The Declining Situation of the Copts (in Egypt)/ Abel Guindy

This article addresses sectarian violence and discrimination against Egypt's Coptic minority, including the January 2010 attacks in Nag Hammadi as well as other incidents during the previous years. It also points to the government's failure to acknowledge the situation and take action or responsibility. It argues that rather than protecting its citizens, the regime's first and foremost priority has been its own survival. In order to appease Islamist groups (its main contenders), the government has thus encouraged an Islamization of Egyptian society, which in turn has resulted in further discrimination against the Coptic minority.


On January 6, 2010, at 11:30 p.m., gunshots were heard in Nag Hammadi, Egypt (a town situated 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, north of Luxor). The shooting was aimed at a group of Copts leaving church following the midnight Christmas Mass (which the Coptic Church celebrated on January 7, 2010, in accordance with the old Julian and Coptic calendars). Seven people were murdered, including a Muslim who happened to be in the vicinity. In addition, nine Copts were injured, one later succumbing to his wounds at the hospital. The victims were all 17 to 29 years old.

Had it not been for the bishop’s decision to begin mass earlier than usual and to finish well before the traditional hour of midnight, the number of victims could have been substantially higher. The bishop decided to hold mass early due to threats he had received in the days before Christmas regarding “a special Christmas gift.” Though the State Security had been informed of these threats, no action was taken.

The following morning, Christmas Day, Copts gathered in front of the town’s hospital where the dead and wounded had been taken. Corpses were lying on the ground and the wounded were not being treated. The hospital and security personnel would not release bodies to be buried, and relatives complained of rude and provocative treatment by them. As the crowd soon grew to 2,000 people, the authorities decided to prevent the families from carrying on with the funeral procession at the nearby church and used tear gas, clubs, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd (wounding seven people), which began shouting anti-government slogans and throwing stones at the security forces and at the hospital facade. Once permitted to resume the funeral procession, Muslim onlookers began throwing stones at them.

During the period of the funerals until January 9, 2010, Copts and Coptic property in Nag Hammadi and the neighboring villages of Bahgura and Tarkas were targeted by Muslims in a wave of attacks. An estimated 3,000 Muslims reportedly broke into, looted, and set fire to Coptic-owned shops. Mobs also tried to force their way into Coptic homes to attack residents. In some instances, Muslims initiated vandalism of their Coptic neighbors’ property, though there were a few cases in which Muslims attempted to help their Coptic neighbors. Official statements, however, made sure to emphasize that “there were 28 Christians” among the 42 people arrested.[2]

Throughout these events, the security forces were only present around police stations and on roads into and out of town, not interfering with the mobs. Moreover, fire trucks arrived hours late--as they were busy dispersing Copts gathering around the bishopric building. As with similar past incidents in which security forces failed to prevent initial attacks (despite the warnings) and to protect the Copts against looting, vandalism, and arson, they reverted to haphazard arrests on “both sides,” tortured and humiliated prisoners, and severely restricted freedom of the press and civil society representatives. As of mid April 2010, those still under arrest for “rioting” (16 Muslims and 13 Copts) were released without charges.[3]

