Experts, activists blame Egypt’s sectarian strife on ‘absence of rule of law’
Cairo - The beating and stripping of an elderly Christian woman by a Muslim mob in the southern province of Minya is the latest, but will not be the last, episode in Egypt’s cycle of sectarian violence as long as authorities do not enforce the rule of law, experts and activists said.
“When it comes to sectarian violence, successive governments tended to treat incidents outside the framework of the law,” said Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher into Egypt’s sectarian violence. “They always bring victim and victimiser together in reconciliation sessions that treat the symptoms of the sectarian malaise but little address its root causes.”
A rumoured affair between a Christian man and a Muslim woman in a village in Minya led to an attack by scores of Muslims on the house of the man, the beating of his 70-year-old mother and her stripping on the street.
The woman told local media that she could not believe her eyes when she saw tens of men storming into her house. They dragged her across the floor, beat her and tore her dress apart.
“I thought they would leave me alone when they find me by myself,” the woman said. “I never imagined that they would beat an old woman the age of their mothers that mercilessly.”
None of the attackers was brought to justice. Instead, the victim was asked by police to drop charges against the attackers, according to media reports.
This was how attacks against Egypt’s Christian Copts — almost 10% of the population — had ended in the past years, even when some resulted in death, activists said.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) surveyed 150 clashes between Muslims and Christians in Egypt from 2011-13. It said the clashes left 116 people dead and hundreds of others injured.
In 45 of the clashes, parties were forced to reconcile, drop charges against each other and bury their differences, the organisation said. It added that all the reconciliations happened under the patronage of state institutions.
“This is very dangerous because it does away with accountability as a concept,” Ibrahim said. “These reconciliation sessions are mere tranquillisers, while the real causes of the tension live for long.”
Soon after the Minya attack, al- Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church said they would send delegations to prevent an outbreak of sectarian clashes. However, this will do little to put an end to sectarian tension, Ibrahim and other experts said.
A day before the Muslim mob attacked, the elderly woman told local police of threats to her and her son from Muslim neighbours angry at the rumoured affair between her son and the Muslim woman. However, police apparently did nothing to protect her against attacks. Her son escaped the village with his wife and four children hours before the attack.
Minya, which has a concentration of Christian Copts, saw 33% of sectarian clashes in 2011-13, according to the EIPR survey.
Before one of these clashes, the Muslim residents of one Minya village prevented a Christian neighbour from building a house on his own land. Clashes ensued between the Muslim residents and the relatives of the Christian neighbour, leaving two people dead. Both sides were forced to reconcile and nobody was taken to court.
Similar incidents abound, which, experts said, does not augur well for Egypt’s social peace and national unity.
“The problem is that our government always views Christians as mere subjects represented by the church, not fully fledged citizens who have rights and duties equal to those of their Muslim compatriots,” said Naguib Gibrael, a Christian lawyer who has been campaigning against what he describes as discrimination against Copts. “Decision-makers need to realise that the best way to end sectarian violence is for culprits to be presented to justice, regardless of their religion.”
EIPR says few people had been brought to justice in the 150 cases of sectarian violence it surveyed.
A ray of hope emerged ten days after the attack on the woman in Minya when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pledged to bring her attackers to justice. Sisi is popular among his country’s Christians, having repeatedly stressed their equality with Muslim compatriots.
“When anybody asks who you are, tell him that you are Egyptian, nothing more,” Sisi told thousands of Christians at a northern Cairo cathedral on Christmas Eve in 2015. Sisi was the first Egyptian president to attend a Christmas mass.
Gibrael said he hopes the president will be true to his words.
“Forcing people to reconcile at the expense of the rule of law will not do,” he said. “Wrongdoing must be punished or the same violations will be committed over and over again.”