I enjoyed reading Philip Weiss’s personal account of how he came to mark Yom Kippur in Cairo. Ahead of a day in which a mass anti-sectarian march was planned, it instinctively felt like a nice rejoinder to the spirit of the ongoing revolution and the millions of Egyptians who have constantly resisted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces's (SCAF) sectarian provocations, and not only following the onset of the revolution. Yet it was also oddly removed from the prevailing sordid reality of religious communities in Egypt, and the complex history of Egyptian Jewry which suffered at the hands of Zionism. Especially relevant in light of today’s disturbing events, I want to expand on a couple of politically skewed assumptions he exhibited in his account of the experience. This is not to take away from what the prayer service signified to him, but to invite us all to recognize what is concealed in the image of “freedom of religion in Cairo” that he aspires to portray or to imagine, supposedly in contrast to neighboring Israel.
For one thing, Egyptian Jewry cannot be represented by a half-expatriate crowd of largely Zionist Jews praying in the suburb of Maadi. There is good reason why the “downtown Jews” were not bussed in for the service, which as Weiss is aware was directly related to the Israeli embassy, even in the absence of the Israeli diplomatic staff. It is therefore disingenuous and presumptuous, not to say politically problematic, to place everyone under the same umbrella. In fact, it actually reifies the essentializing impulse of Zionism, which has not only exacted terrorism against Palestinians for most of modern history, but has also terrorized other Arabs - crucially, Arab Jews: Egyptian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Yemeni alike. In Egypt, the key 1954 Lavon Affair, closely followed by the 1956 Israeli attack on Egypt, effectively annihilated the Egyptian Jewish community. Combined with reactionary nationalist forces, it resulted in widespread anxiety around the Jewish community and led to the near-disappearance of Egyptian Jewry by the end of the decade.
Indeed, if sites like Mondoweiss and the increasing visibility of anti-Zionist Jewish activists outside of Israel should teach us anything, it is about the extent to which Zionism victimized Jews everywhere outside of Israel, and imported Arab Jews to carry out its dirty work in completing the earlier phases of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by replacing their labor with Hebrew hands. Given this essentializing impulse, which the proprietors of Mondoweiss in part resist, why would anyone jump to conclusions about the past or present of Egyptian Jewry? Understanding the political context in which Philip - in all good intentions - marked Yom Kippur yesterday depends heavily on understanding the nexus of Israeli and Western imperial interests in the region combined with the sustenance of sectarian provocations and violence which aptly manifested its latest installment in the SCAF-sponsored massacre of Copts and their Muslim supporters that began Sunday afternoon between Maspero and downtown Cairo.
The protest march, led by Christians and joined by Muslims was in response to continued restrictions on church-building, and the SCAF's continued hostility - in light of systematic sectarian clashes throughout the year - and refusal to end official discrimination faced by Christians when it comes to building and maintaining churches. They were sparked by the burning of an Aswan church a week ago, an event that notably took place almost immediately following mass protests against emergency law and the SCAF’s overdue transfer of power to a civilian government. Though more details are bound to emerge in the next hours and days to better elucidate what initially sparked the violence outside Maspero today, multiple eyewitness reports confirm that from the very beginning, plain-clothes police and local hired thugs were deployed to attack the protesters, who subsequently received a deadly crackdown from the military police.
A basic temporal context must be kept in mind: the periodic targeting of Coptic communities by certain sectarian Islamist groups as well as paid armed thugs, and Copts’ sustained marginalization and humiliation by the state, has persisted from before 25th January and in the months that followed systematically and consistently, and the most recent church bombing in Aswan occurred almost immediately following mass demonstrations against the emergency law, which was enacted in response to Egyptians’ raiding of the Israeli embassy, which was itself a mass spontaneous direct action in response to Israel’s murdering of Egyptian soldiers and refusal to apologize, as well as the SCAF’s impotence in reacting to these murders. Does this seem like a stretch? Think about it. In a moment of heightened, indeed, climaxing social organizing and revolutionary verve, Egyptians are moved to reclaim their dignity in the face of Zionist aggression. The SCAF, performing the edicts of Uncle Sam, promptly suppresses the Embassy uprising, conducting mass arrests (the civilian victims of which are currently subjected to extra-legal military trials) and escorting the Israeli diplomatic corps home to Tel Aviv for a breather. Overnight, emergency law is revived - in what is only an official escalation of the already prescient anti-strike law endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood. As Egyptians flood the streets demanding the termination of the SCAF’s reign of power, a church goes up in flames in Aswan. The governer subsequently insists, but the church was illegal.
If the late fifties, following the Lavon Affair, saw the new regime’s introduction of reactionary anti-semitism, buying wholesale into Zionist and colonial propaganda, by the seventies this would be exacerbated all the more by Sadat’s violent separation of Egyptians from their regional identification and his regime’s symbiotic relationship to key Islamist groups, that would go on to foment sectarian provocations sustaining a state of emergency that continues to this day. This is not to suggest that sectarianism is solely attributable to the Camp David era. Indeed, we can trace this to early modern European colonialism, which was frequently paraded as an effort to protect Christians, but which through unprecedented sectarian violence and manipulation effectively exiled most Ottoman Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Christians. And it’s important to remember that the massacre of Syrian Christians took place almost simultaneously to the French blood libel in Damascus. Iraqi Jews were similarly butchered alongside the Assyrians under the British. Yet the contemporary crisis in Egypt can be better analytically weighed as a distinct and deliberate outcome of that wretched moment in Egyptian history: the advent of Sadat, Camp David, and the cementing of Egyptian society at the doormat of US imperialism.
