The crime in Imbaba where two churches were burnt is a natural outcome of the bitter crop harvested since the seeds of sectarianism were planted in Egyptian soil by the Sadat regime in 1970. The Mubarak regime, in its dying days, on purpose let criminals escape to prepare for their next crime. Under that regime, a structured plan was in place to ensure that perpetrators of sectarian crimes were not penalised.
In the beginning, they applied the principle of an “open crime” —namely that it was unclear who killed whom and therefore no one could be penalised (eg the first and second crimes in El-Kosheh). If evidence mounts against a perpetrator, then the escape route is to question his sanity or claim he is mentally unstable (the incident of stabbing worshippers at a church in Alexandria and killing a soldier on the Samalut train). If these attempts fail to acquit the criminal, then they resort to traditional reconciliation meetings that prevent the application of civil law against the perpetrator.
As a result, not one single person was sentenced in violent sectarian crimes. The first sentence ever was against the primary perpetrator of the crime at Nagaa Hamadi.
According to this plan, outlined by Sadat and upheld by Mubarak, the frequency and severity of sectarian attacks were on the rise in Egypt. At the same time, extremism and fanaticism were nurtured, which aggravated tensions resulting from a fiendish pact between the Egyptian Church and the Mubarak regime. The pact was based on meeting personal, special interest and financial demands by the Church (building or renovating a church, returning the wife of a priest to the Church against her will, in order not to undermine the authority of the institution, personal favours), in return for support for the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the head of the regime. It seemed that each party was satisfied with this formula despite the fact that it increased tensions that pushed society to the precipice of civil war.
If Imbaba was another episode in a series of violent sectarian crimes in Egypt, what is new here? Is it because it occurred after the January 25 Revolution which united the ranks of Egyptians and restored the soul of national song after long years of being dispirited under Sadat and Mubarak? The answer is no. It was preceded by the destruction of Sol Church, events in Qena, continued sectarian agitation and dominance of fanatics and advocates of strife.
What is genuinely new about this crime is the accumulation of indicators that imply a resolve to take Egypt to the brink of civil war. Many domestic and regional parties participated in planning, organising and preparing the climate to be conducive to events in Imbaba. These parties are diverse in location, positions and responsibilities, inside and outside Egypt, with a variety of motives that have come together for one goal —that the last scene of the peaceful revolution of Egypt would be blood soaked and draped in darkness. This would prevent any other people in the region from breathing the scent of Egypt’s revolution and consider overthrowing incumbent regimes. The logic would be that irrespective of the tyranny and injustice of a regime, at least it is providing the people with security, safety and basic needs.
Some wanted conditions to become perilous and for the nation to stand divided and in danger, in order for the choice to be between freedom, democracy and social justice —the slogans of the Egyptian revolution —on the one hand, and personal security on the other. Since self-preservation is a natural instinct for human beings, the choice will be easy. And hence, the achievements of the 25 January uprising would be a movement for change, not a revolution. Change which foiled the succession plot and put some corrupt businessmen behind bars, abridged the term of the presidency to four instead of six years, put an eight-year limit to serving as president, and allowing more freedoms and the right to form political parties.
What is novel is that this plan is being implemented through cooperation with leading Arab states that want to take up Egypt’s role, and think that their mineral and oil wealth are enough to buy its stature. Another novelty is that amongst us are groups and movements who were given a signal or reached an agreement to quickly pounce on the legislative power, and hence they are participating with great enthusiasm in the chaos and terrorising Egyptians.
There are many parties that want to punish Egypt and the Egyptians, especially the civic forces who triggered the January 25 Revolution. Some believe that what was achieved is enough, while others want more bloodshed and gloom on Egypt’s streets until simple folk begin to detest 25 January and instead want it, once again, to mark Police Day. While there are those who want Egyptians, especially advocates of a civic state based on civic principles, to be a deterrent model for people in the region who might consider seeking freedom, democracy and social justice.
They tried to achieve this goal through destabilising security, terrorist acts and paid hooligans, but Egyptians formed popular committees and paid the price for the success of their revolution. They released radical forces to divide the nation and label Egyptians as infidels, asserting that both Muslims and Christians should relocate to Canada or the US. They say there is no place for them in Egypt because some Egyptians said “No” when they should have said “Yes” —but these people did not notice that those who sponsored the referendum dealt with the result of “Yes” as if it were “No”, and issued the declaration of the constitution. Once the country evaded the trap and survived the aftermath of the “ballot box invasion”, a series of attacks on shrines began, but these events were resolved through meetings and dialogue with the Sufis of Egypt.
The next step was to take us back to square one, to feed religious division in Egypt, degrading Christian beliefs, insulting Christian symbols, targeting Christians and their places of worship. The events in Imbaba are but another incident in this series.
Another novelty is that Christians in Egypt have changed. As large sectors of Egyptian Muslims changed, so did the new generation of Christians. In previous generations, co-existence on a national base and civic fragments were able to contain religious violence. These elements receded and opened the field for a new generation of Christian youth who has never experienced co-existence; a generation divided over names as well as banners. This generation rejects the traditional pact between the state and Church; they went beyond the walls of the Church, organised demonstrations and marches, blocked roads, participated in strikes, and include a more fanatic element that demands international intervention and protection.
This generation is incensed by its predecessors and views them as pacifists who were subdued, did not raise their voices, or protest, or defend their faith and themselves. The time has now come for these older generations to exit the scene and leave the youth to defend themselves and their faith with everything they have, including arms. This becomes apparent in discussions with some organisers of the strike in front of Maspero, who often say that Egyptian Christianity has a long and distinguished history of sacrifice (the principle of martyrdom).
All these new features are dangerous and terrifying if religious violence continues without firm deterrence; it implies much more than what the minister of justice said, that the nation of Egypt is in danger. What is new here is that we have gone beyond the danger point and are standing on the edge of civil war, and its implication of placing Egypt at the beginning of the path taken by Yugoslavia.
What is needed is the application of laws that penalise discrimination, incitement for hatred, violence, and protests outside places of worship, as well other laws. Also, serious and strict application of the law against everyone, and not allowing any crime of incitement, killing or assault to go unpunished. This is needed first and foremost. After that, a long-term plan should be put in place to smother the harvest of hatred, racism, fanaticism, and extremism which was planted by Sadat and nurtured by Mubarak, and whose bitter fruit we are sampling.
Immediate and quick action is needed before it is too late. This cannot be accomplished by someone who does not have a steady hand or who harbours a personal agenda.