When violence breaks out between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Coptic Christian minority, the Egyptian government is normally quick to deny that the motive could be sectarian. Spokesmen point to “foreign fingers” that are supposedly stirring up sedition, in hopes that the file on the incident can be closed as quickly as possible and the state can resume displaying an image of Egypt as typified by “national unity.” This rhetorical device has been useful in the past for deflecting demands from Copts, who compose roughly 10 percent of the population, that their underlying grievances be redressed. But the government’s act has worn thin.The latest high-profile incident, a murderous night-time attack on Coptic worshippers as they left church on January 6, the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve, in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag‘ Hammadi, has stayed very much alive in the public consciousness. The drive-by shooting, which left six Copts and one Muslim guard dead, as well as many more wounded, was the most lethal sectarian attack in recent memory, but also one in an escalating series over the past decade. With the accused shooters in court, protests in the streets and churches continue, as Egyptians deliberate over the causes and consequences of sectarianism in general.

Another conventional government response to sectarian clashes — deployment of a heavy security presence — also backfired. Immediately after the shootings, the state sent contingents of riot police to Nag‘ Hammadi and its environs in the province of Qina to enforce peace and block entry to and exit from the town. Neither mission succeeded: The burning of houses and shops, mostly owned by Christians but also some owned by Muslims, continued in several nearby sites in Qina. The security cordon, rather than preventing attention from the killings, caused the government major embarrassment as the news media protested the blockade but continued reporting all the same. When the security apparatus arrested members of human rights groups who had come to investigate, the news was widely circulated by the organizations, sparking an international outcry. Nag‘ Hammadi is the sectarian incident that will not go away.

Premeditated Murder

The security forces in Qina moved fast to make arrests in the case, detaining three local men on charges of premeditated murder on January 8. The three, allegedly led by Muhammad Hasan, known by the moniker of Humam al-Kamouni, were said to have committed the crime in retaliation for the rape of a 12-year old Muslim girl by a Christian youth in the vicinity of Nag‘ Hammadi on November 19, 2009.

There had already been vigilante retribution for this reported assault, though police detained a Coptic street vendor the same day and charged him with rape. On November 22, in the village of Farshout, a number of shops, pharmacies and houses belonging to Copts were set on fire by unidentified young men shouting, “We are avenging the honor of our daughter.” Shortly afterward, local authorities told the Copts of al-Kom al-Ahmar, home village of the alleged rapist, that the state feared for their safety and thought it best if they temporarily left. Many Muslims protected their Christian neighbors’ property, but there were still attacks on homes and shops, raising questions of police complicity.

As Christmas drew near, according to Bishop Kirollos of the Nag‘ Hammadi diocese, the atmosphere again grew tense. He reported getting the message, “It is your turn,” on his cell phone. “My faithful were also receiving threats in the streets,” he told the Associated Press after the Nag‘ Hammadi shootings. “Some were shouting at them: ‘We will not let you have festivities.’”

It appears, therefore, that the Nag‘ Hammadi murders were part of a pattern of sectarian incidents characterized by two important features: first, a crime attributed to a Christian is answered with collective punishment of all Coptic citizens in the area and second, state security is lax in containing vigilantism. In October 2009, there was another illustrative series of events in Dayrout, a town in the province of Asyout north of Qina. A Christian man was accused of disseminating racy photos of a young Muslim woman via cell phone, leading her family to kill his father. There is a long tradition in Upper Egypt of vendettas (tha’r) in response to murder or crimes related to “family honor” — usually meaning sexual assault on women — prompting the killing of the person responsible for the crime or a member of his family. Yet the Dayrout events escalated beyond a predictable “honor killing.” Shortly following the incident, the local al-Azhar Institute, a branch of the storied mosque-university in Cairo, was the site of incitement against Christians, which culminated in sporadic burning and looting of Coptic-owned properties.

In many such cases, the state security apparatus exacerbates the collective punishment of Copts if the original offender is a Copt. The security officials assemble a “reconciliation committee” bringing together both parties and then forcing the Coptic side to “pay back” the Muslim side — in cash, in kind, as with eviction of the Coptic family, or both. The file is then closed, without recourse to the legal system. The reconciliation committees are no more than ten years old; their appearance testifies to the growing arbitrary power of the state security apparatus in Egypt. It was rumored that state security sought to convene a reconciliation committee in Nag‘ Hammadi after the January 6 shootings but failed due to lack of cooperation from both sides.

