By Dina Ezzat
‘A Question of Identity’
Sectarianism has been revealing its many faces in ways that go beyond differences between Egypt’s Copts and Muslims
“I don’t rent to the Muslim Brotherhood, whether single or married, that’s not the issue. I just don’t deal with the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Nadia Mahmoud, a Cairo landlady.
Herself a practising Muslim who has been veiled for the past 25 years or so, Mahmoud said that she did not “feel comfortable about” having Muslim Brotherhood members living in her western Cairo apartment building.
This is not something new for this woman who has lost her husband and has been running her business of a few apartments whose rent helps her with her monthly income. “It has always been this way,” she said.
Before the 25 January Revolution, Mahmoud was apprehensive about possible security problems that could come with renting to Muslim Brotherhood members, whose identity was “immediately revealed by their looks and the fact that they don’t shake hands with a lady old enough to be their mother,” she said.
Today, Mahmoud is still apprehensive that “if they live in my apartment building they may be attacked by angry people. There are so many people who do not like the Muslim Brotherhood, especially now with their horrid performance in running the country. I am glad I never had anything to do with them,” she said.
Mahmoud is not the only example. According to Shadi Hussein, a real estate broker who helps find apartments for rent in Heliopolis, a recurrent demand put forward by landlords is whether a potential tenant is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, with many landlords wanting to avoid renting to people from the Islamist groups.
However, this is also a new development. “In the past, I would often have landlords saying that they didn’t want to rent apartments to Coptic families, or that they were uncomfortable with single men, and more so with single women, but this thing about the Muslim Brotherhood is certainly new,” Hussein said.
Hussein does not ask the reasons why landlords don’t want to rent to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the same way that he did not ask those who expressed a preference against Copts or unmarried women. Ultimately, Hussein said, “for some people there is always a particular group they somehow dislike. This is just the way things are.”
Natasha Sayed-Shirazi, an Egyptian woman who carries an Australian passport, said that she and her Bahaai-Australian husband of Iranian origin would probably not have found an apartment to rent when they decided to marry and live in Cairo had it not been for their foreign passports.
“Let’s face it, there is an issue with Bahaais because if you don’t have a foreign passport, then you cannot have an ID because you cannot have Muslim, Christian or Copt written on the your ID, and in Egypt there is no such thing as an ID without a reference to religion, and Bahaai is not an accepted religion in Egypt,” Sayed-Shirazi said.
“One can understand where people come from if they have issues renting to people who are not issued IDs by the government. You can’t really blame them. It’s a complicated matter,” she said.
The problem for Bahaais goes beyond the issue of renting an apartment, since there are also issues with getting marriages registered, getting children enrolled in schools, and even getting easy access to a bank account.
There are no known figures for the number of Bahaais in Egypt, one of the country’s smallest minorities, and especially for those without a foreign nationality, but most estimates suggest that they are a very small part of the population as a whole.
Their problems have persisted from the years before the 25 January Revolution into the post-revolution regime without any real changes.
This has also been the case for most of the country’s other minorities, whether religious or ethnic. Rami Kamel, a Copt, Maha Gahallah, a Nubian, and Anwar Hashim, a Shia, for example, give similar accounts of what they qualify as the “discrimination” and “harassment” they suffer from in Egypt.
Hashim’s account is that of a man who willingly moved out of the majority of Sunni Muslim Egyptians into the minority of Shias when he decided to convert within the Islamic faith over 15 years ago “without daring to tell anyone about it”.
“I kept it a very close secret that I would not have even shared with my own parents, much less in public,” Hashim said.
Eventually, his performance of the Muslim rituals revealed his newfound difference to members of his household, and Hashim had to admit to his new affiliation to the shock of family members who feared that his changed identity, even if it would not reflect on his public conduct or his ID identification as a Muslim, could prompt unsolicited annoyances.
In just a couple of years, however, the entire family had joined Hashim in converting to the Shia sect, something that he said was voluntary and did not come about as a result of outside influence from him or from anyone else.
