Problems on hold
Egyptians are currently busy electing their first parliament after the 30 June 2013 Revolution. This massive revolution saved Egypt from the stranglehold of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood rule which came in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring. Today, Egyptians pin their hopes and aspirations on the upcoming parliament to fulfil long awaited legislative reform. Copts especially look forward to new legislation that would translate the equality stipulated in the 2014 Constitution into laws securing their rights as Egyptian citizens. True, the success of the 30 June 2013 Revolution carried hope for a brighter future, and the 2014 Constitution stipulates that the first elected parliament should pass legislation to facilitate the building, expansion and restoration of churches.
Also true is that the 2014 Constitution roots equality and full citizenship rights for all Egyptians. Basing upon this, President Sisi has used his constitutional prerogative to issue many laws that could not wait for the new parliament. Why then do State administrative and security apparatuses persist in their arrogant intransigence and bureaucracy where church-related issues are concerned? Will they only move when forced to do so by the power of law? The obvious answer has generated among Copts frustration and bewilderment, even reproach for President Sisi for stopping short of issuing laws to address the flawed legislation that currently governs issues related to church building. Did not he—or his aides and administration—realise that he holds in his hands a legal authority among the most discriminative when it comes to places of worship? The building of a church requires a direct permit from him, whereas the building of a mosque enjoys extensive facilities. It would have been a good gesture for the President to give up this authority and put churches and mosques on more equal footing. Now it is obvious that Copts have to swallow their bitterness and wait for the new parliament to achieve that.
Despite the bragging that Egypt is now a modern civil State where citizenship rights are honoured, nothing has changed in the flawed situation that governs the building and restoration of churches and church-related buildings in Egypt. Red tape and eternal procrastination continue to be used by the administrative and security authorities to delay for incredibly long periods of time works needed on that score. I find myself again obliged to write on such problems.
Watani carries this week a story entitled “A new round of procrastination on the restoration of a threatened historic church”. The calamity concerns the Mar Girgis (St George) church in Beni Bkheet, Beni Sweif, south of Cairo. This story did not take place during the Mubarak times or during the heyday of the post-Arab Spring Islamist times; it is taking place now in what is supposedly a civil State Egypt. Readers will know the details from the printed story but, lest anyone think that the Beni Bkheet problem is an isolated one, I will here introduce a similar problem that occurred in the Delta town of Mansoura.
The problem concerns a project by the church of the Holy Virgin in the district of Touril in Mansoura to build a home for the elderly, sick and handicapped that would serve Christians and Muslims alike, and would act as a hostel for those who go to Mansoura seeking treatment in the world-class Mansoura University hospital. The purpose of the project is undoubtedly above reproach, and those in charge of it expected the paper work and construction to proceed smoothly and swiftly. But they did not count on one matter: the project was being done by the Church. This brought on complications that ended in freezing the project. I cannot help wondering whether the project would have faced the same problems had it been divested of its affiliation to the Church, or had those in charge agreed with representatives of a nearby mosque to apply for the relevant permits in their stead. A look at the papers reveals the details.
Building permit number 36 for 2014/2015 was issued for the project. It said the building comprised a basement, ground floor and four upper floors, in addition to services on the rooftop. On 24 August 2015 the building department was notified of the start of construction, as per the law. The piling work started.
On 10 September 2015, an accident occurred owing to the presence of a hidden underground drain that caused the piling machine to tilt and hit the wall of a neighbouring house. Fearing damages, a resident filed a complaint with the police. The following day the deputy police inspector summoned those in charge of the project and demanded that they should sign a pledge to stop construction work on the site. Since this appeared unwarranted, the project’s officials refused to sign the pledge and checked the matter with the local building department. The head of the department told them that all the permits and papers were in order and there was no need to stop construction. He told them they just needed to reach a peaceful settlement with the woman who had filed the complaint.
The project officials settled the matter with the woman and, together, they went to the police station to file a conciliation report. The deputy police inspector, however, refused to file the report. He insisted no conciliation would be effective, and that only the building department could settle the matter.
At this point the project officials realised there was something wrong. So on 16 September 2015 they met Daqahliya governor, in presence of the head of the district building department. After thorough scrutiny, everyone agreed that the permits and papers were all in order. But the head of the building department then raised a new problem. He said that the building permit specified an ‘administrative’ building, whereas the project’s validity report issued prior to the permit specifies a ‘residential’ building. This, he said, constituted a violation that called for halting the works. The arrogant, shameless intransigence of official departments once one of their employees commits an error is no stranger to Egyptians. Until—and this is one long, arduous, unfair ‘until’—the error is rectified, the victim pays the price in time and fees.
What followed can only be described as black comedy and exposes the intention of the building department to freeze the project. Is it the fate of Copts to tolerate such harsh, absurd practices until the new parliament is voted in and passes legislation that would do them justice? But what can new legislation change if the miserable attitude of the persons in charge remains unchanged?
25 October 2015