Following the forceful dispersal of the Islamist sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August, unprecedented numbers of attacks on Copts and their churches all over Egypt took place . More than 57 churches and dozens of buildings belonging to Copts or Coptic associations were looted and set alight, seven Copts lost their lives and scores were injured. All fingers pointed to the Muslim Brothers (MB) and their supporters, but MB spokesperson Ahmed Aref denied that the group had anything to do with the attacks. The Gamaa al-Islamiya group also issued a denial. Which begs the question of who then were the criminal masterminds behind the attacks, and what were the underlying causes of the violence?
The role of the MB in inciting violence cannot be dismissed lightly, nor can its clear message to its supporters. Throughout it history which began in 1928, the group was always outspoken in exploiting religion to attract more and more followers. This applies to all MB rhetoric since the 25 January 2011 Revolution and all the elections that followed—the March 2011 referendum on constitutional changes, the parliamentary elections in 2011, and presidential elections in June 2012, and the referendum on a new constitution in December 2012. Mursi did not even appear to care about members withdrawing from the constituent assembly that was drawing up the 2012 Constitution, or their fears that this [Islamist] Constitution would open the door wide for violence and threats to liberty. The MB pulled out all the stops to gain power, and their speeches inflamed sectarianism and marginalised all their detractors.
The increasing sectarian violence since the January 2011 Revolution and until the overthrow of the MB president Muhammad Mursi in July 2013 was strong indication that a powerful Islamist group was creating and inflaming sectarian strife with the clear intention of manipulating the community. When sectarian problems arose Islamists pushed the rule of law aside and interfered unofficially, offering temporary solutions that bypassed the root causes and ensured the real criminals remained unidentified.
The ousted president, for his part, pushed his supporters into vital posts in the government, handing the MB more access to power, and widening the gap between Copts and the government. Mursi did promise to appoint a Coptic deputy, but he was harshly criticised by the Muslim extremists who considered this haram (sinful). Thus the role of the Copt Samir Morqos as adviser to the president was severely pared down, until he wrote his resignation.
Even though Copts have historically been opposed to a sectarian quota, Mubarak had always taken care to select two Coptic ministers; for Mursi, one Coptic minister in a position that was ineffective in decision making was more than enough.
If the 2011 Revolution had one major effect on all Egyptians, it was to make them defiant. In case of Copts, they became more confident and insistent on demanding their rights. This change was reflected in the way the ruling regime dealt with the Copts. It even changed the Church’s way of dealing with the congregation. Copts no longer obeyed the Church when it asked them to end protests. Such changes indicated that Copts were viewing a different future based on full citizenship rights for themselves, and that they would no longer accept inequality. This was definitely not what an Islamist ruling regime desired, and it led the MB to make ever more inflammatory speeches which changed from calling indirectly for discrimination to a direct incitement of hatred and violence.
As the MB became increasingly embroiled in social, political and economic crises, anger in the Egyptian street steadily rose. The people came out in protest, and the MB needed a scapegoat to appease the angry crowds, so they circulated the notion that Copts were the enemies of Islam and were trying to hinder the progressive work of the first Muslim president. Following a vicious attack by Islamists against demonstrators who were protesting Mursi’s flagrant grab for power last November, the MB vocally claimed that all Mursi opponents were Copts, fuloul (remnants of Mubarak’s regime) or seculars. Mursi said that much in his speech on 27 June 2013 in which he blamed the Copts and fuloul: “There are things inside one’s heart that cannot be voiced at official level.”
Following the 33-million-strong mass demonstrations demanding Mursi’s overthrow on 30 June, and the subsequent army intervention that overthrew him, MB invective against Copts reached new levels. Using loudspeakers from mosque minarets, their leaders told followers at the Islamist sit-ins that Copts were enemies of Islam. Pro-Mursi demonstrators proved the effect of such incitement when they repeated the slogans and scrawled them on the walls of the churches they destroyed, even on the walls of St Mark’s Cathedral. Specific marks were also daubed on the houses and other property of Copts in some Upper Egyptian villages, and their owners received threats. Before all these incidents, MB supporters arranged marches in those villages with a Coptic majority and repeated anti-Coptic slogans. It is not a valid excuse that those who did this were an unknown minority or immature extremists, or that the leaders themselves were totally innocent.
Looting and burning
Two incidents that took place in Minya governorate give clear indication of the incitement by MB leaders and their supporters.
The first was on 3 and 4 July in Dalga, South Minya, where a group of angry pro-Mursi demonstrators set fire to a building belonging to the Catholic Church and destroyed the Islah Church. The homes and property of many Copts were looted and burnt without any intervention by the authorities. The demonstrators went on a rampage, looting and burning two more churches and a monastery. Some 30 homes were abandoned, and the families are still afraid to return.
The other incident was in the village of Beni Ahmed al-Sharqiya, where there is a Coptic majority. There demonstrators attacked the property of 43 Copts. The regional Gamaa al-Islamiya hastened to a urfi (traditional) reconciliation, assigning seven arbitrators—all Muslims, and five of them al-Gamaa members—to solve the problem. The result of the ‘conciliation’ was that Copts had to renounce the police reports they had filed and would not be compensated for their losses unless they agreed to the terms of the conciliation.
All the attacks were carried out while the sit-ins at Rabaa and Nahda were being dispersed, and all were perpetrated in the same savage manner. They began with a pro-MB march in a main square before heading towards churches and Coptic-owned buildings, which were then attacked, looted and set alight. Mobs did the same with any property they passed belonging to Copts. Among other examples, Mursi supporters attacked and set fire to the bishopric in Sohag, and many churches were attacked in Minya, especially in Beni Hilal where the Gamaa Islamiya are in control.
Tried to stop violence
Some Islamist leaders used local mosques to call for opposition to Copts who supported the army and overthrew Mursi. Some Muslims did their best to prevent their local churches from being burnt, but they were unable to face the mobs; they were only able to protect their Coptic neighbours’ homes.
However, it is unclear whether all the attackers in Upper Egypt belonged to the MB, since it is hard to differentiate between the MB, Salafis or al-Gamaa al-Islamiya; the more popular description there is the ‘religious [Islamist] group’. Some attackers may well have taken part just for the sake of looting, while others wanted to humiliate Copts, especially in villages where they wielded economic power. Whatever the case, the Islamists are not innocent because they incited the violence against Copts, and some of them organised and led the attacks.
Videos refute MB claims
The MB claim that they are not linked to any of the attacks against Copts can be easily traced on their website. As for their incitement against Copts and their attempts to portray Copts as the prime anti-Islamist force, ignoring the fact that Copts are a minority and their numbers pale before the numbers of Muslims, it can also be found online. The MB publish falsehoods such as the fake news posted on 16 August under the heading: “Police and the Church shoot at the [MB] march in Giza.” The Islamist leader Assem Abdel-Maged, in a speech he made on 24 July 2013 on the stage of the Islamist sit-in at Rabaa, Cairo, spoke of Coptic extremists delegated by al-Sisi to kill Muslims and described what happened as a war on Islam http://www.youtube.com/watch?2v=NpPLY2j47Gc&feature=youtu.be. On 8 December 2012, Khairat al-Shater said in a press conference that 80 per cent of the anti-Islamist protestors were Copts http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mXvie0VEXA, while Muhammad al-Beltagi claimed the figure stand 60 per cent. http://www.eipr.org/pressrelease/2013/08/20/1784
Ishaq Ibrahim is the officer responsible for the Freedom of Religion and Belief file at the Egyptian Initiative of Personsl Rights
9 October 2013