Government feels the heat of sectarian violence in Egypt




Village clash has revived accusations of discrimination against the Copts by Muslim-dominated police

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 8 February 2000

A dispute between a Christian shopkeeper and a Muslim customer who wanted to return some goods in the small village of el-Kosheh erupted into Egypt’s worst sectarian violence in recent years.

The nature of last month’s violence, in which 20 Coptic Christians and one Muslim died, exposed both the sectarian and clan tension which exists in the predominantly Coptic village.

The failure of the security services to halt the killing, despite a known tendency among people in the area to revert to arms as a means of solving disputes, has exacerbated feelings among Copts that the Muslim-dominated police and interior ministry are insensitive to their plight.

This in turn has revived accusations inside and outside of Egypt that Copts, who comprise up to 10m of the 65m population, are discriminated against.. “The Copts are generally disappointed in the police. If they are attacked by Muslims, and they report it to the police, the police will ignore it. On the level of individuals and community leaders, relations between Copts and Muslims is good. It is the government that widens the gap between them,” said Mamdouh Nakhla, a Coptic lawyer.

The violence in el-Kosheh was initially quelled by the police. Two days later, a funeral was being held in an el-Kosheh church for somebody who had died of natural causes. As the bell started to ring, shooting broke out from the rooftops.

“The social structure of the south played a role in the escalation of the violence. A woman was insulted, and so it became a question of honour,” said Diaa Rachwan, editor of The State of Religion in Egypt, a report by the state-funded think-tank, the Al Ahram Centre for Political Studies.

The potential for such tension to erupt for social reasons and then to escalate along religious lines has intensified criticism not only of the security forces, but of the government’s failure to strengthen civil institutions which could have diluted the tension.

“This kind of sectarian violence isn’t sponsored by the state, but is due to the absence of the state,” said Yousry Moustafa, executive director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). “There is a difference between the state and the government. Most of the time, the only state institution in el-Kosheh is the police, and the police can’t solve cultural and economic problems in such areas. The Copts have no voice, except for the church. There’s a big gap between the people and the state. Which means that everybody reverts to family, tribe and church. There’s no citizenship. And national unity is regarded by the state as ultimately something religious, that is Islam,” he said.

The government has made assurances that those found guilty of the violence will be prosecuted. A team of government investigators is also preparing a report into the violence, which President Hosni Mubarak has said will be published. Its publication would mark a shift. An inquiry in 1998 into police brutality in el-Kosheh, during which Coptic clergy accused the police of brutalising a large number of Copts during an inquiry surrounding a double murder for which a Muslim was eventually found guilty, has remained secret. To make matters worse, the accused police officers were given financial rewards when their investigation was complete.

Subsequent to the brutality in 1998, the government made it easier for Copts in el-Kosheh to build churches, waiving some interminable administrative procedures, to which Muslims wanting to build mosques are rarely subject. This easing of pressure in turn caused resentment among Muslims in the village.

Now, the state’s handling of the issue is once again in the spotlight, as it seeks to avert local and international attention away from the sectarian issue altogether. In a characteristically blunt move, government officials have suggested that el-Kosheh be wiped off the map altogether, and given a new name. Dispute has already arisen along sectarian lines, however, as to whether the new name should be ‘el-Salam’, an Arabic word meaning ‘peace’ perhaps more associated with Islam than Christianity, or ‘el-Mahaba’, meaning ‘friendship’, which is favoured by the Copts.

Cosmetic changes are regarded by even the most successful and apparently influential Copts as an effort to divert the spotlight away from the fact that the Copts are under-represented in the security services and the administrative elite.

“The government usually tries to avoid tackling the real problem. The right way to deal with this is to bring the people to justice,” said a leading Coptic businessman. “Where is the problem? There’s no political equality. If you’re talking political positions, the Copts don’t have chance. If you’re talking of security, the police, the security services, there’s discrimination. In all security areas, no Copts are allowed, nor in ministries that deal with security. Because there is no balance in the security, these issues are dealt with badly.”


© Financial Times