Monday, January 31, 2011

Egypt’s critical moments for change

Alaa Bayoumi, 31 Jan 2011,

Full Tex:

As the unprecedented protest movement continues making history, demands seem to grow and the goals become more defined and popular, and the movement seems more united.

Yet, such success is still limited. Moreover, the challenges seem ever more daunting.

Protests on Monday entered their seventh day. Dozens of protestors have been killed all over the country since the beginning of the protests on Tuesday. Hundreds have been injured. Many police stations and ruling party headquarters have been torched. Some government organisations and private property have been vandalized and looted. Some of Egypt’s most notorious jails have been compromised and thousands of dangerous criminals have escaped.

The population suffers from a security vacuum, a rush for food and other supplies, and an atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity.

Many pillars of Mubarak’s regime have temporarily collapsed. The police disappeared from the streets for two days. The ruling party and its officials withdrew from the political scene and state-controlled media. Some outspoken members of the Mubarak regime, such as Mustafa Al Kiki, the maverick head of the foreign relations committee at the Shura Council, the upper part of the Egyptian apartment, came out critical of the Mubarak regime and called for reform.
Some of the richest members of the pro-Mubarak business elite reportedly fled the country, fearing backlash and public anger.

Stubborn Mubarak

Still, Mubarak seems to cling to power counting mainly on the support of on his top military aides. He named two former military generals as vice president and prime minister. He sent the military, the last standing state institution, to maintain some security on the streets. He appeared on state TV on Sunday surrounded by some of his top military officers, including the minister of defense and the military chief of staff, discussing the military’s efforts to bring order to the streets.

Moreover, the new cabinet sworn in on Monday kept many faces from the old cabinet, some of them hugely unpopular. The new cabinet is another sign that Mubarak is unwilling to change.

On the streets, citizens' committees were formed across the county to protect the streets - deserted for two days by Mubarak’s police, despite many calls by the opposition for the military to intervene and secure the country.

On Monday, the opposition called for a "Million Man March" in Cairo on Tuesday. Protestors from outside Cairo are traveling toward the city, but all trains are halted. A faceoff looms between the protesters and security forces, who are reportedly back to Cairo's streets.

People’s anger and fear are heightening, while Mubarak seems stubborn and unresponsive as usual.

Moreover, the change movement seems stronger. It has reached new levels. It has been transformed from an unexpected event to an international news and policy-making event. It has affected world politics and markets, forcing world leaders and powers to speak out.

The spontaneous movement is now demanding full regime change. It wants Mubarak to step down, the constitution to change, and the parliament to be dissolved.

It is calling for new elections, new broad coalition interim government, and the lifting of the state of emergency.

The movement is still a popular spontaneous movement led by no specific political group. It is has been joined by most of the opposition groups, and it now has support never before imagined.

It is also grouping around some prominent opposition figures, especially Mohamed ElBaradei, the former international diplomat, who gained the support of Egypt’s largest and most organized political group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Daunting Challenges

Yet, the movement is running against serious odds, since the regime is unwilling to step down or seriously change. The military leadership supports an unpopular president. An influential and oppressive political and business elite, which has ruled the country for the last three decades, is now fighting its last battle to save the regime and itself.

It is facing a communication blackout inside the country after the government cut off Egypt from the internet and mobile phones - and closed down Al Jazeera and blocked its signal.

They are facing distortion and public propaganda from state TV, which was one of the first buildings to be protected by the military on Friday evening, and which has been heavily engaged in a public relations campaign to support the regime.

State TV airs pictures of empty Cairo streets to deny news that protests are going on.

It interviews one guest after the other who praise Mubarak and blame on the resigned cabinet and officials such as Ahmed Ezz, the business tycoon and senior leader at the ruling National Democratic Party, as the cause of people’s anger.

It continuously attacks Al Jazeera and other media who, according to Egyptian TV and its guest, “hate Egypt and spread lies and incitement”.

It receives a flood of emergency calls from citizens crying for help, talking about attacks by thugs and criminals.

The opposition movement also faces a regional and international political order that have traditionally sided with the authoritarian status quo over democracy and change - and that has called on Mubarak to reform but stopped short from endorsing the movement or its demands.

