How Egypt combats sectarianism and legitimises it at the same time

Image for post
Image for post
Fighting sectarianism: Egypt’s culture minister Ines Abdel-Dayem and her flute

Last December Egypt’s minister of culture, Ines Abdel-Dayem, went into battle against sectarianism — armed with a flute. The minister, who is a former director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and a former chair of the Cairo Opera House, played her favourite instrument at a concert in Minya as part of an initiative “to combat religious extremism and spread the beauty of arts and music in Upper Egypt”.

Within a month, though, Minya province was back to its old ways. In the village of Manshiyet Zaafarana an angry crowd surrounded a building that Coptic Christians used for prayers. The protesters accused the Christians of trying to turn the building into a church without a permit, and the building was later closed.

Music may not calm sectarian passions but the Sisi regime is also trying a more conventional route. It has set up a committee with an important-sounding name — the “Supreme Committee to Counter Sectarian Violence”. According to the official announcement, this new body will comprise “members of the armed forces, military intelligence, general intelligence, the Administrative Control Authority and the National Security Agency” and will be chaired by President Sisi’s adviser on security and anti-terrorism affairs.

The move has generally been welcomed by Egypt’s Christian churches as well as the Islamophobia Observatory — a Muslim organisation — but there are questions about what the committee is likely to achieve.

Its instructions are to develop “a general strategy to prevent and combat sectarian incidents” along with “mechanisms to deal with sectarian incidents when they occur”. Its membership — drawn from the military and intelligence apparatus — shows the focus is on sectarianism as a security problem rather than a social problem and, as its name indicates, it has been set up primarily to tackle violence resulting from sectarianism.

This security aspect is important, of course, and some of it overlaps into counterterrorism. Besides communal clashes of the type seen in Minya last month, there have been repeated bomb attacks on churches and sectarian killings attributed to jihadists.

One practical step the committee might take would be to ensure that those responsible for communal violence are dealt with according to the law. In general, the authorities favour “reconciliation” processes in the aftermath of conflict. While this may sound good in principle, its usual effect is to restore calm on the surface without addressing the root causes.

“Reconciliation” often means the perpetrators escape punishment and, over time, that creates a climate of impunity while those on the other side feel that justice has not been done. A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in 2015 described the reconciliation processes as “a major factor contributing to the recurrence of sectarian attacks”.

The main problem though, is beyond the scope of a military/intelligence committee. Sectarian attitudes among the Egyptian public are fostered and legitimised by institutionalised sectarianism.

Officially, the state opposes sectarianism and claims to be trying to eradicate it but at the same time permits religious discrimination and even helps to perpetuate it.

One example is that the law (despite having been “reformed” in 2016) makes it more difficult to build or renovate a church than a mosque. Aside from the practical consequences for Christians, discriminatory rules of this kind have a knock-on effect on people’s attitudes, as Timothy Kaldas explained in an article for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy:

“Sectarian laws surrounding church building have been used as a pretext by vigilantes in rural areas to justify their attacks on Christian places of worship, whether they are private homes used to host prayers or churches seeking to renovate or repair their premises. Attackers often cite the restrictions on church building when defending their actions.”

Christians in Egypt are thought to account for about 10% of the population but are clearly under-represented in some key areas. The most recent report on religious freedom in Egypt by the US State Department noted:

Among the 568 elected members of the current parliament, according to an earlier State Department report, only 36 are Christians.

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store