Government machinations and religious strife in Egypt

Despite the sentiment among citizens that they are equal regardless of religion, oppression of minority religions is enshrined in Egyptian law.

In light of the continuing political uprising throughout the Middle East, American leaders are reported to be recalculating their approach to the Muslim world.

Politico’s Ben Smith wrote this week that the Obama administration “clearly sees an opportunity,” signaling “that they’re hoping the changes in Tunisia and Egypt spread, and that they’re going to align themselves far more clearly with the young, relatively secular masses” in countries like Iran, Algeria and Lebanon.

Is this a new moment for American relations with Muslim countries? Is freedom a religious or secular idea?

As fireworks lit up the sky in Tahrir Square on Friday, the world rejoiced for the new beginning that awaits the Egyptian people. Though it is not certain what sort of regime will be established and when elections will take place, one thing is for sure: the tyranny of the old regime has seen its final day.

One of many tyrannical elements of the regime was its duplicitous approach to religious conflict. Though former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak attempted to paint himself as a paradigm of stable leadership, his regime, far from encouraging stability, was actually the source of much of the strife it claimed to put down–all for the purpose of deflecting attention from the regime’s obvious failures.

Recent news reports have suggested that Mubarak’s regime had orchestrated some of the religious conflict that caused the recent uprisings in Egypt. Al Arabiya News Channel reported that, last Monday, Egypt’s general prosecutor began an investigation of the former Interior Minister, Habib El-Adly, for his alleged involvement in the Alexandria New Year’s Day church bombing.

El-Adly is being accused by Coptic lawyer Ramzi Mamdouh of organizing “militias of security personnel, former inmates and members of extremists organizations” that bombed the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, leaving at least 21 people dead. Mamdouh’s complaint was based on press reports about leaked British intelligence documents. These documents purportedly mentioned “El-Adly militias” that would “wreak havoc in the country if the regime is threatened.” Now that the regime has lost its power, we can only hope that such militias, if they exist, will face a similar fate.

Orchestrating chaos seems to be the modus operandi of this past regime. During the demonstrations, the police plotted, or at least intentionally permitted, arson and looting in order to frighten protesters into staying home.

Thus, news of tactics such as El-Adly’s militias would hardly come as a surprise to those in Egypt dealing with these attacks. In fact, when I visited Cairo in December, I was told time and time again by government and religious officials that religious strife is at least partly a result of governmental machinations. Copts and Baha’is in Egypt firmly hold that the violence and persecution they have faced is as much a result of government action as it is from extremist religious sentiment.

Certainly this is not to say that all of the conflict is a result of government contrivance. Sectarian tension has deep roots in Egypt. But, on the other side of the coin, there has been a real effort between Christians and Muslims to join hands and curtail the conflict that has arisen — even if it means putting their lives at stake.

Such courage was displayed in the now-famous act of camaraderie on Coptic Christmas Eve when Muslims formed a human shield around Christians celebrating Mass all throughout Egypt. Christians returned the favor during the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo, protecting Muslims from police while they prayed. Posters with a crescent moon and a cross were also seen, presenting a clear declaration of peace and unity between the religious groups.

Despite the sentiment among citizens that they are equal regardless of religion, oppression of minority religions is enshrined in Egyptian law. While Egypt’s Constitution states that the “State shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practicing religious rights,” its view of such rights is decidedly narrow. Government restriction makes it difficult for Christians to build and even to maintain churches. Indeed, government authorization is required for any church to be built, renovated, or repaired.

Yet attaining government permission is only the first of many roadblocks to starting or maintaining a Christian church in Egypt. Violent attacks, intimidation and police citing “security concerns” often halt the Christians’ attempt to build a place of worship.

On top of making it difficult to start churches, Egyptian law stifles the free speech of religious minorities by criminalizing those who insult “heavenly religions,” and silences Muslim public intellectuals who challenge the “official” interpretation of Islam.

While legal reform is certainly in order, and even as religious groups have shown themselves capable of respecting one another, the problem of religious intolerance will never be defeated if the government is secretly planting seeds of strife by contriving attacks in order to fulfill its ulterior motives. The root of the problem lies with those who hold power, and with the end of the old regime there is a chance to begin anew. As a new regime begins to take shape securing religious freedom for all citizens should be a first priority.