In such an atmosphere, many Egyptians are fearful, worried, and worn out. Many are not politically active and have always feared government and politics. Many cannot sustain a long period of insecurity, uncertainty, and instability.

Under these conditions, the young, disorganized, and inexperienced change movement is expected to deliver and surprise the world once again.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt's new leaders

By: Alaa Bayoumi, 30 Jan 2011,

Full Text:

As ongoing historical events in Egypt unfold, many in Egypt and around the world are uncertain about the future and where it is leading the country. Many are reevaluating their understanding of Egypt and their political alternatives.

In this context, it is important to realise that a new generation of Egyptian leaders were born - a generation of Egyptian youth who tore down the wall of fear and stood up to Mubarak's notorious security apparatuses, sacrificing hundreds of innocent lives.

This new generation breathed life into a decaying system and now can never be bottled in again, even if Mubarak or the remains of his collapsing regime cling to power for a few more days, or even years.

Public revolutions are like wars, and if you fight a war and put your life on the line, you are no longer the same person. You become more courageous, intolerant to injustice, oppression, and those who support them.

The new Egyptian leaders who are now protecting their families, towns, and their country with their own hands and bare chests are looking for support.

Most of them were born under Mubarak's rule. They were raised in a humiliated society; a country that lost its political and cultural leading status in the region; a country led by a corrupt, inefficient regime that lacks vision and aspiration.

They were taught in a collapsing public education system, watched movies about the deterioration of their country and culture, and witnessed regional wars and upheaval - especially the still ongoing war in Iraq and the wider Middle East conflict.

Many of them graduated from schools and universities to find an economy dominated by a greedy business elite married to the Mubarak regime. They found fewer jobs that were hardly rewarding. They faced competition from more advantaged kids born to rich families, so the seemingly disenfranchised had to take up low paying jobs in the private sector in order to be able to support their families after losing their older jobs in the newly privatised public sector.

This younger generation has seen American foreign policy fail in the region, and hasn't forgotten the staunch American support provided to Israel during the 1967 and 1973 wars. They haven't forgotten about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, or America's continued support of Israeli attacks in 2006 on Lebanon and in 2008 on Gaza.

But being the youth that they are, they still embrace, at times, American culture. They look up to America as a powerful society that is open to technology and new ideas.

It is imperative that the US act to take advantage of these sympathies exhibited by Egyptian youth in order to really capture their hearts and minds - to show sympathy to their grievances, sacrifices and calls for justice.

The Obama administration should do more than urging the Mubarak regime for restraint. If America values freedom, democracy, and human rights, it should pressure the Mubarak regime in every way possible to protect the protesters.

The US must demand the restoration of security and order in Egypt and the speedy trial of the security forces that opened fire at the youth.

It should see the new movement as it really is: a peaceful, youthful and spontaneous movement that belongs to no political opposition group.

America should announce its respect to the choices of the Egyptian people and their right to live in a democratic system and to elect their own leaders, regardless of their political ideologies.

The US should announce it will welcome and support a democratically elected Egyptian regime even if it will make difficult and challenging foreign policies.

Focusing on issues such as the threat of Islamists, regional stability, and relations with Israel will only reinforce fears of America as a selfish empire unwilling to listen or accept differences.

The US should open up to a new generation of Egyptian and Arab leaders. It should rejoice in the Middle East's democratic future and leave the region's authoritarian past behind.

Finally, the US as a foreign country may not find it politically appropriate to call for a regime change in Egypt. But, it should certainly support a fully democratic one.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt protests surprise analysts

Credit given to a new generation for organising and leading street protests.

Alaa Bayoumi, 29 Jan 2011,

Full text:

The ongoing unprecedented public protests in Egypt have taken most Egyptians by surprise.

Many of the country's independent and opposition analysts are struggling to explain the latest events and what they mean for the future of Egypt.

They all seem to agree that nationalist feelings and belief in the ability to resist authoritarianism have been revived.

"I swear to God, I cried out of happiness watching the real Egypt reborn again in the middle of Tahrir square on Tuesday night," wrote Emad el-Deen Hueesin, a columnist and the daily independent al-Shrouq newspaper, referring to the first day of protests that galvanised the country.

