A State of Sectarian Denial

by Mariz Tadros | published January 11, 2011

On the afternoon of January 6, a number of youths found a suspicious-looking cardboard box inside the Church of St. Antonious in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. From its appearance, the box seemed to contain explosives, so the youths slowly removed it from the church, placing it in the middle of the street. They then phoned the police, who arrived immediately and whisked the box away.

Why did these young men take the risk of handling a container they thought might blow up at any minute? According to them, they did so out of concern that security forces might not respond with celerity to a threat upon a church, but would definitely rush to the scene if the threat were posed to the public at large. And there was another reason: The parishioners wanted the incident to be registered, openly, so that it cannot be denied, written off as the work of vivid imaginations and consigned to the dustbin of undocumented history. Nothing more has been heard about the suspect parcel to date. Irrespective of the package’s actual contents -- or what the Egyptian Ministry of Interior later announces them to be -- the incident in Minya is telling of the deep distrust that Coptic Christians in Egypt bear toward the security forces and their commitment to serve and protect, irrespective of religious affiliation.

Bloody New Year’s Eve

The Minya episode came six days after an attack with explosives left 25 dead and over 200 injured at the Church of Saints in the Sidi Bishr district of the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. About 1,000 worshippers were attending midnight prayers on New Year’s Eve when a bomb tore through the church. The Ministry of Interior first said the explosion had come from a car bomb and then dismissed that possibility, saying it was the act of a suicide bomber. An investigation is underway. The attack in Alexandria is the worst on the country’s Christian minority (estimated to make up 10 percent of Egyptian population) since the shootings on January 6, 2010, the Coptic Christmas Eve, which left eight dead and several injured in the Upper Egyptian city of Nag‘ Hammadi.

There has been a highly emotional reaction in Egypt to the 2011 terror bombing. A wide range of state and non-state actors sharply condemned the attack and called upon all Egyptians -- and not just Copts -- to observe a period of mourning. Quick to express their anger and grief, for example, were leading politicians of the government and opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the sheikh of al-Azhar and other prominent members of the state-sponsored and independent clergy. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, there was also a clear impetus to deny that the perpetrators and planners could possibly be Egyptian. On January 1, President Husni Mubarak appeared on state television to describe the attack as a “terrorist operation that carries, within itself, the hallmark of foreign hands which want to turn Egypt into another scene of terrorism like elsewhere in the region and the wider world.” For their part, the Copts of Alexandria and other locales held sustained protests, the tenor of which was heavily anti-government, blaming the state for failing to provide adequate security for the Christian minority’s major public gatherings.

Probably to tamp down political tensions amidst these protests, Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, did not cancel the Christmas Eve mass on January 6, and the next day accepted the holiday good wishes of visiting dignitaries, as is customary. Yet the mood among Copts was anything but celebratory, with many churches removing all forms of Christmas decoration, women wearing black in solidarity with the families in mourning and police enforcing tight security. On Christmas Eve, the government-controlled media broadcast nationalist songs and programs whose hosts and guests testified to Egypt’s inter-religious cohesion. There were numerous reports of Muslims attending church, also in solidarity.

Despite these outpourings of sympathy and shows of national unity, there is very little reason to believe that the bloody events marking the new year will prompt systemic change in the handling of inter-sectarian relations in Egypt. Though the emotions this time ran high, in keeping with the severity of the incident, the reactions from officials, intellectuals and the press conform to the pattern characterizing their engagement with previous attacks on Christians, including those in 2010. In toto, the reactions almost comprise a coherent narrative: It is not sectarianism but ambient terrorism that threatens Egypt; foreigners are behind it; and what is needed to combat the problem is merely more solemnity in affirming the equal citizenship of all Egyptians. The cyclical nature of this narrative helps to explain the impasse in Egypt’s sectarian question.

