June 26, 2011
Egypt Turns a Corner on Sectarianism
After a series of troubling incidents, including attacks on Christians resulting in fatalities and serious injuries and the burning of churches in March, April and May, Egypt's interim rulers have shown signs of beginning to come to grips with the challenge of sectarian conflict that could threaten a peaceful transition to democratic government in Egypt. In contrast to the previous regime's neglect, Egypt's interim government has acknowledged the problem and taken steps to diffuse tensions and address underlying causes. Prime Minster Essam Sharaf established a National Justice Commission to study recent incidents and propose necessary amendments to the law. Its proposed new unified draft law on places of worship has run into criticism from both Muslims and Christians, but at least it demonstrated official intent to treat Egypt's religious communities equally. A more successful intervention in the national debate on sectarian issues came from the Sheikh al Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim religious authority in the country and a state appointee. On June 20, Ahmed al-Tayeb presented an eleven-point program setting out Al-Azhar's vision for Egypt's future. The document put the authoritative religious institution firmly in favor of democratic government in Egypt, placing governance in the hands of the civil or secular powers of the parliament, the executive and the judiciary. The document also expressed support for "universal human rights" and emphasized that religious minorities should be able to practice freely and enjoy their rights as citizens in full equality with the majority. This kind of endorsement of religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities from senior public figures, like the Sheikh al-Azhar is exactly the right kind of message for Egypt's leaders to be sending to counter those who would seek to exacerbate sectarian tensions for political gain. Sectarian incidents are likely to recur in Egypt in the transitional period leading up to the elections, scheduled for September, and beyond. Nonetheless, a government that is committed to principles of equality and religious freedom, to taking action to combat the impunity of those who incite and carry out attacks against Christians, and to addressing long standing problems of inequality within Egyptian society would, in time, be able to contain and overcome the problem. It is worth recalling that in January 2010, after the drive by shooting of Christian worshipers outside a church in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, bloggers and youth activists traveled from Cairo to the village to express their solidarity with the victims. They were unable to reach their destination. Police detained them from the train and held several of them in jail. Public discussion of the incident was muted. The atmosphere now in Cairo could not be more different. Not only have there been many public protests against recent attacks on Christians, but there has also been a public airing of the issue in the press and statements of support for the Christian community from Muslim leaders and the government. These fine sentiments alone will not bring an end to sectarian violence in Egypt, but they create a much healthier climate for inter-communal relations in Egypt to develop peacefully and constructively as the country faces up to the many other challenges of the transition.