In Egypt, Copts, Muslims, and a Tale of Two Churches

A Publication of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

In Egypt, Copts, Muslims, and a Tale of Two Churches

On New Year’s Eve this year, I was in Cairo. I heard about the bombing of the church in Alexandria, and I saw the outrage that took place on the streets of Cairo – and the solidarity it resulted in, with Muslim men and women standing guard outside of churches on Coptic Christmas (January 7th).

I also saw how Egyptian Muslims at large denounced any suggestion that the bombing was Egyptian in nature – that no Egyptian would ever be responsible for such a thing, and that it had to be forces of extremism from the outside. At the time, I remember thinking that this was somewhat naïve – that it was entirely possible that while this particular ideology was not Egyptian born (others were: souvenirs of Egypt’s previous authoritarian regime), it might have indeed been borne by Egyptians who then attacked the church.

It turns out I was wrong – and so was everyone else. It was better than that – and worse. It turned out that solidarity between Muslim and Christian in Egypt was not a short-lived explosion, but a deeply felt, rooted expression of the average Egyptian. Anyone who had been in Tahrir Square during the uprising knows that – and anyone who had been outside the attacked churches during the uprising knows that too.

No-one was outside attacked churches during the uprising – because no churches were attacked. At a time when there was completely lawlessness on the streets, as the regime pulled off the police forces, the churches were safe. Had there been such a commonly violent sentiment against Christians in Egypt, then would have been the time to pounce.

In that sense, it was better that I thought. But it was also worse – because in the weeks after the uprising, the former interior minister was officially the subject of an investigation into that New Year’s Eve bombing – the accusation was that his ministry was responsible. The reason was clear – to ensure support for the regime, by attempting to scare the population at large. That was a tactic that was used for years in a variety of ways – but that tactic was now, after the uprising, over. Never again would Egyptian turn on Egyptian for such a dastardly aim.

I sincerely hoped, and I am sure many Egyptians did too, that would be the way things would continue indefinitely. In recent days, however, its been clear that will not be Egypt’s future – at least not for the short or medium term. Two churches were burned in the Imbaba district of Cairo in recent days – and I am again in Cairo, trying to make sense of it all. No one can seem to.

Initial reports indicated that ultra-conservative and religiously marginal Salafi Muslims were responsible, with some Salafi spokesmen citing the claimed captivity and kidnapping of ex-Christians (who some say had converted to Islam) by the Coptic Church. No one seems to be able to clear that one up –nor does anyone know if there is any truth to the rumor that the church was pressuring converts to recant. There were also reports of videos and tweets calling on crowds to go down to Imbaba, but such things can always be faked – and there is also evidence to suggest that under the previous government, the regime did use certain Salafi movements as counter-weights to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The rumour mill has already begun – but where there is smoke, there is surely a bit of fire too. But it is similar in sentiment to the idea that no ‘Egyptian’ could be responsible for this kind of sectarian violence – and thus escape responsibility for any ensuing problems. Which, again, strikes me as somewhat naïve – and perhaps ignoring a type of liability to address what is still a fault line, even though it is not the fault line that it is commonly reported to be.

Sitting in Cairo still, still trying to make sense of what has happened, I’m struck by how little we do know about what is actually going on – but I am also struck by how much we do know.

Egyptians know, for example, that the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the most influential group in Egypt in terms of bringing religion into the public sphere for political ends. They also know that the Muslim Brotherhood sincerely and publically denounced the bombing in Imbaba, and I do not doubt they had nothing to do with it. Yet, Egyptians also know that this group, which is so incredibly well organized, did not descend on Imbaba to put out the fires, and stand shoulder to shoulder with their Christian compatriots. Instead, they were planning their strategies for the forthcoming parliamentary elections in September – partisan politics at their best.

Egyptians also know, for example, that some Coptic Christians decided to hold a rally outside the American Embassy in Cairo, and call for foreign intervention. They also, fortunately, know that this not a widespread demand among Copts in Egypt, who are as patriotic as Muslims in Egypt – but they also know how strategically imbecilic it would be if any community in Egypt were tarred with the ‘foreign brush’. [This is perhaps a key weakness of the Salafi movement in Egypt – its certainly not ‘made in Egypt’].

They also know that at least among the church hierarchy, there is a perception that Copts are the ‘original Egyptians,’ and that Muslims are ‘guests’ in Egypt (as stated clearly by the Secretary of the Holy Synod in an interview last year) – something that no doubt offends the Muslim majority (many of whom are simply descendants of Christian converts to Islam). Al-Ahram, the main state-run newspaper, also reported that in recent weeks, there was a killing of a convert from Christianity to Islam which was suspected to be sectarian in motive – something that did not show up in the international press, but news of which no doubt inflamed tension on the Muslim street.

Egyptians also know, and are probably saddened by, the mainstream Muslim establishment. The religious scholars of Egypt, from the very most senior (such as the mufti of Egypt, or the Shaykh al-Azhar) to the most functionary (the imam in the mosque) condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms. They no doubt mean this very genuinely. But Egyptians do not see them ‘down in the trenches’ – and they need to be not only vocal, but visible. I frankly do not deem this to be reluctance on their part ideologically, but non-preparedness of them practically. They’ve never had to play that kind of role before – but Egypt now requires that they do so. Indeed, Egypt requires all Egyptians do so.

Yes, counter-revolutionary forces are very likely involved in this latest outrage. But if they are, its because they are trying to tap into a problem that already exists. Yet, it is also clear that the unity of Egyptian is far stronger – and that the sense of Egyptian patriotism is more mainstream than the sense of Egyptian sectarianism. Egyptians can drain the swamp – and they can remove the fuel for those forces to use. Tahrir Square, Egyptians were reminded time and time again, brought out the best of what it meant to be an Egyptian. Now all Egyptians must find the best within themselves, and together, they must confront the worst – and defeat it.

HA Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).

This article was published by The Washington Post on May 16, 2011. Click here to read.