Violence has expanded and seems to have intensified in the last couple of weeks. The most spectacular and widely reported incidents were the conflicts in Imbaba which resulted in more than a dozen deaths, hundreds of injuries, and the destruction of one church and part of another. Coptic Christians mounted a second round of demonstrations in front of the central television office near downtown Cairo which was itself attacked. Meanwhile the army and police have attacked demonstrators outside the Israeli embassy in Giza and in the countryside. So much for political violence. There have been sporadic outbreaks as the supply of fuel oil and butane gas cylinders has decreased well beneath the demand as well as thugs associated with businesses in downtown commercial areas fighting street battles that lasted a couple of hours. More ominous, from the viewpoint of the forces of order, have been attacks on police stations aimed at freeing imprisoned common criminals.
One common description of this situation is as a security failure coupled with or worsened by sectarian violence. The idea of a security failure (infilat amni) first emerged when the police withdrew from the streets after January 25 and significant violence occurred in the countryside and even large parts of the urban environment. Without minimizing the traumatic nature of those events, especially in poorer neighborhoods, these particular ways of conceptualizing perceived threats of disorder hide as much as they reveal. And, while it may well be true that elites publically express their fears of disorder, those who actually suffer from violence, shortages, market failures, and the incompetence of the government today are more likely to be the poor and the powerless.
These seemingly unrelated sets of incidents raise many issues but one in particular is whether the government is capable of providing Egyptians with a political as well as an administrative and formal solution to the many problems of the country. For the moment, frightening as they have been to many Egyptians, these events are not yet really at the point where they cause a social or political crisis. But they are frightening both because their causes remain not only obscure but highly controversial and, at least to my mind, because the political elite of the country has shown that it either will not or cannot provide a clear explanation of them or any convincing path forward. This will allow political initiative to pass into other hands.
Every act of violence begins with a story and usually the story is both compelling and plausible. And as we focus on the story and try to determine if it’s true we overlook the significance of the background which makes the story itself not only visible but even plausible. And we overlook the responsibility of everyone outside the frame of the story to intervene in what is, after all, not a story-book happening and actual acts of violence. And so it is with the events of Imbaba, the Israeli embassy and even the humble problems of Egyptians getting fuel with which to cook and clean.
A very recent report by the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights presents about as clear a picture of the events at Imbaba as we are likely to get. It appears that a young Christian woman from Upper (southern) Egypt became involved with a young Muslim man. She converted to Islam and they entered into what we can loosely call a common-law marriage, that is one that the participants and society believed was valid but which had no legal registration and thus no state sanction . They moved several times and ended up in Imbaba where she left him.
Until this point the events are, if not uncommon, at least far from implausible. Young people become involved, get married, and separate. But at this particular point the story of Abeer (the woman) and Taha (her husband) empirically murkier even as it picks up themes that link it to a narratives that have driven religious conflicts over at least the last two decades. Sometime in March, Taha became convinced that Abeer had been kidnapped and was being held in the Mar Mina church in Imbaba.
Young Egyptian men are not the only ones who refuse to believe their wives have voluntarily left them nor are they the only ones to seek comfort in false stories. This particular story has an especially powerful meaning in the context of recent Egyptian political events. Part of the background to the profoundly moving stories of a revolutionary movement in Tahrir Square uniting Egyptians of all classes, religious communities, and regions is an equally moving but profoundly disruptive story of conflict around these very lines. And among the most dangerous has been a particular set of conflicts in which Islamist political activists claimed that Christian churches were at one and the same time prisons and armories. In two other cases that have gone on for years, there have been claims that Christian women who converted to Islam were being kept prisoners in churches by the Coptic hierarchy.
Salafi Muslims, certainly but not only, have taken unproven allegations as truth and demanded state intervention to free women they call “imprisoned sisters in Islam.” Under contemporary Egyptian law Christians have the right to convert to Islam, but conversions the other way are not recognized. Salafis can therefore pose as defenders of freedom of religion and conscience although they do not accept either of these as principles on which the state or society should be built.
In addition, Salafi political leaders often claim that Christians reject the political authority of a state that claims Islam as its religion and Islamic shariah as the source of its law. They therefore accuse the churches of stocking caches of arms in order to prepare for revolution. These duals sets of allegations would be politically consequential even in ordinary circumstances. In the wake of the breakdown of public security as the police have withdrawn from confrontation and when the army has made it clear that it desires to avoid armed clashes with citizens, these claims have become literally incendiary.
