-Cairo - September 2008
-Taken from The Scotsman (in two parts)
In the shadows of the Moqattam cliffs that tower over Cairo’s eastern fringes, Safwat Nazeem is picking his way through tens of thousands of empty plastic bottles. They arrive on donkey-drawn carts from every corner of the city and beyond, and – after being deftly sorted and shredded by Safwat and his colleagues – will be sold on as raw material to one of the giant Chinese factories dotted across the nearby desert. Safwat, like his father before him, is one of the Zabaleen, Egypt’s invisible army of refuse collectors who gather the urban waste around them and welcome it into their homes. Their neighbourhood, known as Garbage City, overflows with rubbish – piled up in doorways, sprawling over courtyards, balanced precariously on roofs – all waiting to be sifted and recycled. And after a recent spate of national violence and media intrigue, the Zabaleen have become a community on the defensive.
Like the vast majority of Garbage City’s residents, Safwat is a Coptic Christian – part of an eight million-strong religious minority in Egypt that predates the presence of Islam in the country by over 500 years. The degree of social cohesion between the two religions has risen and fallen through the centuries, from the forced conversions visited upon Copts during the Mamluk period to the ‘golden age’ of social harmony in the early 20th century, when Christians and Muslims united behind the nationalist cause. In the past few months, however, the country’s fragile sectarian balance has been rocked by a series of violent clashes, fierce accusations of discrimination on both sides and rumours of murky special interests spreading disruption from abroad. International media outlets have warned of the impending ‘Lebanonisation’ of the Arab World’s biggest country, whilst sceptics insist the upturn in religious fighting is merely a media invention, though one which is fast spiralling into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The story begins in late May, when four Christians were gunned down in a Cairene jewellery shop. The government dismissed the incident as a common robbery, neglecting to explain why nothing was taken from the store. Pope Shenouda, the ageing patriarch of the Coptic Church, opted to stay quiet following the incident, and maintained his silence even when a similar attack took place on a Coptic jeweller in Alexandria a few days later. But he was finally forced to speak out on May 31st when a serene Coptic outpost, the 1,700 year old monastery of Abo Fana, was besieged by dozens of Muslims following a land dispute with local farmers. “The attacks began 150 metres away from the monastery, and they got closer and closer until they were next to the monastery, where three monks were kidnapped and tortured,” announced the Pope. “They were pressured to renounce their religion and spit on the cross. When they refused they were whipped. The monks were tied to trees and blindfolded during the whipping and one monk had his leg broken.”
Although the Abo Fana controversy occurred 300 miles south of the Egyptian capital, its impact was felt throughout the country, bringing long-simmering resentments to the fore of the public debate. Copts have consistently complained that archaic building regulations hamper the repair or expansion of their churches, strangling the ancient faith with bureaucracy. They also claim they are denied access to key positions in government because of their religion. Muslim commentators have argued that most Copts are better off than their Muslim counterparts, and that the Christian faithful are being manipulated by external forces using the guise of ‘minority rights’ to interfere with Egypt’s internal affairs. Critics on both sides of the divide agree that the potential for sectarian violence is growing as the economic hardship faced by all Egyptians intensifies.
Having finished work for the day, Safwat sits sipping tea in his neatly furnished apartment above the rubbish mound. Although the 31-year-old is not particularly observant – he only attends the nearby St Samaans Church, a huge cave cathedral carved out of the Moqattam hillside, about once a year – he shares the fears of many Christians that the changing political landscape in Egypt is threatening his way of life. “I don’t feel insecure personally,” he says, glancing up at a figurine of the Virgin Mary, “but the government doesn’t do enough to protect our rights.” He bemoans the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest political opposition force. “‘Islam is the solution’ is their slogan,” he sighs, “but there is no place for Christians in that, no place for anyone else.” Safwat is one of the few inhabitants of Garbage City that are willing to speak out on this subject; life here is tightly controlled, both by the ecclesiastical establishment and the rich businessmen who make a fortune from the semi-official waste management process, and residents are consequently afraid of talking publicly. The poverty they live in is often overlooked by the wider Muslim community, who characterise the Copts as a rich, privileged elite, citing individuals like prominent Copt businessman Naguib Sawiris – one of the world’s 100 richest men – as examples.
Yet despite the mud-slinging, there is a growing backlash against the intense media focus on Copt-Muslim relations at home and abroad. “What is happening is that people are now turning normal day-to-day clashes into religious disputes,” argues Sameh Fawzy, a political analyst. He believes that marginalised social groups are increasingly using the mask of sectarian tension as a means of getting the authorities to meet their demands. In a political system riddled with corruption and nepotism, colouring local grievances with a religious hue is proving to be a sure-fire way of ensuring national attention. “The government decided a long time ago to put the law on hold when a sectarian problem takes place, trying to solve it instead by reconciliation between both groups,” says Fawzy. “The result is that people use sectarianism to try and circumvent the law.”
The tensions are multiplied by the actions of émigré Copts, especially in the United States where Coptic groups recently held large protests outside the Egyptian embassy. The US Copts Association lists on its website 19 ‘undeniable and documented acts of aggression and practices of discrimination. These acts are the products of intentional and/or neglectful practices of both the Egyptian government and various groups of misguided and misinformed Muslims.’ Some believe expatriate criticisms of the Egyptian regime are fuelling domestic charges of disloyalty against Copts such as Safwat, who sees himself as a ‘Christian first and an Egyptian second’. “I am not on the side of those Copts marching outside Egypt, because they are not here, we are,” he says. “These disputes have always been present, but now because of satellite television and the media they are being made more of.” Fawzy agrees: “I don’t think the demonstrations abroad will help our problems. My concern is that this kind of behaviour makes ordinary Muslims on the street more suspicious, more sceptical and will create more difficulties between the communities at a grass-roots level.”
And it is not just Copts who are wary of the way in which sectarian disputes have been hyped up by the press, particularly Western media outlets documenting the growing isolation of Copts from mainstream Egyptian society. “Foreign influences will always try to attack the weakest point in a country to poison it, and one of our weakest points is the religious divide,” claims Sanaa Khalil, a 41-year-old Muslim rent broker who lives in the mixed Muslim-Christian neighbourhood of Shubra in Cairo. “Weakening Egypt is part of a wider agenda that the West has for the Middle East. There is nothing new about clashes between Muslims and Christians here, so why so much attention now?”
After myriad protests and a 1,000 strong monastic sit-in following events at Abo Fana, the violence has, for now, receded. An uneasy calm prevails, much to the relief of Christians like Safwat. Like countless others, he recently headed into town to see the new film ‘Hassan and Morcos’, a box-office smash which makes comic mileage out of social strains between Egypt’s Christian and Muslim communities. Some groups have accused one of the stars, veteran Muslim actor Adel Imam, of apostasy following his decision to portray a Christian on the big screen. Yet despite the controversies, Sameh Fawzy views the film’s success is a positive development. “People now realise that to keep society harmonious and integrated, we must address such problems, instead of denying their existence,” he says.
He is also optimistic that, as they have done in the past, the two religions can overcome their differences by focusing on a shared battle, inextricably linking the Coptic issue with the national agenda of political reform in this volatile state. “When Egyptians speak about democracy and political reform they forget sectarian incidents because they find a common project, without excluding anybody,” he insists. “But when Egyptians forget or put aside the common project, they start thinking about religious division. That’s what we have to avoid.”