Since the 1970s Christians in Egypt have felt under pressure from a perceived Islamization of society and patterns of discrimination from the government. In recent years they have registered complaints about restrictions in church building, irregularities in prosecuting crimes against their community, and other issues. Until recently, however, Christian criticism was expressed only within their community or with the media. On the rare occasions when they have demonstrated, it has been almost exclusively restricted to within church grounds.
The murder of six churchgoers in Nag Hamadi on Coptic Christmas, January 6, 2010, provoked small scale demonstrations of Christians in that Upper Egyptian town. This vulgar attack, however, precipitated the beginning of public protest elsewhere, as was witnessed in a peaceful demonstration in downtown Cairo in February. Over the course of the year other events – Christian homes burned in Abu Tisht, public polemics between religious leaders, conversion cases concerning wives of priests – all contributed to a deepening of tensions and a feeling of isolation among Christians. If tinder is present in abundance, only a small spark is necessary to cause an explosion.
November 2010, one month prior to the attacks in Alexandria, the first spark occurred in Umraniyya, a poor, traditional living quarter in a Cairo suburb. Rumors abounded that the church was attempting to transform a service building into a place of worship, and government authorities interfered and stopped the proceedings. This is a common occurrence in Egypt; church building regulations are restrictive, and there is often much subtle maneuvering between the circumvention of law and its enforcement. This time, however, violence exploded. Again, though not regular, this is not uncommon; what distinguished this event was that the violence began with Christian initiative.
At first the demonstration was led by disgruntled Christian workers, according to sources from within the church. Media reports, however, state that they were joined by up to 3,000 area Christian youth. They did not remain on the church grounds, but instead exited and blocked the ring road not far from the church. Reports also describe vandalism against local government buildings and vehicles.
When the security forces arrived to subdue these riots, the result was an exchange of stone throwing between the protestors and the police. Reports also describe Christians hurling Molotov cocktails at the guards. In an excessive show of force, the security responded by using tear gas and live ammunition. Two Christians were killed, dozens wounded, and scores were arrested.
As with most news events in Egypt, determining facts and placing guilt is a difficult matter. Whether or not the Christians, or even the local priests, bear fault, the overwhelming Christian response to the Umraniyya incident was horror at the unnecessary death of two individuals. Many Muslims and other activists also condemned the heavy hand of security in putting down otherwise containable protests, as had happened repeatedly in all nature of demonstrations over the previous year. Christians in particular, however, viewed it as one more piece of evidence that their community is beleaguered, if not persecuted.
This is the prevailing attitude among many Christians of all classes. Yet where this sentiment exists among the lower class and uneducated segments of society, it mixes with the problems of poverty and unemployment to create a dangerous tinderbox. This was seen on a minor scale in Umraniyya. The explosion was witnessed in Alexandria, and then elsewhere in Cairo.
The unprecedented bombing that took place at the church sent immediate shockwaves through the Christian community. How should one react when a place of worship has been desecrated, when fellow religionists have been ripped to pieces? Even if most victims were unknown to the majority of rioters, Alexandria represented an attack on the Christian community, and the spontaneous response in defense of Christian identity was to take to the streets.
Again, it is difficult to be precise. Did security fear the worst and clamp down, provoking the violence which ensued? Were the Christians bent on destruction, and thus needed to be subdued? Were local Muslims agitators, or innocent bystanders swept up in the fury? Certainly the combination of these factors intertwined to produce the riots widely held in Egypt’s urban centers. What is clear is that the preparation of tinder had been underway for some time.
Now that it has burned itself out, will Egypt – Muslims, Christians, and government – be able to find avenues to legitimately express grievances and seek common solutions? If not, the collection of tinder will quietly begin anew.
note: Shortly after the Umraniyya incident I wrote an article for Arab West Report summarizing the official church version of events. Having neglected to post that here originally, if you desire to read more I will look to do so in the next day or so.