"Before this day, I used to be one of many people who believe that the people have become dead. What I saw today is that the people are not dead. They have decided to burn their fear instead of burning themselves."

A new generation

Analysts seem to credit a new generation for organising and leading the protests. They portray a future generation that is better than their fathers and who should rise above the mistakes of the past and above the many problems that divided the country for decades, such as public apathy, fearing the government, corruption, sectarianism, and ineffective opposition groups.

"The new move [protests] reflects a clear generational difference between the generation of my father, my grandfather, my generation, and the generation of my son," Moataz Abdel Fatah, a political science professor and also columnist at al-Shorouq, wrote.

"The Egyptians of today are not the Egyptians of yesterday. Our youth can no longer accept what their fathers used to accept."

Magdy el-Galad, the editor in chief of the largest independent Egyptian newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, tried to explain the generational difference by depicting some of the most striking social and economic differences between the new generation and the older one.

"My father was a teacher working for the ministry of education. He, like his generation, used to walk 'near the wall' [meaning the walls of fear]. Some of them used to walk with the 'wall inside them.' Most of them used to 'obey' in order to raise their kids with their 30 Egyptian pounds salary.

"A new generation walks in the streets of Egypt. A generation that did not marry or have kids when everything was cheap.

"They cannot even find jobs that can pay them 30 pounds in public or private sectors. They use the internet to go beyond Egypt and open up the whole world. They have nothing to worry about, no kids, no wife, no home, and no money."

Economic fears

Many think that the recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia are largely motivated by economic fears rather than political or religious ones.

Some analysts make a point of denying claims that protests are largely motivated by foreign interests or orchestrated by the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, the largest and most organised opposition group in Egypt.

Wael Kandeel, another columnist at al-Shrouq, wrote that "what happened on Tuesday was pure and only Egyptian.

"It was something above any party, class, generational, or interest groups divisions. Trying to impose the Muslim Brotherhood in the story is silly and cannot convince a child."

Instead, many blame the regime itself for the protests, saying the regime has gone too far to tighten its grip over power.

"Egypt did not know a real democratic system during monarchy, during [Gamal Abdel] Nasser's time, or during the time of [Anwar] El Sadat. But, it had relatively efficient state institutions; a professional elite, a public education system that made us pound among our Arab neighbours," wrote Amr el-Shobaki, a political author and widely read frequent contributor at Al-Masry Al-Youm.

"This was the case until the current regime came to power and we started witnessing the destruction of the values of efficiency, professionalism.

"We did not only get an undemocratic regime, but we also got a regime that lacks efficiency and imagination. For the first time in Egypt's modern history, loyalty did not become the only way to get close to power, as it used to be before.

"In addition to loyalty, ignorance, corruption, and lack of skills became requirements to get close to power."

El Shobaki thinks that the new elite controlled by business tycoons such as Ahmed Ezz, the new senior leader of the ruling National Democratic Party, went too far to prove their loyalty and value to the Mubarak regime by illegally excluding the representation of most of the major Egyptian opposition parties in the new parliament last November.

The elections were eventually boycotted by the great majority of the Egyptian opposition groups who complained of widespread vote rigging and corruption.

"Vulgar vote rigging in the last elections was a major factor behind the large protestors yesterday. The number of former representatives who went to the streets was noticeable," wrote El Shobaki.

Still, some analysts think the protests should not waste their anger directing it against the cabinet, the ministers, or the ruling party. Instead, they thought Mubarak himself, Egypt's president since 1981, is the problem.

Ibrahim Eisa, an opposition journalist and a staunch critic of Mubarak, wote that "the president is the one responsible. The problem of Egypt is in its president."

El Shobaki seems to agree. "Whoever thinks the problem in Egypt is the government is wrong. Egypt's problem is its president who has been ruling the country for the last 30 years," he wrote.

Hassan Nafeah, a political science professor and widely respected independent opposition figure in Egypt, thinks Mubarak will not get the message conveyed by the ongoing protests.

"Mubarak, who came to power by mere luck and not because of any pre-qualifications, and who stayed in power for thirty years and still wants to stay in power until his last breath, cannot understand a message telling him 'enough'."

Nafeah thinks the Mubarak regime will try to belittle the protests and not recognised them.

