The Middle East Channel

Sectarianism stalks Egypt

Egypt was once again the scene of sectarian conflict when an angry mob gathered in front of a Coptic church in Cairo on Saturday night in the false belief that a Christian convert to Islam was being held against her will, setting off hours of fighting in the streets. The latest incident in the poor ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Egypt was once again the scene of sectarian conflict when an angry mob gathered in front of a Coptic church in Cairo on Saturday night in the false belief that a Christian convert to Islam was being held against her will, setting off hours of fighting in the streets. The latest incident in the poor working-class Cairo district of Imbaba resulted in the deaths of 12, six Muslims and six Copts, with more than 200 wounded and two churches burnt. The identity of the perpetrators and instigators remains to be determined. What is clear, however, is that this latest incident of sectarian strife has deep roots in recent Egyptian history, and raises the specter of broader communal violence. Coming at a delicate moment during Egypt’s transition toward multiparty elections, it also represents a clarifying moment for the Muslim Brotherhood and a vital test for Egypt’s emerging democratic order. Egypt’s latest descent into sectarian madness is ultimately a reflection of longstanding discrimination against Copts and the unchecked climate of religious intolerance that has increasingly come to mark Egyptian society.  How the evolving political system deals with these issues may be the most urgent test of how much Egypt has actually changed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Last New Year’s Eve, the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria brought millions of Egyptians, both Muslims and Copts, out into the streets to protest the wanton violence directed at a Christian house of worship. The attack was one more indictment of the sclerotic regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. The scenes of cross-sectarian solidarity that ensued helped galvanize popular sentiments and influenced the trajectory and tenor of Egypt’s unprecedented popular uprising which began on January 25. A common sentiment linking public outrage was that this was not the Egypt that many Egyptians knew — sectarian violence of this sort was what happened in Lebanon or Iraq, but Egypt was different, and the faiths lived side by side harmoniously. But, in fact, sectarianism and bigotry are a part of Egypt, as is the attendant denialism that has underplayed these growing trends. There are reasonable suspicions that sectarian tensions are now being manipulated for political ends by members of the former regime. The role of the state in fostering the sectarian divide was reinforced for many when the former Minister of Interior, Habib al-Adly, was accused formally of orchestrating the Alexandria church bombing. How the state now responds will answer lingering questions about the extent of its transformation.

Since the toppling of the Mubarak regime, the reality of the country’s sectarian divide has been on display with escalating tensions and more frequent acts of violence directed at Egypt’s Christian minority, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Arab world. This violence has been particularly disappointing when contrasted with the scenes of communal solidarity that marked Egypt’s 18-day uprising. The profusion of the crescent and cross intertwined on protest banners harkened back to Egypt’s 1919 Revolution when Copts and Muslims joined forces against British imperialism and an ineffectual monarch under the banner "Religion is for God and the Nation is for All." The broad-based, disciplined, and self-conscious efforts by protesters to eschew nakedly sectarian slogans were a heartening development that many interpreted as a first step toward the building of a new social compact for an inclusive civil state. In Tahrir Square and other locales of protest throughout Egypt, one often heard the chant of "Muslims and Christians are One Hand." Conscious of their surroundings and wider audiences, individuals sought to give such sentiments vitality through actions, such as the now iconic pictures of Christians forming a human barrier to protect praying Muslims in Tahrir Square and other scenes where Muslims took the lead in protecting their fellow Christian citizens in acts of public prayer. 

Many Copts were initially wary of the uprising and feared the possibility of the further Islamization of the Egyptian state, reflecting their increased marginalization within Egyptian society in recent decades. In keeping with regional trends, particularly following the crushing defeat in the June 1967 War against Israel, Egypt had undergone a religious revival and retrenchment that touched all aspects of its public life and helped popularize notions of political Islam. While Egypt’s authoritarian leaders often repressed Islamist opposition forces, they also sought to protect the state from such challenges by indulging public religiosity, co-opting many Islamist demands, and shifting support among Islamist groups to combat the rise of others. This legacy of polarization gained increased prominence under the negligent watch of the Mubarak regime, which had long manipulated sectarian issues to pacify Egypt’s Christians, ensure their fealty to the regime, and paralyze efforts at cross-sectarian political mobilization. Increased social atomization also suited the interests of the Coptic Church hierarchy, whose authority was reinforced in a manner akin to the Ottoman millet system, whereby the church was granted wide communal authorities and was the primary interlocutor with governmental organs.     