Blaming Outsiders

Following the first reports of the killings at Saints’ Church, from Mubarak on down, the Egyptian establishment seemed keen to refute the notion that the incident was sectarian, in the sense of Muslim-on-Copt violence. As commentator Karima Kamal pointed out, the denial reached the extent that some figures close to the regime argued at the outset that both Muslims and Christians were the intended targets, since a mosque is situated across the street from the church. A few hours after the bombing, Fathi Surour, the long-time speaker of Parliament, completed the story, intoning that Egypt does not have a sectarian problem and no Egyptian could have committed such an act. [1] Writing in the quasi-official al-Ahram, veteran columnist Salah Muntasir also attributed the attack to foreign actors. While he did not deny that Egypt has witnessed attacks on Copts in the recent past, he averred that the Alexandria bombing had targeted all Egyptians and could not be linked to the previous, sectarian incidents. [2] The implication of these interpretations, which is sometimes baldly stated, is that anyone saying the attack targeted Copts has a political agenda, perhaps to embarrass the state, perhaps to sully Egypt’s image abroad. According to a source inside the newspaper, writers at al-Ahram were given strict instructions to toe the government line, with the promise of serious consequences for any divergence. In retort to the likes of Muntasir, Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad, a political science professor at Cairo University, pointed out the political motivations in the urge to deny that Copts were targeted as Christians. The reactions to Alexandria, he suggests, are in line with the emphatic initial portrayals of the Nag‘ Hammadi shootings as a case of tha’r, the vendetta practiced by some Upper Egyptians with strong tribal ties, rather than targeting of Christians leaving midnight mass. Ahmad recalled how confident were these statements, despite the evidence that the victims had nothing whatsoever to do the incident that allegedly sparked the vendetta. [3]

For many, conspiracy theories offered an easy way out of thinking seriously about what precipitated the violence. Some fingered the Mossad, others the Egyptian government itself. Even some writers with a reputation as political thinkers, such as Hasan Nafa‘, a retired professor of political science at Cairo University and former spokesman for the National Assembly for Change led by Nobel laureate and opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei, put forward conspiracy theories. Nafa‘ wrote that “from a purely rational perspective” he could not exclude the possibility that Coptic organizations in the diaspora were behind the Alexandria bombing. [4] “Since it has occurred that Islamist extremists have blown up mosques in several places around us to incite sectarianism that they believe serves their interests, it is not inconceivable that Coptic extremists might have participated, directly or indirectly, in the bombing of the church to instigate sectarianism.” The aim of such a devious plot, Nafa‘ continued, would be to “give the United States and Israel the opportunity to leap to the Copts’ defense, enabling the Copts to expel the conquering Muslims from Egypt at last.”

Many were also quick to claim decisively that al-Qaeda was behind the attack.

Slightly beforehand, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, had issued a threat of further attacks on Christians across the Middle East following an assault upon a church in Baghdad that left 58 people dead. In a communiqué, the group warned Christians that “the killing sword will not be lifted” from their necks. The Islamic State of Iraq justified the Baghdad slaughter with the fact that it had previously announced expiration of a deadline it had set for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt to “release” two women who it (and many Egyptian Muslims) believes are converts to Islam. But al-Qaeda has not claimed responsibility for the Alexandria incident, as is its conventional practice, while it was quick to do so in the case of the Baghdad church. There are serious questions as to whether the attack in Egypt was al-Qaeda’s doing.

As the investigators turn to the possibility that the perpetrator was not a foreign agent, new theories are likely to be advanced to “de-Egyptianize” the incident. The latest theme to surface is congratulation of the Egyptian population for its commendable display of national unity, refusing to bow to the outside conspirators who wish to divide the country and undermine its political stability.

Leveling the Field

One of the most disconcerting aspects of the state of denial surrounding the Alexandria bombing is the attempt to assign equal responsibility all around for the climate of deepened sectarianism. The most acute instance was the aforementioned column by Hasan Nafa‘ in which he argued that analysts of the sectarian question in Egypt have focused excessively on Islamic fundamentalism while neglecting its Christian counterpart.

Copts have not been simply on the receiving end of overheated religious rhetoric. In 2010, Bishop Bishoy, a high-ranking member of the Coptic clerical hierarchy, made some highly inflammatory remarks, on one occasion calling Muslims “guests” in Egypt and in an undelivered lecture questioning the authenticity of a Qur’anic verse. What is suggested by many writers and policymakers, however, is an approach to understanding incidents of sectarian violence that distributes half the blame to each side in the sectarian equation. Such an analysis misrepresents not only the course of history, but also the underlying power dynamics.

