- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

CAIRO — Egypt’s latest bloodletting between Christians and Muslims has many fearing an explosion of sectarian violence in the Arab world’s most populous country, fueled by frustration with plummeting living standards.

Increasingly radicalized Muslims, facing growing unemployment, have found it easier to take out their anger on the small Christian minority than confront the government of President Hosni Mubarak, social commentators say.

“It’s a war with ourselves, with fanaticism and hatred among the sons of this nation,” said Muhammad El-Sayed Said, an Egyptian political analyst. “What makes things more dangerous is that it is the poor and marginalized who have become part of these clashes, which gives it a popular depth that is hard to control.”

The latest clashes erupted last Friday with knife attacks at three Coptic Christian churches in the port city of Alexandria. Three days of rioting by Christians and Muslims followed. Two persons — a Christian and a Muslim — died, at least 40 were wounded and more than 100 were detained.

Observers elsewhere in the Arab world blame the same religious extremism that fueled violence between Christians and Muslims during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims that plagues Iraq today.

“The strife didn’t start yesterday in Egypt, or a quarter of a century ago in Lebanon, or three years ago in Iraq,” columnist Khairy Mansour wrote in United Arab Emirates’ al-Khaleej daily. “The worm has been growing inside the apple, eating up most of its fabric.”

Mr. Mubarak’s government contends that conflict between Egypt’s Christians and Muslims is rare and called the Muslim man arrested in last Friday’s stabbing of Coptic worshippers “deranged.”

“Egyptian people don’t distinguish between Muslims and Copts, and no force can affect its national unity,” Mr. Mubarak said Tuesday.

Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik at Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s most important seat of learning, also had a dismissive reaction. “We can’t say that all Muslims or all Christians are angels,” he said, insisting religious differences were part of life.

Coptic Pope Shenouda III kept quiet about the riots and, as in past clashes, retreated to Wadi al-Natroun Monastery.

Strife between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians is nothing new. The Copts, whose liturgy follows Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, were a majority in Egypt when the Muslim Arabs conquered it 1,400 years ago.

They now comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 73 million people. Modern tensions are fueled in part by a perception among some Egyptian Muslims that Coptic Christians control an inordinate amount of wealth compared to their population.

In reality, most Copts are not wealthy and many contend they have too little say in Egypt’s political and social life. They complain especially of job discrimination in the high ranks of the civil service where positions such as general, provincial governor and faculty head are almost invariably held by Muslims.



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