Egypt’s Higher Committee to Counter Sectarian Violence was formed on December 30, 2018.
The committee, headed by the president’s advisor on security and counter-terrorism affairs, includes members from the military, military intelligence, central intelligence, national security, and the Administrative Control Authority.
According to law 602/2018, representatives of other relevant entities can take part in the committee’s work depending on the nature of the issues tackled. The committee is supposed to look into and deal with sectarian incidents as well as develop a strategy to prevent them from taking place in the future.
In light of the recurrence of several sectarian attacks, the establishment of the committee is a promising step forward. Egypt’s Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches hailed the step. Yet whether it can really effect a change on the ground remains to be seen.
Mohamed al-Zayat, Director of the National Center for Middle East Studies, argued that the committee is bound to play a major role in making the Egyptian society more coherent and protecting it from sectarian tension.
“This is because the committee will not only deal with sectarian incidents when they happen, but will also work on taking the precautions that will prevent them from happening,” he said, adding that those precautions will address reasons behind tension between Muslims and Christians, especially in villages and small towns.
“This will include dealing with sensitive issues such as the construction of new churches and obtaining permits for unlicensed ones.” Zayat noted that the committee will also oversee religious discourse in general to make sure that incitement of sectarian violence is eliminated.
Zayat linked the establishment of the committee to the law that regulates the construction of churches and the recent legalization of several churches built without permit. “Both indicate the state is determined to address all the reasons for sectarian violence,” he said.
The Islamophobia Observatory, affiliated to Dar al-Iftaa, the Egyptian entity in charge of issuing religious edicts, commended the establishment of the committee for its role in putting into practice principles of diversity and peaceful coexistence.
“The committee is a continuation of the state’s plan to uproot extremism,” said a statement issued by the Observatory. “Extremist groups suffered fatal blows at the hands of the military, so they turned to churches and the Christian community and now this too is coming to an end through the committee.”
The committee, the statement added, plays a major role in promoting the image of Islam as a moderate religion that has called since its inception for accepting the other.
For Coptic MP Emad Gad, the committee’s most important achievement will be putting an end to customary sessions as a means of solving sectarian conflicts.
“The committee is comprised of members of official entities, meaning it will abide by the law, which is exactly what those informal reconciliation sessions overlooked,” he said. “Those sessions neither punished the perpetrators of violence nor compensated the victims and that is why sectarian incidents never stopped.”
Gad added that the committee should go back to a report written by late MP Gamal al-Otaifi on the 1972 sectarian clashes that started in the city of Khanka in the Qalyoubia governorate when a building owned by a Christian association was attacked and burnt down then extended later to Assuit governorate in Upper Egypt.
“The report contains thorough analysis of the problem of sectarianism in Egypt and offers a number of solutions, but since it was not implemented the problem persisted,” he said. “The content of the report still applies to the current situation and should be used by the committee.”
Political analyst Mohamed Mounir Megahed argued that the establishment of the committee indicates that the state still prioritizes the security solution. “Combating extremism is basically an intellectual and cultural process,” he said. “This means that such a committee should be mainly comprised of scholars.”
These scholars, he explained, should work on preparing a modern interpretation of the Quran and issuing a book that contains only confirmed sayings by the Prophet. “The product of this work is what students of theology and potential preachers should learn and spread.”
According to Megahed, the committee’s efforts will also not bear fruit if serious measures are not taken toward eliminating discrimination on other different levels.
“This includes the choice of school teachers and the dismissal of already existing ones that promote extremism among students as well as issuing one single law that regulates the construction of all houses of worship without differentiation.”
While commending the creation of the committee, writer Sameh Fawzy underlined the different concerns that might be associated with it. “There are apprehensions that this is just another committee that starts with much hype then fades away gradually,” he wrote.
Fawzy added that the committee might not be able to meet its objectives if it depends on official information only and if it has no executive power. “In this case, the committee’s job will be confined to writing reports and submitting them to the president.”
For the committee’s work to be effective, he argued, it needs to collect information from all sources including social networking websites as well as surveys that gauge the opinions of average citizens.