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Egypt's sectarian tensions: causes and possible solutions

In the face of the sectarian crime committed last week in Abu Qurqas, in the southern governorate of Minya, I can only add my voice to others demanding the firm and fair application of the law

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin , Saturday 4 Jun 2016
Views: 2883
Views: 2883

The perpetrators must be brought to justice, those responsible for deplorable dereliction of duty held accountable, and customary reconciliation, which tends to come at the expense of the victims, avoided. 

But although the extraordinarily offensive nature of that crime enraged public opinion, the incident itself is not, unfortunately, an anomaly.

It’s an expression of the increasing bigotry, sectarianism, and tension in society, the roots of which we must understand if we are to deal with this grave situation. 

I think we can best come to grips with the larger framework of this bigotry and resentment by considering how the state has marshaled all its resources and energies to combat terrorism and violence using a security approach while throttling all intellectual, cultural, and civic instruments that could combat prejudice, sectarian culture, violence and hatred.

Moreover, it has denied society political engagement, which is vitally important to foster pluralism, dialogue, and anti-extremism of all kinds.

So while enforcing the law and bringing the criminals to account is absolutely necessary, it’s not enough. The reality of

the intolerance and resentment rife in society must be recognised and the factors creating such a fertile climate for its growth addressed. 

First, immediate action must be taken to issue a law prohibiting discrimination of all kinds, thus ensuring full citizenship for all Egyptians, women and men, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor, young and old. Equality is not complete unless it provides for equal rights and duties for all, including equality in work opportunities and labor conditions, in the occupation of public office, in state services, and in freedom of belief and worship.

The law should set forth deterrent penalties for any person who practices or condones discrimination, or incites discrimination between citizens. 

Wemust also realise that the real deterrent to bigotry and violence is not found in security and penal codes alone, but in a climate of freedom and pluralism. No matter how heavily the state relies on security to confront sectarianism and violence, it cannot guard every street, church, and mosque. Its forces cannot surround every university, factory, and public square.

Restricting freedom of expression, denying social diversity, imprisoning dissidents, and continuing to enforce laws that send young people and children to prison for expressing their opinion and silence thinkers and writers—all of this works in favor of bigotry and close-mindedness.

It denies society healthy interactions between various currents and encourages unhealthy, extremist ideas, which spread unimpeded by countervailing enlightened thought. 

The constitution, law, and justice must be also shown genuine respect through concrete actions, not merely lip service. The crime in Abu Qurqas demonstrates a widespread sense that the constitution is unimportant and its provisions can be ignored with impunity, just as unconstitutional laws continue to be applied. 

More generally, it is felt that the fair application of the law conflicts with the dictates of national security and stability. This failure to enforce the law and respect constitutional rights opens the door to excesses and concessions, and the use of unjust customary reconciliation as a tool to preserve calm and stability. 

Civil society must also be given room to operate. Civic associations can foster dialogue among young people, help meet the needs of daily life, bring people of different backgrounds and cultures together, and establish mechanisms to allow early intervention before the eruption of communal violence. 

But civil society cannot play this role when the state chooses to quash civic activity of all kinds, seeing in every initiative and voluntary action a foreign conspiracy and interference. 

The state’s mission is to use security and the law to confront crime and violence, but on its own it cannot correct twisted ideas or counter bigotry with deep social and cultural roots. 

That is the mission of society and civil institutions. But these institutions cannot play their developmental and preventive role if the state continues to harass them and narrow their sphere of action and influence. 

Finally, state economic policies and spending priorities must be reconsidered to direct more attention and resources to the improvement of public services in villages and informal areas instead of turning all available energies and resources to megaprojects. Megaprojects may generate great long-term returns, but they do not address the pressing daily needs of the citizenry, provide jobs for the youth, create a space for the development of talents and skills, or arm the public with the tools needed to resist the benighted thought all around them. 

I hope the law is applied fairly and firmly against all the perpetrators of the crime in Abu Qurqas, but I also hope that the reprehensible nature of the crime sounds a warning of the danger of allowing the present intellectual and cultural climate to flourish and social resentment to fester. Otherwise, similar crimes will be committed and bigotry will continue to eat away at the national fabric.

*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.

This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 30 May.




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