Violence in the Middle East is not new; neither is the increasing rate of violence and intimidation being carried out against the Christian communities of the Middle East. Although Egypt has largely remained absent from battling fundamentalists throughout the Middle East, it has not escaped internal fundamentalist issues. The New Year attack against Coptic Christians in Egypt has brought the increasingly widespread violence against Middle East minorities to the forefront of Egyptian politics.
The timing of the attack is critical. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is campaigning for re-election this year; an act that has already been widely criticized by both the Muslim Brotherhood and civil society parties. The terrorist attack carried out in Alexandria against the Coptic community and any subsequent attacks may drastically influence and change the political scene in Egypt.
Before discussing the political implications and fully comprehending the exacerbated recent violence and terrorist attack, one must understand the history of the Coptic Christians in Egypt. The Coptic Christian community of Egypt constitutes nearly 10 percent of the total Egyptian population, in other words approximately eight million people—a small minority, but the only sizeable minority in the country.
Christianity was introduced to Alexandria by Saint Mark around 42 CE during Roman Emperor Claudius’ rule. Christianity quickly spread, when Islam was introduced to Egypt, Copts claimed to be the descendants of the ancient Egyptian civilization. Tensions between Copts and Muslims heightened as Muslims sought to convert Egyptians and turn the country into a Muslim society.
As history progressed, and evidenced by current demographic data, Muslims overran the Coptic populations and obtained dominance in social, economic, and political life. Tensions have been ongoing throughout Egypt’s history; these tensions forced the Copts to resettle with a bulk of the minority living in Alexandria. Although tensions between the two groups are nothing new, they have been exacerbated in recent decades. There are more laws and restrictions in place against Copts than against other groups in Egypt. Copts need government approval to build new churches or cemeteries and are not allowed to create their own religious based political parties (although Copts run and win several local positions they must do so under independent parties). Although religious and political rights had been restricted, life was relatively peaceful, but this changed drastically in the late 2000s.
The swine flu scare of 2007/2008 marked a series of violent attacks between Coptic and Muslim communities. In Islam, swine are considered dirty animals, but Copts raised swine because they did not believe in this religious tenant. The Egyptian government, much like other Muslim countries, jumped at the opportunity to slaughter swine as a means of curbing the spread of swine flu. When the Egyptian government announced the slaughter, Copts lost a revenue source and inter-religious violence increased.
In the fall of 2008, southern Egypt erupted in inter-religious violence. It was as if a gang war hit southern towns and villages; when a group of Muslims shot and killed a Copt, the Copts retaliated by shooting a Muslim. This carried on throughout autumn; peace was finally attained and national security was increased in Coptic communities and around Coptic religious sites. Peace was widely maintained with few incidents until December of 2010. On December 31st, a Coptic Church in Alexandria was bombed and even more recently on January 11, a lone Muslim gunman shot five Copts, killing one, on a train north of Cairo. This violence is exponentially important because it is an election year.
Egypt recently elected a new National Assembly, but in September 2011, Egyptians will be voting for a new President. Hosni Mubarak has maintained his Presidency since 1981 through a variety of measures including States of Emergency. In the past, Mubarak would declare a State of Emergency in order to restrict criticism and opposition parties; they were usually declared after moments of unrest, violence, or terrorist activities. The Egyptian government declared the attack on the church in Alexandria a foreign terrorist infiltration. This declaration provides two distinct and different paths for the upcoming Presidential election.
The first path is sadly the traditional path of modern Egypt—consolidating power and restricting civil rights. Mubarak may use the attacks as an excuse to revitalize his State of Emergency and heighten national security. His communications and propaganda team may spin this story to demonstrate the need for a strong central government.
The second path, a much more inspiring path, would see civil society increasing their demand for change. Civil society has already mounted strong support against Mubarak and the ruling National Party, but these gains can be negated through the renewal of a State of Emergency. Civil society is conscious of this and has maneuvered to act as a unifying voice for Egypt. This past Coptic Christmas Eve (January 6th), several civilian groups called on Muslims to create a human shield outside of Coptic Churches in hopes of blockading possible follow-up attacks. Although the bombing of the Alexandria Church was a terrible event, it may ultimately serve as a catalyst for civil society to regain control of Egypt.
Christians throughout the Middle East are facing increasing rates of persecution and violence. Although the attacks in Egypt are similar, there is one important difference. The violence may serve the opposite of its intention; terrorist attacks against the Egyptian minority has the ability to act as a catalyst for the diverse civil society political parties and movements to gain more support and increase their influence over local and national politics. But this might just be a pipedream for civil society because the attacks can also be a catalyst for Mubarak to reinvigorate his State of Emergency and continue to rule his country as a police state. One can only speculate what will happen, but as the Presidential election grows nearer it will be evidenced whether the attack in Alexandria was a stronger catalyst for the opposition or for the ruling authority.