Wednesday, June 15, 2011

As Islamists Flex Muscle, Egypt's Christians Despair

By Yaroslav Trofimov

June 11, 2011

QENA, Egypt—Five weeks after the fall of the Egyptian regime, Ayman Anwar Mitri's apartment was torched. When he showed up to investigate, he was bundled inside by bearded Islamists.

Mr. Mitri is a member of the Christian Coptic minority that accounts for one-tenth of the country's 83 million people. The Islamists accused him of having rented the apartment—by then unoccupied—to loose Muslim women.

Inside the burnt apartment, they beat him with the charred remains of his furniture. Then, one of them produced a box cutter and performed what he considered an appropriate punishment under Islam: He amputated Mr. Mitri's right ear.

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Yaroslav Trofimov

Ayman Anwar Mitri, a Christian Copt, had his ear cut off by a militant Salafi in Qena in March.
."When they were beating me, they kept saying: 'We won't leave any Christians in this country,'" Mr. Mitri recalled in a recent interview, two months after the March attack. Blood dripped through a plastic tube from his unhealed wound to a plastic container. "Here, there is a war against the Copts," he said.

His attackers, who were never arrested or prosecuted, follow the ultrafundamentalist Salafi strain of Islam that promotes an austere, Saudi-inspired worldview. Before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled on Feb. 11, the Salafis mostly confined themselves to preaching. Since then, they've entered the political arena, drawing crowds and swaying government decisions. Salafi militants also have blocked roads, burned churches and killed Copts.

The Salafi vigilantes who brutalized Mr. Mitri later ignited a bigger controversy that is still playing out here in Qena, an upper Nile governorate of three million people—almost one-third of them Copts. In April, Egypt's new government appointed a Christian to be Qena's new governor, replacing another Christian who had held the post under Mr. Mubarak. The Salafis responded by demanding a Muslim governor and organizing mass protests, showcasing the movement's new political influence.

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.The crisis in Qena, still not fully resolved, raises questions about what kind of Egypt will emerge from the post-revolutionary chaos—and whether its revolution will adhere to the ideals of democracy and equality that inspired it. The country's military rulers and liberal forces may ultimately succeed at containing religious strife and limiting the Islamists' political power.

Until recently, fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt centered on the Muslim Brotherhood, a much better known organization that's trying to project a new image of moderation. While many liberal Egyptians remain deeply suspicious of the Brothers' true intentions, the Brotherhood now says it accepts Copts—the Middle East's largest religious minority—in all government positions, with the possible exception of president.

By contrast, many Salafis believe it is forbidden by Islam for Christians to exercise political power over Muslims in any capacity, such as governors, mayors or ministers. "If the Christian is efficient, he could be a deputy or an adviser," says prominent Salafi cleric Abdelmoneim Shehat.

Unlike the Brothers, the Salafis long refused to participate in elections and dismissed democracy as un-Islamic—a view held by their spiritual guides in Saudi Arabia. Numbering in the millions around the Arab world, Salafis seek to emulate the ways of the "salaf," the Prophet Muhammad's seventh-century companions, and usually reject later theological, social and political innovations as heresy. Osama bin Laden belonged to the jihadi current of Salafism that's trying to overthrow Arab regimes. Many other Salafis, including Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi religious establishment, and until recently, key Egyptian clerics, hold that obeying political rulers is mandatory in Islam.

After the revolution, however, many Egyptian Salafis decided that the shortest way to the Islamic state they desire is through the ballot box. They joined the Brotherhood in backing conservative constitutional amendments that passed in a March referendum. Salafi leaders say they are likely to coordinate with the Brotherhood to field a slate of Islamist candidates for parliamentary elections planned for September.

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European Pressphoto Agency

A Salafi Islamist cleric addresses protesters in Qena, Egypt, in April.
."We've found out after the revolution that the Salafis and the Brotherhood have the same concerns," says Safwat Hegazy, a popular Saudi-trained TV preacher who belonged to the Brotherhood in his youth and has emerged as one of Egypt's most influential Salafi voices.

