There is much hand wringing in Egypt at the moment about the decision of Copts to mount a protest in front of the Radio and Television Building in the center of Cairo. The subtext of much of this anxious commentary is that Copts are merely playing into the hands of those who would seek to divide the nation, namely, the Salafis and the counterrevolutionary elements of the former regime.
I find this rhetoric frustrating and, frankly, condescending in the extreme. Indeed, those who suggest that Coptic protest is ‘bad for Egypt’ or ‘damaging to national unity’ fail to realize that the Coptic protests at Maspero take much of their inspiration from the revolution, and this is repeated again and again in the speeches and chants of the protesters. The revolution has opened a door for peaceful protest in Egypt that, presumably, should never be closed again. How, then, could advocates for the revolution view this protest as retrogressive, as a step backward?
The logic of this argument appears to rest on the assumption that all manifestations of sectarian identification in Egypt are ‘bad’ and ‘damaging,’ and that, at the end of the day, sectarianism is merely a diversion from Egyptians’ principal concerns.
This view is not only condescending but, in an important sense, tragic, because it betrays an extraordinary lack of understanding, on the part of the commentators, of contemporary Coptic life and culture. That there is a distinctly Coptic culture, which is central to the self-understanding and self-identification of the Copts, is a fact which seems to have eluded these commentators. Hence, the Coptic protests at Maspero need to be understood not simply as a response to those who burned the church at Helwan, or to the government officials who approach violence against Copts in a cavalier manner. The protests need to be understood as a call for acknowledgment of contemporary Coptic life and culture, of a distinctive Coptic identity.
To suggest that all forms of sectarian identification are ‘engineered’ for malevolent political purposes is, in an important sense, to devalue Coptic life, culture, and identity. Of course there are forms of sectarianism that are bad for Egypt, not least sectarianism that involves violence in whatever form. But is Egyptian identity so fragile as not to allow for cultural differences within the community of the nation? Is it not time to cast aside a monolithic ‘national unity’ discourse that has no tolerance for distinctive, public Coptic and Muslim identities, in favor of a vision of the nation as pluralistic?
The choice of the Radio and Television Building as the site of protest was quite deliberate: The Coptic protesters want their distinctive lives and concerns publicly acknowledged by fellow Egyptians. This means inclusion, not separation. I can only hope that the civic spirit of the revolution will allow for a pluralistic Egyptian identity in a way that post-colonial Egyptian culture hitherto has not.