Hashim was pleased at the conversions, especially since they coincided with what he calls the “long road of discrimination” that he now set out upon, as co-workers in the private-sector company where he worked got word of his new affiliation when he was spotted praying behind Shia imams in Cairo mosques.
The subsequent harassment eventually forced Hashim into seeking a life outside Egypt “to escape the sectarianism” that he said was denying him stable employment and was subjecting him to all sorts of antagonism at the office and even in social circles.
Eventually, Hashim decided to come out into the open. “I decided to tell the world that I was Shia,” he said. In doing so, Hashim was keen to affirm that his affiliation to the new sect did not mean that he was “turning from an Egyptian into an Iranian,” a question that was nevertheless put to him by some.
“I am constantly saying that I have no appreciation of the politics of Iran and that the last thing I want for Egypt is for it to follow the same political school of thought that governs Iran, which is basically dictatorial rather than anything else,” Hashim said.
Of all the minorities in Egypt, it is probably the Shias that have come under the most verbal attacks up to now. The new-found political friendship between Cairo under the rule of President Mohamed Morsi, who has nevertheless repeatedly bragged about his Sunni affiliations and those of Egypt, and Iran has prompted concerns from Salafist quarters about possible Shia influences in the country.
Over the past few weeks, Salafi figures, including popular ones like Nader Bakkar of the Nour Party, have been unequivocal in their attacks on the Shias and the renewed right of Iranian tourists to visit Egypt.
Two weeks ago, Salafist groups and parties started orchestrated moves to counter what they deemed to be Shia expansionism in Egypt by demonstrating in front of the house of the Iranian head of mission in Cairo and campaigning to alert Salafi mosque-goers against any talk with Shia people and to distribute “anti-Shia alert brochures” among students and workers.
This show of anti-Shia sentiment has not been the only sign of inter-Islamic sectarianism, since there has been a parallel, if less publicised, version in the Salafist dislike of Sufis. Salafi clerics have been uncompromising in their criticism of Sufis, at times going to the verge of declaring them to be non-Muslim.
The rituals of Sufism, which have often been forced into hiding due to security demands over recent years as a result of fears of Salafi-Sufi confrontations, are now coming under direct attack under the eyes of the all but uninterested authorities.
According to one retired police general, attacks by Salafis against Sufi moulids (festivals) or the cemeteries of Sufi leaders have been “common” over the past few years.
“These things were there before the 25 January Revolution, but they got worse after the revolution for sure,” the general said. “But of course we don’t get involved because if we did the attacks would get much worse and could turn into bloody fights. The best policy is to let things die down of their own accord,” he added.
However, according to Kamil, a Coptic activist, there is no such thing as sectarianism that dies down on its own accord. “This is only an excuse, or rather a pretext, for the authorities to justify their bias to one side of the conflict, like they do with Muslim-Coptic problems and like they did with the attack on the Cathedral in Cairo [earlier this month] at the end of the funeral for the dead who were killed during an outright sectarian incident in Khosous [a village in the Delta], a few days before,” Kamil said.
“They just turned a blind eye and told us that if they interfered things would get worse.”
For Kamil, the police “allowing sectarian fights to happen because they don’t intervene” is not just about the police but is rather a reflection of the “mindset of the state as a whole”.
“We live in a state that supports a basic level of sharing the same land among different groups of people. But this is not the cohabitation or coexistence or any of these other things that we hear about on state-run TV every time there is a big incident, and I say big incident because the smaller incidents go unattended,” Kamil added.
At the end of the day, Kamil said, “I know that in the eyes of a state official I am not an Egyptian but a Copt, a ‘blue bone’ in other words”.
The term “blue bone”, inspired by Christ’s suffering on the cross, is used in popular Egyptian usage not to indicate sympathy but is rather intended pejoratively. The term is used in mostly economically challenged contexts to refer to the Copts, and it is one of many others that include “oily Copts”, a reference to the Copts’ supposed dependence on vegetarian meals during their fasts, and “the four plums man”, a reference to a man wearing a cross.
