Within the past twenty-four hours, a shocking string of sectarian incidents has broken out in Cairo, with fighting between Muslims and Coptic Christians killing at least ten and wounding about two hundred. This is an extremely unsettling incident. There has always been an element of tension between the mainstream Egyptian population and the Coptic minority, but the recent uprisings had seen poignant displays of unity. Several months prior to the revolts, a terrorist attack on a church killed 23 Copts, prompting large numbers of Muslims to assemble at churches around Egypt to serve as human shields against terror. During the revolts, the Copts returned the favor, linking arms around groups of praying Muslim demonstrators. Since the uprisings, however, there have been several incidents between the two groups that have threatened to erase the kumbaya spirit of the revolts.
These incidents have a common form: conservative prayer leaders spread rumors that a Copt woman who converted to Islam because she was dating a Muslim man is being held prisoner by the local church, and a mob assembles to rescue her. The stories play off of the real communal tensions that interfaith couples can spark–both groups have norms against interfaith relationships, and will expect the conversion of one member of the couple, yet both groups also have norms against conversion. There are broader conflicts, as well–Copts have been known to claim that they, unlike the rest of the Egyptian population, are descendants of the Pharaohs, or that all Egyptians are ethnically “Coptic.” There has thus been a partial failure–similar to the case of the Bedouins in the Sinai–at integrating the Copts into the Egyptian national mythos.
Young liberals of both religions have been fighting sectarianism and attempting to weaken the norms against interfaith relationships. This latest round of incidents reminds them that they are not the only force. Terrorist organizations like al Qaeda have made a point of attacking the Middle East’s religious minorities, creating a pressure that, for instance, drove Christians out of Iraq by the hundreds of thousands. More moderate groups can become venues for the rumormongering that minority groups all around the world would find familiar. This latest incident will thus be a serious challenge to national unity, as groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will attempt to tamp down tensions without completely losing touch with constituents, and as mutual attempts at revenge–for there were reportedly deaths on both sides–threaten to reignite conflict.
The Copts are not the group most worried by the attacks. The Egyptian military government derives continued legitimacy through its role as a guardian of stability in the current interregnum. Sectarian violence is one of their greatest fears, as it could force them to protect one group at the cost of alienating the other. The military is also a haven for ardent Mubarak-era secularists, for whom this incident will look like an element of their nightmare scenario in which conservative forces “Islamize” Egypt. Eager to nip this problem in the bud and show its strength, the government has launched a wave of arrests that has so far netted about two hundred alleged rioters, and will likely increase security significantly in Copt-heavy areas of Cairo and Alexandria. There will also likely be some sort of backlash from the liberal sectors of Egyptian society against the attacks, just as there was after the church bombing in Alexandria. The Copts’ grievances do not resonate with the general Egyptian population, but there are many among the old revolutionaries who are dissatisfied with the direction that post-uprising Egypt is taking, and events like this will give them an opportunity to reconnect and reorganize. This could be vital. They have been fighting among themselves for weeks about the best way to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from utterly dominating the coming elections. Sources familiar with the discussions suggest that they are extraordinarily disorganized. They will interpret these sectarian incidents as confirmation of their fears of an illiberal, “Islamicized” Egypt, and could thus be spurred to greater organization.
Upshot: The sectarian violence has further exposed some of the rifts in Egyptian society. It remains to be seen whether this crisis will create unity or only deepen division.