No Isolated Act

The Nag‘ Hammadi attack rapidly proved difficult to contain on the political front as well, as opposition and civil society actors were unexpectedly harsh in their criticism of the government’s handling of sectarian crises and persistent in their articulation of demands for change. On January 9, senior leaders of political parties, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations gathered in front of the Egyptian High Court of Justice to protest. Representatives of the protesters submitted an appeal to the general prosecutor to examine the laxity of state security in dealing with the incidents in Nag‘ Hammadi, Farshout and Dayrout.

Independent human rights groups, like the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, have vigorously investigated past episodes of sectarian violence, such as the 1998 killing of two Copts in the Upper Egyptian village of al-Kushh. Since then, however, most human rights organizations have been quiet with respect to the rising number of sectarian incidents, with the exception of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has been active in fighting religious discrimination of all types. But the official account of Nag‘ Hammadi was subjected to scrutiny from a much wider portion of the political spectrum, including by quasi-official bodies that have scarcely acknowledged a problem with religious discrimination in Egypt in the past. On February 3, some 200 public figures and activists rallied in front of the lower house of Parliament to call for action against the increasing occurrence of sectarian attacks in Egypt. Among the participants were members of the National Committee Against Sectarian Violence, a civil society initiative which was formed only days before the Nag‘ Hammadi attacks. The protesters presented to Fathi Surour, the speaker of Parliament, a list of demands including action on the common law on places of worship, which has been awaiting parliamentary debate since 2005, as well as issuance of legislation against discrimination and for equal opportunity and religious freedoms. [1]

The common law on houses of worship would establish one set of requirements for the legal construction of a mosque or a church. Currently, new churches or additions to old ones require special permits. In general, church construction is regulated by the archaic khatt al-humayun, decreed by the Ottomans in the 1850s. Subsequent amendments have relegated approval of requests for construction or repair of churches to the provincial governor instead of the president, but in practice much of the decision-making authority lies in the hands of the state security apparatus. Mosque building is virtually unencumbered by state regulation. A common law for places of worship would abolish this inequity.

Tensions over Nag‘ Hammadi were heightened after a highly critical report produced by the government-controlled National Council for Human Rights. The Council sent its own fact-finding mission to the scene, including Coptic MP Georgette Qallini, but critics were disappointed by the lack of follow-through. Despite its hard-hitting contents, the report closed with a diluted statement merely condemning the incident without recommending further action. A parliamentary session chaired by Fathi Surour ended in stormy confrontations between Qallini and the governor of Qina, Magdi Ayyoub al-Masri, as well as Surour and other members of the ruling party. Qallini was appointed to Parliament by the president, rather than elected (as many Copts and women are), but she was an outspoken critic of the conduct of the executive branch in Nag‘ Hammadi. In the parliamentary session, the Qina governor repeated police claims that the ringleader Humam al-Kamouni was driven by his anger over the rape of the Muslim child by the Christian man in Farshout. Surour asked if there were sectarian underpinnings to his rage. The governor said no — al-Kamouni was a “registered criminal” whose motives were “criminal and not political.” He added that calm had returned to Nag‘ Hammadi. A heated debate ensued in which Qallini accused the governor of lying: While he claimed all was quiet, the town of Bahgoura, close to Farshout, was burning. Members of the ruling party defending the government drowned out her voice. [2]

The argument that the Nag‘ Hammadi attack was an “isolated” act of anger had already been debunked by independent commentators. Renowned political analyst Ibrahim ‘Isa, editor-in-chief of the newspaper al-Dustour, was scathing: “The representation of the crime as if it was a vendetta is no less a crime than the original murders. Since when have Upper Egyptians pursued a vendetta by killing at random? The vendetta has rules; it is carried out against the actual violator or his family, not randomly.” In words reiterated by other critics, ‘Isa continued: “The choice of day and place — the feast day of Copts and the church where they celebrate it — shows that the shooting was aimed against at the Coptic faith and community, not against a Coptic rapist or his family. Let’s not beat around the bush: This was an act of extremism and fanaticism, and all this talk about an isolated, individual act is nonsense.” [3]

