CAIRO — Copts are being persecuted in Egypt. So, what’s new about that? This has been the norm in our “beloved homeland” since at least the 1970s.
But in fact, there is something new: sectarianism against Copts and many other minorities — including Shias, Bahais, and Bedouins — intensified after the beginning of the January 2011 revolution.
The romantic dream of social unity and tranquility between all sects and religions was dashed a few weeks after 11 February 2011, when Salafi Muslims started to ignite sectarian strife against Christians accusing them of cooperating with the secularists who wanted to transform Egypt into an anti-Islamist state.
Why did this happen? Why did a revolution that succeeded in overthrowing a deeply entrenched dictatorship, precisely because it united all Egyptians behind its banners, result in further persecution of Copts and other minorities? Why did hope turn into despair?
A simple and straightforward answer might be because of the ugly and reactionary politics of the Islamists. This is true, but only partly. It begs the question of how Islamists succeeded in convincing hundreds of thousands, even millions, of ordinary Muslims to follow in the footsteps of their sectarianism. Why did ordinary citizens enthusiastically demolish churches and kill Copts, for just being Copts?
To solve this riddle, we have to look wider and deeper.
The revolution broke out in a society already mired in racism against minorities, especially Copts. Sectarianism and hatred of “the others” had been seeping deep into the minds and souls of Egyptians long before January 2011.
This was partly the result of the 1967 defeat in the war with Israel, combined with the rise of neo liberalism disguised in the form of infitah — former President Anwar Sadat’s “open-door” economic policy. The ruling classes and the Islamists, each in their own way, invested in this apocalyptic atmosphere to blow the winds of hatred.
When hopes of liberation, through popular resistance from below, were lost after the defeat of the January 1977 uprising, sectarianism started to fill the vacuum with a vengeance.
The January 2011 uprising brought Egyptians back together. It revived hope in unity as it dealt a strong blow to vertical divisions between equally exploited and oppressed citizens.
But revolutions are not magic. Yes, they can start a new path but they cannot miraculously bury all the old grievances in one stroke.
The new beginnings needed to be nurtured in order to blossom but this did not happen. The united Egyptians — Copts, Sunnis, Shias, Bahais, Nubians and Bedouins — toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, yet the following day they found themselves lacking a united strategy for the future.
The spontaneous unity of the progressive masses, forged by hatred of a filthy regime, did not translate itself into a conscious unity to build a new society.
The lack of unity among the revolutionary strata of the population allowed the Islamists and the military junta to exploit the inert layers — the village dwellers and sections of the so-called marginalized — in a series of frontal assaults against the revolution, from the 19 March constitutional referendum in which the Islamists mobilized these backward classes to win a “yes” vote, to the attacks by “honest citizens” on mass rallies in Tahrir Square and Abbasseya.
Hence, the failure of the progressive mass movement to enforce itself and dictate its will, due to the lack of an organized, truly libertarian force rooted in the movement and capable of providing a sense of direction. This led the revolution to the labyrinth of unfulfilled promises and sunken hopes under military and Muslim Brotherhood rule. And here, the very old law of human despair reigned: When anger is not combined with hope, it will necessarily be coupled with hatred.
Revolutionary despair is much more dangerous than ordinary despair. In their normal, routine life, people grow accustomed to their misery and hopelessness.
The problem of revolution is that it resurrects hope. Now the genie is out of the bottle and it is unbelievably difficult to put it back there. And hence, if not fulfilled, it will metamorphose into uncontainable despair.
The energy that was once directed against a hated regime might in one second be redirected against fellow subalterns.
Evil reactionary forces — in our case, reactionary Islamists — step in exactly at this moment. If not challenged, they might win the day.
The only way to fight reactionary Islamists, the only way to fight rising sectarianism, is to restore hope in the united mass movement from below.
By Tamer Wagih