This leveling of the blaming field, as it were, has permeated the language used in the press and public sphere to describe the violent events of the last two years. Coupling the adjective “sectarian” with nouns such as “clashes,” “conflict,” “disputes” and “strife” renders an image of two communities of coequal size and power exchanging fire. That impression is at odds, obviously, with elemental demography, but it also conceals a number of facts regarding the nature and cause of the attacks lately witnessed in Egypt. Chiefly, the sectarian “clashes” that are referred to have frequently been collective attacks by Egyptian Muslims on churches, Christian-owned shops or homes of Copts. There are no counter-examples of masses of Christians setting upon mosques or the private property and homes of Muslims.

Nevertheless, as protest roiled Alexandria in the aftermath of the bombing, the press seemed engaged in a bid to prove that equal peril emanates from fundamentalists among both Christians and Muslims. Reports and opinion pieces appearing in al-Ahram over the period of January 2-6, in particular, represented the protests as evidence of the extremism and violent tendencies gripping a portion of the Coptic citizenry. In the days leading up to Coptic Christmas, demonstrations took place across the country, usually led by Coptic youth, though Muslim sympathizers joined some of the rallies. The protests were mostly peaceful, though there were rare instances where protesters threw stones or glass at the police. These gatherings were countered, however, by a high level of police brutality, captured on television, including the use of tear gas. The repression has been no different than that shown toward most groups of non-violent protesters since 2005, including the Kifaya movement for political reform, striking workers and many others. In the opposition press, however, the previous waves of demonstrations were rarely termed extremist; on the contrary, they were often praised. Coptic protesters, on the other hand, have been castigated in many state-run and opposition press outlets as agents of religious extremism, serving the narrative, in conformity with that of the government, that there are fundamentalists everywhere and that everyone’s fundamentalists are to be equally feared. [5]

Unseen Divide

There is a close corollary: When young Egyptians protest about unemployment, low pay or political repression, independent intellectuals and political activists tend to salute them for their active sense of citizenship; but when Coptic youths declaim their sense of marginalization on religious grounds, the same figures are liable to denounce them as religious fanatics. This double standard shows the pervasiveness of a normative framework that denies the legitimacy of religious discrimination as a grievance in Egypt.

Wahid ‘Abd al-Magid and ‘Amr al-Shubaki are notable examples of prominent intellectuals who have condemned the protests instigated by Coptic youth as sectarian. [6] Their stance is perplexing: Coptic youths are consistently reproached in the writings of many intellectuals for living in a cocoon, reacting to the rise of political Islam by turning to the church for refuge and inwardly adopting an apolitical posture. In view of this scathing critique, which at times accuses Copts of mortgaging their agency to the church, it would seem logical for intellectuals such as these two writers to applaud the post-Alexandria protesters for airing their complaints peacefully in public spaces. That demonstrations have taken place completely independent of (and, in some cases, against) the church’s will might be welcomed as evidence of newfound youth determination to participate in politics. Yet to attack these acts of civic engagement by dubbing them “sectarian” is to show the extent to which armchair activists in Egypt have become disconnected from the experiences of the mass of people. It shows an inclination to theorize rather than understand agency by listening to life experiences and political deliberations as they are being expressed on the street.

It is understandable that, as the Alexandria church still smoldered, the state would wish to conjure a spirit of national unity by emphasizing the connectedness of all Egyptians irrespective of religious affiliation. Certainly, there is much in the daily lives of Egyptians, Muslim and Copts alike, that attests to strong bonds of friendship, neighborliness and mutual respect among them. There is, however, a darker side to Egypt’s contemporary reality that intellectuals and the public prefer not to see: The divisions in society cut deep, along class lines, to be sure, but also along religious ones. These divisions are not fully appreciated because discussion of sectarian matters has long been a preserve of the elite, ensuring that the voices of middle-income and poorer citizens are muted. The opinions of bishops and priests have been taken as proxies for those of Copts as a collective, even though the heightened activism of the Coptic citizenry independent of the church suggests that the views are not one and the same. Simultaneously, renowned Coptic intellectuals and members of Parliament do not necessarily give voice to the Coptic citizenry, for it was the state, not a popular constituency, that thrust them into the limelight.