The main difference between the two movements is organization rather than ideology, he says. "The Brotherhood has rules, leadership, staff, formal members—and it can punish those members who don't follow its orders," he says. "The Salafis have no organization whatsoever and no membership. People consider their leader any sheikh that they like."

Amid the recent sectarian unrest, Egypt's military rulers and civilian government have solicited help from Mr. Hegazy and another prominent Saudi-trained TV preacher, Mohamed Hassan, to defuse tensions. Although the overtures have raised the two clerics' stature as national leaders, the absence of a Salafi hierarchy also has enabled them to deny responsibility for the violence.

In Qena, a leafy city that prides itself on being named Egypt's cleanest, the Salafi militants who attacked Mr. Mitri and radicalized the protests against the Coptic governor were led by a young man named al-Hosseini Kamal. He had been incarcerated under Mr. Mubarak on suspicion of terrorist activities and, like thousands of such detainees, was set free after the revolution.

According to Mr. Mitri and witnesses cited in the police report, it was Mr. Kamal who cut off Mr. Mitri's ear, after first slicing his arm and neck. Reached on his cellphone, Mr. Kamal asked to call him later, and then didn't answer repeated phone calls.

In days after the amputation, the Salafi militants threatened to kill Mr. Mitri's siblings and to kidnap his children if he pressed charges, Mr. Mitri and his relatives say. Police refused to help, he says. Scared, he changed his initial testimony to say he didn't know who attacked him.

Instead of prosecution, Egyptian authorities pushed for a "reconciliation" between Mr. Mitri and his attackers. At the reconciliation ceremony, a beaming Mr. Kamal shook hands with the local military commander and other notables.

The ear amputation was a "mistake" and "the young people didn't mean it," says Qureishi Salama, imam of one of Qena's largest mosques and a leader of the budding Salafi movement in Qena. Asked about the concerns of Christians, he responds, without elaborating: "Only those Christians who did something wrong should be fearful."

Shortly after the reconciliation, the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, a reformist chosen by leaders of the Cairo protests, named new local governors. Under Mr. Mubarak, Qena had been the only one of Egypt's 27 governorates ruled by a Christian. The new appointee, police Gen. Emad Mikhail, was also a Christian.

Egypt's police, widely regarded as brutal and corrupt, had been discredited during the revolution. The choice of Mr. Mikhail left Qena's political activists perplexed. A few dozen people protested on April 14, including some Christians.

But the Salafis objected first and foremost to Mr. Mikhail's religion. "We didn't want an imposed Christian quota" on governors, says Mr. Salama, the imam. He and other Qena imams agreed to urge the faithful to show their fury. "In most, if not all, Qena mosques, the imams said that a Christian cannot rule over Muslims," recalls Nasr Yasin, a 27-year-old activist. "The Salafis mobilized the people on a sectarian basis."

Angry crowds left the mosques and converged outside the governor's headquarters for a sit-in. Qena's revolutionary coalition split. Some liberal Muslims, such as Mr. Yasin, were offended by bigoted slogans and left. Others, including Muslim Brotherhood youths, stayed.

Hala Helmy Botros, a Coptic blogger active in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, was stunned to see a former comrade-in-arms with a poster that read: "I am against sectarianism—but I refuse a Copt as governor!" Other protesters screamed: "Islamic, Islamic—we want a Muslim, not an infidel."

The Muslim Brotherhood's Abdelaziz Mahmoud, a 39-year-old concierge at the luxury Winter Palace Hotel in nearby Luxor, says it was his idea to ratchet up the pressure by temporarily blocking a major railroad passing through Qena just before the new governor was sworn in in Cairo. He proposed a one-hour sit-in on the tracks.

But once the Salafi militants, including Mr. Kamal, erected tents across roads and railroads leading into Qena, they decided to camp indefinitely. The blockade severed transportation links between northern and southern Egypt, and between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast. Some protestors raised the Saudi flag, which Egyptian Salafis have adopted as their own.

