Egypt: Sectarian clashes

March 13, 2011 - 0:0

On Thursday there was another demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. This time it was a protest against sectarian violence. It follows Tuesday’s Muslim-Christian clashes in Cairo in which 13 people were killed. The clashes were sparked when thousands of Egyptian Christians blocked the streets of a Cairo suburb to protest the burning down of a church in Helwan.sec15

Thursday ’s demonstration was not simply about good communal relations. It was as firmly political as any of the previous protests in the square. The protesters were convinced that opponents of the revolution that swept Hosni Mubarak from power last month were behind the church arson attack. They believe it was done to create disorder and fear, and trigger a backlash in support of the ousted regime. There are many others in Egypt and beyond who agree.
Relations between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians have not been harmonious in recent years. It is widely claimed, moreover, that inter-communal tensions — not to mention riots and attacks — were deliberately orchestrated by the Mubarak government to create fear and provide it with support as the only source of law and order. But during the protests last month in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, Muslims and Christians demonstrated a remarkable new unity.
There are other reasons to believe that there are dark forces in Egypt intent on wrecking the revolution. The re-emerge of armed thugs — as happened on Wednesday, when they attacked pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square — is ominous. That was clearly a coordinated attack. There has, too, been a steady steam of reports of pro-Mubarak supporters trying to ferment strikes and threatening people not to go to work. And police are again noticeable by their absence from the streets, resulting in a rise in crime. Whether that is because they are keeping a low profile out of fear or because they have been ordered to do so is unclear. What is clear is that, as in the first days of last month’s protests when they first disappeared and were replaced by hoodlums and thieves, there is again a strong sense of insecurity.
Tuesday’s clashes play powerfully into that sense of insecurity. The last thing Egypt can afford at present is full-scale sectarian conflict. It would be a catastrophe. Not only would reform be off the agenda and power firmly re-entrenched in the hands of the military elite, the international community would shun the country. That would have disastrous economic consequences. Those in turn could make the country politically unstable.
Egypt simply cannot afford inter-religious conflict. The country’s Muslim and Christian leaders as well as its secular ones understand that – which is why they have moved fast to prevent the clashes from spiraling out of control. There have been meetings and statements to counter division. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El Tayyib, even called on local Muslims to rebuild the destroyed church, denouncing the arson attack as “foreign to the teachings"" of Islam — as it was.
This show of unity both in Tahrir Square and among the country’s religious and secular leaders should help take the sting out of the situation. Nonetheless, while Egypt has not been derailed by clashes, it is difficult not to believe that there are indeed forces at work intent on turning back the clock