The Copts are not the only Egyptian minority to suffer from such condescending references. The Nubians, whose waves of forced migration in the 20th century as a result of the construction of the Aswan High Dam in their homeland, have also had their share of abusive references.
“I used to hear some of them when I was young at school and on the street. Even when I attended university [in the late 1990s] they were there,” said Gahallah, a Nubian.
“The black thing”, “the slave”, “the black ghost”, “the doorkeeper”, and “Abdu” are some of the more frequent pejorative references made about the Nubians. The first three refer to the colour of their skin, while the last two refer to the jobs that Nubians were forced to do in Egypt’s northern cities after having been forced to move from their ancestral lands.
These references cause a lot of pain to younger Nubians, maybe even more than they do to the older generations whose real source of pain comes from the loss of the villages and the lifestyle they used to enjoy and the sense of betrayal by a state that promised them alternative land but only gave them parcels of desert that were no use to a community whose culture is related to the River Nile.
Gahallah said that she had decided early on that she would hit back against such remarks. “If someone tells me I am ‘a black thing’, I immediately answer that ‘yes, I am made of chocolate — chocolate is also a black thing’.”
However, this answer did not come to the mind of one Nubian university student who went to a pharmacy on Kasr Al-Aini Street to buy medicine this week and was shrugged off by an attendant who asked a colleague to “deal with her because I don’t deal with black people.”
The shocking experience was shared by a friend on Facebook, and it was only a matter of hours before the pharmacy was forced to make a public apology on its online page, where it announced that the attendant concerned had lost his job.
For many social-media activists this was one of the strongest anti-discrimination moves that Egypt has yet seen, revealing a strong societal determination to reject this kind of discrimination.
Amr Ezzat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO, said that “there is a growing sense of the need to resist sectarianism, and this can be seen in the declining number of people who condone anti-Coptic discrimination, for example.”
Unlike the view held by some people, Ezzat is convinced that it would be wrong to suggest that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power has brought wider sectarianism with it, especially against the Copts who represent the largest minority in Egypt.
“It is exactly the opposite. The Islamists arrived in power on the ladder of sectarianism that was originally built for the use of the ousted regime of [former president] Hosni Mubarak,” Ezzat said, adding that the performance of the Brotherhood in power, unfortunate as it may have been, has at least allowed people to dare to defy a movement that presents itself as acting in the name of Islam. Ezzat underlines the fact that Al-Azhar, the world’s leading institute of Islamic learning, is under attack by some Islamic sects with each trying to bring Al-Azhar under its control — or rather run by its sympathisers. Originally established during the Fatimids’ rule, which was Shia, Al-Azhar today is the leading mainstream Muslim Sunni beacon which tolerates and teaches the four Sunni schools and one Shia sect.
Most recently, Al-Azhar received the vocal support of the Coptic Church and other Churches of Egypt in its leading effort to maintain the upper hand of moderate Islam that rejects sectarianism.
Ezzat does not spare the Muslim Brotherhood, among other political Islam groups, of walking the road of sectarianism. “We saw what happened with the drafting of the new constitution and the adoption [last winter] by the head of state of a draft constitution that was passed after the representatives of the Church had walked out of the drafting committee and regardless of the rationale of the Church representatives,” Ezzat said.
Ezzat is also critical of the shrinking representation of Copts and other Christians, among them Catholics and Evangelicals, in public positions, including in the cabinet. “It was already a small representation, but now it is much smaller,” he said.
Ezzat does not only blame the Muslim Brotherhood for this, however, and he reminds his listeners that under the interim rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after Mubarak was forced to step down in the revolution, the state surrendered to a sectarian demonstration against the assignment of a Copt as the governor of the Upper Egyptian village of Qena.
For sociologist Ziad Akl of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies what we are seeing today, especially in the case of the insult of a Nubian girl in a downtown pharmacy, is the true volume of sectarianism that has been rising for years and has now been unmasked.
It was “almost deliberately fostered by the Mubarak regime to serve power-political purposes,” he said, and now it is out in the open owing to the inability, or maybe the lack of interest, of the new regime in masking the many faces of sectarianism.
