Egypt: could religious clashes lead to civil war?

After Copts were killed in clashes with security forces, a former head of Egyptian security warns of possible civil war.

The Coptic Church in Egypt was founded in Alexandria in 42 AD by St Mark the Evangelist, a disciple and gospel writer, during the reign of Emperor Claudius of Rome. Christianity spread throughout Egypt and by the 3rd Century had become the majority religion in the country. 

The Arab conquest occurred in 639 AD, after which Islam dominated. Yet even today, Copts form between eight and sixteen percent of the population. They claim descendency from the ancient Egyptians, and indeed their current Coptic language derives from that era. 

Although the Arab invasion was met with little resistance at first, revolt rose and lasted until the 9th Century. Unsurprising really. Christians had been given the status under sharia law of dhimmis, or people not of the faith who were permitted to reside in return for the payment of taxes.

Since the 7th Century, the Christians appear to have suffered from discrimination in public life and, in particular, in relation to their places of worship: they have been prevented from erecting or renovating churches without first being granted special permits. Among numerous grievances cited, it is this which fuelled clashes between Muslims and Christians on at least three occasions this year:
  • On January 1, al-Arabiya reported that an "unclaimed bombing of a Coptic church killed 23 people and wounded 79, mainly Christians, in Egypt's second city of Alexandria."
  • On May 7 two churches in Cairo were burnt, one raised and violence that ensued claimed 11 Christian lives, according to UPI quoting the New York Times
  • On October 9 a church was burnt in Edfu near Aswan which led to clashes between Christians and security forces in Cairo, resulting in at least 25 Christian deaths, according to the BBC.
Although around 95% of Egyptian Christians are Copts, there are several smaller Christian communities following Catholic, Orthadox, Protestant or Armenian traditions. And in Alexandria today Christians constitute around 40% of the population. It's probably true to say that the Christian community in Egypt is the largest in the Middle East.

Being large yet predominately desert, Egypt's 84.5 million people inhabit a land area which is roughly the size of Switzerland. Consequently, the Nile valley and delta areas are over-crowded.  And tensions resulting from discrimination inevitably give rise to internecine strife. 

Could the situation be deteriorating? As Egypt struggles to put itself on an even keel in the post-Mubarak era, an upsurge in violence - particularly of the inter-religous variety - would surely be last thing the interim government would welcome. But when Major General Fouad Allam, a former head of Egypt's security forces warns on al-Arabiya television, that "There needs to be serious action from the leaders to resolve the root causes, otherwise this could lead to civil war" people will sit upright and take heed.

There is an extensive Coptic diaspora all with family and friends back in Egypt. I have met a number in London, Kuala Lumpur and elswhere. Support from such people in their community's struggle is unwavering. And the sizeable Christian population in situ in Egypt is of such a scale as to refuse to bow or bend too far when pressured.

At one time the Alexandrian Jewish population amounted to some 50,000, yet today possibly 50 remain. Christians account for a far more significant proportion and, in any event, most would regard themselves as natives of that land, with roots stretching back to the Pharaonic age.

Egypt's position is precarious. And the military junta under Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, will likely be highly concerned that this already inflamed situation does not deteriorate further. Presidential elections are due to be held in March or April 2012, so there is little time to calm crowds and reduce tensons.

But the sight on television of armoured security vehicles driving directly into protestors in Cairo does not auger well for Egypt's uncertain future. 

The recent trouble occurred when "peaceful Christian protestors marched on a television station which broadcast a claim that it was under attack by an armed mob ... it became clear that it was the Christians, protesting peacefully, who had first been attacked by a mob many accuse of being instigated by either the army or supporters of Mr Mubarak. The army then over-reacted dramatically, shooting at protesters and driving army vehicles over them" reported The Telegraph.

Highly respected Finance Minister and Deputy PM, Hazem el-Beblawi, resigned in protest. With a strong conviction that the rule of law should be upheld by governors and the governed alike, el-Beblawi could not stick around after what had happened. 

As the heat intensifies, can 75-year old Tantawi, by all accounts a polite man with a change-resistant reputation, together with the remainder of Egypt's interim government, safely guide their country towards pluralistic democracy and peace?

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