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Has Western Media Overhyped Divide Between Egyptian Copts, Muslims?

posted on: Dec 7, 2011

BY: Suzanne Manneh/Contributing Writer

Janaan Attia, a second generation Egyptian American and Coptic Christian from Oakland, California, is concerned about what the future holds for Egypt following that country’s parliamentary elections last week. But Attia, like many Egyptians both here and back in Egypt, is becoming equally concerned by how the country is being portrayed in the western media.

That’s because a good amount of the media coverage before and during the first round of parliamentary elections — some Egyptians have referred to it as their country’s “first free election” – has focused on religious tensions, both real and perceived, between the country’s Muslim majority (90 percent) and Coptic Christian minority (10 percent).

One incident that generated much international media attention and continues to be referenced is the “Maspero Massacre” of October 9, which was sparked when Egyptian Copts decided to stage a sit-in outside the state television station building in Cairo’s Maspero Square. They were there to protest the burning of one of their churches in Aswan, south of Cairo, and the vandalizing of other Coptic churches throughout Egypt earlier this year. The sit-in ended in violent clashes between demonstrators and Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). By the time the dust settled, at least 25 civilians were killed, and hundreds more injured.

Attia says the massacre is proof that Egyptian’s fears of religious conflict and discrimination amid the current political turmoil are valid, but she insists that internal religious conflict is not the primary challenge facing Egypt, nor should the media be depicting it that way.

“As a Copt, of course, it adds another layer. My family felt marginalized [under] the Mubarak regime,” said Attia. “[Religious discrimination] is a concern, and it is a reality. However, state repression is state repression, and economic justice is the key point for all Egyptians.”

Ironically, said Attia, as the western media has had its gaze focused on conflagrations like the Maspero Massacre, it has overlooked unprecedented moments of unity between Mulsims and Copts that have been on display for the duration of the revolution.

“During the October 9th demonstrations, lots of Muslims were in support [of Copts],” recalled Attia. She points also to various Arab media reports showing Muslims and Christians protecting each other during the revolution’s start in January, and Attia is convinced that there is ongoing mutual support between Egypt’s religious communities.

“Had there been this true (religious) divide as (it was) depicted, the revolution and getting Mubarak out of power wouldn’t have been so successful,” she said.

Ahmed Tharwat, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis and host of a local Arab-American community television program, BelAhdan, said religious differences have always been an issue in Egypt, “but always in a civil liberties context.” Furthermore, said Tharwat, the religious conflict perceived in Egypt today is less a product of the current revolution than it is “a remnant of the Mubarak regime.”

Perceptions are further complicated when media generalize, said Hany Amin, a recent graduate of American University of Cairo, currently studying at the Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.

“We cannot deny that [religious discrimination] is a problem. [But] you cannot say that all Christians in Egypt will suffer from it. This is what I would call generalization.”

According to Amin, when he was in Cairo during the revolution, American and Western media were “generalizing and highlighting the Islamic Brotherhood as if they had all the power.”

Only once the parliamentary elections drew near, he said, did the same American and Western media begin addressing the other parties involved, including Copts, liberals and various moderate parties. “But they should have done that much earlier,” said Amin. Initially showing only one side “created a perception, and perceptions are hard to break,” he said.

That perception has become troubling to Yasmeen Daifallah, an Egyptian ex-pat currently residing in Berkeley, Calif.

She said the skewed media focus could cause American’s to misunderstand the “bigger picture in Egypt.”

Michigan resident Atef Said, a civil rights lawyer in Egypt prior to coming to the U.S. 7 years ago, was in Cairo from February through April of this year. He said he’s been concerned about the western media’s “lack of context,” and is particularly bothered by how the media has ignored the wrongdoings of SCAF. Egypt’s current military apparatus, he said, is no different from the Mubarak regime in their “cracking down on everything,” and negligence in addressing the country’s public interest issues such as equality, education and the economy.

“Media blame Egyptians for their own mess, as if SCAF is not responsible,” he said.

Said, like many others, is worried about Egypt’s immediate future. But he looks forward to the day when, “elected officials can be held accountable, unlike army officials who cannot be.”

Peter Mikhail, a Coptic youth who has been active in the demonstrations at Tahrir Square, summed up his generation’s vision for Egypt’s future as thus: “Before the [revolution] there were Christians and Muslims, but after there are (only) Egyptians. The revolution succeeded in uniting us as well as exposing a lot of deceiving groups.”