Cairo, Egypt - The army’s removal of Egypt’s first civilian elected president may have unleashed deadly clashes but for the country’s Coptic Christian minority it has brought relief.
While sectarian violence is becoming a pressing concern of human rights groups and attacks on Copts have continued since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed on July 3, many believe they are are now safer.
Observers say that although the latest clashes will test the authorities’ determination to chart a new course, suspension of the Islamist-tinged constitution offers minorities new hope.
Michael Ayoub, a 24-year old programme assistant in Cairo, said: “It’s safer now, even if only slightly.
“At least we don’t need to worry about a girl’s safety for not wearing a veil or wearing a dress too short.”
The political Islam that emerged under the Muslim Brotherhood after Hosni Mubarak was toppled in the 2011 revolt was accused of inciting violence against minorities as well as liberal and secular groups, reportedly prompting thousands of Christians to emigrate.
This helps to explain why, as General Abdel Fattah El Sisi read his July 3 televised speech announcing a post-Morsi roadmap, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, appeared alongside other political and religious figures such as the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Nobel laureate and Morsi’s main rival Mohamed ElBaradei, to back the move.
Attacks on Christians
Sectarian violence is not new in Egypt, exploding intermittently as successive governments have been unable to quell tensions, and since Morsi was ousted minorities have continued to be targets.
There have been at least six assaults on Coptic Christians – who form about 10 per cent of the Arab world’s most populous country of 84 million – in which at least seven have died and properties have been torched.
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North Sinai has been a hotspot where unidentified attackers killed Christians, including a priest, in three different incidents.
Mob violence has also claimed lives. On July 5 in Luxor, upper Egypt, four Copts were beaten to death and at least three injured after a Muslim’s corpse was found near Naga Hassan during clashes in which 24 Christian properties were destroyed.
Coptic churches have also been attacked, and on July 3 two were set ablaze by pro-Morsi protesters in El-Minya and a church in the western coastal city of Marsa Matruh was damaged. On July 9, masked attackers shot at St Mary’s church in Port Said.
Violence had been intensifying across the country, claiming at least 100 lives, in the days before defence minister El Sisi called on Egyptians to take to the streets on Friday 26 to give the army a mandate to “combat terrorism”.
Morsi supporters seeking his reinstatement repeatedly clashed with his opponents and security forces, while Islamists avenged him by targeting soldiers and Christians.
Yasser El Shimy, a Cairo-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, noted a “qualitative change in escalations” since Morsi was deposed.
Shimy said: “Previously, sectarian tensions were fuelled by personal or sub-local reasons, such as small quarrels or cross-religion marriages.
“For the first time, it’s politically-motivated, which is something really dangerous, as Christians and the church are seen by Morsi supporters as largely involved with his ouster by the army with figures such as Pope Tawadros and Naguib Sawiris, for instance, giving their blessings.”
Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, agreed, saying: “There is richer grounds and bigger urge for retaliation now.”
Eid said that although the latest clashes formed part of the ongoing pattern of political violence, the targeting of Copts has been systematic.
For the first time, [sectarian tensions are] politically-motivated, which is something really dangerous, as Christians and the church are seen by Morsi supporters as largely involved with his ouster by the army
“For over a year, violence and hate speech targeting the Christian minority has picked up and became excessively blatant, with the blessing of former president Morsi and complicity of the army, which did nothing to stop it,” Eid said.
It is not only Christians who have been the victims of hate speech: a week before Morsi was deposed four Shia Egyptians were lynched in Abu Musallim in Cairo’s suburbs.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on Egyptian authorities to act urgently.
In a report published on July 23 report, Nadim Houry , the acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Egyptian security forces should be on high alert to prevent and halt sectarian violence in the current tense and polarised situation.”
Houry added that the government “should make ending sectarian violence a priority, or risk letting this deadly problem spiral out of control.”
Mustapha El Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University and the American University of Cairo, said that while violence has not increased since July 3, it reflected a year-long trend that is continuing.
While he ruled out the possibility of increased sectarian violence in Egypt, he warned: “Amid heightened emotional turmoil in the country, sectarian escalations cannot be unforeseen, especially in the impoverished countryside where animosity between Muslims and Christians is really high.”
But some observers believe the latest bloodshed may offer the authorities an opportunity to provide better safeguards for minorities.
Hassiba Hadj Sahrouni, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, said: “The latest attacks will test the new Egyptian authorities’ political will and their ability to break the pattern of inaction and injustice once and for all.”
Many Christians agree - and see signs of hope in recent developments.
Magda Eskander, a 27-year-old PhD student in Alexandria, said discrimination against Christians and minorities in general had grown during Morsi’s one-year rule.
She said that despite the latest attacks “we’re still better off,” and suspension of the constitution reflected “hope for the protection of minorities rights.”
“There’s hope for new beginnings basically.”
Naguib Sawiris, the Christian business tycoon and politician who co-founded the liberal Free Egyptians Party that participated in the campaign to remove Morsi, said his family will be “investing in Egypt like never before” now.
He added confidently that he was “very sure that Egypt will come back very strongly now.”
Michael Ayoub pointed to Pope Tawadros II’s presence at the army’s announcement to open a new chapter in Egyptian politics as a sign of new respect for the country’s largest minority.
“The new government is definitely making it a point to fix things and restore respect to the Christians,” he said.