Editor’s Note: Timothy E. Kaldas is an analyst and writer based in Cairo. He is a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and professor of politics at Nile University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Sunday, two churches were bombed in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt
Timothy Kaldas: Many Egyptians will fail to recognize the driving force behind the violence -- a culture of religious discrimination
After the bombing of two churches on Palm Sunday in Tanta and Alexandria, the Egyptian people have entered a state of mourning. Once again their Christian fellow citizens have been targeted and killed for their faith, and once again photos circulate across social media with the faces and stories of innocent Egyptians murdered as they gathered to worship.
As is always the case, the Egyptian state has immediately issued calls for national unity. The spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asserted from his Twitter account that the attacks were “obnoxious” and had “failed” to shake Egyptians’ sense of unity.
Egyptians will mourn this event and they will mean it, but many of them will also fail to recognize the fundamental challenge of religious discrimination that rests as the foundation of Sunday’s violence. The widespread perception of Christian Egyptians as lesser citizens with lesser rights creates fertile ground for those who seek to incite violence against them.
Moreover, the plight of Copts is regularly dismissed by local officials as exaggerated or otherwise nonexistent. This failure to even acknowledge the discrimination Copts face makes correcting the problem virtually impossible.
In much the same way that American politicians avoid serious debates after a mass shooting with the words “thoughts and prayers,” Egyptian politicians and media personalities do so with the words wahda wataniya, “national unity.” Today, and in this coming week, Egyptians will insist that they are a united people. Muslim Egyptians will speak glowingly of their Christian brothers and sisters and recount stories of close Christian friends.
Ultimately, however, the broader specter of religious discrimination that has long existed in Egyptian society will not have disappeared. Indeed, the exuberant expression of national unity will obfuscate and suffocate legitimate criticisms of discrimination against Egypt’s Christians.
Raising those issues now will be met with suspicion, and some who insist on emphasizing them may be seen as deliberately trying to sow discord and unrest. The message of “now is not the time” will repress doing something productive at precisely the right time, when society recognizes in its mourning the need for change.
Many in Egypt’s Christian community should find official calls for unity disingenuous. Where was this unity when the state failed to prosecute the men who stripped an old Christian woman and dragged her through the streets based on rumors her son was having a relationship with a Muslim? Where was this unity when, after years of debate and attacks on churches under the pretext that they were built or renovated illegally, the Parliament passed a church building law that continued to be far more restrictive than regulations for building mosques? Where is this unity every time religious clashes take place in a remote village, and government officials protect the perpetrators through “traditional gatherings” to shield them from legal prosecution?
And many of the Muslim Egyptians who will look at the photos of Sunday’s victims with sadness and sympathy on another day will use the expression maseehy bas kwayis (Christian, but good), as though goodness is out of the ordinary among Christians. This deeply embedded discriminatory view is at the heart of a not-so-quiet bigotry that forms the bedrock upon which violent extremism can be built on by terrorist groups like ISIS, which has claimed responsibility for the attack (though CNN has yet to confirm it). The official participation of the state in this bigotry helps reinforce it.
The same churches damaged in Sunday’s bigoted terrorist attacks will be subject on Monday to the state’s bigoted laws on church building and renovations. Condolences won’t stop the next attack on Egypt’s churches, nor will they help undercut recruitment by terrorist organizations. Images of the Coptic Pope meeting with Sheikh Al Azhar, the highest ranking Muslim official in Egypt, will not bring back the victims nor prevent the next set of them.
Widespread everyday discrimination, both legal and social, is far more consequential than tired slogans wheeled out after every tragedy. The Egyptian version of thoughts, prayers and inaction will only serve as a placeholder for the next time Egyptians experience a similar tragedy. Terrorists have escalated their campaign against Egypt’s Christians. And the state’s old policies and rhetoric have failed. A fresh approach is necessary, both in security terms and in its recognition of religious minorities as truly equals – not second-class citizens to apologize to and comfort.