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Religious Violence Has Egypt's Leaders on Edge

Monday, May 9, 2011

The clash between Coptic Christians and Salafi Muslims that left 12 people dead in Cairo over the weekend prompted a swift response from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that has run Egypt since February's ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

The violence represents a serious uptick in sectarian tensions within Egyptian society, and some are questioning the extent to which sinister elements from Mubarak's fallen regime may be playing a role in it.

"There is some concern, and there have been claims even that some of the things we've been seeing with regard to the sectarian clashes have been orchestrated by the previous regime," says Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University in Washington.

Shehata, who spoke with Trend Lines this morning, cautioned that no hard evidence exists for such claims, but pointed to historical links between Egypt's Salafist leadership and the security apparatus of both Mubarak and his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

"During the 1970s and early 1980s, many Salafis were encouraged by the Sadat regime to go to Afghanistan," he said, noting how, paradoxically, the sect was also long treated as a security threat by Egypt's past leadership.

With much of the sect's leadership having spent significant time in prison, speculation exists about bargains and deals having been "struck between elements of the security forces and, in particular, the Salafi leaders," said Shehata.

The emergence of Salafi protesters in recent months has become a defining challenge for the military council now governing Egypt amid an overall security situation that, according to Shehata, has deteriorated since Mubarak's ouster.

"The revolution was a defeat for the security forces," he said, adding that the overarching result has been "a greater likelihood of things like we saw on Saturday."

Saturday's violence started after several hundred hard-line conservative Salafist Muslims gathered outside the Coptic Saint Mena Church in Cairo. The Salafists were angered by reports that a Christian woman who had allegedly married a Muslim man and converted to Islam was being held inside against her will.

The subsequent clash was not the first time protests by Salafi groups had turned violent since Mubarak's ouster. "They've burned a number of liquor stores, destroyed Sufi Shrines and been intolerant even of other Muslims," said Shehata.

"There's evidence that the new government has awakened to the seriousness of this," he said, noting that the ruling military council had announced the arrest and pending military trials of 190 people in connection with the weekend's violence.

The arrests, along with an announcement by Justice Minister Mohamed el-Guindy banning gatherings outside places of worship, send a message that such religiously motivated violence is going to be handled "with an iron fist," said Shehata, who added that concerns over rising Salafi influence within Egypt's political scene is being felt not just by secular intellectuals, but also by the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Everyone is against it, basically," he said, noting that Prime Minister Essam Sharaf postponed his state visit to the Persian Gulf yesterday to convene an emergency cabinet meeting to respond to the weekend's violence. "Hopefully, that will help the situation and not lead to further deterioration," Shehata said.