Two days after the rioting, three people turned themselves in to the police. Following preliminary investigations, the trial began on February 13, 2010, but was delayed on three separate occasions, the last time until May 16. The three defendants pleaded not guilty, and Hamam Kamuni, presumably the main perpetrator, told the court: “How could someone who commits such a crime voluntarily surrender to the police?”[4] Kamuni is said to have often worked as a bodyguard for important people in the area, including government officials[5] and members of parliament.[6] The exact motives of the perpetrators, and who was behind them, are still far from clear. Nonetheless, just hours after the attacks, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement that “all indications relate the crime to the consequences of the rape of a Muslim girl in one of the villages of the governorate, for which a young Coptic man is accused,”[7] The statement was in reference to accusations by a Muslim family in Farshut (Qina Governorate) on November 18, 2009, that a 21-year-old Coptic man had raped their 12-year-old daughter. Following his arrest, the man denied the accusation. The following day, riots broke out in which Muslims demanded the alleged rapist be handed over to them for punishment. Thousands of Muslims attacked, looted, and set fire to numerous Coptic-owned shops. Security forces kept a very low profile until the following evening. Dozens of rioters were arrested, but most were promptly released. Attacks also spread to a nearby village (Abu Shusha). The forensic report regarding the victim (dated November 21, 2009) despite the fact that the alleged rape occurred six weeks prior and in an unrelated town. [8] is rather vague and inconclusive, lacking detailed investigative measures such as DNA analysis. The case, however, was transferred to the court (the same court that handled the Nag Hammadi case) and the trial opened on February 17, 2010 only to be postponed, on three separate occasions, to May 15. All of the defense’s requests were subsequently denied.[9]

Government officials from the governor to key ministers as well as the state-owned media came to repeat the linkage the police report initially made between the Nag Hammadi and Abu Shusha incidents, despite the fact that the report was issued before the suspects in the former case were identified, let alone arrested. Foreign news dispatches and commentaries also perpetuated the idea that the two incidents were linked, as they mostly quoted the official sources. The speaker of the National Assembly further made a false claim on BBC-Arabic TV[10] that the girl “had died because of the rape.” Even the prosecutor’s decision on January 16, 2010, to refer the perpetrators of the Nag Hammadi attacks to a criminal court described them as a group of “lawless persons, honoring no values, who [committed the crime] because they had heard about the rape of a Muslim girl in a nearby district...”[11]

The government officially insists that the attacks were not acts of “sectarian violence” against Copts but simply an ordinary criminal act (if anything, motivated by the Copts’ own “crimes”). Furthermore, officials have insisted that the only threat to Egypt’s “national unity” comes from “external pressures and foreign intervention” in the country’s “internal affairs.”[12] “External pressures” here in particular refers to demonstrations by Coptic emigrants condemning violence in Egypt and the lack of action by its leadership.

Indeed, President Husni Mubarak, who remained conspicuously silent after the attacks, finally acknowledged them in a speech[13] at the Police Day celebration 18 days later. He warned that he would be firm with whomever, from “either side,”’ endangered the “national unity.” He blamed the lack of enlightened religious narration by both the Islamic religious institution of al-Azhar and the Coptic Church. He also called upon intellectuals and writers to take action, never saying a word as to his own responsibilities and that of the rest of the political leadership.


When issues of violence against the Copts have reached foreign journalists, NGOs, and politicians, the government has often been quick to issue statements acknowledging the existence of violence but has downplayed it by stressing that the number of victims is relatively small when compared with the thousands who perish elsewhere, for example, in Nigeria’s sectarian clashes or in Sudan.

Nonetheless, violence against Egypt’s Coptic minority is only one of facet of systematic discrimination it faces. The situation of the Copts has even been described by some as one of “daily martyrdom.”[14] In the words of Sameh Salah, whose brother was killed in the Nag Hammadi attacks, “We all envy those martyrs. They escaped the humiliation that we endure[....] the Lord saved him from the miserable treatment and loathing the rest of us get.”[15] There is no indication that Egypt’s political leadership has come to realize the need to address the “Coptic issue.” While the government makes great efforts to present to the outside world an optimistic picture of the Copts’ situation, it does little to address the reality.

“Daily Martyrdom”

While attacks like that in Nag Hammadi are not daily occurrences, the number of incidents is on the rise. Following are some representative examples of discrimination and, in some cases, violence, that have occurred since the beginning of 2009....[16]



*Adel Guindy has authored many articles and political studies on Egypt and the Middle East. He is a senior editor of the Cairo weekly newspaper Watani and is co-founder of the NGO “Coptic Solidarity.” His third book, on religious discrimination in Egypt, is forthcoming.


MERIA Journal Staff
Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Yeru Aharoni, Anna Melman.
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.

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