Divide and Conquer; Sectarian Violence in Egypt

originally published in Al-Majalla Magazine

Divide and Conquer

Sectarian Violence in Egypt

A church and a mosque are pictured at sunset in the southern Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi, after three gunmen sprayed Christian passers-by exiting Christmas Eve Mass. (© Getty Images)

By Elizabeth Iskander and Minas Monir

Published: Thursday 06 May 2010 Updated: Thursday 06 May 2010

Sectarian tension in Egypt has been on the rise, creating an internal challenge to the peace and security of Egyptian society. Not only does it present an internal obstacle, however, it also stands to be exploited by radical forces in the region, particularly Iran, vying to elevate their status.

The dramatic shooting that took place outside a church in Nag Hammadi, a village in rural Upper Egypt, on 6 January briefly shone a spotlight on Egypt’s problem with communal violence. This was not an isolated incident. In fact, sectarianism represents a deep-seated crisis, threatening Egyptian national unity from within.

Regardless of the causes of these tensions, sectarian incidents have become more than simply an internal challenge to the peace and security of Egyptian society. Sectarianism is a weakness that can be exploited—indeed, perhaps already is—by radical forces in the region as part of the struggle to rebalance power in the Middle East and reorient its ideological direction.

The potential of outside forces to exacerbate sectarian tensions was clearly illustrated in Iraq after 2003.  Iran has been one of the main protagonists in the sectarian violence in Iraq and the Iranian government has made no secret of its ambition to achieve regional hegemony. Gaining sway in Shia-majority Iraq, which, under Saddam Hussein, was Iran’s main enemy in the region, has removed an essential check on Iranian ambitions.

Iran has exploited the shifting geopolitical climate in the Middle East through a strategy of managed destabilization. This enables Iran to increase its relative strength and influence in the region. Unstable states are not able to compete in the rebalancing of regional power relations. This prompted Abdullah Kamal, the editor of the Egyptian newspaper Roz Al-Yusef and prominent member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), to claim in early 2009 that Iran represents a bigger threat to Egyptian national security than Israel.

Undermining the Egyptian Government

Until now, Iran has focused on building its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq and constructing alliances with Turkey and Syria. Through its proxies Tehran stretches its hand towards Lebanon and Palestine. However, beyond this, Tehran’s ambitions come up against Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

We are already witnessing what many analysts describe as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen. Iran is allegedly using the Houthis, a Yemeni minority group, to stir up internal conflict. Similarly, those who would exploit tensions between Muslims and Christians in Egypt are not necessarily targeting the Copts as such, but are using sectarian conflict to undermine the social order and the government that relies on it to remain in power.

Although Egypt’s position on the international stage is not as obviously pivotal as in the past, Egypt is strategically crucial to regional geopolitics and so retains considerable stature. Egypt is also an important player in the peace process and maintains good relations with America. Consequently, Egypt continues to act as one of the principal theatres for Middle East politics and is therefore an obstacle to the extension of Iran’s aspirations for military and political dominance in the Middle East.

This clashes with Iran’s sense of its own stature in the region.  Iran would like to play a key role as mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict so it can market itself as the champion of the Palestinian people. This would give Tehran credibility domestically and in the Arab world. It would also force the West to take Iran seriously as a diplomatic power on the world stage.

The External Dynamic

In April 2009, the so-called Hezbollah cell was discovered in the Sinai. Nasrallah himself admitted that the cell was established to provide logistical support to Hamas, but not to undertake attacks in the area. It was later alleged that there were links between the Hezbollah cell and a group referred to as El-Zeitoun Organization that is thought to have carried out a number of attacks on Christians in El-Zeitoun area of Cairo, including a bomb attack on a the Church of the Virgin Mary on 11 May 2009.

During the trial, the investigations of the public prosecutor revealed that the organization’s leader was a Hamas member named Tamer Moses who had received a group of 25 men at training camps in Gaza. The group is also thought to have been financed by Hamas supporter, Mohammed Abdel-Ati, from within Egypt.

It was further reported that the design and materials of the improvised explosive device used in the attack on the church were the same as those seized in raids carried out on members of the Hezbollah cell. This suggests that there may be cooperation between Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran’s key proxies, to target Egyptian social stability.

Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood

Proxies infiltrating Egypt from outside are dangerous but they cannot have the impact of a home-grown group aligned with Iran. Iran’s clear support for Hamas demonstrates that the Sunni-Shia divide is not a barrier to cooperation when it is expedient for undermining a secular government. Likewise, there is no barrier to an Iran-Brotherhood alliance. In fact, according to Yusef Nada, the Brotherhood’s spokesman, the close relationship between the Brotherhood and Iran was demonstrated when the group acted as interlocutor between Saudi Arabia and Iran in 1993.

This link is important because the Brotherhood challenges the political status quo as well as good relations between Egypt’s religious communities. Egyptian Christians fear that a Brotherhood-led government would return their official status to that of dhimmi.

Both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood have a long history of confrontation with the Egyptian state. The will and testament of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini specifically referred to President Hosni Mubarak as a criminal and an enemy.  The Iran-Brotherhood relationship thus operates on the basis that the enemy of an enemy has become an ally. Consequently, when the Hezbollah cell was uncovered it was Islamist lawyers connected with the Brotherhood, such as Montaser Al-Zayat, who defended those accused.

Addressing Egypt’s Vulnerability

To oppose such challenges to stability and security, Egypt needs to undertake vigorous and comprehensive counter-measures. At the domestic level, Egypt should begin to honestly and publicly address the causes of sectarian tensions. An open debate is essential so the problem cannot be exploited at the expense of national security. A culture of equal citizenship must be enshrined at the top and developed simultaneously at the grass roots through the implementation of a comprehensive legal, media and educational package of measures.

At the international level there are several steps that could be taken. Firstly, Egypt should use to its advantage that sense of political weight that the country still has. Egypt should stand up and take a leading role in the affairs of the region by establishing itself as a key line of defense against Iranian expansionism. By promoting itself in this role, Egypt could garner the support of the international community and the Arab States. One mechanism would be to establish a regional security forum that would create an Arab bloc to cooperate with the West in addressing the challenge of Iran and to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region.

Particular efforts should be mounted to improve relations with Syria and thus undermine Iran’s “Northern Alliance.” Such cooperation is essential as the international community struggles to find a united stance on the Iranian nuclear file and the proliferation of its proxies. Together, these steps could enable Egypt to address both the internal and external aspects of this challenge to its national security.

Elizabeth Iskander and Minas Monir

Elizabeth Iskander – Director of the Next Century Foundation’s research programme. A Middle East analyst and writer based in London, she has published in both the English and Arabic-language media and has a particular interest in the politics, law and society of Egypt and Iran. She is also currently a Ph.D. candidate in Politics and International Studies
at the University of Cambridge.

Minas Monir – Cairo-based journalist, translator and writer. He works on the politics, culture and religion of the Middle East. The authors of several books, his main areas of expertise are Egyptian affairs and political theology.

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