In the immediate aftermath of the tragic attack against the Copts in Imbaba a fortnight ago—the latest in a series of episodes by Salafis and thugs aimed at hijacking the 25 January Revolution—the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) dispatched a fact-finding commission to Imbaba. The commission investigated the situation on the ground, talking to eyewitnesses, members of the clergy, and the hospitalised injured, and came up with an accurate account of the events. It released a candid report analysing the unhealthy climate which allowed the disgraceful events to take place. Praiseworthy is that the commission did not stop at finding the facts, but offered recommendations to prevent the recurrence of similar attacks.
Let me first recall the famous Oteifi report issued in 1972 by a fact-finding commission headed by Judge Gamal al-Oteifi and assigned by Parliament to investigate the horrific sectarian incident at al-Khanka, which had taken place a few weeks earlier. The Khanka incident is especially significant in that it is seen to have launched the so far unending series of attacks by extremist Islamic groups against Copts in Egypt; it is widely considered to mark the beginning of the persecution of Copts in modern Egyptian history. The details of the Khanka incident were so monstrous that they warranted serious investigation—hence the Oteifi fact-finding commission. The commission wrote a report that generated, by the standards of the time, cause for real concern. It analysed the causes of the sectarian ‘disease’ and prescribed the remedy. It ended with a number of clear-cut recommendations for measures to defend the rights of Copts and protect those all-too-easy targets of extremist and fanatic attacks. It underscored the demand that the State should take these recommendations very seriously, warning of the dire consequences expected should they be disregarded. Regrettably, Parliament fell short of assuming its responsibility either in promulgating the legislation needed or introducing the mechanisms necessary to hold the government accountable when it fails to take the required action. Matters were left to aggravate and the nation witnessed innumerable attacks against Copts, their churches and property, ever since. Indeed, many observers attribute the current plight to the absence of firmness on the part of the State. In most cases, legislative and executive authorities alike allowed culprits to get away with their crimes; no surprise then that they grew emboldened enough to test the State’s power and challenge the law.
The Oteifi report remains a landmark in Egypt’s record of national commitment and human rights, and a dire reminder of the price the country had to pay for the political authority’s flagrant indifference to the right remedy for a critical issue.
Back to a quick reading of the NCHR’s Imbaba fact-finding report, which coincided with the Cabinet’s decisions following the events and the frequent statements by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)—all of which pledge to bring the culprits to justice. The Cabinet and SCAF warned that the State’s patience is running thin and that challenging its power will not be any more tolerated. The question which begs an answer, however, is whether the NCHR report will be taken seriously or will face the same fate as the 40-year-old Oteifi’s?
Following are the main points in the report:
• The fight took a sectarian turn right from the start. A group of bearded men in white galabiyas, believed to be Salafis, accompanied by a number of Imbaba residents gathered around Mar-Mina church in the wake of allegations that a young female who had converted to Islam was being held captive there. The situation escalated when someone started shooting. The committee did not specify the source of the shots—investigations are yet to reach a conclusion on that. Violent aggression followed in which stones, swords and guns were used and several people were killed or wounded.
• Calls sounded among the throngs surrounding Mar-Mina’s to head to the church of the Holy Virgin—some two kilometres away—and burn it, resulted in a crowd marching there. At the Holy Virgin’s, the aggressors divided themselves into two groups: the first fired at the people to prevent them from defending the church, while the second broke into the church, burned it and left it in ruins.
• The committee concluded that the major changes sweeping Egypt since the 25 January Revolution have been accompanied by a remarkable absence of security apparatuses, a situation that unleashed outlaws and thugs, as well as the illegal possession of weapons. The spread of extremist interpretations of Islamic scriptures called for the restructuring of Egyptian society so that Christian Egyptians would be alienated as dhimmis (non-Muslims living under Islamic rule, generally second class citizens) who have to pay jizya (head tax on non-Muslims living under Muslim rule). Intensive propagation of such misconceptions by the media only served to make matters worse. In this context, plots by remnants of the former regime cannot be overlooked. By stressing division and encouraging confrontations, they wish to prove that the revolution is the cause of the current state of disorder.
• Notwithstanding the unique fraternity and unity among the Muslim and Christian revolutionaries last January, it has to be remembered that the problems and grievances which accumulated over the past 40 years—commonly referred to as the “Coptic file”—cannot be wiped out in a few days. Instead of investigating the roots of the problem and finding real solutions based upon legal and socio-political perspectives, the State used to view the Coptic file through a security prism. The attacks against the Copts in Imbaba, Etfeeh, Qena, and Abu Qurqas in the last few weeks have to be understood within this framework. A new approach is thus needed if these problems are to be seriously addressed.
The report offered six recommendations:
1. Suspects, whether individuals or groups, should be arrested and referred to court as soon as possible. They should be granted a fair trial, to stress the ability of the Egyptian judicial institutions to defend all Egyptians in a fair, non-discriminatory manner.
2. The NCHR is committed to monitor the legal procedures in this case. The NCHR has decided to appoint a special commissioner to follow up on incidents of sectarian strife and swiftly move to contain them.
3. The rule of law should be stressed. State institutions alone—as opposed to individuals or groups—should be mandated with implementing the law.
4. Security servicemen should be re-deployed, particularly in poorer neighbourhoods, so as to defend residents, restore order and discipline, and adequately protect places of worship.
5. Freedom of expression does not imply the right to promote ideas that go against human and democratic values. The NCHR calls for holding accountable every one who incites hatred or violence in the name of religion.
6. Legislation to combat sectarianism and ban discrimination on religious grounds should be promulgated. The NCHR reminds of previous recommendations it had issued in this regard: the passage of a unified law for building places of worship; and another that guarantees equal opportunity and bans discrimination; as well as the promotion of tolerance, human rights and acceptance of the “other”.