Egypt: The Victorious Islamists

Khaled Elfiqi/epa/Corbis
Coptic Christian women looking out from inside the Virgin Mary Church in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo, May 8, 2011. The church was set on fire during clashes between Christians and Muslims the previous night.

The forty-year-old Virgin Mary Church on Cairo’s al-Wahda Street—the name means unity, or oneness—looks striking these days. Its cream and white façade is unscathed by the dust and smog that otherwise blanket neighboring buildings and the rest of the city, and inside, its walls and floors glisten with newly laid cappuccino-colored marble. The church, its guardians say, has never looked better. “Ever, in its entire history.”

On May 8, this church, in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, a ten-minute drive from Tahrir Square, was a scene of devastation. It had been ravaged by flames and its insides gutted, smashed, looted, and charred after clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians over the case of a Coptic woman named Abeer Fakhri, an alleged convert to Islam whom ultraconservative Salafis had claimed was being held against her will at the nearby Church of St. Mina, which was also attacked. Fifteen people were killed in the violence and almost two hundred injured.

The attack was one of a series against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority in the weeks since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11. Since then, widespread and escalating crime has gripped the country. But the campaign against the Copts has stood out as by far the most egregious violence in post-revolutionary Egypt. “Stirring up sectarian tensions,” the Coptic activist Michael Meunier told me the week after the attack, “has always been the best way to keep the country divided—the Copts always get the biggest blow,” he said. “There are many actors who have stakes in causing this chaos.”

Copts have been outraged at the ruling military council’s lenient response to other recent incidents of violence against them. In March, armed thugs bulldozed a church on the outskirts of Cairo to its foundations, allegedly over an illicit relationship between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman. This led to riots and clashes that left thirteen people dead and 140 wounded. No arrests were made and no one was charged.

The day after the Imbaba attacks, several thousand Copts from across Cairo marched to Maspero, the state TV building, setting up tents for what they planned would be a lengthy sit-in. “We are here to make sure our demands are met,” Father Metias, one of the priests of the Virgin Mary Church, told me that day. “We want protection. We want the dozens of churches that the government has closed to be reopened. The people who are causing this trouble against us must be held accountable.”

For almost two weeks, the Copts—who were joined by several hundred Muslims who came out in solidarity—chanted outside the building, calling for protection and demanding…

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