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Samer Shehata: Salafists’ attacks on Coptic Christians opposed by vast majority

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Egypt over the weekend, violence broke out between Coptic Christians and Islamists known as Salafists. Apparently, a church was attacked by the Salafists, demanding that a woman they say had been kidnapped–this is a Christian who they claimed had converted to Islam and then, they say, had been kidnapped by the Christians to prevent her from, I guess, living her life as an Islamist. They demanded her back. There was violence done there. Up to a dozen people were killed. And, apparently, the Egyptian military didn’t do too much about it. Later, the woman appeared on television saying she had never converted to Islam, but instead was still a Christian. All this is actually quite reflective of something that’s bubbling up in Egypt, which is a form of sectarian violence in the context of the attempt of the democratic revolution and the workers’ resistance to continue. Now joining us to analyze all of this is Samer Shehata. He is a assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, and he’s the author of the book Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt. And he was in Egypt last March. Thanks for joining us, Samer.

SAMER SHEHATA: You’re welcome.

JAY: Fill in any of the holes in my story, and then put it into some context.

SHEHATA: The basic claim by the Salafists and others in Egypt is that a woman–and this isn’t the only case of this–apparently tried to convert to Islam, a woman named Camilia Shehata, who is married to a priest, and that then the church intervened and sequestered her to try to contain this crisis and this scandal, that is, a priest’s wife converting to Islam. Now, there are a number of issues going on here. As you mentioned in the beginning, there have been rising sectarian tensions in Egypt for some time. And the previous regime really tried to cover up the difficulties, tried to kind of hide it under the rug, tried to make deals with the church. The Pope was very supportive of Mr. Mubarak and the regime during election time and other times, because the institution of the Church and the Pope felt that Mubarak was really keeping a lid on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a complicated issue, because one of the primary reasons that some Christians convert to Islam is because of divorce. In other words, in Coptic Christianity, there is no divorce, and the way to get out of an abusive relationship or marriage is to convert to Islam, and then the marriage is null and void. So it really has very little to do with actual freedom of religion. If this alleged incident actually happened–and we don’t know whether it happened or not. We don’t know if she converted to Islam at one point, because as you mentioned, she appeared on a satellite station with her husband and child and said that none of this had occurred. It makes little difference. The point is is that sectarian tensions are on the rise. The previous regime didn’t address some legitimate grievances that the Coptic Christian minority had in Egypt, having to do with the restoration of churches, the building of churches, the limited possibility for some Christians to have full access to certain types of employment in the military, and so on. So there are certainly tensions there. Economic matters sometimes can make things–can exacerbate the problem. And then the Salafis, as you mentioned at the beginning, are really taking advantage of this to call for an Islamic state, to persecute Christians, and to try to champion Islam, as it were, for political gain in the new Egypt.

JAY: Now, there’s a suggestion that the military is deliberately hanging back, in terms of its enforcement of the law on the streets. There were, apparently, soldiers standing by while people were killed over the weekend that did little. But I also read that it’s part of a bigger pattern, that there seems to be some policy, perhaps, to actually let a little hell break loose in order to justify the need for the military to come back and play a stronger role. What do you think there is something in this?

SHEHATA: Not exactly. I think what we’ve seen in Egypt since January 25 is a deteriorating security situation or a deteriorated security situation. Of course the revolution was really the defeat of the security forces by the people. The police, the central security forces, were the repressive arm of the regime against the population. They were decisively defeated in the first week and a half of the revolution. Also, many of them benefited through corruption, through networks, through bribes, and so on under the previous regime, and may have been unwilling, many of them, to go back to police stations, to patrol the streets, to provide basic law and order. As you know, many of the police stations were burned during the revolution and so on. So part of it has to do with the deteriorated security situation in the country as a result of the revolution and as a result of the police forces not going fully back into operation, and then the advantage that has been taken from that situation by extremists and by gangs. In fact, crime has also been reportedly rising or has risen since the revolution, and the Salafists have also taken advantage of this to wreak havoc in many cases, as occurred several days ago with the burning of the church [incompr.] another church, and the violence that resulted in 12 deaths and then over 100 people being injured.

JAY: But certainly the army has over 400,000 soldiers. Certainly they have the force if they want to, even if the police have kind of disintegrated. If they wanted more law and order on the streets, they could, couldn’t they?

SHEHATA: Well, there was criticism that the government responded slowly with security forces being deployed to the churches, and I think there’s some truth, probably, to that. But of course the army is not in the business, usually, of maintaining basic law and order and doing police function, so I’m a little more sympathetic to that, you know, shortcoming. What is certainly true–and this has been alleged by many in Egypt, including some members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces–is that the previous regime, the Mubarak regime, and particularly the state security investigations wing of it, was or had extensive relations with the Salafis. This was a security matter by the regime. And there has been the claim that regime elements have tried to use the Salafis to sew up chaos and havoc in the country as part of what’s being called the counterrevolution in Egypt. Now, we haven’t seen any empirical evidence of that, but I wouldn’t put it past elements of the regime that are still on the loose, and maybe some that are actually being detained trying to produce a situation in which people look back at the Mubarak era as being one of relative stability and so on. Of course, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But what can happen is an attempt to derail the revolution and the tremendous progress that has been completed, at least so far, in terms of democratic consolidation and moving to a really different kind of Egypt.

