Sectarian problems crop up everywhere in Egypt, Minya has the lion’s share. Human rights centres have verified 27 events in the eight months last October to June this year, the period corresponding to the last round of parliamentary sessions. Reports issued from the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council show that only four were discussed: the bombing in Zaitoun; the Abu Fana assaults; the murder of a jeweler in Zaitoun; and assaults on Baha’is in Shouraniya in Sohag. The last three events were only marginally discussed and were transferred to specialised committees.
The fact is that many MPs on the right and left have gone against motions to discuss events of sectarian violence in Parliament on the pretext that it would ignite more strife. Only a few insisted on the importance of discussing these matters for the sake of public security.
Human rights organisations have studied the reasons that lead to sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians. Major among these reasons is the antagonism of Muslims against Christians conducting their religious rituals in new buildings —or old ones that are not strictly churches—fearing they would be turned into churches. It should be borne in mind that Christians do not resort to praying in such buildings except when there is no church in the first place in the vicinity or, more frequently, in the entire village or neighbourhood. Violence erupted due to this reason in, among many others, Kom al-Mahras in Minya, Ain-Shams in Cairo, Kafr Farag Girguis in Minyal-Qamh, Ameriya in Alexandria, Ezbet Wassef Pasha in Ayat, and Ezbet Bushra al-Sharqiya in al-Fashn.
Other events erupted as a result of personal or family disputes, as in al-Tayyiba in Samalout, Minya; Matay in Minya; al-Amireya in Alexandria; Ain-Shams in Cairo; Ezbet al-Nakhl in Cairo; Luxor, Abu Qurqas, Nazlet al-Badraman and Mallawi in Minya; and Mit Ghamr and Kafr a-Barbari in Daqahliya. In all these events, fights which began as individual disputes escalated into attacks by Muslim mobs against the Copts in the neighbourhood. The Copts were assaulted with firearms, knives, swords, and sticks. Their houses, property, land and businesses were raided and set on fire, resulting in countless injuries and, in a few cases, deaths. In the majority of the events, security forces interfered at least two hours after the outset of the conflict and, a few days later, the security and local authorities made both parties to the conflict sit down for ‘reconciliatory sessions’ to settle matters. In some cases, the police asked Christians to leave their homes and relocate elsewhere.
Head in the sand
Despite these tragedies, the MPs representing the constituencies where the sectarian events took place made no motion to discuss the incidents in Parliament.
MP Ibrahim Mohamed al-Anani, deputy secretary- general of the defence committee in the Shura Council, said that sectarian events should be addressed within the context of avoiding repercussions that might threaten national security. He said most of these events emanated from personal disputes over mutual interests, and pointed out that reoccurrence of sectarian conflict pointed at a relapse in security measures. Anani promised that he make a motion to discuss the issue in the upcoming parliamentary round next October.
Ahmed Omar Hashim, head of the Religious Affairs Committee, says sectarian incidents have become an unwelcome phenomenon. Dr Hashim does not object to their inclusion in committee session discussions, but warns against augmenting them by bringing up more doubts and problems. He adds that national unity is embraced by the Qur’an, and says Muslims and Copts have always lived together for centuries and supported one another. Dr Hashim insists on the utmost importance of maintaining that unbreakable bond, and says he believes that no one can ever crack this long-enduring relationship.
On his part, Abdel-Ahad Gamal Eddin, the majority leader in the People’s Assembly, believes that sectarian events would be better dealt with on a small scale within the boundaries of the district where they occur. He believes there is no need to widen the scope of their discussion in order to preserve national solidarity. Dr Gamal Eddin reminds that both Muslims and Copts have served the country and shed their blood for the nation.
More than sufficient
Dr Gamal-Eddin has several supporters. MP Shaaban Abdel-Aziz, representative of al-Tagammu Party, says that discussion in parliament will ignite matters even more. It would be more beneficial, he says, to spread cultural, religious and democratic awareness. Mr Abdel-Aziz says the sectarian problems cannot be resolved by issuing decrees and laws but only by implementing awareness and an acceptance of ‘the other’.
As for MP Ibtisam Habib, she says she has more than once raised the topic of sectarian conflicts during parliamentary sessions, including the events in Alexandria, the Zaitoun bombings, and Abu-Fana assaults. She says that, when raised, these issues are tackled objectively, but at the same time she says that many sectarian conflicts take place but do not come to the surface and the public knows nothing about them because there is scarcely any media coverage.
A member of the Shura Council, Badr Helmi, says the council discussed the Abu Fana problem 24 hours after the incident. Dr Helmi believes in the importance of discussing such incidents with transparency for the sake of the nation and to avoid any further complications.
On the other hand, MP Abdullah Eleiwa of the Muslim Brotherhood appears to think that Copts in Egypt have more than sufficient rights, suffer no problems whatsoever, and that there is no sectarian strife in the first place. It is only a matter of the Copts living abroad exporting strange notions of persecution and human rights to the Copts at home, he says, “which only pours oil over the fire”. If we are to believe Mr Eleiwa, however, how can the incidents actually taking place on the ground be explained?