Egypt: Understanding Copts' anger

Anger among Egypt's Coptic community runs deep with animosity manifested particularly in the new generation.

    The  generational gap among the Coptic community is an important factor in the Egypt's current social tensions [EPA]

    Angry protests by Egypt's Christian Copts have become a familiar scene.
    Hundreds clashed with police last November over plans for a new church building in Giza, leaving two protesters dead.

    And in January of that year, Copts protested in the southern town of Nag Hamadi after six members were killed in an attack on a local church on the Coptic Christmas Eve.
    But, following the latest tragic church attack in Alexandria which claimed 23 lives, many feel the current daily protests by Coptic youth could represent a new phenomenon.
    Thousands of the younger generation have marched in protest in Alexandria and in Cairo, among other major cities.
    They've brandished religious symbols, chanted slogans, called for more religious freedom and clashed with the police.
    Their protests were widely reported by national and foreign media and were broadly seen as a natural reaction to the unprecedented attacks targeting the Coptic community. And sympathetic Egyptian Muslims have organised rallies expressing their condolences, condemning the attack.

    But some analysts believe the anger shown by Coptic youth represents a deeper problem - a new generation who feel increasingly marginalised and discriminated against, exhibiting a collective sentiment that their religious believes have come under attack.

    Analysts fear that if such issues aren't addressed soon, the situation could escalate, blaming both the Egyptian government and the wider population - both Muslim and Christian - for failing to resolve the tension.
    History of sensitivities 
    Maged Botros, a professor of political science and a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party, believes the roots of the protests go back to the 1970s, a decade that witnessed a revival of various Islamist ideologies in Egypt.
    At that time, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat faced a serious challenge from the leftist supporters of his popular and charismatic predecessor, president Gamal Abdel Nasser.
    Sadat needed a counter ideology, so he supported the rise of the Islamists.
    Still, Botros thinks hard line religious and sectarian views are foreign to the way Egyptians understand Islam.
    "The Egyptian society 30 years ago did not know sectarianism, which was imported from abroad (the Gulf)… Egyptians who immigrated to the Gulf brought back religious extremism," says Botros.
    George Ishaq, a former spokesperson of the opposition Kefaya movement, agreed. "The problem goes back to Wahabi ideologies imported from the Arabian Peninsula." Several other Coptic analysts don't limit their criticism just to foreign imported ideologies.
    Instead, they blame Egyptians themselves for failing to counter such ideologies.
    Mounir Khakhry Abdel Nour, secretary general of the al Wafd Party - the largest liberal opposition party in Egypt - believes "the whole Egyptian society is responsible - its Muslims, Copts, government, and opposition - for the problem. However, the main responsibly lies on the shoulders of the successive Egyptian governments, who did not implement the needed reforms and the solutions."
    Botros believes the government was afraid of offending the Muslim majority.

    "The state fears that if they fulfil the rights of the Christians, they will offend the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, especially in villages and rural areas.

    "They fear that the Muslim majority will revolt or act in violent ways. The government wants to keep security and calm. "They don’t allow the construction of more churches because the majority could be offended by more churches and more Copts in Higher offices."
    Yousef Sidhom, editor in chief or Watani Weekly, the largest Coptic newspaper in Egypt, was more blunt.
    "Officials and official media like to describe the attacks (on Copts) as terrorist crimes that are not targeting the church or the Copts and that Muslims and Copts have to unite against. The hidden fact, which the officials don’t want to see, is that Copts feel oppressed and neglected for three decades by the state and the authorities. They suffer discrimination in all aspects of life."
    Wider problem and social change
    Ishaq believes "education has become a main cause of religious tension. Religious debates on satellite TV channels are a factor, and the lack of unified laws when it comes to the construction of places of worship is contributing to the problem."
    "The religious institutions are responsible, the government is weak, the law is absent, and education is raising extremists, not citizens," says Gamal Assad, a Coptic member of the Egyptian parliament.
    Some Coptic analysts also blame their Church for getting involved in politics and for feeding a feeling of alienation.
    "The church should be a religious institution with no political role," says Botros.
    He said it's forced to do so to protect the rights of Copts. That, he said, only leads to further protests and tension.
    However, Sidhom takes an opposite view. He thinks Copts responded to the rising religious tension by looking inward and withdrawing from public life.

    "They withdrew from society and entered the churches. The churches build their own alternative social, sports, and entertainment activities."

    As a result, he said, a new Coptic generation was raised in a more religiously segregated society, where young Muslims and Copts learn, play, and socialise separately. 
    Moreover, Assad thinks some of the young Coptic protesters who have violently demonstrated over the last few days have been wrongly "mobilised under the banner of persecution."
    "When you give them (the Coptic youth) a feeling that they live in Egypt under persecution, they will be ready to die as martyrs," he laments.
    When it comes to the future, all the analysts agree there is no easy answer.
    The ideal solution, they say, is a shift towards the better use of civil society, being led by civil institutions instead of being segregated by religious ones; a society where law is dominant and equally applied; a society where all Egyptians are seen and treated as equal citizens regardless of their religious backgrounds.
    They also believe the government needs to act quickly to introduce legal reforms, such as adopting a law for the construction of religious places and an election system that will give Copts more equal political representation.
    For the moment, Botros feels the horrific Alexandria attacks have brought many Egyptians, Muslims and Copts together because they feel it was a foreign-based attack on their religious and political unity.
    "Solidarity and the fear of foreign danger could unite all Egyptians. If such feelings last, sectarian tension will die. We have to invest in such feeling because it will lead to positive results" he believes.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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