The attacks in Imbaba were preceded by several other post-uprising incidents of sectarian strife. While details remain murky and confusion reigns as to the precipitating causes of these events, many have sought to explain these outbursts as a manifestation of counter-revolutionary forces that are seeking to halt the progress of Egypt’s revolution. In this telling, shadowy forces associated with the ancient régime seek to restore its foundations by creating chaos, sowing fear, and laying the groundwork for a crackdown on dissent and protest by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body that rules the country in this period of transition. The possibility that former regime figures are exploiting Egypt’s security vacuum and ongoing instability to further their narrow self-interests is real, but there is little tangible evidence at this point to buttress such allegations. However, past practice does point to this possibility, as the elements of the former regime sought to create a security vacuum in the opening stages of the Egyptian uprising, in an effort to provoke a popular backlash against the protest movement.

Others have pointed to the sudden public emergence of Salafism as a force within Egyptian society. While labeling others as Salafis has become an overly-broad method for describing extremist religious currents, many self-declared Salafis, who previously shunned political life, have sought a role for themselves in Egypt’s tumultuous political transition. The Salafis are not a monolithic entity, and some Salafi leaders have sought to distance their groups from incitement and violence against Copts. However, other Salafist leaders have actively sought to exploit sectarianism and have latched onto unfounded allegations against the church and its aging Patriarch, Shenouda III. Salafi incitement to intolerance is now a disquieting aspect of Egyptian public life. In this period of confusion and paranoia, the Salafis themselves have also come to be seen by some as the tip of the counter-revolutionary spear and a concrete manifestation of Saudi intolerance for Egypt’s revolutionary moment. Current Salafi trends are often linked with Wahhabi-style religious practice and Saudi proselytizing, and, as a result, popular suspicions have quickly developed that Saudi Arabia is backing Salafist groups as a move against revolutionary change in Egypt.         

The emergence of the Salafist current poses a serious test for the Muslim Brotherhood as they seek to normalize their political existence. While the Brotherhood is not responsible in any way for the attacks on Copts and has denounced such actions publicly, as the most significant political force calling for religion in the public arena, they have a heightened responsibility to act proactively against these abuses of religious sentiment that now threaten to destroy Egypt’s social fabric. Moreover, at a time when the Brotherhood’s intentions are being questioned by other opposition forces, they have an additional responsibility to increase public trust. Much of this distrust has been fuelled by their public dalliance with the Salafis, which most recently took the form of a massive joint public rally. As sectarianism threatens to undermine the stability of the transition period, the organization has at times appeared to be more concerned with contesting the upcoming parliamentary elections and protecting its flank from Salafi encroachment.

The political participation of the Muslim Brotherhood is a critical and necessary step for Egypt and the Arab world beyond the unsustainable and counterproductive repression that has characterized the Egyptian state’s relationship to the country’s largest organized opposition force. However, if the Brotherhood expects to be treated as a responsible political actor in Egypt’s new political order, they should be called to account for these actions, and they should clarify their own red lines with respect to cooperation with Salafi forces. The Brotherhood should understand that perceptions of the group by secular Egyptians and within the international community will be shaped by its response to these latest developments. At a moment of national peril, the Brotherhood and the emerging political actors across the spectrum will have to take time from their organizational and electoral efforts to stem this tide of social unrest. Egypt’s preeminent Islamic religious institution, al-Azhar University, should also take a greater public lead in combating rising tensions. Egypt’s Coptic community will have to act with discipline and ensure that it does not further the sectarian divide, whether through rhetoric or actions. In this vein, misguided and self-defeating calls for international protection, even if only made by fringe groups in Egypt or the diaspora, will only further fuel sectarian narratives that regard Egypt’s Christians as a suspect fifth column. Similarly, Copts should not evince nostalgia for the purported stability of the former regime, as the existing sectarian divide was cultivated and manipulated by that regime for its own ends.

The provenance of the current wave of anti-Christian sentiment is now a matter that should be dealt with by Egypt’s civilian judiciary. But regardless of the identity of the instigators, the ability of sectarian and bigoted narratives to instigate public unrest should be another reminder of the seriousness of Egypt’s sectarian divide. As the incidents have piled up, it is no longer enough for Egyptians to voice their shock and bewilderment following each successive attack. The current course, taken to its extremes, represents the unthinkable path to civil strife and conflict.  At this moment of hope and opportunity in the Arab world, the example of Egypt remains critical, and the country’s fate will help shape the emerging regional order. The autocrats of the Arab world will no doubt happily use the example of Egypt to justify the continuation of their repressive order if Egypt’s transition now falls prey to the forces of sectarianism and extremism.

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

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