Sectarianism and Its Discontents in Post-Mubarak Egypt

by Mariz Tadros
published in MER259

The complex Muslim-Christian relations of post-Mubarak Egypt are perhaps best glimpsed through five distinct reactions to the May 7, 2011 attacks on two churches in Imbaba, a poor quarter of Cairo, that left 15 dead and over 200 injured. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that those responsible would be tried in special security courts. Prime Minister ‘Isam Sharaf ascribed the church burnings to “the collapse of the police force following the revolution, the pressures which the people have been subjected to in the era of the former regime and those with vested interests who benefited from the old regime.” [1] The revolution’s youth coalition called upon Egyptians to join a million-person congregation in Tahrir Square on May 13, in support of both “national unity” and Palestine, but the gathering was taken over by the latter cause. Hundreds of Copts holding large crucifixes staged a demonstration for an end to religious discrimination in front of the National Television and Radio building (Maspero). A few days earlier, Coptic business tycoon Naguib Sawiris met with Ahmad al-Tayyib, the sheikh of al-Azhar, telling him, “The Copts are under your protection.” [2]

These five vignettes are revealing of how sectarian crises are mediated at this juncture in Egyptian history. The military junta that now rules Egypt vows to wield an iron fist, in terms reminiscent of the Mubarak regime, but does not intervene. The prime minister, again recalling the old regime, looks everywhere but in anti-Christian prejudice for the causes of Muslim-Christian conflict. In Tahrir Square, the youth can agree on Palestine but not on a united front against sectarianism in Egypt. At the broadcast headquarters, the protests organized by the “Maspero Youth Federation” evidence the exercise of political agency by an emerging Coptic civil society autonomous of the Coptic Orthodox Church. As for Sawiris’ plea, it is telling that he appeals to Egypt’s highest Islamic institution -- and not the government -- for aid. Together the scenes make up a picture of a religiously polarized country where Islamists, and not the youth of the January 25 revolution, have the strongest hold on the Egyptian street.

Egypt Is Not Tahrir Square

In the first 100 days since the resignation of President Husni Mubarak on February 11, there have been no fewer than ten confirmed attacks on Christian places of worship or property, as well as other incidents of sectarian violence. These incidents include: an army raid on a monastery; the arson of churches in Rafah, Sol, Atfih, Dayr Mawas and Imbaba; the looting and burning of property belonging to Copts in the villages of Badraman and Abu Qurqas; the assault on Christians in al-Qamadir and the excision of a Coptic citizen’s ear in Qina. On February 22, in the village of al-Shuraniyya in the Upper Egyptian province of Suhag, a number of homes were set afire and property inside destroyed when rumor spread that the Baha’is who had been expelled from the village in 2009 had returned. [3] There have also been repeated attacks by salafis on tombs belonging to Sufi orders.

The escalation of sectarian attacks contrasts starkly with the spirit of national unity in Tahrir Square, where Egypt’s “January 25 revolution” seemed to bring together the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. The global media foregrounded images of Muslims kneeling in prayer, encircled by Christians protecting them from the incursions of pro-regime thugs, and Muslims returning the favor during the celebration of Sunday mass. The slogan “Muslim, Christian, one hand!” was chanted frequently and fervently. There was not a single attack on a church during the 18 days of revolutionary activism across the country, despite the withdrawal of police guards. In the euphoria, many were quick to pronounce the end of sectarianism in Egypt. Since Mubarak’s regime had incited tensions between Muslims and Christians as part of its divide-and-rule strategy, the revolution seemed to herald a new era of social harmony and coexistence.

