Lina Attallah on the Alexandria bombing and Egyptian Copts' re-politicization:
While Coptic anger should not be misinterpreted as a sign of overall political dissent, the act of taking to the streets frames the tension along clear political parameters. This is particularly interesting given the decades-long state-engineered process of trivialising politics amongst citizens by co-opting religious institutions, such as the Church, by giving it full authority over the religious and social aspects of Egyptian Christians’ lives in exchange for preaching de-politicisation. This has consequently led to the Church playing a large role in Egypt’s Coptic community, encouraging its members to congregate, to become isolated and to direct concerns to religious authorities as opposed to civil leadership, resulting in a decreased interest in politics over time.
The anger generated by recent events has the potential to reverse this political apathy amongst Egypt’s Copts and could result positively in renewed civil engagement. The fact that their anger is directed towards the regime, as opposed to their fellow citizens, is healthy and could lead to greater solidarity between fellow Egyptians of all faiths.
My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm, on the opportunities arising of the Alexandria church bombing, is up. An excerpt:
If there is a silver living to this horrible act, it is that we’ve seen a genuine outpouring of grief and indignation about the bombing, and a real willingness to break with taboos and platitudes from many ordinary Egyptians. There appears to be a growing realization that even if there is often little to be done against terrorists’ determination to carry out acts of murders, there is much to be done to defuse the tension of an environment in which many Copts consider the bombing the latest indignity they must endure.
Out of this terrible tragedy, therefore, is an opportunity for political and civil society actors. It is no coincidence that many of the Muslims who joined with Copts in the last few days’ protests were doing so not merely in solidarity, but also against a generalized failure of the state to build a positive vision for what it means to be an Egyptian citizen in the twenty-first century.
Note that a coalition of Egyptian NGOs has called for the state to act now to correct its own contributions to sectarian tensions.
I just returned this afternoon from a few days in the Egyptian countryside, with no phone and internet. News of the Alexandria bombing had reached us, but it didn't quite hit home until I caught up with news reports, all the activity on Twitter and today's various protests (confusingly both about the church bombings and in solidarity with Tunisia's Sidi Bouzid protests). The protests are ongoing, with a novelty being the police cordon and heightened security around the TV building in central Cairo. This story will unfold over the next few days, with so far little confirmed about the perpetrators.
I will thus reserve my take, for now, to the main issues:
1. The attacks could indicate a new al-Qaeda inspired group is operating in Egypt. It's unlikely that such a group is foreign, as the authorities were very quick to say (because somehow no Egyptian would do this?), although this could be a first manifestation of the "returnees from Iraq" phenomenon experienced elsewhere. It is unlikely that it's the revival of an Egyptian Islamic Jihad sleeper cell either, so we are probably talking about a "freelance jihadi" cell of some kind, the radicalization of a Salafi group (with Alexandria being a major center of Salafi activity) or, less likely, a more serious attempt at destabilizing Egypt by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had issued threats against Egypt a few months ago (again the "returnees from Iraq" scenario would point to that). Whoever the perpetrators are, this goes to show how interconnected the world of jihadi Salafism is, and the porous borders it has with "Scientific" or non-violent Salafism.
2. It's yet another very worrying indication of rising sectarian tensions in Egypt. It's not so much the attack itself, but the recriminations it has engendered and the rioting that followed it. At that same time, it's also heart-warming to see so much indignation and solidarity on Twitter and elsewhere. Hopefully something good can come out of this drama and seeing Muslims call out for genuine, total equality between themselves and Copts is a good sign. Let's hope it's not all wasted by security interference, irresponsible clergymen and imams, and the other usual spoilers.
3. There is also something specifically Alexandrian about this. Yes, sectarian attacks have taken place elsewhere, but usually sparked by some clash over conversion or church-building, or in the case of the Naga Hammadi murders most probably local politics. This is of a completely different order, and more similar to the 2006 church murders I wrote about here. Something is rotten in Alexandria, not for the first time.
Here's a collection of links, articles and more about the church bombing.
Pope Shenouda may have emerged triumphant in the eyes of his followers after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled in his favor, but public opinion was split, with many wondering about the proper limits of the papal sphere of influence. The crisis also revealed the extent to which all parties were deploying a human rights discourse to advance non-democratic ends. Islamists, intellectuals and high-profile, pro-government Copts who had long minimized or even denied religious discrimination against Copts by state and society were suddenly eager to defend the rights of Copts against the Church. The Church, which had conventionally resisted the Islamization of politics, was suddenly making reference to the rights of non-Muslims under Islamic law. Women’s rights organizations, which had never defended the rights of non-Muslim women in Muslim family law (despite the serious compromises of gender equity therein), were suddenly all excited about saving Coptic women from the patriarchal Coptic leadership.
