In Egypt, an Old Beacon of Tolerance Flickers

A boy attends a Coptic Christian service in Alexandria, Egypt, three days after a Muslim fatally stabbed a 78-year-old Coptic man, igniting clashes.
A boy attends a Coptic Christian service in Alexandria, Egypt, three days after a Muslim fatally stabbed a 78-year-old Coptic man, igniting clashes. (By Ben Curtis -- Associated Press)
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 13, 2006

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- This ancient port city clings to a self-proclaimed myth of urban tolerance as stubbornly as barnacles adhere to its harbor breakwaters. Ask anyone idling on the waterfront drive what Alexandria is like, and the answer will be that everyone gets along here, that the city is neither narrow-minded, like villages in Egypt's far south, nor coldly anonymous, like Cairo.

Alexandria's tolerance stems, residents say, from the city's earliest days. When Alexander the Great founded a Greek settlement on Africa's shore in 332 B.C., it merged cultures from north and south, east and west, quickly growing into a place that welcomed travelers, traders and refugees from all over the Mediterranean region. But last month, a 2,300-year-old reputation was undermined, perhaps fatally, by a dagger stroke.

On April 14, a man with a knife drove to three Coptic Christian churches here and stabbed several worshipers, killing an elderly man, Nushi Atta Girgis, on the steps of Saints Church. The attacker was a Muslim, and the assault ignited three days of sectarian street fighting. It was not Egypt's gravest outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence: Worse rioting took place last fall when Muslims protested a play about a Christian convert to Islam who switches back. But the stabbing set off public alarm because there was no apparent trigger for the attacks and because Egypt had looked to Alexandria as a model of tolerance.

"There has been an acceleration of conflict, and that is worrisome," said Sameh Naguib, a democracy activist and expert in economic development. "There is a kind of national agitation going on, and the unpredictability of it all is cause for concern. It's especially unfortunate that it should happen in Alexandria. It shatters an ideal that is particularly needed in Egypt: the ideal that we all can live together in peace."

Cosmopolitan Alexandria was once one of the Mediterranean's most easygoing cities, home to Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Jews, Arabs, Turks and many others. A major seaport, Alexandria attracted artists, poets and writers. Egypt's best-known film director, Youssef Chahine, had long held up his native city as a national exemplar. In his 2004 movie, "Alexandria . . . New York," the lead character praised Alexandria as a symbol of tolerance.

The city's reputation as a beacon of cordiality extended throughout the Middle East. When news spread of last month's knife attacks, a Saudi writer for the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper asked "Alexandria that overlooks the wide sea" a pointed question: "Have the ships of love left?"

Yet the city's celebrated tolerance has been more legend than reality for 50 years. An exclusionist Arab nationalism, combined with anti-foreign sentiment nourished by the 1956 Suez War and the 1967 Middle East war with Israel, gradually drained the city of its cosmopolitan populace and character. Almost all that remained was a kind of archaeology of sophistication. The faded Cecil Hotel, with its cafes and wrought-iron elevator, sits on the waterfront drive still known by its French name, the Corniche. Ruined palaces of aristocrats crumble in their lush gardens. Nearly empty churches -- Greek and Armenian Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican -- nestle among a forest of minarets and mosques. The old synagogue sits under guard, unused.

The mix of Muslims and Christians was Alexandria's last live exhibit of true urban variety. Now, sectarian hostility is palpably on the rise. It is rare for a foreigner to run into a Copt and not hear expressions of deep-seated fear of and complaints about Muslims, or to converse with a Muslim and not hear that Copts are privileged.

Maher Atta, son of the man who was fatally stabbed in April, recalls a time when Muslim and Christian families would visit during each other's festivals, celebrate each other's weddings and attend the same entertainments. That is all coming to an end, he said.

