Monday, May 09, 2005

Copts, Muslims, and our Defunct Public Space

"La Ville"

One of my earliest memories of school is sitting in classroom 3-B, in navy cardigan over my pink-and-grey checked maryala, copying down what Soeur Louise Angela wrote on the board with the thick, rich white chalk in the navy blue box she always brought back from Italy. I remember how the box had pictures of the snow-topped Alps on it, and the chalk wrote a smooth, mellifluous line on the board, not like the ghalban, anemic Egyptian chalk that squeaked and squawked on the poor blackboard. My notebook for French has a white cover with drawings of flowers surrounding a generic university dome. On the back cover it proudly states where the notebook was made: Masna’ Kurrasat Sabri.

We were just beginning to use blue ballpoint ink in place of pencil. Under “La Ville” I copied: Nabil et sa soeur Nada vont en ville. Ils passent devant le cinéma, le bureau de poste, l’hôpital, l’hôtel, l’église et la mosque. Ils s’arrêtent devant l’horloge; Nabil la regarde et dit: “Il est trois heures.” Nabil entre dans une librairi; il achète un journal pour papa.

I dug up the notebook when I read two wonderful posts by fellow bloggers Wa7damasrya and Beyond Normal. Wa7da lyrically reflects on Muslim Coptic relations and remembers with gratitude the grade school nuns who taught her the values precious to all religions. Beyond Normal has a very clever, very insightful black comedic riff inspired by a true story in the women’s car on the Metro involving a Muslim woman preacher who goads other passengers to harass and ultimately attack a Coptic passenger who objects to the woman’s unsolicited preaching in the car. Both posts have moved me to add my own reflections on the tetchy issue of sectarian relations in Egypt, though I’m sure I’ll take it in directions Wa7damasrya and Beyond Normal might not agree with, and that’s as it should be.

Like Wa7da, I am forever indebted to the French-speaking Egyptian and Italian nuns who taught me everything I know about hard work, the true meaning of Ihsan (the Islamic notion of perfecting all that one does), and aesthetic appreciation. Like Beyond Normal, I often ponder the erosion of a collective identity that can bind us all together as Egyptian citizens, and the proliferation of separatist, parochial identities hostile to each other. I too have been subjected to roving do-gooders who make it their business to lecture perfect strangers on how to conduct themselves. I remember one summer afternoon on an Alexandria tram ride back from the Mahmoud Said museum in Gianaclis (one of my favorite haunts in this country), a stranger interrupted my reverie by pointing out that it was afdal (better) if the tiny slits in my dress could be sewed up. Another time, while I was in the middle of buying Port Said bus tickets in Torgoman station, another complete stranger leaned over and whispered to me confidentially about some unbelievably trivial aspect of my attire that she felt needed fixing. Another time I was waiting for a friend to buy things from a clothes store in Ataba when a male clerk disapprovingly passed me a card that I assumed was an advert for the store (and wondered why he seemed so cross). I looked at the two sides of the card, it was titled something like “Advice to my Muslim Sister” and filled with exhortations never to wear pants; I was of course wearing pants.

It’s no secret that whatever few remaining public places we have (not to mention private spaces) have been permeated with aggressive signs of religiosity that adherents insist on foisting upon others. And no, I don’t mean the higab, and I’m not going to wail here as some Egyptians like to do about how many women are muhaggabat and how this portends the backwardness and conservatism of Egyptian society. Spare me. Instead I have in mind the literal erosion of public spaces and public identities, the rise of identity politics, the social routinization of sectarian prejudice, and the institutionalized discrimination and reverse discrimination that characterizes Muslim-Coptic relations as we know them. Having a few token Copts in high places or Coptic Christmas as a national holiday are tenuous palliatives that mask an alarming decline in the quality of citizenship, not just for Copts but for all Egyptians.