Image courtesy of Ramy Raoof.

  • abrahamhab1

    I maintained the followingInasi asserts:Moi:


    LADY ASMA, LADY O’MALLEY et al;S-E-C-U-L-A-R-a-n-i-t-y is a RELIGiON.”SINCERITY OF BELIEF” is the Major ‘TEST’ under “Rule Of Law’ on 1st AMENDMENT (Freedom Religion & Freedom Press et seq.)?

  • underboss

    these people are animals and deserve none of our supportlara logan was beaten and gang raped in full view of thousands of men, most did nothing, hundreds cheered the attackers onislam has for centuries advocated the rape of women and children as just punishmenthow can we offer support for a “religion” (and that word is used loosely here) that taxes religions different than their own and subjugates half its population to virtual indentured servant statusas a liberal i can not support islam in any way, shape or formcriminalize islam

  • inasy

    Seriously Mr. Abrahman, get over the past already. Muslims are trying to move forward, but people keep digging up artifacts from the past and using them to make a non point. Is anyone digging up the old slavery laws of the U.S to denounce America. JEESH… Do you even see how obnoxious it is to use some old archaic piece of legislation that is totally irrelevant and which no one even really recognizes, save those who will just not let it drop, to throw it back in our face. I suspect you secretly wish that such injunctions are still applicable. I suspect you would rather confirm your prejudice against Muslims than to realize that they no longer subscribe to such laws. And if it helps … I hereby declare that as a Muslim, I will defend the right of anyone and everyone to build anything they want, church, temple, or liquor store which they may repair by day and night, provided that they do not violate the noise ordinance in my county . .AmenPs. 7TH CENTURY MUSLIM HISTORY IS NO LONGER CODIFIED, IF AT ALL EVEN REMEMBERED. PLEASE MOVE ON.

  • inasy

    Hence the massive riots and lives lost. We have no regard for presidential decrees made by corrupt rulers, who attempt to use religion as emotional blackmail to advance their own private agendas. People are on the streets protesting all that is past and presidential. That was the point of the protests you know..

  • Farnaz2Mansouri21

    However, Egypt is officially Judenrein. It’s eighty-five thousand Jews have been ethnically cleansed.Although I have stood up for the Christians, including the Copts, the Copts, in fact, led Pogroms against Jews in Egypt. At a meeting in 2007, Pope Shenouda, alone among Christians, insisted the Jews should be blamed for the death of Christ.I, of course, blame Shenouda, for the deaths of Jews, and I’m not alone.Still, I do not support Pogroms against the Copts. More to the point, I have blogged here endlessly in their defense, when the Christians had all but abandoned them. Attacks against other Christian minorities in Egypt are far fewer, and, as we know, there are reasons for that.The columnist needs to speak out against all prejudices, racisms in Egypt, against its ethnic cleansing of Jews, and against its ongoing sponsorship of racism against us.She needs to speak out against the persecution of Palestinian Egyptians.I will continue to blog on behalf of the Copts as I have always done. Jews are that way. It’s a justice thing.Think about that, Columnist. Justice, I mean.

  • abrahamhab1

    The authors suggest:A first step in this endeavor should be the canceling of the second provision of the present Egyptian constitution that stipulates that “Islam is the religion of the State and the Sharia is the main source of its legislation”. This would be tantamount to separating the state from the mosque as had happened in a number of Muslim majority states that include Tunis and Turkey. The long-term policy would be the overhauling of their educational system to instill the tolerant attitude towards the “others”.

  • YEAL9

    The koran needs a rewrite analogous to the rewrite of the Jewish Torah.Bringing the Torah/OT into the 21st century:The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called ”Etz Hayim” (”Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document. “From”Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (Hardcover) $58.00~ David L. Lieber (Editor), Jules Harlow (Editor), United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (Corporate Author), The Rabbinical Assembly (Corporate Author) “The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is the primary organization of synagogues practicing Conservative Judaism in North America. It closely works with the Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.[1]”