Yet the spirit of Tahrir Square was bounded in space and time. The downtown plaza had a moral economy of its own, a social solidarity across lines of class, gender and religion that stopped at the impromptu checkpoints. Outside the square, social divides were as concrete as ever. And as the garbling of the “national unity” message on May 13 shows, the joyful days preceding the ouster of Mubarak cannot be recaptured. The reason is as simple as a cartoon published in al-Misri al-Yawm in which the revolutionary moment is marked by the Egyptian flag, while the phases before and after fly the cross and crescent. The January 25 revolution reinforced a key lesson of the history of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt: National unity is strongest at times when citizenship is mediated by a common Egyptian identity and weakest when citizenship is mediated by religion. The emphasis on Egyptian-ness in Tahrir Square was highly effective in uniting rather than dividing. Had the rallying cries been religious in character, the Christian minority (some 10 percent of Egyptians) would not only have turned away, but turned against the revolution, if not visibly then inwardly. The increasing Islamization of politics in post-Mubarak Egypt has badly damaged the democratic credentials of the revolution by deepening the inequities between Muslims and Christians -- and creating new ones.

New Actors, Old Strategies

The sectarian attacks of March, April and May have shocked many Egyptians who believe that Egypt has no problem with religious intolerance, only with leaders who whip up displays of it for their own purposes. With Mubarak gone, many insist that Muslim-Christian tensions are orchestrated by members of the former ruling party in association with disgraced state security officers. Yet analysis suggests the involvement of others as well: salafis, the Muslim Brothers, ordinary citizens and, not least, the army.

Security is lax after the fall of Mubarak and the dissolution of his regime’s secret police as well as many regular police units. Egyptians of all faiths complain of the rise in street crime and the slow response of the authorities to reported muggings and assaults. Disputes escalate to blows, as the army has proven an inadequate substitute for a proper gendarmerie. Yet in cases of religiously motivated attacks, the army seems to practice a policy of studied non-intervention, if not outright complicity with the attackers.

A case in point is that of Ayman Mitri, a Copt from the Upper Egyptian town of Qina whose ear was cut off by a gang of locals who falsely accused him of running a prostitution ring. The toughs claimed to be applying the penalty prescribed by the shari‘a. Mitri filed a police report against the perpetrators, but was pressed to withdraw it during a “reconciliation committee” meeting attended by the army’s local second-in-command. The sheikh of al-Azhar also met with Mitri to express his deep regrets, but no prosecution has ensued.

Later, a local thug with a 200-man militia took over the villages of al-Badraman and Nazlat al-Badraman in Minya, another Upper Egyptian province, expelling some Copts, kidnapping others and demanding a ransom from many, while expropriating the lands of still others and imposing a levy on Copts for several weeks. He called the levy jizya, the name of the poll tax paid by protected non-Muslims (ahl al-dhimma) to Muslim rulers before the mid-nineteenth century. Forty-three human rights organizations wrote to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces asking for action against the would-be sultan, but none was forthcoming. Shortly afterward, in the first week of April, Muslim villagers in Minya’s al-Qamadir protested the planned repair of the church of Mari Yuhanna, built with official sanction in 2001 and serving about 2,500 worshippers. The parishioners sought a restoration permit from the army when the building began to collapse. Local Muslims objected, saying they were offended by the church’s location in front of their mosque (built in 2010). With no intervention from the authorities, another “reconciliation committee” meeting resolved to move the church premises to a smaller building on the village outskirts, stipulating that it could display no religious markers like a bell or a cross. [4]

On two other occasions, the army itself has been the aggressor. In an under-reported incident on February 22, soldiers attacked the monastery of St. Bishoy in Wadi al-Natroun with tanks and live ammunition, injuring four. The army accused the monks of building a fence without a permit (though the land legally belongs to the monastery), and later released a statement insisting that only barriers built on state-owned land were razed. Yet, as the blogger Muhammad Mar‘i asked, why target the monastery for illegal construction when thousands of unlicensed residential structures pop up all the time?

