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Egypt feigns ignorance

January 17, 2011


ON January 11, a man boarded a train in the city of Salamut in Upper Egypt. He reportedly checked that the passengers had crucifixes tattooed on their right wrists, a customary practice of Coptic Christians. Allegedly uttering “there is no god but Allah”, he began firing indiscriminately upon passengers, killing a 71-year-old man and wounding six others.

Police found the man near his home shortly after and identified him as an off-duty police officer. He claims he was annoyed and did not know what had gotten into him.

There are several ways to read this tragedy. The first is obvious — as a tale of mental instability, of a loose cannon whose frustration, paired with a pistol, caught some unfortunate people in its crossfire. This will undoubtedly be the story told by Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and the state security apparatus.

The other narrative is that of a religious conspiracy in which the police deprive Copts of protection and attack them whenever and wherever possible. I venture that this is the interpretation of demonstrators who clashed with police outside the hospital where survivors of the attack were being treated.

While the former reading ignores context, the latter overstates the case against the police. Instead, I would risk a more symbolic and foundational reading of this attack. The officer, a representative of law and order, had seemingly free reign to attack his targets and then retreat home. This wasn't because of religious fervour or police orchestration, but because of a culture of tension between Egypt's Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority and of the political milieu that has fostered it. The country's leadership and intellectuals have not only been complicit in the growing polarisation, but are also in denial of its existence.

There isn't much of a chance we would be framing this event as such if it were not for the grotesque attack on Two Saints' Church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve in which a car bomb exploded as the congregation was exiting, killing 23 people and wounding 100 others. The sad truth is that this was only the largest of what has been a constant stream of attacks on Coptic Christians — over 120 since 1972, according to Karima Kamal writing in newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm .

The official line has been an outright rejection of the notion that Egyptians could perform such an attack. President Hosni Mubarak responded quickly, blaming foreign extremist elements for directly attacking the church or planting the seeds of radical Islamist thought in the minds of frustrated and malleable, but otherwise pious, Egyptian Muslim youth. Some commentators pointed to the perennial bogeyman, Israel's Mossad (who, coincidentally, are also behind shark attacks in Sharm al-Sheikh and have been busy outfitting vultures with equipment to spy on Saudi Arabia). Mariz Tadros writes in Middle East Report that some prominent political commentators have even suggested that Coptic organisations in the diaspora may have orchestrated the attack in order to “instigate sectarianism”.

Simply put, the mainstream line is that foreign hands are behind these attacks. Any proud Egyptian citizen could not have done this. But unfortunately the tension is real and palpable, and cannot be papered over with discourses about citizenship and nationalism. The Copts, especially, don't seem to have much reason to be patriots when the state short-changes Egypt's largest religious minority.

A telling example is the double standard concerning construction and zoning permission for religious buildings. Members of a church in the slum of al-Umraniyya were assaulted and arrested for attempting to turn a community centre into an prayer room, all because the building did not have permits to serve as a place of worship. Or take the construction of a new church dome in the governorate of Beni Suef, which was halted for not having construction permits only days after the Alexandria bombing. At the same time, many buildings that serve as mosques do not have permits and enjoy no interference from state security.Even in the wake of the New Year's Eve bombing, Coptic youth demonstrating in a nonviolent manner were cordoned off and eventually beaten in a predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Cairo by overwhelming numbers of state security forces dressed to the nines in riot gear. This after several weeks in late 2010 in which Salafi Islamists protested outside churches, calling for the release of two women — wives of priests — who had allegedly converted to Islam and were being held prisoner. A confrontation between demonstrators and police at events like the latter are, however, unheard of. Note also the contrast between chants at the two protests: the Copts yelling, “with our blood and souls, we will defend the Cross”, compared to death threats against Pope Shenouda III and other prominent Coptic clergy.

This is not to absolve the Copts of aggravating tensions. Recently the high-ranking Bishop Bishoy accused Muslims of being “visitors” in the country. Others, especially in the diaspora, have bought into the American neoconservative narrative that a creeping Islamism will soon take over the world and implement Islamic law.

The point, however, is that the double standard of treatment has resulted in two forces tugging at the religion rope — the marginalisation of Copts on the one hand, and a home-grown Islamisation on the other. So what is to be done?

As the 12-step programme of addiction recovery would have it, first Egypt needs to admit that it has a problem. A policy of denial will not slow or stop the growing polarisation of the nation's religious communities. The government can only accuse foreign hands for so long. Intellectuals, moderate Muslims and secular opposition leaders cannot wax poetic about the virtues of national unity without addressing the divisive elephant in the room. The Alexandria bombing is a stark reminder of what is, but it can also serve to illuminate what ought to be. Before the light dims, Egypt's leaders should look closely and earnestly at the fissures its brightness reveals.

The writer is a PhD candidate in the US studying social movements in the Middle East and their use of social media.