"People see on TV preachers saying bad things about each other's religions," Atta said. "They see people burning churches in Pakistan or blowing up mosques in Iraq, and they feel hostility." he said. On the wall of his apartment hung icons of the Virgin Mary and pictures of Coptic holy men, fixtures in Coptic homes throughout Egypt. Across the hall, a Muslim family's living room was adorned with Koranic verses, just as commonplace in Islamic households.

Atta noted that until a few years ago, religion classes in schools were taught in the context that everyone was Egyptian. Now, separate religion classes are held for Muslims and Christians. "The teachers can call the others infidel, and no one is around to challenge it," he said.

His father was attending a service at Saints Church when he left to go to a restroom outside. A car with three men arrived, and one got out and began to stab worshipers entering and exiting the church. During Atta's funeral the next day, Copts and Muslims fought each other with sticks and swords. Christian jewelry shops were looted as police stood idly by.

The alleged killer was captured and identified as Mahmoud Salah-Eddin Abdel-Rizziq. Police said he was deranged. Maqqar Ibrahim, a priest at Saints Church, protested: "If this person is mentally ill, why is it his illness only appears when he enters a church?" The accomplices escaped.

Fakiha Zakhary, the victim's widow, concluded: "It's easy to say the killer was crazy, but it is Alexandria that is getting sick. My husband had no enemies. The enemy was hate."

Some observers blamed Alexandria's rising tensions on a long-term trend in migration. Poor people from rural areas have settled here to take jobs in the port and in the city's chemical and steel industries. Some Egyptians contend that the new arrivals have brought village-style conformity and conservative Islamic habits to Alexandria.

"There is a new element of intolerance that has been imported," said Khaled Azab, spokesperson for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a 3 1/2 -year-old library meant to symbolize Alexandria's rebirth as a free marketplace of ideas. He noted the large proportion of women who wear veils as a symbol of piety. "We must admit that Alexandria's notion of openness to all cultures is on the defensive," Azab said.

Indeed, some pious Muslims have redefined the city's legendary tolerance in terms of Islamic duty, not liberal ideals. "Islam says that Muslims must treat non-Muslims with respect, and even protect them," said Ali Abdellati, a shoe-store clerk. "There is no Alexandria tolerance without Muslim tolerance."

Abdellati spoke of the stabbing as an aberration. "The man must have been a non-Muslim, maybe a Jew," he said.

Political uncertainty and the erosion of tight political control in Egypt have brought divisions to the surface, observers contend. "Muslims, Christians, peasants, workers -- everybody is expressing themselves, and not always constructively," said Naguib, the activist.

"Everyone is going his own way," said Ali Abdul Fattah, a senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood, a formally banned organization that has become Egypt's largest opposition group. By all accounts, the Brotherhood is popular in Alexandria. Opponents of religion-based politics call that a symptom of the city's rising intolerance. Abdul Fattah contends that the Brotherhood has been at the forefront of fighting bias but that the government has sabotaged its efforts.

In January, the Brotherhood and a local newspaper, Voice of Arabism, sponsored a series of seminars among Muslim and Christian religious leaders, Brotherhood officials and secular residents to discuss religious rivalries and, in particular, to air Christian fears as the Brotherhood emerged as a major political force. At the third session, police ringed the newspaper's office, and a police officer said that such meetings could not be held there, said editor Reda Shabaan.

Efforts to reconvene at an Anglican church fell through when the priest received a call from police telling him to cancel. Shabaan's office lease was suddenly revoked, the editor said, and plainclothes agents began confiscating the Voice of Arabism from kiosks. Alexandria police and the office of the city governor, Abdul Salam al-Mahgoub, declined to comment on the allegations of suppression.

Shabaan and several other Egyptian commentators speculated that the government of President Hosni Mubarak nurtures civic conflict to justify its maintenance of 25-year old emergency laws inhibiting free expression and association.

"Alexandria has its problems, but the authorities don't help," Shabaan said. "Instead, they make things worse. How else can the government justify its existence but to say only it stands between Egypt and chaos?"

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