The Middle East Channel

The roots of Egypt’s Muslim-Christian tensions

The bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria following a New Year’s Eve liturgy was widely, and rightly, interpreted as a dangerous escalation of the ongoing tensions in Egypt between the country’s majority Muslim population and its Coptic minority, the largest such population in the Arab world. The bombing was followed by ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria following a New Year’s Eve liturgy was widely, and rightly, interpreted as a dangerous escalation of the ongoing tensions in Egypt between the country’s majority Muslim population and its Coptic minority, the largest such population in the Arab world. The bombing was followed by a cruder attack by an off-duty policeman on a group of Copts on board a train in Upper Egypt.  While alarming, such events were not novel.  They were preceded last year by an attack on Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve against a church in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi that resulted in the deaths of six parishioners and a Muslim security guard. Approaching the recent attack as a sui generis occurrence, as the Mubarak regime would prefer, reflects Egypt’s convenient historical amnesia about violence and institutionalized discrimination against Copts. In fact, the roots of the current crisis in Egypt are much deeper and can be traced back through Egypt’s 20th Century history, the end result of which  is a state of affairs where Copts do not enjoy equal rights as Egyptian citizens. 

The immediate response by Egyptians offers another way of thinking about the historical legacies. In response to the attack, the symbol of an overlaid crescent and cross proliferated across various social networking sites, evoking an earlier era of inter-sectarian cooperation and accord. This iconic symbol was a hallmark of the Wafd party and the struggle against British colonialism that culminated in the 1919 revolution led by Sa’ad Zaghloul. Although reflections on the inter-war period often take on an enhanced aura of nostalgia, ignoring the debilitating lack of power of the parliament with respect to King Farouk and the British, the fact remains that it was a high point in Coptic political participation and Muslim-Christian unity.

The Wafd laid claim to notions of national unity based on secular governance, enshrined in its motto "Religion for God and the homeland for all." The party represented a uniquely Egyptian nationalism, and its leadership was filled with high-ranking Copts who played prominent public roles. However, Egypt’s national identity would be contested for years to come as it evolved from one that was tightly focused on Egypt toward a broader sense of Arab nationalism. Throughout the Arab world, many of the initial champions of Arabism were Christians. In Egypt, some prominent Copts, such as the Wafdist leader Makram ‘Ebeid, were early supporters of the notion, fueled by the increasingly contentious question of Palestine. But the process by which Arab nationalism manifested itself in Egypt laid the groundwork for subsequent Coptic alienation, as Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s military regime excluded Copts, and as Arab nationalism came to emphasize Islamic identity.

Arab nationalism in Egypt reached its peak under the rule of Nasser, who came to power in 1952 at the head of the Free Officers’ Movement. While he was hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and ostensibly a secularist, Nasser’s military regime was a setback for the Copts. His regime was marked by tokenism in cabinet appointments and markedly reduced levels of political participation. Nasser’s exclusionary regime eventually led to the first wave of increased Coptic emigration to the West.

These trends accelerated under Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, who cultivated Egypt’s growing Islamist ranks as a counterweight to the Nasserists on the left. Sadat presented himself as al-Ra’is al-Mo’min (the believing president) and used Islam to further consolidate his power. In line with this approach, in May 1980, Sadat orchestrated an amendment to the constitution that enshrined shari’a as the principal source of legislation. These shifts were preceded by the crushing defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel, a time that saw the rise of Islamism throughout Arab society and in Egypt in particular, most notably with the establishment of al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya. Labor migration trends, with large numbers of Egyptians seeking employment in Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf, also furthered the spread of rigid Salafi-influenced thinking.  

It is unsurprising that this period witnessed the first serious modern outbreaks of sectarian violence, with Muslim-Christian clashes erupting in 1972, following the burning of a church in Khanka. Later in the decade, similar incidents arose and became routine, mainly sparked by unlicensed church construction, a chronic and recurring issue, due to the antiquated and discriminatory legal restrictions governing the construction and repair of Christian houses of worship. Increasing conflict culminated in 1981 in communal violence in the outlying Cairo district of al-Zawiyya al-Hamra, which resulted in at least 10 dead and 60 wounded. Sadat’s response included the arrests of numerous Islamist leaders and the banishment of the Coptic Patriarch, Shenouda III.

