Egypt: Salafis’ Agenda behind Christian Persecution

A recent spate of violence in Egypt, mostly incited by conservative Salafi Muslims after President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, has left over 24 killed, more than 200 wounded and three churches destroyed.

A recent spate of violence in Egypt, mostly incited by conservative Salafi Muslims after President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, has left over 24 killed, more than 200 wounded and three churches destroyed. The perception of threat to the Christians is so severe that many of them are reportedly seeking to move out of the country.

While for the youth and moderate Muslims of this country the January 25 uprising was about democratic freedoms, the Salafis who had been inactive for decades promptly saw it as an opportunity to push an Islamist agenda.

Sectarian violence, mostly against Coptic Christians, escalated amid a debate on the role of religion in politics that began following the departure of Mubarak and picked up pace after the announcement of a referendum to adopt an interim constitution (mainly amendment to the 1971 constitution) paving the way for a democratic election. The bone of contention was Article 2 of the previous constitution which stated that Islam was the state religion and legislation must be based on the principles of Islamic law. This Article was retained in the draft constitution and insulated against the voting and yet there were apprehensions.

Islamists thought if Egyptians were to reject the draft constitution, a new one would have to be drawn up from scratch which might not include the content of Article 2. Liberal Egyptians, who see Islam mainly as a form of private faith, feared that the retention of the Article could lead to discrimination against Coptic Christians and other minorities – more than they experienced during Mubarak’s regime.

In the March 19 referendum, a majority said ‘yes’ to the amendments and the interim constitution was adopted. However, the debate is not over yet. The Salafist struggle for the formation of a more conservative state carries on.

Salafis read the Quran literally and seek to maintain a lifestyle that replicates early Islam in the days of Mohammed. They follow the salaf, Muhammad’s 7th century companions, and reject later movements as heresy. They believe in banning alcohol, the “mixing of sexes” and Christian worship. It is believed that they are being guided and funded by their counterparts in Saudi Arabia.

Before Mubarak’s departure, Salafis would do little more than preaching and were known for dismissing democracy as un-Islamic – but they would not call for a revolt. But now, they have taken a U-turn. They seem to have concluded that it is easier to establish an Islamic state through elections. They have founded a political party, Al Nour, and backed the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organised political group, during the March 19 referendum for the interim constitution.

In April, when Egypt’s military establishment, now the new government, appointed a Christian as the new governor of the Qena Governorate to replace the previous official who was also a Christian, the Salafis raised a hue and cry saying a Christian could not be given authority of Muslims. They demanded that a Muslim governor be appointed. In March, a Salafi leader, al-Hosseini Kamal, a suspected terrorist, had cut off the ear of a 45 year old Christian Coptic man, Ayman Anwar Mitri, in Qena. Kamal was one of the thousands of terror suspects who were released from detention after the revolution.

The provocations of the Salafis seem to be aimed at mobilising Egyptian Muslims. For that’s the easiest and fastest way to gain support from conservative sections of the Muslim community.

The Salafis cannot be expected to do well in the parliamentary election expected in September, but its sectarian activities are helping other religious groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims to be a moderate Islamist party and promise equality to Coptic Christians, to garner support. The Salafi violence makes the Muslim Brotherhood appear more mainstream, more tolerant and a saner option to the voter at a time when other political groups are still struggling to organise themselves.

Salafi leaders have also said they would partner with the Muslim Brotherhood to field Islamist candidates for the election.

One of the reasons why Salafi violence is not being dealt with strictly is that it is helping the military leaders, who have been eyeing a larger financial aid from the United States in the wake of Mubarak’s downfall. Any possibility of an Islamist party coming to power makes Washington nervous and therefore more generous towards to transitional government.

Giving in to pressure by the protesting Salafis, the military government on April 25 announced on national television that Qena’s new (Christian) governor’s appointment had been stayed for three months and the deputy governor, a Muslim, would temporarily act as the governor. This sent a wrong signal to the Salafis that they can arm-twist the government, which claims it can no longer curb any “public” rally lest it be seen as “authoritarian.”

There are many other obstacles.

Egypt’s media has been co-opted by the Salafis as they are being covered widely and their voices featured in news which further emboldens them. Some newspapers and news channels go to the extent of reporting on rumours which often result in violence.

Laws that help Islamists to incite violence also remain intact. Egyptian law makes it difficult for Christians to build places of worship while Muslims can construct theirs without much regulation. As a result, many new churches use their buildings officially meant for other purposes for worship which causes tensions. Also, the authorities use Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, the blasphemy law, to restrict evangelism efforts.

Besides, the Salafis are not an officially organised group without any provision for membership. Therefore, dealing with the movement is difficult, as only the individuals held responsible for an action can be prosecuted, which, too, happens rarely. Moreover, values such as secularism, justice and freedom are seen as “Western imperialism,” and therefore difficult to promote. Furthermore, sectarian violence mostly takes place in regions where poverty prevails and where most people follow their religious leaders almost blindly – particularly in provincial towns in southern Egypt.

While there are always triggers of violence, the causes of the divide among sections of majority Muslims and minority Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people, are rooted in history. Christianity in Egypt predates Islam but by the 10th century, the Christians were reduced to a minority. While the “Hamayouni Decree” brought some equality in 1856, discrimination against the Christians returned with the Nasser Revolution of 1952 and remained in place for decades.

Solutions to the problem of sectarianism should be sought keeping these complexities in mind.

First and foremost, the transitional government should be pushed to ensure institutional equality for the minorities. And Washington is currently best positioned to do so by linking its aid to sincere political and economic reforms and human rights and freedoms.

The Egyptian government must be asked to prevent the Salafis from receiving funding from abroad and enjoying impunity. And an effort should be made towards an institutional protection for Christians before the election. If it is left to the regime that comes following the election, which is likely to be dominated by Islamists, there will be little hope for equality.

The military rulers should also be urged to engage the country’s elite – politicians, the intelligentsia, Islamists, and Coptic leaders – in discussions to address grievances and persuade them to refrain from any provocation. The government has made attempts earlier, but not wholeheartedly.

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