Sunday, June 1, 2008

Cairo's Rubbish and the Coptic Question

By Joseph El Khoury and Bachir Habib

Video: Channel 4, Unreported World, Egypt's Rubbish People

A documentary broadcasted last week on British Television claims that the situation for Christians in Egypt has become intolerable. Through interviews with local clergymen, human rights activists and members of the public the reporter thrives to reveal to a European audience a side of Egypt that they know little about (whether they are at all interested is another matter). It comes at an interesting time, when relations between religious groups in the Middle East and beyond are tense. Only today, Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese Shiite community, criticized Pope Benedict for a statement in which he states the right (and duty) of the Catholic church to proselytize and spread their version of Christianity. These tensions are also noticeable within the same faith group, with various prominent Arab leaders accusing Iranian inspired Shiism of challenging Sunni hegemony in the Arab world. Going back to the documentary, I found it unsettling and visually stimulating but also biased in that it failed to show the views of moderate Muslims or speak to some Copts who invariably will have a different perspective on things. Clearly becoming emotionally involved, the reporter was determined to make his point at any cost. One came out with the conclusion that the regime, the Muslim brotherhood and average man on the street shared the same views and attitudes towards any expression of Christianity. This is not only inaccurate but ignores the deliberate attempts by the authorities to spread paranoia between different sections of the population, acting as protectors of the Copts on one hand and guarantor of ‘Islamic values’ on the other. Also, focusing on the ‘plight’ of the Zabbaleen (Rubbish collectors) community was an unnecessary dramatization and a distraction from a serious wide-ranging issue. Over the past decades Minorities in the Middle East have found themselves marginalized, choosing to ally themselves with undemocratic unpopular regimes or aligning their interests to those of foreign powers. When the resistance to both of these is headlined by monolithic movements with an Islamist agenda, the dilemma stops being one. Some believe alienating these minorities is a price worth paying for the attainment of higher objectives but careful consideration of the consequences is required.


Anonymous said...

I found this to be a rather low grade, and fairly disgusting piece of non-journalistic nonsense intended chiefly for the purposes of inflamatory propaganda. It is hyper daramtized, decontextualized and clearly slanted to generate a kind of religious hatred that lies entirely beside the point. Yes, the Egyptian regime- like all its Arab counterparts- is terrible and oppressive. But it is so towards all its poor citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. This is a perfect example of the kind media poison that the "clash of civilization" propagandists like to spew. I am disturbed to see it given airing on this site, and it is my opinion the editors- despite the written qualifications accompanying the video- made a serious mistake. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a very fine line between a free but well-informed and serious intellectual debate, and tabloid trash. It would be very unfortunate if this excellent site crosses it!

Bassem Hassan

Anonymous said...

I saw the documentary at the frontLine club and to be honest I was extremely disappointed. To begin with, I find the title of the documentary quite offensive and carries a lot of connotations in its subtext.
This is not to mention how the documentary, in my opinion, lacked journalism professionalism, reporting the situation of Egyptian Copts totally out of context. For example, I was surprised when the report said that the rubbish collector earned only xx amount of Sterlings a week. I cant remember the exact amount but definitely remember that I was shocked at the fact that this reporter was first of all surprised, was totally unaware of living standards in Egypt, and did not put that earning in context. As far as I recall the interviewee was earning in a week what a civil servant would be earning in two or maybe three months.
To me it seemed like the crew went to Cairo to cover the garbage collectors without doing any research and when in Egypt were surprised to find the amount of issues that they can cover. I am also assuming that they did not know from the very beginning that the majority of garbage collectors are coptic Egyptians and then when they found that they though that it would be a good idea to cover religious discrimination and connect this story with the garbage collectors simply because they are christians. They did not give any depth to any of the issues they barely touched upon. If they were covering the plight of garbage collectors, then they should have focused on that. The issue with garbage collectors is not one of religious discrimination but one of other social issues, like access to health just to mention one out of many examples of issues that they could have covered. If they were discussing religious discrimination, then they should have focused on that and not touched upon garbage collectors.
Following the showing of the documentary, there was a Q&A and the reporter, director and producer could not give me a good answer to all of my questions. To them, they had not given justice to any of the issues they covered simply because they had no time. I am not sure if anyone in the world would take that as an excusable answer. The cost of that was that they had to also ignore the essence of their job and that is to convey the truth, facts as they are, to their audience and not taint them with their own personal opinions - opinions, I believe were developed based on lack of knowledge and naivety.

Anonymous said...

i didnt have the opportunity to see the whole document to judge, but, to be franck, i dont like its idea: poverty is not a relegious issue concernimg a certain group of people... Egyptian christians r poor becouse most of the Egyptians are... it's basic math...
i've been to Cairo once and i saw what they call "al-makaber al-sha3biyyah", that is "the popular cimeteries", where people live among dead!!!
may be the suffering among a smaller group, a minority, can be more obvious ...


Arab Democracy said...


I was taken back by the tone and the content of your comment, specifically the one targetting our 'editorial line'. That if there is one! And what makes it more puzzling is that you seem to reiterate what is already said in our introduction.

I personally do not regret posting this video and will answer in bullet points hoping you find the explanation satisfactory.

