20 April 2011
Thousands of hardline Islamists led by the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims in Qena in the southern province of Qena, 30km north of Luxor, have been adamant in their civil disobedience campaign until the government removes the newly appointed Coptic governor. The protests started following Friday prayers on 15 April, when some 10,000 demonstrators surrounded the governorate building in Qena chanting angry slogans against the Coptic governor, and vowed to demonstrate on a daily basis till he is removed. They moreover rejected the concept of having a governor from the Interior Ministry, and demanded that he should come from a non-military non-police background.
As the number of demonstrators swelled on Saturday, they blocked the main highway that runs from Cairo to Aswan in the south, and halted the railway trains by setting up tents on the rails. They threatened to cut off the fresh water from the towns and villages on the Red Sea east of Qena, whose water supply comes from the Nile at Qena. They took over government buildings and blocked roads in the town, stopping buses to separate men and women passengers.
Tensions were so high that Qena’s Copts had to stay home and could not go to church to celebrate Palm Sunday.
The protestors insisted that, as a Christian, the newly-appointed governor Major General Emad Shehata Mikhail was in no position to implement Islamic law, a major demand by the Islamists. The new governor resigned on Tuesday, but the ruling Military Council refused to accept his resignation.
Efforts by top officials, not least among whom was Interior Minister Mansour el-Eissawi who visited Qena, to defuse the crisis were rebuffed.
“When there is a decision to change the governor to a civilian Muslim, we will end the strike and life will return to normal,” said Sheikh Qureishi Salama, the imam of the local mosque,
Major General Mikhail, 58, who was previously director of the tax evasion department at the Interior Ministry then later deputy to Giza security director, had scheduled a meeting with the tribal chiefs in Qena to discuss with them an outlook for the development of the province. Qena is a community heavily dominated by tribal and family loyalties.
Major General Mikhail was assigned to replace Major General Magdy Ayoub, also a Copt. The Salafis rejected what they saw as an official plan for Qena to become a ‘Coptic quota’ governorate, meaning that the official practice of appointing a single Coptic governor among Egypt’s 28 governor should always be to assign the Copt to Qena. They claimed that Major General Ayoub’s term as governor led to a rise in sectarian tension in the province.
For its part, the Church did not comment on the appointment of Major General Mikhail. Noteworthy is that his predecessor did not enjoy any cordial relation with the Church; in fact he was seen to have restricted the Copts’ rights to high-ranking posts in the governorate and to church-related issues for fear of being accused of favouring the Copts.