Though Egyptian Salafi leaders deny receiving financial support from Saudi Arabia, liberal Egyptians charge that the movement is backed by the kingdom's deep-pocketed Islamic charities. While Egyptian Salafis often criticize the Saudi government system as un-Islamic, they usually hold its Wahhabi religious establishment in high esteem. They admire Saudi Arabia's prohibitions on alcohol, the mixing of sexes, and Christian worship.

In Qena, as the Salafi-led protests continued, the anti-Coptic rhetoric swiftly got more radical. Protesters shouted "Mikhail is the enemy of God" and carried the new governor's mock coffin through Qena's streets, vowing to assassinate him if he ever set foot in the city. Leaflets urging a boycott of Christian businesses circulated in mosques.

"It started becoming very dangerous," says the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr. Mahmoud. Brotherhood leaders ordered him and others members to abandon the protests. "We withdrew once we realized that some people are raising a sectarian issue. We don't have any prejudice in dealing with our brother Copts," says Mohammed Beltagy, a Brotherhood leader in Cairo.

Prime Minister Sharaf's government tried to stand firm. "The governor of Qena has not and will not resign," said government spokesman Ahmed al-Saman. "Objections based on religion are unacceptable."

Mr. Sharaf dispatched his ministers of interior and local affairs to Qena to try to restore order, but their appeals for calm were drowned out by shouts of "We want a Muslim!"

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim, until recently Qena's security director, says the army and the police considered breaking up the blockades, but dropped the idea as impractical. "After the revolution, there are constraints in dealing with protests," he said. "If we dispersed them by force, this could have had serious implications. They could have used weapons, and we would have had to respond with weapons. So we decided to hold a dialogue instead."

For that, Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Prime Minister Sharaf reached out to Messrs. Hegazy and Hassan, the Salafi TV preachers. Flanked by military officers and feted in Qena as celebrities, the two sheikhs quickly endorsed the demonstrators' demands while asking them to lift the blockade.

Mr. Hegazy, who contends the sectarian strife is being orchestrated by the U.S. and Israel to discredit the revolution, says he believes that the entire population of Qena—Muslim and Christian alike—opposed the appointment of Mr. Mikhail. He says he told Egypt's prime minister and ruling generals that the new Christian governor should be removed immediately.

The young militants, however, defied the preachers' requests to reopen the roads and railways, vowing to maintain the blockade until Mr. Mikhail's ouster.

As the protests entered the second week, demonstrators threatened to cut electricity supplies from the Aswan Dam on the Nile and to stop fresh water to Red Sea coastal towns. Mr. Salama and other local imams called for a "million-man march" after Friday prayers.

Prime Minister Sharaf dispatched his strategic-planning adviser, Ahmed Omran, a Qena native, to the city to seek a solution. As he tried to address the crowd, Mr. Omran had the prime minister on his cellphone, ready to assuage the protestors. The angry crowd started chanting "Down with Sharaf!"

"This was a total failure," says Mr. Omran.

Undeterred, he donned a traditional galabiya robe and went to meet the Salafi militants, including Mr. Mitri's attacker, at the railroad tracks.

He also solicited the opinions of Christian clergy. With the Coptic Easter two days away, Qena's priests were worried that the crisis, if unchecked, could lead to pogroms. They told Mr. Omran they were not insisting on Mr. Mikhail assuming office, and would go along with whatever the government decided.

That weekend, Mr. Omran says, he told Prime Minister Sharaf that the only solution was to meet the protesters' demands. He says the prime minister reluctantly agreed.

On April 25, the government announced on television that Mr. Mikhail's appointment was being "frozen" for three months—and that the deputy governor named days earlier, a Muslim former army colonel, would temporarily take over the governor's duties. Appointing Mr. Mikhail "was not a very well thought out decision," says Mr. Saman, the government spokesman.

At the sit-in, the news was greeted with shouts of Allahu Akbar, or "God is great." The protest tents were dismantled and the trains started running within hours.

Mr. Mikhail continues to draw his governor's salary at the local-affairs ministry in Cairo. In theory, when the freeze expires next month, he is supposed to assume the governorship. Coptic activists worry that if that doesn't happen, it would set a dangerous precedent.

Mr. Salama, the Salafi imam, counters that making him governor would lead to a "big disaster."

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