According to Akl, the repression of minorities in Egypt is not a product of the Muslim Brotherhood regime alone, but it could certainly have been accentuated by this regime “simply because this is a regime that is based on one identity, which is the Islamic identity and not the Egyptian identity,” he said.
“Society needs a common identity, an Egyptian identity, which would be the best way to quell sectarianism,” Akl said, adding that this would require a serious, “but in all honesty, absent,” commitment from the state to achieve.
“To strengthen this identity there would need to be a firm effort to revisit the school curriculum, which is full of discriminatory insinuations, not just against Copts, but also against Nubians among others,” Akl argued.
“Re-training teachers is essential as well, because there has been sectarianism demonstrated by teachers, from those who mock Copts openly, to incidents of teachers cutting the hair of girls who declined to cover their hair, or forcing them to cover their hair,” Akl said.
Akl said that there needed to be a “total revamp of media discourse if we are to get beyond the presently disturbing level of sectarianism. In a country where the state-run TV does not have a single black anchor, it is very possible that the perception of Nubians as ‘lesser Egyptians’ could prevail, and in a country where Bedouins are denied access to jobs in the police it is inevitable that society will perceive Bedouins in a negative light,” he added.
Akl and Ezzat agreed that laws needed to be issued and measures adopted to write the equality of all Egyptians into the country’s constitution and to make sure that this is applied in practice.
However, the question remains, they said, of whether the state had the political will to make such efforts and give meaning to the constitutional reference to equal Egyptian citizenship.
‘While The Authorities Watched’
A report on sectarian violence in the village of Khosous has blamed law-enforcement bodies for turning a blind eye to feuds between Muslims and Copts
A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO, has said that the outbreak of sectarian violence in the village of Khosous earlier this month was the outcome of rising tensions between Muslims and Copts.
“There were months of tension before the eruption of sectarian violence on Friday 5 April. According to eyewitnesses who spoke to the EIPR, this tension was due to continued harassment on the side of Muslim young men against Christian women,” the EIPR report said.
The report was issued after the incident in Khosous, a village on the borders of the Cairo governorate and the Delta governorate of Qalioubiya, where six people were killed.
This was followed by an unprecedented attack on the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo the following Sunday during the funerals of those who had been killed, leading to the deaths of two more people.
The report offered three possible accounts for what prompted the dispute in Khosous. In one account, a couple of Muslim boys drew swastikas on the walls of a school belonging to Al-Azhar, before being told off by neigbbouring Copts who feared that they would be blamed for the attack.
The Copts were then reprimanded by Muslim neighbours for telling the Muslim boys off. In a second account, Coptic boys accidentally injured a passing Muslim woman whose family were angered and started fighting with the families of the boys. In a third account, a Coptic family decided to react to the continued harassment of Christian women by Muslim men.
“Some eyewitnesses said that both the first and third accounts complemented each other in leading to the feud,” the EIPR report said, adding that the village of Khosous, having a large Coptic population, is not new to incidents of sectarian strife.
Some incidents were monitored by the EIPR itself in 2008 and 2011, and in all three incidents the police were slow to react to the outbreaks of violence.
In the most recent incident, according to the eyewitnesses spoken to by the EIPR, the quarrel started when a Coptic man, Nassim Iskandar, started shooting before killing a Muslim man, Mohamed Mahmoud, who had not been party to the original quarrel.
“It was only two hours later after things started to quiet down that the police arrived,” the EIPR report said.
The quarrel, whatever its reason, was just another incident that could have ended without bloodshed had it not been for the incitement of others, with eyewitnesses telling the EIPR that Muslim men had driven around the village on motorcycles calling on armed Muslim men to stop “Christians from killing Muslims” and that a Muslim cleric had used the call to prayers to summon Muslims to come “to defend Islam against Christians”.
Coptic residents went to the village’s churches where they were attacked by angry Muslim men. “It was then that the police interfered by firing tear gas in the direction of the churches,” the eyewitnesses said.
