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Egypt and the attack on the Church of Saints

Published in Egypt
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By AlJazeera Centre for Studies

In the early hours of the new year, a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, was the target of a violent terrorist attack which resulted in the death of twenty-one Coptic Christians and left more than seventy others, including a number of Muslims, injured. The attack resulted in a state of shock reverberating through the state and the government, as well as in the sphere of public opinion. Over the next three days, a number of Egyptian cities witnessed a wave of violent demonstrations and mass rallies organised by Coptic Christians. At the same time, various political parties publicly expressed their feelings of solidarity with the Coptic community, as well as their eagerness to safeguard the unity of the Egyptian people. However, neither the openly declared sentiments of national unity by these political parties nor the statements by President Hosni Mubarak were capable of restraining Coptic violence, which manifested itself in a series of sporadic clashes with the state security forces.

In addition to these clashes, the personnel charged with escorting some of the most prominent state personalities, including the Sheikh Al-Azhar, were targeted by demonstrating Coptic youth who threw stones at them. Abroad, the incident was met with a series of explicit western reactions that were issued from the Vatican, and the governments of Germany, Italy and the United States. Along with the series of statements from these countries were messages of solidarity sent to President Mubarak. However, the language employed in these messages, which were almost unanimous in calling for the protection of Christians in Egypt, concealed indirect accusations against the Egyptian government for having being remiss in safeguarding and protecting its Coptic citizens. Against this backdrop of a duality of solidarity and remonstration, both inside and outside the country, the legal representatives of the Coptic Church held a media conference wherein they urged the Egyptian government to enact family laws dealing with the personal status of Copts, as well as laws on the freedom to establish places of worship.

While government officials and a substantial number of political observers were busy determining the nature of the terrorist attack and unveiling the identities of those responsible for it, they failed adequately to investigate the most important aspect and concern that surrounded the terrorist attack: the reason behind the tangible confusion which had characterised the official response to the incident, and the state of anxiety and fear that was experienced by all segments of Egyptian society as soon as news of the event was publicised. This state of apprehension felt by all sectors of the Egyptian public must be understood within a global context of increasing terrorism and violence; the targeting of the Coptic Church by a terrorist attack cannot be understood as an isolated incident.

Ultimately, it has be to viewed also as an attack on Egypt's national security which required an immediate reaction and the adoption of further appropriate security measures. In spite of these new security measures, the general feeling in Egypt, and perhaps even abroad, reflected a deeply rooted fear about Egypt's underlying structure and the unity of its people, and is therefore more of an existential fear than one related only to security concerns. It is this that demands a far-reaching, profound and comprehensive reflection about the Alexandria incident.

A critical issue not correctly addressed

There is an increasingly complicated matter in Egypt which one can correctly refer to as 'the Coptic issue'. It concerns itself with the unhealthy relationship that exists between the Egyptian Coptic community on the one hand, and the state and a few Islamic groups on the other. The roots of this tension-filled relationship can be traced to the fact that the socio-political shift in Egypt (a not-uncommon process for countries of the Levant) from the Ottoman Millet system to a nation-state with citizenship has stumbled along without being completed. In the traditional Ottoman system, power over communities was defined along religious lines where religious communities were allowed to preserve a degree of independence in terms of their own self-management. This contrasts with the notion of the modern nation-state. Under a modern centralised state, or nation-state, citizens are equal individuals in the eyes of the law and within the socio-political arena, with national identity dominating over any religious or sectarian identity. Individuals are thus forced to relinquish the supremacy of their religious or sectarian identities in order to give their full support to the nation and the state. This represents a decisive departure from the traditional Ottoman system to which Egyptians were accustomed.

Under the Ottoman system, communities were organised in terms of their religious affiliations resulting, in some circumstances, on restrictions being imposed on non-Islamic religious communities. Nevertheless, this system ultimately resulted in the preservation of these groups and a general sense of social peace. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the gradual abandonment of the traditional Ottoman system gave rise to a number of problems relating to religion and identity. Despite the commencement of the process that allowed for a progressive withdrawal from that old system, several factors inhibited the completion of the adoption of the new.

