The representation of Egypt in the Western media is completely wrong
From Mr Peter Welby:
Egypt is in some state of unrest. So far, so obvious. Those of you following the news will also have noticed that the Egyptian military has slaughtered hundreds of innocent protestors. That, I'm afraid, is where I have to stop you. Not because it isn't true – it might be – but because it is too early to say at this stage, and too easy to be drawn into a narrative in which one side is portrayed as purely evil, and the other as purely good. That happened in Syria where, without diminishing the deep disgust I have for Assad's government, I have from very early on been concerned that the motives of some of the rebels are not entirely pure either. And the current government of Egypt is not comparable to that of Assad.
First, a declaration of interest: I lived in Alexandria, in Northern Egypt, for 20 months or so, between September 2011 and this spring. I arrived just in time for the trouble surrounding the parliamentary elections. Then followed the Port Said massacre, which sparked incidents all over Egypt, some of which I got caught up in. It is an eye-opener to walk home from the shops carrying the ingredients for apple crumble, while on the streets all around one can hear gunfire, and individuals who only half an hour before one saw hacking at one another with makeshift weapons stream terror-stricken, blood running down their faces, in all directions. The police weren't involved in that particular incident, but it was no less bloody for being a civilian affair.
Then followed the presidential election – I was in Cairo on results day. The streets of that rowdy city emptied, while I (generally more reckless than intrepid) wandered them with my visiting girlfriend and a friend; I have never felt more palpable fear drench the air. In case you're wondering, it wasn't fear of Morsi. It was fear of unrest; further military government; what would happen if it was the 'wrong' result (whichever one that was) – fear, probably, of what would happen when one chose one's leader for the first time in Egyptian history.
Well, it was the right result as it turned out: the one that wasn't followed by violence or accusations of fraud (though I wouldn't struggle to believe them). So there were some wild promises. Apparently, President Morsi would fix the security problems, provide affordable food, reduce the dreadful traffic, and clean the streets of rubbish, all within the first 100 days! Truly he must have been some kind of superman! Except, predictably, he wasn't. And therein lies the problem.
His Grace asked me to write about the state of the Christians, and I will. But one cannot write about one group in Egypt without writing about the whole, so bear with me in my diversions. Christians in Egypt have had something of a poor deal since long before the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood. In January 2011, weeks before the revolution, a church in Alexandria was bombed, leaving more than 20 dead. But attacks like this merely demonstrate a deeper discrimination. If you are Christian, you will not get a senior job in the government, civil service, or army. You'll be quite lucky to get a government job at all, apart from your national service, in which your pay will barely be enough to eat on.
However, we do ourselves a disservice by overstating the plight of Egyptian Christians. Many live comfortably, and while there are many who are poverty stricken, the same is true of all Egyptians. Christmas is a national holiday, and church bells ring on Sundays. But amongst Christians the atmosphere is one of deep concern, bordering on paranoia. One friend told me of how it is much harder for Christians to get Western visas, because the visa staff are all locally employed Muslims, and religion is stamped on one's passport. I don't know the truth of that, but am reminded of the saying that just because I'm paranoid, it doesn't mean I'm not persecuted. And societal divisions are growing, despite protestations to the contrary. These divisions are fuelled by ignorance of the other – one Muslim friend thought Christians worship three gods – and conspiracies about Western ‘fifth columns’, and they lead to incidents such as the attacks on churches in Suez and Upper Egypt over the past few days.
The Christians were as varied in their voting in the presidential election as everybody else was. Some I knew even voted for Morsi in the second round: better the Muslim Brotherhood than the old regime. Most didn't vote either way. And a few voted for Shafiq, the Mubarakite, with reasoning ranging from 'better the devil you know' to 'we were served well by Mubarak'. But in largely supporting the overthrow of Morsi, they were in line with the will of the majority of Egypt: Pope Tawadros stood side by side with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar while the people, once again, rejoiced in the streets.
