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.
- Remembering a victim: 2010 is the best year of my life, said Alexandria victim on Facebook | Al-Masry Al-Youm: Today's News from Egypt
Minutes before departing for the New Year’s Eve mass at St. Mark and St. Peter Church in Alexandria, Mariam Fekry updated her Facebook status in what proved to be her last opportunity to share updates and thoughts with friends on the web.
“2010 is over...this year has the best memories of my life...really enjoyed living this year...I hope 2011 is much better...I have so many wishes in 2011...hope they come true...plz god stay beside me & help make it all true,” she wrote.
A few minutes after 2011 kicked in, Fekry was caught in the blast that occurred outside the church. In its wake, she and at least 20 others lay dead.
- A good round-up in the FT: FT.com / Middle East / Politics & Society - Bomb blast in Egypt highlights divisions. In the recently published FT special on Egypt I had an article on rising sectarian tensions in 2010: FT.com / Reports - Sectarian strife: Coptic nerves frayed by tension with Islamists.
- Samir Morcos, writing before the bombing, on sectarian relations in Egypt in 2010: Al-Ahram Weekly | Opinion | Handling religious tensions the modern way
- The Arab-West Report, one of the best source on Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt, has several good commentaries:
1. Hulsman: Government's Denial of Sectarian Tension is Wrong Response to Alexandria Attacks | Arab West Report
3. Reflections on the New Year's Eve Massacre in Alexandria | Arab West Report
- Hani Shukrallah, the veteran journalist who now heads al-Ahram English Portal, wrote a cri-de-coeur against hypocrisy in handling sectarian crises. It was cited in the NYT's coverage.
I accuse a government that seems to think that by outbidding the Islamists it will also outflank them.
I accuse the host of MPs and government officials who cannot help but take their own personal bigotries along to the parliament, or to the multitude of government bodies, national and local, from which they exercise unchecked, brutal yet at the same time hopelessly inept authority.
I accuse those state bodies who believe that by bolstering the Salafi trend they are undermining the Muslim Brotherhood, and who like to occasionally play to bigoted anti-Coptic sentiments, presumably as an excellent distraction from other more serious issues of government.
But most of all, I accuse the millions of supposedly moderate Muslims among us; those who’ve been growing more and more prejudiced, inclusive and narrow minded with every passing year.
I accuse those among us who would rise up in fury over a decision to halt construction of a Muslim Center near ground zero in New York, but applaud the Egyptian police when they halt the construction of a staircase in a Coptic church in the Omranya district of Greater Cairo.
I’ve been around, and I have heard you speak, in your offices, in your clubs, at your dinner parties: “The Copts must be taught a lesson,” “the Copts are growing more arrogant,” “the Copts are holding secret conversions of Muslims”, and in the same breath, “the Copts are preventing Christian women from converting to Islam, kidnapping them, and locking them up in monasteries.”
I accuse you all, because in your bigoted blindness you cannot even see the violence to logic and sheer common sense that you commit; that you dare accuse the whole world of using a double standard against us, and are, at the same time, wholly incapable of showing a minimum awareness of your own blatant double standard.
And finally, I accuse the liberal intellectuals, both Muslim and Christian who, whether complicit, afraid, or simply unwilling to do or say anything that may displease “the masses”, have stood aside, finding it sufficient to join in one futile chorus of denunciation following another, even as the massacres spread wider, and grow more horrifying.
- Just a couple of days before the bombing, partly in reaction to the Omrameya riots, the government had considered presenting to parliament the unified law on places of worship. Having researched this legislation myself, I know it has been ready since 2004 but never been presented to parliament. It's a complicated issue — because mosques are under the administration of the Ministry of Awqafs, while churches are under the authority of the Coptic Orthodox Church itself as well as provincial administration. More info here: Egypt Considers Easing Church Construction Policy | Christianpost.com