The name Ahmad Lutfi Ibrahim does not, for most people, evoke any particular memories. It would hardly surprise me if a few friends thought I had meant to type Ahmad Lutfi Al-Sayyid, the renowned and sometimes reviled leader of the Egyptian Constitutional party of nearly eighty years ago. And yet there he was, Ahmad Lutfi Ibrahim, on 25 January 2011 staring somberly out from the front page of the daily Al-Masry al-Youm. He was, the paper reported, accused of being the leader of a group of about twenty members of the Palestinian based Islamic Army (IA) who had set off a bomb that took the lives of twenty-four people at the Qiddisayn (or Two Saints) Church in Alexandria on 1 January 2011. He was famous for an instant and the story of his fame and subsequent complete disappearance tells us something important and unexpected about the extraordinary events of the Egyptian revolution. It also provides a way to understand the wave of commentary that has already begun about what has changed and what has not after two years of revolution, as well as to indicate how difficult are the problems Egyptians face as they seek to create new governing institutions.
On 24 January 2011 two of the major privately owned liberal newspapers, Al-Sherouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm, ran front-page stories detailing government reports that it had solved the case of the explosion. Then-Minister of the Interior Habib al-Adly, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm, had revealed that decisive evidence proved the IA was behind the explosion. It is hard to judge al-Adly’s statement because neither the decisive nature of the evidence was revealed nor was Ibrahim himself brought forward. As of 24 January, the press reports made it seem as if the literature graduate from Alexandria was in custody and confessing the details of the crime.
The next day the revolution began and the stories about the bombing of the church and those who might have been responsible ended. While the revolution was certainly bigger news, its occurrence was not the only reason the press ceased its coverage. Rather the then public prosecutor, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, prohibited publication of details of the ongoing investigation of the crime. This measure, Mahmoud explained in a statement, was necessary because the law obliged criminal inquiries remain secret so as not to impede any ongoing investigation. The statement itself had been communicated to Anas al-Fiqi who was at the time the Minister of Information so that he could prevent further reports from appearing in the “visual or spoken media as well as in the national press, the partisan (daily and weekly) press, whether local or foreign as well as any other publications.” In other words, there was to be no further discussion anywhere of any aspect of the investigation.
And indeed there has not been any further discussion about the Two Saints Church, Ahmad Lutif Ibrahim, or Sayyid Bilal, a young Alexandrian Salafist activist who was taken into custody on 5 January 2011 and whose body, with marks of torture, was returned to his family for burial on 6 January 2011. Although some (primarily left-wing) activists consider Bilal a martyr of the revolution, and although four police officers were convicted of his murder in absentia, he too has largely vanished from public view. Not even the Salafist currents recognize his existence or memorialize his death.
Consequently, more than two years later, we know nothing about who was responsible for the criminal act of 1 January 2011. Today Habib al-Adly is in jail and Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud has been dismissed as public prosecutor; the entire political order for which they both labored no longer exists. Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than Hosni Mubarak, is president; Egypt has a new constitution; elections for a new parliament are in limbo but there is no possibility that the former National Democratic party will dominate it. Hundreds of people were killed by the police during the popular uprising that overthrew Mubarak and, since he left office, hundreds more have been killed by the police and the Armed Forces. And there have been violent confrontations between Muslims and Copts at several churches as well as in villages around the country.
There are other disastrous continuities as well: train crashes, police brutality, and widespread poverty. The revolution’s defenders and critics frequently invoke the continuity of thirty years (or sometimes sixty) to explain or explain away contemporary disasters such as train wrecks that take dozens of lives, or unfathomable political or legal defeats such as courts that do not convict the guilty merely because of an absence of evidence. Strange it is that in all of these instances the distant past remains obstinately part and parcel of the present. But an event that occurred less than three weeks before the revolution exists now in an alternate temporal universe for which neither the revolution nor the current government nor the institutions of the state have any responsibility.
