Perhaps what is even more predictable than the sporadic occurrence of sectarian violence in Egypt throughout the past few decades is the official rhetoric: denying that the incident ever took place, followed by admitting that it did when mounting public pressure threatens to delegitimise their stance, followed by the “isolated incident” proclamation and a reconciliation meeting between the parties involved. This reconciliation is inevitably arranged by the local authorities, wherein the wronged parties are coerced into giving up their right to legal recourse for the sake of “national unity” and “harmony”.
Incidents are more than often sparked by rumours, be they true or not, most often with common themes: a Christian church to be built or a house to be converted into a church, an interfaith relationship, an individual’s conversion from one faith to the other, a dispute of an inherently secular nature between Christian and Muslim parties that is escalated and characterised in sectarian terms.
Last Friday I travelled with a French journalist to Minya to conduct interviews for a story on sectarian tensions. We rode to Minya on the train with a Christian charity group, “The Shepherd and the Mother of Light”, which works with impoverished Christian families in Upper Egypt, delivering financial and material aid, educational assistance, and loaning money for small projects that provide a sustainable income for families.
The invitation was extended by Judge Amir Ramzy, the founder of the charity, who explained their work in Upper Egypt, noting the challenges faced. Direct in his answers, Ramzy responded to a question on whether the charity serves Muslim families with a clear “no”, clarifying that this would not be possible. Serving Muslim families could be mistaken for missionary work intended to convert them to Christianity, increasing sectarian tension and the potential for violence. He did indicate the charity is building a state of the art hospital in Minya that will provide its services to everyone (Christians and Muslims).
Our first scheduled meeting was with Bishop Makarious in the early afternoon, which gave us flexibility to accompany Judge Amir and some of the charity group staff to visit Christian families in a Minya village, Abu Qirqas.
Although expecting to see a certain level of poverty, it was still a slight shock. But what stood out more was the sense of impending danger in these households. They complained of radical Muslim neighbours, fearing for their safety and the safety of their children. One woman in her fifties, whom the charity helped to start a small business selling vegetables, described how she was now drying the mint she was growing to use herself because the Muslims would not buy from her.
Another woman, widowed in her thirties with three children, invested all the money she saved, inherited, and received in aid in a small piece of land behind the village’s local slaughterhouse. Her dream is to build a small home for her and her children there, but her family disapproves. It is not safe, they claim, because the neighbourhood is predominantly inhabited by Muslim Salafis.
At another house, the Muslim neighbours started playing the Quran loudly upon our arrival. Our company told us that they do this quite often when they know that “the Christian charity” is visiting. It was not clear whether they do this as a provocation or to “protect” their houses from the Christian prayers next doors, and from an outsider’s perspective, I cannot attest to the frequency of this occurrence.
It would be an oversimplification and misleading to suggest these were the only cases of discrimination these families described. They also shared how they are sometimes subjected to discrimination and taken advantage of by some Christians because of their vulnerable positions, including women facing solicitation for prostitution.
A good deal of the women in these households are also clearly subjected to domestic abuse by their partners. Women were relied upon as primary earners by men who claimed that they were “too sick to work themselves” in three separate cases. One of the men had an obvious physical disability, but two were visibly healthy, with one claiming that the reason he had not worked for over 30 years is because of “stomach ulcers”. The other claimed that he has a recurring “fever” that prevents him from holding a regular job. The man claiming to have stomach ulcers admitted to holding a knife to his wife and beating her because of his frustration with her inability to provide for him and the family.
A 2012 study by the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) indicated that Upper Egypt governorates had the highest rates of illiteracy, with the rate in Minya reaching 36.7%. The same study also revealed that the percentage of illiteracy among poor families has increased to 41% as opposed to 24% in families not characterised as impoverished.
We met with Bishop Makarious afterwards at the Minya Coptic bishopry. He was accommodating, friendly, and poised, making clear points. The bishop attended a meeting with the president along with the Coptic pope and a delegation from the Egyptian church the day before, where the president assured them that he will take swift action on sectarian tension.
