Upper Egypt, which starts just south of Giza, has been neglected by the different governments for decades. The poorest villages are there, the least advancement in any field of life is found there. Half way between Giza and Aswan, which is at the southernmost part of Egypt, are three governorates which are the poorest and the most backward. Sohag, Minya and Assiut. These three have also the highest concentration of the Christian population in Egypt. With those two factors together, poverty and backwardness combined with a large Christian population, the inevitable result is a continuous, systematic flare up between the equally poor and backward Muslims and Christians. These flare ups kept getting worse and worse with the advent of the Wahabi doctrine from Saudi Arabis and it’s taking root in the poorest and least educated parts of the country. It became fertile ground for sectarian explosions.
The situation was compounded by the totally cavalier attitude of the different representatives of the state there, be they the municipal government represented by the Governor or the police or the municipality. Whenever such a flare up took place, none of these took any action to stop it. It became a habit to leave it up to the Muslim Sheikhs and the Christian priests to get together in an informal, tribe-like setting, to calm the people down. In this context nothing was ever settled. The aggressors were not punished and the victims were not vindicated. This became a time bomb in the making.
During the 2011 revolution, and even more, during the tenure of Morsi’s one year of rule, more than 60 churches were burned to the ground, most of them in that part of the country.
These churches were burnt by the local Muslim population who have been steeped in the Wahabi doctrine by the local Sheikhs who were drilling it into them at every Friday prayer. The situation that usually sparked off such flare ups invariable consisted of a liaison between a man and a woman from the two religions. This was taboo to both sides. Compounded with ignorance, the lack of any kind of application of the law, it was inevitable that violence erupted and in many cases not only arson was committed, but murder as well. Still the apparent remedy were those tribe-like meetings of the religious figures of both to pacify the aggressors and pressure the victims into acquiescence.
Last week there was another one of those flare ups in Minya. But this one was different. The difference was not in the circumstances or in the way the flare up was conducted or in the absence of the officials from the scene or the presence of the religious figures in the aftermath. No the difference was in the perception of the population in general, as the story trickled out in social media and especially on Facebook. Mainstream media were trying to play it down as this was the official stance of the governmental authorities, but on Facebook the full details of what took place, including live testimonials in real time, were devastating. For the first time the general public got the story first-hand and unfiltered. All the horrifying details of either apathy or collusion were there.
The story started with a Muslim man who wanted to divorce his wife. That could be done very easily, but he was greedy and did not want to pay her alimony or anything that was her due. As his wife of 13 years and mother to his three children, she was due certain monetary compensation from him. He had been previously married and had divorced his first wife and swindled her out of her due through blackmail by threatening to muddy her name as adulterous if she does not legally give up her rights. He got his way. With his second wife he thought to give it more weight and make things even worse for her: to accuse her of adultery with a Christian man. Taboo of taboos! This would ensure her giving in about the money. This played beautifully into the hands of the ever present factions of the extremist society which is forever waiting for opportunities to hit at the current government that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood. So everything was in place for another religious sectarian clash. But so many new elements had crept into the situation that the planners of this clash had not been aware of.
The man started putting his plan into action by putting word out that his wife was cheating on him with his Christian work associate, a happily married religious man with four children. Immediately the extremists of that village, and they were the majority, went up in arms and the situation escalated rapidly. The man was heckled, then beaten up, but when the threats of burning down his house with his family were made, he packed up his wife and four children and left the village to parts unknown, leaving behind his elderly parents and other siblings. The extremists took this as encouragement and printed flyers inciting all to rise against the “infidels” and go burn their houses after noon prayers on Friday.
The elderly parents of the Christian man went to the nearest police station in the next town and lodged a complaint that they were being threatened. In line with the usual attitude there, the police belittled their concerns and told them to let sleeping dogs lie and not stir trouble by a formal complaint. So they had to go back without lodging a formal complaint. On arrival they found that their three story house had been broken in and completely ransacked. So early Friday morning they went back to the police station and this time they got their complaint lodged. But still no move on the part of the police to give them any kind of protection, although they were accompanied by their priest and a copy of the flyers inciting arson.
Noon prayers on Friday came and went with no sign of trouble. A cautious sigh of relief on the part of the Christians. But in the early evening the water was cut off from the whole village, then the action started.
