The scenes in Egypt over the past week could not have been further removed from the outpouring of euphoria the followed Hosni Mubarak’s downfall back in February.
The sectarian strife has been a grim throwback to his authoritarian era, when government-incited persecution of Coptic Christians was followed by meaningless judicial scapegoating of individuals in order to alleviate criticism from the international community.
In an all too familiar pattern the recent events began with rumour and accusation– namely that a convert to Islam was being held against her will at a Christian Church. Extremist mobs rapidly attacked and set fire to the building, provoking riots which cost the lives of twelve people and injured over two hundred more. Ominously and counter-productively, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces- which rules the country as a transitional government, responded by promising an “iron fist” approach and rounding up one hundred and ninety people to bring before a military court.
The post-revolutionary honeymoon period is clearly over.
In many ways this has not come as a surprise.
The military is still full of Mubarak’s appointees and has been quick to detain dissidents and utilise torture ever since taking command.
We would have been naive to expect an overnight change from the old system of the state failing to prevent sectarian violence, then jack-booting in to bring people before rigged trials in the aftermath. This approach allows those in power to provide a kind of ‘safety valve’ to extremists, without allowing them enough space gather momentum or seize control; and having kept Mubarak in place for three decades, will surely seem an attractive option to his former comrades.
It is also obvious that sectarian fanaticism has been rife since the collapse of the old system;
The radical Salfist movement has committed numerous attacks on the Coptic and Sufi communities including maiming people and burning shrines. This combination of authoritarianism and extremism presents the ‘new Egypt’ with the same horrendous dilemmas- and destruction- that the old state faced.
Nevertheless, there are reasons for optimism, as whilst the worst trends in Egyptian society have continued so too have the best.
The amazing inter-community solidarity that was obvious both before and during the revolution, has once again manifested itself in huge unity marches. Inspired by the success of peaceful protest in bringing down Mubarak, those involved in organizing such initiatives and tackling the minority of extremist bigots have gone from strength to strength.
Those days in Tahrir Square during early 2011 broke down many barriers between religions, classes and genders– the powerful message of one united Egypt has never been so loud. This is nothing short of esstential- both to swaying communities away from violence and to putting pressure on the authorties for protection, prevention and proportional counter-measures.
Just over one hundred days on from the triumph of the revolution, sectarianism is just one of the many problems Egypt faces- along with serious unemployment and massive political uncertainty. The time for celebrating has unarguably long-since passed and the time for hard work rebuilding the country will continue far into the future.