Cairo’s central district of Abbassiya was tensely calm on Monday as riot police deployed around St Mark’s Cathedral, scene of violent clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims the previous day. A Copt was killed and more than 80 people were injured in Sunday’s clashes, the latest in a spate of deadly sectarian violence that has rocked the country in recent days. Four Copts and one Muslim were killed by gunfire in weekend clashes in the town of Khosous, north of Cairo after a group of Coptic Christians spray-painted offensive drawings on the walls of an al Azhar-affiliated building in the town. The trouble in Abbassiya meanwhile erupted when Coptic mourners (who had been attending a funeral service for the four victims of the violence in Khosous) came under attack as they left the cathedral. The Christian mourners had reportedly chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans , prompting an angry reaction from Muslim residents of the neighbourhood, who hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at them. Loud blasts were heard as riot police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd.
President Morsi has condemned the violence, promising an immediate investigation into the incident. Copts who gathered outside the cathedral on Monday however,expressed skepticism that the perpetrators of Sunday’s attack would be brought to justice.
” We have yet to see justice done in previous assault-cases on Christians ,” said Hani Kirolos , a pharmacist. “If anything, it will be the Christians who get arrested.”
“They (the Muslim Brotherhood) want Christians to leave the country but we are not going anywhere,”said Mary Toma, a Coptic housewife.
Sectarian tensions that have been brewing for years have escalated since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi came to power with increased attacks on churches and physical assaults against Coptic Christians who make up an estimated 12 per cent of the population. Egypt’s Christians however, have not been the only group targeted in recent months by Morsi’s Islamist supporters. The country has seen intermittent violence between Islamists and liberal opposition activists demanding an end to Muslim Brotherhood rule. In recent weeks, simmering tensions between Morsi’s Islamist allies and Al Azhar have also boiled over, pitting Islamists against one another.
A controversial draft law that would allow the government to issue sukuk ( Islamic bonds ) has inflamed longstanding tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and al Azhar, placing Sunni Islam’s highest authority on a collision course with the Islamist group ruling the country. Grappling with a burgeoning budget deficit , the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking sukuk as a new source of finance to ease the current economic crisis but al Azhar has said its scholars must be consulted over the proposed law before its issuance by the Shura Council (the Upper House of parliament currently responsible for issuing legislation). A provision in Egypt’s new Constitution stipulates that” al Azhar scholars must weigh in on matters related to Sharia law” but it remains unclear if the scholars’ decisions are binding or merely consultative.
Friction over the draft law is part of a wider conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Azhar as competition between them intensifies over religious authority in the ‘new’ Egypt.. Since the January 2011 uprising, al Azhar has sought independence after longtime state control, striving to assert its role as “the voice of moderate Islam.”
Last week, thousands of protesters rallied in Egyptian cities to express solidarity with the Grand Sheikh of al Azhar Ahmed El Tayeb amid increasing calls for his dismissal by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and fears that the Muslim Brotherhood would try to “Ikhwanize” the institution (a term used to refer to the appointment of Muslim Brotherhood members or their supporters in state institutions with the aim of controlling them.) The protests in Cairo, Luxor (the hometown of the Grand Sheikh ) and other cities came in response to earlier protests by hundreds of Azhar students angered by a case of mass food poisoning on campus . The students accused the University Management of negligence and called for those responsible for the poisoning to be held to account. An exchange of accusations followed: In a widely circulated rumour on social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, opposition activists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the food poisoning incident which they claimed was meant ” to discredit the Grand Imam and have him replaced”. Essam El Erian, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood ,in turn criticized Sheikh Tayeb saying that the mass poisoning was “the result of old corruption at the university” and urging the Grand Sheikh to introduce “real change.’
The latest unrest will likely further isolate the ruling Islamists amidst growing opposition to the Morsi regime. The recent dismissal of a Salafi Presidential Advisor for allegedly “misusing his public post for illegal benefit” has fueled tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood President and ultra-conservative Salafists who had initially backed him. The hardline Islamists appear to have switched loyalty in recent months, unifying ranks with the liberal opposition and intensifying their criticism of the President. In a so-called ” national reconciliation initiative” announced in January, the Salafis echoed calls by the liberal opposition for a change of government, amendments to the constitution and the selection of a new Public Prosecutor– piling pressure on Morsi to fulfill those demands.The growing rift between Morsi and the Salafis is certain to weaken the Brotherhood’s chances of securing majority seats in the next legislative election which has been postponed indefinitely by the Supreme Constitutional Court. But the Salafi-opposition alliance may prove even more dangerous than that as it can only spell dire consequences for the Muslim Brotherhood.