Any observer of the sectarian scene in Egypt will not fail to notice that the governorate of Minya, some 230kms south of Cairo, is home to the lion’s share of attacks against Copts. With a full 65 per cent of the incidents of violence against Copts taking place on its soil,
the question which begs an answer is whether Minya—or any other location which shares parallels with it, such as villages in Assiut or Upper Egypt in general—has any specific peculiarity that makes this possible.
Whenever I need to grasp what political Islamic groups are up to, I go to my hometown of Minya in Upper Egypt. I remember heading there at the time of the parliamentary elections of 2011/2012 which brought in a sweeping Islamist majority of Muslim Brothers (MBs) and Salafis. In June 2012, the MB came to power when their candidate Muhammad Mursi won Egypt’s presidency. At the time, Egyptians were willing to give the Islamists, whom they saw as “men of Allah” and who promised a bright future for Egypt, an opportunity to lead the country. Once the MB came to power, however, they revealed very clearly that their prime loyalty was to their pan-world Islamist movement, not to Egypt. Moreover, they were disastrously inept at pulling the country out of the economic and political doldrums in which it found itself in the wake of the January 2011 Revolution which obliged the longtime-president Hosni Mubarak to step down.
After my 2012 Minya visit I wrote an article for the Cairo daily Al-Youm al-Sabea entitled, “The Description of Egypt from a Minya perspective”. I wrote that the MB had made a deal with the Gamaa Islamiya and the Salafis to form a front which would work towards the achievement of two main goals: al-Wilaya al-Sughra (the smaller rule) meaning the rule of Egypt, and al-Wilaya al-Kubra (the greater rule), which is the restoration of the pan-world Islamic Caliphate led by the International Organisation of the MB. The deal included giving the Gamaa al-Islamiya a quota of heads in the local councils and giving the Jihadi Salafi movement portions of the governorates of Qena in Upper Egypt, Matruh on the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and Sinai.
Majority of sectarian incidents
Back to my recent Minya visit. I have been following the incidents of sectarian violence since 1978, sometimes as a journalist and sometimes as a researcher at the Ibn-Khaldun Centre for Development Studies (ICDS) from the early 1990s to this day. The research and statistics conducted by the centre show Minya as the uncontested capital of religious conflict, with 65 per cent of sectarian violence incidents taking place on its soil. Paradoxically, the governorate ranks higher than most other governorates. The governorate’s capital, is home to several international organisations and major NGOs including Caritas, the Coptic Evangelical Organisation for Social Services, the Jesuits, and the Catholic Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development. There are also up to ten human rights organisations. By contrast, the other towns and villages in the province suffer a severe lack of community service. A striking example is the town of Deir Muwwas and the villages of al-Badraman and Dalga, which lie in its vicinity and which have been the scenes of a string of brutal attacks against Copts, and where there is not a single development or rights organisation. A close look at the three villages, where violent attacks against Copts have repeatedly taken place throughout the past 40 years, reveals some hard facts. Although Dalga is officially categorised as a village, it has a population of 120,00 (10 per cent of whom are Copts) and is home to 54 coffee shops, 16 billiard halls, 83 mosques and six churches, but has no branch of any political party or NGO and has only one minor police station. The same is true of al-Badraman, whose 45,000-strong population is 40 per cent Copt; it includes four churches, 20 mosques, 17 coffee shops, and zero parties and NGOs. The village of Nazlet Ebeid, which has an all-Coptic population of 40,000 has seven churches, 45 coffee shops and no political parties, even though two such parties were there before the January 2011 Revolution, and some Christian charities offer only religious activities. The village of al-Hawarta, which has an all-Muslim population of 15,000, contains 10 mosques and 15 coffee shops but neither parties nor NGOs.
Playing a number game
According to a study by the Ibn-Khaldun Centre, the Coptic population in Minya is close in number to the Muslim population and is by far the highest such proportion in Egypt. Official figures, which tend to downsize the number of Copts to downplay their demands for religious and civil rights, place their numbers in Minya at 35 per cent of the population; the Church places it at 40 per cent. This high Coptic presence places them almost man-to-man with their Muslim fellow Minyans, a fact which does not sit well with Muslims since it challenges their numerical superiority. Thus they tend to attempt to ‘subdue’ the Copts by constantly attacking them, especially given that the Copts are far superior in social and economic standing. This fact is proved by the counter-argument that in provinces where Copts form a slight minority, as is the case with the East Delta province of Sharqiya, sectarian violence is all but non-existent.
Minya Copts are also better educated; some 80 per cent of them have university degrees. They are also better aware on the sociological scale: Coptic villages, for example Deir al-Barsha and Deir Abu-Hinnis, have totally abolished the practice of female circumcision in movements spearheaded by the Church.
As landowners and successful business entrepreneurs, Copts are the wealthier portion of the population and have been so since the mid-19th century, when they actively contributed to the building of the modern Egyptian State during the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha (1805 – 1848), for which they were rewarded wide swaths of agricultural land. By contrast with the capital, the Muslims of Minya are poorer and less educated, and their social habits such as polygamy and high birthrate do not help them to advance. Muslims thus harbour a historic grievance against Copts. For instance, the village of Hawarta (the name literally means ‘ploughmen’) was established by agricultural workers who used to plough the land of Coptic landowners in the nearby village of Nazlet Ebeid.
