Fragile Egypt

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On Monday, a day after the Egyptian army killed two dozen Christian protesters outside the radio and television building in Cairo, I went to the St. Mark’s cathedral in the northern part of the city for the funerals of four of the victims. Thousands of people were walking toward the massive modern complex. At the gates they had to pass through metal detectors, and be frisked, and produce national i.d. cards showing religion.

But most mourners did not show i.d. cards–they only held up their right hands over their heads. I thought at first it was a Christian salute. Then I understood they were baring the undersides of their wrists, which bore tattoos of crosses. And I marveled at how deeply religious identity is engrained.

Are you Christian? They asked me when I went inside. No. American, I said, afraid to say that I am Jewish. From the time I arrived in Egypt 10 days ago at the Israeli border, I have repeatedly been warned about the fear of Israeli agents meddling in Egyptian politics. And the mood at the cathedral was tense and stricken. People’s faces were swollen with grief, some were bandaged. Political chanting resounded through the jammed courtyard, led by charismatic young men horsed on other men’s shoulders. It was hard to tell the funeral from a political rally. They chanted, The people demand the fall of Tantawi, the head of the armed forces, SCAF. 

For two hours inside the cathedral complex I was treated with the greatest respect. And when people learned that I was a reporter they mobbed me. Two or three men stood at my side to translate, as one person after another came up to tell me their stories. This man had been nearly crushed by a tank, his head was crusted and yellow and distorted, ringed with stitches. A hysterical grieving widow sobbed as she called for global attention to the Christian position in Egypt. A girl showed me a photograph of what were described as .50 caliber sniper shells, discovered on the ground after the killings. A man said that 90 percent of the Christians want to emigrate. He said that Christians are persecuted, unable to get building permits. The girl with the photograph said she had been asked in school to remove her cross.

The swarm was so intense with grief and rage, so close to tilting into a mob, that I felt claustrophobic. It took a half hour to leave. Amr Moussa, the Egyptian leader who is now a candidate for president, was leaving at the same time. He had come to express his condolences to the Coptic pope. But he was spotted by the young men who were leading chants, and their rally turned into a melee. I was squeezed against a car as a pastelike mass of male anger pushed past me. Amr Moussa’s bodyguards were shoved and punched and manhandled, as they cordoned the former head of the Arab League. A bottle of Coke went flying and struck one of the bodyguards on the shoulder.

In an instant they were back in two SUVs and driving frightened from the compound.

You do not want to talk to Amr Moussa? I asked a man. “No– he is not here out of sincere feeling, only to get our vote.” Well, that is the nature of representative politics, I tried to say; politicians have hearts made of polling data.

But the feelings were too raw to say that. The first two steel coffins were now bobbing over the crowd to the sounds of chants led by the men on other men’s shoulders. Our blood will redeem you, a pastor translated for me.

A demonstration was forming in the streets to try and go to the city center. The army had declared a curfew. I walked out amid restless crowds carrying crude wooden crosses.

What does this sectarian tension say about the great Egyptian revolution? What do the killings of so many Christians by the army mean for the future of Egypt?

I just spent ten days in the country (my fourth visit), and though I have no Arabic, here are some impressionistic answers.

The revolution is alive. Its signs are everywhere in Cairo. I saw murals of the martyrs, graffiti saying “Fuck the Police” and stencils of the McDonald’s arch with the words, “SCAF Eat This”. I went to an exhibit of political cartoons at the Society of Fine Arts that make our cartoons look pale. This amazing city is bursting with a popular desire for more political freedoms. Two years ago in Tahrir our demonstration for Gaza was crushed by the police as people walked by darting us looks of sympathy. Today the square is free-speech-mad; and in days to come I will put up my snapshots of Egypt’s willed transformation, glimpses of the political imagination that has now inspired the Wall Street protesters, the Israeli tent protesters, and so many others around the world.

The twitter/facebook methods that Egyptians pioneered will never be killed. At the very moment that the army was crushing and killing Coptic demonstrators, and the state media were lying about it, the true knowledge of the atrocities was being tweeted by Egyptian social media activists, including Sandmonkey.

