Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Egypt's Minorities

Bedouins in Alexandria. Photo Credit T.H. McAllister.

Dear readers

Not very much attention is given to the "other" in examinations of Egypt. Of course, we have found out in the past year that women, although they are 50% of the population, are treated like the other in Egypt.

But there are other groups that deserve attention. I am particularly concerned that at least some of these groups receive proper representation in the upcoming efforts to design Egypt's new constitution.

Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, most European groups left, fled or were driven out. Egypt used to have a sizeable Greek, and Jewish population, particularly in Alexandria,but they are mostly gone. One can see beautiful, yet empty, shuttered and locked synagogues in Old Cairo and in Old Alexandria. There is some Jewish population in Egypt, but it is incredibly small, and hard to measure, due to the intense anti-zionist sentiment here. The American-Israeli cooperative Enterprise estimates their numbers at less than 100 in 2004.

Another group we do not hear much about are the Baha'i. The Bahai are a religious group who recognize Bahaullah as their prophet. They have a very nice message about the unity of humankind. However, they are fiercely oppressed in Egypt. They are not allowed to have ID cards showing their religion. (Although I think the fact that ID cards show your religion is a bad one in principle.) The only religions you are allowed to list on your IDs include Jewish, Islam and Christianity. As a result, many Bahai have difficulty getting birth certificates, passports, and other crucial documents. They are routinely discriminated against and stigmatized. They probably number around 5000, or less.

I have devoted many pages to the persecution of Copts and other Christians. Approximately 9 percent of the Egyptian population are Coptic Christians. Coptic Christians are one the oldest groups in Egypt. The Pharaonic temples have evidence of Church activity in them. At one point, far before the advent of Islam, all of Egypt was officially Christian. The holy family is said to have sojourned through Egypt, and several monasteries throughout Cairo, Upper Egypt, and the Sinai attest to this.

There is significant discrimination against Copts. People are discriminated against in employment, and being a Christian may be a bar to promotion in majority settings.  Churches can only be built with permits, which must be applied for from the government. Recent clashes in Imbaba and Maspero have been touched off in part around conflict regarding Church building. Here are some materials regarding Copts and Maspero.  Further, marriage between Christian men and Muslim women is forbidden, and can touch off violence in rural areas. In the ongoing election, people have campaigned against the Kotla by saying that it is the "Christian party." One of the most poignant moments I have experienced in Egypt was when I tried to comfort one of my colleagues after the Maspero Massacre, and she burst into tears, as did then I, as we embraced.

The Egyptian majority also do not like Shia Muslims very much. Regardless of the size of these small religious communities, their protection requires a secular state that ensures religious protection for minorities.

I have fallen in love with the Nubian people during my time in Egypt. They have their own language, and a distinct architecture and culture. There land was largely submerged when Lake Nasser was created as part of the Aswan Dam. They were relocated to villages. The novel Dongola, and another book, The Nubian Women of West Aswan, give some insight into their plight.  Please look at my page on Books@Egypt  for more details. One of the most beautiful and scenic things I have seen during my time in Egypt was a cute Nubian village along the Nile in Aswan. Although the Nubian dynasty of the Pharaos was one of the most successful Egypt has ever seen, the plight of the Nubian people currently reminds me of the plight of the Native Americans in the United States.

I also am concerned that the Siwans, the Bedouins, and other indigenous tribal people have a say in the upcoming Egyptian constitutional process.


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