In Egypt, however, there is no freedom of religion in the first place. Egyptian citizens who are not Sunni Muslims do not enjoy equal rights to practice their religion freely. In the Camillia saga, it is important to remember that while the majority of Sunni Muslims are subject to severe restrictions, and possible persecution, if they wish to convert to Christianity, Christians are permitted to embrace Islam as a matter of course. The imbalance in the right to freedom of religion was further accentuated with the abolition by state security of the “reconciliation committees” in 2003. These committees allowed the Church or Coptic families to verify whether members who wished to convert were doing so of their own free will. This move has only intensified the conviction of Copts that they must rely on the Church’s bargaining power, rather than citizenship rights, to negotiate with the state. It is evident, however, that Pope Shenouda has lost his credibility among the wider Egyptian polity, which may leave room for Copts to work on internal reform, including the ouster of Bishop Bishoy. Within the Church, there is a nascent resistance movement against what is perceived to be Bishoy’s lack of accountability. Yet the politics of the Church cannot explain the tenor of the current crisis.
Tackling this issue of conversion — the bedrock of freedom of religion — is precisely what most of the major parties involved (the state, the church, al-Azhar, Islamists) either do not want to do or are too terrified to do.
Since I was away most of the summer, I missed much of the rise in tensions over this issue. In the last few weeks I have found that the situation is worse than I had expected.
Waleed Marzouk writes aptly in al-Masri al-Youm English about the discourse of denial of sectarian problems:
The 11 January edition of “Weghat nazar” (Point of view), a talk show on Al Masriya channel, was one of the more blatant demonstrations of the complete denial of sectarian strife in Egypt. In a segment that hosted Qena’s Christian governor, Magdy Ayoub, presenter Abdel Latif el-Minawy introduced his subject with a saccharine oration on the glories of Egypt that included a mention of 7000 years of culture by the Nile and a dismissal of sectarianism as a national issue. The governor was seen quickly biting his tongue, going through the mental gymnastics of trying to avoid the phrase "sectarian." Finally, Ayoub opted to say, "The killer was a criminal with no religious affiliation, who targeted places that could have had Muslims too."
El-Minawy went on to introduce his studio guests, journalist Saad Hagras and researcher Hani Labib, asking them to comment on the issue “not from a sectarian perspective, but the point of view of a regular civilian altercation." The guest speakers seemed to miss these instructions. Both responded with informed and level-headed comments.
Incidentally, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a NGO that does excellent works on issues related to minority rights (among other things), released a report last week on the Naga Hammadi. It is extremely recommended reading. At the press conference for the report, researchers described the state of siege the town and surrounding village are under, intimidation of locals by security, the destruction of Coptic property by Muslims that took place because of false rumors being propagated, and more. One of their most salient criticisms of the handling of the situation by the security services was that more could have been done to prevent the killings of 6 January, and that investigations must look into the rumor-mongering and political backdrop of the sectarian tensions since last November.
In this week's Middle East International [subs], I wrote:
The official explanation, that the killings were in retaliation for the rape, is on the surface plausible, considering the prevalence of the practice of tar, or vendetta, in the region. But this version of events is questioned by local activists, who point out that the Christmas killings do not fit the pattern of a vendetta, particularly since the killers were not related to the rape victim and the targeted clerics were unconnected to the rape. Some subscribe to a conspiracy theory, according to which the killings may be part of a political ploy to intimidate Christians ahead of this autumn’s parliamentary elections.
At the centre of this conspiracy theory is one of Naga Hammadi’s MPs, Abdel Rahman el-Ghoul. Ghoul, a Muslim and with a fundamentalist reputation, is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). He stood for election in 2000 (losing the seat), and again in 2005, when he won, despite the opposition of Bishop Kirollos. “In a place like Naga Hammadi,” explains Yousef Sidhoum, editor of Coptic weekly al-Watani, “when the bishop says he supports a candidate, every Christian will vote for him.” Bishop Kirollos, who has backed other Muslim candidates, has long opposed Ghoul, and relations between the two men are tense. After the attack, the bishop said that the gunmen “intended to assassinate me, and I know who is behind it.”
The prevalence of this theory points to a general dissatisfaction with the political handling of sectarian relations. Some denounce tokenism: for instance, the governor of the Qena region is a Copt, but is seen as relatively powerless and ineffective compared to other governors. His handling of the tensions since last November has been criticised, as has a perceived Muslim bias among police and security forces. “This is the game the regime plays,” says Sidhoum. “They address discrimination by appointing a token official. Christians in Qena remember his predecessor, a Muslim, much more favourably.”
