The clashes that erupted between hundreds of Copts and Salafists yesterday evening in Muqattam, Cairo left thirteen dead, according to official reports, and 110 injured.
The salafists are an Islamist trend, which believes it is sinful to oppose or rebel against a Muslim ruler, and as such have kept away from opposition political movements and activities, while at the same time calling for strict adherence to Islamic Shariaa, and the tradition of the Prophet, as they understand it. In Egypt, they have been the major force behind the Niqab (the full veil), and anti-Coptic incitement.
Mounir Megahd, a spokesperson for Egyptians Against Discrimination, says it’s likely the State Security apparatus has orchestrated the clashes.
“Recent reports released have shown the close ties between the state security apparatus and the Salafist movement,” he adds. “It has been reported that state security has used them to bomb the Two Saints Church in Alexandria (on the first of January).”
This is evidence, he says, that state security has infiltrated the Salafist movement and is using them now in their attempt to foment a counter-revolution.
Megahed said that the telltale sign is that since Mubarak stepped down Salafists have begun raising all the inflammatory issues, such as the Article 2 of the constitution and the release of Camilia Shehata and Wafaa Constantine – a case from last year of two Copts who allegedly converted to Islam and are allegedly being by the church.
Article 2 of the constitution states that Egypt is an Islamic state and that Islamic law, or shari'a is the main source of all legislation. The Salafists are trying to ensure this is article stays as is, and not be amended to ensure equal citizenship for all Egyptians, as many for the January Revolution groups have been demanding.
The recent violence was triggered by a love story between a young Coptic man and a young Muslim woman. Two Martyrs Church was burned in Atfeeh, Helwan (south Cairo), reportedly after a fight broke out between members of the young woman's family over her alleged affair with a Copt; two died, whereupon a mob attacked the church, as well as Coptic homes in the village. The church was looted and then torched to the ground, and so were a number of homes.
Since the incident, thousands of Copts have been protesting before the state TV building in the center of Cairo, and elsewhere.
Among these were the demonstrations by some 1,000 Copts in the Zarayeb area in Muqattam, blocking the Austostrad Highway and Salah Salem Road, which brought traffic across that thoroughfare to halt for two hours.
Salafists from the neighboring Sayeda Ayisha suburb were mobilized to attack the protesting Copts, leading to fierce clashes between the two groups. The two groups threw Molotov cocktails and stones at one another before the army intervened and broke up the fight. The Salafists attacked several Coptic homes and businesses in the area, torching the house of Shehata Mokades, head of Cairo’s garbage village.
Egyptians Against Discrimination’s Megahd says there’s a likelihood that the Copts who were demonstrating in Muqattam may also have been egged on by members of state security.
Kamal Zakher, writer and Coptic activist says that the clashes are a result of the turbulent times that Egypt has been experiencing since the 25 January revolution ended with the ouster of 30+ year head of the country, Mubarak and the subsequent ostracizing of his political party.
“Also it is important to remember that most of the people who live in the Zarayeb and Sayeda Ayisha districts are below the poverty line, which means that it is easier to plant tension amongst them,” says Zakher.
Zakher added that it appears that there are organized groups behind the clashes that erupted yesterday.
“You’ve got the Salafists and state security, who are way more organized than you can imagine,” says Zakher. “And on the other side you have the National Democratic Party (NDP) which triggers these incidents to try to scare people and show them that Egypt was safer when they are in power, yet afterwards it’s on fire.’’
Zakher insisted the words “sectarian tension,” to describe the events are inaccurate.
“We don’t want to confuse people by using incorrect terms,’’ says Zakher. “These are criminal acts not a result of sectarian tension.”
Ahmed Eid, member of 25 January youth coalition says that the group is planning a visit today to Atfeeh, in Helwan, where they political and religious figures are to speak to the villagers to calm the situation. He says that the coalition has also rounded up 1000 volunteers to assist in the rebuilding of the church.
“The sectarian issue in Egypt has always been strongly fostered by state security, who always maintained a strict monopoly over dealing with it. But now that they are gone and we, the Egyptians, can actually face up to the problem and try to find solutions for it,” says Eid. “The fact that the NDP and state security may be both behind these incidents is quite worrying, though.”
Eid says that he and his colleagues never expected a flare-up of sectarian tension and were shocked at the events of recent days.
“After Shafik stepped down we knew that they would want revenge because he was part of the old regime and we got rid of him,” says Eid.
Eid adds that Essam Sharaf, the newly appointed prime minister of the interim government, is considered a “product of the revolution,” who will not protect state security as Shafik did. This surely angered and worried the remnants of the old regime.
“After Sharaf was appointed we heard mutterings from state security personnel that violence will break out in the country and we were told to just wait and see,” says Sharaf. “But we didn’t know what exactly they were planning. Maybe more labor strikes to halt the production in the country or something - but we never imagined that they would try to cause religious strife.”
The dissolving of the state security apparatus has been one of the main demands of the youth who organised the 25 January revolution. Protesters stormed state security headquarters in Nasr City and Lazoughli last week after they heard reports that state security personnel were shredding and burning documents detailing human rights abuses.