Graffiti that Cannot Be Erased: Sectarianism Lives On

Since the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the political standstill that has followed, both international and local news media dedicated countless hours and resources to analyses of whether the ousting was a coup, documentations of sit-ins and demonstrations, and interviews with political leaders and observers. While there is no doubt that the political events that Egypt witnessed in the last month and a half are newsworthy, this coverage has come at the expense of highlighting worrisome domestic trends that must be addressed and cannot be left to fester. At the forefront of these local issues is the heightened level of sectarianism against Copts that Egypt is now witnessing in villages and cities across the country.

While sectarianism has long plagued Egypt, there is no doubt that in recent days, it has become more pervasive and present in a variety of manifestations and more importantly, that it is not being systematically targeted or comprehensively and appropriately addressed by a single state institution in a manner that is befitting of a post-revolutionary nation.

In the last three or four days, numerous instances of graffiti and spray paint desecrated the doors and walls of churches and cathedrals across the country. “Islamist” on the St. Fatima church in Heliopolis, “Islamist, oh worshippers of the cross,” on a neighboring church wall in Cairo, “Tawadros, son of a dog, Islam is coming,” on the wall of St. Anthony’s Cathedral in Minya, and “Tawadros the dog, Egypt is Islamic,” on the outside of the Mar Guirguis Church in Assiut, are only some of many documented instances. A number of serious threats against Pope Tawadros II were issued, sectarian call-ins threatening Christians made on live television shows, and a number of official church activities were cancelled due to fears surrounding the “worsening security situation.”

While graffiti and spray paint can easily be painted over, the sight of these desecrations is something that cannot be forgotten or erased. For one, they go largely unpunished and are often falsely labeled by security as “one-off” instances by thugs or children that are unlikely to be repeated. This nonchalant approach to hate-speech ultimately proliferates instances of these kinds and gives cover to the use of sectarian rhetoric.

The Raba’a al-Adaweya and Nahda stages have turned into an open-mic for individuals to scapegoat Christians for the removal of Morsi and to express hate-filled statements without retribution; from conspiracy theories involving Tamarod and Coptic Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris to allegations of the Church’s complicity in the ousting of Morsi, the free flow of information from Raba’a and Nahda has replaced the likes of Misr 25 and al-Hafez, Egyptian Islamist satellite channels shutdown in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, known to employ sectarian rhetoric.

This rhetoric has translated into several incidents in the space of just one month. In the immediate aftermath of Morsi’s ousting, eight people were injured after the July 3 looting and torching of two churches in Minya. This was followed by the fatal beating of four Christians in Naga Hassan, Luxor on July 5 after a Muslim resident was found dead. Tens of Christian properties were also raided and damaged in response and clashes continued for over twenty-four hours, with police intervention only occurring after the killings had ensued. Similar incidents have occurred since. Pro-Morsi supporters attempted an attack on a Qena church on July 5, and on July 9, St. Mina’s Church in Port Said was attacked. In the first week of August, a disagreement between a Copt and Muslim over a pro-military song in Minya, quickly devolved into clashes that left eighteen injured and tens of homes and stores ransacked. A Qaeda flag was also raised over St. George’s Church in Sohag after an August 5 assault by Islamists.

In Ain Shams, ten-year old Jessi Boulis was killed while walking with her Sunday school teacher after assailants opened fire in her direction as she exited her bible study class. This incident received little to no local coverage outside of the social media sphere and has largely gone unresolved. In Sinai, at least three Coptic citizens, among them a priest, were killed by unknown assailants in different instances on July 5, 6, and 11.

While sixteen human rights organizations and NGOs recently called on Islamist groups to stop inciting violence against Coptic citizens and demanded that the state take tangible action to address these concerns, government institutions and actors have done little to nothing to put a halt to these incidents. Political leaders, whether from the government or Armed Forces, have failed to adequately condemn sectarianism; investigative committees and reconciliation meetings, like the one recently set up for Minya, have adopted superficial remedies like the dropping of lawsuits and expelling of certain individuals to address matters that require a more concerted effort to address root causes. Furthermore, while the Constituent Assembly is set to incorporate a few Christian representatives, there are serious questions on whether these individuals will be empowered to combat the inequality that is deeply enshrined in legislation and the Constitution. To add insult to injury, police and security apparatus have been late to intervene in clashes, allowing violence and death to reach heightened levels.

Nowhere are sectarian tensions and the government’s failure to contain the situation more apparent than in Beni Suef. What began as an altercation between a Muslim and Coptic resident over the construction of a speed bump in the Diabeya village of Beni Suef on August 11 quickly turned into a heated clash which left over thirty injured and a church and eleven Coptic homes destroyed and torched. A full day after the clashes, the cabinet issued an official statement on the matter. In it, they called for the revival of the National Council for Justice and Equality—a government body established two years ago which had never seen the light of day. On August 7, Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi is said to have tasked Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin with reshaping this very same council, but little has been said since. Meanwhile, an order has been issued for the arrest of at least fifteen in the aftermath of the Beni Suef clashes, with the prosecution report contradicting the cabinet statement and saying that the violence was not sectarian in nature. 

Ultimately, the state has failed “to decisively confront sectarian attacks, and to enforce the law by holding those responsible to account.” As described in the aforementioned NGO statement, this falls within a “pattern of impunity” that was pervasive throughout the Mubarak, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Morsi regimes. Unless the state begins to severely punish sectarian practices and work to reform the laws and institutions that promote inequality between Muslim and Coptic citizens, the issue of sectarianism will only fester and is likely to take a serious turn for the worse in light of the heightened political tension, presence of unaccounted-for weapons, and the security void that plagues the nation. 

Mai El-Sadany is a law student at the Georgetown University Law Center, with an intent to focus on international and human rights law in the context of Middle East politics.

Photo: Hossam El-Hamalawy


Image: Photo: Hossam El-Hamalawy