March 4 saw the better documented church blaze in Sol, a village in the vicinity of Helwan south of the capital. Amidst Coptic protests around the country, rumor spread in the Cairo neighborhoods of Sayyida ‘Aisha and Khalifa that the Christian garbage collectors (zabbalin) living in the nearby Muqattam hills were raping Muslim women in their church and were on their way to burn the Sayyida ‘Aisha mosque. Thugs armed with guns and knives set upon the zabbalin, who threw back bricks and glass to defend the approaches to their settlement. The attacks left six dead, including one Muslim resident of the zabbalin community who had descended the hill to defend his Coptic friends and neighbors, and dozens injured, some in serious condition. The wounded garbage collectors claimed that the army arrived and took the side of the attackers. “The thugs and those attacking us were hiding behind the army’s tanks, and both were shooting at us,” said one zabbal who was shot through the jaw with a live round, which he says had the Defense Ministry’s engraving. [5] The state prosecutor is investigating the matter.

The Qina Conundrum

Over the course of ten days in mid-April, life in much of Upper Egypt came to a virtual standstill. [6] The crisis began on April 14, when the government announced that ‘Imad Mikha’il, a Copt and a general in Mubarak’s security apparatus, would be governor of the Qina province. Angry Qinawis demanded his immediate resignation, holding rallies and moving to halt railway transport from Qina north to Suhag and south to Aswan. The protests only subsided on April 26 when the cabinet announced a three-month freeze on the governor’s term, during which a Muslim official will undertake his duties. The protesters, however, vowed that they would continue to push for Gen. Mikha’il’s resignation. The standoff has exposed cracks in state-citizen relations as well as ideological struggles between forces vying for power.

When the cabinet announced its list of governors, there was prompt opposition to Mikha’il on account of his association with the Mubarak regime. The January 25 revolution coalition argued that he was responsible for repression of the uprising in his previous capacity as deputy security head of Giza. In Qina, large protests erupted after Friday prayers on April 15 and continued for several days, preventing civil servants from entering the governorate premises and blocking the rail lines. Three days later, the prime minister sent Gen. Mansour al-‘Isawi, the minister of interior (and a Qinawi), and Gen. Muhsin al-Nu‘mani, minister of local administration, to hear the people’s grievances. The meeting ended in frustration, and shortly afterward, the deputy prime minister refused to accept the letter of resignation Mikha’il had presented. The protesters now threatened to shut off the supply of water to the Red Sea governorate and electricity to the sugar refineries. Some also warned the governor of death should he set foot in Qina.

The national press has been sympathetic to the Qinawis’ stance: Historically, the government has neglected the southern governorates, which have some of the lowest human development profiles nationwide and have been marginalized from the centers of decision-making. Abu al-‘Abbas Muhammad, a Qinawi, wrote in the flagship state-run magazine Ruz al-Yusuf that Prime Minister Sharaf should have shown the same regard for Qina that he showed for Tahrir Square when he visited the plaza upon his appointment and credited his legitimacy to the crowds. “I say it bluntly: Those who conjured these spirits should release them. The government brought this crisis about and the government should bring an end to it.” [7] Indeed, delegating the Qina listening tour to two generals -- one of them the interior minister, to boot -- was redolent of the old regime’s ways, treating political crises as security matters. Renowned author Alaa Al Aswany described the premier’s message to Qinawis as follows: “I decide, and whether you like it or not, you will accept my dictates in a state of submission.” [8]

But to read the Qina events as a case of citizens confronting authoritarianism would be too simple. Around the same time, demonstrations began in several other provinces, including Alexandria, Asyout, Minya, Daqhaliyya and Bani Suwayf, against the appointment of generals from Mubarak’s police state as governors. The protests, however, were notably smaller, in the hundreds, while in Qina they numbered in the hundreds of thousands. It was surely not coincidental that Qina was the only province whose governor was to be a Christian. What happened there involved a constellation of actors: tribal leaders, salafis, the Muslim Brothers, Sufis, and members of the dismantled NDP and state security agency, who, according to some reports, helped to idle the railways. The common objective was not the demand for a civilian governor, but for a Muslim one.

