Problems on hold
Last April saw a vicious episode of sectarian violence against the Copts in the Cairo district of Khusous, which left five Copts and one Muslim dead. The violence took on ominous
proportions when, on the following day, the Copts who were holding a collective funeral for their dead at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo, were attacked for a full six hours as they prepared to leave the church to bury their dead. The incident raised such public fury that the Speaker of the Shura Council—the upper house of Parliament—Dr Ahmed Fahmy commissioned the Council’s Committee for National Security and Arab and Foreign Affairs to investigate and report on it.
The report defined the committee’s main focus as the rooting and empowerment of the citizenship principle, without any religious bias, in light of the national solidarity Egyptians had built up throughout their history.
It then went on to review an excellent report that had been issued by the People’s Assembly (PA) back in 1972, famously named the Oteifi Report after the man who chaired the six-member fact-finding commission who wrote it. The Oteifi commission was at the time formed to investigate a notorious sectarian attack which had taken place against the Copts of Khanka, north of Cairo. The Oteifi Report, after thorough investigations, boldly analysed the sectarian scene in Egypt, detailed the instances of the inequality prevalent between the Copts and Muslims, and proposed a number of important measures to correct the situation. It insisted that these measures should be implemented without delay, and warned of the dire consequences should they be disregarded and the sectarian situation left to aggravate. The proposals, however, remained mere ink on paper, and the sectarian situation did seriously aggravate ever since.
After thorough discussions and hearings, the recent Shura report declared, it was decided to form a commission to investigate the sectarian situation in Egypt, basing on the Constitutional right of Christian and Jewish Egyptians to resort to their respective religious legislation in case of family and religious affairs (Article 3); the freedom of belief, practicing religious rites and building places of worship (Article 33); and the equality of all citizens regardless of religion (Article 43). The aim was to look into the conflicts which arise among Egyptians on account of religion, and come up with answers that empower citizenship rights and duties, and pave the way towards unified laws for all Egyptians and their places of worship. A specified time frame should be drawn, the report demanded, for the implementation of the required measures.
Six resolutions were cited:
1. Instating a legal system for the building of mosques and churches.
2. Activating security on the street.
3. Applying the law to all Egyptians regardless of religion.
4. Placing surveillance cameras in mosques and churches.
5. Creating a mellow climate through banning instigation against and hatred of the ‘other’ in places of worship and on satellite TV channels.
6. Promptly concluding the investigations on the Khusous and Cathedral incidents and bringing the culprits to justice.
I believe the report is a step in the right direction, but I must admit that in my heart I am—just as many other Egyptians are—sceptical that it would be taken seriously by the Shura Council. This is not on account of the obviously Islamist leanings of the Shura, but owes to the notorious history of political will entirely unwilling to challenge the causes of sectarian strife.
The 1972 Oteifi Report sent out a clarion warning against official non-action vis-à-vis religious fanaticism or the curtailed religious rights of Copts. Notwithstanding, the State disregarded the report, while fanaticism and hatred continued to fester a long line of disgraceful attacks against Copts, their churches, property, lives and honour. Watani’s 439-episode “Problems on hold” file bears ample witness to that. I will cite here a couple of especially relevant instances.
On 30 July 2006, under the title Where is the report of the ‘second’ Oteifi commission?, I asked why a report expected by the fact-finding commission then formed by the PA to investigate an attack against Copts in Alexandria in April 2006 never saw light. Without setting so much as a foot in Alexandria to investigate the incident, the commission wrote a honeyed-rhetoric report that included only the testimonies of officials interspersed with some clichéd slogans, and never even submitted the report to the PA. The PA, on its part, never appeared to miss the report, and the entire matter was laid to rest.
Again, on 22 May 2011, I wrote Will the National Council for Human Rights’ (NCHR) report meet the same fate as the Oteifi Report? Two churches in the Cairo populous district of Imbaba had been attacked a week earlier, one of them burned, while Imbaba Copts were surrounded, terrorised, and attacked. The NCHR formed a fact-finding commission that issued a bold report on the reasons that led to the violence and offered a prescription to avoid similar sectarian outbursts. It stressed that the culprits should be brought to justice; sectarian incidents monitored; the rule of law upheld rather than the customary ‘conciliation sessions’; security tightened around places of worship; instigators of hatred or violence under the name of religion should be taken to account; and laws should be passed criminalising religious discrimination and unifying regulations for building places of worship. The report especially stressed the importance of spreading a culture of human rights, tolerance and acceptance of the other. But none of these resolutions materialised; the NCHR report went the same way as the Oteifi report.
And today, the almost non-stop, violent, sectarian strife in Egypt which led all the way to Khusous and the Cathedral, and potentially beyond, stands witness to the dire consequences of disregarding the NCHR report and, earlier, the Oteifi Report.
The recent Shura Council report thus inevitably raises the question: Is there the political will to take it seriously? Or will it go the same way as the ones that preceded it?
26 May 2013