chanting “long live the crescent and the cross!”
One needs not look farther than the Alexandria Church itself to gain a glimpse of the sort of religious cohabitation that is uniquely Egyptian: the church is brightly lit up by flood lights perched up on a Mosque, only 30 feet across the street.
Egyptians are asking today privately and publicly, where has all this gone?
But we need to do more than ask and lament. We need to act.
The post-Alexandria solidarity between Muslims and Copts – the likes of which Egypt has not witnessed in decades – represents a silver lining in Egypt’s dark cloud of sectarian strife and mistrust.
We would be wrong not to acknowledge and applaud it, but equally wrong to settle for it; a silver lining never made for a brighter day.
We need to carry the momentum forward into the realm of real change:
When extremist religious discourse at Mosques (and in Coptic circles) is regularly and unequivocally condemned and countered with a proactive and effective discourse of respectful coexistence, it will be a brighter day.
When Egyptians no longer have to list their faith affiliation on their official government ID’s, it will be a brighter day.
When Copts no longer need a special government decree to build churches (or fix bathrooms in their churches), it will be a brighter day.
When I see talented young Coptic men playing on the Egyptian football national team at a rate proportional to the Coptic talent in my 6th grade class in Cairo, it will be a brighter day.
When the glass ceiling barring Copts from reaching the highest levels of government is shattered, it will be a brighter day.
When Egyptian law, prosecutors, officers, and judges treat Muslims and Copts as merely Egyptians – that is as equal citizens – with merit being the only qualifier, it will be a brighter day.
Given the candid conversations happening all over Egypt today, I believe that a brighter day is within reach. It is up to us “to change this tragedy into an opportunity,” to borrow the words of Sheikh Ali Gomaa.
Clearly, the immediate priority is security, but that must be followed – if not paralleled – with addressing Coptic civic grievances. For this to stand a realistic chance of success, the Coptic cause must become a national cause led and fought for by Muslims under a program of comprehensive civil rights reform.
Ahmed Rehab is a board member of the Egyptian American Society and a co-author and signatory of the Chicago Declaration, a practical document calling for equal treatment of Copts under the law, submitted to the Egyptian government in 2005.