Egypt’s Sectarian Turn
In the wake of the deadly bombing outside al-Qiddissin Church, Alexandria, which took place in the first few minutes of 2011, Egyptian authorities were quick to point to the possibility of foreign involvement. President Mubarak immediately stated that the attack bore the hallmarks of “foreign hands”, while the governor of Alexandria is reported to have placed the blame squarely on al-Qaeda. Following a rash of arrests, Interior Minister Habib al-Adli asserted that “infiltrators” and “foreign elements” were behind the bombing. The fact that the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s Mesopotamian franchise, has in recent months made the mass targeting of Christians a major new tactic, and has issued threats against Egypt’s Copts, lends a measure of credibility to claims that clearly suit Mubarak’s political interests.
But whether or not a link to external jihadists is substantiated, the attack – and the communitarian backlash that it has already inspired – is but the latest and most disturbing development in a broader deterioration in relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. On 6 January 2010, six Copts and a Muslim policeman were killed in a drive-by shooting outside a church in Naga Hammadi, Upper Egypt, following a late night mass in celebration of the Coptic Christmas Eve. In November, large-scale protests and clashes with security forces left two dead and dozens injured after authorities blocked the construction of a church in Cairo’s Giza suburb. The same month saw violent clashes in Upper Egypt after rumours circulated of an affair between a Christian man and Muslim woman. Such incidents are representative of the growing insecurity of Egypt’s Copts, both in terms of inter-communal tensions and alienation from a government seen as at best indifferent to the concerns of the country’s largest minority.
Some Egyptians have pointed to the role of more mainstream Islamists and Salafists in creating an environment in which communal relations have become progressively radicalised. Predictably enough in the context of the ongoing standoff over November’s parliamentary elections, regime figures have sought toimplicate the Muslim Brotherhood, which has strenuously condemned the bombing. Last year the organisation launched an initiative to improve relations with Copts – indeed the blast itself came hours after Dr Mohamed Badie’s ‘Christmas greeting’ to Egypt’s Christians. The Brotherhood also denouncedattacks on Iraqi Christians as part of their ‘MB Vs al Qaeda’ campaign. In the past, however, prominent Brothers have faced criticism for appearing to question Coptic national loyalty, and suggesting that under a Brotherhood government the minority would be subject to a jizya tax. The movement’s 2007 electoral platform also notoriously excluded Copts from the highest office of state. As a result, some Coptic activists have questioned the sincerity of the recent Brotherhood charm-offensive.
The activities of local Salafist groups in Alexandria are perhaps of more immediate concern. The port city is widely seen as the principle hub of Egypt’s growing Salafist trend. Although local Salafists have condemned the bombing as “a source of evil and corruption”, there are indications that their contribution to communal relations in Alexandria has been less than salutary in recent months. Salafists have been vocal in a string of demonstrations in the city over the alleged ‘imprisonment’ by the Church of two Coptic women after they converted to Islam – a grievance alsospecifically taken up by al Qaeda in Iraq. In December, al Masry al Yaum reportedthat Sheikh Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, a prominent Alexandria-based cleric, was arrested by security forces in a move attributed by Salafist sources to a string of articles al-Shahat had written in which he accused the government and the Coptic community of fuelling tensions. According to the report, the preacher had previously been muzzled by the government for inflammatory comments relating to Kamilia Shehata, one of the women alleged to be in Church custody. With al-Qaeda and Egyptian Salafists both playing on the same grievances (real or imagined), perhaps it was only a matter of time before the violent tactics of the one would visit the stomping ground of the other.