However, as gunfire targeted Christians standing in front of the Church of Mar Girgis, the police “just stood by and did not intervene”, the EIPR report said.
This apparent police apathy was replayed on Sunday at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, when the families of the Coptic victims and other worshipers were exiting the gates of the Cathedral following the victims’ funerals.
In the clashes that followed, during which young men threw stones and empty bottles at the funerals, the police seemed to be not just standing by, but also taking part in provoking the Copts.
Copts who went back inside the Cathedral then started to throw stones and bottles in their turn. As the anger went ever higher, Copts and others attacked public property and cars in the neighbourhood to express their frustration.
This sequence of events, the EIPR report states, is not consistent with the account given by the Ministry of Interior in its official statement, which put the blame for igniting the Sunday confrontations on angry Copts taking part in the funerals of the victims of the Khosous disturbances.
Khosous, the EIPR report said, is near to other villages having large Coptic populations, including Khanka, the scene of another sectarian incident that occurred in 1972 and that marked the beginning of a series of Coptic-Muslim feuds.
The screening of the documentary Jews of Egypt and demise of Egyptian Jewish personality Carmen Weinstein has restarted a debate on cohabitation versus sectarianism
For Amir Ramsis, director of the recent documentary on Egyptian Jewry entitled Jews of Egypt, the purpose of the film is to revisit a chapter of Egyptian history that seems to have been either forgotten or reduced to “an abrupt and inaccurate account of Egyptian Jews that suggests they were disloyal to the country, something that is far from being the case.”
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly a few weeks after his film began to be screened in Egyptian cinemas and in the wake of a legal battle to secure the release of the film after security attempts to block it, Ramsis was happy with what he said had been the enthusiastic reception that his film had received, with many people showing interest in learning about this forgotten or little-talked-about chapter of modern Egyptian history.
The film is “essentially a chapter in the triumph of tolerance over sectarianism”, Ramsis said, commenting that in the memories the film assembles, many of them fragmentary in character, the film awakes what he described as fond memories of ‘things from the past’. School memories, reflections on places in Cairo and Alexandria, and souvenirs from a time when Egypt’s Jews were an integral part of society are all evoked in the film.
The focus of Ramsis’s film is quite specific as it mainly reflects the experience of Jews from Cairo and Alexandria who were to the left politically and mostly spoke French at home. Many of them left for France when their families decided it was time to leave Egypt, mostly in the second half of the 1950s and in the wake of 1956 Tripartite Aggression against Egypt carried out by Britain, France and Israel in retaliation for the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
“I don’t want to say that there were Egyptian Jews who turned their backs on Egypt in response to Zionism, even though this is what people tend to think. What I want to say instead is that though the Egyptian Jews included people like the [film actress] Rakiya Ibrahim, they also included people like [the singer] Laila Murad,” Ramsis said.
Ibrahim was a film actress of the 1930s and 1940s best known for taking the leading role in A Bullet to the Heart, made with famous singer and actor Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. However, her name is also associated with her defection from Egypt to the US with the support of Israel and with her complicated role in the mysterious killing of scientist Samira Moussa.
Murad, on the other hand, who also made a strong debut in the 1930s as a leading character with Abdel-Wahab in the film Long Live Love, never left Egypt, converted to Islam and died a Muslim.
Yet, it was neither the story of Murad nor that of Ibrahim that inspired Ramsis to start his investigation into the history of Egyptian Jewry and his documentation of the memories still held by the last generations of Egyptian Jews, people who left Egypt as children or teenagers and are now past pension age.
Instead, Ramsis became fascinated by the stories of leftist Jews whose association with the cause of their country was more compelling that their faith and was integral to their sense of their cultural identity. The documentary offers accounts of Jewish lawyers like Youssef Darwish, for example, who chose to convert to Islam, the country’s “mainstream religion”, in order to integrate into society better and to fight more effectively for the cause of Egyptian labour.
The film also contains accounts of other left-wing Jews like Shehata Haroun, another lawyer, who declined to travel in the 1950s to arrange medical treatment for his daughter who was suffering from leukemia since he did not want to have a “no return” stamp in his passport. This was something that many other Jewish families agreed to either willingly or unwillingly as they left Egypt en masse from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s.
