7 November 2010
The chairman of the leftist Tagammu Party, Rifaat al-Saïd, is one of the most renowned and respected figures of the Egyptian enlightenment. A staunch defender of civil State and citizenship principles, Dr Saïd has faced up to a series of battles with the forces of darkness, and is alarmed by the prevailing climate of fanaticism and sectarianism. He spares no effort to warn against the current sectarian tension and is calling on the government to step in and put the law into action. In his view the current situation is a product of a host of factors including improper government policies, inept school curricula and an unenlightened State-owned media.
Watani talked to Dr Saïd about Coptic standing on the political front.
Is there a way out of the turbulent sectarian climate that is shrouding Egypt?
A host of factors have accumulated over the past decades to create today’s climate of fanaticism and sectarian strife. The spread of extremist ideas aired by satellite TV channels has helped escalate hostilities against Copts. Unfortunately the way a few Christian TV channels have libelled Islam has fanned the fire. The outcome is that both the Islamic and Christian faiths are now ridiculing one another. As if this were not enough, an Arab TV channel entered the ring and decided to further charge the climate by broaching some sensitive issues that encouraged confrontation among Egyptian politicians and intellectuals. The entire nation is paying the price.
Is there a solution?
Disseminating the principles of citizenship in society is the only way. The Constitution’s emphasis on citizenship is by no means sufficient. A culture respecting citizenship rights and values has to be promoted. Developing education is an important component in this process given the fact that the current curriculum promotes intolerance and extremism. Several items of State politics need to be furthermore changed. First and foremost, Copts should no longer be marginalised when it comes to the assignment to leading posts. By the same token, all obstacles in the way of building and renovating churches should be removed.
Who should take the lead in this direction?
I believe that the State should deal firmly with anybody who discriminates against an Egyptian on a religious basis. Likewise, the State should start investigating school curricula to remove those parts promoting intolerance and discrimination. The Media Ministry has set a ban on satellite channels that foment sectarian strife, and the Church and Al-Azhar have an important role to play in terms of advocating values of tolerance in society. We should heed the situation in Sudan which is now facing the threat of division.
The general feeling among Copts is that the government is unfair to them.
People should be aware that, at the same time that the State discriminates against religious minorities, it persecutes political dissidents. Egyptian governments have so far been unable to stand opposition of any kind. Muslims and Christians must join forces and find solutions to the problems facing their society.
Do you consider it a good move when Copts demonstrate in defence of their rights?
Over the decades, Copts have chosen to distance themselves from politics. Hence they lack the culture of political protest. For instance, when factory workers or government employees have complaints, they voice their demands through demonstrating before the People’s Assembly, the Shura Council, the Journalists’ Syndicate, the General Prosecution Office or the like. Copts, by contrast, choose to demonstrate inside the Coptic Cathedral in Abbasiya, and thus they arbitrarily involve the Church in problems it has nothing to do with. Because Copts do not trust the government, they resort to the Church. But in fact the Church is not supposed to perform the role of the Copts’ representative whenever a problem with the State emerges.
Is there a way out of the current state of affairs?
I cannot ask those who suffer not to complain, but we have to help them channel their protest in the right direction. If Copts adopt a discourse antagonistic to Muslims, the latter will react aggressively and the social peace will be placed in jeopardy. I wish the Church would prevent Copts from demonstrating inside their places of worship and refrain from interfering in problems that have no direct religious character.
Does the problem have to do with the lack of political culture among Copts?
Definitely. Part of the evidence to prove this lies in the fact that in legislative elections Copts rush to nominate themselves even against one another. Sometimes you see six Coptic candidates in a single constituency. The logical outcome is that they all fail because of the fragmentation of votes among them. Furthermore, it provokes Muslims who get the impression that Copts want to control the People’s Assembly, hence the prevalence of an increasingly tense relationship between Muslims and Copts.
Some people argue that the ‘disappearance’ of young Coptic women is a major factor behind Copts’ protests inside churches.
The word ‘disappearance’ is not accurate here. The case is that a young Coptic woman might choose to solve her family problems by leaving home and even coverting to Islam if necessary. A Muslim might exploit her suffering and lure her into leaving home. Either way, she leaves willingly. But since her family finds it humiliating to admit her elopement, they talk about her being kidnapped. Sooner or later the authorities find out that she left voluntarily. But if it happens that a real abduction takes place, the culprit should be referred to court. It should also be taken into account that Muslims sometimes covert to Christianity, though in most cases this remains discreet.
Do you expect the long-awaited unified law for building places of worship to pass legislation anytime soon?
It goes without saying that unifying the regulations governing the building of mosques and churches would be a positive step when it comes to boosting citizenship rights and principles. More important, however, is the need to alter people’s perspectives so as to respect everybody’s right to find a place in which to worship.
Why is the government procrastinating over the passing of this law?
Because it lacks the political will necessary to take this move. I wish President Mubarak would interfere personally and find a solution to this problem.
Why do some people accuse Copts of collaborating with foreign powers?
It happens that some Copts do call upon Western countries to take action against the Egyptian government because of its discrimination against Copts. Yet such an approach works to further incite hatred against Copts inside Egypt. I know that those advocating foreign interference do not represent the Coptic population, but their calls aggravate an already turbulent sectarian atmosphere. It has to be borne in mind that the West does not care about the grievances of Copts, but they use expatriate Coptic groups to blackmail the Egyptian regime into changing its stances in accordance with the interests of Western powers.
The Tagammu Party has declared its intention to contest the legislative elections due this month. Do you expect these elections to be free and fair?
We have strong doubts, but we have no choice but to join the race. And we stick to our position that the committee supervising the elections should be impartial.
In your opinion, what would encourage Copts to make more of a political contribution? Would it be a quota or the slate system?
Copts were opposed to the quota system from the very beginning. I believe the slate system would encourage Copts to contribute to political life. I wish the ruling National Democratic Party would field a sizable number of Coptic candidates in the forthcoming elections.