Tensions come to the fore as grip tightens




Christians are aware that the government must show its Islamic credentials

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 13 May 1997

The isolation by Egypt’s security forces of the Islamic militant groups which have claimed responsibility for attacks on tourists since 1992 has further exposed tensions between the country’s Muslim and Coptic Christian communities.

The murder of Copts and police officers in Upper Egypt has been a common occurrence for as long as the militant Gama’a al-Islamiya has been active. The curbing of attacks on tourists has left Egyptians as the main targets, with the Copts singled out for their religion and the police for their security role.

The government has been treading a delicate line. On the one hand it has been seen to allow Islamic institutions a greater say in public life, but it has also dismissed or demoted teachers suspected of propagating Islamist views in the classroom. A draft report on the country’s new company law, drawn up by legal experts, was voluntarily passed to Sheikh Al-Azhar, the head of Egypt’s Islamic university, for comment. Several of his recommendations, which had no constitutional weight, were adopted.

Prominent Christians are aware that in order to undermine the Islamist organisations the government must introduce measures which demonstrate its own Islamic credentials – at a time when it is being criticised for failing to take decisive action against Israel, the Islamists’ chief bogeyman.

Consequently, Copts have complained that their treatment is subject both to the government’s policy of confrontation with the Islamists, as well as to their status as a minority in a country where political rights remain firmly controlled by the government.

Several recent statements have polarised opinion. Mr Milad Hanna, a Coptic former parliamentarian, said in a recent article that the government intended to condemn the Coptic community to a lower social status than that of Muslims.

“It’s a plot to marginalise them both politically and culturally,” Mr  Hanna said. “When I say there is not one Coptic (provincial) governor or head of a city council, I really mean that we are second-class citizens, or perhaps third or fourth class.”

Mr Hanna, who is respected by both leading Copts and liberal Muslims, made his comments several days after Mr Mustafa Mashhour, the supreme leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said that an ancient tax on non-Muslims – the jizya – should be reintroduced, and that Copts could not be trusted to fight loyally if a Christian country attacked Egypt.

“We do not object to Copts being in the People’s Asembly. But the principal positions, such as defending the homeland, require that the army of a Muslim state, that protects and propagates Islam, should be made up of Muslims exclusively,” he said. Mr Mashhour later tried to clarify his position in a letter to a newspaper, but was unable to state unequivocally whether the Muslim Brotherhood accepted the Copts as totally loyal to a state which has Islam as the religion of the majority.

Pope Shenouda III, the leader of Egypt’s Copts, who has had extensive dialogue with mainstream Muslim leaders in Egypt, has suggested that  there is a reversal of the position that Muslims took with regard to the Coptic minority.

“The view is harming Egypt and dividing it along religious lines. The jizya contradicts everything the constitution says about equality for all Egyptians,” he said, in response to Mr Mashhour’s recent comments.

Pope Shenouda acknowledged during a well-attended public discussion last October that Muslim public opinion was barely sympathetic to the social position of the Copts. This had led to few Copts being elected to parliament, with those who were parliamentarians relying on presidential nomination for their seats.

“The problem is the spirit among common people,” Pope Shenouda said. “The (Muslim) fanatics have two activities, or two kinds of work. One of them is aggression, violence, discrimination, when they burn churches. The other is the creation of a very bad spirit in the country. We have built many new churches. But we don’t write about them in newspapers, in order not to have a bad reaction among the fanatics.”

The government is keen to highlight the fact that in the clashes with militant Islamist groups the largest number of victims are Muslim, not Copt, as most of the attacks are against police officers, and are largely in remote areas away from the tourist centres.

“In Egypt we have only the Egyptian citizen,” says Gen Hassan Al-Alfi, the interior minister. “We don’t distinguish between Muslims, Copts and Jews. Muslims are more and more the victims. What has happened is that the militants have tried to get between the Christians and Muslims, to give the impression abroad that we distinguish between Muslim and Christian.”

While the Islamists have political mouthpieces in the Labour party and the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no Coptic political organisation, and Pope Shenouda has said there is no intention to create one. The political voice of Egypt’s Copts is likely to remain unheard, when the Islamisation of mainstream politics is becoming increasingly pronounced.

© Financial Times