Thousands of Egyptian Copts went out on protest demonstrations last week. Why is that so frightening? Peaceful demonstrations (even if they get a little out of hand, with some stone-throwing and perhaps a little rioting) are the most natural thing in the world — except, of course, in Israeli-occupied territories, where they qualify as terrorism to be stamped out by tanks, helicopter gunships and the odd F16. Everybody with a grievance does it, everywhere; observe what anti-globalisation protesters did to a little Swedish town a mere two weeks ago. That this is the first time in Egypt’s modern history Copts have demonstrated as a group should, if anything, provoke a response of “it’s about time.” They have a grievance, or several; they should express it. Peaceful protest is the way to do it. Where’s the fuss?
Emergency law just doesn’t cut it. All but four or five of the 51 years I, for one, have lived as a citizen of this country have been under emergency law. What state can justify keeping its population under a constant state of emergency for half a century? And we’ve been “moving” towards democracy for the past half of that half.
There is, of course, much more to it than that. Authoritarianism is never a sufficient explanation, since it begs the question why it isn’t being challenged effectively. Again and again we are forced to look at those who are supposed to take up such challenges, or, to be more specific still, those who are potentially best suited to provide direction, coherence and strategic vision so that great challenges can be met.
It’s back to the Egyptian intellectuals, and once again we find ourselves besieged, even more than usual, by hysteria and hypocrisy — we are, after all, especially touchy when it comes to Copts. Take one prominent, and to my mind glaring, example: the “Copts are not a minority” refrain. Let me first make it clear that as far as I’m concerned it makes not one bit of difference to the discussion of Coptic grievances whether they are described as a minority or not. What is truly amazing is that almost everybody seems to believe it does — as Saadeddin Ibrahim so woefully discovered. The statement, parroted repeatedly, is essentially this: “Copts are part and parcel of the fabric of the nation; [therefore] they are not a minority.” Has no one noticed that there is a basic flaw of formal logic here (the “Socrates is a cat” kind of logical flaw)? Being part and parcel of the fabric of the nation has no logical bearing on whether Copts are in fact a minority or not. One part of the statement expresses a numerical value; it’s quantitative and quantifiable. The other is substantive, an expression of social, cultural, political and ethnic cohesion.
Not to belabour the point — whether six or ten million (speaking of quantifiable data, no one seems quite sure about this ‘minor matter’), the Copts are, numerically, a minority when we are speaking about the religious affiliations of the Egyptian population. As mulukhiya lovers, on the other hand, they are members of a vast majority; percentages, after all, are invariably calculated with respect to a specific total. Mulukhiya, as it happens, does enter this equation, though not in a statistical sense. For behind the “Coptic minority” ruckus was the issue of ethnic identity. What our learned intellectuals and columnists really meant when they got all hot under the collar asserting that Copts were not a minority was that they were not an ethnic minority, which statement, I believe, is quite patently obvious. Why not say so, then, instead of sounding ridiculous by insisting that Socrates is, in fact, a cat? Not, I might add, that the ethnic uniformity of Egyptian Muslims and Copts says anything very significant about “the fabric of the nation.” Fabrics, after all, could be plain or patterned. I have a decided preference for the latter kind.
The fact that one has to go on about such an obvious and insignificant point merely reveals the extent to which demagoguery and plain hysteria dominate intellectual and political debate in Egypt, leading otherwise highly intelligent and educated people to sound like utter imbeciles. How is one to discuss the legitimacy of Coptic grievances — or, for that matter, criticise many of the ways in which Coptic figures and Church officials have been formulating these grievances — when the mere act of dividing six (or is it 10?) by 65 and multiplying by a hundred triggers howls of: “Stop, sedition is afoot” (not to mention “Burn the traitorous swine, hang him in a public square, lock him up and throw away the key”)? To think that the State Security officers concerned have not even begun their — often highly creative — work of drawing up a charge file.
United under one God, we’re all bashing the “yellow press” — and naturally the editor of the infamous Al-Nabaa — these days. Speeches, seminars, editorial articles, feature articles: you name it, it’s being deployed in ferocious battle against the yellow press. So just what is yellow, anyway?
Tabloid journalism is not, of course, an Egyptian invention, although in Egypt it has developed a number of unique features. What is amazing is the influence such journalism has come to exercise on our intellectual and political life in the past few years. It’s taken the profession by storm. The bulk of the Egyptian press — “national,” opposition, “independent” — has been breaking out in yellow spots. In other countries, tabloid journalism is designed for the working classes, to keep them ignorant, distracted and ultimately compliant. It does the same here, but with the additional perk of both targeting and enlisting the intelligentsia as well. Not only do they read it, they contribute to it, vie for column space on its pages, in other words allow it, by complicity or complacency, to set the terms of intellectual and political debate in the country. And, like a cancer, it grows and grows.
There is much talk these days about the sex/ religion/crime formula of the “yellow press.” Whatever the formula, however, tabloid journalism here as elsewhere has one salient feature: the profound contempt in which it holds the readers’ minds — and the truth. The “yellow press” is the symptom of a much more serious malaise, one shared by many of its purported detractors. The first step towards a cure is for our intellectual and political debate to begin, at the very least, from a point beyond Socrates’s allegedly feline nature.
Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.