Egyptian authorities have been exerting strong efforts to confront sectarian strife which has threatened the country’s security and stability following several attacks targeting Coptic Christians.
Last week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ordered the formation of a high committee to counter sectarian incidents, headed by his adviser on security and terrorism affairs.
The committee’s membership includes representatives from the armed forces, national security and intelligence, and has the authority to invite ministers and concerned officials to attend its meetings.
Sisi tasked the committee to come up with a general strategy on confronting sectarian incidents and a mechanism to deal with such attacks, and to issue recommendations in periodic reports.
According to observers, through his decision, the president has “officially admitted for the first time that there is a sectarian problem” in the country.
Both the executive and legislative authorities, in addition to religious figures, welcomed Sisi’s formation of the committee.
Grand Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam considered it a “qualitative shift towards citizenship,” while Coptic Orthodox Church official Kamal Zakher described it as a “positive step in confronting sectarian and terrorist incidents.”
The committee’s level of representation is a sign that the authorities are willing “to address the problem’s root causes,” Zakher told Asharq Al-Awsat.
He said its formation goes in tandem with orders issued by Sisi in July 2017 to form a national council to confront terrorism and extremism.
The head of parliament’s defense and national security committee, Kamal Amer, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the committee’s formation was necessary because terrorist plots have aimed at targeting Egypt’s stability, and there have been “conspiracies” to increase the divide among Muslims and Christians during the holidays and to distort facts.
The Egyptian authorities are also exerting efforts to counter sectarian strife ideologically. The past week, Muslim and Christian religious officials exchanged visits on the occasion of Christmas.
Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Coptic Orthodox Church Pope Tawadros II at the head of a high-ranking delegation, stressing that al-Azhar “teaches its followers that monotheistic religions emanate from a single source and that all prophets are brethren.”
The Pope also stressed that “the teachings of Christ call for love and the spread of joy and happiness in society, which means achieving spiritual peace.”
Other visits have also taken place in the past week.
According to Zakher, “a security solution is not enough” to resolve Egypt’s sectarian problems.
He called for cultural and social efforts to change the mindset of Egyptians which took decades to build.
So he suggested swift security measures based on intelligence information, in parallel with educating the people on confronting negative thoughts about other confessions, a process that “requires a long time.”
Egyptian Family House
Some observers believe that Sisi’s recent moves in forming committees to combat terrorism and sectarianism have undermined the Egyptian Family House, which has for years settled sectarian problems through reconciliation to avoid resorting to the judiciary.
According to Zakher, the actions of the Egyptian Family House, which brings together Muslim and Christian leaderships, have had flaws since its inception in 2011.
The House has settled differences by sidestepping the law, he said.
Journalist Farida al-Shoubashi, also spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat, saying, “We want a state of law and not a state of religious Fatwas … mainly because the ordinary citizen would not be able to differentiate between al-Azhar’s Fatwas and those issued by extremists.”