It's hard to state just how the army, the saviours of the revolution, were despised by June 2012. They had failed, utterly, in their prime task for the interim: to govern Egypt. The fact that they were lauded as saviours again just a year later shows just how the Muslim Brotherhood had failed at the same task. People had voted for them for a variety of reasons. They appeared to be pious, undoubtedly. They were organised – a big advantage in a country with no other viable opposition. They cared for the poor. They had been oppressed – targeted, more than the general oppression – by the old regime. And yes, some people wanted Islamic government – but in my experience, that's something the majority accepted as the price of good governance, not as an end in itself. And that's where they failed. They didn't provide good governance; in fact, things got worse, with rolling blackouts and hours-long fuel queues, rising prices and declining security. They didn't even provide unity: Morsi promised at the start that he would be the President of all Egyptians; he clearly meant it in the Mubarakite sense, that he would govern all Egyptians, but would govern for the benefit of his allies only.
He kept the benefit of the doubt, mostly, until November 2012, when he issued an infamous Constitutional Decree placing himself and his orders above the courts. The partial purpose of this was to rush through the new Constitution, steamrollering the Christian and secular opposition in the process. Most of them walked out, preferring not to be part of such a flawed document. Morsi's government's credibility was near its nadir at this point, and though the Constitution was passed, it was on a 33% turnout.
Most of my friends, Christian and Muslim, were strong supporters of the revolution, and were dismayed by the route it took. They wanted a new Egypt, and got instead the slaughter of nearly 30 Christians protesting the destruction of a church in October 2011; or the Port Said Massacre; or a constitution that ignored them; or the storming of the Coptic Cathedral in response to a swastika daubed on a wall by children (the reason for the riot: it looked like a cross); or now, the events we've seen over the past few days.
The problem with talking about Egypt in simple, secular vs. religious terms is this: most don't care who or what governs them, provided it has legitimacy of one sort or another. Most don't care about most of the government's policies, so long as they are not affected too dramatically. For the majority, good governance is the key, and if one can have good and pious government, so much the better. In a country like Egypt, this is likely to lead to Islamic parties in government. But if they fail, we have seen that it will also lead to Islamic parties out of government.
The coup, when it came in early July, was something of a relief. Friends still in Egypt tell me that the representation of Egypt in the Western media as roughly split into two camps of equal size is completely wrong. Fine, the opposition (as it was) exaggerated the numbers protesting for Morsi's overthrow: 30 million is ridiculous. But 10 million is feasible – and imagine David Cameron staying in post if an equivalent proportion protested for his dismissal in the UK. The same friends tell me that they haven't noticed very much from where they are in the past few days. I can well believe it: for most of my time in Egypt, all I knew first-hand of the troubles were peaceful marches going past my house, and an unfortunate habit I had of blithely walking into riots without noticing. But when one is close to a riot, it feels like it takes up the world.
It was shortly after the constitutional referendum that I moved to Sidi Gaber in Alexandria, into a flat that overlooked the square in front of the train station where most protests in Alex happen. On the other side of the station were the Muslim Brotherhood offices in the city. Three months living here gave me quite an insight into the life of a protest, watched beginning to end with a birds-eye view. Friday night was protest night, with occasional extra nights thrown in. It is this experience that makes me cautious of believing one side or the other when it comes to the recent clearance of the camps in Cairo. I'm no fan of the security forces: I've been gassed (I don't recommend the experience) and had shot land on my head too many times for that (it sits in my wallet as a reminder). But in almost every protest that I witnessed, there was a curious group that didn't seem to fit into the police or the protestors. Armed thugs attacking either side, and providing both with an excuse to say the other attacked first.
I can understand the Western media's concentration on the bloodshed. Every life lost in political violence is a tragedy and a waste. But I would sound a few words of caution. Be careful in what you believe about body counts: at this stage, no one knows. Be careful in thinking that this is representative of Egypt: it is for the reporter, because they have lived through it, but it isn't for most Egyptians. And be careful of thinking that the pro-Morsi protests are large or popular: for most they're a nuisance, and even those who supported him are largely concerned with not being excluded from the next round of this revolutionary dance.
So pray for the Christians in Egypt, certainly: they need it. But pray for all of Egypt too.
Peter Welby studied Arabic in Alexandria from 2011-13. He now lives and works in London. A fuller account of his Egyptian experiences can be found at his blog AlexandrianNotes. He also tweets – occasionally – @pdcwelby. All observations expressed in this post are his own.