Egypt’s army rulers face a dilemma as a bolder stance adopted by Islamists in the post-Mubarak era is worsening sectarian tension and triggering demands for the kind of crackdown that made the former president so unpopular.
Armed clashes between conservative Muslims and Coptic Christians left 12 dead in a Cairo suburb on Saturday, touching off angry protests by some of the capital’s residents who called for the army to use an “iron fist” against the instigators.
The violence has deepened fear among Christians, who complain of poor police protection and a new tolerance of Muslim extremists, raising the risk of new flashpoints in a country dogged by poverty, soaring prices and a faltering economy, Reuters reports.
Police deserted their posts during the January and February uprising against Mubarak. Many have returned but many Egyptians say that has failed to stop theft and violent crime spreading as Egypt looks ahead to its first free elections in September.
“The softness of the state is a problem right now,” said political analyst Issandr El Amrani, who expects the interim military government to restore a tough line against conservative Salafist Islamic groups and others that incite religious hatred.
“It’s not going to be popular with a segment of the population but a government has to do unpopular things sometimes,” said Amrani.
Egypt, which relies on an image of stability to draw millions of tourists, has seen a steady increase in inter-faith violence in recent years, despite a pause during the uprising.
Millions of Muslims and Christians massed in Cairo’s landmark Tahrir Square in defiance of Mubarak’s heavy-handed security apparatus, many waving banners bearing the Islamic crescent and Christian cross entwined.
Many Egyptian Muslims condemned the weekend clashes in Cairo’s Imbaba neighbourhood, which began when a group of Salafists demanded to look inside a church where they suspected a female convert to Islam was being held against her will.
“Why are we distracting ourselves with this idiocy? We should be spending our effort building the country, not protesting and fighting,” a veiled woman in her 40s was heard telling a friend in central Cairo on Sunday.
“I pray that no strife divides us. If someone converted it’s God who judges him, not me or anyone else and in Islam we say ‘you have your religion and we have ours’,” said Ramadan Habiba, a bearded accountant in a suit outside a mosque.
MOB RANSACKS COFFEE SHOP
The army has signalled a sterner approach, saying 190 people would be tried in military courts over the Imbaba violence.
The decision marks a shift from past practice, when Mubarak’s government often dealt with sectarian strife by asking a religious figure to negotiate a reconciliation.
“I think that kind of approach encourages fanatics to escalate their attacks,” Mustapha al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University.
Although Mubarak’s government repressed Islamists, rights groups accused his officials of failing to address sectarian violence head on by hauling in the culprits or punishing those blamed for whipping up such violence.
The rights groups blamed this cautious approach on a fear of inciting Islamists further against the state, which fought an Islamist uprising in the 1990s.
The army’s interim government vowed on Sunday to toughen laws criminalising attacks on places of worship. But analysts said such measures, though welcome, were still not enough.
“There’s a decision to deal firmly with violations of the law but there is no clear vision of what to do in order to pre-empt a recurrence of these acts,” said Sayyid.
Witnesses at the scene of Saturday’s clashes said the army formed a security cordon near the church targeted by the Salafists when the shooting began, but failed to intervene as a mob ransacked a coffee shop and a bakery owned by a Christian.
Another church was gutted by fire in the violence, which left more than 238 people wounded.
“All this shows there is a real need to get the police back on the street. The army does not have the policing skills,” said Amrani. “Part of the security vacuum since the revolution is that there are no early warning signs. You need to be able to act fast when these rumours propagate.”
TOUGHER LINE ON FANATICS
Last week at the al-Nour mosque in the Cairo district of Abasiyah, Salafists organised a “prayer for the absent” for Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader killed by U.S. special forces in his hideout in Pakistan on May 2.
Dozens of military police rushed in to stop the memorial service in the mosque, a symbol of the Salafists’ struggle to assert their power, but stood helpless as they proceeded with the prayer under a banner of bin Laden.
Salafists have blocked a government-appointed cleric from leading Friday prayers at al-Nour for weeks, in favour of their leader Sheikh Hafez Salameh.
The army’s softly-softly approach so far when dealing with the Salafists may be aimed at avoiding religious confrontations given Egypt’s brittle social balance. Analysts say that tactic showed its limits in Imbaba this past weekend.
“In this case, free speech was used to sow hatred against Christians,” said Sayyed. “That is not in the spirit of the right to freedom of expression, but I don’t think this comes to the minds of members of the (ruling) military council.”