x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Egypt provocateurs need to be exposed

After violence between Muslims and Christians turned deadly in Egypt, more needs to be done uncover the real provocateurs.

The sight of burning churches in a Cairo suburb raises fears greater than one night's sectarian battle. With more than 160 injured and at least 12 dead following Saturday night's violence between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba district of the capital, security officials were trying to restore calm yesterday - and to explain the sequence of events.

There has been a worrying trend since Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in February of increasing friction between Muslims and Coptic Christians, with an additional 13 people killed in sectarian violence in the capital in March. At a time when Egyptians have a chance for a more inclusive political system, there are forces bent on driving them apart.

This has wrongly been framed by some as a threat posed by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in politics. In a country where many are devout Muslims, religious parties need to be included in the electoral system by right of their very real constituencies.

But a line has to be drawn between responsible political participation and persistent bigotry. One sorry example has been the Salafi cleric Whagdy Ghoneim, who recently advised his audience not to trust Christians or shake their hands. It was a Salafi group that surrounded Saint Mary's church in Imbaba district on Saturday night, demanding the release of a woman who supposedly had converted to Islam, before the scene degenerated into violence.

It is a familiar scenario that has been repeated in recent months. The al Qa'eda-affiliated group that killed 52 Christians in Baghdad last November, for instance, blamed the attack on a feud between Coptic and Muslim families in Egypt. That feud, as it turns out, never really existed.

Whether this latest story also turns out to be spurious remains to be seen. There are various allegations of blame for the church arsons, from Salafi agitators to shadowy hired thugs, but the bloodshed resulted from the ensuing violence perpetrated by both sides.

Egyptian authorities have promised to respond with an "iron hand" - in itself a worrying statement from a military-led government - but just as important as security on the streets is that the perpetrators are exposed.

Most worryingly, the attack raises further questions about a democratic Egypt. Such acts threaten to destroy the progress made during demonstrations when Muslim and Coptic young people prayed and protected one another with a common purpose. Acts of provocation should not be allowed to turn Muslims and Christians against their shared interests.