JAY: Now, during the height of the protests, I remember there were certain days when there seemed to be solidarity marches, Coptic Christians and Muslims together holding hands, and, you know, a real opposition to the sectarian fight. Are we seeing any of that in response to this?

SHEHATA: We’re seeing a little bit of it. I mean, there were some demonstrations immediately after the burning of the churches, yesterday and today in downtown Cairo, particularly in front of the radio and television building, primarily put on by Coptic Christians. But there were some Muslims also there. And when I was in Egypt in March, there was a Friday of national solidarity which, you know, I participated in and many others, and it was also Muslims and Christians. And I think now, especially after this weekend’s events, with the deaths involved in the burning of the churches, there’s, I think, really a strong sense nationally, a realization that sectarian issues have to be addressed directly, and that justice has to be meted out to those who would undertake acts of sectarian conflict and so on. So the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has made an announcement about this, so has the new minister of justice, and so on. And I think there are many intellectuals in the media talking about the necessity of dealing with this issue now in a way that hasn’t been done in the past, precisely in this transitional moment where things are so sensitive.

JAY: In the past, if I understand it correctly, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t get along all that well. The Muslim Brotherhood thought Salafists were extreme, and they thought Muslim Brotherhood was too moderate. But we’re seeing reports from Reuters that in fact there’s been kind of a deal made, and the Salafists say they’re going to support the Muslim Brotherhood in coming elections. And does this suggest that–well, I should ask you: how significant is this? And does it suggest what Mubarak used to say, I stand between you and the extremists? I mean, is there some truth to this? Or is this part of what’s an attempt to create this sense of it?

SHEHATA: Well, again, I think the situation is complicated. It could very well be the case that some Salafis have said that in the upcoming elections you should vote for the Muslim Brotherhood. That could very well have happened. And, certainly, in the March 19 referendum on the proposed constitutional amendments, Salafis, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, implicitly, as well as previous regime elements, all took the position of yes, vote for the constitutional amendments. Now, has there been some kind of a deal made by the Muslim Brotherhood with the Salafis? I’m highly skeptical. What we’ve seen, of course, since the recent events, and even previously, is a denunciation, a condemnation by the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as by al-Azhar, for example, against the violence that the Salafists undertook most recently and previously. There had been previous incidents of violence over the last couple of months. The number of alcohol stores or stores that sell alcohol have been burned. An individual’s ear was cut off in upper Egypt, in Qena, because he allegedly rented out an apartment to a woman who engaged in prostitution. There have been shrines, Sufi shrines that have been destroyed by Salafis because they consider it a kind of paganism or an un-Islamic ritual in their kind of extremist, completely intolerant understanding of what Islam is. So the Brotherhood, as well as other mainstream Sunni institutions, like al-Azhar, have really denounced what we’re seeing by the Salafis. And I think [it’s] quite interesting to note that widespread in Egyptian society (because we haven’t seen the Salafis operating above the ground recently) there is a genuine concern, if not an anxiety, about their presence. I don’t think that they are significant in terms of numbers. I also don’t think they’re significant electorally, that is, their kind of electoral weight in the coming parliamentary elections in September and the presidential elections after that. But what they do have the potential to do is to shape the discourse and discussion, which is quite worrying, and also to engage in this kind of outrageous, reprehensible violence that we’ve seen, and also increase the divide between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, which is really quite worrisome.

JAY: What’s been the response? And how will it be affected, the democracy movement and the workers’ movements, by the sectarian violence?

SHEHATA: Well, the democracy movement, you know, I think, if we can say, you know, if we can include the Brotherhood in that, to a large extent, they have been, as I said, united against the Salafis in terms of denouncing the violence that we’ve seen recently and in the previous month or so. But as I said, I think it potentially has the potential to disrupt this period before September, when we’re supposed to have elections, parliamentary elections. The labor movement in Egypt, also, and the issues concerning labor are really different from the question of the Salafis. That has to do with the right of individuals to form independent trade unions. As you know, under the Mubarak regime and under the Sadat regime and under the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime, there was one labor institution controlled by the state, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was really not about representing workers rights but was about co-opting and controlling workers and the labor movement for the interests of the state, getting them out and mobilized at election time, keeping track of them, and so on. And over the last few years, including before the revolution, there have been attempts to do away with that, to establish independent trade unions in all different sectors of society with some success and so on. So there are those issues involved with regards to labor. There are also the issues of demanding a minimum wage. It’s really outrageous what the present minimum wage is, in Egypt, completely out of touch with prices by any measure. And there has been discussion over the last several months about creating a minimum wage of about EGP 1,200 a month or EGP 1,500 a month that would really–.

JAY: And how does that translate to dollars?

SHEHATA: And that translates into dollars–divide by about six, right? So that translates into about $200 a month–quite modest. But it would provide individuals with a kind of minimal, dignified life, as opposed to the minimum wage now, which is probably about EGP 200 a month, if not lower. So those are the kinds of debates that are going on. And, of course, there are those on the other side saying that this would be an incredible burden for the state and the state budget, particularly in this time, especially in light of the economic losses that Egypt has suffered having to do with reduced tourism revenues and so on. So these are the debates that are taking place with regards to economic issues, with regards to labor, with regards to the possibility of a minimum wage.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

SHEHATA: You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He is the author of the book: "Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt" published in 2009. Samer has also written numerous articles on Arab politics for the International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe and the Arab Reform Bulletin.