Haphazard Escalation

The sectarian clashes in Egypt today are qualitatively different from the communal violence that the country witnessed in the 1970s, a time of great religious tension when President Anwar al-Sadat was equally anxious to avoid the term “sectarian strife.” In that decade, sectarian violence largely took the form of attacks on churches and other places of Coptic worship, as well the shops of Coptic goldsmiths. The attacks were often launched by members of militant Islamist groups or precipitated by their mobilization and, in that sense, were seen as “alien” to the communities in which they erupted. Radical Islamists who believe that Christians are infidels whose blood may be shed with God’s blessing are indeed “alien” to the great majority of Muslims.

Mufid Shihab, the minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs, and the regime’s point man for human rights matters, has dismissed the incidents of today in the terms of the 1970s: “All I can say is that Egypt is free from sectarian strife, though there are isolated sectarian clashes from time to time between extremist Muslims and Copts.” [4] Yet the sectarian attacks of the 2000s, and particularly in the last five years, have been directed not only at places of worship but at individual citizens, haphazardly, not by militants seeking to establish an Islamic state but by ordinary townspeople. The cause of sectarian attacks today is not only the construction or extension of a church, but might also be petty crime, the discovery of a romantic relationship crossing the religious divide or even an everyday dispute between two citizens of different faiths. An argument between a vegetable seller and a customer can escalate into communal violence if one party is Christian and the other Muslim.

The fact that sectarianism today involves average citizens makes the phenomenon far more serious than it was in the 1970s. It shows that the intolerance is now internally bred, not externally induced, and implies that social relations between citizens or neighbors might become defined by religious enmity. Certainly, the intervention of state security forces to impose measures of collective punishment on Copts has deepened inter-communal acrimony.

The Non-Confrontational Pope

The government’s attempts to tamp down the crisis have also sputtered because the regime can no longer rely on Pope Shenouda III, the Copts’ spiritual leader, to be able to contain the Coptic citizenry. For almost 40 years, the pope has been instrumental in forming — and delimiting — Coptic citizens’ public action. Yet the participation of thousands of Copts in protests after the Nag‘ Hammadi events, sustained over several weeks, was emphatically not church-led. On January 7, over 1,000 Copts congregated in front of the hospital where the bodies of the deceased were to be delivered to their families. In an impromptu protest, they demanded the resignation of the governor, al-Masri, for failing to provide security in the governorate. [5] Another 3,000 Copts assembled in the cathedral on January 13. They called again for al-Masri’s resignation, applauded Georgette Qallini for her stand in Parliament and showed little sympathy for their bishop, Kirollos. The bishop’s position had shifted radically from the immediate aftermath, when he had said: “This is a religious war about how they can finish off the Christians in Egypt.” Kirollos was now heaping praise on the government for doing everything possible to improve conditions. Rumor had it that his change of views transpired after he met a high-level delegation from Cairo led by Ahmad ‘Izz, a business tycoon with considerable clout in the ruling party.

Protesters also called upon Pope Shenouda to take action but his response was to make an appearance on a balcony accompanied by a few bishops who tried, to no avail, to calm the crowd. The pope’s non-confrontational stance on the attacks has accentuated the emerging disconnect between the religious hierarchy and the Coptic citizenry. No sign of this disconnect was clearer than the events of February 17 in the ‘Abbasiyya cathedral of Cairo, where the pope resides. An estimated 5,000 Copts had congregated by candlelight to mark the passage of 40 days since the attacks in Nag‘ Hammadi and demand a more concerted effort in addressing sectarianism. Commemorations of a person’s death 40 days after the person dies are a tradition upheld by both Christians and Muslims, dating back to the time of the pharaohs. All activities stopped at 7 pm in time for participants to attend the pope’s weekly sermon, which is open to all members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Yet the pope ignored what was happening in his cathedral, instead using the occasion to emphasize the prohibition of marriage between Coptic Orthodox and Catholics or between a widower and his bereaved sister-in-law.