Following Sadat’s assassination at the hands of Islamist militants and his succession by Hosni Mubarak, sectarian tensions remained, but violence subsided for several years. This calm would not last, however, and by the early 1990s, the Egyptian state was faced with a low-level insurgency, targeting not only Christians but also Egyptian political leaders, security forces, and foreign tourists. The years of unrest saw scores of Copts killed and wounded, particularly in Upper Egypt, where Copts were alleged to have been subjected to the payment of jizya, the traditional tax levied on non-Muslims, in areas under the sway of Islamists. While the threat to the Egyptian state was stamped out ruthlessly in the 1990s, in recent years the pace and scope of sectarian violence has expanded. An April 2010 report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented 53 separate incidents of sectarian violence in 17 governorates for the two-year period ending in January 2010. Alongside this rising violence, sectarian issues became fodder for a series of sensationalized crises touched off by the alleged conversion of three Coptic women, two of whom were priests’ wives, and their purported return to church custody by state security forces.   

The Mubarak era also witnessed the continuation of the trend of Coptic political marginalization, which has been exacerbated by the actions of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), despite its efforts to portray itself as a protector of the Copts against a rising tide of Islamist fervor. In the 1995 parliamentary elections, the NDP did not put forward a single Christian candidate; in 2000, the number of Copts listed was three; by 2005, only two such candidates were included on the party’s list; and, in the recent 2010 elections, which were marked by increasing levels of fraudulence, the NDP selected only 11 Coptic candidates out of more than 800. Coptic political representation has been and continues to be almost wholly dependent upon post-election presidential appointment to reserve seats, a practice that has resulted in the appointment of a handful of lesser-known individuals. Similar patterns of chronic under-representation can be seen within the cabinet, where the regime has strictly hewed to a rigid quota of two cabinet positions for Copts, and throughout the government bureaucracy, military, police, and state university system. It was a symbolic victory for Copts when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs, was appointed United Nations Secretary General in 1992 after having been denied the foreign ministry in his own country. The consistency of these longstanding patterns, while not dictated by legal regime or universally applicable, point to a system of institutionalized discrimination. 

Faced with outbreaks of violence, accelerating Islamization of Egyptian society, and ongoing political marginalization by the state, many Copts have, unfortunately, retreated further from public life and limited social interactions with Muslims despite the fact that as a community they are not geographically isolated or ghettoized. In spite of these quite obvious trends and periodic outbursts of sectarian violence directed at Copts, the Egyptian regime has remained steadfast in underplaying such incidents as localized disputes and emphasizing the national unity of all Egyptians.

The actions of the Mubarak regime raise a suspicion that some degree of sectarianism and communal atomization is, in fact, a desired end. Such tensions consolidate the power of the church as a single address through which to deal with inter-sectarian issues while impeding the possibility of cross-sectarian political organization at the level of universities, professional syndicates, and other fora for opposition activity.

The regime has also increasingly pointed fingers of blame at Coptic émigré groups, some of whom have adopted the strident anti-Islam that has come to the fore following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. In conjunction with the increased polarization in the region accompanying the war on terrorism and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the actions of this segment of Western-based Copts has had the perverse effect of increasing the defensiveness of Copts in Egypt and opening the way for spurious charges from extremists that they represent some form of fifth column.  

In light of Egypt’s disastrous economic situation and the political malaise that has gripped the country, it is unclear whether the difficulties faced by Copts will spur greater demands for political reform alongside the claims of other aggrieved Egyptians suffering under the current regime. It is equally plausible that the Copts will retreat further from political life and increasingly support the status quo for fear of the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power if the political system is truly liberalized. What is clear is that the disastrous state of Egypt’s sectarian relations no longer can be ignored or blamed simply on localized conflict and nefarious foreign forces. Superficial bursts of national fervor, the likes of which were witnessed in the wake of the Alexandria bombing, belie the decades-long deterioration of sectarian relations and cannot serve as a substitute for national dialogue about the rights of all of Egypt’s citizens.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at the Century Foundation.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. His article on the use of public order in Egyptian law will appear in the forthcoming issue of The Review of Faith & International Affairs.