Sectarian strife tests Egypt’s post-Mubarak rulers

May 10, 2011

(A soldier stands guard near the Saint Mary church which was set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians on Saturday in the heavily populated area of Imbaba in Cairo May 8, 2011/Asmaa Waguih)

Egypt’s army rulers face a dilemma as a bolder stance adopted by Islamists in the post-Mubarak era is worsening sectarian tension and triggering demands for the kind of crackdown that made the former president so unpopular. Armed clashes between conservative Muslims and Coptic Christians left 12 dead in a Cairo suburb on Saturday, touching off angry protests by some of the capital’s residents who called for the army to use an “iron fist” against the instigators.

The violence has deepened fear among Christians, who complain of poor police protection and a new tolerance of Muslim extremists, raising the risk of new flashpoints in a country dogged by poverty, soaring prices and a faltering economy. Police deserted their posts during the January and February uprising against Mubarak. Many have returned but many Egyptians say that has failed to stop theft and violent crime spreading as Egypt looks ahead to its first free elections in September.

“The softness of the state is a problem right now,” said political analyst Issandr El Amrani, who expects the interim military government to restore a tough line against conservative Salafist Islamic groups and others that incite religious hatred. “It’s not going to be popular with a segment of the population but a government has to do unpopular things sometimes,” said Amrani.

Egypt, which relies on an image of stability to draw millions of tourists, has seen a steady increase in inter-faith violence in recent years, despite a pause during the uprising.

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