Sectarian Violence in Egypt: A Stern Test for Egypt’s Democratic Transition

Human Rights First is deeply concerned by serious incidents of sectarian violence in Egypt in recent weeks, most recently the violent clashes that erupted in the Imbaba district of Cairo during the night of May 7 in which at least twelve people were killed, many more injured and two Coptic churches were burned. The continuing sectarian violence seriously imperils prospects for the peaceful transition to democracy in post-Mubarak Egypt. Incidents of sectarian violence in Egypt are the product of long-standing failures by the Egyptian government:

  • to address inequality and discrimination against Egypt’s Christian minority;
    to hold accountable those who engage in violence or incitement to violence against religious minorities;
  • to take a clear stance against religious extremism and the exploitation of religious bigotry for political ends;
  • to protect the lives and property of citizens;
  • to uphold and strengthen the rule of law;
  • to promote and protect religious freedom;
  • to foster a climate of religious tolerance and co-existence in Egyptian society.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been unable to address the threat of sectarian violence with the urgency, and in the comprehensive manner, that circumstances demand, thereby exposing the limitations of an unrepresentative, unaccountable executive body to deal with the many challenges of the transition process. Threats to confront sectarian violence “with an iron first” by prosecuting those accused of involvement in sectarian violence will not prove effective in the absence of concerted, sustained action to confront deep-seated problems. In fact, resorting to military courts to try civilians will undermine the development of a strong, independent judiciary that will be essential to securing the rights of all Egyptians in the months and years ahead. It will also undermine the regular law enforcement response to violence that will be needed to address sectarian tensions over the long transition. Instead of indulging in empty shows of force the authorities must commit themselves to the independent, thorough and fair investigation of all incidents of sectarian violence, with those responsible for perpetrating or instigating such incidents being held to account through fair, transparent legal processes. The authorities have been slow to react to the harassment of Coptic Christian worshipers, including the holding of rallies and public prayers by Muslim extremists, so called Salafis, outside Coptic churches, including Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral. These rallies have incited sectarian violence and intimidation. Rumors and fabrications of the “abduction” of women allegedly wishing to convert to Islam by church authorities have fueled confrontations in several instances, including the recent clashes in Imbaba. Public figures, including government and religious leaders have an obligation to speak out publicly against such inflammatory rumors, and against all incitement to violence. In a memo to then Egyptian Prime Minster Ahmed Nazif sent by 14 independent Egyptian human rights organizations after the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria in January 2011 in which 24 people were killed and scores injured, Egyptian human rights activists called on state authorities: “to address the sectarian crises that pose a real threat to the coexistence of Muslims and Copts within the framework of respect for equality, the repudiation of discrimination and exclusion, and respect for religious liberties.” To bring this about the human rights activists urged the creation of a special commission to “activate constitutional guarantees for citizenship, equality and equal opportunity for all Egyptians.” After the Imbaba violence the same human rights organization submitted their memorandum to the current Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf. It is vital that the transitional authorities in Egypt do not repeat the mistakes of the Mubarak regime, but heed this advice and undertake an urgent, comprehensive and sustained series of actions to confront the threat of sectarian violence in Egyptian society.


Published on May 11, 2011


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