Copts & Brothers

A surprising dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's Coptic Christians suggests a new wa

Two years ago, on 14 October 2005, a major religious riot between Christians and Muslims broke out in the backstreets of Alexandria. An angry mob spilled out of a mosque during Ramadan and began attacking the large Coptic church of Mar Girgis - St George - on the other side of the road.

Tension between the two communities in Egypt had been high ever since the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When George W Bush used the word "crusade", it implicated the Copts, in the eyes of some Muslims, in a wider Christian assault on the Muslim world. The immediate cause of the violence, however, was a play that had been mounted in the church about resisting conversion to Islam - part of a programme of summer activities for the Coptic youth organised by the local parish priest. When a video of the play, made by the proud father of one of the actors, was found on the hard drive of a laptop that he had inadvertently sold to a Muslim hardliner, trouble quickly escalated.

In the days that followed the publication of the first articles about the play in the Islamist press, and the distribution of DVDs of the performance around the mosques of Alexandria, angry Muslims went on the rampage, believing that the play criticised Islamic beliefs and denigrated the Prophet. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown at Coptic properties, windows were broken, six churches were trashed, Coptic jewellery shops were looted, and two men were killed: one a Christian, one a Muslim. Many more were injured.

At one point, a party of 150 Coptic girls who come to Mar Girgis for religious instruction was besieged within the church by a large mob, and a potentially horrific situation was avoided only after the police belatedly answered a distress call from the parish priest, Abouna Augustinos. Tear gas and water cannon had to be used before the mob finally dispersed. Four more Copts were knifed as they came out of church services the following Sunday. "What happened that week has left a permanent scar," I was told by Dr Kamal Siddiq, a Coptic dermatologist who, like many, was forced into hiding during the rioting. "We used to have peaceable relations with our neighbours. But in this atmosphere any small incident can instantly escalate."

Now, however, an initiative has been launched that brings Coptic Christians together with young members of al-Ikhwan, or the Muslim Brotherhood, to ensure that such misunderstandings are not repeated. One of the events that has been planned is a play in which young Copts and Muslim Brothers perform side by side. The man behind the play, Youssef Sidhom, is the editor of Watani, Egypt's leading Coptic news paper. He believes that dialogue between the two faiths is a pressing necessity. "After the success of the Muslim Brothers in the recent elections we can no longer ignore them," he says. "We need to enter into dialogue, to clarify their policies towards us, and end mutual mistrust."

The dilemma faced by the Copts reflects a larger question now facing western policymakers. Throughout the Muslim world, political Islam is on the march. In the past three or four years, almost everywhere that Muslims have had the right to vote - in Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt and Algeria - they have voted en masse for the religious parties in a way they have never done before. The only two exceptions to this rule are Morocco and Jordan, the latter in an election marked by accusations of mass vote-rigging.

In countries where the government has been most closely linked to US policies, the rise of political Islam has been most marked: in Pakistan the religious parties, which used to gain only 3 per cent of the vote, have been polling around 20 per cent. Equally, in the 2006 election in Palestine, Hamas roundly defeated the blatantly corrupt and US- supported Fatah.

It has long been an article of faith for the neocons that bringing democracy to the Middle East would do away with the Islamists in the same way that the arrival of democracy saw off the communists in eastern Europe. In reality, while US foreign policy since 9/11 has indeed succeeded in turning Muslim opinion against the decadent monarchies and corrupt nationalist parties that have ruled the region for the past 50 years, Muslims, rather than turning to liberal secular parties, have lined up behind the parties that have stood up against US intervention. The religious parties, in other words, have come to power for reasons largely disconnected from religion.

Nowhere has the march of the Islamists been more steady than in Egypt: at the last general election in 2005, members of the nominally banned Muslim Brotherhood, standing as independents, saw their representation rise from 17 seats to 88 in the 454-seat People's Assembly, despite reports of systematic vote-rigging by President Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). At the same time, the face of the country has visibly changed: almost all Muslim women now wear the hijab and reject make-up, at least partly as a statement of political defiance against the west and western-backed regimes. This is a major change: as recently as the early 1990s the great majority of Egyptian women did not cover their hair.

