A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Qena Revolt: Sectarianism Rears its Head. but That's Not the Only Issue

The Upper Egyptian city of Qena is usually known for being the access city for the ancient temple of Dendera, and for being about 40 miles north of Luxor, so that anyone traveling to Luxor (from Cairo or from the Red Sea resorts around Safaga via Wadi Qena, which reaches the Nile at Qena) goes through Qena to get there. It is famous for a distinctive clay water jug called the qulla, used throughout Egypt, and for being the center of most of Egypt's sugar production. Now it has become the new and somewhat ugly focus of the latest dramatic development in the Egyptian Revolution. After several days of upheaval, its newly appointed governor, a Copt, is stepping down. It is being reported as a case of Salafi Islamists driving a Christian from office, but it seems a bit more complex than that, regrettable though that aspect of it surely is.

Last week the Egyptian government appointed 20 new governors (out of a total of 29, though two are being abolished) for the Governorates (basically provinces, muhafazat). Like most of their predecessors, most of the new appointees are either retired Army officers or Interior Ministry officers. Since many have been stalwarts of the (dissolved over the weekend) National Democratic Party or the State Security establishment, they are not all seen as an improvement. Several provinces have protested the appointments: the most common complaint is that provincial governors should be elected by the governorate, not appointed from Cairo.

But Qena has gone beyond protest and is in the midst of a regional rebellion of its own. This is being widely reported in sectarian terms: the governor newly appointed, like his predecessor, is a Copt. Salafi Muslims and members of the Muslim Brotherhood want a Muslim governor. Those statements are true, and are part of the ugly dynamic evolving in Qena, but they're not the whole story.

The new governor, Emad Mikhail (now said to be resigning), is indeed a Copt, and so was his predecessor.Copts had long complained that they were excluded from key jobs, especially the governorates. But Mikhail was also a police general. Many Copts in Qena are themselves said to have preferred his predecessor.

The protests seem to have included both Muslims and Christians initially. Here is some of the reporting over the past several days in English: here, here, and here, for example. Zeinobia has written about it here,

Now, after the protests began,  both Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood joined the fray, trying to turn thisw into a sectarian issue, with some claiming only a Muslim could govern other Muslims. That added an explosive, incendiary element to the mix. Liberal supporters of the Revolution decried the Islamists' efforts to hijack (in their view) the protests. But as I already noted, many Copts had problems with the choice of Mikhail as well. BikyaMasr's Joseph Mayton, I think, catches the real crux of the issue: governors are still being appointed by an out-of-touch central government in Cairo, not by the people. The unfortunate framing of the issue in Christian vs. Muslim terms has distracted many, in Egypt and abroad, from the real roots of the discontent.

Upper Egypt, the southern part of the country, is often the most turbulent part. Although Muslims and Christrians live together in many regions of the country, in Upper Egypt the Copts have a greater proportional strength and are thus more obvious than in the metropolis of Cairo. Conservative and traditional Islam is also enrenched. Adding to the tinderbox of this mix of Islamists and Christians is a tradition of clans and blood feuds, a legacy of centuries of neglect by centralized authority. Tribalism, or perhaps more precisely clan loyalty, mingles with a tradition of vendetta to make for an explosive mix.

You may recall the Christmas killings in Nag Hammadi at Coptic Christmas a year ago: Nag Hammadi is in the Qena governorate, so religious tension is familiar there; the previous Coptic governor, Magdy Ayoub, was in office when it occurred.

As Mayton puts it:
It should not come as a surprise then that a small segment of the Muslim population has taken to the streets to demand change. Arguably, their tactics and “style” of protesting is not ideal. They probably don’t want a Christian governor, irregardless of past history, but after Ayoub, and knowing the tensions that are present in Qena, the appointment of a Coptic governor would have only increased animosity among the groups, as we have witnessed.

Democracy, however, would have alleviated all these problems. If governors were elected, the Muslim and Christian populations in Egypt would be forced to have an open dialogue. The vote would most likely have been in favor of the majority. Granted, any voting and majority rule must also be accompanied by minority rights, which should have been developed and implemented by now, but the Army appears willing to allow tension, violence and fear cloud the future of Egypt.

What is happening in Qena right now very well could be a tipping point in the future of the “New Egypt.” Will these rural areas, home to a large Coptic minority fall into disarray and possibly civil war, or will the leaders of these communities step forward and demand a real change, one that leads to democracy in all of Egypt.

Certainly the sectarian subtexts of the demonstrations are alarming; certainly too, sectarianism is not the only issue here, but long-smmering tensions, resentments, and feuds. Cries that the Islamists are hijacking the Revolution may be justified to some extent, but it is also important to understand that the issues in Qena go beyond the purely sectarian. Qena may be a reminder that Egypt is much bigger than Tahrir Square, and that the provinces have their own issues, not always understood by the central government in Cairo.

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