Around three hundred men armed with automatic rifles and cocktail molotovs surrounded seven houses belonging to the Christians of that village, forcefully broke in and ransacked them, beating the occupants then dragging them out and torching the houses. The police and fire departments were called. Till here the usual scenario was followed. There were no deaths, though two Christians had to be hospitalised, but then the whole incident was given a new twist. After beating the elderly parents of the Christian man rumoured as the adulterous partner of the wife in question, the attackers took it a step further and tore the clothes off this 70-year-old mother and dragged her totally naked in the streets of the village. She was finally saved by her Muslim neighbour who covered her up, dragged her into her own house, then smuggled her out, and who later denied seeing any of the incidents that took place before that. She saw no one and heard nothing.
Once this whole incident started leaking into Facebook, the Governor still handling the situation as usual, came out and denied that there was anything going on. The same with the police commissioner. This was so provocative to those on Facebook who could see and hear everything that was happening live and in real time. Yet mainstream media stuck to the official line of denial. But when the outrage reached epic proportions from people who were aghast at the shameful treatment of an elderly woman, the Governor came out again and asked for calm because it was a “trivial” incident and to not make a mountain out of a molehill. That was when Facebook erupted into full fury. Calls were made asking for his resignation, questions were raised about his efficiency or even his collusion.
The situation before and after this crime were examined and people were furious that such apathy of the police and fire department could be tolerated. The police and the fire department showed up two hours after the fact. The water had been cut off from the village and the houses were burnt to the ground.
The authorities started scrambling to get their act together as the public indignation escalated into fury. Yet still with no idea how to proceed, they continued in their set ways of trying to make light of the situation and to send in the men of religion to whitewash the situation and return the status quo.
But they did not reckon with the fury boiling among the 30 million Egyptians on Facebook. At the first mention of the Sheikhs sent by the Azhar to meet informally with the priests representing the victims, an explosion of furious rejection burned up Facebook posts. It was unanimous, across the board, all Egyptians from all walks of life, Christians and Muslims, men snd women, old and young, demanding the application of the law not this tribe-like informal tribunal that did nothing but whitewash the situation leaving the real problems unresolved.
It was then that a statement was issued by the Presidency where regret at the incident was expressed, but more importantly the assurance that the rule of law will be applied to all. It was after this statement that all official statements, and even mainstream media made a 180 degree turn. Officials were stumbling over their feet to get out there to tell how hard they were working at apprehending the culprits, the media swooped down on the village to document the damage and try to interview any of those involved. The main victim, the elderly mother refused to appear except once with the Bishop of her diocese, gave a short statement then retired completely, saying that she would rather have been killed than shamed this way. But the torrent of apologies to that woman on Facebook was heartwarming.
Out of the three hundred people who committed this crime, 12 have been apprehended, and after strong pressure their names were divulged. It appears that one is a cripple and another is the name of someone long deceased. So it looks like the Presidential directive is still not filtering through to the police department there. But now that mainstream media as well as social media are on the case, there is a better chance of justice being applied.
The silver lining of this cloud is quite wide. The most important aspect is the complete failure of the plan to divide Egypt into Muslims against Christians. The unity shown by the general population in rejecting what took place, the handling of the Governor, the police and the fire department of the crime, the interference of the men of religion and the lack of application of the law. The peoples’ voice was heard loud and clear through social media, through Facebook that the old ways are no longer tolerated and that only the rule of law is accepted.
Many a myth was blown out of the water with the aftermath of this crime. Loud voices are raised to modify the teachings of religion on both sides to emphasise acceptance of the other. The myth of Egyptians being a naturally “religious” people has effectively been debunked and calls for revamping school curricula and rewriting the religious strategy for the next decade. Another positive aspect is the clear denouncement of the methods used by husbands to force their wives seeking divorce to give up all their legal rights. This will probably result in some new laws being passed in this area. But most importantly the apathy and inadequacy of the officials in handling this situation has been exposed once and for all. Even the President’s promise to rebuild all the properties that were destroyed within a month, by the army and at its expense, has been met with some skepticism. There were demands that the expense should be at those who caused and committed the crime and not from taxpayers money. This is one giant leap for Egyptians where civic rights are concerned.
Yes this particular very dark cloud did have a rather wide and shining silver lining.
29 May 2016