After the revolution of 23 July 1952 and the agrarian reform of President Nasser, which appropriated much of these lands—he set the maximum agricultural land ownership at 200 feddans, later, in 1960, further reduced to 100 feddans—many of the sons and grandsons of these families became entrepreneurs and members of political parties. The study revealed a historic sense of inequity on the part of Minya Muslims as regards Minya Copts.
Radical Islamist leaders
The rise of political Islam in the 1970s allowed the poor and marginalised Minya Muslims to make up for their inability to belong to the upper echelons of society or government through joining the Islamist movements and creating a class of their own. Villages all over the Minya governorate, including al-Badraman and Dalga, became strongholds of Gamaa Islamiya and other violent Islamist groups, nurturing many of the most radical and violent leaders of political Islam who committed some of the most brutal attacks in the history of Egypt. These leaders include Assem Abdel-Maged, Karam Zuhdi, Abul-Ela Madi, Fouad al-Dawalibi and the Islamboli brothers. The percentage of people from Minya implicated in terrorism cases has reached almost 45 per cent of all indictments.
The brutal assaults in Minya on Copts, their properties and churches not only reflect the Islamists’ hatred of Copts, but also indicate the security lapse, lack of State intervention and the absence of law enforcement. As a consequence, Copts have resorted to carrying arms in order to defend themselves, a development that is definitely alarming since it reveals a drastic change in the Copts’ normally peaceful behaviour. They accuse security officials of at best looking on as they are attacked, and at worst of being complicit with the Muslim attackers. It does not help that Copts had high expectations of attaining their rights and equality in the wake of the 30 June Revolution and the overthrow of the MB regime, in which they took part with gusto.
During my visit to Minya, I met two senior officials from two major security apparatuses and was not surprised by their extensive objectivity, analysis and vision.
The question that begs an answer, then, is: if senior officials are so objective and well aware, how is it that the junior officials behave in a manner that contradicts any awareness and objectivity? The reply, given by a senior official under condition of anonymity, was that the top officials are fully aware of the fact that the Copts are loyal Egyptian citizens who have at heart Egypt##s interests and have historically never stood against it in any way, quite the contrary. But junior officials see Copts as the cause of local conflict which they wish to quell, the easiest way being to subdue them and force them to submit to the injustice inflicted upon them by their Muslim adversaries. Behind this practice is the fact that the Copts have historically been a peaceful, unarmed population, and thus easier to force into submission.
Downsizing by definition
Watani’s Nader Shukry, who has covered sectarian attacks for some 12 years, believes that Minya suffers from an administrative dilemma.
“Minya is a large governorate; at 3085 sq. kms it is home to more than 13 million people. Its towns and villages are huge by all standards yet, because they are administratively defined as ‘villages’, they have very slight police presence and in most cases the police find it difficult to enforce the law.” Furthermore, Mr Shukry says, Minya is a stronghold of Islamism, and usually the sons of a given province serve in its police and local government, so the security force in Minya harbours many Islamists. This, he says, explains why the police almost without exception arrive too late to the scene where Copts are being attacked, and frequently merely look on. This is not so common in other governorates; it occurs only in those dominated by Islamists, Mr Shukry says. He believes Minya should be split into more than one governorate, its villages upgraded to the status of towns, and its security force purged of Islamists or educated in order to maintain better sectarian peace there.
Mr Shukry also draws attention to a socio-political dilemma in Minya that makes the hatred for Copts get so much out of hand and materialise in such brutal attacks. “The Minya community lacks the presence of large families or clans which exist further south, and where clan loyalty would ban any member from going against the wishes of the clan elders,” he says. “More often than not these powerful clans desire local peace and hence move swiftly to contain any conflict.”
Cairo elite off mark
I have finally come to realise that the dilemma is not caused by the State apparatuses, but rather by the Cairo elite—whether they belong to the State or the opposition—who do not have a full understanding of the course of events in the sectarian hotbeds. Whereas the Cairene elite is preoccupied with political struggle, the people of Minya’s main worry is their right to security. Cairo debates on political inclusion and who should run for presssidency, while Minya is eagerly waiting for General Sisi to run in order to impose security, stability and civil rule. The political elite oppose the trial of civilians before military courts, while the people of Minya call for its immediate application.
It is thus obvious that there exists a large gap between the demands of mainstream Minya Copts, whose main objective is to have the State offer them the protection and rights due to them as the Egyptian citizens that they are, and the demands for rights and freedoms by Cairo activists. The latter do not see that, on the ground, the rights and freedoms do not materialise in the desired manner: they are simply exploited to entitle attackers to assault the Copts and get away with it.
The Cairo political elite should understand that the fall of Minya—God forbid—would open the door to Islamist domination of the whole of Upper Egypt, since Minya is the main link for anything or anyone heading towards the southern regions.
Recent waves of crime against Copts in the villages of Assiut and other Upper Egyptian regions simply provide proof to the analysis of ‘Why Minya?’, since they involve exactly the same conditions, even if on a lesser scale.
I have issued the warning; let God be my witness…
16 February 2014