Such factors were associated with foreign control, along with the weakness and intrinsic fragility of national entities that were given independence or created after the First World War in the Arab-Islamic Levant, which constantly felt under threat. This was further exacerbated by the hegemony that was exercised by despotic regimes and narrowly-based systems of national government. These factors cumulatively contributed to the stuttering process of maturation on the part of the modern nation-state and its replacing of the traditional Ottoman system. In certain instances, the staggered movement towards the modern nation-state led to the establishment of multi-sectarian states. This is obvious in the case of Lebanon, where participatory quotas were assigned to each religious denomination. Alternatively, if this did not occur, there would be either a return to a system of political 'joint venture', as happened in Iraq, or to the escalating collapse in the relations between different religious and sectarian communities, which can be witnessed in both Egypt and Sudan.

In Egypt, the current ruling system rejects any interference by religion in the politics of the country, and emphasises the secular identity of the state. Notwithstanding this, however, the state accepts an interaction with the Church on the basis that it represents the Coptic community. However, this form of interaction between the state and the Coptic Church has stirred up a bitter feeling among broad sections of the Muslim community since, in their view, the state disavows the right of the Muslim majority to give an Islamic political expression to their identity, has monopolised control of Muslim waqf (religious endowments such as mosques, schools and other institutions), and has achieved domination over their religious affairs. At the same time, the state appears too weak to impose the same law on the inner circles of the Coptic Church. Simultaneously, Copts' activities abroad, along with Egypt's firm link to the major western powers, has resulted in increasing western pressure on Egypt with regard to the status of the Copts. Along with this western pressure there is a sense within the ranks of the Coptic Church that, to a certain degree, Copts live under a special type of western protection. The problem is that such a situation has contributed to the growing apprehension of the state regarding the reactions of the Islamic sector. This makes the state more reluctant to respond to Coptic demands – some of which are clearly justified and legitimate, while others cannot be regarded as either justified or legitimate in a secular state.

For example, it rarely happens that Copts occupy high-ranking positions within the military establishment or in the bodies entrusted with carrying out intelligence services. At the same time, the Egyptian government does include a number of Coptic ministers who belong to the ruling Democratic National Party, although Coptic presence within the ranks of the administrators of the governorates continues to be a rarity. In spite of Egyptian Copts' participation in the cultural, technical and scientific life of Egypt, it is rare that a Copt would be appointed the head of a government body, or dean of a prominent university faculty. Copts also complain about the restrictions regarding the construction of churches, even though it is rare for the state to withhold its approval for any particular church to be built. Another aspect that has attracted the Copts' lamentation is that, on several occasions, the construction of churches has become a symbolical challenge and public attestation of the presence of Copts in the body politic rather than a need to engage in religious and devotional acts. The Coptic request for the enactment of a specific religious law which relates to Coptic family affairs represents one of the thorniest problems in the relationship between the state and the Church. Because of the rigid precepts of the Church in the field of family affairs, opposition to these precepts is found among a substantial number of Copts themselves.

What has arisen from this state of disarray affecting the Egyptian socio-political structure over the past few years, especially due to conscious and organised campaigns by Pope Shenouda III and the bishops who support him, is the transformation of the Church into a barrier that divides the Copts from the larger national arena. This has occurred to such an extent that the Church has succeeded in tightening its grip over the lives of its members. While Coptic participation in political life has dwindled, Coptic identity has taken precedence over national Egyptian identity, allowing for a return to the traditional Ottoman system rather than full allegiance to the modern Egyptian nation-state. Put differently, the Church is working towards reshaping the Copts' dealings and life on the basis that they view themselves as an autonomous religious community that is headed by the Church. While making these demands, the Church simultaneously requests the state to allow the Copts to enjoy rights that would flow from their common citizenry. At the same time, the debate between the spokespersons of the Church and for Coptic identity on the one hand, and a substantial number of public Islamic personalities on the other, including opponents of the political system, is assuming sharper tones.

