The origins of sectarian tension in Egypt. Osama Al-Ghazali Harb

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A complex and rampant phenomenon in Egyptian society, sectarian violence has been infesting Egypt for a long time, spawned as a result of a host of economic, social and cultural woes.
There is a direct and undeniable link between the emergence of these tensions on the Egyptian political landscape and the political system in place since the 1952 military coup. Sectarian tensions have blighted Egyptian society because of the ill-advised policies pursued by the ensuing regimes, such as former Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat’s unwise and inflammatory decision to label himself “The Muslim President of a Muslim state”, the constitutional amendments he made to Article 2 (which states that Islam is one of the principle sources of legislation) of the Constitution, as well as his moves to bolster the presence of Islamic political groups.
A reading of the Egyptian political scene during the time of the 1952 July coup may also help draw significant conclusions. Many of the Free Officers, members of the army who orchestrated the coup, had ties to or were even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Nasser. And there was not a single Christian among them.
And despite the fact that the regime launched an attack on the Brotherhood after former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's attempted assassination, believed to be by other Brotherhood leaders, it was itself extremely reticent about including Christians within its ranks, evidence that the basic make-up of the regime has helped fuel Egypt's sectarian tensions.
In addition, some observers allege that Christians in Egypt have been subjected to systematic forms of discrimination that have alienated them and left them so disgruntled that some became radicalised. This sorry state of affairs can be attributed to the lack of true democracy, which in turn undermines tolerance and harmony and fuels fanaticism and bigotry.
This bleak picture dominating Egypt's domestic front today is in stark contrast with the peaceful coexistence that used to mark the harmonious relations between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority in the years between the 1919 revolution against the British occupation and the 1952 coup.
There is no doubt that the political debacle experienced by Egypt in the wake of the 1952 coup – which manifested itself through the strict censorship of the media, the abolition of political parties and an iron grip imposed on civil society – took its toll on Muslims and Christians alike. However, Christians were further deprived of assuming any posts in intelligence or security agencies. This blatant injustice inflicted on the Christian minority played a crucial role in compounding the Coptic predicament of political dissatisfaction.
Moreover, political and cultural awareness has considerably deteriorated because of the absence of intellectual enlightenment in Nasser’s era, eroding the basic values of citizenship, equality and national unity.
Today we are in dire need of launching an awareness campaign to lead people to embrace the lofty values of religious tolerance and to renounce bigotry. The mass media and educational institutions can take this message far and wide.
We must also bear in mind that the current deplorable economic and social conditions that have led to more than 30 per cent of the Egyptian population living under the poverty line, has easily made Egypt a breeding ground for social ills like extremism and religious fanaticism.
Some religious facilities, whether Muslim or Christian, have been embroiled in vicious campaigns inciting hatred and stoking extremism on both sides. The houses of God mustn’t be used as strongholds to disseminate erroneous and slanderous ideas, further entrenching divisions between Muslim and Christian communities.
We are facing real threats to our social cohesion and our future as a nation. We must live up to this challenge and be keenly alert to this looming danger that jeopardises our national unity.

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* Osama El-Ghazali Harb is Editor-in-Chief of the monthly Al Siyasa Al Dawliya published by Al-Ahram and is one of the founders of the Democratic Front Party. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Daily News Egypt. The full text can be found at www.thedailynewsegypt.com.Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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