Equal and more Equal

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One of our fellow human rights advocates, Amnesty International – Egyptian Action Group coordinator Mina Yassa takes a look at Morsi’s Egypt in a special piece for The Australian Coptic Movement Association.

 

In Animal Farm, George Orwell’s timeless tale of revolution-turned-tyranny, the definitive “commandment” of the animals that revolted against their dictator-farmer was: “all animals are equal”. Everything was going great in the liberated farm and the entire beastly society was jubilant at the ousting of the drunken and irresponsible Mr. Jones. Unfortunately, one group of animals, the pigs, exploited the situation and established their own dictatorial regime over the farm. Gradually, over a period of time, the ultimate commandment of the farm tragically evolved into: “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

While written as a parody of Joseph Stalin’s usurpation of the Russian Revolution, the allegorical classic strikes loud and clear chords among the followers of Egyptian politics after the 25 January Revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s gradual attempts to consolidate power through underhand agreements with the Military, the appointment of Brothers to key state and media positions and the silencing of opposition have given birth to a new expression to describe what is slowly taking place in Egypt: ikhwanisation – from the Arabic name of Brotherhood. The parallels of stolen revolutions aside, the oddly-worded ultimate commandment of the animals conjures up interesting parallels on its own – parallels that expose the deeply rooted inequality that exists within the Egyptian justice system.

While probably intended as a humorous paradox – ‘equal, but more equal’ – in Egypt, this paradox is actually played out in broad daylight within the vaguely complex system that governs the state’s regretful relationship with its minorities, the largest of which, and the primary subject of this piece, are the Coptic Christians.

The ruling Muslim Brotherhood are quick to point out that the new Constitution they hastily passed into effect expressly upholds freedom of religion – ‘all are equal’ it seems. However, this Constitution itself limits the definition of ‘religion’ to “heavenly religions”, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The thousands of Egyptian Baha’is or atheists are effectively forced to adopt a heavenly religion or be excluded from all government services – ‘but some are more equal than others.’ Within the heavenly religions themselves, we find that the Constitution officially guarantees the freedom to places of worship. Yet the Constitution is effectively overruled by the active application of an Ottoman-era decree that severely restricts any construction or repairs of churches. Simple repairs of old churches, such as fixing a window or installing toilets, must undergo long, drawn out bureaucratic process that usually take years. While building a new church requires a presidential decree, no such restrictions are placed on the building of mosques – ‘equal, but more equal’.

Perhaps the greatest example of this paradox, and one that best illustrates the deep-rooted and complex dynamics of the institutionalised sectarianism that exists in Egypt, is the use of the so-called ‘reconciliation sessions’. In these extra-judicial processes, victims of sectarian violence are forced to ‘negotiate’ with their attackers and accept the arbitrary terms and conditions set by the state and, often enough, the aggressors themselves.

It is probably best to clarify how these reconciliation sessions work by demonstrating a recent incident in Dahshur, a town 40 km south of Cairo, where such sessions were used. The incident erupted on 27 July 2012 when a Muslim by the name of Ahmed Ramadan went to Sameh Samy’s (a Copt) laundrette to collect his ironed shirts. One shirt had been accidently burned and at Ramadan’s protest, Samy agreed to pay for it. The two made arrangements to meet that evening after the breaking of the Ramadan fast. Mr. Ramadan, however, arrived later in the afternoon, accompanied by dozens of people, armed with sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails. Upon seeing the crowd, Samy locked himself up, along with his father and brother, in the shop which also serves as the family home. According to Samy, the attackers fired shots and launched Molotov cocktails. One of these failed to explode and Samy threw it back and it struck a 25 year old Muslim passerby, Moaz Mohammad Hasaballah, who was badly burned and taken to hospital where he later died of his injuries. Over the following days, armed mobs attacked, looted and burned numerous houses and retail businesses of Copts in the town including those who had nothing at all to do with the incident.

President Morsi’s response to the crisis? A mirror reflection of former president Mubarak’s approach – an eight-member committee of Shura Council members was sent in to Dahshur to ‘reconcile’ the Muslim and Coptic communities. Despite calls by the Coptic Church leadership that the “authorities must quickly bring the perpetrators to justice”, the aims of the committee were clearly spelt out by Ahmed Fahmy, the Speaker of the Shura Council: “This isn’t a fact-finding committee, it’s a reconciliation committee. Our aim is to achieve reconciliation between the two sides rather than determining who the culprits were.”

Accordingly, members of the local Muslim and Coptic communities were compelled by the authorities to come together to negotiate a reconciliation to the crisis. During these reconciliation sessions, it was demanded that a number of influential Coptic families leave the town in order to calm the mob down. When the Coptic representatives objected to this, the authorities made it clear that the government cannot guarantee the security of the community and that anyone who chooses to remain in the town does so at their own risk. Meanwhile, the police arrested Samy along with his father and brother on charges of manslaughter. Despite the participation of hundreds in the looting and destruction of Coptic homes and businesses, only five arrest warrants were issued by the public prosecution – and none have actually been arrested. Fearing a massacre similar to what happened in El Kosheh in January 2000, where 20 Copts, including women and children, were lynched by a similar mob, the 120 Coptic families that call Dahshur home fled the town – effectively, ethnically cleansed.

The outline of this incident follows a very similar pattern to other sectarian clashes that have occurred with increasing frequency since the collapse of the Mubarak regime. A small trivial incident (in this case, the accidental burning of a shirt) becomes an excuse for extremist Islamic groups to terrorise the minority Coptic communities, who, upon calling for help from the Egyptian government, are forced to negotiate a resolution with the very perpetrators of the terror against them. Collective punishment is then exacted against the entire community. In March 2013, a mob attacked St. George Church in Kom Ombo, Aswan, on a rumour that a 36 year old Muslim woman was kidnapped by local Copts – the woman was later found in the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh admitting to eloping with a lover. In another example from January 2013, a rumour that a Coptic man sexually abused a six year old girl was enough for a mob to destroy Coptic homes and businesses in the village of Al-Marshada. While the rumour was later proven to be false, the man and his family were driven away regardless.

To be fair, in all these attacks there were moderate Muslims who defended churches and some of their Coptic neighbours from extremist Salafists who form the majority of attackers. Yet the core of the issue and the cause of the increasing frequency of these incidents is the underlying inequality that marks the government’s response. Seeking to reconcile the two sides “rather than determining who the culprits were” leaves the delivery of justice subject to negotiations, with all the bias inherent in a give-and-take process. The better negotiator; or the side with the better position; or the party with the larger numbers are the ones who invariably come out of these sessions satisfied. While two equal sides are nominally present at these reconciliations sessions, justice is only served for the “more equal”. In reality, there is no justice at all here. The name may suggest a well-intentioned and inclusive reconciliation process, but the use of these informal extra-judicial sessions only inflames sectarian tensions by failing to bring criminals to justice. By prioritising reconciliation above justice, a de-facto culture of impunity is established whereby extremists are effectively given a free hand to carry out their own sense of justice – usually of the ‘divine’, and more brutal, kind.

By continuing this approach to sectarian divisions in this new era, the regime of President Morsi is effectively planting the seeds of a failed state. As famously stated by William Allen White, and all too tragically demonstrated in Orwell’s classic, “peace without justice is tyranny.”

 

Mina George Yassa is a coordinator with Amnesty International – Egyptian Action Group. You can contact Mina and assist the ongoing fight against perseuction by visiting www.egyptianaction.com.


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