Egyptian Governor Blames Obama for Burned Churches

With hundreds sentenced to death in Minya, the governor blames President Barack Obama for local violence.

So who's responsible for all the trouble in Minya? Over the past year, this relatively obscure governorate in Upper Egypt, with a population of a little more than four million, has produced some of the country's most disturbing headlines. Burned churches, mass death sentences, a looted museum—these have all been prominent Minya stories since June 30, 2013, when protests were held across Egypt, eventually resulting in the army forcibly removing president Mohammed Morsi from office. In Minya, the worst incidents happened in August, when local mobs attacked government buildings, Coptic Christian churches, and a museum, killing dozens, including a number of police officers. The mobs were responding to events in Cairo, where security forces had violently dispersed two sit-ins held in support of Morsi, who had been a longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood

Since then, the Minya judicial system has rushed to punish hundreds of people accused of inciting the local violence. On Monday, after a trial that lasted only a few minutes, a Minya court issued death sentences to 683 alleged rioters, most of whom weren't even present at the trial. A month earlier, the same court had sentenced 529 others to death. Not long after that initial decision, I happened to be researching archaeology in the region, so I scheduled a meeting with the highest-ranking local official, Governor Salah Zeyada. I was surprised to hear whom the governor blamed for Minya's problems: Barack Obama and the United States of America.

"An American Plot"

"They broke into six police stations in Minya and stole all the weapons," the governor said, describing the events of last August. "They burned 14 churches completely. And they burned four prosecution offices and courts, and they attacked the Mallawi Museum and stole all the antiquities. This was an American plot to turn Egypt into a new Syria, or a new Libya, or a new Iraq. This is the democratic America?"

Through my translator, I asked the governor to clarify who was responsible for the burned churches.

"It was Obama," he said. "And all of the American politicians who have divided all of the world. They are the only people who supported the Muslim Brotherhood, because they knew that the Muslim Brotherhood would destroy all of Egypt."

In Egypt, it's common for talk-show hosts and citizens to blame America for conspiring with the Brotherhood, but I had never heard a high-ranking official make such a claim. Leaders in Cairo would probably cringe—those at the top are more aware of the realities of diplomacy and foreign aid. But during this chaotic time, a place like Minya feels far from the capital. The governor continued: "Ask Obama's spokesman about everything he said from June 30 to today. Ask him why they endorse the Muslim Brotherhood."

I said that Obama had never endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood and that neither he nor anybody in his administration had described last summer's takeover as a coup.

"Then why did he cut the aid to Egypt?" the governor said. "They cut the aid."

I mentioned that the United States gave the usual amount of aid last year—around one and a half billion dollars.

"I don't know exactly. I don't receive the aid myself," the governor said dismissively, and then he shifted the topic back to the Muslim Brotherhood. "Truly their numbers weren't more than 2 percent of the population. But they were assisted by gangs and criminals, by those who live in the desert. The Muslim Brotherhood gave them money, and they also had money from Qatar—which is funded through America—and they tried to ruin Egypt."

He claimed that the U.S. funds local protests, where Morsi supporters raise the four-fingered "Rabaa" salute, which has come to memorialize the Islamists who were killed at last year's sit-ins.

"Most of them are poor people," Governor Zeyada said of the protestors. "Many are just women and children, and they raise their hands with the Rabaa sign to show America that it still has a voice, and that the foreign money used to execute their plan is well spent."

The governor took a drag on his Marlboro. He was a trim, handsome man in his late 50s, and he wore the kind of neat mustache that is favored by many Egyptian policemen and military officers. His name card identified him as a former major general in the police. At the start of the interview, he had greeted me warmly, and his friendliness did not seem to be affected by the fact that he believed the president of my country had funded church burnings in his governorate. After we had been talking for a while, he switched to English and mentioned that he had spent some time in the States.

"I went to New York and Chicago and Washington," he said. "Your American CIA, they know me very well."

I asked him why.

"Because I have traveled there, and I took courses."

"Where did you take courses?"

"The FBI," he said. "I was in the Marriott, in Washington, D.C. I was there for three weeks."

"Was it useful?"

"Useful for them," he said, with a smile. He told me that he liked the American people; his only problem was with the government. "The people of America have a moral responsibility to stop the American intelligence institutions," he said.

I asked if he had hated the FBI when he studied with the agency.

"No, no, that was before the Iraq War," he said.

