After Warraq: Sectarianism, warts and all

About this time last week, the bodies were being ferried into the Virgin Mary Church where they had been shot barely 24 hours before, a grim liminal irony that – as some pointed out – turned a wedding into a funeral in the space of two days.

Not much has changed since the Al-Warraq shooting one week ago, when two gunmen on a motorbike opened fire on a wedding in Cairo’s working-class Imbaba neighbourhood. Five people were killed, including eight-year-old Mariam Ashraf and two teenagers. 

But responses to Warraq since have revealed a lot about Egypt’s mucky sectarian politics, undermining the government’s sheeny self-image as some brand-new Egyptian post-revolutionary force and its Islamist-inclined opponents as grass-roots holiness perfected.


Many reacted suspiciously to the Muslim Brotherhood’s reported claim that three Muslims injured in the Warraq church shooting were members of the Islamist organization. They were right to be. The Brotherhood’s politics of appropriation (just look at the Anti-Coup Alliance or Ikhwanweb’s retweets for examples) has plumbed similar depths before. Remember the pictures of dead Syrian children supposedly killed outside Republican Guard House on July 8? Or what about the glorious march for women’s rights in September, in support of an administration that actively encouraged female genital mutilation across Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood claimed in a Friday statement that Father Justus Kamel, priest at Virgin Mary, "asserted that three of the injured were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.” They did not provide names. In fact, during an interview with Al-Hayat last week, Kamel mentioned “our Muslim brothers” (e5wanan il Muslimeen), a mere possessive away from “Muslim Brotherhood” (e5wan il Muslimeen), who were there “to celebrate with their Christian friends.” This explains some of the confusion. The Brotherhood jumped on a dodgy translation. There was no explanation from the Muslim Brotherhood’s London press office when asked for clarification based on Kamel’s quotations in both Arabic and English. But put it this way, would a Coptic priest say “our Muslim Brotherhood,” after a shooting many believed to have been carried out by Islamists? Probably not.

Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood’s press office denied the claim altogether. “There are no names since they are not from the Muslim Brotherhood,” I was told. “The issue isn't whether they were Muslim Brotherhood or not Muslim Brotherhood.”

“The real issue here is the failure of the illegitimate coup government to maintain law and order and the failure of their duty of care towards their citizens irrespective of their background.” It’s as if sectarian violence never took place under Morsi. But by using Warraq for political capital, the Brotherhood and its “anti-coup” affiliates employed similar tactics to their opponents – the state. Both sides call out sectarianism when it suits them and ignore the often horrific, inevitable results.


Coptic activists have criticized the government for failing to protect Christians, particularly since Pope Tawadros II stood at Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s side for the July 3 roadmap announcement and optimistically proclaimed: “We have all gathered under the Egyptian flag.” The new regime were happy to show a united front of Muslims and Christians then, but after months of church-burnings with Christian homes attacked and looted, eyewitnesses have repeatedly told journalists that the police have not been seen for weeks, months even. The government isn’t innocent.

More incredibly, interior ministry spokesman Hany Abdul Latif claimed last Monday that the church wedding shooting wasn’t actually a sectarian attack at all. Why? Because of those same three wounded Muslims, appropriated twice over while still in their hospital beds. This time denying sectarianism played into the government’s narrative, instead painting Warraq as some immoral act of terrorism that did not even differentiate between Muslim or Copt. But the ministry was so keen to gift itself another Egypt-versus-terrorism yarn, and deny sectarianism at the same time, that it came off sounding absurd.

On Tuesday a Maspero Youth Union protest outside the Cabinet building on Qasr al-Aini street was called off last-minute, with organizers saying they feared Islamist “infiltrators” who might provoke security forces or try and use the demo for some of that much-needed political capital. Instead Coptic representatives met with Cabinet officials with a list of demands, among them the dismissal and trial of “failed” Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim (as well as security officials in Warraq) and compensation, not just for victims’ families, but for all victims of sectarianism – particularly since the spike in violence after July. If these demands are not met, they said, protests could be an option. One activist said in private he was not convinced the government would even acknowledge the demands, never mind respond to them. 

Outside the Cabinet, one woman stood by with a handmade picture of the Warraq victims. She stayed after the protest was called off, just holding the picture, while policemen and disappointed journalists milled around nearby.

The army has reportedly started work on salvaging Coptic homes around Egypt. Churches will be next, according to military spokesman Ahmed Ali. Some might see this as another step in the army-sponsored wave of lamppost-painting, tree-planting, infrastructure-improving public works campaign – for some a PR coup aimed at making Egypt look like its making progress, regardless of whether it actually is. But if the army and interim government is serious about challenging sectarianism in Egypt, it will have to do more than clean up the evidence of past negligence. 

The week after Warraq has shown that Egypt’s Coptic community is used by both sides of the crisis for their respective political aims/needs. The current model – sectarian violence followed by scapegoating, disingenuous statements of intent and point-scoring – cannot carry on. 

Both sides are perpetuating sectarianism, capitalising on Copts’ suffering, rather than actually trying to stop it altogether. Otherwise Warraq will happen again, and will keep happening. Like any injustice, sometimes sectarianism might look like it’s gone away, but it is always there under the surface. It should be about doing more than occasionally bandaging up the broken skin of the country’s national bodypolitik. That means taking on sectarianism, warts and all.

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