Last month’s attack on a church in Alexandria may mark a new dawn for Coptic activism in Egypt. After suffering attacks at the hands of religious extremists for two decades, this latest event has pitted Egypt’s Coptic community against the state and ignited Coptic demands for equal treatment and an end to sectarian violence.
In one of the biggest terrorist attacks against Copts in Egyptian history, the New Year’s blast killed 23 people and severely injured tens of others. Egypt had witnessed a number of such anti-Coptic attacks in the 1990s, orchestrated by the militant Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which reached their peak in 1992 when 14 Copts were killed in the southern Egyptian town of Dariut.
Since then, organized terrorist groups in Egypt have dissolved themselves and prominent ex-leaders have publicly announced their retreatment from terrorism and violence. This did not however put an end to sectarian violence. Copts remained the target of violent acts, like the Naga Hamadi attack on Christmas Eve in 2010, which killed seven.
With the exception of a number of terrorist acts that have yet to be definitively attributed to Al-Gamaa, the major sources of organized terrorist violence in Egypt have disappeared. Despite this, terrorist ideology directed against Copts and other groups, has been gaining ground. This is primarily due to the spread of extremist Salafi ideas, which promote hatred of Christians and non-Sunni Muslims.
The widespread use of advanced communication technologies has helped dissiminate such ideologies. Egyptian authorities were also complicit as they found these ideas useful for a number of purposes: they offered a pressure valve that allowed people to vent without engaging in political activism, they helped the regime combat its secular critics, and they promoted unconditional obedience to the ruler.
State media and official religious establishments also contributed to the spread of religious hatred, and even the use of violence against non-Muslims. In 2009, the Ministry of Religious Endowments distributed a book, authored by one of Egypt’s leading Islamic intellectuals dubbed by many to be a moderate, that sanctioned the killing of non-Muslims, including Copts, and the confiscation of their property. The following year, Al-Azhar, the highest Islamic institution in Egypt, distributed a free booklet by the same author in its monthly magazine that considered non-Muslims, including Christians, to be infidels. After pressure from liberal intellectuals, Al-Azhar withdrew the issue the following month.
With the Egyptian state’s continued policies of discrimination and incitement and its failure to take effective legal action against the perpetrators of sectarian violence, Copts' response have shifted from individual to collective forms of protest, based largely out of the Church. Frustrated with the lack of political channels available for citizens to express their political grievances, Copts turned to Pope Shenouda to pressure the state on their behalf.
But in the wake of the Omraniya incident in November 2010, this trend has started to change. Rather than heading to the Coptic Cathedral following the incident, Copts marched in large numbers to the Giza governorate office. Violent clashes with the police ensued, leading to at least two deaths. The conflict marked a new phase in Copts' struggle for equality as they confronted state authorities and institutions directly without resorting to religious leaders as intermediaries. The Omraniya events may indeed signal a loss of faith in those intermediaries’ ability to achieve legitimate Coptic demands.
The attacks in Alexandria have entrenched this belief. Tens of thousands of Copts took to the streets following the blast. For the first time, protesters even critiqued the Coptic Pope, who in turn castigated the protesters and echoed the Ministry of Interior’s claims that the demonstrations were infiltrated by trouble makers.
The post-Alexandria protests were also much more critical of state authorities, including President Hosni Mubarak. Protesters rejected the condolences of high-ranking state officials and religious authorities to the victims. Coptic protesters joined others–mostly young Muslim activists from unofficial political groupings–in organizing large protests in Coptic neighborhoods. They chanted political slogans that transcended the sectarian discourse that characterized earlier protests in the Cathedral.
When opposition members and Copts critiqued the ruling National Democratic Party for failing to nominate a sufficient number of Coptic candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections, state officials and regime intellectuals often responded that Copts are politically lazy and isolated. Surely, these officials and intellectuals are most incensed with the Copts’ new entry into politics.
Bahey Eldin Hassan is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. His column appears every Monday.