1- Channel 4, on which this documentary was aired, is a publicly funded British station thats is mainstream, watched by millions and has in the past provided some of the bst coverage of current affairs across the world.

2- Tabloid culture is responsible for shaping public opinion in the UK and in other Western countries.We ignore it at our own peril.

3- I am not sure what the motivations were behind the making the documentary. But if it is part of a 'conspiracy' to tarnish the image of Islam then we should be calling it and condemning it.

4-Regardless of all its flaws. It showed that Egypt was in effect a corrupt police state. Few Europeans know that fact while millions of them visit the country.

5- It is up to the Copts themselves to tell us whether there is a 'Coptic question'. Depending on who you speak to you get different narratives. What is sure is that the regime is exploiting their fears.

6- Now that you and others have had something to say about it why not contact channel 4 directly and complain about its biased approach. Even better lets find some copts who will do it.

Finally thank you for praising the quality of the website. It is people like you and others who make it what it is.



Anonymous said...

Dear Joseph,

Thank you for your comments on my comment. As you say, we do see eye to eye in terms of our opinion of the contents of the video. However, I think you misunderstood me on two crucial points.

First, I did not mention, refer to or imply an 'editorial line' or an editorial policy. I only suggested that the specific decision to post this video- which is by definition an editorial decision- was a mistake, and I stand by that opinion.

Second, I also do not refer to any conspiracies. I do not know why this video was made, or who funded it or stands behind it. My point is that it is, well, inflamatory tabloid trash and it does not belong on this site.

The issue that the editorial raises may be a worthy issue to debate and discuss. Choosing this particular video to raise that issue, however, was in my view not the right way to go about it.

My warmest regards,


Anonymous said...

Well it may be tabloid reporting to you Bassem, but it may not be viewed as such by others. It's about perspective really, something lacking in the Arab world, but who am I to judge, I suffer from LD according to you.
It may come as a surprise to many, but statistics have shown that many in the Coptic Community have been attacked by nutcases in Egypt in the name of Islam. Copts are poor, in part because they are not allowed to hold a variety of positions both in the public and private sector, HARAM oblige. A cat is a cat is a cat that’s all there is to it.
Radical Muslims are also coined and arrested by the government and many are poor. However, the difference here is that the former group singled out on the based on religious belonging regardless of whether religion is practiced or not. The latter group is singled out on the ground on embracing a political ideology that constitutes a threat to the Egyptian government.
Also, it would be nice to have most substantial debating. I find more value in questioning the content of any opinion by providing counterarguments rather than calling for censorship because an article does not meet your perception of acceptably disseminated information. Knowledge and the ability to embrace a broad vision are great; they should however not be at the expense of practicality and respect of others. The problem with many people on the left today is that they have become an elitist bunch that believe everyone but them is wrong and stupid; accusations they usually attribute to right-wing nut jobs.
Marwan -

Anonymous said...

Dear Marwan,

Three little points.

First, I have no recollection of accusing of suffering from LD. And as far as I can tell you are no secterian apologist and as such, should in principle not be suffering from LD. I state that as a scientific opinion, so you can be fairly assured of the diagnosis.

Second, the argument here is not about whether Copts and other minorities both muslim and christian (and everything else) suffer under the arab dictatorships. The only argument is whether trash journalism is the right way to bring it up and whether this particular video was of the appropriate quality for this site. Simple, really.

Third, you are absolutely right about leftist intellectuals. We are arrogant. We're not elitist, because as leftists we are- by definition really- egaliterian. But we are arrogant! I give you that. But honestly, there is a good explanation.

You see, we are arrogant mainly because we are manifestly more intelligent, better educated and better informed than most people. We also tend to have a sense of mission and usually shy away from hurting others or exploiting their weaknesses. Killer combination, I tell you!
In addition, we tend to be multi-talented in that we are usually successful in our careers and do rather well in at least a couple of other spheres of life.
Furthermore, we are great company when going out, as we have few inhibitions, and can carry our weight- so to speak- regardless of the topic of conversation.
Finally, we are quite irresistable to the opposite sex due a charming mix of physical attractiveness and an air of slight "nonchalence". Another killer combination!

Ah, yes, life is hard for us leftists... but we manage. Mainly because we know how to make fun of ourselves! :-)

All the best,


Anonymous said...

If my recollection serves me well you wrote an article about Lebanese suffering from LD in response to an article written by both Joseph Khoury and myself in relation to the March Madness people in Lebanon.

Also, my comments were not geared toward the fact that you opined that the article was 'trash'. The argument I made was based on the fact that you didn't present - in my mind - substantial evidence as to why the article was trash. How do you define it? The documentary could have skewed perspective, an agenda (surprising?) nonetheless it holds some truth to the general public. You can even argue it's an opinion from the right, is that enough reason to not post and debate it on this website?

Thanks for promoting the left wing's arrogant qualities and reinforcing the notion that more and more from the left are an elitist bunch! I would have said it takes one to know one, unfortunately over the years I drifted away from labels and I find myself holding stronger and stronger libertarian views.

Good to know you fair well with the opposite sex, though this must be a serious blow for those that don't play on your team, speaking of egalitarian.

Marwan – Keeper of the Obvious

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