Cairo has had an unusual response to efforts to mend Muslim-Copt relations.
In Cairo, crowds filled the streets for the third time two weeks ago to mark Egypt’s unprecedented three consecutive victories in the Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament. Soccer is big in Egypt and proud Egyptians know how to party.
But not all Egyptians celebrated in the streets. One activist here told me that he doesn’t like soccer. He has nothing against the game itself, but he believes it distracts people from many other important issues. A convenient opium for the masses, he noted. But others stayed at home because their wounds are still too fresh.
On January 6, the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas, three gunmen opened fire on worshipers emerging from mass in the city of Nag Hamadi. The attack, which left six Christians and one Muslim dead, was the deadliest attack since 2000, when 21 Copts were killed in sectarian clashes. The massacre was triggered by the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a young Copt a month earlier. But there is more to that story than simple sectarian strife.
President Hosni Mubarak was quick to respond, urging Egyptians not “to give anyone a pretext to spread conflict.” He later criticized Al Azhar University for their lack of “enlightened religious preaching” that may have helped ignite the wave of violence and promised to punish those responsible. However, he seemed to have conveniently forgotten that he was the only one responsible for appointing these “non-enlightened” clerics.
Civic society leaders, shocked by the exhibition of brutal extremism, also felt compelled to try and mend fences. During the week following the attack, representatives of reputable religious institutions, cultural icons, NGOs and others, traveled to Nag Hamadi to offer condolences and speak out against sectarian violence.
Mostafa al-Naggar, a blogger and human rights activist, took the initiative to facilitate such a trip. In a private thread on Facebook, he brought together about 20 Egyptian activists, including some of the most well-known figures in the growing Egyptian blogosphere.
BUT THIS civil gesture took an unexpected turn when they were joined by some uninvited guests. When the group arrived at the train station in Nag Hamadi, they were met by the police. The group of 20, including well-known activists such as Wael Abbass, Esraa Abdel and Ahmed Badawy, was arrested and interrogated for the next 34 hours.
Mohamed Atef, a fellow blogger who lives in the same area as the arrested activists, called the head of security in Qena to find out where his friends were. “If you don’t shut up, I will have you go with them!” was the response he was given. That promise was kept. Two hours later, Mohamed Atef was arrested at Sohag train station.
Coincidentally (or not), the bloggers’ arrest occurred just hours after Michael Posner, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, expressed his country’s deep concern about sectarian violence and called upon the Egyptian government to prosecute those who perpetrated it, at a conference in Cairo.
But Egypt, it seems, does not need to prosecute much. Abdel Rahim El-Ghoul, one of the longest serving MDP members of parliament from Nag Hamadi, said on TV that there is no need for a trial for the Copt who allegedly “triggered” the Hamadi incident as he is already presumed guilty. Ghoul failed to mention, however, that one of the prime suspects in the attack on the Coptic worshipers, Hamam El-Kamouny, is a confidant who was working for him in his last election campaign.
Coptic sources say that Kamouny used violence and intimidation to enlist Coptic voters, who represent about 30% of the voting bloc in the district. The Hamadi attack is perceived by many as another attempt to intimidate the Coptic community and keep it “in line” after segments of the community called for a boycott of Ghoul in the coming election later this year.
During the 2005 elections, Ghoul got angry with the local Hamadi bishop who came out against him. He is reported to have threatened the bishop and the Coptic community with dire results if they didn’t support him. Bishop Kyrolus, who has had well-publicized feuds with Ghoul over his political positions, said that he was the main target of the attack. This year, facing another round of parliamentary elections, many Copts feel that the Nag Hamadi attack was politically motivated and not the work of a lone fanatic.
But such heretic thoughts should be better left unsaid – which is why it makes perfect sense to prevent some bloggers from saying them.
In a few days, the news cycle will have moved on and we’ll soon forget about the bloggers and the Coptic community, whose rights they sought to protect. But some in Egypt have yet to lose hope and believe there is room for a different kind of politics. These are the voices of tomorrow – the voices being silenced by the politicians of today.
The writer is the Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East and co-founder of CyberDissidents.org.