Qina had been appointed a Christian governor once before. The first, Magdi Ayyoub, was loathed by Coptic Qinawis for being so keen to appear unbiased that he discriminated against Christians. It was during his tenure that Egypt witnessed one of its bloodiest sectarian attacks to date -- the shootings of Nag‘ Hammadi parishioners leaving Christmas Eve mass in 2010. Muslim Qinawis also disliked Ayyoub, complaining that he was a weak leader overly afraid of stepping on toes. But there was another complaint as well, namely, that he could not participate in Friday prayers.

A statement issued by “intellectuals of Qina” contends that local forces mobilized after Mikha’il’s selection to transform the opposition in a sectarian direction. According to the statement, a Muslim Brother by the name of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz reached an agreement with Qina’s director of general security to delay the trains for two hours, and was then surprised when protesters occupied the tracks permanently. Muslim Brothers and salafis led the protests but later the more established Islamists retreated. The statement (corroborated by journalistic accounts) highlights that opponents of Mikha’il put forward an alternative slate to rule Qina as an Islamic emirate: two salafi sheikhs and former NDP local councilman. According to several press reports, the town’s mosques became platforms for calls to reject the Christian governor because a non-Muslim has no authority (wilaya) over a Muslim. [9] Among the popular slogans raised in the protests were: “Islamic, Islamic, not Christian, not Jewish,” “Raise your head up, you are Muslim” and “There is no God but God, the Nazarene is the enemy of God.” “Nazarene” refers not to Jesus, but to Mikha’il, as it is a Muslim designation for Christians intended as a slur.

The Islamist intellectual Fahmi Huwaydi cautions that Islamists should not be lumped together, [10] but the Qina crisis shows that, in particular political settings, various Islamist factions can and do synchronize their efforts toward a common goal. The Muslim Brothers, the Gama‘at Islamiyya and assorted salafis set up loudspeakers in front of the governorate, threat- ening to take up arms if the cabinet did not heed their demand for a Muslim governor. In front of al-Wihda mosque in the town center, salafis raised the Saudi flag and called for the establishment of an Islamic emirate. Political activist Hamdi Qandil interpreted this act as Saudi meddling in Egyptian affairs employing thugs under the cloak of religion. [11] But the flag may not have symbolized counter-revolution so much as the strength of Wahhabi ties with salafis in Egypt.

Commentator Dia’ Rashwan argues that since Christians were among the first to oppose Mikhail’s appointment, the protests were not motivated by sectarian sentiments. [12] Yet the clout of the salafis and other Islamists was conspicuous early on. When the two ministers visited Qina, the majority of the forum’s attendees were salafis. “When the minister of interior asked about Copts, he discovered there was no representation, and two priests were brought in for a meeting to be held with the minister afterwards,” noted one journalist. [13] Also present were the Gama‘at Islamiyya, the Muslim Brothers and “NDP figures.” A salafi sheikh rose and chanted, “We want it Islamic,” to which neither minister responded.

The greatest evidence that the primary objection to Mikha’il was his religious identity, not his military rank, came after the government froze his assumption of office. The protesters released a statement saying they had blocked the railways for legitimate reasons, namely that they do not want Qina to fill the “quota” for Copts in government. [14] The Qina crisis is symptomatic of the dilemmas facing the transitional government in Egypt should the salafis, the Gama‘at Islamiyya, the Muslim Brothers and other Islamist forces continue to grow in mobilizing power.

Of “Honor” and Sectarianism

The attacks on the churches in Sol and Imbaba had something in common: Both were ignited by perceptions of damaged communal “honor” because of the claimed loss of women’s virtue. In Sol, Muslims burned the church in retaliation for an alleged relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, whose father had been killed by his family because he refused to kill his daughter to cleanse the family’s “honor.” In the case of Imbaba, a crowd of some 2,000 salafis (and unknown others) agitated to “liberate” ‘Abir, a Christian woman who they claimed had converted to Islam, been married to a Muslim and then abducted to a building belonging to the Mari Mina church.

