Qena protests reflect sectarian tensions, marginalization

Protests against the appointment of a Christian governor in Qena Governorate continued for a fourth day today, in what many are saying is a sign of sectarianism in the governorate. Some Qena residents, however, say there are other issues at play, including a feeling of being marginalized by the government in Cairo.

Protesters demonstrated on Monday in front of the governor’s building and closed off main routes to Qena, the governorate’s main city, calling for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to heed their protests and immediately change the governor.

On 15 April the military-backed interim government appointed 20 new governors across Egypt to replace those who served under former President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in February. Among the new appointees was Emad Mikhail, a Coptic Christian former police general. Mikhail replaces another Christian governor, Magdy Ayoub, who protesters accuse of stoking sectarianism in Qena.

The Qena protests constitute one of the major challenges against the SCAF, which has ruled since 11 February, when Mubarak stepped down.

Protesters have been chanting “We want a Muslim governor,” according to witnesses, and rumors have spread that sheikhs at local mosques are telling people that it is un-Islamic to have a Christian governor. The case is generally perceived as being a sectarian issue ignited by Salfis and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“There is a dominant Salafi presence in the protests, and the Muslim Brotherhood was deeply active in calling people to protest on Friday and Saturday,” said Mohamed Hasan, an employee at the South Valley University in a phone interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on Sunday calling for calm and warning that the protests would lead the governorate into chaos.

Qena has one of the largest and oldest Coptic communities in the country. Some churches in the governorate date back to the early centuries of Christianity.

In recent years, under the governorship of Magdy Ayoub, Qena witnessed an unprecedented rise in sectarian tensions.

Last year, a Muslim gunman opened fire from a car as worshippers left church following the service on Coptic Christmas Eve, leaving six Copts dead. A Coptic teacher was allegedly attacked on 20 March by a group of Salafists who accused him of supporting a prostitution ring.

Since the protests began, Qena’s Copts fear that these tensions could flare again.

”We are afraid. Every sign gives us an indicator that something bad will happen to us. There is no security in the city and even our celebrations are limited,” said a Coptic resident of Qena, who requested not to be named, in a phone interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm. He said that Palm Sunday celebrations yesterday were smaller than usual out of fear of sectarian violence.

But other Qena residents say there are other issues at play than a conflict between Copts and Muslims.

Tribal affiliation is stronger in Qena than in most of Egypt’s governorates, and tribal bonds may have helped the protest movement against Mikhail to grow.

“For the first two days, one could eastily distinguish the tribes behind the protests, such as Ashraf and Howara tribe,” Hassan said. “But today I can tell that the protesters are ordinary citizens.”

Other local observers say that the crisis is motivated by members of the former ruling National Democratic Party and officers of the dissolved secret police agency, the State Security Investigations Service (SSIS).

“Rumors spread over the last few days that secret elements of SSIS held a meeting with members of the Salfai movement in Qena to organize the protests against the new governor,” said journalist Mahmoud al-Dessouki in a phone interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Sheikh Qorashy Salama, a local Muslim leader who has been accused of stoking sectarian tensions, downplayed this aspect of the protests.

“I simply call on those who describe our demands as sectarian to go and see the church [in downtown Qena], which nobody touched,” Salama said. Salama also asserted that Copts had joined the protests, though a Coptic witness denied this.

The rise in sectarian violence under the old governor wasn’t due to his religion, but his incompetence, the sheikh said. “He could not enforce the law. We Muslims felt that he was biased against us, and Copts felt that he was biased against them. Neither Muslims nor Copts are wrong,” Salama said.

The new governor may not be much better. His professional background as a deputy for the Giza Security Directorate has encouraged some protesters to take to the streets.

“We are convinced that Mikhail wasn’t an angel. He is responsible for killing a number of young people from Qena who were killed in Cairo and Giza during the revolution,” said Ali Abdel Moniem, 29, from Qena, in a phone interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm. The majority of governors are former high-ranking police and military officials, in line with a long-standing tradition on the appointment of governers.

But for some Qena protesters, it is an issue of having their demands ignored by the central government in Cairo. For decades, Qena has been the victim of negligence by the central government in Cairo, despite its contribution to half of the country’s sugar cane production, an important cash crop in Egypt.

“What drives people crazy is that they feel that they are not Egyptian enough to convince the government to pay more attention to them. Also, the media don’t see us as people who deserve to be heard over the national news,” Ayman Sobhi, one of the protesters, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

This marginalization has allowed the central government to treat Qena in a way that it might not treat other, more populous governorates, some locals say.

“We are simply sick of being laboratory rats for the government,” said Mohamed Abdel Galeel, a government employee. “There was no Christian governor before and they chose us to have the first ever Christian governor. Now without telling us they chose another Christian governor.”

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