Two little boys ran down a back street in Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb. They were covered in dust and had matted black hair. The street was potholed and bordered by piles of rancid garbage. One child, under five, stood in front of me and repeatedly tapped the underside of his wrist and the area beside his thumb. That’s where Coptic Christians usually have a small tattoo. I showed him my wrist, no tattoo, and only then did he affirm boldly that he was Sunni. His younger brother said he was Sunni too.
The evening before, 7 May, there had been clashes between Copts and Muslims in these streets. Reports said there were 12 dead, and 186 injured, 11 critically. A rumour (likely false) had spread that a convert from Christianity to Islam was being held in a local church, St Mena’s. Hundreds of men surrounded it, and used rocks, petrol bombs and guns. Then another church, of St Mary the Virgin, was burned to the ground. Both sides denied responsibility for starting the violence.
Over the past three years, sectarian tension has increased throughout Egypt, and the ensuing violence includes the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve (see Citizens first, Christians after) and recent Salafist attacks on Sufi mosques. There are also issues of “honour” where the discovery of an “illicit” relationship between a man and woman of differing faiths often causes confrontations that can spread through villages, threatening governorate escalation.
During the 18 days of anti-government protests that was Egypt’s revolution, much was made of inter-faith solidarity, with stories of Christians and Muslims, the secular and the observant, standing united in opposition to Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Were these displays just propaganda? In Imbaba I met Ahmed Abdul-Rahman, a car dealer, who follows the Salafist current of Sunni Islam. By mid-afternoon there was a very real sense of tension. Abdul-Rahman, his beard shot through with grey and his thaub cut short above his ankles in the fashion favoured by Salafists, said that despite media reports, Salafists had not instigated the violence. He claimed they were being made scapegoats by the media.
Ultra-conservative Salafism has become a global bogeyman, yet there is a popular, non-violent, and non-political strand of Salafism, in Egypt and beyond. For those who follow it, Islam is about piety and respect. Others, though, including some Salafist preachers, are said to incite sectarian violence in Egypt, at times even acting on misinformation disseminated by Egyptian intelligence agents.
Abdul-Rahman was present at the clashes and his account of events seemed reasonable. Then he said: “If you are a Muslim, then you are a Salafi.” The statement, undermining the legitimacy of other forms of Islam, served to crush one of its most remarkable features, its diversity. And in the climate of present-day Egypt, it is this kind of absolutism that builds sectarian tension.
Sectarianism is a core problem facing Egypt – and the wider Middle East – and it is at the conflux of other social, political and economic problems; it encourages a fragmentation of society, emphasising difference over unity. Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says: “Sectarianism is an idea present across all of Egyptian society. The sense Egyptians had of belonging to a state was very weak… so people would identify with the religious groups. Global Islamophobia also contributed.” In a 2010 report (1), the EIPR found links between poverty and sectarian violence. Citing the 2008 Human Development Report for Egypt, which demonstrated that poverty was concentrated in villages, particularly in Upper Egypt, the report said that there is “a close correlation between sites of poverty and the locations of sectarian violence. Where poverty is concentrated, rates of violence are higher.”
While the Egyptian uprising saw sectarian differences temporarily pushed aside, or ignored, it did little to address the genesis of sectarian tension. Ramadan feels a shift in perspective is necessary to undercut the pull of sectarianism. “The Egyptian people have to realise that we are first and foremost human beings and entitled to certain rights. Secondly, we are all Egyptians. We have to accept that all Egyptians are equal. However, this is always difficult: religious leaders often talk like they have the absolute truth. It can be very difficult to sit down and discuss. What’s most important is that we can all show a tolerance of different beliefs.”
Discourse between secularists, Islamists, and Christians reveals intense differences that can lead to clashes. Secularists worry that a homogenous Islam will come to dominate, curtailing the rights enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1942. Meanwhile Islamists often associate secularism – and phrases such as “freedom of association” and “justice and liberty” – with an attack on Muslim piety and with western imperialism.
Unless Egyptians can move beyond these discourses, and find common ground from which to address sectarianism and the problems facing the country, recent democratic gains could be severely compromised. Consensus on a majority of principles will have to be sought, before approaching the more divisive issues, such as conversions. Open-minded, honest, transparent and respectful discussion must be promoted, rather than petrol bombs. Civil society, religious leaders, government and, crucially, the Egyptian people must talk.
Leaving Imbaba, I watched as children played on mid-street swings, surrounded by mountains of rubbish. Women in conservative dress walked along broken pavements. Men sat in coffee shops, whiling away the day.
Soldiers were guarding the burned church, its walls charred and black. By night there were fresh clashes, with Christians and Muslims attacking each other with rocks. Gunfire was reported in Imbaba and the number of injured rose to nearly 250. Outside the Egyptian State Television building hundreds of Christians gathered. They chanted: “We are the original owners of the land.” One man told me that Christians needed western intervention, claiming that 3,000 Egyptians had just returned from Afghanistan as part of a militant Islamist takeover. But Ehab Nageh, a Christian construction worker, pointed out that there were Muslims present at the protest. “This is important. If Muslims are treated unfairly, we should go and stand with them too. We need to be one hand again.”
On the way home there was a mural on a wall with crescents and crosses beside the other, in harmony. There are countless murals like that round Cairo. Despite the harmony, they neatly encapsulate the problem, that people still feel the need to define themselves by religion.