By Mohammed Kheir
Cairo, (Al-Akhbar): Al-Akhbar examines how the Egyptian constitution’s sponsoring of Sunni Islam as the official state religion is just one among many of the country’s sectarian benchmarks.
“Dozens of female students living on the al-Azhar University campus in Assiut protested one of their colleagues’ Shia conversion.” This was part of a news item published in the Egyptian al-Shorouk newspaper this April, under the title, “A Student Accused of Converting to Shia Islam Referred to Investigation and the Dismissal of the Campus Director in al-Azhar Assiut.”
From the title, it seems that the administration has taken a decisive stand against the student’s alleged conversion to Shia Islam. In the past, such allegations would have been something like “spreading the Shia confession” or “collaboration with Iran.” However, under the new Egyptian constitution, the accusations can go even further.
The current constitution – unlike previous versions – did not stop at declaring that “Islam is the religion of the state.” The newly added Article 220 considered that “interpreting Sharia [Islamic jurisprudence]” should be based on “eminent sources of Ahl al-Sunna wal Jamaa.” This means that Egypt has been transformed from a “Muslim” state into a “Sunni” state. So it should not come as a surprise that belonging to another denomination is now an accusation.
It has been a long journey for Egypt since its first constitutional drafting committee in 1923. It had 30 members, including six Christians and a Jew, and embodied the spirit of “national unity” sought by the 1919 revolution with its famous slogan “Religion is for God; the Homeland is for All.”
However, the committee was not to the Wafd party’s liking and was named the “rascals committee” by Egyptian revolutionary and, later, prime minister Saad Zaghloul. The Liberals criticized the designation of an official state religion.
Although the formulation of “Islam is the state religion” was in the later sections of the first constitution, it started to morph from one constitution to another, until it became the second article. Then the phrase “the doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna wal Jamaa” was added, under the current rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which is facing escalating sectarian strife.
On 7 April 2013, something happened for the first time in Egyptian history. Security forces attacked the St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, which was holding a funeral for the victims of a recent sectarian incident in al-Khosous, north of the city.
The police attacked the mourners to stop them from marching and in response to chants against the “rule of the Murshid,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, leading to another fatality. In protest, Coptic Pope Tawadros II announced he would go into seclusion.
Historical Exile from Egypt
It seems that the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood comes as a culmination of the simmering sectarian anxieties witnessed in Egypt in the past years. The Brotherhood, which is sectarian by nature, perceives its adversaries as sects, instead of political formations or parties. They do not see them as leftists or liberals, for example, but as “Christians,” “Ultras,” or “Baltagia,” meaning thugs.
It is a desperate situation, compared to what historians termed “Cosmopolitan Egypt.” The country began losing its diversity in increments, beginning with the 1948 war with Israel and the displacement of Egyptian Jews, partly as a result of Brotherhood attacks, the most famous of which was the bombing of the Jewish Quarter in Cairo in May 1948. The July 1952 Revolution led by Gamal Abdul-Nasser accelerated the immigration of Egyptian Jews.
Then came the Tripartite Aggression by Britain, Israel, and France during the 1956 Suez War and the policy of nationalization, which led expat communities, such as the Greeks and the Armenians, to leave the country, taking with them an important part of religious and confessional diversity.
The Christians, who barely survived the Nasser era, began to suffer under his successor Anwar Sadat and the beginning of the era of Islamist movements. The “pious president” adjusted the “Islam is the state’s religion” clause by adding the phrase, “The principles of Islamic Sharia are one of the main sources of legislation.” In 1980, it became “the” main source of legislation.
It is not a surprise then that Sadat era began with al-Khanka events of 1972 and ended with the events of al-Zawya al-Hamra in 1981, two events that epitomized the Brotherhood’s antagonistic attitude toward the Copts. During his last days, before his assassination, the dispute between Sadat and Coptic Pope Shenouda III reached the extent of the president ordering the cleric sequestered in Wadi el-Natrun, the desert monastery northwest of Cairo.
