Assassins and agitators
Egypt awaits the verdict of the Naga Hammadi trial on 18 April. Were the culprits political agitators, common criminals or premeditated murderers, asks Gamal Nkrumah
Naga Hammadi holds a mythical place in the imagination of Biblical scholars. Ironically, a Muslim peasant named Mohamed Ali Samman discovered early Christian Gnostic papyrus codices written in the Coptic language in Naga Hammadi in 1945. Today, the codices are housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. This year, however, Naga Hammadi, 60km north of Luxor, has become famous for a rather unfortunate incident, a drive-by shooting, that claimed the lives of six Coptic Christians and a Muslim guard murdered in cold blood on Coptic Christmas Eve.
"The criminal act in Naga Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians," lamented President Hosni Mubarak soon after the murderous act, as he urged Egyptians to "contain discord and blind fanaticism".
Prejudice, indeed, is a poor foundation for policy. The need for the pragmatic choice becomes more pressing every day and especially when it comes to the question of religion. So why has the Naga Hammadi incident "stayed much alive in public consciousness" as Mariz Tadros, research fellow at Sussex University's Institute of Development Studies and co-author with Akram Habib of The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist Politics in the Middle East, asserts? Tadros purports that the incident "was the most lethal sectarian attack in recent memory, but also one in an escalating series over the past decade."
"Many Muslims protected their Christian neighbours' property, but there were still attacks on homes and shops, raising the question of police complicity," she points out. Many Muslim and Christian human rights activists, writers and intellectuals support the view of Tadros.
"Let us not beat around the bush. This was an act of extremism and fanaticism, and all this talk about an isolated, individual act is nonsense," Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Al-Dostour, opined. "The representation of the crime as if it was a vendetta is no less a crime than the original murders. Since when have Upper Egyptians pursued a vendetta by killing at random? The vendetta has rules. It is carried out against the actual violator or his family, not haphazardly," Eissa pointed out.
Others vehemently disagree. "The Naga Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimension," declared parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour.
Samir Morqos a prominent Coptic opposition figure and founder of the Citizenship Foundation begs to differ. "The authorities must be ready to consider more radical solutions other than just patching over the problems as they arise," Morqos told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The need for urgency is clear. Many Muslim MPs point to interference of "foreign fingers" in igniting sectarian strife. The Coptic Assembly of America, a strident émigré pressure group, dispatched a protest letter to United States President Barack Obama urging him to address the "crisis of sectarian violence" in Egypt. So is this a fight to the bitter end?
There is talk among Copts of psychological warfare inflamed by Muslim bigots. Matters came to a head this week with the appearance of three defendants Mohamed El-Kammouni, Hendawi Sayed and Qurashi Abdel-Haggag before an emergency security court in Qena, the provincial capital of the governorate in which Naga Hammadi is located.
A clash of the titans was inevitable. The tragedy is that Christianity is not exactly the moral antithesis to Islam. Qena Governor Magdi Iskandar, the only non-Muslim among 29 governors in Egypt, has come under intense fire from his own governorate's Coptic Christian community. "It is preposterous to blame the governor for the recent spate of sectarian violence," MP Nabil Bibawi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
In parliamentary sessions debating the Naga Hammadi incident, the Qena governor reiterated that the ringleader El-Kammouni was a "registered criminal" and that his motives were "criminal and not political".
Bibawi, an appointed MP representing the ruling National Democratic Party and a member of the NDP's Policies Committee, is a Coptic Christian, but he decries the sensationalisation of the Naga Hammadi incident. "The government cannot be solely responsible for diffusing the crisis," he stressed. The former police officer acknowledges that the Naga Hammadi incident has intensified tensions between Muslims and Christians that he believes were ignited by Islamist zealots, Egyptian workers returning from the oil-rich Gulf states with fanatical notions of Islam that are intrinsically alien to Egyptian culture.
Some prominent fellow Copts concur. "We must not be too harsh in our criticism of the governor," MP Ibtisam Habib told the Weekly. "He is, after all, a government appointee. He tries to be fair, a difficult task given the tense situation. We should support him in his efforts to restore peace in Qena. It is important that we encourage more Copts to occupy high-ranking official positions."
"There is a pressing need to refocus the religious debate on essentials. Copts are in dire need of exercising their full citizenship rights," Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic weekly Watani warned.
"A goodwill gesture to thaw relations between Coptic Christians and Muslims is now sorely needed," Sidhom stressed. "The government is having huge difficulty in delivering such a peace package."
"We refuse to conduct any reconciliation without first compensating the innocent Copts for their losses," Anba Kyrollos insists. "The culprit murdered Coptic churchgoers celebrating the traditional midnight mass at Mar Guirguis Church, Nagaa Hammadi. He habitually threw acid on Christian women parishioners," he added.
So was the Naga Hammadi incident tribal justice or sectarian strife? "I'll tell the truth even if it costs me my neck. Even if they cut short my political career," firebrand Coptic MP Georgette Qellini told Al-Ahram Weekly. Qellini, like Bibawi and Habib, is an NDP member. But she has spoken out vociferously against the prevalent NDP position that ascribes the sectarian violence in Naga Hammadi to a wanton criminal act spurred on by a vendetta over the rape of a 12-year-old Muslim girl by Coptic Christian youths in the nearby village of Farshout. Many NDP MPs described Qellini as an "agent provocateur".
"This was not an isolated incident as some are trying to make us believe. This was not a so-called honour killing. This was an act of premeditated mass murder. I was part of the fact-finding mission and I saw how angry people are. Copts feel persecuted, insecure and discriminated against," Qellini complained. The National Council for Human Rights headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali dispatched a fact-finding mission to Naga Hammadi that disclosed hard-hitting facts.
"This is just the tip of an iceberg," Qellini told the Weekly. "There is repression, there is a huge groundswell of seething anger among Copts and it is no good burying our heads in the sand, ostrich-fashion and pretending that all is well. If we do so, the simmering tensions will boil over." She ends on a germane albeit ominous note. "Copts are not being given the full hand of the law."