Several thousand Egyptian Christians demonstrated outside the television building in central Cairo and closed down one of the big Nile bridges on Monday night. The background is a sad story which began with a romance between a young Coptic man and a young Muslim woman, which escalated into communal strife and ended with an attack on a church, which was set on fire. Al Ahram Online
has a detailed account. It’s quite a setback for the communal harmony we saw during the revolution, when Muslims and Christians made a deliberate effort to work together to bring down President Hosni Mubarak. Many Egyptians concluded at the time that the old regime had deliberately enflamed sectarian tensions to set Egyptians against each other rather than against the regime. Ministry of Interior documents, which may in fact be hoaxes or forgeries, have been circulating that suggest that the ministry had a role in the bombing of the church in Alexandria in the early hours of January 1 this year. A retired police general examined one such document on OTV a few days ago and declared it to be a fabrication, but few people at the time believed the government when it blamed the Gaza-based Army of Islam for the bombing. Hopefully the truth will out when prosecutors shift through all the State Security documents which they are examining. One of the slogans of the revolution was ‘dawla madaniya’ (a civil(ian) state) and enlightened Egyptians interpret that to mean a state where all Egyptians (whether born to Muslim or Christian families) have equal rights to choose their own religion, to marry anyone they choose and to build places of worships by the same rules. But resistance to ‘secularism’ is still strong and the term is still widely misunderstood. In this context, note what the new foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi, wrote in El-Shorouk
(Arabic only) shortly before he was appointed. The crucial passage reads:
We are at the start of a new phase in which Egypt should enjoy prudent governance which brings about sound democracy, respect for human rights and equality for all without any discimination. What is required is to establish a modern secular state governed by laws which apply to all, and this requires repealing the enormous quantity of laws drafted by what are called the ‘law tailors’ over the past years. The constitutional legal framework which has governed Egypt for the past 50 years must be reviewed thoroughly, seriously and transparently.
But several of the commentators on Arabi’s remarks express alarm at the word ‘secular’, which one interprets as ‘denial of religion’. Another says the reference to secularism is ‘disappointing’.
The Christian demonstrators were overtly critical of the army, saying it failed to intervene to protect their church or the Christian villagers. One of the main chants last night was ‘Ya mushir, ya mushir, saakit leeh?’ (Field marshal, field marshal, why are you silent?). The field marshal is Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council which has been governing Egypt since February 11.