The gap between the Coptic leadership and the laity will undermine the bargaining power of the church with the state. The church leadership banks on its ability to mobilize parishioners in support of its political stances in its engagement with the regime. In return for mobilizing its constituency in favor of ruling-party candidates in elections, for example, the regime is expected to grant certain concessions to the church. These concessions do not necessarily trickle down to the flock. Now disillusionment with the church hierarchy, on top of distrust of the government’s willingness to protect the Copts as citizens, will no doubt diminish popular responsiveness to future calls from the pope or other church officials to support the government. Indeed, on February 24 demonstrators stood in front of the High Court of Justice to demand the release of those held by the police in Nag‘ Hammadi for denouncing police complicity in the sectarian incidents. What is slowly emerging is a Coptic citizenry no longer willing to be directed by the church in its exercise of political and civil rights. The implications are that citizen engagement may emerge in new spaces (such as the group of Copts who chose to protest in Tahrir Square rather than in the cathedral), with new agendas (that touch on day-to-day forms of discrimination) and new protagonists (like politically marginalized youth).

The string of peaceful protests led by Copts has dispelled the pervasive myths that Copts are no longer active citizens and that they have succumbed to the “creeping Islamization” of society by taking refuge within church walls and immersing themselves in religiosity. The fact that thousands occupy public and church space to demand their rights as citizens shows a high level of political engagement.

State of Denial

The story of the Nag‘ Hammadi attacks is not over. The initial trial session for the accused assailants, held on February 13, was stormy, though it lasted only half an hour. Lawyers and activists were not allowed into the court. Al-Kamouni denied committing the crime and asked the judge if he thought someone guilty of such an act would turn himself in. (In fact, he surrendered when cornered by security personnel.) The judge adjourned the proceedings after one of the defense lawyers asked that Fathi Surour, the speaker of Parliament, come to testify, since he had said in parliamentary session — recorded by the media — that he knows who was responsible for inciting the attack. Surour subsequently denied any such knowledge. The trial is scheduled to resume on March 20.

Meanwhile, the increased activism of the Coptic citizenry and the deeper involvement of human rights organizations in revealing abuses may eventually force the government to reconsider its policy of dealing with a highly complex socio-political phenomenon strictly through the state security apparatus. Political analysts and social activists, both Christian and Muslim, are now pressing for the cessation of state security’s orchestrated reconciliation committees on the grounds that they are an affront to citizenship rights and themselves a source of injustice. They are also calling for passage of the long-delayed common law for places of worship.

There are fundamental challenges, however, to engaging with sectarianism in Egypt through appropriate political channels rather than as a “security file.” The government lacks the political will to acknowledge the deep-seated sectarianism in Egypt, the kind that is not instigated by foreign powers or Islamist extremists or “exaggerated” by troublemakers seeking to tarnish Egypt’s image. Mufid Shihab, in Geneva to defend Egypt’s record before the UN Human Rights Council, not only denied the existence of sectarianism but also promised the government would “do more to correct reports made by some organizations in this respect.” There is speculation that the persistence of sectarian strife gives the regime an excuse to keep extending the state of emergency first imposed in 1981, which allows it all manner of extra-constitutional leeway.

But it is not only the absence of political will that is obstructing the process of addressing the homegrown roots of sectarian tension. With the exception of the select number of political party leaders, human rights activists and intellectuals who have come out against ineffective, piecemeal approach to the growing violence, society is still, by and large, in a state of denial. The Nag‘ Hammadi attacks are a case in point. The difficulty in engaging communities on sectarianism is that the matter touches on how people have come to understand and communicate their religious identity, a matter that elicits strong, defensive reactions when the concept of citizenship has become politically and socially bankrupt. As the Nag‘ Hammadi attacks linger in the public consciousness, advocates for change point to the need to reform school syllabi, including within the Islamic education system, such as at al-Azhar, and to lend depth and nuance to the state-owned media’s engagement with religious diversity. Such measures, though, will need to find the citizens who believe in them in order to put them into practice.

As sectarian attacks continue to increase in frequency and the precipitating factors become more difficult to predict, it may not be long before both the government and the public have to come to terms with the full implications of a society in conflict.


[1] Al-Dustour, February 4, 2010.
Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 12, 2010.
Al-Dustour, January 7, 2010.
Gamal Essam al-Din, “Questions About Human Rights,” al-Ahram Weekly, February 18-24, 2010.
Al-Dustour, January 8, 2010.

How to cite this article:

Mariz Tadros "The Sectarian Incident That Won’t Go Away," Middle East Report Online, March 05, 2010.

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