The two major strifes that opened and closed the Sadat era turned into a flood of sectarian battles and aggression under his successor. The open conflict between Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the Islamist groups was fueled by fatwas, such as those that allowed killing Coptic jewelers and robbing them to fund jihad.
Mubarak defeated Islamist groups through security, but lost the battle of ideas. Wahhabi Islam began to spread inside the country, with tremendous support from the Saudis. It was promoted by Salafi preachers who had been employed by Mubarak’s security against the Brotherhood. The Salafis’ success in their mission was greater than expected, even inside the Brotherhood, where Salafi became the most prominent current, according to a study by late historian Hossam Tammam entitled “Salafization of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
However, whether influenced by Sayyid Qutb or Wahhabi Salafism, the Brotherhood continues to oppose the modern state as an institution that equates between citizens. It rejects the essence of democracy as a process that equates between Muslims and Christians or men and women, which contradicts the traditional religious hierarchy. The hegemony of fundamentalist ideas only triggered further strife and more attacks against “the others,” no matter who they are: Copts, tourists, or intellectuals.
January 25 Revolution Fails Christians
The January 25 Revolution erupted under the specter of continuing sectarian tensions, last of which was the 2011 New Year’s Eve bombing against the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria. The social uprising against the regime temporarily reduced the tensions. However, the Brotherhood’s quick rise in politics and their early campaign for an “Islamic constitution,” raised tensions.
Several incidents contributed to this rise, such as the destruction of the church in the village of Atfih in Helwan in March 2011 and the Maspero incident in November 2011, where dozens of Christians were killed by the police outside the Egyptian television building in downtown Cairo.
This succeeded in shutting the door of Christian openness to the revolution and led the majority to support the presidential candidacy of former regime figure Ahmed Shafik against the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. But Shafik lost and the Christians found themselves facing the unknown.
They were not alone, though, as the new constitution only recognized monotheistic religions. The hopes of Bahais dissipated in regaining the right to register their religion in their identification documents. Nubians were shocked at statements by Brotherhood leader Essam al-Erian celebrating the “Nubian expatriate community” in Egypt.
Egyptian Shias, the majority of whom are Twelvers, began facing increasing pressures, due to the ambiguous relationship between the Brotherhood and Iran. Salafis began a campaign against normalizing relations, leading to the retreat of the government. This meant that the Brotherhood will remain within the boundaries of US “moderation,” of which Mubarak was a major symbol, with the additional bonus of becoming friends with Qatar and ending the past animosity.
However, this “moderation” is only one of the features that the Brotherhood has in common with the former regime. Just like Mubarak, it organized a “customary reconciliation” to end the recent strife in al-Khosous. But the television kisses between the sheikh and the priest does not cancel out the seven killed in the incident, one Muslim and six Copts, whose blood remains like coals under the ashes, awaiting the next strife.
92,600 Mosques and 3,126 Churches
According to Egypt’s Church Guide, there are 2,626 churches in Egypt, 1,326 Orthodox and 1,100 Protestant, and 200 Catholic. However, researchers like Barrister Hussein Abu Issa say that there are a further 500 churches functioning under the name of Coptic associations, which brings the total to 3,126 churches.
Coptic affairs expert Yusuf Ramez also indicates an additional 21 monasteries with around 2,100 monks and nine convents with around 600 nuns, all belonging to the Orthodox church.
On the other hand, there are around 92,600 mosques, according to official statistics. Of which, 64,676 are under the supervision of the Ministry of Awqaf, or religious endowments.
Between April 2011 and April 2013, around 59 Copts were killed, including 28 in Maspero; four in Abu Qurqas in Upper Egypt; six in Imbaba in Cairo; 12 in Manshiet Nasser in Cairo; one in Libya; one in Dahshour in Giza; and seven in Khosous. This is an average of two killed and 18 injured every month, added to the pillaging of 114 homes, in 580 sectarian incidents since 1972.