Sectarian violence erupted in the village of Ezbet Assem, in the governorate of Minya on Monday following a traffic dispute and subsequent brawl. The incident is reported to have resulted in serious property damage and extensive injuries. Criminal investigations have been opened and both Coptic and Muslim suspects have been placed under arrest.
According to the Coptic suspects’ lawyer, Sherif Saad, the violence began as an ordinary dispute between the driver of a private car and a motorcycle over who had right of way at an intersection. This dispute led to a physical scuffle which subsequently escalated to rock-throwing by both sides, injuring ten individuals. A Coptic man named Gamal Sobhy Khalil was reportedly clubbed in the head, and was transferred to a local hospital’s intensive care unit.
This incident also resulted in damage to Coptic citizens’ private property. A furniture store is said to have been destroyed and its contents thrown into a canal, resulting in damages worth an estimated LE 50,000. A barber shop also reportedly suffered damages costing between LE 15,000 and 20,000. A carpentry workshop and a privately owned automobile were also targeted.
Saad added that the home of a Christian man and barns owned by three local Copts were also torched.
Immediately following the violence 37 suspects were arrested, 20 Muslims and 17 Copts. Most were released following a brief period of detention, although 18 individuals remained in custody. The District Prosecutor of Southern Minya ordered their release on Thursday, and issued arrest warrants for another 20 citizens.
Sobhy was also placed under arrest at the hospital shortly after emerging from his coma and regaining consciousness, according to Saad. The lawyer told Mada Masr, “the most recent development we heard is that police forces were deployed to the intensive care unit at the University Hospital, and they handcuffed him there.”
He added that the 18 individuals who remained in custody were detained on general charges, and that the prosecution moved to release them all as there were no official complaints or accusations filed against any of them. “The prosecution saw no justification in remanding these suspects in preventative custody,” he said, adding that “none of those who had their properties torched had filed charges of arson against any specific individual.”
While 16 of the detainees were released on the condition that they remain in the village until the conclusion of investigations, two Muslim defendants were released on LE 500 bail, charged with the attempted murder of Sobhy. According to Saad, police investigations have revealed that four individuals are implicated in the assault and attempted murder. Although two have been released on bail, two remain at large.
Mada Masr reached out to the other party’s lawyer for comment but was unsuccessful.
The new governor of Minya, Major General Essam al-Badawy, is reported to have visited the village on Tuesday amid the deployment of security forces, in an attempt to end the sectarian unrest and violence there.
Saad also claimed that a member of Parliament (whose name is being withheld) had visited the area seeking to begin a reconciliation session. However, he predicted, “due to the extent of material damages suffered by the Coptic community, and owing to the hospitalization of one of the defendants, such a reconciliation effort is unlikely for the time being.”
Sheikh Mahmoud Gomaa, a Minya-based Al-Azhar cleric involved in interfaith initiatives with the Coptic Church, told media outlets that “efforts are underway to bring the two sides together and to achieve reconciliation.” Sheikh Gomaa asserted that these clashes have nothing to do with sectarian strife, claiming instead that they were of criminal nature, based on a simple traffic altercation between two men.
However Ishaq Ibrahim, a specialist in religious freedoms from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, disagrees. He told Mada Masr, “sectarian incidents often begin as a normal occurrence or crime, yet the repercussions of such events, and the manner in which they are dealt with often pushes them into the category of sectarian violence.”
He added, “in this particular case it was not merely a criminal act — especially since it occurred in the village of Ezbet Assem, which suffered an incident of sectarian violence some two months ago. This occasion led to a traditional reconciliation session, and the release of all defendants who had been arrested.”
An altercation broke out in the village on July 19 after a young Muslim man disrobed in front of a Coptic girl who had been washing cookware along an irrigation canal, and reportedly asked the young man to keep away from her. A brawl between their families ensued, escalating to the point of fighting with sticks and stones, resulting in injuries on both sides.
Sectarian sentiments in Minya have come to the fore this year, as violence has broken out between Muslims and Copts in several villages, resolved each time with the traditional reconciliation hearings in lieu of judicial investigations. The village of Karm in particular has seen a number of these incidents. In May anelderly Coptic woman was stripped and paraded through the streets of the village. This took place following rumors of a romantic relationship between a young Coptic man and a young Muslim woman.
The Samalout Criminal Appeals Court decided in July to release all the defendants involved in this case due to a lack of evidence. Before these individuals were released, local authorities had organized a number of traditional reconciliation sessions and hearings in this village.