The timing of the ‘Abir protests is noteworthy. Islamists had mounted rallies on consecutive Fridays since the summer of 2010 demanding the “release” of Camillia Zakhir, a priest’s wife who they claimed had also converted to Islam and then been detained by the Coptic Orthodox Church. On April 29, a salafi-led coalition of “new Muslims” held a large demonstration in front of the cathedral where the Copts’ Pope Shenouda resides, demanding Zakhir’s “release” and the pontiff’s removal. On May 7, Zakhir appeared on television, in the company of her priest husband and her young son, to emphasize that she had left home after a marital dispute, but had not converted or been held by the church. Mere hours after the broadcast, bearded men believed to belong to the salafi movement were heading to the Mari Mina church, where ‘Abir’s husband had informed them that his wife was being held against her will. It was a case of “never mind Camillia, take ‘Abir,” as Khalid Muntasir wrote in a scathing column. [15]

At the church, three sheikhs were allowed to inspect the premises, and they confirmed that ‘Abir was not present. In the meantime, however, the large crowd outside had stirred fears of an assault on the church, and clashes erupted with neighborhood Copts, including an exchange of gunfire. Property belonging to Copts was burned and looted, and the mob proceeded to set St. Mary’s church ablaze as well. A fact-finding mission from the National Council for Human Rights attributed the violence to the deficient response of security forces and accused NDP remnants of instigating social strife to abort the revolution. The council’s report also pointed to extremists trying to reconfigure Egyptian society so that Copts have no rights except as ahl al-dhimma. [16]

After the Imbaba incident, Ahmad al-Tayyib, the sheikh of al-Azhar, admonished Egyptians that sectarian strife could culminate in civil war. Public opinion was quick to pick up on this fear, but remains in overall denial of the dynamics of violence against non-Muslims in Egypt. Sectarianism is blamed on foreign enemies and a “deviant few” Egyptians. How these marginal actors are able to galvanize hundreds of Egyptians to take part in attacks in the name of defending religion is not explained.

There is a pattern, as well, of presenting sectarian attacks as conflicts between two equal parties. An impassioned column by ‘Abd al-Fattah ‘Abd al-Mun‘im, for instance, read: “We have sacrificed the revolution and Egypt so that the salafis and the church can flex their muscles. They are backed up militias capable of destroying the country in less than ten minutes, and there is no force in Egypt capable of overcoming them, not even the army. They speak in the name of Allah or the Lord. If the case of Camillia is resolved, ‘Abir is her substitute. What counts is that the fires of sectarian sedition remain alight.” [17] Of course, neither the church nor independent groups of Copts have launched an assault on a mosque or property belonging to Muslims during this wave of sectarian unrest. The Islamists and some secular nationalists, however, perceive the lobbying of external Coptic groups for international protection of Christians as a religious minority as a provocation and a principal cause of sectarian incidents.

Any expression of Coptic demands, in fact, seems to be regarded by public opinion in Egypt as provocative, even if it is addressed to Egyptian authorities and not the West. The protests in front of the National Radio and Television building were led by organized youth, a significant proportion of whom participated in the January 25 revolution. The demonstrations met a highly negative reaction, replete with arguments that religion-based demands undermine national unity and Egypt’s economic recovery. Contrast this response to the general sympathy for the Qinawis who stopped rail traffic to the tourism centers of Luxor and Aswan for ten days straight. The Maspero protests, moreover, were organized independently of the Coptic Orthodox Church and in defiance of an order from Pope Shenouda to desist. It is perplexing that Copts, who have long been criticized in the media for retreating to the Church’s “cocoon,” would be reprimanded for breaking out of it.

What Kind of Majoritarian Democracy?

