Copts breathed a sigh of relief following the ouster of Islamist President Mohammad Morsi, and the visit of his successor Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the Coptic Orthodox Church on the eve of Coptic Christmas on Jan. 6, 2014 seemed to usher in a whole new era. Yet concerns about latent hostilities that threaten to boil over were revived with the forced evacuation of five Christian families, a total of 18 people, from their hometown.
It began when 28-year-old Copt Ayman Morcos, who lives and works in Jordan, was said to have posted on Facebook cartoons that were considered derogatory to Islam and the Prophet Mohamed by residents of his village Kafr Darwish in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Beni Sweif. As news of the Facebook posts spread in the village, angry Muslims attacked Morcos’s house and the houses of several Coptic families with rocks and Molotov cocktails.
The clashes, which reportedly lasted for days, were followed by customary reconciliation meetings attended by village elders and religious leaders from both parties. The decision was made to evacuate Morcos’s extended family.
The outcry that followed the evacuation, and reports of the family moving from one village to another looking for a place to live, drove the governor of Beni Sweif, Mohamed Selim, to revoke the decision and oversee the return of the family, while promising an investigation into the incident and compensation for the damages.
“This is not a happy ending,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Al-Watani. “This is not a healthy situation, and the law has not been enforced.” Sidhom said the problem goes beyond harming Christians. “The greater harm was done to the sovereignty of the state.”
Ishak Ibrahim, researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said the state should be held accountable for allowing customary reconciliation meetings to make decisions in such serious disputes in the first place, especially that those decisions are treated locally as court rulings.
“Accepting those rulings means that the aggressors escape the consequences of their actions. We put responsibility on the government because it is the one tasked with protecting citizens and their rights,” he said, adding that no one was arrested following the attacks on Christian houses.
Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the Civil Liberties Unit at EIPR, said those reconciliation sessions do not offer solutions as they claim to. They “are said to stop sectarian tension, but our analysis shows that they only serve to ignore it,” he said. The sessions are conducted with the knowledge of security forces, which implies their support not only for the process but also the conclusions, he added.
While admitting that the state sees reconciliation sessions as the easier way out, and that is why it prefers to leave such matters to locals, Yousri al-Azabawi, researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, notes the role of the church in perpetuating this process.
“The church bases its reaction to attacks on Christians on its relationship with the state,” he said. “When the church is on good terms with the state, it approves such fast solutions in order to avoid further tension.”
Journalist Salma Omar anticipates a deterioration in relations between the state and Copts if this situation persists, especially with all the expectations that followed Sisi’s coming to power. “Copts supported Sisi and played a major role in toppling the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they had high hopes in this regime,” she wrote, adding that Copts have always disliked the tradition of customary reconciliations.
Coptic activist Kamal Zakher links the Kafr Darwish incident to Coptic support for Sisi. “Extremist Islamists are retaliating at Copts for their support of Sisi,” he said. “That is why I believe the president should personally interfere to change the way such clashes are handled, and to make sure that the police don’t stand watching while Copts are attacked, like they did this time.”
William Wissa, head of the MCN news organization, which focuses on issues related to Christians in the Middle East, said the clashes had nothing to do with Morcos posting anti-Islam cartoons, but rather with the general persecution of Christians. “Deriding Islam is only an excuse to persecute Christians,” he said. “There is no proof that this young man actually posted these cartoons. In fact, he turned out to be illiterate and he does not have a Facebook account.”
Refaat Abdel Hamid, an expert in criminal sciences and security affairs, objected to the use of the term “forced evacuation,” saying the family left the village until tension eased. “It was necessary at the time for the family to leave,” he said. “It is not true that this means the failure of the state, since it is the state’s intervention which brought them back.”
Security analyst General Gamal Abu Zikri said the incident in Kafr Darwish was only a dispute like many that happen in villages across Egypt, and the parties involved in the dispute had to be separated for a while. “It was the Muslim Brotherhood that blew it out of proportion in order to attack the regime.”
Former Brotherhood member Kamal al-Helbawi agreed with Abu Zikri as far as Brotherhood involvement was concerned. “After being excluded from the political scene, there is nothing they can do except spreading chaos,” Helbawi said, adding that the 2013 constitution, drafted after the fall of the Brotherhood, is the first to treat Muslims and Christians equally in all rights and duties.