May 10th, 2011
01:48 PM ET
Editor’s Note: Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation and a former Fulbright scholar in Cairo, Egypt.
By Michael Wahid Hanna, Special to CNN
Egypt’s ongoing transition toward multiparty elections and the establishment of a democratic order is again being threatened by sectarian tension and violence.
Over the weekend, Cairo was the scene of clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims after an angry mob massed in front of a Coptic church in a working-class neighborhood.
These crowds had gathered, as is often the case, under a false belief that a convert to Islam was being held against her will in the church – a common and recurring motif and flash point for inciting sectarian sentiments. The end result: 12 dead, over 200 hundred wounded and two churches torched.
The attacks were a reminder of Egypt’s very real sectarian divide. How Egypt’s emerging political forces and its transitional leadership deal with this ongoing crisis will go a long way in clarifying how different Egypt really is after the topping of the Mubarak regime.
What is clear is that much more needs to be done to combat Egypt’s corrosive sectarian discourse and the increasing calls for intolerance in the nation.
Sectarian tensions are not new in Egypt. The nation’s Copts, most of them adherents to the Coptic Orthodox Church, represent the Arab world’s largest non-Muslim minority and make up approximately 10% of the country’s population. They are geographically dispersed throughout the country and are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians.
Nonetheless, the 20th century has witnessed the gradual receding of Christian participation in Egyptian public life.
During and after the national revolt against the British and the ineffectual King Farouk in 1919, Copts had played a prominent role in Egyptian politics.
This began to recede following the Free Officers Revolt of 1952 that finally deposed the King and brought President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow military officers to power.
Ostensibly a secularist, Nasser’s period of rule nonetheless witnessed the beginnings of Christian alienation and exclusion and ushered in a period of decline in communal relations. Nasser’s tightly-controlled military regime concentrated power in the hands of the Free Officers and excluded Copts, save for a few token appointments.
These trends accelerated under Nasser’s successors, as the Middle East region underwent a religious revival that saw the emergence of Islamist thought as a force within Arab societies.
The Mubarak regime, itself threatened by rising Islamist sentiment, was keen to employ the politics of sectarianism in its efforts to divide and rule Egypt. While posing as the protector of Christians, the regime oversaw the further marginalization of Copts and engaged in the politics of co-option in an effort to stem the threat from Islamist opposition forces. The result was the further Islamization of Egyptian public life.
As an ignominious coda to his rule, Mubarak’s former Minister of the Interior, Habib al-Adly, now stands accused of having orchestrated a deadly bombing of an Alexandria church last New Year’s Eve.
In distinction to these disturbing trends, the recent Egyptian uprising was marked by serious and self-conscious efforts to once again construct a national politics based on communal solidarity and citizenship. The many iconic scenes from those 18 days of protest included images of Christians and Muslims protecting each other during times of prayer.
With chants and slogans emphasizing the unity of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians, the uprising and the toppling of the Mubarak regime raised expectations of an incoming era of inclusive politics within a civil state.
But there have been multiple episodes of Christian-Muslim violence since then, which means the country’s emerging political forces now have the added responsibility of taking on religious bigotry before this strife destroys the country’s social fabric.
Solutions for these issues can emerge only from within Egyptian society.
At this juncture, much should be expected of Egypt’s newly-empowered Muslim Brotherhood. Repressed and officially banned under Mubarak, the Brotherhood is now the most coherent opposition force in the country and is calling for the emphasis of Islam in Egypt’s politics.
As such, there is a heightened responsibility for the group and for the country’s religious authorities to be more proactive in tamping down tensions before they spill over into violence. They should make clear that the corrosive rhetoric of sectarianism will not be an acceptable form of politicking.
This is particularly relevant at a time when the Brotherhood’s ultimate intentions have been questioned by many of its fellow citizens and other observers in the international community. Now is the time for drawing of bright red lines against intolerance, particularly with respect to Islamist forces to the right of the Brotherhood.
At the same time, Egyptian Christians and their brethren in the international Coptic diaspora should refrain from launching incendiary calls for international protection. Such calls only further inflame communal tensions and fuel warped narratives about Copts as a lurking fifth column within the body politic.
Much rides on Egypt’s success, and the ability of the country to sustain an inclusive democracy respecting the rights of minorities will have a profound impact on the possibility for peaceful transition there. It would also provide a powerful model for the rest of the region as the Arab Spring continues to reverberate, with all of its prospects for change.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Wahid Hanna.
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