If the public response to sectarian attacks is reminiscent of the pre-revolution period, so is the handling of the crisis by the armed forces and transitional government. Only in the case of Imbaba have the perpetrators of attacks been held for trial. By and large, the army has resorted to the same mechanism used by Mubarak’s state security officers to paper over sectarian conflict -- “reconciliation committees” -- except that now salafi sheikhs are key players therein. These committees serve to thwart legal recourse for wrongdoing and perpetuate inequality. In the first meeting held in Sol after the church arson, it was agreed (with the army’s blessing) that the church should be rebuilt in a different location, preferably on the edge of town, to avoid disturbing majority sensibilities. [18] Following massive protests led by youth coalitions and Copts at Maspero, the army volunteered to rebuild the church. Leading Islamists such as Sheikh Muhammad Hassan and Sheikh Muhammad Higazi, known for his Muslim Brother sympathies, were tapped to participate in the meetings in Sol and then in Qina. The army deflected criticism of these moves by saying it called in Sheikh Hassan “because people listen to him.” [19]

Yet the army’s choice of strategic partners is dangerous in view of the vision of majoritarian democracy that salafis promote. Sheikh Hassan and his peers reassure Copts that they have nothing to fear from the rise of Islamist forces because they are guaranteed protection under Islam, rather than under a constitution enshrining the rights of all citizens irrespective of religion. In the 90 years since Egypt’s constitution was promulgated in 1922, the terms “Nazarene” and “ahl al-dhimma” have been so prominent in public discourse only once before, during the resurgence of Islamist movements in the 1970s.

Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt will not be transformed through national dialogues and reconciliation committees. What is needed is the political will to administer justice consistently and in compliance with universal rights, rather than power hierarchies and normative values on the ground. Yet there will no doubt be cases where vox populi clearly favors exclusionary practices, as with the expulsion of Baha’is in Suhag. Legal justice is necessary but insufficient to transform social relations: With the slogan “Raise your head high, you are Egyptian” replaced in many locales with “Raise your head high, you are Muslim,” it is difficult not to sense that the revolution has been hijacked. Is there popular will to seize it back? Such is one of the pressing questions facing Egypt.

Endnotes

[1] Al-Misri al-Yawm, May 13, 2011.
[2] Al-Misri al Yawm, May 12, 2011.
[3] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 24, 2011.
[4] Yusuf Sidhum, “Will the State Quail Before the Terror of the Salafis?” Watani, April 17, 2011.
[5] Interview with an injured person, Muqattam, April 28, 2011.
[6] An abridged version of this section appeared as Mariz Tadros, “Egyptian Democracy and the Sectarian Litmus Test,” Arab Reform Bulletin, May 11, 2011.
[7] Abu al-‘Abbas Muhammad, “Egypt Is Not Just Tahrir Square,” Ruz al-Yusuf, April 23-29, 2011.
[8] Alaa Al Aswany, “When We Speak, You Must Listen,” al-Misri al-Yawm, April 26, 2011.
[9] Al-Misri al-Yawm, April 21, 2011 and Watani, April 22, 2011.
[10] Fahmi Huwaydi, “Talk of Lies and Hatred,” al-Shurouq, April 27, 2011.
[11] Hamdi Qandil, “Generals, Make the Decrepit Interior Minister Resign and Hit the Thugs of Saudi Arabia,” Sawt al-Umma, April 25, 2011.
[12] Dia’ Rashwan, “A Vision and Possible Solutions for the Qina Crisis,” al-Shurouq, April 25, 2011.
[13] Ruz al-Yusuf, April 23-29, 2011.
[14] Al-Shurouq, April 27, 2011.
[15] Khalid Muntasir, “Never Mind Camillia, Take ‘Abir,” al-Misri al-Yawm, May 10, 2011.
[16] Al-Dustour, May 12, 2011.
[17] ‘Abd al-Fattah ‘Abd al-Mun‘im, “Let Egypt Die and Long Live the Salafis and the Church,” al-Yawm al-Sabi‘, May 11, 2011.
[18] Al-Wafd, March 7, 2011.
[19] Al-Dustour, May 11, 2011.

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