"I expect more government stubbornness as regular because the president and senior officials don't change their agenda and 'cannot be subjected to any pressure'."

"They consider people's demands as 'some kind or arm twisting'," wrote Abdel Fatah, whose only hope is that the new generation will continue their protests and no longer fear the government.

Analysis taken from Friday's press

Thursday, January 27, 2011

ElBaradei's last stand

ElBaradei's return to Egypt could offer the opportunity for a good alternative to the current leaership.

Alaa Bayoumi, 27 Jan 2011,

The return of Mohamed ElBaradei to Egypt a year ago and him joining the ranks of its political opposition created lots of expectations and frustration.

He has been seen as an agent for democracy, hope and change in a country ruled by dictatorships for decades.

Yet, many feel he may have wasted an opportunity and failed many Egyptians who believed in him.

Thus, when he announced yesterday that he is returning to Egypt from a trip to Europe to join the ongoing and unprecedented protests against the ruling regime, his announcement was met with initial skepticism.

Some of the activists who have been participating in the latest protests in the street and online have sharply criticised his attitude toward politics in Egypt.

Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, an Egyptian human rights group, says:

"whoever wants to be a leader of a democratic movement should be working among them. He cannot lead a real battle against corruption and authoritarianism by remote control or Twitter. People don't forget who stood next to them and who deserted them when they were calling for democracy and fighting corruption."

"My question to ElBaradei is if people started moving and taking by force their right for democracy, what is your role?"

First coming

When ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear chief and Noble Peace prize winner, announced in late 2009 that he was returning to settle in Egypt after decades abroad and to work to move the country toward democracy, it created political waves.

Many welcomed him. Thousands of political activists from various political groups and ideologies greeted him at Cairo airport. Many of them rallied around him and formed ad hoc political coalitions supporting his cause, such as the National Association of Change.

They looked at him as a potential - and maybe the only - alternative leader who could unite the country, provide a credible replacement to the ruling regime, and move the country forward toward real democracy in a critical time.

They thought he offered the Egyptian opposition something it had been searching for - an internationally recognised face who could speak the language of democracy and who did not belong to any specific domestic political group.

Other independent voices were more cautious.

They thought ElBaradei was out of touch with the country's problems after living abroad for three decades. They feared he had little personal charisma, no grassroots in Egypt, and no experience in challenging Hosni Mubarak's powerful regime, which had been ruling the country for the last few decades, and who inherited from his predecessors a centralised state protected by gigantic security institutions.

Still, the pro-government media launched a campaign to discredit him, bringing more attention and public sympathy to his efforts.

First year

Yet, a year after his return ElBaradei did not rise up to the challenge.

He travelled abroad frequently, forcing some of his staunch supporters - such as Hassan Nafeah, a political science professor who led the NAC during its first few months - to publicly criticise ElBaradei's "absence from Egypt, which has made the change movement lose a lot of the momentum it created since he returned."

In addition, ElBaradei failed to unite the opposition under his leadership before the parliamentary elections in November, when they were still divided over participating.

Initially, several major parties and groups, including the liberal Wafd party and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, decided to participate in the elections when the NAC and some other political parties boycotted it.

ElBaradei also acted in a calculated and elitist way, preferring to travel overseas often and to participate in planned public campaigns and gatherings. Obviously, his approach disappointed an opposition hungry for change and activism.

To his credit, ElBaradei was able to work with many opposition groups, including the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood - the largest and most organised group in the country - who were rejected not only by the ruling National Democratic Party but also by staunch secular opposition groups such as the leftist Tajamou party, who did not encourage cooperation with ElBaradei from the beginning.

ElBaradei's openness to work with the Brotherhood and many others, despite strong opposition from rival opposition groups, was welcomed by many.

He was also credited for his decision not to participate in the parliamentary elections, which was eventually boycotted by most of the opposition parties and groups who participated in its first round after complaints of widespread use of corruption and vote rigging. The elections ended with an overwhelming victory for the NDC and a devastating loss for the opposition, unprecedented in the last decade at least.

ElBaradei's decision not to participate in any elections under the current political and legal rules proved wise and farsighted. He has always advocated a full change of the Egyptian political system as a pre-condition for political participation.

