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The elephant in the room (part 1): The state and sectarian violence

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged the swift pursuit of justice in holding the perpetrators of sectarian violence to account, regardless of who they are, in the aftermath of a sectarian incident in Karm Village, Minya in May.

“It is very inappropriate that this happened in Egypt yet again. Anyone who makes a mistake, whoever he is, will be held accountable. The law should take its course and be applied on anyone, including the president himself,” Sisi said.

But what if it is the law itself that is the problem and not the solution?

Along the same lines as the President’s remarks were comments by Coptic Pope Tawadros and Bishop Makarios, who was assigned by the Pope to follow up on the incident. They reiterated the necessity of implementing the rule of law, and only resorting to customary reconciliation committees afterwards. Similarly, statements by most representatives of official Islamic institutions and those among the legal and political elite demanded the law be applied without discrimination.

But what if it is the law itself that is the problem and not the solution? What if the main trigger for incidents of sectarian violence in Egypt, since the beginning of the 1980s until after January 2011, is the legislative framework that governs the relationship between state and society, religion and personal affairs?

Recent sectarian incidents indicate the state’s function has shifted from one that supports social cohesion to one that threatens it. What is needed then is a move away from calls for implementing the rule of law to the restructuring of the relationship between state and society based on foundations that are different to those of a century and a half ago.

The role of the state

Such statements by officials are based on two ways of dealing with sectarian strife: The first approach can be described as cultural, and is based on a perception that sectarian incidents occur due to the backwardness of society, which has failed to catch up with and accept the ideals of the modern state. This is generally attributed to the rigidity of a tribal or sectarian structure that refuses to deal with those who believe in other religions as having the same rights and responsibilities. In this context, the role of the state apparatus is to develop local communities and gradually introduce them to modern practices in which citizens are free and equal under the law without discrimination.

Sectarian attitudes do not purely emanate from society, but are also prevalent within structures of governance.

This cultural approach sometimes takes a different form, where it suggests that society has evolved over the last century according to modern standards, but faced a cultural invasion that led to the introduction of foreign religious observances to Egyptian society, for example from Saudi Arabia. Here again, the role of the state is to lead society in a process of self-discovery by preaching a modern template of religiosity that invokes forgiveness and co-existence among followers of different religions.

The second approach is one that calls on the state to play a developmental role by encouraging the relinquishing of sectarian affiliations in favor of modern national affiliations, and creating common interests between those belonging to different faiths.

These approaches expose an uncontested truth that the vast majority of sectarian incidents erupt in the provinces and areas that are perceived to be less developed.

There is nothing wrong with these approaches in principle, except that they ignore the elephant in the room. They assume the role of the state is to modernize the nation culturally and develop it through economic and social policies.

Statistics on the causes of sectarian violence however indicate that the majority of incidents erupt as a result of practices that the state has had a hand in for decades, such as the building of churches — a law governing which was passed shortly after the writing of the article — or the state’s handling of issues in a way that encourages sectarian violence, such as in faith and jurisprudence cases, or conversion from Islam to Christianity, or vice versa.

In other words, these approaches ignore the fact that sectarian attitudes do not purely emanate from society, but are also prevalent within structures of governance. In this way, the legislative framework that organizes relations between state and society becomes itself a factor in reproducing sectarianism.

Empirical information on sectarian violence 

Information available on sectarian violence is sparse and covers limited time periods. This is partially because of the political sensitivities of the subject, but also due to the lack of institutional support for this kind of work. However, in recent years, we’ve witnessed a number of attempts to build a database that reveals the motivations for sectarian violence and studies trends since the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, particularly in the period after January 2011.

In her book Copts at the Crossroads, researcher Mariz Tadros lists 10 reasons for sectarian violence in the period between 2008 and 2011, based on 180 incidents over three years. These include, among other cases: 37 recorded disputes between Muslims and Christians over economic and social issues, 34 conflicts relating to the building or renovation of churches, 33 conflicts over romantic or sexual relationships between people from different religions and 22 conflicts resulting from religious conversion. It is worth noting that expressing opinions that diverge from the official discourse of the religious establishment did not account for more than four incidents during this period. Such cases are typically handled legally if they lead to sectarian tension, according to the articles of the Penal Code that criminalize insulting religion.

These are all issues the state has been stalling on finalizing legislation for, or that relate to existing legislation that imposes heavy restrictions on freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution, such as freedom of expression.

From Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 until the 2012 presidential elections, Tadros records 70 incidents of sectarian violence. The most common reason for such violence was the building of churches, leading to 15 incidents, followed by romantic or sexual relationships between followers of different religions, provoking 13 incidents. Fights between citizens over economic and social issues amounted to 11 incidents, and tensions erupting as a result of religious conversion six incidents.

After January 2011, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) carried out field research on sectarian violence, documenting incidents until the end of 2014. In its study of customary reconciliation sessions by researcher Ishak Ibrahim, EIPR listed 150 incidents of sectarian violence, 45 of which were dealt with through customary reconciliation sessions.

EIPR reached similar conclusions to Tadros, listing the building of churches, which provoked 14 incidents, as the main reason for tension during this period. Incidents relating to romantic or sexual relationships between followers of different religions were responsible for 13 incidents, freedom of expression eight incidents, and disputes between citizens seven incidents.

Ishhad (Witness), which is affiliated with the Tahrir Research Institute in Washington DC, updated the map of sectarian violence in Egypt and analyzed trends. The project covers the period between mid-2014 to the beginning of 2016. In addition to its own survey of sectarian violence, the project also includes political violence directed against minorities, mostly from Islamist individuals or groups sympathizing with them, such as the kidnapping of Coptic Christians for ransom. The institute recorded 400 incidents in this period. Removing acts of criminal violence against other minority groups, these include: 24 cases in which the building of churches was the primary reason for sectarian incidents, followed by fights among citizens in 16 cases. Incidents relating to expressing opinions amounted to 11 cases, followed by those involving romantic relationships in seven cases.

Considering their different methodologies and data collection, all of these studies show that the building of churches was the number one reason for sectarian violence since the beginning of 2011, and even before that, followed by romantic relationships between people of different religions, religion conversion, and expressing opinions on issues of faith.

These are all issues the state has been stalling on finalizing legislation for, or that relate to existing legislation that imposes heavy restrictions on freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution, such as freedom of expression.

According to data gathered by Tadros between 2008 and 2011, 103 sectarian incidents out of 180 occurred in just five governorates. In order of the most prevalent, they are: Minya, Cairo, Assiut, Alexandria and Beni Suef. According to EIPR, four governorates out of these five were the sites for more than half of the incidents in which customary reconciliation sessions were sought for resolution. In order, these are: Minya, Beni Suef, Cairo and Assiut, amounting to 26 cases out of a total of 45.

Analysis of this data reveals a society full of contradictions, in which certain sectors rebel against authority and social and patriarchal norms, while clashing with the legislative framework that organizes the relationship between state and society.

Note: The second part of this article will attempt to shed light on the nature of legislation around sectarianism, and the stumbling blocks in attempts to amend this legislation. 

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Amr Abdel Rahman