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Mubarak, Salafis and Other Folk-Devils in Egypt’s Sectarian Violence

May 12, 2011

One of the jobs of political leadership is to look at complex, multifaceted and disorderly events and construct a narrative that simultaneously encompasses the events, provides an explanation for them, and uses that explanation to forward your political agenda.

The news media are complicit in this project, not because they have a political agenda to maintain (although they may have) but because one of the projects of the mass media is to construct narratives that frame and explain complex, multifaceted and disorderly events to an audience. The news media become a social field in which narratives compete until one comes to dominate and be accepted as the true account of events.

So it is with the current wave of anti-Christian violence. Part of the new political narrative forged in the uprisings is about Christians and Muslims working together to form a better future Egypt. The burning of churches and violence in Imbaba, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo, clearly threaten that account.

In response to the violence, Copts and their supporters rally outside the Maspero Building, which houses the Egyptian state media (and is just a few blocks from Tahrir Square), demanding to know why the interim government is as slow to respond to actions against Copts as the government they replaced.

And nearly every political institution from Al-Azhar to the Church to the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafi leaders to Islamic Jama’a groups to the new political parties all blame remnants of the old regime. In the May 9 issue of Al-Masry Al-Youm, we find the following roundup:

  • Calling the events “unbelievable,” Dr. Ali Joma’a, the Republic’s Mufti said that there were “secret hands” working to spread chaos and undermine the state.

But whose hands are they?

  • Salafi leaders like Dr. Abdel Men’em al-Shahhat, and Dr. Jamal al-Marakbi insisted that the Salafis were innocent (this time), blaming instead “supporters of the counter revolution”.
  • This interpretation is also supported by Sheikh Mohammad al-Shahawi, the Head of the International Sufi Council, certainly no friend of the Salafi movement.
  • The Youth Revolution coalition Union likewise declared that the events in Imbaba represent a conspiracy against the revolution.
  • Dr. Ahmad al-Tayyeb, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar called on the “Egyptian family” to end sectarian strife.

This emerging narrative was well summarized by Abdel-Beri Atwan, chief editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi:

[s]ectarian strife is the most prominent invention of the former regime and its men, and is the strongest card they used to terrorize the Egyptian people and force them not to disobey this regime out of fear over national unity and the eruption of national turmoil that could be used as a pretext for the interference of foreign powers that are awaiting this opportunity


Sectarian strife is now a threat facing Egypt, because it is the only efficient weapon to tear up national unity, thwart the democratic revolution and lead Egypt back to the barn of affiliation with America and Israel, just as it used to be the case – if not worse – during the days of the ousted Egyptian regime led by President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak and the businessmen mafia that constituted the backbone of his corrupt entourage.

In other words, sectarian violence was a tool the regime fostered and used to  bolster its political narrative, both within the country and to its allies abroad, that Mubarak, for all his faults, stood between order and chaos. The coming together of Copts and Muslims in democratic protests against the regime signified the falseness of this claim. The current violence thus must be being fomented by counterrevolutionaries, remnants of the old regime who want to see popular revolt and democracy fail.

In his classic work on “moral panics,” Stanley Cohen discusses the ways in which complex social phenomena are converted into fairly straightforward narratives about the breakdown of some set of cultural values. What makes the narrative powerful is its ability to offload the breakdown onto some real or imagined group of people, who serve as “visible reminders of what we should not be” (Cohen 2002:2).

This narrative is particularly plausible because

  1. the policies of the Mubarak regime were unfair to Copts, from undercounting them in the census to putting almost insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles in the way of getting licenses to build new churches;
  2. what laws were in place to support Copts were typically been poorly and erratically enforced; and
  3. there has long been suspicion that some of the anti-Coptic violence was deliberately staged by the regime to achieve political ends.

But it is not the only narrative. In spite of denials by Salafi leaders, many argued, in the words of Dr. Muhammad al-Baradei,  that these “religious radicalism and the practices of the middle ages” were clearly carried out by Salafis. This position was echoed May 11 by Ahmad Rahim, Cairo correspondent for the Saudi-owned London-based Al-Hayat daily, who argued that the violence could last for five hours before police arrived suggests they are either sympathetic to the Salafis or just apathetic about crimes against Copts..

This too, is a plausible narrative to most Egyptians. Similar riots occurred in the 1990s that were held by many to be caused by Salafi agaents. The democratic uprisings led to the freeing of many Salafi political prisoners, and the return of many Salafi leaders from exile abroad. Finally, Salafi groups recently attacked a number of Sufi and Shi’ite Muslim shrines.

A third narrative blames the Copts for the violence, labeling the protests and riots in Imbaba as “sectarian sedition.” This is a typical “blame the victim” scenario (William 1971) in which the minority group that suffers most from violent civil strife is blamed for having provoked it. This narrative is plausible to many Egyptians because

  1. they see the Copts as untrustworthy “aliens among us” and
  2. Coptic protests in Cairo are often disruptive, blocking traffic and sometimes provoking angry responses.

This scenario is not getting much purchase in the media, though. For example, the independent Lebanese daily As-Safir carried an opinion piece by Sateh Noureddine that said:

When one says that there is a sectarian sedition in Egypt, one would be clearing the Muslims for no reason, and doing injustice to the Christians without any evidence. The civil clash would come to resemble a suspicious process of camouflage of the historic persecution that this tortured Arab minority is being subjected to. [This minority] is now afraid that its Muslim neighborhood would change its ways.

and concludes:

The revolution of January 25 has granted freedom to those Islamists who do not deserve it. Today, they feel that this has been their revolution, and their opportunity to reveal their lowest radicalism and instincts… There is no sectarian sedition in Egypt according to the eastern definition of seditions. There is rather an open persecution against the Egyptian Copts. These are supposed to be partners rather than employees in the Egyptian nation, which is now rebelling against all forms of slavery.

The military continues to use the words “sectarian sedition” in many of its official pronouncements, but they may be preparing to endorse the first scenario. A May 10 story in Al-Masry al-Youm claimed that an anonymous military source had revealed that remnants of the ousted National Party are trying to push Egypt into a civil war by igniting sectarian strife.


Cohen, Stanley. 2002. Folk Devils and Moral Panics, 3rd ed. London: Basil Blackwell.

Ryan, William. 1971. Blaming the Victim. New York: Random House

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