The muting of the voice of Copts as Egyptians has served to reinforce the dominant narrative that filters out evidence of social fragmentation. The press is apt to quote Copts who appreciate the wave of Muslim solidarity in the wake of the Alexandria bombing, but not those who report (as many did) hearing the opposite message on the street: “God take the rest of you, and rid this country of your presence.” Similarly, only one Egyptian media outlet relayed the news from Qalyubiyya, just north of Cairo, on January 4. There, a group of residents responded to peaceful Coptic protests against the Alexandria massacre by attacking the local Church of St. Mina and Kyrollos, causing serious damage to the building. [7] The fact is that not everyone’s values in Egypt are so tolerant. Widespread prejudice exists, exacerbated by nearly 40 years of state-sponsored Islamization of politics, in concert with the flourishing of Islamist movements' outreach to the public and the corresponding Islamization of society. These historical trends have left an imprint that will not fade away because state television is broadcasting nationalist songs.

Weak Spirit, Weaker Political Will

Acknowledging -- and confronting -- the Islamization of society and politics would contribute greatly to addressing the normative framework that has allowed the sharpening of religious divides among Middle Easterners, be they in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine or other parts of the region. The impact has been pervasive across demarcations of geography, class and ethnicity, mobilizing non-state actors, of course, but also penetrating the state. In Egypt, however, the government responds to what is at root a problem in political culture with half-hearted sloganeering and heavy-handed security intervention.

One concrete measure that would convey good will would be to promulgate the proposed law on places of worship that would unify the procedures governing the construction and repair of mosques and churches. The bifurcated procedures that presently exist are one of the most conspicuous manifestations of religious discrimination in the legal system. The construction and repair of churches is regulated by a highly inhibitive set of laws (and practices of the security apparatus) that are not applied to Muslim places of worship, which can essentially be built anywhere at any time. During January 3 discussions on the Alexandria massacre in the upper house of Parliament, opposition figure Rif‘at al-Sa‘id pressed the government to pass the unified places of worship law. Mufid Shihab, the minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, lodged an objection, saying that that there is no relationship between the draft law and the terror attack in Alexandria. When Sa‘id pointed out that Coptic anger at the government runs deeper than inadequate security measures, and indicts the state’s failure to redress long-standing grievances, Shihab accused him of inciting sectarian strife. [8] Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif displayed a similar reluctance to commit to the law in his televised conversation with Pope Shenouda on January 7.

The government refuses to see the Alexandria events as the most recent outcome of chronically mismanaged sectarian relations, meaning that the sectarian question is likely to continue to be filed under security, the domain in which the regime is most uncontested and unaccountable. According to Karima Kamal, there have been 120 attacks on Christians since the infamous assault on a church in Khanka in 1972. The string of violent incidents bears inconvenient testimony to the effectiveness of the security response in managing the sectarian question. Before the Alexandria bombing, the latest attack was in November 2010, in the shantytown of al-‘Umraniyya in the governorate of Giza. There, the church had been informally accommodating an increasing number of parishioners by converting part of an adjacent building into a prayer room. The security forces arrived on the premises, intending to tear down the building for being in violation of the law -- namely, its stipulation that permission must be obtained before any structure is used as a place of worship. This demand provoked the congregation to mount a protest at the site. Police waded into the crowd, leading to the death of two parishioners and the injury of many others. Over 150 Copts were incarcerated, and released only in early January. The press blasted the protesters for failure to respect the rule of the law, mostly neglecting to mention the discriminatory strictures in the law against construction of places of worship by Christians. It is a fact that hundreds of buildings used as mosques do not have permits, yet are supplied by the government with water and electricity, and certainly not threatened with demolition by the police.

