Egypt: Disillusion and Dissent: Adel Darwish Reports from Alexandria on How the Events of New Year's Eve Are Symptomatic of Growing Disenchantment with a Status Quo Egyptians Feel Powerless to Influence

Article excerpt

WHEN THE NEW YEAR'S EVE CAR BOMB outside the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria went off, it left bloody body parts mingled with broken glass, strips of cloth, melted rubber and burnt flowers splattered on both the church facade and the walls of the mosque on the other side of the street, in a coincidence symbolising the tragedy of Egypt's political reality.

Tension has been rising for some years between militant Islamists and the country's Christian minority, estimated at between nine to 14 million of Egypt's predominantly Muslim 80 million population, prompting the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to put Egypt on its watch in 2002, in response to the treatment of Christians in the country.

Egyptian commentators often correct the inaccurate use of the term 'Copts' to define Christians, insisting that all Egyptians, regardless of faith, are Copts--the Ancient Greek name given to Egyptians, and used by the Muslim Arabs who invaded Egypt in the 7th century AD to refer to the conquered population, including the tiny minority that first converted to Islam. In the early period of Arab conquests, the occupying rulers were not too keen on converting the indigenous subjects for largely fiscal reasons. Indigenous non-Muslims paid the conquerors a protection poll tax known as Jezyiah, part of which financed the administration, while the larger part was sent to Mecca, Medina and, from 750 AD to Damascus, the capital of the Ummayade empire before Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate from 762 AD.

It was not until the 11th century that the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam, which immediately exempted them from paying the tax. In the central Upper Egypt regions of Asuit and Souhag, where irrigation conditions guaranteed rich crops, the better-off Copts continued paying Jezyiah. Egyptian commentators point to such documented events as proof that mass conversion to Islam does not alter the DNA of Egyptians who remained, ethnically, Copts.

Although relations between the two groups have been gradually deteriorating over the past 40 years, the Alexandria incident marks an unprecedented escalation in the violence, previously characterised by 'mob' attacks, arson, beatings, kidnapping of Christian girls and individual shootings. Minutes after the Alexandria bomb went off, Christian youths started stoning the mosque opposite, before being harshly reprimanded by Christian women pointing at blood stains on the mosque's wall, indicating that Muslims too had been victims of the mindless terrorism. But harm and havoc continued to be wreaked as angry Islamists attacked other churches throughout the morning.

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Violence in the past has been more common in Upper Egypt; the Alexandria bombing came a few weeks after brutal--even by Iraqi standards--attacks against Christians in Iraq, and warnings by Al Qaeda that it would target Christian Coptic churches in Egypt. Like other Islamists groups, Al Qaeda cited as its reasoning the alleged holding against their will of two previously Christian Egyptian women, recently converted to Islam in order to secure a divorce (the Coptic Church follows strict Catholic lines on divorce), in an attempt to force their return to the faith. The accusations have been strongly denied by both the Egyptian authorities and the church.

Egyptian nationalists, liberals and pro-reform groups were infuriated by the establishment's attempts to blame 'external forces'. Islamists and Arab nationalist newspapers, as well as columnists in government-owned media, openly accused Israeli agents of plotting the Alexandria bomb. However, Egyptian liberals and reformists reminded people with historical facts: terror campaigns by Muslim Brothers planting bombs in cinemas, bars, court houses and the assassination of judges and liberal Egyptians started in 1930, two decades before the state of Israel was founded. …