Rural areas in Egypt are notorious for disputes over land and watering rights. Such disputes are usually resolved through court orders or, more frequently, through so-called majlis Arab or Arab councils, local councils formed of village elders and representatives of the disputing parties, and whose verdict is absolutely respected. In some cases, the stronger or better-armed party may impose its will by force. All this is normal when all the disputants are either Muslims or Copts. But when one of the parties is a Muslim and the other is a Copt, the dispute takes on horrendous dimensions. In the past three decades especially, such disputes have all too often turned into sectarian strife, and woe to the Copts if they are not strong enough to defend themselves. The ever-increasing spread of the hate culture propagated by extremist religious tides, which has unfortunately infiltrated even the police, is threatening our society to the core.
On Friday 15 September 2006, in the Upper Egyptian village of Saft al-Laban in Minya, a dispute erupted between Mamdouh Hanna Tawadrous and Mohamed Nazim Abdel-Qader over a waterway beside TawadrousÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ farmland. Nazim had violated the waterway, which also affected other farmers. After failing to resolve the problem, the village mayor called the police, who referred the case to the prosecution where Nazim agreed to repair the damage he had caused. Both parties went home together and Tawadrous said he would repair the damage at his own expense because he knew that Nazim could not afford to.
Two days later at midday, when Tawadrous was returning to his village from an errand, NazimÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s son, brothers and a number of his friends obstructed his way and insulted him because heÃ¢â‚¬â€a ChristianÃ¢â‚¬â€had dared make an official complaint against their brotherÃ¢â‚¬â€a Muslim. They stabbed him several times, and when TawodrousÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s brother came to his rescue they tried to stab him too. He escaped by throwing himself into the canal. All the Nazims then fled, leaving Tawadrous to die from his injuries. The police were informed but turned a deaf ear and, when they finally arrested the defendants, claimed that the victim had attacked the defendantsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ sister and the victimÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s brother had killed him. The police threatened the witnesses that if they testified in court they would meet TawadrousÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ fate, and arranged with some drug dealers and ex-convicts to give false testimony. Muslims began collecting donations from neighbouring villages to hire competent lawyers to defend the Nazims, and continued to make outright threats against the Tawodrouses under the eyes and noses of the police. The case had been effectively turned into a Muslim-Christian vendetta.
Muslims then began harassing Christian girls. A week after TawadrousÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ murder, Muslim youths stopped a car carrying some Christian girls and assaulted them while police looked on. Christians stopped sending their children to school out of concern for their safety. Even worse, it soon transpired that the police were arranging with some ex-convicts to create problems with the Christians in the hope of intimidating the Tawadrouses to give up their lawsuit.
Matters took a turn to the worse when a young Muslim policeman, MoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢men Fathi Ali, rode a bicycle with a horn that emitted an extremely irritating noise along the street where the Tawadrouses lived. Ali blared the horn several times, and when a bystander complained to a friend about the loud noise, Ali took out a pocket-knife and started a fight. Bystanders tried to calm the situation, but Ali ran to a nearby cafÃƒÂ©, famous as a drug dealerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s den, crying that Ã¢â‚¬Å“the Christians held me and wanted to kill meÃ¢â‚¬Â. Naturally, all those in the cafÃƒÂ© rose, snatched any white weapons they could get hold of, and rushed at the Christians, attacking everyone they met. Police officer Ahmed Abu-Zeid arrived on the scene with some other policemen and began insulting and shouting at the Christians, swearing: Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll turn this into another KoshehÃ¢â‚¬Â; [Kosheh is an Upper Egyptian village in which sectarian violence on the last day of 1999 claimed 20 Coptic lives]. A shop owned by a Christian was looted, a Christian was attacked with a hatchet that left him in a very critical state, and several more were attacked leaving one with a broken arm and a young girl injured.
At that point, former MP Ahmed Senousi, happened to drive through the vicinity. He immediately called an ambulance, and when it did not arrive he took some of the victims to hospital in his car.
The police finally came, claiming they will Ã¢â‚¬Å“prevent any attempt that would jeopardise national unityÃ¢â‚¬Â. However, as usual such talk went to the wind. Once in the police station, and after the victims testified, they were detained for two days and warned that if they dared mention the name of Abu-Zeid during the investigations they would be given Ã¢â‚¬Å“a really bad timeÃ¢â‚¬Â. Surprisingly, no measures were taken against the real perpetrators of the violence, but instead they were directly released to chants of, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Allah is the greatest! Victory for Islam.Ã¢â‚¬Â A few days later, Ali was caught and directly released on bail of a mere LE500.
For now, the situation remains precarious. Two Copts who were detained without charge for five weeks by the State Security Apparatus were released last week. Two MuslimsÃ¢â‚¬â€Reda and Mukhtar NazimÃ¢â‚¬â€are being detained by a prosecution order, charged with murder. However, no witnesses are willing to testify against the Muslim Nazims. State Security has so far succeeded in imposing peace.
One positive aspect emerged though. The horrendous crime acted as a wake-up call for the wise men of the village. The MPs have joined the village elders in exerting efforts to contain the situation, through arranging for Copts and Muslims to meet and peacefully resolve the problems between them. Many Muslims and Copts agree that the situation in Saft al-Laban has been rapidly deteriorating throughout the past decade, with an extremist Islamic current polarising the village and fomenting vile hate and unrest. The result was that segregation of the village Muslims and Christians became near-complete. Originally, the Copts mainly occupied the northern part of the village and the Muslims the south, but both sides had dealt courteously with each other, a situation common in Upper Egyptian villages. Many Muslims who talked to Watani stressed that they were vehemently against the culture of hate and refused to have anything to do with it. Today, the villagers agree, it is essential to rebuild lost ties and mutual activities, otherwise their very lives and those of the children are at risk.
As far as the Tawodrouses are concerned however, they are all for better, closer relations, but not at the cost of lost justice. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It would be a very false safety that is bought at the cost of justice,Ã¢â‚¬Â Father MissaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢el, priest of St MaryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Church and head of the Tawodrous family told Watani.
For now, fear continues to pervade the village, and Copts feel threatened. They are too insecure to send their children to school, too frightened to lead normal lives, and in despair of ever attaining their rights as long as the hate persists.http://www.wataninet.com/article_en.asp?ArticleID=11134