The documentary shows, Ramsis insists, that with the exception of those proven guilty of espionage, no expulsion orders were issued by the state to the Jews of Egypt at this time. “There was intimidation to the point of making it almost impossible to stay on, or at least very unpleasant to stay on, however,” Ramsis said.
For Ramsis, the documentary sends out the key message that Egypt was essentially a land where cohabitation takes place rather than sectarianism. “Egyptian Jews did not have any serious problems, like other communities in Egypt, except after the Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in 1956. Of course, there were problems after the foundation of Israel in 1948, but these were essentially at issue after 1956 and 1967,” and Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 June War, he said.
“If one compares the old film Hassan, Morkos and Cohen, which tells the story of three men, one Muslim, one Christian and one Jewish, to the contemporary film Hassan and Morkos, one can see the difference between the unassumed cohabitation of the earlier film, in which three nouveau riches abuse the kindness of an office boy, a Muslim in this case, to the second film, a set of scenes arguing for peaceful coexistence,” Ramsis stated.
For Ramsis, this contrast shows that there is a growing sense of sectarianism in the country, whereby “citizens are no longer simply citizens, but are also faith-followers,” he said. As a result, he hoped that the positive reception of his film and the interest that people had been showing in learning about the history of the Jews of Egypt “with considerable openness” would also lead to a return to instinctive cohabitation.
The public reaction to the film, he said, had offered a striking contrast to the “disturbing scenes of sectarianism” that he had seen in Egypt, “especially against Copts, but also against Shias and Bahaais”. The film shows “that sectarianism is not so deeply rooted in us and that we can overcome it if we decide to do so,” Ramsis said.
Magda Haroun, the newly assigned head of the small and declining Jewish community of Egypt, agreed that there was hope for peaceful cohabitation. Having seen people from different faiths and different walks of life joining the few remaining Egyptian Jews in bidding farewell to Carmen Weinstein, who headed the community for many years, Haroun said that the sympathy she had seen on that day had been a sign of “a rediscovered diversity”.
Over recent weeks, Haroun had found herself seated side-by-side with veiled Muslim women and Coptic women in protest against the wave of anti-women harassment that has hit the country. “I found a serene sentiment of being Egyptian — an Egyptian as I was born to be, and as my father always taught me that I was, and as I will continue to be until the day I die when I am buried in this country,” Haroun said.
Haroun is convinced that “although many might think that we are at a moment when sectarianism might be on the rise, I would argue that what is really on the rise is the rejection of sectarianism. I think we are not very far from retrieving the idea that being a good Egyptian is what really counts, with faith and socio-economic background put to one side.”
‘The Missing Infusion’
Professor of history Khaled Fahmi argues that Egypt has long been on a road leading from cosmopolitanism to sectarianism
When did some ordinary Egyptians stop shopping at the local Greek grocer and start refusing to shop at a supermarket owned by a Copt? The answer to this question, according to Khaled Fahmi, professor of history at the American University in Cairo, holds the key to Egypt’s loss of cosmopolitanism, embodied in the cities of “Alexandria and to a lesser degree Cairo”, and its becoming a country where incidents of sectarianism, essentially involving Muslim-Coptic feuding, have been on the rise.
The road was a long one, starting in the late 19th century, Fahmi explained. This was “the golden age of cosmopolitanism” not just for Alexandria but also for other Mediterranean cities like Beirut and Izmir. In the case of Alexandria, and later in those of Port Said and Damietta also, cosmopolitanism began with the rise of the “cotton plantations and the cotton boom for European markets”, Fahmi said.
The case of Alexandria in the late 19th century was similar to that of Dubai in the late 20th century, Fahmi commented, with the city becoming a business hub and adapting itself to allowing foreigners to settle down and do business there, eventually feeling that the city was their home. However, Fahmi added that Alexandria was different from Dubai in the sense that those who came to Alexandria “felt they were Alexandrians”, even if they did not necessarily feel that they were Egyptians.
