The Abu Fana monastery crisis, albeit recently solved, has noticeably produced a number of negative repercussions on Muslim-Christian relationships in Egypt. Among them, the controversial lecture given by Coptic Orthodox bishop Thomas at Houston Center in the United States and the picture is looking more complicated. A conflict over a piece of land has turned to be an identity question, as bishop Thomas presented in his lecture, describing Egyptian identity as the only patriotic one and vigorously criticizing what he described as the Islamization of Egypt.
Settled three months after Bedouin Arabs attacked the Upper Egyptian monastery, the issue has created a hideous image of sectarianism in which Copts protest inside, and demonstrate outside Egypt, while an increasing portion of ordinary Muslims started to buy the argument propagated by political Islamist groups that Copts have been capitalizing on the alleged US-led global war on Muslims and Arabs to garner advantages they don t really deserve.
Apart from this argument, the sectarian sphere in Egypt has undoubtedly gained more ground, especially among ordinary Egyptians, who have historically coexisted peacefully.
Although the problem persists, all parties involved still want to solve it through negotiations rather than implementing the law. This is a real predicament. Since sectarian clashes began in Egypt in the early 1970s, the government and its agencies have reached a conclusion is that these clashes should be addressed through informal negotiations between conflicting Muslims and Christians instead of applying the law.
As a consequently, reaching a deal through negotiations has become more difficult because parties involved in these informal negotiations have gained experience in bargaining skills.
We can bargain over commercial deals, but can citizenship rights be negotiable in any society?
To be a good negotiator, at least theoretically, you have to effectively use the bargaining chips in hand. Because the government and the church’s top clergy know in advance that any sectarian dispute would be addressed at the end through informal negotiations, they make sure that while the issues reach their climax on the outside, horse trade negotiations are made under the table. The sophisticated situation in Abu Fana can be easily understood through this prism. Expatriate Copts demonstrate in Western capitals against what they describe as Persecution of Christians in Egypt. Officials and government-owned newspapers, by contrast, have launched a campaign against “Coptic Activists in the Diaspora, accusing them of being puppets at the hands of Western powers, which direct them in a way that causes harm to national interests. The church’s top clergymen are also blamed by the same people, for their lenient position vis-a-vis the activities of Copts outside Egypt. Once a settlement is reached, this discourse vanishes as was the case in similar situations in the past.
This is unfortunately the way the regime and the church address sectarian matters. Thus contradictions do not come as a surprise.
For example, while Diaspora Copts were demonstrating against the regime over the last few weeks, and the official media vehemently attacked them, there was open communication between the regime and influential Coptic activists outside the country. And while the church’s top clergy expressly refused negotiations to solve the problem, insisting that only applying the rule of law will be acceptable, there were open channels between government agencies and Pope Shenouda who is currently seeking treatment in the United States.
The negotiations have not resulted in anything concrete because both sides are making tougher and uncompromising demands. In this crisis, we need to see the law fairly implemented to send a good message to the society as a whole that sectarian issues are no longer a bargaining chip because Egyptians decided to stick to the law; the only trusted and agreed upon mechanism in modern society to maintain balance between diverse groups, to sustain equity between people, and to silence sectarian voices, which only flourish in time of a crisis.
Sameh Fawzy is an Egyptian journalist, PhD researcher, and specialist on governance and citizenship.