Sectarian violence in Egypt, sporadic before the January revolution, is today so pervasive that it threatens to cloud the gains of the Egyptian revolution that dismantled the closed-fist regime of 30 years.
At least 10 people have been confirmed killed as of print time and dozens injured when riots erupted in the Imbaba district in Cairo on Saturday night as police and military forces struggled to separate angry Muslims, most of whom were reportedly Salafists, and Christians in front of Mary Mina Church.
Violence broke out after Salafists claimed that the church locked up the wife of a Muslim after she purportedly went MIA six months ago.
The violence broke out in front of the church just a few hours after the now famous Camilia Shehata, another Christian woman who was allegedly imprisoned by a church few years ago for converting to Islam, broke her silence over the controversial issue. Muslims had been protesting and threatened to continue protesting if she wasn’t released. Her appearance, in theory, should have eased the tensions.
Shehata appeared on a Cyprus-based Christian television channel and denied that she was forced to abandon Islam, looking healthy, despite claims she was beaten up for embracing the Islamic faith.
"We should crackdown on that violence, we should not let those people ruin what we achieved in the January revolution," Essam El-Erian, the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood which is considered a moderate Islamic organization, said in a television interview.
"The Imbaba incident clearly shows that there are some people who are still working behind the scenes to ignite sectarian strife in Egypt.
"I believe that those people belong to the National Democratic Party [NDP] and they are still determined to disintegrate anything gained from the revolution."
Louis Grace, a Coptic journalist and writer, echoed El-Erian's sentiment, pointing finger at what is branded by local media as “the counter-revolution,” which many believe is masterminded by remnants of the dissolved NDP.
"Some people deliberately enflamed that strife to prevent Prime Minister Essam Sharaf from beginning his trips to Uganda and Ethiopia because they felt the Nile Basin saga is on the verge of being resolved," he said.
"Who knows whether the prisoners in Tora [jail] have mobile phones," he added, sarcastically, insinuating that the various former high-ranking NDP officials who are facing corruption and violence charges in the aftermath of the revolution might be in communication with the outside world and to orchestrate chaos, which could serve many purposes, such as: deflecting attention from their cases, make Egyptians lament the revolution due to the lack of security as well as to urge more Egyptians to support ex-NDP cronies, in line with the old adage “the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.”
Many pundits and political analysts said they were optimistic over the future of Egypt following the arrests of former president Hosni Mubarak and a handful of his entourage.
At the same time, there were promising signs that the Nile Basin dispute, which is considered a national security risk, would be resolved following the successful trips of an unofficial Egyptian delegation to basin countries, such as Uganda and Ethiopia.
However, sectarian violence threatens to derail efforts to help Egypt recover set on a positive path after the revolution.
The Imbaba clashes come nearly a month after two were killed and five injured in a small city in Minya governorate, 260km south of Cairo, following a dispute between a Muslim and Coptic family over the removal of a speed bump.
In March, the Two Martyrs Church in Helwan, Cairo, was burned, reportedly, as a Muslim reaction to a love affair between a young Muslim woman and a young Coptic man.
Salafists under fire
Conservative Islamists Salafists, who were hardly heard of before the revolution, became very active immediately following the overthrow of Mubarak.
The hardliners took over Nour Mosque, one of the biggest in central Cairo, after claiming that the endowments are misappropriating its donations and prevented the sheikh from giving the Friday sermon – an unusual occurrence since the sheikh of the mosque is the one who always gives the sermon.
The ruling military later regained the mosque but the Salafists remain under the spotlight on different issues, holding protests to demand the release of Camilia Shehata and demonstrating in front of the United States embassy in Cairo following the killing of Al-Qaeda founder, Osama Bin Laden.
They also stood by women who wear a face-concealing veil, known as niqab, after a court issued a verdict which prohibited them from taking exams unless they unveil their faces.
Witnesses said Salafists spearheaded Saturday's protests in front of Mary Mina, which later developed into a free-for-all, with stones, bladed weapons and Molotov cocktails thrown in the melee.
"We are paying the price of the shortcomings of the previous regime, which did not bother to care about such sensitive matters," Diaa Rashwan, an expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, commented.
"I don't like to blame anything on conspiracies, but it seems that some people are doing their best to convince Egyptians that the revolution was a failure and that it caused all that chaos.
"I ask the Salafist leaders to show up and direct their followers to the right path, I'm sure that they will evaluate the situation correctly.
"They only managed to be active following the revolution because they were suppressed by the previous regime."
Reports said some interior ministry officials held a meeting with Salafist leaders in the early hours of Sunday to find a way out of crisis.
The outcome of that meeting might be crucial in determining the revolution fate amid fears it could be undermined by sectarian strife.