Before a year on the Christmas Eve crime in Nag Hammadi, in which one Muslim passerby and six Copts were killed as they left church after Midnight Mass—Copts celebrate Christmas on 7 January—terrorism reared its ugly face, this time on New Year’s Eve. A year that did not lack for fierce sectarian violence against Copts, 2010 ended with hundreds of worshippers in churches praying for a more clement new year. But in Alexandria’s Church of the Saints, what had started as a joyful, hopeful event ended in a bloodbath as a bomb exploded, claimed the lives of more than 20 and left some 80 wounded.
The horrendous act of terrorism shook Egypt in its entirety and deeply shocked the national conscience. The sight of the blood of the martyrs mixed with that of the injured who lay in the street awaiting rescue sent shivers of horror down Egyptian spines. What did any of them do to deserve such a fate? And why are the Church and its congregation always the conspicuous targets of violent attacks in Egypt? These questions beg answers not from the terrorists but from the State apparatuses in charge of national security and the protection of all Egyptians.
Right after the tragedy, condolences were the order of the day. State officials hastened to the scene of the crime as though in competition on the honeyed rhetoric especially tailored to such occasions. We heard the by-now familiar “the crime was planned by external forces which target our national solidarity”; “this is a mean conspiracy by international terrorism to create a rift between Egypt’s Copts and Muslims”; “the forces of terrorism will never shatter the unity between Muslims and Copts”; and “Egyptians should hold on to their unity to confront the enemies of the nation”.
But the condolence fair also involved some unprecedented moves that the Copts had always missed when they had been victims, in more incidents than one can care to count, of ruthless sectarian terrorism. President Mubarak went on State TV with a speech that expressed his genuine sorrow for the ‘heinous terrorist act’. He promised to track down the perpetrators of the crime, whom he described as outside hands which wish to make Egypt a playing field for the evils of terrorism. Mubarak stressed that Egypt’s national security is his first and foremost responsibility, and that he will never abandon it.
It also came as a surprise that the Minister of Social Solidarity declared the ministry would offer financial aid to the families of the victims. To complete the picture, a security official declared the explosion was the result of a locally-fabricated bomb, but said it was very obvious that foreign forces were behind the crime since, he claimed, the crime did not conform with Egyptian values.
Apart from the condolence fair, I failed to see any serious, courageous effort to confront the distressing reality of Coptic life in Egypt day in day out. Occasionally tackled by human rights reports and by intellectuals, the dire state of Copts is only discussed whenever another incident of so-called sectarian strife occurs or a ‘terrorist’ bomb explodes.
I thought I was alone in my discontent with the condolence fair, until I discovered that the majority of Copts shared my discontent and that Coptic fury had at long last exploded, outstripping the explosion of the bomb. And amidst the angry voices, I heard fellow Muslims from all public, cultural, social and intellectual levels, protesting the official persistence in falsifying the reality and in the honeyed talk that deliberately disregards the cause of all our ills. I felt redeemed when Muslims called for reform and for a strong, serious stand against extremism, sectarianism and fundamentalism. Failing to achieve that would serve to nurture the climate of sedition which in turn breeds the fanaticism which shatters our national security and provides fertile ground for terrorism.
Indicators of the un-anticipated Coptic fury abound, and they reveal that Copts do not absolve State officials from being the main contributors to the Coptic grievances. Legislative discrimination against Copts is a fact of life; the law is not enforced in their favour, neither are culprits who commit crimes against them penalised. I do not believe Coptic anger went unnoticed by State officials or media. Yet I cite it because it is alarming; overlooking it would constitute a huge mistake. During the funeral of the martyrs Pope Shenouda III’s secretary Anba Yu’annis stood up to thank President Mubarak. The congregation burst in one voice crying “No, no, no” for a few minutes. No-one was able to control the frantic crowd. And when Alexandria governor Adel Labib’s name was mentioned, the cries rose calling for his dismissal. On the other hand, when Abdel-Salam al-Mahgoub’s name was mentioned, it was met with the crowd’s applause. Mahgoub is the current Minister for Local Development and was the much-loved and respected previous governor of Alexandria. The crowd’s response reflected how poorly Alexandria’s Copts state fare under Labib and how wishful they are of Mahgoub’s return. One cannot simply forget that Alexandria, which was for decades a model cosmopolitan town, has today become a stronghold of violent extremism and fanaticism, especially as the security officials looked the other way round.
I have tackled the ailment, but the prescription for treatment will have to wait—that is, if we are still interested to know.