He thought that the rules of the current political game in Egypt were unfairly drawn by the ruling party which could only reproduce dictatorships, and that any participation in such a system would only give legitimacy to an authoritarian regime unwilling to change.

His insistence on full change was very similar to the demands of the latest youth protests in Egypt.

Last chance

Despite criticisms of ElBaradei's decision return to Egypt, his announcement quickly caught attention and some enthusiasm.

George Ishaq, a former co-ordinator of Kefaya - an opposition movement that caught momentum in Egypt in the last five years - and a senior leader of NAC, says that ElBaradei "is one of the best figures in the Egyptian political arena today… a symbol of change in Egypt that Egyptians should rally around."

Ishaq thinks that ElBaradei should join the protests in the streets on Friday, called by ElBaradei a "Friday of the Martyrs", referring to those killed in the last protests.

The ongoing unprecedented protest gives ElBaradei a second and rare opportunity to prove his leadership.

It could be a second rare chance for ElBaradei if not the last one.

To take advantage of the opportunity, ElBaradei should join the masses, show sympathy and compassion and give up his cold diplomatic image.

He should give credit to the youth and the groups that have led the opposition so far and deny those who accuse them of trying to take over a movement.

He should be what many Egyptians search for: a credible, respected, and unifying face for change.

"ElBaradei has to stand with people, shoulder to shoulder. He should feel their victories and defeats. Then people can decide if he is a national leader and if he is up to the responsibility," says Eid.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can Egyptians revolt?

Inspired by the Tunisian example, Egyptians take to the streets in their own protest. But can it last?

Alaa Bayoumi,, 26 Jan 2011,

The traditional wisdom has always been that Egyptians don't revolt simply because they are an agricultural society. Farmers require stability and patience to tend their land.

Farmers also need a strong central government to protect them against natural disasters, such as floods and droughts.

Egypt is no longer an agricultural society.

But since the 1952 military led revolution which ended monarchism in Egypt, the country has been ruled by semi-authoritarian national regimes that used the resources of the state, large security apparatuses and a centralised economy led by a gigantic public sector, to suppress political opposition, buy public satisfaction, and build legitimacy for its economically inefficient and politically oppressive government.

This has also changed since the 1970s when Egypt was forced to liberalise its economy. At that time, the country faced a shocking military defeat by Israel in 1967. Its economy was exhausted after bearing the cost of several wars. It also wanted to move west under the rule of Sadat and his successor, the current president Mubarak who has been ruling since 1981.

The liberalisation of the Egyptian economy slowed down in the 1980s because a timid Mubarak did not want to antagonise the population by making any major political or economic changes during his first decade in power.

In the 1990s Mubarak was forced to speed up the privatisation process under the pressure of a daunting foreign debt crisis and foreign international lending organisations, such as the World Bank and the IMF, who made privatisation a pre-condition for aid.

A new elite

Since then a new political and economic elite was created. A class dominated by the owners of the newly privatised public sector companies.

The new business class was quickly and widely seen by Egyptians as a corrupt and greedy elite created by the regime and under its watchful eyes to take ownership of the country's newly and chaotically privatised economy and to support the regime in return.

Egyptians widely feared that the new business elite were given a lot of advantages by the regime. They were sold large public sector companies for below market values. They were granted huge bank loans, massive tax cuts, and large pieces of land to buy their loyalty and support.

In return, the ruling National Democratic Party has been increasingly counting on the new business elites as its base for financial and political support.

After privatisation, the new business elite gained control over millions of workers or potential voters who used to work for the public sector in the past. The new wealthy elites can now buy the loyalty and votes of millions of private sector workers through wages and other economic benefits. They also have much needed cash to support their political campaigns and their parties if needed.

As a result, 20 percent of the seats of People's Assembly, the lower chamber of the Egyptian parliament, was occupied by businessmen in 2005. Their exact presence in the newly elected parliament in November is still unknown. But, it's widely expected to be higher.

They also control senior positions in the ruling party and its policy council led by Mubarak's son and expected heir, Gamal.

New challenges

But, the new changes have created many challenges for the regime.

