A search for identity in Egypt′s street fights | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 10.04.2013
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Middle East

A search for identity in Egypt's street fights

Egypt has seen a rise in fights between Copts and Muslims. But the conflicts involve more than a mere sense of religious rivalry. Other questions that go well beyond religious identity are at stake.

A cross adorns a building at Al-Azhar University, one of the largest and most significant religious institutions in the Islamic world. A couple of Coptic adolescents sprayed the symbol there, apparently motivated by religious fighting in the province of Qalyubia, north of Cairo.

Egypt's Copts and Muslims attacked each other there recently, leading to the deaths of four Copts and one Muslim.

In turn, the cross has provoked several still unknown individuals - likely Islamists - to the extent that they attacked visitors of the funeral services held for the murdered Copts in Cairo's Saint Mark's Cathedral over the weekend. They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the attendees, who defended themselves and shouted slogans decrying the ruling Muslim Brothers and President Mohammed Morsi.

Tensions escalated, and soon both groups were engaged in heated street fighting. The situation did not ease until Sunday.

A girl stands in front of a burnt house belonging to a Muslim REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Following the violence - a Muslim house in Khosous, north of Cairo

Forced politicization

The conflicts demonstrate how much ill will exists between Copts and Muslims - at least between radical representatives of both groups. But political scientist Gamal Soltan of the American University in Cairo said the character of that tension has changed. While there has long been a rivalry between the two groups, it was based largely on religious differences, he said, adding that now Egypt's religious and political identity as a whole is at stake.

For months, Egypt has been wrangling with questions about the role of religion in state affairs. A deep divide now separates those who support a state based upon a religious foundation, and those who prefer secularism.

"The Coptic community finds itself deeply implicated in this conflict because it's about the identity of the nation," Soltan said, going on to say that Copts "sympathize more with the secular opposition" even though the Coptic Church tends to refrain from addressing political questions.

Soltan said he believes these sympathies have contributed to the recent tensions between Copts and the Muslim Brothers. "The current turmoil in Egypt forces the Copts to take sides in the current political crisis in the country - something the Coptic community tried to avoid for decades."

Coptic Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria (c) STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Coptic Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria opposes a religious state

Words spoken recently by Coptic Pope Tawadros leave no doubt that the recent conflicts between Copts and Muslims are taking place against a background of fundamental questions of Egypt's identity.

"Egypt was always a secular state," he said after the incidents over the weekend. "Religion has its own forums. The intention of transforming Egypt into a non-secular state is something we absolutely and resolutely reject."

Heated atmosphere

Morsi condemned the attacks on mourning Copts in sharp terms.

"Every attack on the cathedral is a personal attack against me," he said in a statement.

But critics have accused him of paving the way for the increase in religious tensions with the pointedly religious character of his presidency

"Young people must orient themselves around tolerance within the three monotheistic religions," said Hamdeen Sabahi, who campaigned as a representative of secular supporters in last year's presidential election. "We need to see more than just Muslim sheiks shaking hands with Coptic priests."

The conflicts between Copts and Muslims haven't just led to an escalation in inter-religious tension. For some, they also discredit the goals Egyptians had in mind over two years ago when they instigated the revolution that thrust former President Hosni Mubarak from office.

"That's supposed to be democracy," commented one frustrated young Copt upon reading media reports about attacks on his religious community. His remark expressed the political and economic insecurity many Egyptians have felt in the time following Mubarak's overthrow.

Muslims demonstrate against President Morsi (c) REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Muslims demonstrate against President Morsi

Exploiting the situation

More than ever, it's important to take a critical look at the political situation in Egypt, said journalist and political scientist Ashraf Khalil, who wrote a thorough study of the Egyptian revolution. He noted that opposition to the current government doesn't just come from Copts and secularists.

"There are a lot of people who are practicing Muslims - serious, practicing Muslims - who also don't trust Morsi, don't trust the Brotherhood," Khalil said, adding that he prefers to speak of Islamists and anti-Islamists since it's possible to be religious and still an opponent of Morsi's government. "It does not mean they are secular. They just don't want an Islamist government."

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