So why bring up this particular bit of history that has now become ancient even if it is entirely recent? The victims of the Alexandria bombing were not political activists; they were celebrating Christmas in a church. Had they simply returned safely home after that Mass perhaps they would have joined the revolution three weeks later—or perhaps not. Unlike the dozens of people, many of whom were Christian, who were crushed to death by military vehicles in front of the television broadcasting headquarters those who died in the church are not, by anyone’s account, martyrs of the revolution. They are simply the victims of criminal violence and criminal conspiracy but, given a widespread belief that violence is worse in both quantity and quality now than under Mubarak perhaps it is best, as the Egyptian expression goes, to allow what is past to expire.
And yet, what happened that night in Alexandria casts vivid illumination on some aspects of the revolution’s first two years.
When President Morsi determined to oust Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud from his post last fall, his stated reason was that Mahmoud had failed to achieve successful prosecutions of either the police officials implicated killing revolutionary martyrs or against alleged corruption in the old regime. Morsi and his party have, in other words, no problem pursuing prosecutions of their political enemies, but they seem decidedly less interested in righting other wrongs of the old regime.
In late March 2013, the Cairo Appeals Court ruled that Morsi had unconstitutionally and wrongly dismissed Mahmoud and ordered his re-instatement. This ruling will now be taken to the Court of Cassation. There are obviously plausible legal arguments, but many Egyptians will perceive this as part of an ongoing conflict between the executive and judicial branches of government. The court has not so far released the text of its reasoning but it appears to have been based in part on the question of whether the president can nominate a public prosecutor without the participation of the judiciary.
Mahmoud was certainly a creature of the old regime. So too is the entire judiciary and prosecutorial staff which was angered by Morsi’s decision to resort to a constitutional declaration in order to remove him. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood would claim that Mahmoud was unwilling to prosecute his associates in the old order. Their opponents argue Mahmoud’s failures were necessarily the result of the maintenance of the rule of law in Egypt in place of the installation of a politically motivated form of revolutionary justice. For many reasons—some good and some bad—there was simply not enough evidence for convictions under existing Egyptian law. One way to adjudicate between these competing narratives then is that Morsi sacked Mahmoud for his failure to achieve a result not available under Egyptian law rather than for his failure to prosecute or even fully investigate a shocking act of criminal violence that had occurred earlier in his tenure.
Neither Mahmoud nor his replacement, Talaat Ibrahim, who was ostensibly appointed to bring a more concerted pursuit of justice to the office, re-opened the case of the Two Saints Church. Yet recall for a moment the atmosphere of the time: the shock, dismay, and outrage at a criminal act of sectarian murder. That there would continue to be attacks, sometimes murderously violent, on Christians was widely believed. About a year earlier, after all, there had been a drive-by shooting at a Christmas mass in Nag’ Hammadi. The Azhar Ulama Front, now occasionally described as a conservative organization of religious scholars, had issued a call for a boycott of Christian businesses and prominent figures, such as the attorney and 2012 presidential candidate, Selim al-Awa, had claimed that Christians were stockpiling weapons in church basements.
Religious violence therefore seemed as plausible as a future encompassing revolution on the Tunisian model. Bombing a church had ratcheted up the violence and the inevitable rumors swirled: it was Islamist extremists; it was one branch or another of the state secret services; it was Christians themselves. The story that Habib Al-Adly told was designed, like most stories the government had told for decades, to pacify the public and assure everyone that Egyptians were not to blame. Only foreigners—Palestinians, Israelis, or the agents of other powers—were capable of such acts. Egyptians, as government after government has hastened to reassure them, are not responsible for any of the bad things that happen in the country.
One cannot even speculate; one can only wonder what we would learn if the existing files were opened. The least likely outcomes are that Israelis or Ahmad Lutfi Ibrahim and his Palestinian associates were the criminals. Perhaps we would learn that the evidence pointed in the direction of Salafist groups, including those whose members have been elected to parliament. Or perhaps the security forces were involved, whether as active agents or passive facilitators. Perhaps the government knew who had committed the crime but lacked evidence or worried that the truth was politically too inconvenient. Perhaps we would simply learn that the files, such as they are, are largely empty and that the government had no clues and no intention of discovering who committed the crime. This last possibility seems most likely of all when we recall that it was the very day of the announcement that the revolutionary tide began to scour the country.
