A New Year’s Eve bombing outside the packed Al-Qeddesine church in Alexandria killed 23 people and injured 90 more, including ten Muslims. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are furious at the government’s failure to protect them. The risk of an attack was known to be high. The al Qaeda-linked ‘Islamic State of Iraq’, which claimed an attack on a church in Baghdad, last November, had threatened to launch similar attacks in Egypt. Two weeks before the bombing, its website listed a number of churches to be targeted during Christmas, including Al-Qeddesine. This was in retaliation for the reported abduction by the church of two women who attempted to convert from Christianity to Islam. Nevertheless, it is still unclear who was behind the bombing.
Following the slaughter, protests spread rapidly to Cairo and the rest of the country. Around 4,000 Cairo Coptic refuse collectors went on strike and demonstrated on a main road. Over a thousand Copts, mainly young people, demonstrated outside the state television building in Cairo. Protesters called for the sacking of the Minister of Interior, and the Governor and Head of Security of Alexandria. The demonstrators were violently attacked by police armed with batons and shields. In Assiut, around 2,000 Copts marched through a village chanting anti-president slogans, as well as shouting, “Cross and the Bible are the first and the last.”
On 2 January 2011, at the Abbasiya cathedral in Cairo, thousands of angry Copts threw stones and water bottles at security forces when the police tried to forcibly disperse them. Six ministers had visited the cathedral as a show of government concern. They were forced to leave by a back door after one of their cars was attacked. The protest continued throughout the night.
On 3 January, hundreds marched again in the Shubra district of Cairo. The police attacked the crowd, separating out a group of eight activists with Muslim names. The eight were arrested and have since been charged with spreading sectarian tension and disturbing public order. This is a blatant attempt to frame activists from the Left and to divide Copts from the wider working class movement.
The protesting youth appeared fearless of the police, who have a reputation for brutality in such situations. They also defied church leaders, who called for an end to the protests. At some protests, there was rival chanting between crowds of Muslim youth and a few isolated scuffles, while at other protests some Muslims joined in solidarity.
The New Year’s Eve bomb follows years of oppression of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. Making up 10%-15% of the population, most Copts are among the poorest sections of society, often doing menial jobs, such as refuse collectors.
Sectarian tension has been rising for over thirty years. After President Anwar Sadat’s regime had been almost toppled by a mass movement of workers and the poor – during the Bread Riots of 1977 – he aimed to turn rising opposition to his regime away from secular and Left-wing views. He allowed the return of Muslim Brotherhood leaders exiled in Saudi Arabia since the 1950s. They brought with them the Wahhabi trend of Islam - more conservative and less tolerant of co-existence with the Copts than Egypt’s traditional Sufi practice of Islam.
Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, has maintained his position as president since 1981, balancing between repression and making agreements with some religious leaders, including Pope Shenouada III of the Coptic Church. In return for allowing them to operate relatively freely in religious matters, community leaders have delivered votes when rigged elections are held.
The complete failure of the government to provide decent education, health care and welfare has left religious organisations filling the gap – including the Coptic Church and Muslim Brotherhood. This has led to growing sectarian division as people increasingly live within their own religious communities.
During the swine ’flu outbreak, in 2009, the government ordered a cull of all pigs, despite no transmission from pigs to humans. This was a direct attack on Copts, the only section of the population that kept and ate pigs.
One year ago, a Christmas Eve drive-by shooting on the church in Nag Hammadi left seven dead, including a Muslim security guard. This was reportedly in retaliation for the rape of a Muslim girl by a Christian two months earlier. Those found guilty of the drive-by shooting crime were sentenced relatively lightly by the courts.
Another issue angering Copts has been government discrimination against building churches and Christian community centres. The planning restrictions are much lengthier and more bureaucratic than for building mosques. There have been violent sectarian attacks on Coptic homes and communities in areas trying to build new churches. Hundreds of Copts protested about this in Giza, in November 2010, where two were killed after clashes with police.
The Alexandria bomb has led to large numbers of Coptic youth deciding, ‘We’ve had enough!’ In Shubra, on 1 January, protesting youth were joined by activists from a wide range of opposition parties, including Al-Ghad, Al-Wafd and Al-Tagammu, the Muslim Brotherhood, democracy campaigners and socialists. There were three days of protests, with thousands participating, mostly Coptic.
Sectarian tension has been growing and some of the reaction to this latest horror is a warning of the much worse communal conflict that could arise. A religious sectarian conflict would cause terrible suffering, particularly to the working class and poor masses. However, this is not inevitable. The alternative road of class solidarity against the common enemy of capitalism and its corrupt ruling politicians can bring communities together in joint struggle.
Marxists defend the rights of Copts and all religious minorities to practise their beliefs without discrimination or persecution. Some activists have put forward the slogan, “We are all Copts” and called for Muslims to form human shields around churches over the Coptic Christmas on 7 January as a show of solidarity.
The interests of Muslim and Copt workers are the same. Socialists oppose sectarianism in all its forms. Big business and the government benefit from sectarian divisions that weaken the strength of the working class to unite against its common enemy.
No to religious discrimination, Yes to democratic rights for all
But it is necessary to put forward a clear programme linking religious freedom with the struggle for democratic rights. November’s rigged election farce showed again how important these rights are to workers and youth fighting poverty and repression. The rights to vote in free elections, to assemble without police attacks, to publish newspapers and have free access to TV and radio are vital. So are the rights to strike, to organise free trade unions and political parties to fight for a government of workers and the poor.
Weak Egyptian capitalism means it relies on an authoritarian regime and is the reason why imperialism has not condemned the election rigging. Unlike in Ivory Coast imperialism fundamentally wants the current regime, with or without the Mubarak family, to continue. That is why the struggle for lasting democratic rights must be part of the struggle for socialist change.
A very positive development, last month, was the formation by health technicians of the second independent trade union. This follows the real estate (property) tax collectors who in 2009 formed the first independent union since 1957. The Egyptian Health Technologists Syndicate collected 13,000 signatures from laboratory workers, radiographers and other hospital technicians, some earning as little as $50 a month. They aim to recruit many of the 205,000 health technicians who are not covered by a union.
The state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) is a management tool to repress workers, rather than the militant campaigning organisation that workers need to fight poverty pay and poor conditions at work. Other workers are also attempting to organise unions independent of the ETUF.
The wave of strikes that swept Egypt in recent years shows the potential for a united working class movement. Independent trade unions, fighting for the rights of all and organising solidarity for those in struggle, can bring together workers as a class. The working class is potentially the most powerful force in Egypt. Organised around a programme of democratic rights and socialist change, it would unite Muslim and Christian workers and poor people together, shaking every rotten regime throughout the region.