Sectarianism. Perhaps no other word in the new millennium has remained as ever present in the Arab world in the twenty-first century as this one. Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and a host of others, have all experienced (and continue to experience) the turmoil, bloodshed and deep rooted resentment that makes sectarianism very hard to move forward from.
Standing in Tahrir Square two and half years ago feels a lot more like ten years ago. But whatever time has elapsed from those historic days who could forget the obvious overt lengths Egyptians went to in order to demonstrate that Egypt’s Muslims and Christians were “one hand.” Yet a lot has changed since then. The Muslim Brotherhood are not the only game in town when it comes to putting the unity of Egyptians on the defensive. Different branches of Salafi movements have grown a support base which either directly or indirectly divides Egyptians into Muslims (us) and Christians (them) categories.
What’s more, it isn’t just rhetoric. Prior to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt had experienced its own version of sectarian attacks and conflict, most notably less than a month before the start of the Revolution where a Church in Alexandria was bombed on New Year’s Day. And now one thing is very clear: Egypt all of a sudden, at least on the surface, appears to have a growing problem of sectarianism. Depending on who you ask, it is either a very real threat to Egyptian civic society, or a “phase” that has emerged as a result of people “buying into” Brotherhood/Islamist governance and keen to show their loyalty to Islam, albeit by tragic and very misguided means. Whatever the answer, it does nothing at all to help the present crisis Egypt finds itself in.
Unlike in London, put me in a lecture hall in Cairo or Alexandria, and apart from a small percentage of international students, I will largely be greeted with Egyptian faces. Here comes the crucial part. Unless one of the male students has an obvious indicator on his person that tells me what faith he adheres to (such as prayer beads in his hands or a tattoo of a Cross on his hand) it would be impossible to determine whether they are Muslim or Christian. If I wanted to find out I could perhaps ask them their name which sometimes may or may not be a clue, but if that fails, I have a fifty-fifty chance of guessing correctly. Likewise with the women, a hijab is the most obvious identifier of Muslim women: but without it, I am once again stuck.
The point is that Egypt is not a visibly multicultural society. Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, have no distinct physical features, the men largely dress the same and only the hijab, which not all Muslim Egyptian women wear, can divide women into religious categories. What’s more, Egyptians eat the same food every day, speak the same Egyptian dialect and have the same dark sense of humour, and for those reasons it is tragic that Egypt too has its own brand of sectarianism.
Mass media were in Tahrir Square and around the country like ants to sugar taking pictures of Muslim Imams and Coptic priests holding their respective holy texts while prayer beads intertwined on necklaces with the Cross. If I had a pound for every time I heard a news outlet start their broadcast with “Muslims and Christians are one hand continues to be chanted across the country,” I could retire today. But what has perhaps been lost from those revolutionary days to the present is that such proclamations of unity are completely unnecessary because they go without saying. Politicians may seek to divide, yet I hope common sense prevails among the people that really count: Egyptians.