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After ongoing attackes on Coptic Christians, Foriegn Policy looks at the history of Muslim Christian violence in Egypt.


1/17/2011 Egypt (Foreign Policy) – The bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria following a New Year’s Eve liturgy was widely, and rightly, interpreted as a dangerous escalation of the ongoing tensions in Egypt between the country’s majority Muslim population and its Coptic minority, the largest such population in the Arab world. The bombing was followed by a cruder attack by an off-duty policeman on a group of Copts on board a train in Upper Egypt.  While alarming, such events were not novel… In fact, the roots of the current crisis in Egypt are much deeper and can be traced back through Egypt’s 20th Century history, the end result of which  is a state of affairs where Copts do not enjoy equal rights as Egyptian citizens. 

The Wafd laid claim to notions of national unity based on secular governance, enshrined in its motto “Religion for God and the homeland for all.” The party represented a uniquely Egyptian nationalism, and its leadership was filled with high-ranking Copts who played prominent public roles. However, Egypt’s national identity would be contested for years to come as it evolved from one that was tightly focused on Egypt toward a broader sense of Arab nationalism. Throughout the Arab world, many of the initial champions of Arabism were Christians. In Egypt, some prominent Copts, such as the Wafdist leader Makram ‘Ebeid, were early supporters of the notion, fueled by the increasingly contentious question of Palestine. But the process by which Arab nationalism manifested itself in Egypt laid the groundwork for subsequent Coptic alienation, as Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s military regime excluded Copts, and as Arab nationalism came to emphasize Islamic identity.

Arab nationalism in Egypt reached its peak under the rule of Nasser, who came to power in 1952 at the head of the Free Officers’ Movement. While he was hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and ostensibly a secularist, Nasser’s military regime was a setback for the Copts. His regime was marked by tokenism in cabinet appointments and markedly reduced levels of political participation. Nasser’s exclusionary regime eventually led to the first wave of increased Coptic emigration to the West.

These trends accelerated under Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, who cultivated Egypt’s growing Islamist ranks as a counterweight to the Nasserists on the left. Sadat presented himself as al-Ra’is al-Mo’min (the believing president) and used Islam to further consolidate his power. In line with this approach, in May 1980, Sadat orchestrated an amendment to the constitution that enshrined shari’a as the principal source of legislation. These shifts were preceded by the crushing defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel, a time that saw the rise of Islamism throughout Arab society and in Egypt in particular, most notably with the establishment of al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya. Labor migration trends, with large numbers of Egyptians seeking employment in Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf, also furthered the spread of rigid Salafi-influenced thinking.  

It is unsurprising that this period witnessed the first serious modern outbreaks of sectarian violence, with Muslim-Christian clashes erupting in 1972, following the burning of a church in Khanka. Later in the decade, similar incidents arose and became routine, mainly sparked by unlicensed church construction, a chronic and recurring issue, due to the antiquated and discriminatory legal restrictions governing the construction and repair of Christian houses of worship. Increasing conflict culminated in 1981 in communal violence in the outlying Cairo district of al-Zawiyya al-Hamra, which resulted in at least 10 dead and 60 wounded. Sadat’s response included the arrests of numerous Islamist leaders and the banishment of the Coptic Patriarch, Shenouda III.

Following Sadat’s assassination at the hands of Islamist militants and his succession by Hosni Mubarak, sectarian tensions remained, but violence subsided for several years. This calm would not last, however, and by the early 1990s, the Egyptian state was faced with a low-level insurgency, targeting not only Christians but also Egyptian political leaders, security forces, and foreign tourists. The years of unrest saw scores of Copts killed and wounded, particularly in Upper Egypt, where Copts were alleged to have been subjected to the payment of jizya, the traditional tax levied on non-Muslims, in areas under the sway of Islamists. While the threat to the Egyptian state was stamped out ruthlessly in the 1990s, in recent years the pace and scope of sectarian violence has expanded. An April 2010 report issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented 53 separate incidents of sectarian violence in 17 governorates for the two-year period ending in January 2010. Alongside this rising violence, sectarian issues became fodder for a series of sensationalized crises touched off by the alleged conversion of three Coptic women, two of whom were priests’ wives, and their purported return to church custody by state security forces.   

The Mubarak era also witnessed the continuation of the trend of Coptic political marginalization, which has been exacerbated by the actions of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), despite its efforts to portray itself as a protector of the Copts against a rising tide of Islamist fervor. In the 1995 parliamentary elections, the NDP did not put forward a single Christian candidate; in 2000, the number of Copts listed was three; by 2005, only two such candidates were included on the party’s list; and, in the recent 2010 elections, which were marked by increasing levels of fraudulence, the NDP selected only 11 Coptic candidates out of more than 800. Coptic political representation has been and continues to be almost wholly dependent upon post-election presidential appointment to reserve seats, a practice that has resulted in the appointment of a handful of lesser-known individuals. Similar patterns of chronic under-representation can be seen within the cabinet, where the regime has strictly hewed to a rigid quota of two cabinet positions for Copts, and throughout the government bureaucracy, military, police, and state university system. It was a symbolic victory for Copts when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs, was appointed United Nations Secretary General in 1992 after having been denied the foreign ministry in his own country. The consistency of these longstanding patterns, while not dictated by legal regime or universally applicable, point to a system of institutionalized discrimination. 

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