The bishop emphasised that enforcing the rule of law and the equal rights under it in addition to encouraging moderate religious speech is the key to reducing sectarian tension and violence, stressing that they believe that the president is genuinely concerned and is taking action on the issue. The real problem stems from the local authorities and minor officials that do not enforce the law equally and the culture of not holding perpetrators accountable and addressing the root causes of sectarian violence.
He also said that the church approved the latest revision for the unified Houses of Worship Law, after their concerns regarding the first draft of the law were addressed. The law is expected to be issued in a few days.
After meeting with the bishop we had a chance to meet with Soaad and her husband Daniel, who were attacked by a mob in Al Karm village in Minya on 20 May. The incident sparked national uproar and condemnation. The mob attacked, stripped, beat, and chased Soaad, a 70-year-old elderly woman, through the streets until she was rescued by a neighbour. Her and her husband’s house was burned down and all their possessions stolen or consumed by the fire.
The attack was allegedly sparked by a rumour that spread in their village that one of her sons had an affair with a Muslim woman, which she strongly denies (not that the merit of the rumour bears any relevance to the crime).
According to Soaad and Daniel’s estimates, around 45 people attacked and barged into the house, accompanied by an angry mob of around 300 congregating outside. Soaad told of how they spat on Daniel, an 80-year-old man, put a shoe in his mouth, and lifted him by his collar, in response to his attempt to protect his grandchildren from the attackers. The grandchildren were eventually spared after the intervention of one person who reasoned to the group that the children had no role in the incident.
Soaad went to the police station a couple of days before the attack when the rumour started spreading and filed a police report out of fear for her safety and the safety of her family. The police never took any action.
The government initially refused to admit that the incident actually happened until a few days after the attack when the news went viral and public anger mounted, at which point they claimed that they had no prior knowledge of the attack. The governor attempted to reconcile the issue by offering Daniel EGP 5,000, which he refused and sent back writing on its exterior: “we have more than enough”. Soaad insisted on filing another police report after the incident despite the social stigma in Upper Egypt regarding women admitting to being the victim of attacks that hold a sexual nature.
The president instructed the army to rebuild their house, which they did. When Daniel returned to the village to pick up the new key, accompanied with a lawyer provided by the church, kids threw rocks at their car. Indicating that even if rebuilt, living in that house that they called home for the past 55 years is out of the question for the family now. All defendants in the case were released on bail and are back to their houses in the village.
Commentary from the members of the Coptic community I met with in Minya remains more or less the same; the anger against the local authorities and their lack of action is increasing, while the president remains untouchable.
The Egyptian president is still being hailed as the saviour from the Muslim Brotherhood. A considerable percentage of Copts believe that Mohamed Morsi’s administration degraded them into second class citizens. The speech is constant, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is trying to change things, but he is hindered by the lack of action from local authorities, some of whom are influenced by their own personal prejudice.
Is the strategy of pushing public reconciliation really bringing about national, or even local, harmony? Since 25 January 2011 the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has documented 77 incidents of sectarian violence and tension in Minya with no signs of them subsiding (however, they do not include the burning of churches and the hike of sectarian violence directly following the ouster of the ex-president Mohamed Morsi).
The official rhetoric promoting superficial and coerced reconciliation in the absence of accountability in response to incidents of sectarian violence is part of perpetuating the violence. Rather than holding those responsible accountable in order to deter similar actions, officials send a message that there is no accountability, allowing the violence to continue.
Is re-building someone’s house more effective than trying to repair the fault lines that have emerged in a community upon which the slightest tensions can tear them apart? Is it more effective than re-building the community?
The president is not unaware of the growing discontent towards the government among even his core supporters in the Coptic community. He has taken measures to reverse this trend, most notable of which is expediting a revision of the Houses of Worship Law only after arriving at a text that gained the Coptic Church’s approval. The heads of the Minya police force were replaced, presumably through a directive by the president.
Whether this action will actually be implemented on the ground remains to be seen. Consecutive Egyptian governments have a long standing tradition of mishandling sectarian tensions by ignoring the underlying causes and downplaying the existence of the problem, and it’s doubtful that this will change any time soon.
Mohanad Elsangary is a social and political activist who used to head the media department for the Bassma movement.