I asked if he thought America was also responsible for the protests on Tahrir Square in 2011, which had toppled Hosni Mubarak from power. The governor told me that the main reason for the revolution was that Mubarak had become corrupt during his last decade in power, and he had planned to pass the presidency on to his son Gamal.

"I think the Americans knew very well that the issue of succession would be one of the reasons behind the revolution," the governor said. "And we won't remind the people of America that Obama, and Bush before him, both met with Mubarak's son in America." He continued: "We can't really say that America was behind the revolution. But America used the revolution."

Selective Security

As governor, Zeyada has made relatively few statements to the press, and in the past he had said nothing publicly about the U.S. But his outspokenness attracted attention during the waning days of Morsi's rule, when Zeyada was still a major general in the police. Shortly before the protests on June 30 of last year, the national Police Officers Club posted a video on its Facebook page that featured a meeting of its general assembly. In the video, security officials declared that they would not defend Muslim Brotherhood headquarters if they were attacked by demonstrators. One officer took the microphone and said that if any member of the police defended a Brotherhood office, "I swear to God Almighty, he will be shot." General Zeyada also appeared in the video, commanding the officers, "The Brotherhood headquarters shall not have any security, and these are the instructions from the Minister of the Interior."

On the evening of the 30th, a mob attacked the national Brotherhood office in Cairo with Molotov cocktails, and Morsi supporters inside fought back with firearms. By the next morning, the building had been gutted, and several people had been killed.

Zeyada was sworn into office as governor of Minya on August 13, the day before the dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins. He was one of 25 new governors who had been chosen by the provisional authorities, and 19 of the appointees had formerly been generals in the army or police. It was clear that the government hoped to emphasize security, but despite these moves at the top, I was surprised to find relatively few policemen on the ground in Minya. For two weeks, I drove around the region, and I rarely encountered checkpoints, which are common in tense parts of Egypt. Only once did an officer seem to notice that I was a foreigner driving by myself, and he asked halfheartedly if I wanted a police escort. When I told him that I preferred to travel alone, he looked relieved and waved goodbye. I saw no evidence that churches were being well guarded. There wasn't any sign of increased security in Mallawi. I spent a couple of afternoons talking to people in the neighborhood of the looted museum, and nobody seemed concerned that a foreigner was wandering around asking questions.

None of this matched the common perception of Minya as a tinderbox with major sectarian tensions. During my interview with the governor, he emphasized this point. "Since the 14th of August until today, Minya has been the place in Egypt with the fewest problems," he claimed. "Since the 14th, not a single church wall has been harmed."

He told me that the governorate's population is between 20 and 25 percent Christian, and he believed that the lack of recent violence proves that last year's incident was an outlier, the result of an American plot. Of course, I didn't believe his conspiracy theories, but part of his logic made sense. Given that security forces are relatively sparse in Minya, one would expect ongoing violence against churches and other sites, if indeed sectarianism is so bad that Islamists are looking for any opportunity to attack Christians.

Weakened State

But this is similar to what I've observed in other parts of Upper Egypt over the past year and a half. There's often little evidence of formal authority, but communities tend to remain basically peaceful. In such areas, the Egyptian state was never very powerful, and it has become even weaker since the revolution. Other elements—a general sense of community, and traditions of clan and kinship—have played a larger role in holding things together. And Christians and Muslims are accustomed to living in close contact. In a big city like Cairo, such communities tend to be more segregated, but in villages they have to interact frequently, learning to ignore whatever differences they might have.

When I visited an open-air mall across the street from the Mallawi Museum, I was struck by how many Christian shopkeepers made a point of approaching me to say that the Muslim manager of the mall, a man named Kheled Kesben, had been wrongfully arrested last August. "He was just doing his job," one of the Christian shopkeepers told me. "He was standing there in front and telling people to leave this place alone." But because Kesben had been filmed at the site by security forces, he had been arrested as if he had been part of the mob. More than half a year later, he is still in prison awaiting trial, another victim of the chaotic justice system.

It's difficult to understand exactly what happened in Minya last August, but the violence probably reflected frustration more than hatred. For a Morsi supporter in a remote place, where there's no recourse to institutional justice, a nearby church represents a convenient scapegoat in extreme circumstances. Most of the time, the proximity naturally leads to understanding and compromise, but when somebody is impotently furious at what he sees happening on television in Cairo, he might feel driven to attack a local Christian institution. And such events, while rare, have occurred periodically in Egypt since the 1970s. This trend has worsened since the revolution, and the question remains as to whether it will fundamentally change the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Egypt.

