A new religious divide in ancient Egypt

RELIGIOUS extremism is no novelty in Egypt. From the early days of Islam's introduction into the country clashes between followers of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) and Christians broke out periodically. The Muslim Brotherhood — regarded as the foundation upon which much of today's militant Islam is based — has its roots in Egypt in the late 1920s. Religion-based violence in Egypt can be found among the pages of the Old Testament.

By Claude Salhani

Published: Mon 23 Jun 2008, 10:10 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:23 PM

That having been said, the concern that religious violence may engulf Egypt as it has Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon is the fact that has many Middle East observers worried.

However, it is not ancient history that concerns us today but rather the present and the immediate future. And the fresh wave of violence, which has swept Egypt in recent weeks, can only increase those fears. The spectre of Iraq and Lebanon's civil wars should act as a constant reminder that once the fire is started there is no telling which way the flames will turn and how impossible it will be to control them.

In Iraq the conflict is between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. Sunnis in Iraq have long been the ruling class dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire until Saddam Hussein's overthrow by a US-led coalition. Sunnis are finding it hard now that much of the power rests in the hands of the Shia majority. Taking advantage of the mayhem that has settled in the days after the dismantlement of the Iraqi army and security forces by the U.S. occupation troops, a plethora of anti-American Islamists have made their way to Iraq for a chance to fight the Americans.

Meanwhile Lebanon, a country that is still reeling from the effects of the devastating 15-year civil war, came awfully close to reigniting the embers of inter-communal strife. The difference this time is that the alliance has changed; the lines of social division are between the country's Shia community, led by Hezbollah, and the Sunnis.

Similarly, we are seeing inter-Palestinian disputes in the Palestinian territories between Hamas, representing the extremists in Islam vs. Fatah, more laid back when it comes to religion. And violence that has plagued the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent years, the violence that is still plaguing Pakistan and other parts of Southeast Asia is all intra-Muslim. As is the current battle for control of Afghanistan.

Egypt's clashes however, are between the country's Christian community — known as Copts — and the majority Muslims. There are approximately 16 million Christian Copts in a country of 81.7 million people.

While there have been sporadic clashes between the two groups the recent attacks targeting Egyptian Christians seems to be gathering momentum.

'What is happening to our Coptic brothers ... is no longer a matter of sporadic incidents,' said Ahmad Al Aswani, an Egyptian writer, in an essay he posted on the liberal web site www.Aafaq.org.

During the month of May four Coptic Christians were shot dead by masked men; a day later, two men armed with machine guns robbed a Coptic jeweller in Alexandria. And again a few days after that armed men carrying automatic weapons assaulted the Abu-Fana monastery in the Minya governorate. Several monks were roughed-up and some were kidnapped. In another incident homes were burnt after a group of Muslims were incited during Friday prayers.

The government of President Hosni Mubarak cannot continue to turn a blind eye to a situation that can only gather steam if left unchecked. Perhaps in wanting to appease some of the country's more radical elements the Egyptian president is trying to avoid a direct confrontation. But in adopting a laissez-faire policy today only paves the way for a more serious showdown in months and years to come. Just ask the Saudis.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst based in Washington, DC

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