One need not cast one’s mind too far back to see that both the Egyptian government and the Coptic Orthodox Church are worried more about the December 11 church bombing’s destabilizing potential than about the national unity they spoke of during the state-run funeral.
At first, it looked like a repeat of the worst state brutality during the January 25 uprisings that unseated the ex-president of Egypt, Husni Mubarak: On Sunday, October 9, security forces deployed tear gas, live bullets and armored vehicles in an effort to disperse peaceful protesters in downtown Cairo. Joined by Muslim sympathizers, thousands of Coptic Christians had gathered that afternoon in front of the capital’s state television and radio building, known as Maspero, and in many other parts of Egypt, to protest the burning of a church in the Upper Egyptian village of al-Marinab. A few days earlier, their initial demonstrations had also been met with violence.
The complex Muslim-Christian relations of post-Mubarak Egypt are perhaps best glimpsed through five distinct reactions to the May 7, 2011 attacks on two churches in Imbaba, a poor quarter of Cairo, that left 15 dead and over 200 injured. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that those responsible would be tried in special security courts.
On the afternoon of January 6, a number of youths found a suspicious-looking cardboard box inside the Church of St. Antonious in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya. From its appearance, the box seemed to contain explosives, so the youths slowly removed it from the church, placing it in the middle of the street. They then phoned the police, who arrived immediately and whisked the box away.
For six weeks, Egypt has been sitting on top of a sectarian volcano. Protesters, men and women, have been exiting mosques following prayers almost every single Friday since the beginning of September to demand the “release” of Camillia Shehata, a Coptic priest’s wife who they believe has converted to Islam and is now incarcerated by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
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.
In the early morning of April 14, 2006, Mahmoud Salah al-Din Abd al-Raziq, a Muslim, entered the church of Mar Girgis (Saint George) in Alexandria’s al-Hadra district and stabbed three parishioners who had gathered for a service. Abd al-Raziq then proceeded to attack worshippers at two other churches, according to police accounts, before being arrested en route to a fourth. Nushi Atta Girgis, 78, died from his stab wounds, while several others were injured, some severely.
To talk about Egyptian Christians as a “minority” is to open a can of worms. The sensitivity of the relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians was evident in 1994 when a conference on minorities in the Middle East, supposed to be held in Cairo, included the Copts of Egypt on its agenda.  The uproar surrounding the conference was unprecedented. As Egyptian sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim put it, “It was the biggest public debate in Egypt on a single issue since the Gulf crisis and Desert Storm.” Ibrahim’s Cairo-based Ibn Khaldoun Center organized the controversial conference together with the Minority Rights Group in London.