Decree 602/2018, issued by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 30 December, establishes a Supreme Council to Combat Sectarian Strife.
According to the official gazette, the council will be mandated to formulate a general strategy to prevent and contain sectarian violence, developing “new mechanisms to contain such incidents and issuing periodical reports” on their success.
The council will be headed by Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar, President Al-Sisi’s counter-terrorism advisor and a former interior minister, and include representatives from the Armed Forces, national security and intelligence agencies. It will be authorised to invite ministers and other concerned officials to attend its meetings.
Al-Sisi’s decree was issued just a few days ahead of Coptic Christmas celebrations and before the president opened a major mosque and the largest cathedral in the Middle East in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital.
The opening of the mosque and cathedral on 7 January came two days after a police officer was killed while defusing a bomb near a church in Nasr City.
Islamist jihadists have long sought to target churches at Christmas time and during other Coptic feasts. Heavy security measures were in place during this year’s celebrations with roadblocks and police deployed en masse around churches to prevent car bombs and other attacks.
In April 2017 terrorists attacked two churches, one in Alexandria, the second in Gharbiya governorate, killing 49 and injuring more than 140. At the time US President Donald Trump tweeted that the “bloodletting of Christians in the Middle East must stop”.
In November, an armed group targeted a bus carrying Christians in the governorate of Minya, killing nine and wounding others. The Interior Ministry said it was able to pursue the group and kill its members.
Al-Sisi’s initiative to confront sectarian violence was welcomed in religious and political circles.
Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawki Allam described it as a “qualitative shift towards citizenship”. Coptic Orthodox Church official Kamal Zakher said it was a “positive step in confronting sectarian and terrorist incidents”.
The council’s level of representation is a sign the authorities are willing “to address the problem’s root causes”, says Al-Ahram political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah.
He added that the decree establishing the council comes parallel to the president’s order in July 2017 to form a National Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism.
Kamal Amer, head of parliament’s Defence and National Security Council, says the council could be an important vehicle in fighting sectarian incidents that seek to divide Egypt’s Muslims and Christians.
“By issuing this decree,” intoned Abdel-Fattah, “President Al-Sisi is acknowledging that simple security solutions are not enough to resolve sectarian problems.”
“We need a cultural and social revolution to change people’s mindset, particularly in Upper Egypt and rural areas.”
In December two Christians were shot dead in Minya by a Muslim church security guard following a verbal squabble.
“In many Upper Egypt governorates, and particularly in Minya, sectarian violence is common. Most often, it is an extension of personal disputes or clashes over places of worship,” said Abdel-Fattah.
“Extremist elements exploit petty disputes and turn them into bloody clashes.
“Minya heads national tables in terms of incidents of sectarian strife. For decades the governorate has been a haven for terrorist movements and extremist Islamist clerics who preach hatred and perverted interpretations of Islam.
“These groups exploited the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood between 2011 and 2013 to spread their venomous ideology on a grand scale among villagers and school students. The lack of public services, development projects and employment opportunities helped create fertile ground for the spread of sectarian violence.”
According to Abdel-Fattah, the government’s traditional approach to containing sectarian strife fuelled the situation.
“When sectarian incidents take place reconciliation councils are convened to contain the situation rather than address its root causes,” he says.
Abdel-Fattah hopes that the new council will develop a radical new strategy to tackle the situation.
“We need to stand up to Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood clerics who preach hatred against Christians and issue discriminatory fatwas,” says Abdel-Fattah.
Legal expert Fouad Abdel-Moneim Riad wrote in Al-Ahram on 12 January that President Al-Sisi’s decree should be followed by other measures to help contain sectarian incidents.
“Religion should be removed from national ID cards, the niqab banned, control on extremist fatwas issued by Salafi clerics tightened and an anti-discrimination commission established,” wrote Riad.
Riad, who chaired the committee charged with investigating sectarian incidents following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, said the majority of attacks against Christians were triggered by the provocative preaching of extremist clerics affiliated with Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We saw how these clerics pushed members of their congregations to torch churches following the removal of the Brotherhood regime,” said Riad.
Mushira Khattab, a former minister of population and family planning, said in an article also published on 12 January, that Article 53 of the constitution which prohibits discrimination urgently needs to be put into effect.
“There is a pressing need for a national anti-discrimination commission to tackle all forms of discrimination based on religion, colour, gender and sex, promote a culture of diversity and tolerance and ensure educational curricula do not contain any discriminatory content,” she said.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Containing sectarian violence