The Subversive Power of Grief

by Paul Sedra | published December 13, 2016 - 3:09pm

The state-run funeral for the victims of the Butrusiyya Church massacre was a carefully organized, managed and controlled affair. Mourners without officially printed invitations were turned away from the proceedings, ostensibly for security reasons. Watching the ceremony on television, one could scarcely escape the impression that the relatives of the martyrs were of only secondary importance compared with the tightly interwoven array of military, state and church officials who dominated the scene.

The funeral was held at the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Madinat Nasr, an area that is chock full of military administration and training facilities and that, accordingly, remains rigorously monitored by Egyptian security agencies. The historical ironies of memorializing the Butrusiyya martyrs in this particular location are almost too numerous to count. Indeed, just steps away from where the mourners gathered stands the tomb of former Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. While Sadat may be best known among Western observers for breaking with what was then Arab consensus to make peace with Israel, he is much better known among Egypt’s Copts for playing a vital role in the 1970s revival of political Islam in Egypt. Turning away from the Arabism of his predecessor, Sadat offered material and moral support to Islamist activists on university campuses and elsewhere, to say nothing of the frequent use of Islamic symbols and imagery in his public pronouncements, all of which caused great unease among Coptic Christians. Then-Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church repeatedly sparred with Sadat on the Egyptian political stage throughout the 1970s, interpreting the president’s actions as a threat to Copts’ rights of citizenship. This confrontation culminated with Sadat’s decision to place the pope under house arrest at a desert monastery—confinement that would ultimately last for over three years.

But one need not cast one’s mind all the way back to the 1970s and 1980s to grasp the dissonance of the funeral scene: Among the numerous sectarian tragedies with which Copts have had to grapple over the past several years, none has had the lasting impact of the one wrought by the Egyptian armed forces upon fellow Egyptians, known as the Maspero massacre. On the evening of October 9, 2011, nearly 30 protesters demanding an end to impunity for those engaging in sectarian violence became, themselves, victims of one of the most brutal and horrific sectarian attacks in Egypt’s history, with the image of armored personnel carriers crushing Coptic bodies becoming promptly seared into Coptic collective memory.

Sectarian attacks of this magnitude have repeatedly served as the catalyst for significant protest movements in Egypt. Indeed, the attack upon the Qiddisin Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve 2010 gave rise to unprecedented protests among Copts against both the Egyptian state and the Coptic Orthodox Church hierarchy. Since that time, scholars have explicitly tied the outpouring of grief and protest in the weeks following the bombing into the development of the movement that would become the January 25 revolution. The Maspero massacre prompted the emergence of numerous organizations seeking justice for Copts, not least the Maspero Youth Union.

Accordingly, I could not help but wonder, in watching this carefully organized, managed and controlled funeral, whether both church and state sought to control the demonstrably subversive power of the grief experienced by both Copts and Muslims in the wake of so great a tragedy. And further, I could not help but wonder whether the decision to stage the funeral in this way spoke more to the fears of church and state about the destabilizing impact that grief could have on the Egyptian political scene than to their concern for the well-worn dicta of national unity.

No figure faces a greater political challenge in this context than the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Pope Tawadros II has unmistakably thrown his lot in with the Egyptian armed forces and Egypt’s military ruler, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. One can certainly appreciate the circumstances that have led him to adopt this stance—not least the tremendous threat that Copts perceived in the rule of the Society of Muslim Brothers. But significant fissures have appeared among Copts about the pope’s seemingly limitless endorsement of Sisi and his rule. In the face of increasing sectarian violence and impunity for its perpetrators, Copts in Egypt, in the diaspora and indeed, in the church hierarchy are increasingly pushing back against the church’s official policy of collaboration with the regime. What I will look for most closely in the coming days and weeks is whether the pope is savvy enough to make concessions to the power of Copts’ and Egyptians’ grief, as his predecessor arguably was.

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