Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2005
Issue No. 766
Press review
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fatemah Farag

Play with fire

Riots in Alexandria have the press dancing on the hot coals of sectarian strife, writes Fatemah Farag

As far as Akram El-Qassas in Al-Arabi is concerned, the people of Alexandria did not need a play to start rioting [in reference to the play presented by a church in Moharem Bey which allegedly portrays Islam in a negative light, prompting widespread violence last week]. "The hearts and minds [of both Muslims and Christians alike] have been lost in the chaos created by the regime which has usurped power it is incapable of wielding. It [the regime] has closed all our windows and doors and monopolised politics and economics. It seems to enjoy the petty fires and fights that break out amongst its citizens as they take our eyes away from its failure and inadequacies."

Contemplating the events that have shaken the nation, novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid in Al-Masri Al-Youm on 22 October says fundamentalists "are pushing everyone towards ignoring the core of religion and [instead pushing them towards] going to heaven without Christians and Jews and others. And of course governments encourage these tendencies so that they alone can monopolise the world: it's money, women, power and authority."

The press itself has come under fire by those who claim it played a role in fanning the flames of sectarianism in Alexandria. It is a charge Ibrahim Eissa on the front page of Sawt Al-Umma vehemently denies. "There is an attempt by the security forces which have failed to put out the fires of sectarian strife in Alexandria, and the failure of officials, to do anything but sycophant to blame the press as having lit the flames of sectarian strife." Eissa asserts that the press is not responsible but has "failed to enlighten the Egyptian people in the midst of all this anger, oppression and pessimism. All of Egypt is living a state of ignorance and fundamentalism and we do not want to admit this or really solve it."

Instead, says Eissa, "the state plays the leading role in making young people ignorant and pushing them towards fundamentalism as a result of stupid school curricula, resounding unemployment and television soap operas full of Christians converting to Islam!"

In much of what has been written by the privately-owned press regarding the riots, security forces have been implicitly and explicitly charged of at best negligence, and at worst complicity, in sectarian mistrust. According to Eissa the government itself -- the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) specifically -- is guilty of blatant sectarianism, using as evidence the fact that they only nominated two Copts in the upcoming parliamentary elections. This is an argument picked up by Wael El-Ibrashi, in the same issue of Sawt Al-Umma, who says, "the nominations of the ruling party shot down three categories: women, Copts and young people. And the Egyptian church -- which had announced its full support of President [Hosni] Mubarak in last month's presidential elections -- was stabbed in the back by the NDP which did not place on its list except two Copts. [This is a clear indication that] the party is playing into sectarian differentiation and religious fundamentalism and does not believe that Copts are capable of winning elections."

What we need now, says Ahmed Abul-Maati in Al-Arabi, is for the government "not to behave like it is a viewer". He says, "for many years the Coptic file has remained officially closed," indicating that Egypt "is on the verge of sectarian crises" and that the time has come for positive action.

In Rose El-Youssef, Osama Salama complains, "the government has sufficed to deal with the riots as a security issue and has not bothered to release an announcement explaining the truth regarding what happened at the church." Salama fears that the time may come when "no one will be capable of controlling the situation."

The Coptic file is part and parcel of a host of issues on the table of reform and change in Egypt. Helmi El-Nimnim's analysis in Al-Masri Al-Youm does not leave much room for optimism in either. According to El-Nimnim, in spite of the many promises made in the past few months for political reform and constitutional change "it does not look like any of this will take place as it is inconceivable that those who have brought political life to a standstill and have spread corruption everywhere are the same ones capable of reform and renewal since these require first and foremost that they leave." The problem is that when you look outside the NDP and its promises "there will be nothing but the Muslim Brotherhood which is not much different from the ruling part in terms of its authoritarianism."

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