The US response to gains made by the Islamists has been to retreat from its previous push for democracy when the "wrong" parties win - something that was most apparent in the notably undemocratic US response to the rise of Hamas in Palestine. This instinct was also at work in the US- and UK-brokered "rendition" of the Pakistani Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, in order to leave the electoral field clear for Benazir Bhutto - in effect imposing a single candidate on the electorate, until Musharraf's emergency changed all political calculations and Sharif was allowed to return. The US has also retreated from backing democracy in Egypt. Many of the Brotherhood's leading activists and business backers, as well as Mubarak's principal opponent in the 2005 presidential election, are now in prison. In September, four Egyptian newspaper editors were given prison sentences for libelling Mubarak and the NDP.

But the Egyptian Copts - the ancient Christian community who make up roughly 15 per cent of Egypt's population - don't have the luxury of looking the other way. They realise that with the decline in popularity of the NDP, they will have to learn, for better or worse, to live with the Islamists.

* * *

The Copts have long suffered petty discrimination. But the revival of the Islamists has made their position more uneasy and their prospects more uncertain than they have been for centuries. Like other Christian sects in the Middle East, the Copts now find themselves caught between their co-religionists in Europe and the US, and their strong cultural links with their compatriots in the east. As at the time of the Crusades, it is the eastern Christians who are getting it in the neck for what the people perceive as the anti-Islamic policies of the west.

Throughout the 1990s, Copts, especially in Upper Egypt, were targeted by the Islamist guerrillas of the Gama'a al-Islamiyya. In April 1992, 14 Copts were shot in Asyut Province for refusing to pay protection money. There followed a series of crude bombs outside Coptic churches in Alexandria and Cairo. In March 1994, militants attacked the ancient Coptic monastery of Deir al-Muharraq near Asyut; two monks and two laypeople were shot dead at the monastery's front gate. "In the last few years many churches were burned, many of our priests and laymen were killed," I was told by one Coptic monk. "Every day, there are death threats. The police arrest no one, though they know very well who does this."

Since then, however, the Gama'a has renounced violence, and the Islamists have concentrated on reaching power through the ballot box. At the same time, the Copts' political influence has slowly diminished: there is still one Coptic provincial governor and there are two Coptic ministers, one of them a popular technocrat nephew of the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But, in contrast to the situation under Nasser and Sadat, there are no Coptic senior policemen, judges, university vice-chancellors, or generals.

Yet if the Copts face a certain amount of institutional discrimination, Mubarak himself has been largely sympathetic to the community, making Christmas a national holiday and freeing up the rules on building new churches. The Copts know that things could get much worse for them if Mubarak falls and the Brothers come to power.

Samir and Nabil Morcos are among those Copts who have recently begun a series of public discussions with the younger generation of the Brothers. Many of these, they say, are moderate in their outlook, and wish to turn al-Ikhwan into a Muslim equivalent of a European Christian Democratic party, similar to the AKP in Turkey. They believe there is a major divide between the younger Brothers and the old guard, who share the illiberal and intolerant outlook of the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna. They also point out the role played by the Brothers in the Alexandria riots, where they acted quickly to calm the rioters and, in some cases, even formed human chains to stop the rioters entering Coptic districts.

After Coptic intellectuals recently appeared on al-Jazeera to discuss citizenship and the rights of religious minorities under an Ikhwan government, the Brothers promised to produce a policy document on the subject. "The Copts are much more vocal in their claim for rights these days," says Samir Morcos, who took part in the debate. "We have been expressing our fears to the political bureau of al-Ikhwan, and discussing new interpretations of the various Islamic texts about minorities. Dialogue is always a positive thing. We have discovered a whole new generation who are doing their best to find a new fusion of democracy, modernity and Islam. A lot of them are secular Muslims - former leftists who have moved intellectually towards a rediscovery of Islamic tradition. In many ways, they are an Islamic version of the neocons."

"The Brothers are not a solid block," agrees Nabil. "The recent growth of the Brotherhood has largely come out of the failure of Nasserism. Many of the younger Brothers are there not for explicitly religious reasons, but because they are struggling to find new answers to the chronic problems the Arab world is facing. We want to be part of that discussion. As Egyptians, it is important that we all struggle against poverty, lack of democracy and social justice."

At the offices of Watani, Youssef Sidhom is also involved in opening up dialogue. In the past few years there has been a growing polarisation in Egyptian society, he says with concern. A generation ago, most Egyptians chose names for their children which could be either Christian or Muslim. Now children's names - such as Mohammed or Girgis (George) - immediately define their sectarian affiliation. Likewise, the near-universal adoption of the hijab by Muslim women has left Coptic women dangerously exposed and sometimes subject to threats and abuse. In the face of growing discrimination, the Copts have tended to form their own schools and social clubs, keeping their distance from the Muslim majority.