Sadat deliberately exacerbated sectarian hatred through his strategic deployment of Islam in the interests of imperialism. He supported the rise of Islamist groups in order to castrate the influence of the Egyptian left, including Nasserites and pan-Arab nationalists. With that, began the legacy of “sectarian strife” in the seventies. Prior to the Camp David era, Egyptians by and large viewed themselves as Arab - most still do, yet Sadat’s violent political and economic neutering of their Arab identity following the Infitah meant that the vast majority of Egyptians, many of whom were now openly flitting in and out of the Gulf countries, resorted to different degrees of Islamism in resistance to the newly imposed anti-Arab imaginary. In turn, many Copts adopted an exclusivist form of religio-nationalism as their primary site of indentification in the face of a post-Arabist political and social reality.
With the eighties, increased support - in the wake of the Afghanistan war - for Egyptian Islamists by both the US and Saudi Arabia, was another ingredient that further isolated Copts from national and regional belonging. With time this accumulated institutionally to result in a definitively anti-Christian discourse in which, on the one hand, Western and elite reactionary punditry foams at the mouth over the “oppression of religious minorities” only feeding the beast that is the Egyptian state more ammunition for its self-sustaining mirage of “national unity and stability”. And so a vicious - though by no means antagonistic, in fact highly symbiotic - cycle and relationship persists, in which Western-sponsored civil society efforts continue to intervene to “democratize” Egyptians, in the process hijacking the identities of local Christians, conflating them, essentializing them, and ultimately creating a constant state of emergency that socially reproduces itself and foments more of the same. All this, while US-led colonialism in Iraq led to a historically unprecedented spate of sectarian violence, mainly between Shiites and Sunnis, though anyone who followed American mainstream media over the last 10 years will have noticed they lay emphasis to the attacks on Iraqi Christians, as though they are exceptional.
That the Egyptian neoliberal state, allied as it is with the Muslim Brotherhood more explicitly following the ouster of Mubarak, has had a clear hand and interest in the creation and maintenance of sectarian provocations is plain to see. But before we begin to talk about fighting it, before we begin to sloganeer about “national unity”, “anti-sectarianism” and an “end to political discrimination against non-Muslims”, before we fetishize empty liberal tropes like “freedom of religion”, we would do well to recognize two things: first, the only Christians in Egypt that do not experience any kind of discrimination are the elite and extremely wealthy ones, and second, the internationalist discourse of “freedom of religion” is not only complicit, but responsible for the perpetuation of the sectarian isolation of Christians. The state is not a site for gaining religious freedoms. It thrives on the separatist minoritatian psychoses that constitute sectarian violence. Therefore, any strategy that seeks to paint Egyptian Chrisitans, or Jews past or present, as a separate sect and exaggerate their place in society - as so much of Western society chooses to do - misses the fundamental power structures that produce them as such and furthers their exclusion. Just as Zionism deliberately sought to exile Jews from the world and ghettoize them in colonial settlements in Palestine, so the nexus of Israeli and Western power would rather see those populations surrounding Israel perpetually mired in a sea of exclusivist intolerance deserving only of bombs and emergency laws.
This nexus, of Western and Israeli interests in sectarian bantustaning, should not be lost on anyone witnessing today’s atrocities outside Maspero and throughout downtown Cairo. And now more than ever it should warn against knee-jerk reactions steeped in the discourse of “freedom of religion” - which is the Hebrew equivalent of Mubarak’s “it’s between me or chaos”.
Today’s events constitute the first time the army and its hired thugs have explicitly targeted a predominantly Coptic protest, running people over with armored vehicles at top speed and deliberately killing up to nineteen protesters in the space of a few hours. State propaganda was in full force, using the sectarian language of “the Copts” and never “the demonstrators” and making vacuous statements about Copts “killing two soldiers”. In addition to propagating the classic rumors of “foreign infiltrators” and “agendas”, State TV also licensed - indeed called for - Egyptian civilians to “protect the military from the Copts”. As of the time of writing, many Egyptians have indeed responded to the incitement and numerous eyewitnesses report seeing Muslim marches to the tune of “There is no God but Allah” hitting the streets. The SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood led counter-revolution, in other words, has found its bitter climax in the always-reliable vulgar sectarian bloodbath. And because the events outside and around Maspero were nothing short of an intensified combination of the Camel Battle and the Abbasseyya kidnappings, over the coming hours and days, we will regroup. We will fight back. But we will not fight for “religious freedom” or “national unity”. The former is the language of Hilary Clinton and the NGO-industrial complex that has mismanaged Egyptian society for decades. The latter is the language of state television. What we will fight for is our revolution: an end to the regime, a cleansing of all our institutions, and our will and dignity in deciding who and what we are for.