Reality is something else. The stifling financial crisis, the lethal influence of the fundamentalists, the events of September 11th are aggravating factors and sources of conflict. Nevertheless, the essential reason for the lapse of the culture of tolerance and pacific cohabitation within Egyptian society remains the total absence of a political will that would put an end to interreligious attacks. Does Egypt really need a civil catastrophe to attract attention to the increasing violence, or would it be possible to mend this situation and finally dispose with the policy of secrets, dissimulation, disinformation and 'everything’s fine'?
Why not rather work towards reinforcing the principles of citizenship as such, granted to all Egyptians in a Country where peace and security ought to reign, where they could fully enjoy their rights in order to better comply with their duties ?
Any visitor to Egypt could easily observe the excellent relationships between Christians and Muslims in the public square. However, a deeper analysis of the psychology and mores of the majority of the Egyptians suggests a violence-mongering tendency on both sides, whether the problem is religious extremism, rumours, settling scores, or some critical and unstable international situations.
This is precisely what happened at Nag Hammadi, where the combination of ignorance and extremism with the conflicts of interest and political corruption fuelled anger around the simple rumour of a presumed rape : this caused unheard-of violence, looting, and the murder of innocents whose only crime was their religious identity.
For those who have missed the opportunity to follow the details of this heinous crime, here is a summary of the facts :
- The roots of this region’s constant troubles lie in the enmity between MP Abderrahmane El-Ghoul and Amba Kyrillos, Bishop of Nag Hammadi, who supported the candidature of the former’s opponent in the legislative elections. The instability and antagonism increased with the appointment of the Christian Colonel Majdi Ayoub to Governor of Qena, one of the largest communities of Coptic Christians in Egypt, as well as one of the poorest. The purpose of this appointment was to show impartiality towards the Christian community after repeated refusals to finance the renovation works on dilapidated or ruined churches. In Egypt, in fact, church construction can only be authorized by national decree, while authorising restoration works is a prerogative of the Governor.
- In November 2009 a Muslim family from the small village of Farshout, belonging to the Nag Hammadi bishopric, accused a young Christian man of raping their little daughter. Immediately, and without waiting for the results of the inquiry, some Muslims carried out violent attacks, looting and burning shops and pharmacies belonging to Christians. The police refused to issue reports to detail the aggressions impartially and failed to repress the attackers.
- The security services tried to put an end to the troubles by organising interreligious reconciliation meetings. These were assemblies which did not comply with the law but sought to resolve conflicts ; during these assemblies, usually, the weakest community would be forced to give up its rights in exchange for a return to peace and quiet. Bishop Kyrillos, nevertheless, firmly rejected a reconciliation and demanded as a precondition that the victims be given compensation, at least for the material losses.
- One of the first consequences of such (just and justified) demands, was that the Bishop received threats immediately before the Christmas celebrations (scheduled for the 7th January, according to the Eastern rite). Fearing troubles and incidents involving worshippers on their way out of church, he decided to conclude the Christmas Eve prayers before the set time. Effectively, the liturgical celebrations ending at 10pm saved the little village from the announced tragedy.
- On leaving the church around 11.30pm and heading towards the bishopric nearby, the Bishop was surprised by the noise of shots ; he went out and found himself facing a scene of desolation: numerous of victims, dead or injured, who were immediately taken to the central hospital.
- The next day (Christmas Day), as hundreds of angry Christians gathered in the village, attacks were inevitable, especially because of the slowness in returning the martyrs’ bodies to their families. During the funerals of the young Christians religious slogans were chanted, as well as rallying cries claiming justice and equality. To make things worse, those attending the funerals were also targeted : some Christian houses and shops were looted in the little village of Bahjourah.
At the end of the the inquiry, three attackers were identified. Strangely, they had actually given themselves up to the police. One of them was strongly connected with Mr Abderrahmane El-Ghoul, who would personally intervene in favour of his liberation four days after the attack. Nevertheless, the MP denied any connections with the criminal, despite the existence of a photo featuring them together. After the Procurator General’s visit to the scene of the crime, the three accused were given summary judgement but the Public Prosecutor excluded the existence of an instigator behind the massacre.
