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Egypt's Copt Crisis

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Toni Johnson, Senior Staff Writer
January 6, 2011

Egypt is on high alert after clashes between Coptic Christians and security forces following the New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria that killed more than twenty people. Senior Fellow Steven Cook says rumors about an Egyptian woman being forced to convert from Islam to Christianity and held against her will may have prompted threats by al-Qaeda-linked groups against the sect and could have been "a contributing factor" in the Alexandria bombing. Still, says Cook, "it is in [Egypt's] regime's interest to say this is the work of foreign elements." He notes that as components of al-Qaeda have ties in Egypt, and there are often sectarian flare-ups in the country, "it is entirely possible this could be a homegrown phenomenon."

Similar unrest in Egypt followed the murder of seven Coptic Christians over the rape of a Muslim girl in December 2009. Cook notes that sectarian tensions are an everyday feature of Egyptian political and religious life, and that most Copts face "institutional discrimination" as well as a political environment in which Islamism has been allowed to flourish.

He says the government would prefer to handle these attacks individually as the work of extremists and ignore potential underlying causes. "This one of those political pathologies that is confronting Egypt right now," says Cook. "People like [Mohamed] ElBaradei, who is a reformer, believe the way to resolve these issues is through a more open, democratic, and tolerant political society." Shortly before the bombing, ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who returned to Egypt last year and entered politics as an opposition figure, wrote a Washington Post op-ed decrying the lack of Egyptian democracy and the poor political representation of Copts in reaction to what Cook says were deeply flawed parliamentary elections.

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