And as I left the cathedral alongside a crowd of demonstrators, a woman in hijab holding up the Kuran ran out to join hands with the Christians in protest of the army.

But that is the good side. The bad news is that my friends in Egypt are deeply discouraged and say things will get worse before they get better. They were inspired by the signs of Muslim-Christian cooperation during the revolution. Now a friend expresses the fear that the country will spiral into civil war. Everyone on the left says that the army is using and exacerbating sectarian tensions to solidify its authoritarian control of the society and seek to ensure that another uniformed despot will be in power for the next ten years.

Egypt’s fragility is obvious. The only evident security at the cathedral were Christian volunteers. And as the crowd of 500 demonstrators I was watching marched down the road holding up crosses, past a neighborhood with mosques in it, there were no police to be seen. A Christian friend told me later that the police are afraid; broken by the revolution, they know that they will be ignored or trampled.

There is an anarchic feeling. The society is filled with freed criminals whom the police have done nothing to put back in jail, and the civil institutions we have in America that do something to create a spirit of nonsectarian community are largely lacking in Egypt; I am told that NGOs are tightly circumscribed in their work. And no one trusts the state media. Of course the largest demos I saw were outpourings of religious feeling; but as the military dig in, religious authorities only rise as leaders in whom people have the most faith.

Outside social media, that is. And even if social media are gaining strength and confidence, they tend to represent the highly-educated. I wonder how much power they will have among the masses– all those people with their religious identity tattooed on their wrists.

What about the roles played by Israel and the U.S.? Of Israel I can only guess. The Arab spring is a great threat to Israel’s continued dominance; and it makes sense that Israel would seek to heighten sectarian strife in Egypt so that the military will clamp down and we will have the Mubarak status quo ante by a different name. Some of the Islamophobic comments I heard at the cathedral would be music to Israeli leaders’ ears: Muslims cannot live as a minority, they regard us as animals… But I can’t imagine that Israel wants an Egyptian civil war. The spillover would be too dangerous. And an Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood ala Iran would spell more neighbor issues for the fortress state.

As for the U.S.—well, we should be helping Egypt in a peaceful transition toward democracy. We should be nurturing civil society, we should be encouraging those leaders like scientist Ahmed Zewail who have called for a civilian advisory council to guide the transition, we should be standing by the social media that built the revolution, we should be giving the red card to Tantawi. Will we do this? No. Because of Israel and our sole concern, a stable environment for the peace treaty, we will favor authoritarianism over democracy.

Walking back from the Cathedral, I thought about Zionism in Jewish life. The men holding their wrists up with the crosses tattooed at the cathedral—they are as dyed in the wool in their ethno-religious identity as Zionists are in theirs. As dyed in the wool as the “beards” of the Muslim Brothers. To visit Egypt is to be reminded that cultural/nationalist/religious identification is a tremendous force in human life, stronger than material impulses, and there is choice in it–those Coptics are choosing to tattoo their wrists, Jews choosing to line up behind Zionism. That is where I differ with Sarah Hawas. She believes sectarian forces are, in the end, manipulated by international capital for neocolonial interests. I don’t. I see these religious alignments as deeper than material and neocolonial forces. They reflect the human passion for meaning– channeled by our worn-out religions into exclusivist madness, the same madness Gandhi witnessed as the Raj disappeared and language riots broke out and Muslims and Hindus divided. The American empire, such as it is, has only been damaged by our attachment to Israel. Blind support for Israel led to 9/11. And it made a fool of Obama before the world in his humiliating speech at the U.N. 2 weeks ago.

This is about devotion. Zionism is as destructive to the future of the Middle East as the Muslim Brotherhood or any other zealotry. The newspapers talk about the thousands killed in Syria or Libya, over many months now. Or the 800 killed in Egypt in 10 months of (incredibly restrained) revolution. I can’t stop thinking of the 1300 killed in a murderously efficient 19 days by Israel in Gaza. More than 1300, including 400 children, massacred in a caged ghetto smaller than Cairo. If it had happened in Egypt we would call it sectarian genocide. And all the burnt churches of Egypt are matched by blown up and burnt Palestinian mosques.

My visit to the revolution makes me despair of mass religious movements. I look to the secular and educated, and to social media, to lead our leaders.

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