Much of the power of these claims arises from their rhetoric about women. In the events in Imbaba, in the earlier destruction of a church in Sul to the south of Cairo. In March Muslim vigilantes cut off an ear of Ayman Mitry, a Copt. This was said to be a “shariah” punishment for renting an apartment to Muslim women who were allegedly prostitutes anxieties. While this incident exposed deep-seated anxieties about sexuality and religious community exploited by political activists, it had nothing in common with classical Islamic legal texts let alone with the contemporary Egyptian criminal code.
The Christian community is not devoid either of attempts to employ women’s bodies as symbols or simply to assert outright control over them as when several weeks ago Christian men killed a woman relative who had married a Muslim and thus, in their minds, brought shame on the family. These incidents involving Christians, a distinct minority, do not engage the same political consequences precisely because the Christian community does not itself control the ideological or jurisprudential bases of the state. The negative consequences of patriarchy within the Christian community do not, therefore, have the widespread emotional and political consequences that the Islamist claims about the defense of women are designed to entrain. As is common for minorities, there is a sharp difference in the power available to individuals, institutions and communities on each side of the demarcation.
These particular narratives have circulated for well over two decades and may have been around longer. In 1990 rumors that a Christian living in Abu Qurqas, another town in the south, was using an apartment to provide Muslim girls as prostitutes to Christian men and videotaping their encounters were seized upon by Islamists to provoke a pogrom in the town. Cairene liberal and left intellectuals mounted a investigative campaign and discovered not only that the story was a fabrication but that the police knew it to be a fabrication. The Islamists, moreover, knew it was a fabrication that was about to be exposed as such but rather than desisting they used one last opportunity to undertake a campaign to protect Muslim women who were in no danger whatsoever. The events in Imbaba are similar not only in some of the same elements of sexuality and endangered virtue but also in that, by the time the pogrom occurred, it was also becoming increasingly clear to everyone that the underlying event had no basis in fact.
The obviously false story that Abeer was being held in a church in Imbaba was a distorted echo of stories that have been circulating for years about two other women, Wafa’ Qustantine and Camilia Shehata. Both Qustantine and Shehata are Copts married to priests (the Coptic church, like other Eastern rites, never adopted a rule of celibacy for priests). They are said to have desired to divorce their husbands and thus to have converted to Islam which, unlike Coptic Christianity, allows this procedure. At some point, depending on what version of the story you hear, the Church intervened to prevent them from coming out as Muslim women or they changed their minds or intervened to protect them from the consequences of false stories that they had converted. Since apostasy is a serious crime in classical Islamic law (but not, it must be pointed out, in the contemporary Egyptian criminal code), the women might have been endangered had extremist individuals decided to apply their own understanding of the classical penalty (which is, after all, the excuse given by the criminals who severed the ear of the Coptic man in Qena in March). Conversion from Christianity for divorce, as for marriage, is not unknown in Egypt although it is probably not widespread. For the past five or six years rumors about these two women who have not been seen in public (although Camilia did give a televised interview just before the events in Imbaba denying that she had ever converted or that she was being held against her will) have proliferated. The salafi movement has taken them up as a cause and have demanded that the Church “free imprisoned Muslim sisters.”
Such rumors, however, continue to spread and by now they have a narrative life of their own. Thus the Wafd newspaper published a story recently detailing the claim of Raghda, a young Muslim woman from Imbaba, that she had been kidnapped by Christian demonstrators at Maspero and held hostage for several days without food or water. Her improbable story may have been told to account for several days of absence for her family or may simply be a complete fabrication. It provides another captivity narrative without sex, but it does contain a harrowing account of receiving an involuntary tattoo which an accompanying picture tactfully suggests (but does not explicitly say) was a cross. That the newspaper of the party whose history is intimately connected with Muslim-Christian unity should have published the story and that now demands the military council take action is indicative of how corrosive the temptation to engage in this kind of politics can be. Mona Makram Ebeid, a long-time member of the party and grand-niece of one of its most prominent leaders in the 1930s, Makram Ebeid, has just suspended her membership in the party over its use of this issue.
These events provide a sense of what is at stake as Egyptians debate the nature of the state and the new constitution that is to be written and adopted within the next year. If this is to be a civil state with an Islamic basis rather than a secular state, what exactly will be the relationship between the two primary religious communities and what will formal guarantees will there be for people whose religious convictions are not within the conventional definitions of community. The report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights provides characteristically clear insight into these issues. If there were a single civil law including divorce then Christians could, of course, avail themselves of that possibility without having to convert to another religion. If religious affiliation were simply an individual right then, as well, Muslims (including former Christians) could join whatever church, mosque, or other congregation they chose. For many Muslims today and probably not a few Christians the job of the state is to police the existing religious boundaries.
