Shias, Israelis and Masons

A Week of Laughter and Forgetting: Day Four

A year after its outbreak, Youssef Rakha lists seven of the more revealing flights of humour that have punctuated the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath

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The accusation of working for the Masons was first levelled at Wael Ghoneim, the Google employee who had started the “We Are All Khalid Said” Page on Facebook — a reference to the young man who had been brutally killed by police without charge in Alexandria in 2010 — which proved crucial to the rallying for protesters. Ghoneim was in fact abducted by State Security as early as 28 January, subjected to sensory deprivation, and on his release on 2 February, nine days before Mubarak stepped down, seemed far less enthusiastic about the revolution.

What in God’s name Masons could possibly have to do with either Ghoneim or 25 January remains an open question, but it was the conflation of Masons with Shias (Iranians), Hamas (Palestinians) and Israelis (sometimes just Jews), not to mention of course Americans, that fed the never-ending string of wisecracks and witticisms emerging out of Tahrir Square and surrounds. The Conspiracy came up repeatedly, and the Conspiracy had to be fought against by honourable citizens.

The Conspiracy was the revolution, but wait…

According to the founder and owner of Al Fara’een Channel, the former National Democratic Party MP Tawfik Okasha (who, naturally enough, lost the elections), the Masonic Conspiracy takes place in stages: first the revolution, then the Brother Muslimhood takeover, and finally the splitting up of Egypt into smaller states.

By the time Okasha became among the staples of post-revolutionary discourse, of course, many of the jokes were no longer jokes as such: they were opinions, viewpoints and visions of the future of Egypt; but in the case of Okasha, for example, they were so absurd they functioned just as well.

Press Street: Coptic-Muslim Relations

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Press Street, steps away from Maspero in downtown Cairo

I should explain at this point that as a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they are the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!”

Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.

Since the rise of Islamism in the Nineties, in place of denial, anti-Coptic sectarianism has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma might suggest that – simply by virtue of who they are – Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian but Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons).

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But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution. And national unity is a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding Copts from positions of power and employing the majority’s bias to discriminate against them in public affairs, encouraging both Coptic deference (often through Church-dictated conservatism) and Muslim complacency.

Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism can only be seen as part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship?

Still, here as with protests involving a specific portion of the population – and some trade-specific strikes had seemed ultimately distracting – I felt it was rather more important to come up with a political formulation of an alternative to military dictatorship under pressure from political Islam: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF has, after all, been ruling the country more or less dictatorially since Mubarak stepped down on 11 Feb, and various factors conspire to make Islamism – in many ways the political current least relevant to the protests that got rid of Mubarak – the most visible and powerful on the political landscape…