A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Fires of Imbaba: The Specter of Sectarian Strife in Egypt

From Sarah Carr on Flickr
The Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba was a town before it was a suburb: it gave its name to Napoleon's nearby battle in 1798, and was once famed as the terminus of the camel trade from Sudan. Long since assimilated into the expansion of greater Cairo as a poor working-class district embracing not only the old village but its former agricultural lands (now a packed slum), it now has a new reason for infamy: as the site of the bloodiest Christian-Muslim violence in the capital in many years. The clashes Saturday led to at least 12 deaths, the burning of several buildings including a church, and new fears that sectarian conflict may become a feature of post-revolutionary Egypt. The involvement of radical Salafi Muslim groups and the role of rumor in provoking violence add to the concerns.

And many of the Egyptian bloggers and commentators who rejoiced in the revolution noted that Imbaba took place exactly 100 days after January 25, the date the uprising against Mubarak began in earnest. Sectarianism and the scapegoating of Copts could be a major challenge for an elected government and is already sparking new criticisms of the Supreme Military Council.

Violence between Muslims and Copts grew in the Mubarak years,with the regime often accused of looking the other way. But much of that violence was confined to Upper Egypt, where it could sometimes be explained as based on tribal or clan rivalries, or land disputes, rather than true sectarian issues. The attack on a church in Alexandria late last year was an augury that urban Egypt was not immune, and since the fall of Mubarak there have been multiple incidents, including the burning of a church souh of the capital, and concerns that the ruling Military Council has been neglecting the problem.

Since the events of Saturday and the clashes yesterday in downtown Cairo received coverage by the general press (here, for instance) and I was tied up with family duties relating to Mother's Day, let me offer a few links that may go a bit beyond the general media coverage, as well as some commentary.

Journalist and blogger Sarah Carr was on the scene and offers some eyewitness impressions at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.  [As of mid-afternoon the whole EIPR website has some sort of problem and the link is not working. I'm leaving the link in in case they recover. Later: link is working with some glitches.]   Her Flickr photostream has many photos of the burned church, including the one I've reproduced above.

The indefatigable Zeinobia has traced the origins of the violence in detail, naming some she considers instigators and offering a collection of stills and videos from around the web.

You will learn more from those two accounts than you will from the formal Egyptian media.

Now. let me add a few comments. A rumor spread that a woman named Abeer was being held at the Mar Mina Church in Imbaba because she wanted to convert to Islam. (This is distinct from the uproar over the Upper Egyptian priest's wife Camillia Shehata, also rumored among Salafi Muslims to be held a prisoner by the Church.) When Christians defended the Mar Mina church, the mob burned the Church of the Virgin Mary nearby, a Coptic-owned apartment building and a coffeehouse.

Twitter and other social media helped spread the rumor, and also spread word of what was happening to the Coptic community. Rumors such as this one, often involving intermarriage or conversion issues, have often sparked sectarian violence; social media can accellerate their spread.

Two other factors seem to have contributed: one was the continuing scarcity of police. Withdrawn from the streets by the Interior Ministry during the uprising, they have never returned to 100% presence. The other factor is the spread of firearms among the populace, many of which were looted from abandoned police stations during the revolution. The Imbaba clashes were not limited to clubs and Molotov cocktails; small arms were in use.

Egypt faced profound economic challenges before its revolution; the Transitional Government is handicapped and a future elected government will be unlikely to work miracles. That opens the way for demagogues and for scapegoating of minorities. In Upper Egypt the attacks are often directed against Coptic landowners; in the towns, against shopkeepers. But now we see a new tendency: blaming the Church itself for (allegedly) abducting women who want to convert to Islam. Never mind that Camillia Shehata has denied she's a prisoner and it isn't clear "Abeer" even exists. Radical Salafis can target a poverty-stricken, uneducated laboring class (Imbaba fills the bill perfectly) to strengthen their own support and attack the Copts.

It is not a good augury for the second 100 days of this very far from complete revolution.


David Mack said...

Thanks, Mike, for giving background on this. It sounds serious enough when you know the facts, but the rumors will be worse. We should expect it will fuel the anti-Muslim commentariat here in our country. Another way for them to put Barak Hussein Obama under scrutiny. It will be interesting to see if there is a statement from the Muslim Brothers.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


See my later post on the Muslim Brotherhood's response: http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2011/05/muslim-brotherhood-condemns-imbaba.html