Salafists, Copts and Sectarianism in Egypt after the Revolution

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 22

Protesting Copts in Egypt

Egypt’s Salafist movement has made good use of the liberties won in the January 25 Egyptian Revolution, despite its small role in the demonstrations that deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

The Egyptian Salafists held conferences countrywide to determine their course in an uncertain future. [1] Salafist youth, blessed by the elders, sought to create the “Nour Islamic Party,” a significant change in a movement known for its rejection of party politics as a Western innovation, and something for which they used to criticize other Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. [2] As the new law on political parties forbids religious parties, the Salafists have been careful to deny al-Nour is a religious party (Ahram Online, May 25). Like new political parties created by the Brotherhood and the formerly banned al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, al-Nour maintains that it is open to membership from the Coptic community.

Salafists have witnessed remarkable transformations in their approach recently, including changes to their earlier stance against al-Qaeda by lamenting the death of the terrorist group’s leader. Following the death of Osama bin Laden, Shaykh Yasser Borhamy was among a number of Salafist leaders who denounced the assassination, making a May 2 speech entitled “Bless you Osama, Bless You Mujahideen,” congratulating Bin Laden for his martyrdom and emphasizing that the American action was part of a larger crusade, as Bin Laden and his followers had said. [3] Shaykh Yasser’s position contradicted that of most Salafist shaykhs and views outside Egypt as well as the history of the Egyptian Salafist call itself and its previous criticism of al-Qaeda.

The Salafists’ intellectual hostility to secular and civil trends as well as the Copts was obvious during the battle over constitutional amendments leading up to the referendum of March 19, described by one of them as “the battle of ballots.” [4] After the referendum, the Salafists criticized their exclusion from the national dialogue and denounced the post-referendum statements made by Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Yahya al-Gamal, who suggested changing the second article of the Egyptian constitution, which says “Islamic Shari’a is the principal source of legislation,” to “Islamic Shari’a is a principal source of legislation.” Salafists saw the suggested change as a concession to Coptic demands for recognition of Christian law in the second article and called for his dismissal because of his “secular” views (, March 25; al-Masry al-Youm, March 26).

They also rejected the views of Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris, who likened the veil to the Iranian chador and described Christians as persecuted. Salafists, on the contrary, see Sawiris’ views as manifestations of sectarian sedition. [5] For Salafists, the most serious issue is what they describe as the Copts’ continued and increasing sectarian inclination, both before and after the revolution.

The most dangerous stances of the Salafists, although acquitted of various sectarian incidents after the revolution, are their hard-line religious views regarding the ongoing sectarian incidents and their justifications for Muslim participation in religious violence.
However, Salafist leaders denied participating in a series of incidents, beginning with the March 8 burning of St. George Church in Atfih, Giza Governorate, through to the severing of the ear of a Coptic man in Qena Governorate in late March and the sectarian incidents in the Cairo suburb of Imbaba on May 8.

Leading Salafist Abdel Moneim al-Shahat wrote a defense of the movement after some members cut off the ear of a Coptic teacher named Ayman Anwar Mitry in Qena Governorate, describing the incident as a lie and saying that the truth is that he was accused of shameful sexual behavior and that those who accused the Salafists are giving in to Christian sectarianism which, to him, equals religious sedition, as they “coddle Christians and persecute Muslims.” [6]

The Salafists’ antagonism towards the Copts was also displayed after the appointment of a Christian governor, General Emad Mikhail, for Upper Egpty’s Qena governorate last April. General Mikhail, as former deputy head of Central Security in Giza, was also associated with the violent response of the security services to the late January demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.  Salafist followers of Sayed Qurasy were enraged by the appointment and played a leading role among those who staged a sit-in (including Muslim Brothers) to cut the rail-line passing through the governorate to support their demands for a Muslim governor. The Salafist call states that “an unbeliever has no mandate over a Muslim.” The Salafists believe Copts should be ineligible for senior positions to reflect respect for the religion of the majority as well as to avoid coddling the minority. [7]

Concerning the destruction of St. George Church in Giza Governorate, the Salafists issued a statement on March 13, in which they called for the rejection of “Christian bullying” from abroad and the disarmament of all parties. They also called for avoiding provocative deeds and statements and delegating lawyers to assist detainees held in the destruction of the church. The Salafists also urged local Muslims not to hinder the army in the rebuilding of the demolished Church. [8]

Again, there was similar behavior regarding Imbaba incidents; the group’s spokesman Shaykh Ali Hatem gave a statement denying what happened and warning the country may be driven into the ditch of sedition. He also highlighted the importance of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Copts, whom he described as partners in the homeland.

Hatem also condemned the stance of the tendentious media, asserting the seriousness of external bullying and the crime of calling for foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs. The solution, he added, comes through the extension of state authority over all places and individuals, legal accountability and the necessity of getting rid of the practices of the former regime, which stirred the flames of sedition by extraditing citizens, searching mosques and churches and confiscating arms to prevent crime. [9]

A number of Salafists have founded a coalition to defend new male and female converts from Christianity to Islam after the incidents that followed the alleged conversions of Wafaa Constantine (2004) and Camilla Shehata, and the rumors spread by the Salafists that they were detained by the Church. Demonstrations demanding the “release” of Camilla escalated in early May until she appeared on Egyptian television on May 7 to deny her alleged conversion to Islam, insisting on her Christianity. A number of Salafists remained skeptical of her status. Among the Salafists who have joined the coalition are their secretary-general, Hossam Abul Bukhari, (founder of the website), Shaykh Abdel Moneim al-Shahat and Dr. Muhammad Abdel Maksoud, all prominent symbols of the Salafist call in Egypt. The coalition has also attracted a number of Islamist activists from various other groups, including Shaykh Hafiz Salama, one of the most prominent Islamist veterans in Egypt, the group of Shabab Muhammad, a leading dissident from the Muslim Brotherhood, and Nizar Ghorab, the lawyer for Abboud and Tarek al Zomor, cousins who were jailed for their role in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and released by the ruling military council after the overthrow of Mubarak. [10]

One day after Camilla Shehata appeared on television to assert her Christianity, Salafists gathered outside Cairo’s Mar Mina Church following rumors another alleged female convert, Ameer Fakhry, was being held against her will inside. The church is located in the Imbaba district of northwest Cairo, a battleground between security forces and radical Islamists in the 1990s. Attacks on the church later spread to the nearby Church of the Virgin Mary, which was torched, and a nearby apartment building, resulting in the death of 15 people and the wounding of 186 others (Daily News Egypt, May 11; Reuters, May 27).  According to military officials, 191 people detained in the violence would face military tribunals.

Salafists maintain that the Coptic Church, after the revolution, must differ from the Church in the era of Mubarak, during which Salafists insist the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, the clerics and Copts in general were allowed to detain converts to Islam. Yasser Borhamy, the leader of Salafists in Alexandria, described these alleged activities as an extreme provocation by the Church. [11]

Making use of the problems of religious converts and hostility towards the Church are not new tactics for the Salafists. It is a dogmatic call in origin that focuses on defending its vision regarding the right doctrine in the light of Ibn Taymiyya’s 14th century teachings. Though Salafists generally remained aloof from the events of the revolution, there is no doubt that the revolution has provided the Salafist call with a new impetus and allowed the movement to carry out provocations in the name of preventing “sectarian coddling” of Egypt’s Christian community.


7. Akher Kalam program on OnTv channel, April 19, 2011: