The burning of two churches and the death of 12 people in May 7 clashes in the Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba suggest that Egypt is sitting on a sectarian volcano. At present there seems to be no political will to address the problem at its roots or even to name it for what it is: neither the work of external actors and the remnants of the former regime only, nor even a symptom of post-revolution security laxity, but rather a crisis of the normative values pervasive in Egyptian society, which makes it possible to mobilize political action under the guise of defending religion.

Egypt’s military leadership reacted to the May 7 clashes by arresting some 180 people and pledging to refer them to speedy military trials, an approach strongly criticized by local human rights groups. The Imbaba incident was the latest in a chain of Muslim-Christian conflicts, some of which took place well before the January 2011 revolution. Some manifestations of tension have been less violent but no less revealing, such as the continuing crisis in the Upper Egyptian province of Qena. 
Life came to a virtual standstill in Qena and surrounding areas for ten days following the April 14 appointment of Emad Mikhail, a Copt and a general from the security apparatus, as governor. Qenawis halted railway transport and organized mass protests calling for his resignation, which only subsided—but did not stop altogether—following an April 26 announcement that there would be a three-month freeze on the appointment and that General Maged Abd al-Karim (a Muslim) would undertake the governor’s responsibilities. The protestors have continued to lobby for Mikhail’s resignation and to demand the appointment of a Muslim governor, for example during a May 3 visit by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. 
A Painful History
Mikhail’s appointment initially provoked protests due to his association with the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Mikhail had served as deputy head of Central Security of Giza and was believed to be responsible for violence against protestors during the uprising that began on January 25. Three days after protests against Mikhail’s appointment erupted, Prime Minister Sharaf sent Minister of Interior Mansour al-Issawy (a Qenawi) and Minister of Local Administration General Mohsen al-No’many to listen to their grievances. Delegating the responsibility of mediating between the government and the people of Qena to two security generals was reminiscent of the old regime’s way of treating political crises as security cases.
The meeting did not produce any resolution, and although Mikhail presented his resignation, Deputy Prime Minister Yehya al-Gamal refused to accept it. The protestors stepped up the pressure by threatening to close the water supply from Qena to the Red Sea governorate and electricity to the sugar-processing factories; some also threatened to assassinate Mikhail.
Most media commentators expressed sympathy for the Qenawis’ stance, seeing the incident as part of a pattern of neglect and exclusion by the central government. Renowned novelist Alaa al-Aswany wrote, “the message that [Deputy Prime Minister] el-Gamal conveyed to the people of Qena [is] that [their] opinion is without value or influence.” 
Coalition of the Faithful
But to read the events in Qena as a straightforward case of citizens for democratic governance being ignored by a recalcitrant government would be to ignore the agendas behind the protests. The Qena protests have involved a complex constellation of actors: tribal leaders, Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, leaders from the dissolved National Democratic Party, and officers from the dismantled State Security Investigations apparatus who, according to some reports, helped block the railways. Their common objective was not to get a governor who would respect human rights, but rather a Muslim governor.
Mikhail’s predecessor as governor, Magdy Ayoub, was also Christian. Christian Qenawis loathed Ayoub, who was seen as discriminating against his coreligionists in an effort to give the image of being non-partisan. During his tenure Egypt witnessed one of its bloodiest sectarian attacks, the January 2010 shooting of parishioners leaving church after Coptic Christmas Eve in Naga Hammadi.
The rapid mobilization of protests following Mikhail’s appointment showed the role of political movements in transforming the opposition into a sectarian one. According to press reports, the mosques of Qena were transformed into platforms for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis to call upon the people of Qena to reject the appointment of a Christian governor because there should be no wilaya (authority/governance) of a non-Muslim over a Muslim. Reportedly, among the most popular slogans raised in the Qena protests were “Islamic, Islamic, not Christian, not Jewish,” “Raise your head up, you are a Muslim,” and “There is no God but God; the Nazarene [the Christian] is the enemy of God,” and “Salafis and Brotherhood are one hand against the Nazarene governor!”
While prominent commentators such as Fahmy Howeidy emphasize the conflicts within and among different Islamist groups, the Qena crisis showed that in some cases they can and do work together toward a common goal. The Muslim Brotherhood, Gama’a al-Islamiyya, and Salafis set up speakers in front of the provincial capital and threatened to take up arms  collectively if the central government did not respond to their demands for a Muslim governor. Political commentator Diaa Rashwan pointed out that Christians were among the first to oppose Mikhail’s appointment, citing this as evidence that the protests were not motivated by sectarian sentiments. But the political clout of the Salafis and other Islamist forces was conspicuous from the early days of the protests, when the Ministers of Interior and Local Administration visited and met mainly with Salafi representatives. The sectarian nature of the crisis was also evident in the protestors’ response to the decision to freeze Mikhail’s appointment: they stated that they did not want Qena “to be the quota for Copts.”
The Qena and Imbaba crises show the difficult dilemmas facing the transitional government should the Salafis, Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist political forces continue to grow, using the mobilizing power of religion. And it raises the troubling question of how the government will respond if a future majoritarian democracy calls for the espousal of illiberal and even undemocratic values and principles.
Mariz Tadros is a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.