Generally the salafis conceive of Egypt as a society of Muslims in which a Christian community is tolerated as long as its members stay in their place: that is within the framework of the religious community to which they all presumably belong. This community itself is to be represented by the various recognized Christian churches. The view of the Muslim Brothers leadership may be more nuanced or extended but many of their public pronouncements, as well as those of leaders lower in the political hierarchy, indicate a very similar set of understandings. Even more liberal members of the Islamic trend such as the public intellectual and former judge of the State Council, Tariq al-Bishri, have voiced similar views. Christians, on this view, would be formally equal in regard to criminal and civil law as well as in regard to political rights. Private and social discrimination against them, however, as long as it was not written into law would be permissible (for those such as Bishri) and possibly desirable (for many within the Brothers) and, in fact, mandatory for most of the salafis for whom the idea of Christians holding power over Muslims is unacceptable as a matter of religious conviction.
To complete the story of Imbaba, the EIPR reports that a group including activists in salafi dress arrived and demanded to search the church building for Abeer and for the arms that they were equally sure were hidden. A You-Tube video of one of their leaders asserting the need to assault the search has since been posted. They were quickly joined by some men from the neighborhood and, again, videos have circulated showing a large crowd entering the church. Whether guns were first fired by Copts or Muslims is uncertain but within a relatively short period one church was partially wrecked and another torched and destroyed.
Neither the army nor the police, who have a large barracks/cantonment on the banks of the Nile within a kilometer or two of the church, intervened in time to prevent the fighting from intensifying. The army did not have units quite as close as the police but generally the forces of order have, since early February, studiously avoided intervening in clashes between Egyptians. The army has cleared public squares of demonstrations and in the process arrested demonstrators, attacked them, and even fired on them. But in each of these cases the soldiers were carrying out orders to subdue demonstrations. Whether the military thought that these demonstrations in Midan al-Tahrir or in front of the Israeli embassy threatened its legitimacy, its international standing or simply viewed them as weak targets of opportunity nobody knows. So far, the army (like the police) has scrupulously avoided taking sides when Egyptians are fighting other Egyptians no matter what how severe the consequences to public order. In these cases, from the “Camel event” in Tahrir Square in early February through the 10 days in which demonstrations in Qena cut the major north-south transportation links to the street fighting in Imbaba the army has refrained from intervention.
There have been other outbreaks of violence. A two-hour gun battle raged in Abd al-Aziz street in the Ataba area, an important commercial zone, just to the northeast of Midan al-Tahrir and not far from the former royal palace that is the administrative seat of government. Certainly indicative of a breakdown of public order, this event was by all accounts the result of an attempt by petty hoodlums to force a shopkeeper to pay protection money. It spiraled out of control and the police, again, chose not to intervene early and with sufficient force to prevent significant violence. More recently the worsening economic situation has been manifest in an absence of diesel and butane, two of the primary fuels used in Egypt for transportation and cooking. In the Delta provinces especially there are reports of fights breaking out in lines as prices of fuel rises and as its physical presence in the market is limited. This is not the place to deal with what is happening to the economy, but the shortages are having a ripple effect on living conditions as well as on prices (and thus again, indirectly, on living standards). These conflicts may worsen over time and there have been occasions in the past few years when fights in lines for subsidized bread have caused injuries and even death. They may also improve rather quickly if the shipments of fuel that the government says are due to arrive are dispersed into the local market rapidly.
In many places there is a sense of physical insecurity and people are naturally worried. There is also a difference between insecurity due to simple criminal activity or casual competition for scarce and necessary resources. Frightening as the violence in Abd al-Aziz street was no one there claimed a right to commandeer private property or force citizens to comply with the demands of other private citizens to search. While there may be people who wonder if the shortage of fuel reflects a physical lack of availability or some form of market manipulation, it is fairly apparent that the appearance of more fuel or the introduction of some equitable form of distribution such as rationing would rapidly bring the violence to an end. There are administrative, regulatory and economic steps that can easily be taken and which would command nearly universal approval.
What is called sectarian violence reflects something else entirely. First, there are highly vocal and visible political activists (even if relatively small in number), who contest the nature of the state and deny the legitimacy of equal citizenship in a democracy. It is convenient to label these activists salafis today just as it was convenient to label them jihadis in the past. As in the case of Abbud al-Zumr, jailed for his participation in the assassination of former President Anwar al-Sadat, these labels refer to pretty much the same people. Second, there are a broader range of figures who do not necessarily oppose the idea of citizenship but who are certainly ambivalent about what it means. Thus, whoever drew up the draft program of the Muslim Brothers in 2007 which stated that no Christian could be the president of Egypt represented such a viewpoint. So do those Muslim Brothers who accept in principle that, for reasons of religious affiliation, no Christian could be president because no Christian should hold political authority over Muslims. Third, there is an even broader layer of social discrimination by many Muslims against Christians. The sources of this discrimination are diverse and it rarely achieves the level of ideological clarity or coherence found in the first two circles I mention. Lastly, Egypt is a society in which nearly a third of the population is still under fourteen years of age (which is actually lower than was the case forty years ago) and with high levels of unemployment in the 14-30 age bracket. Consequently in many situations there are a significant number of young men available as activists deploy violence.