The relationship between the MP, al-Ghoul, and the murderers deserves to be investigated — as well as treated with caution by those who want to immediately blame him for ordering the killing. Things are still very unclear. But al-Ghoul most definitely played a negative role in encouraging sectarian tensions in the region, and that deserves a closer look. Pretending that the killings were some random criminal act, as al-Ghoul has vociferously done in parliament, won't help.
Joint Press Release 2 April, 2009 Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies Hisham Mubarak Law Center El-Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence Arabic Network for Human Rights Information Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression Rights Groups Urge Prosecutions for Assault on Baha'i Egyptians Six Egyptian human rights organizations today urged the Public Prosecutor to initiate an immediate investigation into assaults committed against Baha'i Egyptians over the past several days in the southern governorate of Sohag. In a complaint filed this morning, the groups called for the investigation to include those responsible for the direct incitement to the assaults and asked that the matter be referred urgently to criminal trial. "The heinous and unprecedented attacks on Baha'i Egyptians are a crime against all Egyptians,“ the rights organizations said. “We shall never allow the perpetrators of these crimes to benefit from the same climate of impunity that has marred the government's response to sectarian violence against Egyptians Copts over the last four decades.” Preliminary inquiries carried out by the rights groups found that the attacks began on Saturday evening, 28 March, in the village of al-Shuraniya, located in the Maragha district of Sohag, when dozens of village residents gathered outside of the homes of Baha'i citizens in the village and began chanting, “There is no god but God, Baha'is are the enemies of God.” Those assembled then began pelting the houses with rocks, breaking windows and attempting to break in. Although police forces arrived in the village after being called by the victims of the attack, the police simply dispersed the assembled parties without arresting anyone involved in the crime. Similar, though less intense, attacks occurred on 29 and 30 March. On 31 March at approximately 7 pm, the attacks escalated when some residents of the village—known by the victims—threw improvised firebombs and Molotov cocktails at the homes of the five Baha'i families living in the village, leading to the partial destruction of the houses. The victims said that the assailants broke or disabled the water connections to their homes to prevent them from putting out the fires. According to the victims, the assailants also broke into the houses, vandalizing property inside and stealing some electrical appliances and livestock. There were no human injuries or losses. The attacks prompted some of the Baha'i families to flee their homes and hide in the fields until the following morning. The police arrived during the attacks and again dispersed the assailants; there was no information that any of the assailants had been arrested. The next morning, 1 April, the police ordered the remaining Baha'is in the village to leave immediately and did not allow them to return to their homes to collect clothing, medicine, schoolbooks, money, or other necessities. Information gathered indicates that all Baha'is have left the village as of the evening of 1 April. The assaults on the Baha'is in al-Shuraniya began after an episode of the program “al-Haqiqa,” aired on Dream 2 on 28 March, which discussed the situation of Baha'is in Egypt. The program featured a Baha'i from al-Shuraniya and Baha'i activist and dentistry professor Dr. Basma Gamal Musa. Also participating in the program was Gamal Abd al-Rahim, a journalist at the state-owned al-Gumhouriya newspaper and a member of the board of the Press Syndicate, who, during the program, said referring to Dr. Basma, “This one should be killed.” On 31 March, only hours before the homes of the Baha'is were torched in al-Shuraniya, al-Gomhouriya published an article by Gamal Abd al-Rahim in which he praised the residents of al-Shuraniya for stoning the homes of Baha'is in the village in the preceding days. He considered these crimes to be evidence of al-Shuraniya residents’ “protectiveness of their religion and beliefs.” The six rights organizations demanded that the Public Prosecutor question Gamal Abd al-Rahim regarding his incitement to violence against Baha'is in both the television program and his published article, pursuant to Articles 171 and 172 of the Penal Code, which address public incitement to felonies and misdemeanors. Consistent with the organizations’ principled opposition to the imprisonment for publication offences, the groups' complaint excluded Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which stipulates mandatory imprisonment for “anyone who exploits religion to promote extremist ideas with the intent of inciting civil strife and damaging national unity,” and Article 176 of the Penal Code, which also stipulates mandatory imprisonment for anyone who “incites to discrimination against a group of people on the basis of race, origin, language, religion, or belief when such incitement disrupts public peace.” Moreover, the rights organizations called on the board of Egypt's national Press Syndicate to take immediate action against Gamal Abd al-Rahim, particularly since he occupies a seat on the board, regarding his violation of the Syndicate’s Code of Ethics, which states that journalists have an obligation “to refrain in their writings from joining racist or bigoted advocacy or advocacy that involves contempt or disdain of religions, aspersions cast on the faith of others, or incitement to discrimination against or contempt for any group of society.” For further information, please call +20 10 628 8928.