Cairo ___ many years ago, my primary school teacher took me aside and gave me a stern ultimatum. Either cut my links with one of my friends, “C,” or my school performance would be affected. In my teacher’s view, “C” was a bad influence, and was distracting me away from my studies. “You have to fulfill your mother’s aspirations, there is a world ahead of you, so do not let this girl ruin it for you.”
“C” was a Coptic girl and my first-ever close friend. Many in my school were surprised that we even got on with each other. I was loud and bubbly; she was shy and diffident. But what we shared was hard for outsiders to understand___ empathy. Both of us were daughters of widows who were hard-working single mothers. We pined for our lost fathers, and felt a huge sense of responsibility to make progress at school. We wanted to at least please our respective mothers and reward them for their hard work. Our joined daily journey to and from school was a chance for both of us to share our fears, anxieties, and hopes for the future. What we shared transcended religions with their differences and taught me how rituals should not override human bonds.
Although I do not remember my teacher’s exact words, I remember how I was left without a doubt in my mind, that the main problem with “C” was her faith, which my teacher somehow saw as a threat. To my surprise and dismay, just few days after my teacher’s ultimatum, my friend told me with a grim face, how she would stay away “to avoid causing me any trouble.” I will never forget her sad look. We did not say much. No questions, no explanation, and just hugged each other for one last time. The next day, for the first time, we stood apart at the morning assembly. It was simply painful. Later, I started to hear from other Muslim girls that Christians are bad and their holy book was “fabricated” years after Christ.
In secondary school, wary of my traumatic past experience, my new teachers pleasantly surprised me. All of them were fair to students regardless of faith. Furthermore, it was also a great relief to see several other mixed friendships between Muslims and Christian girls, without interference from any of the teachers. Nonetheless, I noticed another disturbing trend, but this time from students. Some Muslim girls actually liked their Christian friends, to such a degree that they wanted them to abandon Christianity. It did not work and instead intense debates erupted about whether Jesus is just a prophet or the Son of God. All debates were short-term and ended indecisively, but this had long-term impacts. It pushed Christian girls slowly away from mixed friendships with Muslims, to more Christian-only friendships.
At medical school, the default lines became clearer. Islamist groups had started to appear, and they actively encouraged Muslim students to cut their friendships with Christians. Christians also congregated together. Islamists were firmly in control of the university’s mosque, openly bullying Muslim girls not wearing the Hijab, or warnings of “God’s punishment” for having Christian friends. There were exceptions of course, in particular among students of the elite. Islamist groups considered students from a modest background as a safe bet, and deliberately ignored the rich elite, possibly because of their powerful links inside and outside the university. In other words, during those times Islamists focused on expanding horizontally within society, rather than vertically to the upper echelons.
At a formal level, Christians never scored top in exams, even the most brilliant among them were not allowed to be at the top in their rankings. Subtle sectarianism haunted me even in simple administrative tasks. I once went with my Christian friend to get formal copies of our graduation certificate. The lady officer looked at both of us with contempt that she struggled to hide. She gave me a delivery date in two days, then sneered at my friend while telling her to come back in two weeks. It was embarrassing to say the least, and even awkward when my friend was the one comforting me, and telling me that she did not mind waiting.
Sectarian tension did not stay soft and subtle. Occasional episodes of violence flared up and many lost their lives. During Mubarak’s tenure, Egyptian authorities did not put any effort into tackling the deep roots of sectarianism in Egypt. It wanted instead to manage the crisis, rather than cure the illness. At the end of the day, it failed to do either, and the hatred continued to yield more violence and more ugliness. This was happening not just among Muslims, but a few Christians also who similarly fueled the hatred and bigotry.
Thus far, very few in Egypt are willing to acknowledge how sectarianism is deeply embedded in the society. A prevailing view among pundits and Egypt’s observers suggests that sectarianism is linked to authoritarianism. This is only partly true. Hatred of Copts is older than the current Pope. This existed before his support of Sisi and the ousting of Morsi.
There is a deeper resistance within society to even the minor efforts by authorities to be fair to Copts. In May 2015, Egyptian President al-Sisi’s decision to build a church bearing the names of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State in Libya, was not being well received by members of the local community. Clashes erupted between Muslims and Christians in a dispute over building the church, resulting in 12 wounded and seven arrested.
Clinging to political reasons sometimes is used to deliberately obscure the deep social and cultural roots that have fomented sectarian hatred for decades, a cocktail of reasons from deep ignorance of the Christian faith, to rejecting early 20th century multicultural Egypt, with its equality and diversity.
Changing mindsets, attitudes and behaviors needs courage, intellectuality, and devotion. There are some smart attempts. Director Amr Salama’s film,“Excuse my French” brought tears to my eyes. His story of sectarianism in schools resurrected my childhood memories, albeit with a different story. It was cleverly produced to address sectarianism in a creative way and was different than other dull, insincere, shallow productions ___ but more efforts are needed. Fighting sectarianism needs extensive social reforms and contribution from everyone.
Egypt’s sectarianism may look mild in a region where beheading and medieval barbarism are widely practiced. Nonetheless, what initiated in Egypt in the later part of the 20th century has set the foundation for the brutal versions of sectarianism that have erupted in the region. It is about time for Egypt to reverse what it started and spread a more positive approach. It is imperative to create a better era for our kids so that they can have friendships without prejudice or bigotry.
President Sisi’s visit to the Coptic Cathedral and addressing of the attendees was a nice gesture, but his mention of diversity and the need to accept other religions and customs is more crucial. It is important for him to put his words into actions and initiate more positive social changes in Egypt. Egyptians should not just accept diversity, but should also come to see it as something positive.