Sectarian Strife Threatens Egypt's New Epoch: Previously United under the Despotic Rule of Their Former President, Egyptians Are Struggling with Issues of Religious Tolerance and Freedom in the Post-Mubarak Era, Which May Not Be as Straightforward as They First Appear

By McGrath, Cam | The Middle East, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Sectarian Strife Threatens Egypt's New Epoch: Previously United under the Despotic Rule of Their Former President, Egyptians Are Struggling with Issues of Religious Tolerance and Freedom in the Post-Mubarak Era, Which May Not Be as Straightforward as They First Appear


McGrath, Cam, The Middle East


Tension still hangs in the air in the southern Egyptian town of Marinab, where earlier this autumn some local Muslims, alarmed that renovations were being carried out on a dilapidated church and whipped up by a fiery Friday sermon, surrounded the 60-year-old structure and burnt it to the ground.

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Residents had sparred for weeks over the church's future. Christians said the renovations had been approved by the governor and local council, and presented documents to prove it. But outraged Muslims claimed the sight of an infidel place of worship offended their sensitivities and demanded that it be stripped of its dome, bell and exterior crosses. In fact, they said, the building should not be referred to as a church at all, but rather less offensively as a "hospitality home".

Christians conceded to most of the demands, but the small church still disappeared beneath a billowing cloud of smoke--just another footnote in Egypt's long history of sectarian conflict.

The Arab world's most populous country is caught in treacherous currents. The uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February released the pressure valve on Islamist movements that had operated in the shadows of his authoritarian regime. New freedoms have allowed previously outlawed hard-line Islamic groups to operate in the open, but their inflexible world view has led to confrontations with those who do not share their dogma.

In recent months, Islamists have carried out a spate of attacks on the churches, monasteries and homes of minority Coptic Christians, who make up about l0% of the country's 82 million population. Most of the incidents have been blamed on Salafis, ultra-conservative Muslims with a purist interpretation of the Koran and a conspicuous emphasis on bushy beards for men and niqab (the full facial veil) for women. The sect kept a low profile under Mubarak, but since his downfall it is estimated six million adherents have become increasingly visible and assertive.

"Before the revolution we never heard of Salafis," says Youssef Sidhom, editor of Al Watani, a weekly Coptic newspaper. "Now not a day goes by that we don't hear of some act of Salafi intolerance."

Salafi mobs have allegedly assaulted Christians, threatened women not wearing veils, attempted to forcibly shut stores selling alcohol, set fire to churches and Coptic homes, and chopped off the ear of a man they suspected had rented an apartment to prostitutes. Their puritanical wrath has also targeted Sufis, a mystical branch of Islam, whose shrines they consider heretical. Dozens of such shrines have been damaged or destroyed in suspected Salafi attacks.

Not surprisingly, Copts--and many secular Muslims--worry that conservative Islam is emerging as the dominant political force ahead of parliamentary elections being held in three stages between 28 November and 10 January. The new legislature will have the power to draft a new constitution. Liberals fear the outcome may be a constitution based on Sharia (Islamic law) that restricts personal freedom and discriminates against women and non-Muslims.

"What we've seen so far are just vigilante gangs," says Emad Hammouda, a Copt whose store was vandalised by Muslim youth who objected to a poster of the Virgin Mary behind the till. "Imagine if they get the force of law behind them."

And that, Hammouda says resignedly, is looking increasingly inevitable.

Analysts expect the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and most organised Islamic group, to take the largest single share of the next legislature through its newly-established Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The formerly outlawed group skirted the ban on religious political parties by claiming theirs merely had an "Islamic frame of reference", and putting a Copt on its board for good measure.

Deteriorating relations

The Muslim Brotherhood's leadership insists the group has abandoned its founding goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state, but sceptics see worrying discrepancies between its public platform and private views. …

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