The Coptic issue is exacerbated by the absence of a national project, in the sense that, as a nation, Egyptians are lacking in national goals, aspirations and incentives which might be capable of uniting all Egyptians and containing factors giving rise to tension in their midst. The current situation has proven that there are no ties of loyalty or close links, and without a nation-building scheme, amicable relations will no longer be able to act as a cementing bond between Egyptians and their state. Egyptians' confidence in national political parties has weakened, and customary forms of national cooperation have receded.

At the same time, the rate of tension, conflict and polarisation between the various societal forces, between religious groups and communities, and between different currents within each social or religious force, has increased. Egyptian society, in a nutshell, is rapidly heading towards the loss of its national spirit and the shattering of its unity. This is occurring at a time when the sheer size of the state and its constituent apparatuses is expanding, and their coercive force is becoming stronger.

Manifestations of a worsening situation

In the atmosphere of crisis that surrounds the Coptic issue, the actions of the state and some Muslims, on the one hand, and the steps taken by the Church and some Copts, on the other, are characterised in most instances by a state of confusion and absence of wisdom. The combined effect of this has been the weakening of a sense of national unity and has led to an ever-expanding chasm between Muslims and Copts, as well to the isolation of the Copts and their focus on self-reliance. The following are some examples of the measures that have been adopted by both sides in their attempts to cope with the situation.

  1. At a time when the rate of Coptic entry into the political arena is gradually declining, the National Democratic Party, which dominates and maintains an unchallenged and firm grip on both the Egyptian government and parliament, refused to support the candidature of an adequate number of Copts in safe parliamentary seats out of fear for Muslim reaction. This attitude has exacerbated the phenomenon of Copts distancing themselves from active political involvement.

  2. In numerous cases, the state has been reluctant to use the might of the law when dealing with events linked to sectarian tension, including those occurrences which are regarded as criminal offences to be dealt with under the penal code, such as attacks on life and property, or instances of rape. The state resorts, instead, to a resolution of disputes outside the legal framework. This deepens the impression of the state's inherent weakness and its inability to deal successfully with the Coptic issue.

  3. Recently, a short-sighted approach has developed within the Church and its supporters. This approach, on the one hand, confirms the suspicion of instigation from abroad and the perception of the state as weak. On the other hand, it reveals a short-sightedness and an inability to comprehend the lessons that ought to be drawn from the history and evolution of Egypt. This approach and the dangers inherent in it are exemplified by the statement by some Copts that Muslims are merely temporary guests in Egypt and that they eventually must return to the Arabian peninsula; by the inflation of the number of Copts living in the country and their percentage of the Egyptian population; by striving to build churches on sites which provoke some narrow-minded Muslims; by the call for external intervention; and by the call for the enforced introduction of a quota system in parliament and for state posts.

  4. The Church, in its endeavour to assert its role and power, or, alternately, to underline its hidden fear and feeling of being under siege, is resorting to elevating cases of former Christians who have embraced Islam into national crises, thereby setting itself on a collision course with the Muslim majority. That is what happened when, on at least two occasions, the Church insisted that former Christians should be handed over to the Church for it to test their declaration. In a recent of two former Christian women, when its request was acceded to, Church officials hid the women in remote monasteries, and claimed that it was not true that they had converted to Islam. The problem on both occasions was that the state worked hand-in-hand with the Church and agreed to cooperate with it out of a desire to appease the Church, and to avoid stirring up pro-Coptic opposition activities abroad.

  5. Even in the reactions to the latest incident – the bombing of the Church of Saints, and in spite of Pope Shenouda urging Coptic youth to maintain their calm, his announcement that he had no desire to meet Muslim well-wishers who intended conveying their greetings for the Orthodox Christmas gave further impetus to national fragmentation and the parochialism of the Coptic community.

