from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Egypt: Sectarian Tensions and Authoritarian Temptations

May 13, 2011

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Egyptian Muslims look towards army soldiers trying to break up clashes between Christians and Muslims in downtown Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters)

The sectarian violence that flared in Cairo earlier this past week that killed 12 and injured 238 is an ominous sign that not all is well in the new Egypt.  There are many—likely a majority—of Egyptians who want to live in peace with their neighbors of a different religion, but there are clearly some who are intent on sowing conflict between Muslims and Copts.  Not only was the violence in Imbaba disturbing in its own right, it also suggests that state authority in the immediate post-January 25 period remains a serious problem.  Egypt has experienced a spike in crime and street violence over the last few months, arms smuggling to Gaza has increased, and there is a pervasive sense of uncertainty throughout the country. Perhaps most worrying for those who want to live in a more democratic and open Egypt is the potential for those presently in a position of power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or those who seek power—counterrevolutionary forces and salafists—to create a destabilized political environment in order to advance their interests.  There is, of course, historical precedent for this.  On March 20, 1954, at the culmination of the Free Officers’ efforts to consolidate their power, six bombs went off in Cairo—almost certainly the work of agents operating on behalf of Gamal Abdel Nasser and his associates—in order to stir up widespread fear of instability and violence.  This paved the way for a harsh military crackdown that succeeded in finally breaking the back of opposition to the Officers.  The rest is, as they say, history.

As I have said in previous posts, the past is an imprecise guide for the present, but there are influential groups in Egypt that would prefer it if the country did not realize the revolutionary objectives of Tahrir Square.  Violence is surely one way to place these laudable goals in jeopardy.  It is not a particularly novel insight to suggest that if instability and threats to social cohesion persist, leaders will be tempted—with no doubt a measure of popular support—to find authoritarian solutions to the problems society confronts.  As an aside, Mubarak actually took this dynamic a step further.  Already in command of a well-developed authoritarian system, he and his internal security services manipulated sectarian tensions as a way of maintaining control over the population and justifying non-democratic politics.

The good news is that the government has acted swiftly in the aftermath of the last week’s violence.  Prime Minister Essam Sharaf announced the promulgation of new laws protecting houses of worship and 23 salafists and 200 others were arrested on Thursday in connection with the attacks on Christians. Egyptians have also signaled that they are not going to countenance threats to social cohesion. Tens of thousands took to Tahrir Square again today in part to celebrate national unity (they were also there to express solidarity with the Palestinian people).  Still, the attacks in Imbaba remain profoundly unsettling because they are precisely the kind of events that counterrevolutionary groups can exploit going forward.

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