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Counter-Dramas of Nation

March 12, 2011

Rituals of Unity. Photo: Al-Masry al-Youm

In response to the wave of violence against Copts in Cairo, leaders of the Gama’at Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood and Sufi shaykhs have begun saying evening prayers at at St. Mary’s Coptic church in Assiyut. This is not merely dramatic for Egyptians; it’s stunning. In the 1990s, the Gama’at were attacking and killing Christians in Assiyut.

As at Tahrir Square, these events are an important kind of national theater. Unlike the ritual performances of the state–parades of police, celebrations of the revolutions of the past–in which the state attempts to appropriate the signs of national communitas to shore up its own legitimacy and authority, these are attempts to enact, in this liminal period between state structures, the kind of nation religious leaders are trying to create.

There is a large literature on the ways states mobilize symbolic resources to lay claim to the loyalties of people, but little on rituals like this, in which non-state actors seek to symbolize the nation in ways counter to the narratives of the state.

Many Coptic leaders and others are accusing the remnants of the regime, and especially state security, for fomenting the anti-Coptic violence, According to the story in Al-Masry al-Youm, Pastor Reza warned the congregation and its guests that “the remnants of the old regime are trying to create a new sedition, so we lost the joy of our revolution.” Ritual performances like this are efforts to recreate the communitas of the 25 Jan. uprising.

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