The terrorist incident

In the context of such a political environment, it is not difficult to realise that whoever was behind the terrorist plot to attack the Alexandria church was well aware of the sensitivity of the Coptic issue, and attempted to use this attack as a means to set the Egyptian domestic political situation ablaze. The terrorist attack, in the place where and at the time when it materialised, ultimately aimed to highlight the inherent weakness of the political system, and to expose it both to internal contradictions and external pressures. Although the statement made by the Egyptian Ministry of Interior stated that the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber, there are those, both inside and outside Egypt, who harbour doubts about this explanation. In light of the accusations of a dereliction of duty which have been levelled at the relevant components of the security apparatus, if it is positively ascertained that the instrument by which the attack was carried out was in fact a car bomb, such a conclusion ought to be viewed as proof of compounded negligence on the part of the security forces because of the fact that the end-product of a car bomb explosion would presuppose the prior existence of a terrorist cell boasting a tangible number of experts trained in setting up car bombs and piloting bomb devices remotely.

Whatever the truth might be, it is not far-fetched to speculate that the attack was organised by a cell linked to Al-Qaeda, or composed of a group of people influenced by the views and methods of Al-Qaeda. The other possibility is that the perpetrators are part of an Egyptian group which had been encouraged to embark on such an attack, despite the exorbitant costs attached to it, by the growing climate of strained relations and escalating tension between Muslims and Christians.

The problem that now faces the Egyptian state security services is that if one terrorist attack was able to expose the fragility of the Egyptian national infrastructure, and to create an atmosphere of confusion of such large proportions in the stance adopted by government and in the reactions from the western world, what would the case be if one witnessed a recurrence of such an incident against another Coptic target?

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. It is no longer in the interests of Egypt, or even to the benefit of the political system, to continue to ignore the Coptic issue and display indifference in the aftermath of a crisis which greatly affected the Copts' relationship with the state and the Muslim majority. It has now become imperative to comprehensively interrogate the issue and make it a matter of national discussion across Egyptian society, without excluding any protagonists from it. This would require the bringing together of all Egyptians – Muslims and Copts alike – in order to reach an agreement on the national level which will be able to respond to the legitimate demands of the Copts, as well as to give expression to the attitude of the majority.

  2. At the same time, there should be renewed emphasis on the role which the state has to play in relation to the protection of its citizens and to ensuring the equality of all before the law, irrespective of the religious or denominational affiliation of such citizens. The withdrawal of the state in this regard has the effect only of reinforcing the impression of its fear and incapacity to deal with such situations. Although the state's retreat from such matters might succeed in achieving temporary truces, they will lead, in the long run, to an exacerbation of sectarian tension.

  3. It is now the task of the Church and the inner circle around Pope Shenouda to choose between: a) exercising its hegemony over Coptic affairs while isolating the Copts from the larger national arena, or, b) strengthening and consolidating the foundational structure of Egyptian citizenship and of civil society, and of requesting rights for Copts in their capacity as Egyptian citizens. If the Church were to elect to perform both roles simultaneously, that will lead only to sectarian conflagration in the country, and will result in losses for all sides concerned and for the country as a whole. Ultimately, such an approach will result in the Copts emerging as the worst losers, whatever the enticing allurements of possible external support might be.

  4. There is no nation which is capable of safeguarding its national structure without a comprehensive national project. Egypt is acutely in need of crystallising a national project which will allow for the consolidation of its internal unity and the rebuilding of its regional role within the global arena. A big state bereft of any role or high goals shall be prey to an inflation of its internal contradictions.

* This article is published in terms of a partnership agreement between AlJazeera Centre for Studies, and the Afro-Middle East Centre. It was originally published in Arabic by AlJazeera Centre, and translated into English by AMEC

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 11:04