Had Charles Dickens chosen to write about Cairo rather than Paris his words would ring equally true: it has been the best of times and the worst of times. The past years have seen dramatic mobilizations by unlikely and frequently powerless groups. Through the spring of 2011 Copts demonstrated not simply for their rights but for the right for a more public presence in the neighborhood known as Maspero. In October 2011 members of the Egyptian armed forces attacked Coptic demonstrators in front of the Maspero television building by driving armored personnel carriers into their midst. An ugly scene was made worse when news announcers urged so-called honorable citizens to descend into the streets and engage in vigilante justice against thugs who had allegedly killed and wounded members of the armed forces. But in reality no thugs and no soldiers died. Instead, a group of soldiers had gone on a killing spree in which several dozen Christian demonstrators were crushed to death.
In December, the Deputy Guide of the MB and the man in whose stead Morsi ran for President, Khairat Shater announced that his organization and a group of Salafist societies had come to an important agreement and issued a joint statement. The joint statement issued at a nationally-televised press conference asserted that Muslims should not wish their Christian neighbors Merry Christmas. There is no comparison between the refusal to return a greeting and criminal homicide nor did the agreement become the official policy of the state. It was, however, the first time in modern Egyptian history that politicians associated with a governing majority have publicly associated themselves with such a policy. And one had to wonder why a prominent political figure who might have been president (and might still be prime minister) should have found this a crucial task to undertake while the country was enduring spasms of violence and a decaying economy. There is an enduring and disquieting uncertainty about a political party that recognizes the constitutional possibility that a Christian could be president of Egypt while openly and steadfastly asserting that its members would never vote for one.
Most stories of the revolution’s prehistory begin with trade union unrest in the Delta in the first decade of the twentieth century, the protests against the Israeli invasion of Gaza, or with the demonstration effect of events in Tunis in December 2010. Important those instances of mass mobilization were but the atmosphere of the weeks before 25 January 2011 was filled with shadows. The focus on the industrial cities often includes an implicit claim that class unity trumps religious division, but the history of the twentieth century is not very reassuring on that count. The revulsion that many Egyptians felt about the bombing of the Two Saints before 28 January 2011 should not be discounted as a contributory factor to the widely discussed and frequently praised accounts of Muslim-Christian solidarity during the celebrated eighteen days.
Recalling the bombing of the Two Saints church as the prelude to 25 January is thus necessarily an exercise in outlining the limits, not only of the Egyptian uprising so far, but also the limits of the parties that have emerged as the dominant political forces in its wake.
Religious community and prejudice point us in one important direction but also tend to obscure other, equally important and even connected, aspects of what has changed over the past two years. Perhaps Ahmad Lutfi Ibrahim was the person behind the bombing, although it seems unlikely. More plausible is that, as had become in common in the political life of Egypt over the past sixty years, the government chose to blame criminal behavior on someone, perhaps even a fictitious someone, who was not an Egyptian. Egyptians, Egyptian governments have argued for a very long time, are not responsible for criminal acts of prejudice, for terrorism, or for politically motivated wrong-doing that damage national unity. Those actions are, the public has been told time and again, the work of foreign hands, outside agents, or third parties. Real Egyptians have no interest in breaking the unity of the nation and consequently they cannot the agents of such activity.
Recently there has been a marked decline in attempts by either the government or private persons to claim that their opponents are foreign agents or elements acting in their interest. This is not because political discourse has become kinder and gentler. It has become notably more intense and it is certainly not limited to debates about policy differences. Striking, however, is how infrequently anyone levies the once-common charge that opponents are not Egyptian. Thus when the television satirist Bassem Youssef was called in for questioning on 30 March 2013 he was accused of maligning President Morsi. Anyone watching his show (which includes several leaders of the Salafist trend) realizes how rooted in domestic perceptions of political idiocy it is. Political opponents now may be characterized as venal, stupid, immoral or even criminal but they are ineluctably Egyptian. It is too early to say if this is a station on the way to a discourse that is both more civil and more probing or simply to distinct communities that refuse to listen to each other. But it is a significant change.
