Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
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The meanings of Al-Kosheh

By Nadia Abou El-Magd

The notorious Al-Kosheh name has been changed to Al-Salam, meaning peace -- a ray of hope in a village that has witnessed the worst sectarian strife in Egypt. But not only has Al-Kosheh changed its name, it has become the site of a complete reconstruction.

The government has reportedly allocated more than LE2 million for building projects in Al-Kosheh, which began when Housing and Construction Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman recently visited the village. Not only will the 70 or so shops and houses damaged in last month's clashes be repaired, but the whole infrastructure of the village is being boosted: electricity, water, telephone lines and various other public services. The reconstruction, including the installation of a new hospital in place of the old health unit, is expected to take three months. A new school and fire station are also being built and the whole village will be painted white.

New shops are being built to replace the old kiosks scattered along Port Said Street, where a clash between a Muslim customer and a Coptic shop-owner on New Year's Eve sparked riots that spread violence into neighbouring villages and claimed the lives of 21 Copts and one Muslim. More than 40 people were injured in the two-day incident.

Economically, Al-Kosheh is relatively prosperous. A trade centre for neighbouring villages, Al-Kosheh dates back more than a thousand years. Of its 35,000 inhabitants, two-thirds are Christian Copts, most of whom trade in animals, grain, cement, cloth, and manual crafts. Muslims own 90 per cent of Al-Kosheh's land and monopolise the vegetable trade.

In general, Al-Kosheh's Copts are more well off than the Muslims -- a source of tension in the village. Most of the kiosks on Port Said Street were built illegally by Muslims in front of shops owned by Christians. For the past 12 years, these kiosks have served as a physical reminder of the sectarian tension that exists in Al-Kosheh. But Al-Kosheh is by no means some inconsequential spot of rural strife; as this latest incident has revealed, the village is also an arms storehouse.

At a Press Syndicate seminar entitled "How can we protect national unity?" Al-Akhbar journalist Ahmed Taha Al-Noqr criticised Al-Kosheh's refurbishment: "What is happening now in Al-Kosheh is a message to anyone who wants to develop his village: Just go and kill Christians."

Al-Noqr continued, "As a matter of fact, Al-Kosheh doesn't need this knee-jerk-reaction development; it is one of the richest villages, not only in Sohag but maybe in Egypt. What [Al-Kosheh] really needs is human development: to change the fanatic atmosphere of rejecting the other."

At the same seminar, held Saturday, prominent writer and Islamic intellectual Fahmi Howeidy wondered, "Where is the political other? What happened is not a crisis of a village or sect, but a crisis of a nation." Howeidy is the author of Citizens, Not People of the Dhima. After the Al-Kosheh violence, he published an article entitled, "An apology to every Copt."

While "the external factor" in sectarian strife was not ignored by the seminar, participants agreed that a society is more prone to clashes when, as Howeidy suggested, "the inside is so fragile and ripe".

In his annual meeting with intellectuals and journalists last week, President Hosni Mubarak denied any discrimination between Muslims and Copts. He attributed incidents in Al-Kosheh in 1998 and last month to "outside groups". "the problem arose from a money dispute between two individuals. This dispute was exploited by seditious elements and rumor mongers". Mubarak said.

When two Copts in Al-Kosheh were killed in August 1998, some human rights groups accused police of rounding up an estimated 1,000 Copts and ill-treating dozens of them during their search for the murderers. The Sohag criminal court trial has been going on since August of last year, with a new session scheduled to begin on 8 February.

Pope Shenouda III declined to comment on the Al-Kosheh incidents. But El-Kiraza, the Coptic Church's official magazine, which he edits, carried a front-page headline which read: "Our martyrs in Al-Kosheh". The article warns against "blaming the victim," saying that "We trust the authorities in Cairo, but the problem remains with the local officials at the scene of these incidents."

Although the final investigation report is not yet out, the criminal lab report says that 73 shops, houses and kiosks were deliberately burnt or damaged in the incident. Most of the killings took place in the outskirts of Al-Kosheh, especially in the fields. The lab report concludes that the killings were "a haphazard, unplanned or unorganised act".

A month after the incident, the Egyptian press is rife with debate on the events of Al-Kosheh and what can be done to prevent further violence. Al-Ahram dedicated its "strategic issues" page to discussing Al-Kosheh for two consecutive weeks; while last week writer Emad Gad spoke of "the dangers of the haphazard application of the conspiracy theory". In the opposition daily Al-Wafd, journalist George Fahim demanded that the United States "take its hands off Egyptian Copts".

Rifaat El-Said, secretary general of the leftist Tagammu party and author of the book What Happened to Egyptians: Muslims and Copts, lamented the incident. In the party's weekly, Al-Ahali, El-Said said that Al-Kosheh showed "that we close our eyes in order not to see the real tragedy".

In an article published Tuesday in Al-Ahram, Nabil Abdel-Fattah, who edits "The State of Religion in Egypt Report" -- issued annually by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies -- differentiated between presidential and bureaucratic handling of the crisis. According to Abdel-Fattah, the president and the prime minister took a "courageous, sensible initiative", while "inefficient, bureaucratic and technical handling," is in need of an immediate remedy. Abdel-Fattah singled out the media, the government machine and the political parties as belonging to the latter category.

Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, attributed the sectarian clashes to "the mountain of hatred and dissension that has been growing for the past 30 years. ... Fortunately, this hatred does not represent all of the nation; there is the national bloc, supported by political and religious institutions which respect religions, and a leadership that is against discrimination and hatred".

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