I can’t but see this as intimately linked to the erosion of government-citizen relations over the past 15 years (my social democratic beliefs will be obvious here). The government has almost completely withdrawn from any service provision role: health, education, economic planning, any semblance of public regulation of any sphere is now just that, a skeletal presence. Everything has been de facto privatized. We all know public education has shifted to the homes of students and teachers with the parallel political economy of the private lesson and its cash nexus. Public television is a pathetic, corrupt empire dedicated to the comings and goings of the first family. Public health closed up shop years ago; even the destitute and dying balk at spending time in a public hospital.

Economic planning has been abandoned in favor of shady businessmen-ministers signing off on ad-hoc projects that serve their personal and class interests. The vast Egyptian bureaucracy is now making a profit on erstwhile public services, as a matter of policy and not individualized corruption: go to the Soviet-style Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics and they’ll sell you any public document, at inflated prices. My favorite is the antique Government Printing House in Boulaq, Ha’yat Shu’un Matabi’ al-Amiriyya. I am endlessly amused by its cranky clerks and gladly put up with them in light of the subsidized publication prices. Now however you have to deal with their irritation and unreasonably high fees for government documents. Public theater, state-run bookstores and other cultural venues that used to feature avant-garde talent at symbolic prices (in the bad old Nasserist days), now showcase substandard talents at shamelessly inflated prices. The very idea of a public utility is a thing of the past: we have to pay for electricity, transportation, sanitation, and soon water; poor Egyptians have been paying for potable water for decades.

The only area where we see the state’s face is security. Not our own, of course (are you crazy?), but its security, Amn al-Dawla. In this context of complete absence of state regulation, inaugurated with Mr. Anwar Sadat’s Infitah in the 1970s, a void is left for other entities to fill, with their own parochial visions and identity-based appeals. And I’m not just talking about Islamists, but the network of Coptic charities that have been the backbone of Coptic Egyptian life since at least the 19th century. If you want services, you go to your co-religionists to get them. The Egyptian state has become a vast, bumbling structure of interlocking fiefdoms held together by nepotism, inertia, and force. Citizenship as a result has eroded; it’s unsustainable in the absence of tangible services to prop it up and a coherent state to protect it. Pockets of professionalism and corporate solidarity subsist here and there; case in point the higher echelons of the judiciary, set to convene on May 13.

The rotting of citizenship and ballooning of only the repressive side of the state make for all sorts of social tensions and ills, prime among these the rise of a virulent form of identity politics that reached its zenith in the mid-1990s, when the violent Islamist groups attacked Coptic citizens and their property and popularized noxious notions of the Copts as alien, unclean, untrustworthy, and all the rest of the bigoted images. The Egyptian state crushed these groups, but it didn’t rehabilitate the cracked vessel of citizenship, and so we will continue to have sectarian tensions as long as the Egyptian state has only a negative and repressive instead of constructive role toward its citizens.

Is it any wonder that such a context is fertile breeding ground for identity politics, a strain of politics Hosni Mubarak’s regime has only intensified? What I mean is that Mubarak has systematically frozen and neutered all social institutions capable and proven to foster broad-based citizenship identities. Instead, universities are run like prisons, professional associations are monitored and doctored, political parties are a joke, labor unions are government adjuncts, NGOs are riven with government agents and wily entrepreneurs, and public schools, those building blocks of citizenship and character building, are literally empty, replaced by privatized education rife with bigotry, ignorance and an ethic of cramming rather than appreciating anything about life or learning. Even those Egyptian public schools oh-so-kindly funded by the American government have a clear agenda.

I thank God every day that I went to a school that respected our nascent minds, led by strict disciplinarians who nevertheless taught us how to appreciate art and beauty. It wasn’t all rosy, to be sure. Some teachers were evil and mean, and some teachers hit us with rulers. But there was an ethos of cultivating young charges. This is an Egyptian school, staffed by an Egyptian staff with a smattering of resident foreigners, not a fancy or big-name foreign school for the rich and famous or a “pilot school” dependent on the largesse of Elizabeth Cheney and her bosses. It is a private school, but charged very modest fees rather than the extortionary practices of today's private schools and their dubious accreditation. During religion period, the Coptic and Catholic girls went to their religion class and we went to ours, where we were taught to read Qur’anic Suras, not how Christians should never be trusted. Then we came back together in Room 3-B to learn drawing and Arabic and French (not one at the expense of the other as is now routine). For mother’s day we made cards and little handmade gifts for our mothers. My cousin tells me that now on mother’s day students are obliged to give gold jewelry to their teachers, part of yet another privatized culture (of obsequious gift-giving) permeating the scholastic environment. She gave her teacher a rose, which the woman sighed and put on her desk as she joyfully accepted the next student’s offer of a gold ring.