It is now common in Egypt to refer to this kind of violence as civil strife or fitna ta’ifiyya. The concept of fitna has many associations rooted in Islamic history and the vocabulary of the Qur’an but what distinguishes it in contemporary Egyptian discourse is that it is a rather diffuse concept without any sense of agency. Common criminal and even secular political violence are more frequently thought of as acts of bultagga, namely thuggery or gangsterism. These are useful if only because they imply some agency: somewhere a particular thug or gangster is choosing to deploy violence. Fitna removes the concept of agency and replaces it with a more generalized notion of conflict in which all sides are equally to blame and violence has no connection to existing patterns of power and authority. Reasonable people within both the Muslim and Christian communities oppose civil strife, extremism and fitna. Discrimination, like thuggery, implies agency. There must be people who actively discriminate and there are patterns of power within which this activity has real social impact. If the problem is civil strife then both Muslims and Christians may be equally at fault—or indeed Christians may be more at fault for making unreasonable demands or for presenting their concerns in an unreasonably one-sided (and even insulting) fashion. If the problem is discrimination then violence is not free-floating but the result of existing unequal and inequitable patterns of power and resistance.
It is common when violence is viewed within this framework for both individuals and even state officials to propose a negotiated resolution rather than the use of the court system, especially the criminal courts. Thus those accused of cutting off Ayman Mitry’s ear met with him in a supposedly voluntary sulhah or resolution session. The refusal by Salafis to allow Christians to transform the premises of a textile factory into a church and their use of violence (but not deadly force) to achieve their aims was also resolved by a community meeting. A week ago the Shaykh al-Azhar, head of the prestigious religious complex and holding a position equivalent to a cabinet level appointment, met with the Coptic Pope Shenouda in a “family meeting” which was designed to assuage tensions. These forms of resolution have all but invariably left the Christians feeling abused. Formally they appear to meetings between equals to restore social order but the socially weaker party must always give up claims in law as well as in fact. Thus Mitry will not pursue his attackers in court nor will the state. The events in Sul were resolved in a similar way. Such an approach has proved to be unworkable in Imbaba where the scale of the violence and its proximity to downtown and transparency to the international media has made it necessary for the state to pursue criminal charges. It is telling, however, that among those brought it for questioning is Abeer, the unfortunate woman whose only crime was to have been at the center of an unhappy marriage and the subject of a wild rumor.
There are indeed reasons why the existing Christian hierarchy as well as most of the Muslim religious institutions, prefers to present discrimination as civil strife. Simply put the move in the direction of two distinct communities which has significant appeal to the ‘ulama as well as to much of the leadership (and probably most of the membership) of the Muslim Brothers as well as to the salafis ensures the Christian hierarchy authority over its own community. This community will be at once subordinate to the dominant community but coordinate in terms of the rules governing its own constitution through marriage, divorce and inheritance.
If the police and the army have been dilatory when it comes to politically charged outbreaks of violence even on a large scale, they have been much quicker to bring force to bear on demonstrators in the late night or early hours of the morning. The military police cleared Tahrir square of hundreds of protesters in April at about 2 a.m. and they have kept the square clear of overnight demonstrators more or less continuously. When a demonstration in support of a third Palestinian intifada in mid-May was mounted in front of the Israeli embassy in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo, the military again cleared demonstrators away late in the evening. The embassy is high in a 10-story building which itself was surrounded by barriers. Accounts by people who were there indicate there was no possibility that the crowd would cross the barriers, breach the security presence, and enter the building. The troops acted with rapidity, force and evidently some animosity toward those they perceived as middle-class revolutionary youth.
In the contemporary world, however, a democratic polity made up of strictly distinctive religious communities seems less plausible as a fundamental organizing principle than in the past. It certainly marks an attempt to reverse the direction in which Egyptian political practice and constitutional law have been moving for nearly the past 100 years. But if the state is to be defined by its role in managing religious community rather than standing aside (as it does in at least one strand of secular thought), then Egypt may move in the direction of a political system which at least actively supports a kind of social discrimination. This is certainly going to be an item on the political agenda. It would be wrong to think that Egypt must move in this direction but it would be equally wrong not to recognize that democracy can indeed function with significant levels of informal social discrimination and even a certain level of overt formal discrimination.