x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egypt is still held captive by its own divisions

With the international media's attention focused on Libya now, it is wrong to assume that all is well in Egypt.

Shehata Mekades stood on top of a hill at the entrance to the Cairo district of Manshiet Nasser. He was looking at what remained of his villa, his livelihood and his life. Mr Mekades is a Coptic Christian and a leading figure among the group known as the Zabaleen, who make their living collecting and recycling Cairo's rubbish.

Last month, the same hill was the scene of a violent battle between the Copts and some Muslims from the surrounding neighbourhood. No one is certain how it became so bloody; both sides, of course, blame each other but it began when, in protest against the burning of a church in Helwan, Copts blockaded one of Cairo's main arterial roads near the Citadel.

Cairo's traffic is onerous at the best of times so it is easy to imagine the emotions engendered in the stalled motorists by a conscious decision to bring the city to a halt. The protest rapidly descended into a sectarian confrontation when the frustrated crowds - in particular local minibus drivers who saw their day's income disappearing - tried to break through the Coptic lines.

Fuel was poured on the fire by the accusation that some Muslim women had been dragged from one of the buses and were being held in a nearby church. By the end of the day at least 13 people had died. It was then, with the mob pushing into the Christian enclave, that Mr Mekades's villa, trucks and recycling machinery were smashed and burnt.

Neither the police nor the army did anything effective to stop the battle; international news organisations were too focused on events in Libya to pay much attention.

Egypt is currently suffering from the inability of the global media to pay sustained attention to any single story. The media caravan has moved on, leaving in its tracks an artificial narrative offering an ersatz, upbeat conclusion to the story of the Egyptian revolution: it's over.

Perhaps, but Cairo is still in a state of uncertainty and anxiety. Friends who would never have thought of locking the doors to the shared lobby in their apartment building now do so. There is talk of baltagiya - thugs - roaming the streets late at night robbing, mugging and carjacking; fathers have banned their daughters from driving after dark. No one knows how many of the thousands of prisoners who escaped during the revolution are back in jail - but many of the ones who are still free are earning their living the only way they know how. A friend of mine recently had his wife's niece kidnapped and then returned after a ransom was extorted.

There is a security vacuum across the city. No one I know would consider looking to the city's discredited police force for protection. And everyone is worried about what's going to happen next. What kind of government is democracy, or at least elections, going to usher in later in the year?

And it's this uncertainty that is most worrying the Copts. They see the remnants of the NDP teaming up with the Muslim Brotherhood and know both groups have the organisation and structure in place to secure a comprehensive victory in the upcoming elections.

But what worries them more is the desire of some of the country's newly empowered fundamentalist groups, such as the Salafis, to turn Egypt into their version of the ideal Islamic state - with a leading Salafi sheikh describing the recent constitutional referendum as a religious conquest at the ballet box. Those who disagreed with the results, said Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Yaqoub, could leave the country.

Many Copts listened to this and heard echoes of the fate that befell a previous Egyptian minority, the country's small Jewish population, who were driven out, first following the creation of the state of Israel and then, in greater numbers, after the joint British, French and Israeli action over the Suez canal. The government at the time described the entire Jewish community as Zionist enemies and, after enacting a series of laws and property seizures, forced most of the remaining Jews out of the country.

Could this happen to the Copts? It seems unlikely given the fact there are eight million of them and that the country's Copts and Muslims have, for the most part, been able to co-exist peacefully for centuries.

But at dinner with my Coptic friends, the talk was still of which countries' visa requirements were the hardest to meet; which nations might be prepared to offer sanctuary; whether or not to send money abroad; and what would happen to those Copts who didn't have the money, or the connections, to leave. Would they be forced to pay the historic tax, the jizya, that Jews and Christians once had to pay to in order to live in Muslim lands?

It's a remote possibility, but the fact that such conversations are taking place at all is an indication of the febrile state of mind of the Coptic minority.

Those concerns will only become more pronounced in the months leading up to the election in September. And meanwhile Mr Mekades is rebuilding his house, this time with a fortress-like, three-metre brick wall surrounding it. He's hoping it won't be needed.


Simon Mars is a television producer based in Dubai and London