This is something the Coptic clergy - every bit as radically conservative as their Muslim counterparts - have often encouraged, but Sidhom believes it is an extremely dangerous development. "In schools and universities, in sports and in cultural activities, Muslims and Christians no longer mix together," he says, "and these attitudes are encouraged by the religious leaders of both the churches and mosques. Even if there are friendships across the divide, there is little trust. If we continue to allow the Coptic youth to be separated from their fellow citizens, there will be a growth of mistrust on either side. But with dialogue, both sides are surprised to find how much they have in common."

Sidhom has given one of the more progressive Muslim Brother MPs a column in his paper, allowing the Copts to ask him questions and air their anxieties. "There was horror when the column first appeared. But it has allowed us to ask about the Brotherhood's attitude not only to the Copts, but to such issues as women, banking and terrorism," says Sidhom. "Dialogue is not the same as surrender - we differ on many issues and want a secular state not an Islamic one. But what we really need is radical constitutional reform. As long as the Brothers are the only opposition to Mubarak and the NDP, this situation is going to get worse."

* * *

What is happening in Cairo may be a useful model of how to engage with the ever more powerful democratic religious parties across the Islamic world. Right-wing commentators such as Melanie Phillips, Michael Gove and Martin Amis tend to see the march of political Islam as the triumph of an anti- liberal "Islamofascism" that aims to conquer the west through jihad and establish a universal caliphate. Although some Islamic ideologues do speak in these terms, to see this as the principal or even a major thrust in political Islam is ignorant and simplistic.

The truth is more complex. First, by concentrating on the violent fringe of jihadis, we in the west have in many ways missed the main story - the rise of a vast and largely democratic force. Second, while determination to resist western hegemony in the Muslim world is an important driving force in political Islam, the movement has local causes, too. Some - such as the promotion of Wahhabi Islam by Saudi madrasas - are religious, but most are not. In Egypt, as in many countries, the parties of political Islam contain a broad spectrum of anti-government opinion, and it is often entirely secular factors that have brought them to power. In Palestine, the open corruption and greed of the PLO led many to support Hamas. In Lebanon, the rise of Hezbollah has been the result of Hasan Nasrallah's status as the man who gave the Israelis a bloody nose, who compensates the people for war damage and provides social services, just as Hamas does in Gaza.

The same is true of the rise of political Islam in Pakistan, where the Islamist parties have benefited from the unpopularity of the feudal and military elites that have held power since 1947. When I interviewed Abdul Rashid Ghazi in the Red Mosque shortly before his death in the storming of the complex in early July, he returned again and again to issues of social justice. "We want our rulers to be honest people," he repeated. "But now the rulers are living a life of luxury, while thousands of innocent children have empty stomachs and can't even get basic necessities."

Youssef Boutros-Ghali, Egypt's Coptic minister of finance, also believes the rise of political Islam is largely due to secular factors: "The success of the Brothers does not come expressly from religious sources. Their popularity is primarily a result from our [the NDP's] unpopularity - they are quite simply the main focus of opposition to us. Our society is in transit, and transitions are not painless. But give me five years of high growth and prosperity, and a better distribution of income, and I guarantee you that this problem would roll back completely."

The only exceptions to the litany of Islamist electoral successes are significant, and confirm Boutros-Ghali's instincts: in the relatively stable, prosperous and peaceful kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco the Islamist tide has been checked at the ballot box. In the case of Morocco, the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party was expected to sweep the polls in November, but ended up coming second behind the secular-nationalist, pro-monarchist Istiqlal (Independence) Party.

Either way, it is only by opening dialogue with the different Islamist parties across the Muslim world that we are likely to find those with which we can work. Like the Copts, we may well discover in talking to them that less separates us than we at first imagined.

William Dalrymple is the author of "From the Holy Mountain: a Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium" (Harper Perennial, £9.99). His latest book, "The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857" (Bloomsbury, £8.99), recently won the Duff Cooper Prize. www.williamdalrymple.com

Egypt’s Christian history

1st century AD Christianity arrives from Palestine

200 Egypt is largely Christian; the Church of Alexandria is second in importance only to Rome

641 Arabs invade; over the next 200 years most Egyptians convert to Islam

13th century Following the Crusades, Copts are persecuted by Egypt's Mamluk rulers; forced conversions take place

1952 to present After Gamal Abdel Nasser comes to power in a nationalist coup, Copts are increasingly marginalised. Discrimination worsens with the rise of Islamism in the 1990s

Research by Rachel Aspden

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496