The weekend’s violent clashes between Coptic protesters and security forces have prompted calls for forthcoming elections to be postponed, increasing fears that Egypt’s transition could be derailed by an unholy alliance of former regime elements, radical Islamists and the ruling military.
“The chaotic power transition has left a security vacuum, and the Coptic Christian minority is particularly worried about a show of force by ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis” Associated Press reports:
In recent weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angry over church construction. One riot broke out near the city of Aswan, even after church officials agreed to a demand by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis that a cross and bells be removed from the building.
According to New York Times reports, Islamist activists were assisting the security forces, beating Copts with clubs, while shouting “No God but Allah,” “Islamic, Islamic” and “The people want to bring down the Christians.”
Veteran democracy advocate Hisham Kassem attributed the violence to the authorities’ failure to fill the security vacuum and arrest those responsible for the arson attack on a church in Aswan.
“We do not have trained people in the army or the police capable of dispersing demonstrations peacefully,” he said. “The solution has to be preventive by applying the law, not by using the methods of Mubarak. There is no joking with these [sectarian] issues,” said Kassem. “The country could go up in flames and history will place the blame with the council.”
Former foreign minister and likely presidential candidate Amr Moussa insisted that religious sectarianism is not to blame for the violence in the Cairo suburb of Maspero. He blamed hard-line former regime elements who “want to stab the revolution and the political process. The situation is critical and there are dangers of civil war,” he warned.
“This cannot be repeated; we are at the door of a huge confrontation, not just in Maspero but all over Egypt,” Moussa said, addressing today’s meeting of political parties and potential presidential candidates.
The forum ended in acrimonious scuffles as participants failed to agree a joint statement on the violence.
“The meeting…was chaotic,” Al-Ahram reports, “and speakers were repeatedly interrupted as audience members scuffled with each other, verbally abused the speakers and attempted to climb on the stage.”
The military should immediately transfer authority to a civilian body, said Amr Hamzawy, leader of the Freedom Egypt Party. The armed forces were failing to establish security and enforce the law, he said, including the recently-issued building code for houses of worship which eases restrictions on Coptic churches.
Perhaps the most troubling lesson from Sunday’s unrest was the ease with which simmering sectarian tensions and a mob mentality could unleash chaos in a country ruled for decades as a police state [write Leila Fadel and Ingy Hassieb]. That dynamic poses a dilemma for the military leadership, which must balance its desire to maintain stability with a stated pledge to oversee a democratic transition. Some observers fear that commanders could use the rising tension as a pretext to delay the shift to civilian rule and rely more heavily on authoritarian tactics.
Kassem, a prominent publisher, called for action against state broadcasters responsible for inciting sectarian violence:
Broadcasters called on “honest Egyptians” to take to the streets to defend the military from what anchors described as Coptic Christian assailants, a call that appeared to resonate with Egyptians who thronged downtown wielding clubs and chanting pro-Islamic slogans.
The Obama administration called for restraint on all sides, stressing that the US “continues to believe that the rights of minorities — including Copts — must be respected, and that all people have the universal rights of peaceful protest and religious freedom.”
The violence raised the specter of a violent turn in the Arab Spring as illiberal forces become more confident and empowered.
“Will the Middle East be emptied of its Christians, like the earlier pogroms emptied the Middle East of its Jews?” asks Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian Copt and research fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Iraq had 1.5 million Christians; they could be absorbed by other countries. But how will the world deal with eight million Copts?”
“The military council is the main reason for what happened last night,” said Ahmed Maher, head of the April 6 movement, a leading force in the Tahrir Square protests. “They are using the same tactics used by Mubarak to address sectarian problems [by failing to take action against Muslims who burnt down the church in Upper Egypt.] State television was essentially inciting against the Christians. We need to transfer authority to an elected government as soon as possible.”
The weekend’s events and the military’s slow, protracted and indecisive management of the transition process are only contributing to activists’ impatience and making it a likely target.
“A lot of people believe that this is the second phase of the revolution, and the next institution to be confronted is the military,” said Georgetown University’s Adel Iskandar.