New Internationalist

What is a ‘true Egyptian’?

Issue 444

Identity has become an obsession, discovers Maria Golia, among a people in turmoil.

It’s hard to stay grounded in the wake of Egypt’s uprising: there are too many issues demanding attention, too many dissonant energies and unfortunate events, sectarian violence the most disturbing among them. In recent years, scandals have emerged surrounding Christian women who allegedly left their husbands and converted to Islam, having fallen for Muslim men. The details are never clear: ask a Christian, and they will say the woman was kidnapped and forced to convert. Ask a Muslim, and they will say the woman was imprisoned by her family and priests before the romance could be consummated. Such stories are fuelled by rumour and a penchant for melodrama – a titillating combo of taboo sex, viral machismo and religious pride.

It happened again in May. The protagonist’s name, Kamelia, echoed throughout the nation, heralding another distraction from more urgent matters, including the parliamentary elections scheduled for September, where religious factions are manœuvring for position. The polemic approached the danger point with angry protests by Muslims, demanding the woman be allowed to convert, and Christians (a minority in Egypt) saying she never wanted to in the first place. I discussed the matter with a group of well-heeled Egyptian friends. ‘Who cares about Kamelia, or who she sleeps with? We never bothered with such things before,’ said one woman. ‘No siren,’ I remarked of Kamelia’s nondescript appearance. ‘And yet,’ one man noted, ‘this was the face that launched a thousand beards.’ The situation wasn’t funny, but we all laughed like mad. The next day 15 people were killed in a poor Cairo neighbourhood, where purportedly fundamentalist Muslims attacked a church in Kamelia’s name.

I’ve since asked friends and strangers to share their thoughts on the increase in sectarian strife: a church bombing in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, lethal religious riots in another poor quarter of Cairo in March, and now this. They mostly said the same thing: haram, the Arabic word for ‘forbidden’ but meaning in this case ‘for shame’.

Everyone wondered how this could happen. True Egyptians would never do this – launch a murderous rampage on their compatriots. It’s ignorance, some said; people are too easily influenced by rumour. It’s the media, said others; extremists should not be given column space/air time. It’s the army (currently overseeing an interim government), for failing to protect us properly. It’s the old regime, sowing discord from behind the scenes. Some blamed the undercurrent of anger the uprising has brought to the fore, and were themselves angry that this has proved to be the case. Many were frightened about how things might go, should Egypt miss its shot at a secular democracy. I felt detached from this insidious reality where religious divisiveness overcomes custom and common sense.

A ‘true Egyptian’ would never do this, so what is a true Egyptian? Someone who would never wantonly attack another human on the basis of faith or anything else; someone who shoulders their burdens, and expects nothing from the state but ineptitude and belligerence. ‘True Egyptians’ are aware of personal and societal shortcomings; indeed, accepting to a fault. Having accepted their exclusion from power for so long, they are uncertain how to use what little the uprising has given them, unacquainted with the responsibilities that power entails. Swept along by events, people have little time to spare for self-questioning. Virtually every aspect of institutional and civic life demands revision. Where to begin?

It is enough to attend a demonstration in Liberation Square to see how desperately focus is needed. The last one I went to was conducted in typical fashion, with ear-splitting rants issuing from five stages at once. There were at least as many people there for the outing (children in tow) as with the intention of taking a stand on a particular issue or making a show of collective strength. Local media reported attendance in the tens of thousands, an optimistic exaggeration reminiscent of the state’s flubbing of figures (GDP, unemployment, etc) to make things seem better than they were. In the afternoon, news of former first lady Suzanne Mubarak’s detention swept the crowd, making Kamelia and the killing of Christians old news. Here was yet another distraction, something to wave a flag about. Buffeted by the winds of change, Egypt is awash in emotions – anger, fear, pride – and sailing blindly into the future.

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