A destroyed Egyptian Coptic Christian church in Imbaba, Cairo (Photo: EPA)
Well, here’s another dismal “unity” pact for you.
The Muslim Brotherhood has announced an electoral coalition with a host of Salafi groups in Egypt, under the banner of seeking an Islamic state. “It was the recent attacks on the Islamic groups that brought us together,” the Brotherhood’s lawyer Sobhi Saleh explained to an Egyptian newspaper on Tuesday.
Saleh’s newfound siege mentality is at odds with the confidence he displayed on Newsnight a few months back. A woman or a Christian, the Islamist attorney told Tim Whewell, could never be president of a post-Mubarak Egypt because Muslims constitute “95 per cent of the population” (not true) and this is the “same policy as in Greece, Spain and in England” (what’s the Arabic for “Iron Lady”?).
Among the Brotherhood’s new parliamentary partners is Jama’a al-Islamiyya, a Salafi group that played a role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and recently advocated the formation of a Saudi-style “modesty police” for Egypt.
But these are peccadilloes compared with Jama’a’s other claims to notoriety which include:
– Being cited by Ayman al-Zawhiri in 2006 as an affiliate member of al-Qaeda, a courtesy just reciprocated by one Gama’a official who proclaimed that “the assassination [of Osama bin Laden] will open the gates of Hell and set it face to face with the Muslims’ vengeance”;
– Having its spiritual leader Omar Abdel-Rahman (a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh”) sentenced for life in the United States for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. (The Egyptian caretaker government and the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar are currently soliciting the Yanks for Abdel-Rahman’s release from prison.)
– Killing 18 Greek tourists (14 of whom were women) outside a hotel in Cairo in 1996 because Jama’a militants mistook the travellers for Israelis;
– Killing 9 tourists and injuring 35 more on a bus in Cairo in September 1997;
– Killing another 71 tourists in November 1997 in Luxor.
Jama’a is said to have forsworn violence since the 1990s, but there is a plausible reason why the Muslim Brotherhood would seek an alliance with it now. The movement founded by Hasan al-Banna 83 years ago has lately exhibited signs of ideological schizophrenia, with hardliners overplaying their hand and clawing for absolute control (and media attention) whilst “reformists” break ranks and try to build a base of their own.
It was no coincidence that Saleh also caught the media’s attention this week by threatening to expel any member of the Brotherhood who attempted to run for the Egyptian presidency, a post he says the Brotherhood has no design on as of yet. (Tell that to Dr Abdel Moneim Abolfotouh, a former member of the group’s politburo who has made Trump-like noises about a possible candidacy.)
The Saleh faction might therefore be trying to hedge its bets with a “purer” species of Islamist.
Whatever the motive, Gama’a’s alliance with the any segment of the Brotherhood will only be met with alarm by Egypt’s 8 million or so Coptic Christians who, pace Saleh, make up a full 10 per cent of the population.
Since the pro-democratic happenings in Tahrir Square in January, Egypt’s Christian minority has been consistently persecuted by uncorked crazies. Churches have been set alight and some areas of the country have grown so parlous that Christians are holed up in their homes, afraid to attend Mass even on Palm Sunday. The assurances of Abd Al-Azim, a leader of Gama’a in Alexandria, will have failed to persuade them to do otherwise: “If the Christians want safety they should submit to the rule of God and be confident that the Islamic sharia will protect them.”
Just this week, 190 people were detained overnight in Cairo after 12 people were killed and over 180 hurt in the working-class neighbourhood of Imbaba, where two Coptic churches and people’s homes were firebombed. The reason? A Salafi-hatched rumour that a Christian woman had converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim man and was being held against her will in the Saint Mena Church (one of the two burnt). This came after another Christian, Camilia Shehata, had gone on television to deny a similar allegation about her proscribed conversion to Islam.
In late April, the Qena Governorate in Upper Egypt saw an escalation sectarian violence instigated jointly by Salafis and the Brotherhood types who didn’t much like the appointment of a Christian governor. (He has since stepped down.)
Naguib Gabriel, the head of the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, said in mid-April that his office is now fielding “at least 70 calls per week from people wanting to know how they can emigrate”.
And there you have it: Islamist moderation in Egypt can be measured in exit visas.