The explosion in front of the Two Saints was a purely criminal act. For Americans it inevitably recalls the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Like that crime, it was not an isolated event; it had a context. It occurred, as I briefly alluded above, in a stream of assaults on Christians and their institutions over a longer time and a wider space. Frequently these assaults involved sections of a local Muslim majority pressing demands or expressing fears against Christians: claims that Christians were illegally building churches or imprisoning converts to Islam. In other words, they invoked a claim that a minority was itself engaged in possibly criminal behavior that local government was either unwilling or unable to prevent. Some, like the well-known judge Tarek al-Bishri, limited themselves to that point. Others took the argument a step further to insist on the necessity of self-help in the absence of government action.
The resort to self-help is always seductive and dangerous. Seductive because it appears to be a community empowering itself against those who despoil it; dangerous precisely because, despite the language of revolutionary or religious justice with which it is sometimes imbued, it is so frequently and easily directed against the marginal, the powerless, and the impoverished. Frequently first employed against an identifiable and less powerful minority, such violence can be and is deployed against others. These forms of violence are, of course, illegal but governments, in some instances, have high degrees of toleration for them and Egypt is no exception on both counts.
Successive Egyptian governments, perhaps especially in the wake of 2011, have been unwilling to react strongly against such incidents. Not infrequently, as in an incident when a Christian man’s ear was cut off or when a church was burned down or a community driven by force from their homes and shops, the government has intervened at best in a tardy fashion and never with criminal sanctions. It has preferred reconciliation committees in which the weaker party generally foregoes significant compensation and agrees not to participate in criminal prosecution.
There have been lynchings recently in which members of local communities killed alleged criminals. The ostensible reasons range from the murder of a young child to attempted theft of a tok-tok (motorcycle-rickshaw). Those who were lynched were tortured to death: they were kicked, hit, knifed and ultimately literally hung from lamp-posts (in at least one case upside-down). I am ignorant of whether this violates specific provisions of Egyptian penal law, but it certainly violates the rights of citizens enunciated articles 35, 36 and 77 of the recently adopted constitution.
The news accounts are sketchy and occasionally suggest participants may have thought they were acting under cover of enacting a Quranic punishment against socially destructive criminal behavior. The free use by some Islamist activists over the past year of the language of the Quranic penalties against highway robbery (the so-called hadd al-hirabah) may have had some influence, but much more important is the likely conviction in communities that without a functioning police force overwhelming chaos and criminality threaten.
Was their choice of who to find guilty any better than Habib al-Adly’s on 24 January? In the absence of mechanisms deploying either the forensic capacities of the regular police or the even more stringent evidentiary requirements of the Qur’an or classical Islamic jurisprudence we are not in a position now or even to know. When even the Minister of Justice, Ahmad Mekki, referred to the lynchings as signaling the death of the state he was repeating a profound fear of many Egyptians today. Given the profound economic problems and the continuing violence confronting the government and the Egyptian people, finding the guilty parties behind the bombing of the Two Saints church is not now high on anyone’s agenda. The bombing also raises too many questions about the fissures of religion, politics, and government authority to be anywhere except in the temporal limbo I described earlier for the time being. But, depending on how these questions are resolved, there may come a time when a government decides once again to examine what happened in Alexandria and to throw some additional light on the events of the past several years.
Those who thought reform of Egypt’s justice system on 2 January 2011 was crucial have been proven right. It needs some new people at the top as well as a sense of commitment to making Egyptians safe from criminal violence regardless of their political or religious beliefs. Reflecting on the Alexandria bombing in the light of recent events one thing that seems clear is that while one aspect of the present conflict centers on whether Talaat Ibrahim or Abdel Meguid Mahmoud ought to be confirmed as public prosecutor neither avenue represents a step out of the impasse. What is needed is a different public prosecutor with a different sense of mission—perhaps even to recognize, probe, and bind up the wounds of the past rather than to ignore them.
[A version of this article appeared in Nisr Al-Nasr.]