By Arab News
It goes, almost without saying, that conflict between Muslims and Christians is a major threat to peace and prosperity in Egypt. More specifically and more worryingly, it poses the most serious major threat so far to the Egyptian revolution that in January overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Sunday’s bloody riots in Cairo, the worst sectarian violence Egypt has seen for years, could lead to fears that the country is descending into communal conflict and that the only salvation lies in a strong central authority — just like the regimes Egypt has had since the 1952 revolution.
Certainly there will be many in Egypt and beyond who will be convinced that is what Sunday’s riots were all about. Egyptians — Christians and Muslims together — are convinced that the discord and violence has been deliberately promoted by those with a political agenda. That agenda is not to bring back Mubarak — there is no chance of that — but to retain the old order of which Mubarak was part.
Sunday’s riots were triggered by the destruction on Sept. 30 of a church and shops owned by Copts in the village of Marinab near Aswan in upper Egypt as well as a widely perceived anti-Coptic rhetoric by Egyptian state TV. Egyptian Christians and Muslims alike are convinced that the events in Marinab were deliberately engineered by the local authorities. They lay the blame at the door of the military that appears loathe to surrender the power it has held ever since the Egyptian revolution of 1952. They point to the fact that the Mubarak regime regularly used discord as a survival policy. A Coptic church would be attacked or Copts killed, the authorities would then blame Muslim extremists and communal divisions would be stirred up. It was divide and rule. It gave the authorities the excuse to clamp down on those they considered as radicals and a justification for retaining a police state.
What happened on Sunday also bears an uncanny resemblance to what occurred at Tahrir Square in February when pro-Mubarak supporters and plainclothes police attacked the protesters and again in April after Mubarak had resigned when protesters demanding faster reform were driven into by military and non-military vehicles. It was reported on Sunday that vehicles were again being driven into the protesters.
As said, there is a miniscule minority of Egyptian Muslims who can be manipulated to cause trouble. There is, too, a miniscule minority of Copts who are extremist and who can also be manipulated into violence. But there is a massive majority on both sides that knows that Egypt’s two faiths have long lived in harmony and know that for the country to prosper and develop, they must continue to do so.
Because of that, there can be confidence that, grim though the situation looks for the moment, this is not going to set the two communities at each others’ throats. On the contrary, believing that this is all a plot against their revolution, it is far more likely to unite Egyptians to work together to defend what they have achieved so far. The two groups know they need each other. They know too that there is no future for an Egypt in which any one community is oppressed.