Egypt’s ‘Coptic Issue’

Since the 1970’s Egypt has witnessed sporadic clashes between its Muslims and members of the Coptic Christian minority. Such a problem has been dubbed the ‘Coptic Issue’, which concerns itself with the tension-filled relationship that currently exists between the Egyptian Coptic community and the state and Islamic groups. Although such tensions were magnified with an increase in Islam extremism in the 1970’s, the source of such a division along religious lines can be traced back to the socio-political shift which occurred in Egypt upon its transformation from the traditional Ottoman Millet system to the nation-state. This shift began but was not completed, mostly due to the fact that during such transformation many countries within the Levant were placed under foreign control and then experienced a state of weakness and fragility after having been given independence after World War One. It is this failure of the full conversion to the new modern nation-state that has led to Egypt being considered a boiling pot of religious tensions, just about ready to overflow.

The previous Ottoman system allowed for communities to be developed along religious lines in which they were able to preserve a degree of independence.

Despite the attempt by numerous political parties to publicly express their feelings of solidarity with the Coptic community, as well as their eagerness to safeguard the national unity of the Egyptian people as a whole, such sporadic clashes on the streets continued unabated.

This stands in stark contrast to the modern nation-state, the current Egyptian system, under which citizens are equal individuals, with their national identity of being Egyptian ultimately dominating over any religious identity. However, it can be seen that such religious affiliations have remained intact within Egypt, with its citizens identifying themselves along religious rather than along national lines. This can be seen if one analyses the events that have occurred recently within the country.

The most serious cases of tensions between the two religious sectors have usually been in poor, rural areas where the trigger is often a dispute over land or women. Such triggers ultimately spill over into becoming sectarian violence in which whole communities can become involved. However, the most recent attacks that have pulled international attention have not occurred on the outskirts of society within such rural regions, but rather in cities such as Naj Hammadi, which is located a mere 64 kilometres from Luxor, Southern Egypt’s biggest city, and Alexandria.

In Naj Hammadi, after having attended midnight mass, worshippers left a Coptic church on Christmas Eve as a car pulled up and opened fire on the unsuspecting crowd. This drive-by shooting resulted in the death of at least six Coptic Christians as well as of a security official, with officials stating that the attack on the church was done in revenge for the rape of a 12-year old Muslim girl by a Christian man which had occurred in the town a month prior.  Since the event, tensions had been high in the area, with numerous clashes erupting between the two sects.

As sporadic clashes continued as a result of this attack on Christmas Eve, a mere seven days later, in the early hours of the new year, a Coptic Church in Alexandria was the target of a violent terrorist attack. This attack resulted in the death of 23 Coptic Christians and left more than 70 others injured. As before, this attack resulted in a wave of violent demonstrations and rallies by Coptic Christians over the next three days immediately following the terror attack, often resulting in violent clashes with the State security forces. Despite the attempt by numerous political parties to publicly express their feelings of solidarity with the Coptic community, as well as their eagerness to safeguard the national unity of the Egyptian people as a whole, such sporadic clashes on the streets continued unabated.

It is clear that such attacks prove that there are deep-seated problems and divisions within the Egyptian society as it stands currently. Such divisions are ones that need to be recognised, identified and dealt with adequately and quickly by the Egyptian state forces if there is any hope of preventing similar attacks in the future.