One excellent analysis is "Violence Against Copts in Egypt," a report by Jason Brownlee that was published last November by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In Brownlee's view, "it is Egypt's outdated laws and authoritarian institutions, not confessional differences, that have made Copts a target of social conflict."

I sense a similar dynamic at work in terms of attitudes toward the U.S. People on both sides of the political divide—those who hate Morsi, and those who love him—are equally likely to blame Obama and America. And yet it's rare to feel any strong personal animosity. In Egypt, I never hide the fact that I'm American, and I've reported at countless protests and violent events, but I have yet to be threatened personally. In contrast, when I lived in China, where violence was extremely rare, I often felt warier at demonstrations, because people were more likely to confront me angrily as a representative of some American threat. But America was much more distant and foreign to the Chinese perspective. In Egypt, where U.S. aid has been a fundamental part of the economy since the days of Sadat, it's impossible to escape the influence of America—even the drinking water in parts of Minya comes from USAID-funded treatment plants. An official like Governor Zeyada speaks English, has been to Chicago, and even trained with the FBI. If he needs a scapegoat, the image of the U.S. is both familiar and close at hand. When we met, he repeatedly asked me to promise that I would publish his comments, and he clearly wanted to impress me with bold accusations of Obama.

But from my perspective there was something desperate about the conversation—it seemed to reflect the frustration of an official trapped in a deeply dysfunctional state. When a governor blames local violence on a foreign country 6,000 miles away, he is effectively saying that he has little real authority.

Who's in Charge?

This highlights another common misconception about Egypt: that since Morsi was removed from office, he has been replaced by a top-down military dictatorship. When outsiders see that a court in Minya has sentenced 683 people to death, they assume that this is the result of some order issued from Cairo. There's a sense that Abdul Fattah el Sisi, the former general who led the coup against Morsi and is currently running for president, is in charge of the country. On Tuesday, after the most recent Minya court ruling, Senator Patrick Leahy, who heads the Senate subcommittee that overseas foreign aid, blocked the transfer of $650 million in funds to the Egyptian military. There seems to be an expectation that Sisi or somebody else in the central government will respond by quickly rectifying the injustice that's taking place in Minya.

But the truth is that nobody really has control of Egypt right now. It's a weak state that has become even weaker since the revolution, and the power vacuum means that institutions and officials behave erratically. Sometimes they're seeking to expand their sphere of influence, and sometimes they're acting on what they perceive to be the national mood. Other times they're simply making very bad decisions. But it's unlikely that some central authority in Cairo is ordering an obscure court in Minya to sentence hundreds of people to death, just as it's unlikely that somebody is telling a governor to accuse Obama of setting Egyptian churches on fire.

When I spoke with Governor Zeyada, I asked him about the first mass death sentence, and he emphasized that the case isn't finished. "This is not a verdict. It's not the final verdict," he said. "And if anyone saw what happened in Minya, from the burnings, the murders, the stealing, the destruction of the museum, the destruction of churches, the terrorizing of people—if they saw all of this, and then such a verdict came out, then they would say it's normal."

His analysis seemed correct, although not in the way he intended: This Minya verdict is "normal" in the sense of being what one can expect from a completely broken system. Not long after my conversation with Governor Zeyada, the Minya court abruptly revised its initial decision, commuting 492 of the 529 death sentences to life imprisonment. (This sounds like an improvement until you realize that there are still 37 people in that case who have been sentenced to death without a proper trial.) Most legal experts in Cairo seem to expect that all of the sentences will eventually be drastically reduced or dismissed and the judges will be removed. But of course nobody knows for certain, just as nobody knows whether things will change after the presidential election that is scheduled for the end of May.

Near the close of our conversation, Governor Zeyada abruptly said, "Have you heard the joke? About the ones who ruled Egypt?"

I said no, I had not heard this joke yet.

"Some people were asking somebody, Who had ruled Egypt? And he said, 'Abdel Nasser, then Anwar Sadat, then Hosni Mubarak—and then a comedy break.'" The governor laughed and took another drag from his Marlboro. He continued: "And then the revolution, the June 30th revolution."

I said, "And then?"

"And then we will see," he said, and laughed again.

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