This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 12/05/2011
Last week the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces warned that "unidentified" websites are working to destabilize [the country] and incite sectarian sedition and violence by broadcasting rumors. In a message posted on its own internet website, the Supreme Council noted that the sources of such websites, including pages on Facebook, were unidentified, and some of these web-sites were based in foreign countries, making it difficult to identify their owners. The Supreme Council concluded its message by warning people to be wary of rumors, or calls for sedition, made on the internet or elsewhere, for these aim to sow fear and suspicion, undermine Egypt's stability, and spread chaos.
A few days after this warning, the poor neighborhood of Imbaba in Cairo, which is considered one of the city's most densely populated areas, witnessed sectarian violence that resulted in 12 deaths and left more than 180 people injured. This led to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf cancelling his Gulf tour, despite its importance, in order to attend an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the repercussions of this event. It is interesting that the clashes erupted following rumors that a Coptic woman was being held against her will in the Church of Saint Mina because she wanted to convert to Islam. This resulted in crowds of people, including Salafists, gathering in front of the church demanding her release. Matters soon developed into clashes where bullets and even Molotov cocktails were used, whilst another church in the neighborhood was set on fire, thus pouring more fuel on the burning flames of sectarian tension.
This is a "war of rumors" being waged by those who want to transform the Egyptian revolution from a wedding into a funeral; they are working to spread chaos and destabilize security to increase frustrations in the hearts of the people and to quell the spirit revived by the Tahrir Square revolution. Sectarianism is the greatest threat to Egypt, just as frustration is the revolution's most dangerous enemy; the former results in the fragmentation of the fabric of society, placing the entire country on the verge of a serious crisis, whilst the latter erodes the morale of the people and causes fear and doubt to supersede the great hopes for change.
The war of rumors, and rogue internet websites, is nothing new; this is something that has accompanied the Egyptian revolution since the early days, initially with the aim of frustrating the revolution, and then later trying to abort this. People spoke, at various levels, about a counter-revolution aiming to create chaos and disrupt the steps towards democratization in a country with an indisputable role and ability to influence its surrounding environment. Internally there are forces that want to thwart the revolution, whilst others that are seeking to seize control of it; there are those who are afraid for the revolution, and others who are afraid of it. While externally, there are also those who want to set back the hopes of the "Arab Spring". The problem is that matters have reached the extent that some people in Egypt (as well as in Tunisia) are now talking about the "Algerian scenario", in the sense of the presence of parties working to create confusion, thus creating conditions for an Islamist victory in the upcoming elections amidst this tense atmosphere. The objective of this is to prompt the military to intervene under the slogan of "saving the country".
In Egypt specifically, such conversations are also fuelling sectarian tensions, where the Coptic community is now feeling concerned by the rise of the Islamists, and in particular the extremism of the Salafists, who suddenly raised their voices in Egypt following the revolution. The direction of many of the Salafist actions and statement is a subject of increasing concern for the Copts, who are fearful of the "Iraq scenario", which saw terrorist and extremist movements target Christians in order to displace them.
It is striking that the pace of sectarian incidents in Egypt has accelerated since the revolution, from the burning of a church in the center of Atfih, Giza, and clashes that killed 13 people, to Islamists cutting off the ear of a Copt in Upper Egypt, and then demonstrations against the appointment of a Copt to the position of Governor of Qena. In the context of this continuing escalation, several demonstrations have also been organized in the past few weeks to revive the issue of Camilia Shehata and Wafaa Constantine, two married Copts who sparked wide controversy months ago after it was rumored that they were being imprisoned in a Church against their will because they wanted to convert to Islam.
The issue of sectarian strife has become the biggest threat to Egypt and its revolution, and indulgence or negligence can no longer be tolerated. The Copts, with estimates on their total population varying between six and ten million, represent an integral part of Egyptian society; they are not newcomers or outsiders, and there are many Copts who have done great service to Egypt. Throughout its history, Egypt was a model of coexistence, before certain movements of intolerance and religious extremism appeared, threatening to destroy its national unity and disrupt the fabric of its society. Following a wonderful example of cohesion during the days of the revolution, today movements and voices are looming, rejecting the principle of equal citizenship for all, seeking to marginalize minorities, and attempting to impose their view on everyone.
It is necessary to protect the revolution, but protecting the homeland and its unity is a sacred duty. If the basics of democratic transformation allow freedom of expression and association, then the protection of democracy requires the rule of law and the protection of the rights of all citizens equally and without discrimination. The law must remain above all else, and an independent judiciary must be the first recourse. It is not the right of any movement or group of people to set fire to houses of worship, or to organize rallies demanding that individuals be handed over to them, in order to confirm their religious affiliation. If someone is being held against their will, it is the law that will protect them...this is the manner in which people should behave.
Egypt is currently going through a difficult transition, and revolutions are usually most fragile during this phase. However, the revolution requires patience, perseverance and vigilance in order to achieve its objectives, and in order to protect itself from those who want to thwart it or abort it by spreading chaos, rumors and discord. At this stage, the Egyptian army, which provided a sublime model in its discipline and commitment to protecting the homeland when it refused to use arms against its own people, must now strengthen channels of communication and consultation with other civil and political social forces in order to integrate efforts to protect the revolution and national unity, and in order to overcome the feelings of anxiety and frustration at this sensitive stage.