“Say oh Hussein, Say oh Bulus, Tomorrow Egypt will follow Tunis”- was a chant commonly heard in the streets of Egypt in the weeks leading up to the fall of Mubarak on the 11th February. The two names, Hussein and Bulus are telling- both are commonly found in Egypt although the former isalmost exclusively a Muslim name, while the later is a Coptic one. Despite the different religions, the chant had a clear aim; it created a national narrative of unity with the common Muslim and Coptic principle of liberating Egypt from Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorship.
While this chant may be an exaggeration- it serves an important function; it highlights the embedded narrative since the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 of a unified and united Egyptian nation, no matter what. This was highlighted best following the horrific bombing of the al-Qidassayan Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day. The attack saw the death of over 20 Copts and shocked Egyptian society to the core. Muslims went out into the streets holding crosses and vowed to attend Coptic Christmas eve mass on the 6th January as a sign of solidarity. This symbolic gesture, while incredibly moving, still does not however address the deep rooted problems that mark religious relations in Egypt despite the rhetoric.
While 40% of the Egyptian population lives on less than $2 a day, irrespective of religious affiliation, members of the Coptic community face further hardships. Discrimination, particularly in the field of public sector employment is widespread and long-founded. Moreover, the right to repair or build churches requires signed permission from the President himself.
The Egyptian state is clearly an actor. While in part it sanctions discrimination, it has also refusedto engage with reality in fear for opening much deeper socio-political issues. On 6th January 2010 a shooting outside the Naga Hammadi Church in Upper Egypt left 6 people dead. The official state response was that this was an anomalous event and that there were no problems between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.
In recent years, there have also been increased claims that Coptic girls have been forced to convert and marry Muslims. Last year, the case of a priest’s wife, Camelia Shehata, who was allegedly forced to convert to Islam gripped Egyptian media. In cases like this, heightened tensions, as well as state obligations to prevent total descent in to sectarianism, often hinder a meaningful investigation taking place. For instance, questions need to be asked concerning the role of Islamist activities in Egypt. Equally though, the Coptic Church’s refusal to sanction divorce and protect the rights of abused women must also be considered. Conversion to Islam is often regarded as a solution to a bad marriage by Coptic women since Islam prohibits a Muslim woman from being married to a non-Muslim.
The real test for a new Egyptian government in the post-Mubarak euphoria of a ‘new Egypt’, will be to see whether Egyptian unity goes beyond lip-service equality and change.
Dr Vivian Ibrahim is a Senior Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies(SOAS), University of London. She is author of “The Copts of Egypt: Challenges of Modernisationand Identity” IB Tauris, 2011.