Al-Amreya, [pronounced al-Amriya] some 30km south of Alexandria, is a district like few others in Egypt in that it is characterised by an overwhelmingly Salafi population. Salafis are ultra conservative Muslims that call for emulating the manner in which the Prophet Muhammad lived in the 7th century, and adopting his values. Any visitor to Amreya is met with a scene dominated by men in the short white jilbab and women in the black full-face veil niqab. Disputes are resolved in out-of-court traditional councils over which the Salafi Sheikh Sherif al-Hawari presides. Sheikh Hawari is the head of the local Salafi Daawa (Salafi Call), and the de facto governor of Amreya.
Amreya had always been a desert region populated by the roving desert dwellers who Egyptians term ‘Arabs’. There was one central settlement, the town of Amreya. In the 1980s, the area boomed as a thriving industrial free zone. Several villages sprouted around the main town of Amreya which grew to be the sprawling hometown to a population of little less than 900,000 according to the census of 2006. Many of the ‘Arabs’, who are in the major part Salafis, created their own settlements.
The village of al-Ula Sharqiya in Amreya has been the scene of a land seizure crime which the Salafis recently turned into a sectarian dispute. Unless something is done to contain the crisis, the oppression and violence against the local Copts promises to escalate to ominous proportions.
On Sunday 20 September, the Copts in the village of al-Ula in the district of Amreya came under attack from local ‘Arabs’ in the wake of a dispute over a plot of land owned by the Copt Hamdy Makanouti. The ‘Arabs’ pelted the Coptic villagers, their homes, shops, and church with stones, rocks, and glass bottles. Four Coptic-owned homes were violently attacked, among them the home of Demian Maher, 60, who suffered injuries in the vertebral column and his wife Tereza Hanallah, 50, who sustained a head injury. They were both moved to hospital and lie in intensive care.
Court order not executed
According to Ramy Qashoue, coordinator of the Maspero Youth Union in Alexandria, the land in question is a 10 feddan agricultural plot; it lies adjacent to the village church of the Holy Virgin and Mar-Girgis (St George) and has been the legal property of Makanouti since 20 years. Two years ago, Arabs who belong to the local al-Houti tribe seized the land. Makanouti attempted to regain it from them in a peaceful manner through the intervention of other local tribe leaders who enjoy good relations with the Houtis, but the attempts failed. Finally, Makanouti went to court and won a court order to regain his land. That was eight months ago.
The Houti Arabs refused to execute the court order and demonstrated in large numbers on the land when the police tried to enforce the law. The police had to temporarily withdraw.
On the morning of Sunday 20 September, a police force larger than the previous one headed to the land to get the court order executed. Again, they were met with an even larger demonstration of Arabs, this time with their women and children. The police attempted to disperse the demonstrators with tear gas, but failed. Clashes erupted between the police and the armed demonstrators and had to finally withdraw at around 5pm when they ran out of ammunitions. But a Houti man named Mahmoud Rawaq Eissa had been shot dead by police fire.
Rallying against the Copts
The Houtis quickly spread rumours that Eissa was killed at the hands of the Copts and used mosque microphones to rally the Muslims in the district to defend them against the Copts and the police who were collaborating with them against the Muslims. They alleged the police were attempting to empower the Copts while at the same time attacking the Muslims. For the average Muslim, such an allegation is outrageous; the general view is that Copts are to be protected but kept in their place and never allowed to have the upper hand over Muslims.
An hour after the police withdrew the Houtis gathered with a crowd of Muslims from the neighbouring villages and marched against Makanouti, heading towards his house. As they passed through the village they attacked the Coptic villagers and everything that belonged to them. The church, too, came under heavy attack.
The police were not able to access the village. Finally, the more moderate tribes of al-Maghawra and Deifallah intervened and stepped in to close all the ways leading to Makanouti’s house.
Sunday evening, in the wake of the withdrawal of the police force from the village, a large group of heavily armed Houtis and their supporters occupied another piece of land owned by the Makanoutis, planted with tomatoes. The tomato field is not within the land the Houtis had already seized, but is adjacent to the Makanouti homes, six houses that lie outside the village of al-Ula. The move, according to the family member Nassim al-Makanouti is obviously a direct threat to the family.
Eissa’s family has buried him, but refused to accept condolences. This is an ominous sign that they are bent on vendetta. This despite the fact that the man was killed with a bullet brand only used by the police.
Sabry al-Makanouti, a cousin of Hamdy al-Makanouti, told Watani that not only the Makanoutis, but all the Copts in al-Ula have been receiving threats to leave the village or face a dire destiny. “We are prisoners in our own homes,” he says. “We get messages that read: ‘Get out of your homes; we won’t leave a single one of you alive here’, or ‘We’ll take your homes and lands by force and drive you out. Leave, or else we’ll kill you’.”
Naguib al-Makanouti, the son of the land owner Hamdy al-Makanouti, says it is the village Salafis, very powerful in al-Ula, who are inciting against the Copts. “If it hadn’t been for our neighbours, the Maghawras, we would have been dead by now,” he says. “Some of our friends have advised us to leave the village for now till matters calm down, but we refused to do so. We have done nothing wrong; we merely claimed what we rightfully owned, so why should we be treated like criminals? We can’t live as fugitives for simply claiming our right.”
Nassim al-Makanouti says that, even though some 14 men from among those who seized the Makanouti land have been arrested by the police, the land is still in Houti hands.
The al-Ula Copts together with the Makanoutis all urgently call for police protection and intervention to uphold the law.
The Church, for its part, is out of the dispute. Beheira Bishopric issued a statement saying the dispute is strictly a civil matter, and that the Church had no part in it.
Muhammad Hassan al-Maadawi, the Makanoutis’ lawyer, terms the Houti behaviour ‘outright thuggery and terrorism’ designed to force the Makanoutis into an out-of-court settlement, notoriously known as ‘conciliation sessions’, in which the Coptic rightful owners of the land have to relinquish it, or a large portion of it, into the hands of the Houtis in return for their personal safety.
Amreya, where the ultraconservative Muslim Salafis have a strong presence, has been notorious for the oppression of Copts. It does not help that the local Copts are mostly well-to-do or have lucrative businesses; this actually makes them all the more viable targets for the Salafis who resent Coptic success.
In 2012, the Amreya village of Sharbat saw the Muslims burn down three Coptic homes and destroy four others; also loot and burn 10 large Coptic-owned stores on account of a rumour of a romance between a Coptic man and Muslim woman. The Salafis forced eight Coptic families to migrate from the village. But Coptic activists succeeded in turning the matter into a public opinion case; the Coptic families were able to go back home weeks later. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/coptic-issues/banishing-the-copts-from-amriya-2/4311/]
Another Amreya village, al-Basra, is home to a church consecrated in the name of the saint Anba Wannas and is only one of very few in Egypt that hold his name. This church has been ordered by the local Salafis to receive no visitors whatsoever from outside the village; any visitors are attacked even if, as during last June, they are Sunday School children. [http://en.wataninet.com/coptic-affairs-coptic-affairs/sectarian/mursi-solves-amriya-crisis/3596/]
In more than one incident in Amreya, churches have been denied the right to build community centres or to execute licensed restoration work because of Salafi intransigence. And Amreya is notorious for the abduction of underage Coptic women—the most recent was the 13-year-old Agapi Essam—who are then forced into conversion and marriage.
30 September 2015