Egypt's sectarian clashes threaten peace

Threat of civil war raised as Muslim-Christian clashes continue in Egypt.

In this file photo from Sunday, May 8, crowds rampage through the streets of Cairo, in renewed sectarian violence, as various groups of Christians and Muslims throw rocks at each other during clashes near the city centre in Cairo, Egypt.
Powered by automated translation

It's become so bad, some are talking about civil war.

A flare-up of Muslim-Christian violence in Egypt that left at least 15 people dead and more than 200 wounded has drawn warnings of civil war in this mainly Muslim nation.

For now, the prospect of such a conflict in Egypt remains far off, but last weekend's Muslim-Christian clashes were particularly worrying given their intensity, the late response of security forces and the ease with which an illicit love affair between a Muslim and a Christian unleashed forces of extremism from both sides.

The violence underlined the uncertainty among Egypt's new rulers, the military, over how to deal with sectarian tensions and the rising prominence of Salafis, ultraconservative Muslims who have increasingly targeted Christians and secular Muslims.

Ali Gomaa, Egypt's mufti, or chief Muslim theologian, warned this week of civil war, saying it could last for as long as 15 years and set back Egypt by five centuries. His warning, delivered at a news conference on Wednesday, was not the first of its kind by an Egyptian official, but Mr Gomaa was by far the most senior to raise the possibility of civil war as a result of sectarian tensions.

On the upside, the clashes, the latest in the increasingly frequent violence between followers of the two faiths, have prompted swift movement by the government to resolve two contentious issues at the root of Muslim-Christian tensions: a law to govern the construction of worship places for both religions and legislation to criminalise discrimination.

Both laws, the government says, would be issued within 30 days.

The violence also led to steps toward the resumption of services and activities in nearly 50 churches shut down by authorities over the years for being built or expanded without an official permit.

As in the aftermath of past incidents of sectarian violence, the Imbaba clashes have shown that harmony does exist between large numbers of Christians and Muslims brought together by their religious tolerance and contempt for extremism. Muslims and Christians staged joint demonstrations to denounce the violence, women wearing Islamic scarves attended memorial services for Christian victims and clerics from both sides publicly mourned together.

Naguib Saweris, a mega-rich Christian businessman who has recently been courting publicity, met with the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, in a widely publicised visit. He said he wanted to let the grand sheikh know that he should feel free to speak for Egypt's Christians just as he does for the country's Muslim majority.

But will that prevent the civil war that Mr Gomaa, the mufti, and others have warned of?

Egypt, where 10 per cent of the 80-million-plus population is Christian, has seen an uptick in sectarian violence in recent years. And as the country's Muslim majority grew more and more religiously conservative over the years, the margin of tolerance many of them have for the Christians has slowly diminished. Still, the heavy-handed tactics of Hosni Mubarak's hated police coupled with his regime's short-term solutions kept a lid on the potential for a major eruption of Muslim-Christian violence.

Conditions in Egypt are different now and the sectarian tensions could well serve as the perfect catalyst for a major outbreak of violence engulfing large, if not all, parts of the country.

Mr Mubarak's February 11 removal from power has plunged the country into deep political uncertainty. The police are back on the streets after they melted away in the early days of the uprising that toppled the president but only in smaller numbers. The enduring security vacuum has given thousands of convicts and suspects who broke out from prisons and police stations during the 18-day uprising and later the freedom to engage in criminal activity with little or no fear of getting caught.

The armed forces, whose generals took over from Mr Mubarak, do not command the manpower needed to police the streets the way the Mubarak-era, 500,000-strong security forces once did, albeit through the use of excessive violence, intimidation and torture.

But, perhaps more importantly, the sectarian tensions are rising at a time when Muslim militant groups are operating freely for the first time in decades, taking advantage of the freedoms available in post-Mubarak Egypt.

These groups include the Salafis, members of a hard-line movement preaching a strict version of Islamic Sharia law, shunning anything they see as an unwanted "innovation." The Salafis were tolerated and allowed to grow during most of Mr Mubarak's 29 years in power, partly to counter the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which led the opposition to his regime.

The military has arrested at least 200, mostly Salafis, since the clashes in Imbaba. They include individuals who have used the internet's social networks and mosques to incite hatred against Christians or spread false rumours about the alleged persecution by the church of Christians who converted to Islam.

The Salafis' extremism is worrying Muslims and Christians alike, but it is the Christians who are being pushed against the wall because of the repeated attacks against them and their churches. They have been left with little choice but to strike back.

The breakdown of the death toll from the Imbaba clashes - seven of the 15 people killed were Muslims - testifies to the growing use by Christians of deadly force in clashes against Muslims, an ominous sign that reveals the depth of their frustration as well as the growing potential for civil war, or at least wider strife.

Fuelling the Muslim-Christian tensions with the intention of undermining stability and discrediting the ruling generals are remnants of the Mubarak regime, according to the military and the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. A probe into the Imbaba clashes has found that sectarian motives were behind the violence, but only initially and before "thugs" hired by stalwarts of the Mubarak regime or businessmen he backed escalated the violence, torching homes and churches before army troops and policemen finally intervened.

The clashes in Imbaba were rooted in a personal dispute. A Christian woman had an affair with a Muslim man. When she disappeared, the man spread rumours that Christian clergy had snatched her and were holding her prisoner in a local church because she converted to Islam, according to security officials.

That brought out a mob of Muslims, led by Salafis, who attacked the church late on May 7. The assault prompted clashes with neighbourhood Christians that spiralled into an hours-long melee, with gunfire and a church set ablaze.

Salafis and Christians have traded blame for the violence, but for the past year, Salafis have been stoking resentment of Egypt's Christians as a way to rally their own base. They also have drummed up outrage over several Christian women who converted to Islam in order to get divorces from their husbands and were then allegedly imprisoned by Church officials. Divorce is strictly forbidden in Egypt's Coptic Christian Church, and leaving the faith is one of the few ways for a woman to get out of a marriage.