“There is no difference between Muslims and Copts; all are Egyptian citizens.” Such was the rhetoric of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in a speech Thursday, commenting on the increased sectarian violence against Copts in parts of Upper Egypt, and vowing accountability for the perpetrators.
Meanwhile, incidents of sectarian strife have been occurring in successive instances in recent weeks. Additionally, perpetrators of such acts have not faced proper legal prosecution, as police briefly detained some groups then soon released them without charges. The state refused to recognise ongoing sectarianism by referring to them as “single cases”.
Instead, the long-adapted customary reconciliation sessions have replaced the rule of law, raising criticism from rights defenders on the risks of deterrent measures in encouraging violence.
Without potentially exploring new solutions to the problem, Al-Sisi’s official narrative on friendly relations between religious factions has also been repeatedly used by his predecessors, in contrast to reality.
“The narrative is nothing more than complimentary phrases we hear on specific occasions. The society is sectarian, regardless of the idealistic theoretical assumptions,” commented Ishaak Ibrahim, a religious freedom researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). According to him, such claims do not reflect what really happens on the ground, where society remains “vulnerable to incitement to violence”.
Ibrahim said that at any moment in a regular civil conflict, the issue could become sectarian and mobilise against a religious minority. “If two people hit each other, the news might circulate that a Coptic man assaulted a Muslim man, turning an ordinary conflict into sectarian tension,” he said, adding that sometimes, people would insert old sectarian-related quarrels to renew disputes.
Clashes on the rise
On Friday, Coptic homes in the village of Al-Fashn in Beni Suef governorate were targeted by assaults from Muslim residents following the spread of a rumour that a new church will be built.
In footage circulated on several social media outlets, a number of young male residents appeared to be throwing stones at some homes believed to be owned by Coptic citizens.
“Nearly 50 houses that were built close to each other as they are owned by one Coptic family were subjected to a heavy wave of stones from angry Muslim residents who believe a church will be built; no injuries were recorded,” said Atef Malak, a resident of Al-Fashn.
Police arrested 18 residents who were proven to have participated in targeting Coptic citizens’ homes, he added.
“All Coptic citizens in the village refuse any reconciliation; they just want the law enforced on perpetrators,” he stressed.
The incident comes shortly after a series of attacks in Minya where quickly-spread rumours were enough to spark sectarian violence.
Among the biggest was an incident where families of two priests from Minya were assaulted with knives by an angry mob, leaving one dead and three injured, according to a statement from Archbishop Makarios of Minya.
A fight between children from Muslim and Coptic families escalated, leading to a fight between the parents of two Coptic families and one Muslim family. A group of angry Muslims assaulted men from the Coptic families.
A rumour about the building of a new church in the village resurfaced among Muslim residents, leading to tension that eventually led to the bloody scenes later, according to Ahmed Embabi, an member of parliament in a Minya constituency.
In May, Soaad Thabet, a 70-year-old Coptic woman, was forced out of her home by an angry mob and was dragged into the street, beaten, and stripped, the church claimed.
The reason behind her assault was a rumour about an alleged affair between Thabet’s son and a Muslim woman, sparking tensions. The son left the village after receiving several threats. Afterwards, dozens had looted and torched at least seven homes belonging to Coptic families in the village of Al-Karam, according to the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“What happened is a media exaggerated situation, the police are doing their role very well and any statements on state negligence or alignment is not accurate,” argued Embabi.
Defending reconciliation sessions, Embabi asserted that due to traditions followed in Minya, these sessions are considered the best way to settle sectarian strife incidents. The MP argued that without the application of reconciliation sessions and instead use the law, congestion inside the governorate could be on the rise.
On the other hand, Ibrahim said that in reality the state resolves to compromise the weaker party of the conflict. “The fact is the two parties are not equal. One has a majority of the power and can become a real source of tension, while the other has neither, resulting in having its rights undermined,” he stated.
“The fear of and bias towards the strongest party can be seen on other planes such as the weight given to the rich in comparison to the poor, or incidents of tribal violence, in which those who are supposed to reinforce the law are part of this conservative society,” Ibrahim further established.
As an example, Coptic activist Ramy Kashwaa, coordinator of the Maspero Youth Union in Alexandria, explained what happened in the aftermath of an attack on Copts and a local church services building, which took place in mid-June in the village of Qaryat Al Bayda.
The assaults allegedly occurred following the spread of a rumour that a Coptic man intended to turn his house into a church, resulting in the assembly of dozens of Muslim residents who chanted against Copts. A video posted by the website Copts United showed hundreds gathered in the village repeatedly chanting “we don’t want a church”.
A month later, Kashwaa said that a reconciliation session was held in the presence of representatives from security and prosecution authorities. “Despite our repeated demands for a legal process to occur, nothing happened and the session ended with vows by both parties not to assault each other in the future,” Kashwaa said, adding that to date, the services building remains closed “for security reasons”.
There has been rising criticism of the practice of customary reconciliations, not only because of their informality, but some doubt their effectiveness and argue that they contribute to more violence, that there is no real accountability, and that they compromise the rights of victims.
MP Haitham El-Hariri has been one of the advocates of law enforcement arguing reconciliation sessions do not offer real solutions. “A strong state imposes the rule of law which all citizens must abide by. If we are going to apply the law on certain areas and not on others, then we are not in a state and there is no need for institutions,” El-Hariri said.
“A crime is clearly defined and must be punishable. It is problematic when some use pretexts, opting to live with the current situation instead of forcing the rule of law,” El-Hariri said.
Pre-revolution situation highlights state’s unchanged approach
Sectarian strife incidents reached a peak in the 1970s. Although decreasing in number, they continued through Hosni Mubarak’s regime, but heavily re-emerged in the aftermath of 25 January Revolution.
In his first years, Mubarak made several efforts to improve Coptic conditions by establishing churches, yet the issue was left for security handling. Sectarian clashes renewed in 1999, 2006, and 2010, which alone witnessed three large incidents, followed by the explosion of a Coptic Church in Alexandria.
In 2015, EIPR issued a study titled “In Whose Customs?” tracing incidents of sectarian strife since the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. Ibrahim argued in the study that usually, large sectarian events “were followed by official visits to the scenes of the incidents, without dealing with the root of the problem,” thus claiming that the regime didn’t have real political will to end sectarianism.
“The regime always treated Copts as ‘under the care of the state’, not as citizens. The church is the representative of those nationals to avoid recognising them as citizens otherwise entitled to the state’s duties to looking into their problems,” he had stated.