Nothing to see here, move along

Not a great strategy to confront sectarianismWaleed 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.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

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