“Christians are Legitimate Targets”: Understanding Sectarian Violence in Egypt, 1970-2014

By Hyun Jeong Ha
Submitted to Session P5025 (Sectarianism: States, Parties, and Representations, 2017 Annual Meeting
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The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt have brought about drastic sociopolitical changes to Egyptian society. Among these changes, a significant increase in the number of violence acts against Coptic Christians who are the largest religious minority in the Middle East, including attacks on Christian individuals and torching church buildings, has been remarkably challenging to their community. In order to promote a more comprehensive understanding of the patterns and the mechanisms of the sectarian attacks and clashes in Egypt, I engage with social movement literature, focusing on political opportunity theories, to challenge the notion that Islamists are inherently violent. I also relate this violence to studies on sectarian violence in the Global South, in order to understand political motivations of committing violence along the religious lines in the postcolonial era. Drawing on event data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) project, the UCPD Georeferenced Event Dataset (GED), and national and international newspaper articles from 1970 to 2014, I provide a qualitative analysis of over 280 violent incidents against Christians that have been inflicted by the Egyptian state, Islamic militants, and Muslim neighbors to varying levels and degrees. My findings suggest the following: first, the patterns of Islamic militant violence against Coptic Christians are relevant to the ways that Islamic militants reacted to the state crackdown on their power since the 1990s. Second, communal violence that occurred between Muslim and Christian neighbors does not necessarily take place due to religious issues; however, clashes later evolved as sectarian strife due to differences in religions. Finally, Coptic Christians are not simply the victims of sectarian violence; they have protested calling for state protection and to oppose Islamic militant groups’ attacks on their properties. The findings help us understand political and structural factors that have contributed to the marginalization of Coptic Christians through violence over time, particularly in relation to the rise of Islamic militant groups since the 1990s and since the Arab Spring in Egypt. This paper provides insights on how power and religion are intertwined when political violence occurs.