EGYPT: Activists blame government for failing to abate sectarian tension

 After three days of sectarian tension following a series of attacks on Coptic Christian church-goers in Alexandria, activists blamed the government for failing to subdue rising interdenominational friction.

“There have been signs of growing tension between Muslims and Christians for years,” said director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Hossam Bahgat. “Under the pretext of preserving national unity and harmony, the state has failed to implement adequate strategies – now it’s paying the price.”

The criticism came after violent street clashes between dozens of Christians and Muslims in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, 225 km north of Cairo, entered their fourth day. The clashes first broke out during the funeral on 15 April of Sobhi Girgis, an elderly Copt who died from stab wounds inflicted the day before, and continued through the next day.

The alleged perpetrator of the attack, described by the interior ministry as “mentally unstable”, reportedly entered two separate churches on 13 April wielding a knife, where he injured five people and killed one before being caught trying to enter a third church.

According to the interior ministry, clashes broke out the following day when Christian and Muslim “fundamentalists and extremists” hurled rocks and bottles at each other, set fire to cars and destroyed public and private property. Dozens of rioters from both sides have since been arrested, while security forces have reportedly stepped up their presence in Alexandria. There have also been unconfirmed reports of the death of a Muslim man wounded during the disturbances.

Meanwhile, the government blamed the clashes on the existence of “extremist elements” on both sides. “In general, relations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt are very good,” said an interior ministry official on condition of anonymity. “The attack on the church was an exception to the rule of good coexistence.”

According to veteran local journalist Gamal Essam al-Din, political discourse has also worked against national unity. “Regardless of what Islamist groups say to the media about coexistence, they encourage sectarian hatred with slogans that mix politics and religion,” he said.

On the party’s website, however, the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attacks as “cowardly”. The online statement also urged an end to the clashes and warned against “exploiting these random acts of violence either to paint a false picture of religious persecution of Copts in Egypt or to be used by the government as an excuse to extend the emergency law”.

While relations between Christians and Muslims are generally peaceful, two prominent incidents of sectarian violence have taken place over the past year: one in Alexandria in October of last year, and another near the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor in January.

Many Coptic Christians, who comprise approximately 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 70 million, say they suffer from discrimination, mostly in the form of job exclusion in the civil services. “There are growing signs of anti-Christian sentiments in Egypt,” said leading Coptic thinker Samir Morcos. “Growing religiosity in Egypt only compounds such sentiments, while the government turns a blind eye to its responsibility to work harder to promote notions of citizenship.”

In an attempt to show that the government does not discriminate against the country’s Christian minority, a full half of the executive appointments to the People’s Assembly after last year’s parliamentary elections were Copts.

Nevertheless, pointing to the recent occurrence of similar incidents, activists criticised the authorities for treating them as isolated acts. “The government resorts to describing such acts as perpetrated by madmen, and fails to act on the pattern,” said Nigad al-Borai, director of the Cairo-based Group for the Development of Democracy. “Meanwhile, the legitimate concerns of both Muslims and Copts aren’t dealt with.”

That pattern, say activists, is the result of social frustrations harboured by both Muslims and Christians, which are then powered by an increasingly politicised religious discourse visible in media and educational outlets. “The fact that the man accused of the stabbings in Alexandria said he was acting to avenge insults to the Prophet Muhammad by the Danish press is worrying,” said al-Borai, adding that the Egyptian media played no small part in enflaming passions during that crisis in an apparent bid to compete with Islamist-leaning publications.

Another source of the problem, activists maintained, is a continued policy of exclusion – both of Muslims and Christians – from debate on religious and social issues alike. “The violence is the result of an exclusion from debate on religious and social matters, which is enforced by the emergency law,” said George Ishaq, coordinator of the Kifaya opposition movement. “If such matters were open to discussion, rather than being hijacked by state security under the emergency law, then it wouldn’t be hard for people to reconcile their differences.”

Ishaq added, however, that it was not unlikely that the incident was instigated by foreign agents in a bid to stir up instability in Egypt. “Nevertheless, the matter should be dealt with in a national context,” he said. “Civil society needs to act in order to promote education and better media coverage of religious and sectarian affairs.”