- The mass media limited themselves to describe the facts as a simple vengeance, excluding any religious connotations. On his part, Bishop Kyrillos made some extremist-like declarations which he has now withdrawn : he obviously does not master the art of expressing himself before the mass media and his words were misreported.
- An investigaton board of the Assembly responsible for human rights and including numerous respected and creditable personalities, such as MP Georgette Kallini, was appointed to establish the truth of the events.
- Just when everyone expected the usual conclusion (koullou temem), Mrs Kallini surprised everyone by publishing a damning report which described the sad but complete truth. In fact, she went as far as demanding that the Governor resign because of his allegations about the Copts as being the sole responsible of the troubles, and his declarations about the situation being under control and back to normal – while the village of Bahjour was actually in flames. For this reason Mrs Kallini was the target of a collective attack from Parliament and the Governor, as well as the mass media, who accused her of inciting division. She insisted on the existence of an instigator behind the violence which she labeled « interreligious », while the President of Parliament and the other MPs persisted in regarding the attacks as ordinary crimes.
- Everyone was equally surprised by the Bishop’s about-face, which caused a certain resentment among the Copts themselves, especially after the massive and unjustified arrests of Copts taken from the streets or from their homes under pretext of fomenting disorder (this is the security services’ balance thrust, consisting in bargaining with the Church to force her to abandon her positions in exchange for the liberation of innocents).
- The official mass media determined to minimize the gravity of the facts by attacking Mrs Kallini, while the majority of independent intellectuals denounced the tragic events by expressing their solidarity with the Copts and warned against the possibility of yet more serious incidents. But as these objective and independent observations were confined to a narrow group of politicians and intellectuals they failed to produce the resonance usually expected by the regime. Up until the moment these lines were written, the young Christian accused of presumed rape was still in prison without any evidence of his guilt having been produced. Even more seriously, the local federation of lawyers prevented anyone from acting in his defence.
Incidents apart, what matters most is their influence on the social make-up of the Egyptian population. Undoubtedly the recrudescence of terrorist acts, from roughly one a year in 1979 to an average of one a month in 2009, has had the tragic consequence of pushing many Christian families towards the Port Said hinterland and surrounding area : they have left the land of their ancestors in order to settle in the unsafe suburbs of Cairo or Alexandria and thus form impoverished, religiously unstable social groups on the borders of a potentially explosive territory. The explosion might take place as soon as they decide to build a church, or as soon as two young people [of different faiths] start a relationship, or because of a financial disagreement. In conclusion, internal emigration or, rather, forced displacement, is more fearsome for national unity than emigration towards the West.
Besides, as a direct consequence of the general climate of discrimination and religious exclusion following the era of the late President Anouar Sadat (1970-1981), a great number of young people have chosen to emigrate to the West as a definitive move. So the Coptic churches abroad would fill with thousands of second - and third - generation Egyptians. Whether or not these are proud of being Egyptians, they are nevertheless very sensitive to what their correligionaries face back home, to the extent of being a potential embarrassment to the Egyptian government before its Western counterparts.
All this contributes to stir sensibilities and exacerbate positions, despite the fact that a minority of intellectuals and writers have overtly and forcefully denounced the gravity of Egypt’s current situation; on the other hand, what is left of the middle class still lives on the memories of a romantic past when the Country used to be open not only to the Egyptians but to anyone looking for refuge and security (from the Lord Jesus, glory be to Him, to those rescued from the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century). Until now, Egypt has been sheltered from the danger of a civil war or an ethnic cleansing thanks to the values rooted in Egyptian society, such as the citizens’ spirit of reciprocal love, the wisdom of religious leaders, and the international situation ; but, in particular, also the capacity of the Egyptian President to intervene with authority and decision. We must then conclude that the current slackness in the application of the law foments religious and ethnic violence.
*The article was written on January 19, 2010
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal