Last Updated: Wed Oct 12, 2011 17:24 pm (KSA) 14:24 pm (GMT)

Eman El-shenawi: The sectarian divide is Egypt’s Achilles heel

Once again on the streets of Cairo, a lethal cocktail of sectarian tension, political flux and societal mess and disorder has led to more deaths and fatalities.

As many as 36 deaths had been announced at the time of writing this blog. But the number crept up by the hour on Sunday in the aftermath of the clashes. It saddens many that this is what Egypt has reduced itself to; that the nation’s democracy and social order is now under threat and the basic aims of January’s Egyptian revolution may have become far-fetched dreams again.

The main inconsistency in Sunday’s events was the abundance of weaponry that made its way into the mix. Reports say that protesters seized weapons from torched military vehicles and soldiers after what was intended to be a silent vigil, and a peaceful march staged by Copts protesting the rising tide of sectarian incidents turned into yet another sectarian incident. It was later revealed that the army was not carrying any heavy weapons, only rubber bullets.

A few months ago, Egyptians blamed the deposed president’s regime for protests that turned ugly and resulted in many deaths. But many Egyptian onlookers still blame the same groups for Sunday’s carnage, believing that Mubarak loyalists are hindering the country’s progress.

But let’s not forget that the protest on Sunday was also aimed at Egypt’s ruling military council, not just against Muslim radicals that a group of Copts have accused of carrying out a recent attack on a church in the southern city of Aswan. Copts also accuse the governing military council of being too lenient on the perpetrators of a string of anti-Christian attacks.

It astonishes me, however, that it is so difficult for most of the groups in Egypt to take a look at themselves. Yes, there will always be a possibility of outside entities infiltrating the crowds and handing out a few weapons to turn up the heat. But a more valid point is to remember there are a plethora of societal scars running deep in Egypt.

In February, the country got rid of a regime that had left cracks in its backbone. Much like waking up from a nightmare, Egypt – a broken society – is flustered and still shaking. The scars will not heal in such a volatile environment. The prospects of a stable Egypt appear poor at the moment, as a progressive path towards a better, post-revolutionary country is being battered on most fronts by protests.

Sectarian protest induces the most dangerous type of unrest for the country, as religious conflict is Egypt’s Achilles heel – it has been a debate in the shadows for Egypt’s Coptic community and its Muslims for many years.

Yet as someone who greatly admires the spirit of religious solidarity, I still wish Egyptians could see that no matter how much they chant “Muslims and Christians are one hand,” this will not bridge the tentative gap.

If anything, the sheer (and almost forced) mention of religious solidarity perpetuates a divide even more, simply because such a chant would never have been said if there were no troubles to begin with.

Some say tougher measures are needed.

In a statement issued on Monday, the Egyptian Cabinet said that tough penalties would be added to to a law against discrimination, including a fine of as much as 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($16, 751) and a three-year jail term.

But this is not enough. This will not silence additional protests by either side that may still flare up from sectarian grievances from the past. A societal makeover is needed in Egypt, one that includes a people who can prioritize what really matters in this period of transition for the country to win stability.

(Eman El-shenawi is a writer at Al Arabiya English)

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