I hate tales of decline and nostalgia for the good old days, and I don’t mean this to be that kind of narrative. What I have tried to express are the very public, political roots of sectarian tension and bigotry. To me, the very real, painful sectarian divisions between Egyptians are a grave symptom of a repressive, exclusive state that has done everything to undermine any sense of inclusive citizenship, because it knows it has no claim to represent any but the most privileged and powerful. The Egyptian government perceives Copts not as individual citizens but as a problem to be managed, lest the Americans and US-based Coptic advocacy groups embarrass the regime. Hosni Mubarak has aided and abetted Pope Shenouda’s ambition to become the Copts’ political (and not just spiritual) leader, just as he has fueled the Ikhwan’s martyrology by consistently refusing to legalise them. Just as he runs his state, Hosni Mubarak prefers to deal with “big men” leaders of entire communities and constituencies rather than run the risk of allowing these communities to govern themselves and develop horizontal linkages with other communities. It’s the colonial model, redux. Discourage parties and unions, encourage and/or handpick tribal, sectarian bosses who will lead their flocks and keep them under control.

If there are no public institutions, if there are no public services, if there are no public places, then where will Egyptians convene to find out who they are and what they want? Where will we go to interact with one another and uncover our syncretic, tolerant roots? By public places I mean actual spaces where citizens can people-watch, truck and barter, and tell time by the public square’s clock. The last public space in Cairo, the Corniche, is occupied by legions of private hotels and cafes where seeing the Nile requires shelling out varying amounts of cash. Even the ostensibly poor stretches of the Corniche are taken over by tea hawkers who arrange their gaudy, purple plastic chairs and dispense soda, tirmis, and the like. Yet this offends the sensibilities of polite society, but not the wholesale buying up of the Corniche by multinationals, where the aristocrats can go to eat and drink away from the prying eyes of the poor. Spare me.

The Metro could have been one such a public space, as it is in healthier societies, but our class society prefers overburdening shabby roads and infrastructure with ever more private cars rather than sharing space with all the poor and the Sudanese refugees and the street kids who sell trinkets and crumpled Qur’anic booklets in Metro cars. The rich abandon public spaces, and those consigned to using them abandon any ethics of public space-sharing and bring in their personal passions: preaching or loud cell phone conversations or telling strangers how to dress or harassing those who challenge them or tell them to be quiet.

This doesn’t mean I’m simply blaming the government, it does mean that no matter how enlightened both Muslims and Christians may be and how perfectly neighborly they try to be (and I wonder how hard they try), there’s still the festering problem of public structures that must sustain sociability and tolerance. It goes beyond being polite or neighborly, or claiming a bad apple here and there. A new sense of public citizenship must be restored, for Copts and Muslims, both disenfranchised, both repressed, but Copts more than Muslims.

But this won’t just happen if we call for it, it’ll happen only if we take back social organizations and institutions, and take back our right to elect leaders we can hold to account, and take back all our other pilfered citizenship rights and prerogatives. It seems to me the current upheaval in Egypt is engaged in precisely this project of rights recovery. Taking back the streets, taking back professorial and judicial autonomy, taking back the right to say no and enough. And so I do not agree with those who say that “opposition movements” (I don’t include parties) are just saying no and offering no alternatives. Their very existence is an alternative. They’re bringing together people who disagree on everything and saying we agree at least on this one thing: we want to be free, we want to have rights, we want self-governance. If this isn’t an alternative, what is?