On a brisk January afternoon in Cairo, as the Coptic community celebrated the birth of Christ, demonstrators dressed in black lined the city’s famous, lion-headed Qasr al-Nil bridge, a busy span favoured by young couples and tourists looking to catch a shot of sunset over the Nile.
 
Police officers standing nearby watched the group and the passing traffic warily, while squads of helmeted riot police arranged themselves at the bridge exit, waiting for orders. As is often the case in Egypt, the police outnumbered the protesters.

Six days after a shrapnel-filled bomb killed 23 worshippers at a New Year’s Eve church service in the coastal city of Alexandria - the deadliest attack on the country’s minority Coptic Christian community in a decade - demonstrators in Cairo are still taking to the streets to show solidarity with the victims and anger at the government. But a sense of fatalism, an inability to hold the government to account or to rectify the disputes that may be driving sectarian anger, hangs over even these displays of fellowship.

Holding a sign that read “Muslim Christian = Egyptian” and dressed in black from her headscarf to her abaya, Dalia Salaheldin described her reaction to hearing news of the bombing as “sadness, grave sadness”.

Salaheldin said she and and other Muslim friends had attended Christmas Eve mass on Thursday night to show support for the Coptic community.

“I didn’t really care if the people are Muslims or Christians, they’re just Egyptians, and for me, Egypt has always been home, and I want home to be safe,” she said.

In Salaheldin’s view, the bombing shouldn’t be interpreted as a revelation that simmering sectarian tensions in Egypt have finally bubbled over. Though much of the country remains poor and undereducated, Salaheldin argued, the essential nature of the Egyptian citizen is still one of peaceful coexistence.

But she, like others, was reluctant to pin the blame for the bombing on anyone.

“Someone is not happy with this and wants the situation to be divided,” she said. “I am sure that whoever has done this is not really related to being a Christian or a Muslim”.

In the months leading up to the bombing, there were indications of rising tensions between Muslims and Copts, who make up around 10 per cent of Egypt’s population.

In September, the former secretary general of the International Union for Muslim Scholars accused the Coptic church of storing weapons in its religious buildings, forcibly converting Muslim women, and planning a separate Coptic state. His comments sparked a boycott of Coptic businesses.

In November, Coptic homes and businesses in a southern Egyptian town were burned and looted after word spread of a romantic relationship between a Muslim woman and a Coptic man. That same month, a group linked with al-Qaeda in Iraq announced that Christians throughout the Middle East were legitimate targets.

There is also a history of violence against Copts: At a midnight mass on Christmas Eve in 2009 in the town of Nag Hammadi, eight Copts and a Muslim bystander died in a drive-by shooting. In 2000, 21 Copts were killed and hundreds of shops and homes destroyed in the southern town of el-Kosheh after a Muslim-Christian business dispute set a spark to long-existing tensions.  

 

Within a year, every suspect arrested in connection with the killings had been released uncharged.

For services marking the Coptic Christmas Eve on Thursday night, Egypt’s government drastically ramped up security outside most churches, and there were no reports of violence. On Friday, as the black-clad demonstrators walked in small groups from the bridge to another protest site, the riot police boarded their armoured trucks to follow.

As night fell, the crowd gathered at a memorial to Saad Zaghloul, one of the liberal founding fathers of Egyptian independence. Riot police, overseen by a dozen senior officers and twice that many plainclothes agents, hemmed the group in.

Next to a of circle of burning candles, Sherif el-Roubi, a 31-year-old coordinator for the April 6 Movement - which plays a wide-ranging role in Egyptian civil-society activism - argued that sectarian tension doesn’t exist, and that Copts who complain of it may be "spies" brought to Egypt to create unrest.

“I live in a small town called Fayoum of 150,000 inhabitants. There are about 300 Copts in this village. We don’t consider them Copts, and they don’t consider us Muslims, we’re one,” he said.

 

"The government wants to stir unrest and to distract citizens from whatever other actions it is taking … They create tension between Muslims and Copts."

Copts make up only a tenth of the population, Roubi added, so if the Muslim community were truly discriminating against them, they would have already driven them out of the country.

"They eat, drink, shop and practise their religious beliefs inside churches with complete freedom," he said.

As Roubi went on, a broad man with a shaved head lumbered loudly into the conversation.

Sameh el-Meery, a 58-year-old Copt and lawyer from Cairo, hotly countered Roubi’s claim - by all indications false - that 12 Muslims had died in the Alexandria bombing.

Christians in Egypt have been “paying the price” of terrorism for decades, he said, and gold shops run by Copts were attacked even before Gulf petrodollars expanded the reach of Wahhabism - a strict branch of the already extremely conservative Salafi school of Islam that many associate with modern-day jihadists and al-Qaeda.

Meery mentioned the Copts who were killed in el-Kosheh and the anaemic government response, pointing to both as examples of how Copts lack equality in Egypt.

 

"Christians are the ones targeted by terrorist acts," he said. "What we’re seeing is sectarian terrorism."



Nearby, sitting in a fold-out chair near the candle circle and holding a sign, Nashwa Salah was a portrait of what might be best called defeated resilience.

A professor of philosophy at Cairo’s huge Ain Shams University, Salah said that after the bombing, she felt that she shouldn't stay silent and at home anymore. Most Egyptian Muslims may not want to believe that their neighbours could perpetrate violence like the Alexandria bombing, she said, but they need to acknowledge that there are such people in the country - those who believe and promote the idea that Christians are essentially atheists and doomed unbelievers.

In her classes, Salah said, there is a "minimum" of communication between Muslims and Christians. The Copts usually sit by themselves.

"I felt a little bit responsible [for the bombing]," she said. "I saw a little bit of this and I didn’t try to stop it in any way I could."

Egypt’s government seems less interested than Salah in attempting to address the root causes of sectarian animosity in the country. Given the security forces’ track record of investigating Muslim-Copt violence, few have faith that the investigation into the Alexandria bombing will yield a resolution, much less a conviction. The government seems eager to pin the blame on outside forces or a lone figure with no support, and its response has
allegedly already led to one man's death by torture.

Salah said she didn’t care whether police determined who lay behind the attack. "It could be al-Qaeda, it could be Mossad," she said.

For Salah, a Muslim, what matters is addressing Coptic grievances.

"I tell them they don’t have to surrender for being a minority," she said. "Some Christians, they don’t feel they are Egyptian."

With reporting by Heba el-Sherif.