It meant that the regime can no longer buy the support of millions of public sector employees by controlling their wages and jobs. The regime has to open its ranks to the new business elite and to tightly control its political tendencies. With privatisation throwing millions of Egyptians out of their public sector jobs and subjected them to increasing unemployment, creating a significant problem for the government as it deals with their growing anger.

Unlike the failed Tunisian regime of Ben Ali, Mubarak understood that he has to give Egyptians room to breathe.

He tolerated the establishment of more than 20 political parties, mostly small and unknown to the majority of Egyptians. He allowed the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the largest organised opposition group in the country, to run in parliamentary and professional unions elections. He also gave media a wide margin of press freedom and allowed small demonstrations and political movements to grow and protest.

However, Mubarak's political tolerance has always been limited and calculated. He cracked down on opposition, media, and public protests before major political events such as the latest parliamentary elections. He kept the opposition weak, divided, and vilified. He kept the Muslim Brotherhood in defencive mode through constant arrests, media campaigns, and political marginalisation.

He relatively opened up under foreign and domestic pressure during the war on Iraq and quickly closed down again a few years later. He even passed many constitutional changes to make himself or whoever his regimes chooses the only possible successor.

Still, Mubarak's control has never been perfect and yesterday's events are an important and rare witness.

What Egypt witnessed yesterday was a public show of anger never seen before during Mubarak's rule. Tens of thousands of angry Egyptians from all walks of life marched in the streets of Cairo and several major cities around the country calling for a Tunisian-like revolution.

They wanted a full regime change, a new government and parliament, fair elections, and a new political system all together.

Caught by surprise

Like in Tunisia, the large protests took many by surprise. They even surprised the leaders of the established political opposition groups who participated in the protests but did not expect them to be that large or inspiring.

They were spontaneous protests fed by public anger, disenchanted youth, and the Tunisian example.

Pictures and information fed from Egypt on Twitter, Facebook, and international TV channels showed a new image of Egypt showing that this collective anger should never be underestimated and that Egypt should prepare for the unexpected.

There is a new generation.

Millions of youth who have grown up in a more open and competitive Egypt have a more cynical view of their country, future, and the world. They're more fearless than their parents, who used to work for the government or the public sector, and have less to lose and have less respect to the establishment, its security forces, and economic power.

The youth share the support of millions of poor and disadvantaged Egyptians who feel they were left behind by the regime and its new business elite.

Then comes the role of media and the Tunisian uprising that taught Egyptians and Arabs that if they act together and go to the streets in big numbers they can overcome or at least defy the power of their regime and its security forces.

Still, Egypt is not like Tunisia.

Many renowned Egyptian analysts disappointedly noted that Egypt will not follow the Tunisian model because of the low levels of literacy among its population, the spread of apathy and defeatism among its citizens, and the negative role played by religious groups inside the country.

In this respect, analysts described Egypt as a country increasingly divided along religious lines, Copts versus Muslims and competing Islamist groups against each other.

Still, the events of January 25 will make many rethink their understanding of Egypt and ask again if Egyptians can revolt. Time will only tell.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Egypt: Understanding Copts' anger

Anger among Egypt's Coptic community runs deep with fears manifested particularly in the new generation.

By: Alaa Bayoumi, 06 Jan 2011,,

Angry protests by Egypt's Christian Copts have become a familiar scene.

Hundreds clashed with police last November over plans for a new church building in Giza, leaving two protesters dead.

And in January of that year, Copts protested in the southern town of Nag Hamadi after six members were killed in an attack on a local church on the Coptic Christmas Eve.

But, following the latest tragic church attack in Alexandria which claimed 23 lives, many feel the current daily protests by Coptic youth could represent a new phenomenon.

Thousands of the younger generation have marched in protest in Alexandria and in Cairo, among other major cities.

They've brandished religious symbols, chanted slogans, called for more religious freedom and clashed with the police.

Their protests were widely reported by national and foreign media and were broadly seen as a natural reaction to the unprecedented attacks targeting the Coptic community.

And sympathetic Egyptian Muslims have organised rallies expressing their condolences, condemning the attack.

But some analysts believe the anger shown by Coptic youth represents a deeper problem - a new generation who feel increasingly marginalised and discriminated against, exhibiting a collective sentiment that their religious believes have come under attack.

