from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program


October 23, 2013
9:00 am (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Erbil—I am in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, but the news from Egypt is never far away.

There are no words for Sunday’s attack at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Warraq that killed four, including two little girls, and injured seventeen. Who does that?  Why? I’ve read in the news that the bloodshed was part of a pattern of “revenge attacks” for the July 3 coup. That’s clearly a misnomer.  This was violence for violence’s sake.  One could make a case—which I am not doing—that attempts on the life of the Interior Minister, for example, and attacks on security forces in Sinai and other places around the country are return fire for the events of July 3, July 26, August 14, and October 6, but spraying gunfire at guests gathered for a wedding celebration is both senseless and counterproductive, to say the least.  If the violence is intended to put pressure on the government to release the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, it is likely to do the opposite.

In trying to make sense of the incident, some reports have noted the presence of Coptic Pope Tawdros II, among other notables, alongside Major General Abdel Fatah al Sisi when the military takeover was announced as a possible reason for the uptick in violence against the Coptic community. That’s a bit too neat and lets murderers off the hook with an explanation, no matter how weak. Moreover, other than the shock of children being gunned down, there is nothing all that new about the attack.  The lynching of Shi’a cleric Hassan Shehata in late June also seems to have been carried out for no apparent reason.  Shehata was a bystander in Egypt’s struggle who happened to worship God differently, and so was savagely targeted. It’s the same story with the orgy of church burnings that happened throughout the spring of 2013. Why was the al Azraa Church set ablaze in May 2011? What about Maspero in October 2011?  It was SCAF’s fault, but it was also the result of groups stoking anti-Christian sentiments.  It’s hard to fathom why this violence took place. It certainly was not vengeance.

Lest anyone believe that this kind of violence is a function of Egypt’s post-Mubarak politics only, let’s go back further.  There were the murders at the Temple of Hatshepsut (aka the Luxor massacre) in 1997, the attack on Naguib Mahfouz in 1994, and Farag Foda’s assassination in 1992. For what were these payback? Because Mahfouz and Foda offended extremist Islamist sensibilities? I’ve read the extremist justifications for violence and know all about the definition of jihad.  They don’t fit.  This is nihilism—pure and simple.

There are observers—better angels, I suppose—who will try to make sense of the bloodshed at the Church of the Virgin Mary.  Not excuses mind you, but explanations.  As someone interested in the way the world works, I believe there is obvious value in understanding the causes of violence.  The Luxor massacre was, it turns out, the result of a dispute within al Gama’a al Islamiyya over the potential for a cease-fire with the government.  The planners, among them Ayman Zawahiri, sought to make an accommodation impossible.  He succeeded for a time. Perhaps we will discover what complex set of events led to Sunday’s killing, but quite honestly, how does one make sense of an attack on a wedding? It is totally devoid of reason, morals, and values.

My point here is not to cast aspersions on Egyptians and Egyptian society.  I come from a country with its own very significant problems with violence. Like the millions of Americans who are disgusted with the seemingly all-too-routine gun violence in our offices and schools, there are millions of Egyptians who feel the same about the senseless violence that has become part of their lives.

I’ve written recently about the coarsening of the Egyptian discourse, warning that the logical outcome of this effort to delegitimize political opponents is violence.  I stand by my words, and if Mariam Ashraf Siha was anything like my eight year-old daughter, she was just beginning to grapple with the complexities of the world.  Sadly, Mariam will never know a better Egypt.


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