Dahshour and sectarianism
BY KARIM MALAK
The sectarian incident in Al Badrashin is a relatively low-level one. It does not measure up to the magnitude of violence that was associated with other incidents such as Al Kush’h or Zawya Al Hamra.
The conflict itself was triggered by the killing of a Muslim by a Christian over a petty argument and the excessive Muslim backlash of burning Coptic shops and attacking the local church. Almost 120 Coptic families have allegedly been subjected to forced displacement.
Both the government and the Church know that it’s a minor incident and this is probably why it will all soon be forgotten. In previous major incidents of sectarian strife there is always no justice brought to the victims; on the contrary it is usually the Christians who are put on trial despite being the victims. This we saw last month when the final ruling of the Abu Qurqas trial came out and 12 Christians were sentenced to life in prison while all Muslims accused in the trial were acquitted.
With both the state and the Church caught up in a web of crises, it is no wonder that the incident will be swept under the rug. For the Church, however, it may serve as a good battle cry rally, a smokescreen to all the controversy over the papal elections and the candidacy of Bishop Bishoy. Despite a laymen opposition front’s objection, most observers agree that his candidacy will go through. The election committee has also decided to go ahead with the old Nasserite election law with some amendments so Churches abroad are recognized and have the right to vote.
Registration of voters continues to be with a letter of the archbishop of the area. Sadly not all Coptic faithful have the right to vote. Any amendment to the election by-law would retain interim Pope Pakhomios in power for an extra period; this makes his term a sensitive one.
Nasser’s papal election law bars women from voting altogether and practically disenfranchises the laity from taking part and holding the clergy accountable to their vote (since the election by-law has a skewed electorate of more clergy than laity). While we have heard of disgruntled opposition inside the Church lobbying against the clergy, the elephant in the room seems to be the election law itself. Yet the laity is too weak to muster as little as a murmur against the election law. However with Pope Pakhomios, a qualified bishop, at the helm now, it seems that he may have his tenure quietly renewed and this issue may come to the fore if the right lobbying is done.
Even with the Dahshour incident in the backdrop, the wheels of the state bureaucracy turn slowly for the interim Pope. Before the incident he had to deal with the Maspero Youth Coalition’s demand to withdraw from the constituent assembly; hardly an easy decision to make. To complicate the situation, there is the looming issue of the Christian vice president Morsi had promised, who will probably be the Church’s go-to man. With almost everyone declining, that decision has yet again been postponed.
On Thursday a delegation of priests went to the Presidential Korba Palace but was declined a meeting with President Morsi. Instead the bayt al a’eila (Family House) forum convened with the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and issued a statement requesting an audience with Morsi and the minister of interior to discuss the incident in Dahshour, Badrashin.
The ingredients for what happened in Dahshour follow the usual formula: A small incident usually sparks the fire then snowballs so that the whole village is involved. Then reprisal attacks happen, usually including third parties who have nothing to do with it. Eventually, after watching carefully from the sidelines, security forces step in, displaying a clear bias against the Christians; often assisting the takeover of their assets and belongings and their intimidation and departure. The Church is usually complicit by refusing to speak out in protest.
The cure, likewise, is known: A law that criminalizes discrimination between Christians and Muslims and the removal of complicit security forces. With none of these happening any time soon it is no surprise that the issue will continue to be one addressed through mediation talks and backroom deals. But with the rise of the Christian Brotherhood, a group activity launched around 2005 and has until recently been secret, one may question if Copts will continue to be quiet.
Though little is known about this group, it is believed that it seeks to have an organizational cadre backed by a well-oiled machine that can accurately take a census of the Coptic community and therefore defend its rights. This again falls into the realm of a dangerous number game; if an accurate census of the Coptic population reveals that they account for more than the official six percent cited since 1976, then they would be in a more powerful position to demand more rights. The Christian Brotherhood resembles the 1950s Umma Coptya (meaning Coptic Nation in Coptic); an organization that was deeply involved in removing Pope Joseph II (Yusab), at times militantly.
Al-Azhar’s recent fatwa (a non-binding religious edict) that people should not break their fast publicly is yet another example of the sectarian dimension marring Egypt today. It is yet unclear how this may be enforced by vigilantes, but the fatwa itself serves as a reminder that Al-Azhar is not a neutral institution.
Rewarding someone like Mohamed Selim El-Awa with the post of advisor on transitional justice further cements the sectarian dimension. El-Awa’s controversial claims that some of Egypt’s churches house secret weapons arsenals, have rendered him persona non-grata for the Church, yet strange enough, he is on exceptionally good terms with Bishop Bishoy.
It is unlikely that any justice will be administered for Copts. Like a battered wife they take beating after beating in silence. Copts will continue to be strangers in this land. Sectarianism is a fact of life in Egypt, one that is hegemonic and apparent. It is unlikely that Morsi’s Christian VP will be of any use past his decorative role; Egypt will not get its Makram Ebeid any time soon.
Karim Malak is a researcher at the American University in Cairo’s Political Science Department and is an analyst on Middle East politics. He is the former political analyst at The Carter Center (TCC), Egypt. He was published in the Atlantic council’s Egyptsource as well as OpenDemocracy. He can be reached at Karimmkarim@gmail.com and on Twitter @KarimMaged.