Problems on hold
Copts excluded from the public sports field
A few weeks ago Watani opened the thorny file of “Copts and sports…or exclusion”, a file long placed on hold. The Watani reportage revealed how sports, in common with many other routine activities and practices in Egypt, has become a field where Copts are discriminated against and excluded because of their faith. This despite the fact that some six decades ago Copts displayed outstanding prowess in various fields of sports; a number of Copts represented Egypt in international competitions and Olympic games, garnering cups and medals.
The healthy climate that prevailed in sports and all other activities owed to the spontaneous intermingling of all those who lived on Egypt’s soil: Muslims, Copts, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Italians, and many others. They mixed and blended together seamlessly without pretence, because no weight was placed by any official or non-official body on their dissimilarities. They all grew up on this land, and became part of the Egyptian social fabric. Their life paths crisscrossed in a natural way; no one impeded the others’ paths, blocked their ways to success, or attempted to exclude them.
We must admit that, more than a half-century ago Egypt entered a ‘crisis era’. Egyptians, who had throughout history been one, were categorised according to different sectors and types. Egyptianness was no longer a sufficient passport to rights, equality or opportunity. It started with discriminating against non-Egyptians who had for decades made Egypt their home and whose children and grandchildren knew no other home. Owing to political differences between Egypt and their countries of origin, they found themselves treated as ‘foreigners’ who no longer enjoyed the same privileges as Egyptians. They were victims of political predicaments that led to the expulsion of foreigners from Egypt; no differentiation was made between those who were in fact foreigners and those who were Egyptian of foreign origin. These policies culminated with the expulsion of Egyptian Jews on account of their Jewish faith that was linked to Israel and consequently to the Arab Israeli conflict. No regard was made to the fact that they were Egyptian first and Jewish second.
Then came the turn of Copts as religious extremism and Islamisation gained ground in Egypt. Copts had to swallow their share of hatred, discrimination and exclusion. Yet Copts are Egyptian to the core; it was just not possible to expel them out of the country as others who came from other ethnic origins. They thus stayed on, but had to pay the price for being Christian. Their loyalty to Egypt was placed in doubt, their rights were compromised, and they were altogether treated as second-class citizens in their home country. At the best of times they were referred to as ‘one of the nation’s two elements [Muslim and Copt]’ and targeted with calls for ‘accepting the other’, implying all the same that Copts were the ‘other element’ of the Egyptian nation. No one seemed to notice that the national fabric that had always woven different Egyptians into one had lost the wealth of quality in its elements: that of diversity and plurality.
Copts met their marginalisation and ultimate exclusion by withdrawal. Yet they were a vibrant community that would not easily give up or bury their talents. They resorted to exercising in their churches and Coptic societies all the activities they were excluded from in the public sphere. The result was an almost complete withdrawal from Egyptian public life; the Copts had instead their own political, cultural, business, social, artistic and sports activities. It was their way of shielding themselves against the blows of marginalisation; even if the wider Egyptian community excluded them, they would in their own way live parallel healthy, successful lives in their assemblies, clubs, and centres, and churches.
Copts who continued to practise activities with their fellow Muslims became a rarity; they were remarkable exceptions to the rule, but had to accept being assigned back seats in any public activity.
Promising, successful Coptic individuals emerged inside the churches and Coptic associations that opened their arms to receive those who had been excluded from the public sphere; the exclusion policy could not snuff out their genius or talent. But genius and talent always aspire to more elevated goals; in case of sports the aspiration is for higher-level competition and championship, local and international. This meant emerging out of the private circles and into public ones, to compete on the district level then on to the governorate and top-tier club levels, and further on to national and international competition.
The change that occurred in Egypt over the recent years, especially the more inclusive, progressive climate that prevailed after Egyptians rid themselves of the Islamist post-Arab Spring rule, raised the spirits and hopes of Copts. Gifted Coptic sportsmen began approaching public sports clubs, federations and national teams. But they found themselves not welcome. They had ventured into a Muslim monopoly field, and they were met with a mixture of surprise, entrenched fanaticism, and rejection. And even those who were sometimes nominally accepted were later excluded from real participation in the teams. Copts got angry. They protested and rebelled, without realising that their exclusion and withdrawal during the ‘crisis era’ greatly contributed to their suffering today. A Muslims friend who was preoccupied with the issue of citizenship rights for Copts once asked: “why do your [Coptic] children play football on the church court, whereas our [Muslim] children play football in the street?” Football is the most popular Egyptian game; so popular in fact that it is played in the side streets and alleys. I believe the question summed up the whole predicament.
We need to find out how to tackle what this question denotes, especially after Egypt embarked on the path of modernity and reform on 30 June 2013. Let us recapture the genuine Egyptian spirit and fuse into it. Changing reality takes more than crying over spilt milk; we must work on it.
18 September 2016