Egyptian Sectarianism: How Bad Is It?

Cairo, Egypt

The Corniche is closed again in front of the Media Ministry because of protests, primarily by Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians, in response to the worst sectarian violence in months that broke out few days ago in the working class Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba.

Word spread like wildfire in Imbaba that Abeer Talaat, a Christian woman, had converted to Islam, and when church officials found out, they had kidnapped her and held her prisoner. Angry mobs gathered, churches were burned, rocks were thrown, shots were fired, a dozen were killed, a couple hundred wounded, and all because of an unsubstantiated rumor. My colleague Andrew wrote about it in his blog immediately after, but more information is coming out every day about the incident and its causes.

I’m sorry to say, it’s not an unprecedented occurrence in Egypt, but present circumstances make this particular case especially interesting and different in important ways.

History of Controversial Conversions

This image has been everywhere in Egypt in the last year. Her name is Camilla Shehata. She was born a Coptic Christian, but she famously converted to Islam last year, and was allegedly kidnapped and imprisoned in a monastery by the Coptic leadership. Hers is not the only story like this, but certainly the most famous face. During Ramadan last August, large protests were held by Islamist and/or Salafi groups outside the Husseini Mosque demanding Camilla’s immediate release. They wanted her to go on state television and state personally and unequivocally her current religious preference, and to confirm or deny her incarceration by church officials. Although she posted a video on YouTube, it was not until the night of the Imbaba violence this week that she went live on television to tell her story. Throughout the intervening 9 months, the name Camilla Shehata has become a rallying cry for both Muslims and Christians, far beyond the significance of her individual story.

For Americans, it may be difficult to understand what the fuss is about. In present-day American culture is enshrined a very clear personal freedom of religious choice, and children turn away from their parents’ religions all the time. In fact, for many, it’s almost a right of passage. It can be a painful strain on family relationships, but it’s not a matter of public scrutiny.

But imagine for a moment that you’re a Native American in colonial or ante-bellum America, and your children are being lured and even kidnapped away by the government to schools where they are forced to perform the rituals and profess the beliefs of Christianity and forsake the rituals and beliefs of their ancestors. You’re already a tiny minority population, and shrinking, in a society that’s often hostile towards you, and where there is a blatant government policy to use religious conversion to obliterate your cultural uniqueness. How far will you go to preserve your religion, your individuality, your identity? The US Government has since apologized for what is now acknowledged to be cultural genocide, but it took America centuries to reach an uneasy compromise with the Native Nations among us.

Many Egyptian Christians feel that they are under the same kind of threat, while the Muslim protesters feel that they are bringing enlightenment to the damned. But then again, if it were merely a matter of religion, this would be a different story.

Flotsam of the Former Regime
Yesterday the Supreme Military Council announced further arrests in the case of the church burnings and violence in Imbaba. They have released information that at least one but perhaps dozens of the arrested individuals, both Copts and Muslims, were members of the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), what’s become known by a revival of an antiquated phrase faloul an-nizam [flotsam of the regime]. The man who first opened fire is allegedly the Coptic owner of a cafe next to the church. The assumption is that he did so to instigate some sort of sectarian conflict.

Rumors abound that former NDP members are trying to cause a fitna (sectarian civil war) between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, presumably in order to create the kind of chaos that could bring the NDP back to power. For years, former Pres. Mubarak used fear of sectarian violence, anti-Christian attacks, fundamentalist Islamist involvement and jihadi terrorism to hold on to power. “Support me,” he told the West, “or have Muslim extremists ruling Egypt!” It seems that some remnants of the former regime are hoping that the same fears might bring them back to power again.

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