“This is why in Alexandria you find Greek cemeteries and Jewish cemeteries, among others, because people from these communities knew that this was the city in which they would live, die and be buried,” Fahmi said.
This is unlike the case today, when the Copts, the largest minority in Egypt and constituting some 10 per cent of the population according to most estimates, and the Bahaais, who number a few thousands, sometimes feel that they need at least to have an alternative nationality in order to calm fears of real or imagined discrimination.
Contrast this with the late 19th century, when Egypt’s Armenians and Jews felt that Egypt was a country they could reside in, and not only in big cities like Alexandria, Cairo and Port Said, but also in smaller towns and cities as well.
As Fahmi explained, the movement of people from one country to another is determined by push and pulls factors. In the 19th century, the push factor was mostly persecution elsewhere, while the pull factor was that Egypt was going through an economic boom and there were accommodating laws and few social tensions. “So an Italian could feel that he could come to live and work in Alexandria and find his dolce vita there,” Fahmi said.
The accommodation was enough for members of these communities to contribute to the social changes of the time, with words of Italian, Greek and French origin finding their way into Arabic, and Egyptian recipes being mixed with Greek, Italian and Armenian cuisine. Al-Ahram itself was founded by two brothers from Syria as a new secular Arabic language newspaper, and so on.
Ultimately, Fahmi said, the economy was a decisive factor in attracting foreigners to settle. When a decree was issued to ban gambling, offending entrepreneurs who wanted to expand their casinos, the motivation was “economic and not religious” as the decree was passed to spare small businesses from going bankrupt should their owners succumb to the whim of gambling, he said.
“But then again those were times in which foreigners were not looked upon as people who would come and steal the wealth of the country, but rather as people who would contribute to the expansion of this wealth and of course benefit from that expansion,” Fahmi said.
Fahmi also said that the cosmopolitanism of the period was not just for the elites, but was also for ordinary people. “It was perfectly usual for a lady to be running an Italian tavern where Greeks worked and where the clients were Egyptians, Armenians and Jews,” for example, he said.
This cosmopolitanism ended with the gradual rise of nationalism, “not just in Egypt but all over the Middle East,” Fahmi explained. As a result, Egyptians started to look at their fellow Alexandrians of Italian origin as intruders, for example, and Italian students going to Italian schools in the city were told by their teachers that there was no real home for Italians other than Italy.
Such changes were also due to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Arab nationalism. “The idea of the nation is about drawing borders and deciding who is in and who is out,” he said. “And to a certain extent it is there that sectarianism could start.” It is at this moment, he said, “that people think of their country more than the city they are living in, with Greeks leaving Alexandria to go back to Greece and not leaving Alexandria to go to live in Athens,” for example.
Coexistence declined further after World War II and particularly after the 1952 Revolution. The Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956 was a defining point after which foreigners, including Jews, who had survived many challenges to their staying in Egypt, “started to be looked at with suspicion” and were eventually “subjected to enough intimidation for them to leave without their receiving expulsion orders”, Fahmi said.
People began to think that they should return to their origins. The dislike of foreigners evolved into the dislike of the “other”, and since Muslims were the majority in Egypt this dislike could be directed at Egyptian minorities as well.
However, Muslim society is not homogenous, and it has long been known for its internal disputes, as was the case in the years immediately following the death of the Prophet Mohamed with Al-Fitna Al-Kubra, a feud between tribes in the Arabian Peninsula.
Such disputes, currently seen in the Sunni-Shia feuds, are part of Islam itself, Fahmi said, adding that there were also mainstream Muslim feuds, such as those between Salafis and Sufis.
For Fahmi, it is dangerous to take people to a path in which they reduce their communication to a limited group and decline to communicate with others around them. “This is the root of much tension,” he said, adding that this tension would decline with greater cultural confidence and the return of economic prosperity.
“Historically, Islamic civilisation was a matter of very diverse inputs that were never all Muslim. It was an infusion really, and it is this kind of infusion that is now missing,” he said.