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Protests against Christian governor escalate, Salafists dominate

Crisis in Qena escalates as residents feel "trapped". Roads are blocked and city becomes increasingly isolated

Yasmine Fathi , Monday 18 Apr 2011
Qena
Banner held by a protester in front of the governorate's headquarters
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Today thousands of protesters in Qena demonstrated against the new governor of the area, Emad Shehata Michael, for a fifth day.

Mansour El-Eissawy, the minister of interior, made an unexpected visit to the governorate to try to soothe the protesters as the situation continued to escalate.

The protesters have cut off the western highway, which leads to the Dendara temple complex, an ancient Egyptian site. The highway is also considered a lifeline for those in neighbouring towns who work in Qena. The protesters have also cut off the eastern highway between Qena and Aswan and camped on the railway tracks, stopping trains coming from Luxor and Aswan as well as Cairo.

Internal roads were blocked, which led to clashes between protestors and the residents of villages, many of whom were prevented from going to work and sending their children to school. The roads were blocked with metal, wire and small bonfires; cars which tried to cross were threatened by protesters and drivers were told that if they did not back off their windows would be smashed.

Sheikh Ahmed Khalafallah, a preacher in Qena, said that life had become impossible in the city and people were unable to go to work.

“We are suffocating, trapped and unable to move,” said Sheikh Khalafallah. “It took me an hour to get to work today because all the roads are blocked, when it should be only a ten minute ride.”

The protests erupted in the city on Thursday evening after Michael was named as governor. His appointment infuriated the locals of Qena because of his history as a former police official. The protesters accuse Michael, who worked as assistant to Giza security during the January 25 revolution, of being a member of the old regime and killing protesters, claiming many came from Qena. Another thorny issue is that Michael is the second Copt to hold the post. The residents campaigned to remove his predecessor, Magdy Ayoub, for months; he was also a Copt.

Ayoub is accused of being corrupt, selling land in Qena to rich businessmen for much less than its true value and letting the governorate deteriorate after it had prospered under Adel Labib, his predecessor.

Following the appointment of Michael, a Facebook group that had been set up to campaign against Ayoub asked the residents of Qena to head to the governorate’s headquarters and begin a protest.

By Thursday evening, thousands of angry protesters had gathered at the headquarters, threatening to begin a strike if Michael were not removed from his post the next day.

On Friday, no action had been taken, and so thousands once again headed to the governorate, this time for an open sit-in.

By midday, the space in front of the governorate had turned into a miniature version of Tahrir Square. A stage had been set up and furnished with huge speakerphones and microphones to be used by the leaders of the protest to address the crowd. The crowd chanted the slogan, “The people demand the governor is changed.”

The protesters included families from Qena, university professors, members of various political groups and the January 25 Youth Coalition in Qena. Several Coptic families also joined the protest. They claimed that Ayoub, conscious of being a Copt and worried that he would be accused of favouring Copts, ended up discriminating against them. Now they were worried that another Coptic governor would repeat the same mistake.

However, by Friday evening, members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as various Salafist groups had taken over the protests and began chanting anti-Coptic slogans. The flag of Saudi Arabia was erected in front of the governorate. This led many of the Copts to withdraw from the protests.

Seeing that the Salafis were gaining the upper hand, members of the Muslim Brotherhood also began withdrawing from the protest.

The group released a statement, warning against sectarian bloodshed if the crisis were to continue and pointing out that “the situation has changed from a peaceful protest to blocking roads, halting trains and chanting sectarian slogans that could ignite sectarian tension.” This was followed by a second statement asking the protesters to refrain from using sectarian violence to express themselves and urging them to reject all forms of violence and to avoid the remnants of the former regime who were trying to cause chaos.

“We understand the demands of the people of Qena, but we are against the use of violence or anything that will stop the normal flow of life and harm the people,” Mohamed Abdel Naby, a member of the Brotherhood in Qena, told Ahram Online.

On Saturday, protesters gathered thousands of signatures of residents who wanted Michael ousted. They were joined by thousands of protesters who came in trucks from the various towns of Qena Governorate.

But on that same day, Michael was sworn in, and angry protesters took the microphone and directed a message to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, accusing him of forcing them to use their “Upper Egyptian mentality,” to solve the crisis.

The protesters decided to continue cutting off all roads and to stop the new governor or any of the employees from entering their offices. They also began threatening to cut off electricity from the four factories in Qena. There were also threats to cut off the water supply, significant as the area is one of the main suppliers of water to the resort town of Hurghada.

Now, with the governor and most of the employees of the governorate unable to enter, the Upper Egyptian city is completely isolated, with Salafist groups controlling the protesters. There have been no phone calls or any form of communication between the governorate and the heads of the various towns affiliated to it.

What heightens the crisis is the fact that many of the people controlling the protests are members of the three tribes that rule the area - the “Arab”, “Hawara” and “El-Ashraf” tribes - and any attacks on them could result in a “tar” (family vendetta) crisis, common in Upper Egyptian cities.

Additionally, most of the residents in the city are armed. An Ahram Online reporter at the scene said that many protesters feel that they are being ignored by Sharaf and Cairo, and feel that his decision to keep Michael despite their protests is a declaration of war against them.

Mahmoud Saad, a professor of philosophy and one of the people who have been protesting in front of the governorate, insisted that the protesters will not move unless their demands are met. However, he brushed aside claims that Michael’s history in the police force is the reason behind the crisis.

“This is a big lie. We don’t want him because he is Christian,” said Saad. “His history in the police force is not the main issue.”

Saad and many protesters feel that the Egyptian government led by Sharaf is trying to test the values of citizenship in Qena. He argues that, as a Muslim majority city, Qena should have a Muslim leader, and he cited that the appointment of Saad as “undemocratic.”

“Why don’t they appoint a Coptic governor in Aswan, or the Red Sea, or Alexandria? Why Qena?” said Saad. “The January 25 Revolution was against the inheritance of power and now they want the post of Qena governor to be heritable and to make it a primarily Christian post.”

Sheikh Khalafallah said that Qena has a very rich Islamic heritage, and therefore the appointment of a Christian governor is difficult to accept for the locals. He also added that the Muslim saint Sid Abdel Raheem Qenawy is buried in Qena and that the city needs a Muslim governor who is able to immerse himself in its culture.

“I remember that during the Muslim festivities, Ayoub used to wait for us to finish the prayers and stand outside to greet the officials because he is a Christian. So all the celebrations became outside of the mosque instead of inside, which is very difficult,” said Sheikh Khalafallah.

Now, people think that since Ayoub was a Christian and did a bad job, so Michael, as a Christian, will follow in his footsteps.

“They removed a Coptic mayor with a history in the police force and replaced him with a Coptic mayor also in the police force. What is this?”said Saad.

But Father Kyrollos, Bishop of Qena, said that the governor was appointed by the prime minister and not through election and that his appointment should be respected or else chaos will break out. He also added that hidden hands may be behind the current protests.

“I think they are led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis,” argued Father Kyrollos. “Protesting against a governor because he is a Copt is unusual and very suspicious.”

Today, a document was spread on Facebook with the names of the six leaders of the protest. According to the document, all of them were either members of the former ruling National Democratic Party or worked in the State Security apparatus. But regardless of who ignited the protest, the people of Qena continue to feel trapped.

“I have a friend who has an appointment for his son at the cancer hospital in Cairo tomorrow and it took him three months to get it. He’s panicking that he is going to miss it,” said Sheikh Khalafallah. “What is Essam Sharaf waiting for? The eruption of sectarian tension? He must do something now.”

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