Egypt: one hand, but no iron fist

The appalling attacks on St Mena’s Coptic Christian church in the Imbaba suburb of Cairo at the weekend have, understandably, got everyone rattled.

Violent clashes between Muslims and minority Christians are obviously the last thing Egypt needs and it’s a depressing turn of events.

The fall-out is still unpredictable. Seeing images of rival religious groups subsequently hurling bits of masonry and paving stones at each other in the street is horribly reminiscent of some of the worst violence of Egypt’s 25 January revolution (particularly when the regime sent in the hired stick-wielding thugs).

Leaving aside the specific rumour about a specific Muslim woman supposedly being forced to convert to Christianity (isn’t there always a rumour of this kind, usually involving a woman being raped or converted?), why this is happening right now I don’t claim to know.

Salafi Muslims are widely thought to be the perpetrators of the St Mena’s attack, though Hoda Osman on the Huffington Post notes that some people detect the hidden hand of former Mubarak regime members behind it (I’m not aware of any evidence as yet for these suspicions however).

One thing we mustn’t forget is that there’s a long history of anti-Copt prejudice in Egypt. Relatively recently there was the pre-revolution drive-by shooting outside a church in the city of Nagaa Hammadi on 6 January (Coptic Christmas Eve). This alone killed six worshippers and a security guard, and injured many others. Riots followed. As Amnesty said at the time of the Nagaa Hammadi killings, Egypt’s Coptic Christians have long felt under-protected by the authorities, a feeling that is becoming acute again.

In this respect it’s good to see that the weekend’s violence has led to so-called “One Hand” inter-faith solidarity marches (see this Al Jazeera clip). It is, if you like, the spirit of the revolution reasserting itself.

At the same time I think we should worry about the Egyptian authorities’ response, with talk of an “iron first” being used to crush sectarianism and large-scale use of military courts for civilians. There’s already a strong swing toward authoritarianism from the caretaker military authorities, as Kate Allen shows in her Comment is free piece today.

Here I disagree with some of those posting comments on Kate Allen’s Cif article when they say that it’s precisely an iron fist that’s needed to crush Salifist sectarianism in Egypt.

Use unfair military courts and you just create a new wave of human rights abuses in a country that’s seen more than its fair share of them. Zero-tolerance for sectarian hatred yes, but a proportionate legal response all the same. One hand but no iron fist. 

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