Egypt is falling victim to various incidents perceived to be the results of tension between Muslims and Christians which are sometimes targeting Christians and churches. Such incidents began in the 70s and a committee was formed to investigate the facts, but it did nothing.
Assaults against Christians and their churches escalated at the end of Mubarak’s time in charge and the generally-held belief was that these were planned by an external group. Some, though, said that they were done by the regime itself in order to distract Christians and Muslims and enable the government to “divide and rule” despite its corruption and oppression.
The government and its security agencies, especially the Ministry of the Interior, were the main suspects, with accusations that security policies favoured Muslims over Christians. Thus the regime and security became a target for Christians as well as Muslims for similar reasons; everyone felt that the regime was conspiring against them. This is one explanation, amongst many, for the normally total cohesion between Egyptian Muslims and Christians in the face of destabilising conspiracies, which was obvious during the revolution.
It was a common belief that with the fall of the Mubarak regime the reason for communal division would be removed. He had used security agencies to do the regime’s dirty work while he tried to keep a benign image for himself.
During the interim period of military rule after the ousting of Mubarak, Christians directed their enmity at the ruling officers. A series of unfortunate events in Upper Egypt and other traditional neighbourhoods brought bad memories flooding back, and public cohesion faded away.
In truth, there were several factors that contributed to the new wave of inter-communal tension but the fact remains that the underlying relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt is sound. The reality is that factional conflict, political and social tension, as well as the economic crisis, can and do turn simple incidents into inflammatory situations. While factional violence and its results have been analysed, the roots of the problem have not been tackled.
This tension is accompanied by frequent talk of the factors which inflame the situation: some are psychological, others are political or material; most are internal but the most dangerous are foreign.
The first factor is that most Christians voted for Ahmed Shafik and his team even though he is basically an extension of Mubarak and the Christians hated Mubarak. However, they do not want a candidate affiliated with the Islamic trend so “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” appears to be the rule. It didn’t help that the Islamist candidate won. In one of those strange twists, he probably took the vote not because of voters’ love for him or his party’s religious affiliation but out of hatred for Shafik, who symbolised the corrupt former regime.
Shafik was also seen as the military’s favoured candidate at a time when the people wanted a change from military rule. In order for the revolution to produce a fresh leader, not a symbol of the regime which it overthrew, it was important to choose the right candidate to support. Nevertheless, this led to Christian distrust of the new government, which made it easier for them to be critical over incidents relating to their community.
The second factor is that incendiary speeches, particularly by Salafis, were used to justify hostile and extremist attitudes towards the perceived other, particularly the Christians. During the cathedral clashes earlier this month, many Christians accused the security forces of abandoning their community. The perpetrators of the attacks would, it is claimed, have been confronted and caught if the authorities had really wanted to do so.
The third factor is that most Christians support the opposition and some of their leading figures were accused of encouraging violent acts and funding them. Such people were caught making inappropriate sectarian comments, prompting a discussion about religious slogans and their use in election campaigns. This has created religious conflict for the first time in Egypt.
One conspiracy theory claims that there are plans to split Egypt into two states; one Muslim, one Christian. It seems as if the fear of this is what drove the writers of the new constitution to make the first article of the document list this as a crime so that legislators must regard such a split as treason.
External events and statements from, for example, Washington make it clear that if the Islamists are unable to prevent the oppression of Christians in their country then foreign intervention will occur and a division of the country will follow that.
We can’t afford to go down that route. Egypt has always been a unified state and its people have worshipped one God under three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Notions of dividing the country along religious lines have never arisen until now, so we must be aware that “divide and rule” has always been a tool of colonialist powers.
The current situation is clear: there is a conspiracy, there is tension, there is a weakness in society’s awareness, and there is a feeling amongst the Christians that they are being oppressed. This is a new feeling in Egypt so it should be impossible for Egypt to reach the point of factional sedition because the Egyptian public, both Muslims and Christians, feel that they are all belong to the same country. How do we go back to the age of relative harmony and unity that denounces conspiracy theories and sedition, and puts an end to political conflict? How can the Islamic political movement have nothing to do with religion? How can we take religion and its symbols out of the political equation?
Willpower on the part of the political elite is vital, as is an objective media.
In order for Egypt’s national security to combat sedition and thwart divisive conspiracies it must begin with social cohesion and community harmony. Using religion to create disharmony and division is dangerous; we tend to forget that Islam warns against oppression, describing it as “worse than slaughter”. Indeed, all religions encourage love and tolerance and that the relationship between the Creator and mankind extends to kindness and respect towards others. No religion promotes the harming of others and destroying the peaceful public sphere.
Egyptian national security is threatened by factional sedition, conspiracy in Sinai, a malevolent media, extremism and the government’s inability to direct the people’s energies towards national projects instead of sedition. Gamal Abdel Nasser was successful in this endeavour; it may have been at the expense of some freedoms but national interests should take precedence.
Furthermore, Anwar Sadat channelled patriotism against a common enemy and eliminated factional sedition when it started to emerge in 1972, albeit harshly. His legacy illustrated the harm of combining religion and politics, emphasising Egypt’s way since the time of the Pharaohs.
Security is necessary for thwarting conspiracies which undermine the stability of the state but it cannot act in isolation. Other factors, especially economic revival, are needed.
*The author is a former Egyptian ambassador and a professor of international law at the American University in Cairo.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera, 12/4/13
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.