At other times, security forces have been complacent -- to the point of being complicit -- as non-state actors foment anti-Christian sentiment in contemporary Egyptian society. According to one press report, 14 separate salafi protests demanding the “release” of Camillia Shehata, one of the Coptic women said to have converted to Islam, exited from mosques in 2010. [9] Since protests cannot occur without police consent, with “illegal” gatherings being rapidly ringed in and dispersed, it goes without saying that state security tolerated (at least) the anti-Christian slogans and speeches made out in the open on these occasions. Freedom of expression is welcome, for all political factions and ideological persuasions, yet it is noteworthy that the security forces also prohibited civil society groups from holding public events to celebrate non-religious aspects of Egyptian identity and the values of coexistence and tolerance. In 2010, for example, a respected, non-partisan human rights organization wished to put on the equivalent of a fair, a family event replete with food, song, theater and face painting, with the theme of “Egypt for all Egyptians,” yet it was denied permission. How can these state security attitudes be explained?

The Independent Forum of Human Rights Organizations, an initiative comprising 12 Egyptian groups, issued a statement to “strongly condemn the use of violence by security forces when confronting protesters in Alexandria and Cairo who wanted to peacefully express their rejection of the crime at the new year.” The Forum urged that the Alexandria bombings be dealt with as an escalation of sectarian tensions in Egypt and part of a chain of violent events. Member organizations asserted that state violence and mismanagement of sectarian tensions tills fertile ground for ill feeling to grow. “The state itself at times even spreads and adopts a disposition of violence in its policies when dealing with religious minorities,” the statement reads, citing the ‘Umraniyya incident as a case in point. Yet the security apparatus has long cordoned off the political space needed for the emergence of civil society organizations and non-partisan initiatives that could counter the outreach of Islamist groups.

The rhetoric of citizenship no longer has currency. Sincere as many activists are in promoting this language, it has no buy-in from the public. Instead, tangible action is needed. Transitional justice, for example, will not be possible without criminal prosecution of perpetrators. Yet this area has been taken over completely by the state security apparatus, which relies instead on its own political muscle to force through settlements in informal reconciliation sessions. In the rare cases that are referred to the judicial system, the administration of justice has been excruciatingly slow. Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad notes that a full year after the Nag‘ Hammadi shootings, the trial of the assassins drags on, despite the fact that they were arrested on the spot and have confessed to the crime.

The glacial pace of justice, as well, serves the dominant narrative that all is well: The ultimate responsibility for sectarian attacks lies outside the mainstream of Egyptian society, if not outside of Egypt entirely; there are no matters of national import to be addressed; and therefore no one need rethink the policies, practices, hierarchies and institutions that have led Egypt to this juncture. Judging from the state of denial on several fronts, the Alexandria attack has not been a wake-up call. In another month, perhaps two, the trauma will have passed and Egypt will be back to business as usual.

Endnotes

[1] Karima Kamal, “Egypt’s Policy of Denial,” al-Misri al-Yawm, January 6, 2011. [Arabic]
[2] Salah Muntasir, “Egypt Is Ancient,” al-Ahram, January 3, 2011. [Arabic]
[3] Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad, “Necessary Reflections on the Saints’ Church Massacre,” al-Shurouq, January 6, 2011. [Arabic]
[4] Hasan Nafa‘, “Coptic Extremism,” al-Misri al-Yawm, January 6, 2011. [Arabic]
[5] Excellent examples would be, from the state-run press, ‘Adil Mikha’il, “Priests and Intellectuals: Coptic Protests Promote the Terrorists’ Agendas,” Ruz al-Yusuf, January 4, 2011 [Arabic] and, from the opposition press, ‘Abd al-Wahhab Sha‘ban, “Ministers Went to the Cathedral to Extend Condolences and Angry Copts Met Them with Stones and Slander,” al-Wafd, January 4, 2011. [Arabic]
[6] See Wahid ‘Abd al-Magid, “Youth Anger in Egypt and Tunisia: What Is the Difference?” al-Misri al-Yawm, January 7, 2011 [Arabic] and ‘Amr al-Shubaki, “How Was Sectarianism Deepened?” al-Misri al-Yawm, January 6, 2011. [Arabic]
[7] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 5, 2011.
[8] Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 4, 2011.
[9] Al-Shurouq, January 1, 2011.

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