Sunday, October 16, 2011

Israel Must Learn from Egypt's Sectarian Strife

Egyptian Copts protest the burning of a church in Aswan, just one instance
of growing sectarian strife in Egypt. Source: AFP/Getty Images
By: Daniel Nisman

Israel must act quickly to address similar underlying cultural and socioeconomic factors which caused Egypt's destructive sectarian unrest.

On October 9th, the streets of Downtown Cairo erupted in some of the worst violence since the January revolution. Unlike past instances of politically motivated unrest, the October 9th riots put Egypt’s desperate Coptic Christian community in the crosshairs of an intolerant and unsympathetic Muslim majority, backed up by riot police, state media, and a seemingly apathetic government. This senseless chaos was not the result of a single church burning, as portrayed by Western media, but rather an ongoing and largely tolerated pattern of discrimination that eventually reached a boiling point. If Israel is not careful, it too may face a similar explosion of ethno-religious violence to that which has brought so much shame and embarrassment to the Egyptian people.

The events of October 9th began when prominent Coptic activist groups gathered thousands of followers to march from Cairo’s Shubra district to the Iconic ‘Maspero’ state-telecommunications building on Nile
Water front, only minutes from Tahrir Square. The march was part of an ongoing campaign to pressure the Egyptian government to bring justice to those responsible for an attack on October 2nd on a Church in southern Aswan province. In that incident, a local Christian man decided to turn his guesthouse into a place of worship that subsequently resulted in an attack by hundreds of his enraged Muslim

The event sparked an outcry among Copts around the country, a minority which has been the target of repeated hate crimes since the fall of Mubarak. Coptic Churches and business had come under constant attack, while young Coptic men have been lynched by angry mobs for simply looking the wrong way at a Muslim girl. In August, Cairo’s Shubra district burst into chaos when a Coptic Christian was attacked for dating a Muslim girl, after which the military was called in to restore order. Last night’s dramatic march was the result of the Coptic community’s built up frustration over the governments’ refusal
to address their legitimate safety concerns both in Aswan and around the country.

Despite their high level of frustration, it would be a mistake to believe the Egyptian state media reports which accused the Coptic demonstrators of sparking the initial violence. In the time leading up to the march, organizers pledged to remain peaceful, holding true to their word even as the procession came under attack by residents as it passed through Muslim neighborhoods on its way to the Maspero
building. Once the demonstrators reached the Downtown area, they were confronted by Egyptian riot police who proceeded to fire live ammunition, crush demonstrators with APC’s, and beat unarmed
protesters to death, resulting in dozens dead and over 200 wounded. The incident once again placed Egypt and its revolution under heavy scrutiny, as video footage of police brutality and violent mobs
portrayed the country to be uncivilized with an incompetent government.

The root causes behind Egypt’s recent outburst of sectarian strife stem not only from overt religious differences, but from deep socio-economic factors. Under Mubarak, the economic gaps between rich
and poor widened substantially, with a small circle of his cronies controlling the majority of the major businesses and production in a nation that once championed socialism under Nasser. As average
Egyptians became increasingly impoverished and uneducated, they began to turn to religion, embracing conservative streams of Islam preached by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In his efforts to prevent these religious entities from raising up against him, Mubarak appeased these groups by allowing them to promote their ideologies in a non-political manner, airing Salafi television
programs on state media and establishing Islamic charity centers. Once Mubarak fell, these groups and their preachers began to blame Egypt’s hardships on anything that did not follow their distinct brand of
Islam. Egyptian liberals, Sufis, Copts, and upper class were all accused of conspiring to bring down Egypt from the inside in an effort to ride it of its ‘Islamic identity’. Under this new reality, Egypt’s
Copts, with their distinct lifestyle and cultural practices, became a prime target for attacks in the security vacuum left in Mubarak’s absence. As the frequency of attacks increased, it became clear that
the Muslim-dominated transitional government was in no rush to provide security for the Coptic community, causing them to continuously pour into the streets in protest of the SCAF’s discrimination, which culminated into the recent unrest at Maspero.

Israel not immune to Egyptian-style violence
Coincidentally, one day after the Church in Aswan was attacked, a place of worship belonging to Israel’s Arab minority was set ablaze by extremist members of Israel’s right-wing settler movement. While the majority of Israeli society and leadership denounced the attack, the majority fails to comprehend that Israel may be descending down the very path which brought Egypt to its current state of incivility and intolerance.

Despite the widespread condemnation, Presidential visits with village elders, and a pledge by police chiefs to implement security in Arab communities, hate crimes against minorities in Israel continue, most
recently with the defacement of Muslim and Christian Cemeteries in Jaffa which was discovered on Yom Kippur. Even as these attacks have spread from the West Bank to loyal Bedouin villages like Tuba
Zangaria, Israel’s Jewish majority is still disturbingly silent. There are no mass protests, no Facebook groups, and no efforts on the ground to close the widening gap between Israel’s politically active Jewish
Majority and Arab minority.

The policies of the Israeli government are only exacerbating the situation, as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen and the education system suffers as a result. Religious groups are only
growing stronger as the secular parties continues to appease them in order to remain in power, while prominent liberal figures and NGO's who call for equal rights are being increasingly branded as "traitors." Most disturbingly, a poll taken in 2010 by the Maagar Mochot research group provided that 50 percent of Jewish teens did not believe that Arab citizens were entitled to equal rights, or even
Knesset representation. In 2011, Israel is beginning to suffer the consequences of its negligence in addressing the root causes of hatred and intolerance. Every mosque burned, every Olive tree uprooted, and every grave spray-painted tarnishes Israel’s image as a legitimate democracy, in addition to destroying the Zionist dream of building a tolerant society.

Despite their sympathy to the Palestinian cause, the great majority of the Israeli Arab minority still identifies itself as "Israeli," and has a legitimate right to security and equal treatment, as enshrined in Israel’s basic laws. The longer Israeli society continues to neglect the underlying issues which threaten these rights, the closer we bring ourselves to the turmoil which has brought so much shame to our Egyptian neighbors.


  1. Fantastic analysis. I had never considered these points until now. Hatred and racism will tear apart every good thing Israel has going for it if not properly subdued

  2. Sorry. Have to disagree. Egypt first ethnically cleansed itself of Jews and now is doing the same with the Copts. The reason is Islam, which as currently practiced in Arab countries is intolerant of other faiths. Some Israeli Arabs on the other hand openly call for the destruction of Israel and yet we have seen relatively little of a violent response from the Jewish side.

  3. I've read this several times since you've posted it. I've been sitting here thinking about it. Unfortunately I have to admit that I hold mixed thoughts and feelings about many points. Of course I am totally against people being terrorized because they are in the minority and I do consider having houses of worship and crops destroyed and people being made afraid as acts of terrorism. That's black and white to me. However, I can't wrap my mind around these same victims calling (prior to these events) for the destruction of Israel. We are suppose to protect the same people that want to see us dead and the country destroyed? I don't know whether protecting these people is the sign of the strength of a democracy or just foolishness on our part. There has to be the rule of law.

    For some time I have been worried about the violence that might break out between the secular Israelis and the extremist religious right. That scares me as much if not more than the conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews.

    Thanks for an excellent article. Provocative...which is a good thing.

  4. Sectarian violence will never be on par with Muslim violence against the Copts in Egypt, at least until the hardeim finally gain the demographic edge...but that is several decades away.

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