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The Rise of Islamic Tendencies and Sectarian Attacks

It is a common notion in Egyptian modern history that, after its reemergence on the political scene back in the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood has been the main opposition force in Egypt. Given the events in the country in January 2011 we must ask: Has the Muslim Brotherhood represented a real alternative to Mubarak’s regime? To what extent was the Muslim Brotherhood able to shape or at least influence the Egyptian political and social agenda?

The brotherhood was the main opposition force in Egypt, but it has generally employed a moderate approach toward the political establishment. Acting as an opposition force, it was an integral part of the regime, but this is not to say that it ever had the power to induce any systematic change throughout Egyptian society. Based on the powerful argument of I. William Zartman, some scholars have argued that opposition supports authoritarian rule and its resilience.22 On one hand, this “accommodating” strategy has allowed the Islamist organization to survive and even flourish in certain periods but, on the other, it has exposed it to accusations of lacking political initiative and unduly compromising with the regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood is, however, well known for its social activities, which are considered to be the key to the Islamists’ success in popular mobilization, in contrast to the Mubarak regime’s declining legitimacy. With increasing poverty and social inequalities as one of the most challenging issues facing Egyptian politics, the brotherhood may, at least in theory, be better placed than other political actors to capitalize on social discontent.23

It was clear that the Muslim Brotherhood was deliberately presenting a face of restraint because its leaders were aware that many Egyptians feared that it might take advantage of the post-Mubarak open era to dominate the political landscape and impose conservative Islamic practices. Moreover, the Salafists, who had been apolitical for decades, appeared on the political scene, demanding an immediate debate on religion, guided by their belief that the new constitution and the political system should be based on precepts of the Holy Qur’an. Salafists showed little concern for compromise or diplomatic sound bites.24

In the weeks after Mubarak’s departure, as the brotherhood and the Salafists obtained legal recognition,25 their political ambitions—including constitutional amendments and talk of “collusion” and a “bargain” between the brotherhood and the military—had increased brotherhood and Salafist involvement in electoral politics. The brotherhood even reversed its decision to withhold a candidate from the 2012 presidential race. Indeed, the ability of the Islamists to perform well in elections owes something to a reputation for serving the needs of the public.26

The myths associated with the Egyptian revolution are numerous, but none is perhaps more damaging than the quite modern debasement of the concept of free society in which it is defined—essentially and simply—as the holding of elections. Following the events of January 25, the ballot box was perceived as a magical solution from which free speech, free enterprise, and religious freedom would necessarily follow. Egypt’s elections (parliamentary in 2011 and presidential in 2012) witnessed the rise of Islamic tendencies, with the consequence that issues were no longer debated in terms of choices between alternative solutions with advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits. The only question became whether something was halal or haram, permissible or forbidden in Islam, as if religion had somehow come to preside over life itself.27

The increase in “Islamic attacks,” the widespread re-Islamization of Egyptian society, and the development of state policy with strong “Islamic” overtones aroused an increasing sense of danger among the Copts, who responded by trying to suppress internal differences for the sake of defending their identity. Non- Islamist opposition forces also took every opportunity to reaffirm their support for their Coptic copatriots and vigorously denied the existence of tension between Copts and Muslims.

However, church fears came true to an extent: the Muslim Brotherhood, which for decades had built a network of social and religious programs for the public, quickly became the nation’s most potent political force. Moreover, Islamists reversed the logic of the nation-state discourse by arguing that Islam is the solution for all problems. Hence, the equality Christians yearned for was defined as incompatible with “Islamic” values.28 The Salafists and the brotherhood have not emphasized the Islamic duty to protect Christians as “people of the book.” Instead, in the years since the start of the revolution, Egypt has witnessed church burnings, attacks, and the murder of over two hundred Copts in their homes and churches by Islamic fundamentalists.29 The state, especially the governments led by Morsi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (scaf), did not punish the perpetrators.

The diminishing role of the state in dealing with sectarian crises continued under the rule of the scaf. Sectarian crises were treated informally through the mediation of clergy and figures from the political elite, while the actual causes of the tensions between Muslims and Christians were not addressed directly. Thus, the path to democracy in Egypt suffered setbacks at all levels, politically, socially, and culturally; the same changes that the Copts had demanded under Mubarak continued to be necessary.

The slogan “Raise your head high, you are Egyptian” was changed by many to “Raise your head high, you are a Muslim,” and during Coptic protests against the rise of political Islam under Morsi, the slogan “Raise your head up high, you are a Copt” also became popular. Indeed, the demise of the spirit of the January 25 revolution and the discourse of national unity was deeply felt. Ten months on, the image of Muslim and Christian leaders sharing the podium in Cairo’s Tahrir Square had faded from popular memory.30

Sectarian attacks increased in Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster. The number of incidents rose by a third in 2011 compared to 2010, and was double the number of incidents in 2009 and 2008.31 The victims were targeted because of their religious affiliation. These new attacks involved radical Islamists who sought to force their vision of Egyptian society on the public at large and on Copts in particular. Increasingly, Copts living in poorer neighborhoods found themselves forced to abide by certain Islamic practices or face possible punishment. The government, meanwhile, showed a continued lack of interest in protecting Christians. The solution of the scaf to the burning of a church in Atfih in March 2011, for example, was to invite Salafi preacher Mohamed Hassan to the area to try to calm down the local Muslims.32

The greatest sectarian confrontation, known as the “Maspero Massacre,” took place in October 2011;33 it resulted in the death of twenty-seven civilians and represented a critical moment in the history of Egyptian politics. It also reflected the gap between the Coptic civil movements and the church leadership over the church’s crisis management. Just before the death of Pope Shenouda III, the church leadership suffered a serious blow after the Maspero Massacre. When the church was celebrating Christmas Eve, and the pope was greeting the army generals, members of the youth movements shouted “Down, down the military rule.” It became very clear that Copts were no longer retreating behind the church walls, and they were propelled into the streets. The animosity between the Coptic people and the army worked, ironically, in the favor of the Islamists at the time.34

Presidential elections took place in May 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Morsi, won the presidency, which emboldened Islamist groups on the streets to enforce public compliance with their moral codes. They acted openly, under Morsi, on their religious beliefs in ways that would have been more covert during Mubarak’s era.35 The main targets were Coptic churches and buildings of the church. Besides these targets, the believers themselves were also in danger. The discourse of aggressive Muslim elements (whose slogan is “Egypt is a Muslim country”) reinforces, and is in turn reinforced by, the discourse of a separate Coptic identity—each seeing in the other proof of religious provocation. Muslim suspicions of Coptic intentions are met by Coptic slogans of self-assertion (“We are the original owners of the land”).36 Accordingly, this has led to suspicions among elements in the Muslim “majority” (expressed in organized demonstrations) that there are plans to divide up Egypt, and among the Coptic “minority” that the Islamists want to exclude them and act against their existence in Egyptian society.

Faced with these hardships, it is no surprise that the Copts began questioning whether there is a future for them in the new Egypt. In particular, younger members of the Coptic community refuse to accept their inferior status in society, and thus many participated in the June 30 revolution and, once again, demanded the removal of the president.

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