Analysts fear that if such issues aren't addressed soon, the situation could escalate, blaming both the Egyptian government and the wider population - both Muslim and Christian - for failing to resolve the tension.

History of sensitivities

Maged Botros, a professor of political science and a senior member of the ruling National Democratic Party, believes the roots of the protests go back to the 1970s, a decade that witnessed a revival of various Islamist ideologies in Egypt.

At that time, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat faced a serious challenge from the leftist supporters of his popular and charismatic predecessor, president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Sadat needed a counter ideology, so he supported the rise of the Islamists.

Still, Botros thinks hard line religious and sectarian views are foreign to the way Egyptians understand Islam.

"The Egyptian society 30 years ago did not know sectarianism, which was imported from abroad (the Gulf)… Egyptians who immigrated to the Gulf brought back religious extremism," says Botros.

George Ishaq, a former spokesperson of the opposition Kefaya movement, agreed. "The problem goes back to Wahabi ideologies imported from the Arabian Peninsula." Several other Coptic analysts don't limit their criticism just to foreign imported ideologies.

Instead, they blame Egyptians themselves for failing to counter such ideologies.

Mounir Khakhry Abdel Nour, secretary general of the al Wafd Party - the largest liberal opposition party in Egypt - believes "the whole Egyptian society is responsible - its Muslims, Copts, government, and opposition - for the problem. However, the main responsibly lies on the shoulders of the successive Egyptian governments, who did not implement the needed reforms and the solutions."

Botros believes the government was afraid of offending the Muslim majority.

"The state fears that if they fulfil the rights of the Christians, they will offend the religious sensitivities of the Muslim majority, especially in villages and rural areas.

"They fear that the Muslim majority will revolt or act in violent ways. The government wants to keep security and calm. "They don’t allow the construction of more churches because the majority could be offended by more churches and more Copts in Higher offices."

Yousef Sidhom, editor in chief or Watani Weekly, the largest Coptic newspaper in Egypt, was more blunt.

"Officials and official media like to describe the attacks (on Copts) as terrorist crimes that are not targeting the church or the Copts and that Muslims and Copts have to unite against. The hidden fact, which the officials don’t want to see, is that Copts feel oppressed and neglected for three decades by the state and the authorities. They suffer discrimination in all aspects of life."

Wider problem and social change

Ishaq believes "education has become a main cause of religious tension. Religious debates on satellite TV channels are a factor, and the lack of unified laws when it comes to the construction of places of worship is contributing to the problem."

"The religious institutions are responsible, the government is weak, the law is absent, and education is raising extremists, not citizens," says Gamal Assad, a Coptic member of the Egyptian parliament.

Some Coptic analysts also blame their Church for getting involved in politics and for feeding a feeling of alienation.

"The church should be a religious institution with no political role," says Botros.

He said it's forced to do so to protect the rights of Copts. That, he said, only leads to further protests and tension.

However, Sidhom takes an opposite view. He thinks Copts responded to the rising religious tension by looking inward and withdrawing from public life.

"They withdrew from society and entered the churches. The churches build their own alternative social, sports, and entertainment activities."

As a result, he said, a new Coptic generation was raised in a more religiously segregated society, where young Muslims and Copts learn, play, and socialise separately.

Moreover, Assad thinks some of the young Coptic protesters who have violently demonstrated over the last few days have been wrongly "mobilised under the banner of persecution."

"When you give them (the Coptic youth) a feeling that they live in Egypt under persecution, they will be ready to die as martyrs," he laments.

When it comes to the future, all the analysts agree there is no easy answer.

The ideal solution, they say, is a shift towards the better use of civil society, being led by civil institutions instead of being segregated by religious ones; a society where law is dominant and equally applied; a society where all Egyptians are seen and treated as equal citizens regardless of their religious backgrounds.

They also believe the government needs to act quickly to introduce legal reforms, such as adopting a law for the construction of religious places and an election system that will give Copts more equal political representation.

For the moment, Botros feels the horrific Alexandria attacks have brought many Egyptians, Muslims and Copts together because they feel it was a foreign-based attack on their religious and political unity.

"Solidarity and the fear of foreign danger could unite all Egyptians. If such feelings last, sectarian tension will die. We have to invest in such feeling because it will lead to positive results" he believes.