Even though many claim that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s visit to St Mark’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve was no surprise, I confirm that it was, by all means. It was definitely unexpected, especially since an official announcement before Christmas declared that the President would delegate a representative to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and wish the Copts and Pope Tawadros II well, as per the attending protocol. But President Sisi stunned the congregation when, as during the Christmas before, he made a surprise entry into St Mark’s as Midnight Mass was about to begin. Appreciative jubilation broke out from the elated congregation, clergy, visitors, and officials. The story of the President’s surprise visit went viral on Egypt’s social media and with all Egyptians. This visit sent a resounding message to the whole world that modern Egypt—people and leadership—makes no difference between her children, and that their fusion in the national crucible has become a fait accompli.
President Sisi will always grip the hearts and souls of Egyptians with his warm, sincere, spontaneous talk; and his remarkable capacity to translate to them the sentiment that he could be any of them. He speaks openly and feelingly to the people about their pains, hopes, and joys; and discusses with them their concerns. He has no qualms about apologising, consoling or reassuring them. Last year, I wrote commenting on the President’s surprise Christmas Eve visit to St Mark’s: “President Sisi was Santa Claus to Egyptians”. This was again true this year.
I was not at St Mark’s on Christmas Eve; I followed the prayers and celebrations, and the President’s visit on TV. This robbed me of the live sparkle of President Sisi’s entry into the Cathedral, his charming words, and the congregation’s jubilation. But, as in the difference between attending a game in the stadium and watching it live on TV, it allowed me to see matters from a wider, more comprehensive perspective. I must say that not all what I perceived was fitting for the incident, the place or the attendants.
I will today broach an issue that has long irked me as well as many others, and has been sporadically discussed only there or then. The issue concerns the appropriate behaviour of the congregation during religious celebrations, church gatherings, and in the presence of public figures. It is obvious that Egyptian emotions run high, unchecked and uncontrolled, in joy or sorrow, no matter the time or place or in presence of whichever figure, in many cases exceeding all acceptable limits.
I already wrote in previous instances—as did many other writers—on the issue of allowing the congregation to clap and cheer inside the church. More than once did I say that, out of respect for prayers and worship, this practice should be stopped or at least restricted to brief, decorous applause that would not include cheering, whistling or ululating. Yet those in charge of imposing discipline inside the church just let matters be. Twice a year, during Midnight Mass on the eves of Christmas and Easter, when the names of the public figures who attend the celebrations are read aloud to thank them for joining in the event, rounds of random applause follow the reading of every name on the list, in a way that even hinders the reading of the names. Not only that, but the intensity and length of clapping vary depending on the popularity of the public figure whose name is being read. Not to mention the cheering and whistling that accompany the applause. This has become the order of the day event in event out, as though the attendants were in a marquee not a church.
Such behaviour was for years left unchecked and has now run out of control. During President Sisi’s recent visit to St Mark’s, all hell broke loose as the congregation broke in emotional jubilation the moment he went in and until he left. Signs of worry and nervousness appeared on the faces of the members of the President’s bodyguard team and those in charge of security and order at St Mark’s, reflecting the huge responsibility they shoulder. Attendants left their assigned seats and randomly stormed the aisles amid cheers and cries intended to express joy and appreciation. As I see it, this was a blow to the sanctity and dignity of the cathedral.
Amid this carnival-like scene, the congregation kept interrupting the President’s words, which made him ever so courteously and diplomatically plea with them to stop interrupting and listen to him, but to no avail. The President kept halting his address every now and then and smiling, but he eventually had to joke: “Ok, let’s all clap together.” When the visit ended, the President had to fight his way out of the cathedral amid the security and the jostling crowd that gathered trying to thank or embrace him.
Allow me to say that both the Church and the President deserve better than that.
17 January 2016