CAIRO - More than two months since former president Hosni Mubarak was forced from office after 30 years in power, local political figures and analysts warn of "counterrevolutionary elements" still working behind the scenes to thwart Egypt's ongoing transition to democracy.
"These elements have consistently worked to reverse the gains made by the Jan. 25 Revolution by sowing fear, chaos and fitna (discord) between different segments of society," Essam al-Arian, spokesman for Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement, told IPS.
In the first days of the 18-day uprising, the embattled Mubarak regime used its expansive state media machine to spread false news reports of murder and mayhem in hopes of terrorising the public and discrediting the revolution. It went so far at one point as to release convicted criminals from prison.
Mubarak, who relinquished executive power to Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in February, is now under house arrest, while his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has since been dissolved. Nevertheless, many political observers point to "remnants of the former regime" still actively working to maintain the Mubarka-era status quo.
"The counterrevolution is directed by regime holdovers, including security elements and hired thugs, along with certain politically-connected businessmen," Diaa Rashwan, assistant director of the Cairo- based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told IPS.
In an effort to destroy the national unity that had been an essential ingredient of the revolution's success, these elements - with help from the media - have tried to instigate sectarian conflict, say observers, especially between Egypt's Muslim majority and Christian minority.
On Mar. 4, for example, certain newspapers reported that several Christians had been killed after a church in the Atfeeh district south of Cairo was torched by a group of Muslims. Although the reports later turned out to be wildly exaggerated, they nevertheless resulted in violent clashes in which 13 people were killed - both Christians and Muslims - and scores injured.
"Media reports about the Atfeeh church incident were based on rumour and exaggeration intended to stoke sectarian conflict," Ammar Ali Hassan, director of the Cairo-based Centre for Middle East Studies, was quoted as saying in the local press. Hassan went on to accuse elements of Mubarak's now- dissolved State Security apparatus of being behind the incident.
Even before its demise, the Mubarak regime had long been suspected of instigating sectarian conflict for its own political ends. In the first week of February, information emerged suggesting that State Security had played a role in the bombing of a church in Alexandria last New Year’s Eve. At the time, regime officials had blamed the attack - in which 24 people were killed - first on "Al-Qaeda" and then on Palestinian groups.
Recent weeks have also seen an unprecedented rash of attacks on religious shrines revered by Egypt's Sufi Muslim community.
Although certain newspapers hastened to blame the attacks on Egypt's ultra-conservative Salafist movement, little if any evidence has been produced to this effect. Salafist leaders, meanwhile, strenuously deny involvement in the attacks and accuse the media of trying to fan the flames of conflict between the two sects.
"These crimes were not committed by Salafists, but rather by counterrevolutionary elements," prominent Salafist preacher Mohamed Hassan publicly charged on Apr. 20.
Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the Islamist Labour Party (who is not himself a Salafist), pointed in particular to one recent attack on a Sufi shrine in the city of Qalioub north of Cairo. "Although the attack was widely attributed in the media to Salafists, subsequent police investigations found that the perpetrators were hired thugs with no religious affiliations," Hussein told IPS.
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Even an official security source quoted earlier this month by IPS conceded that authorities could not rule out involvement in the attacks by "counterrevolutionary forces seeking to heighten sectarian tensions between Sufis and Salafists."
Observers have been quick to highlight the central role played by the local news media in exacerbating sectarian tensions.
"The counterrevolution is being aided by certain segments of the news media, which have been caught publishing false and potentially damaging reports on more than one occasion," said al-Arian.
Rashwan agreed, noting that "much of the news currently being reported by the local press on sectarian issues is based on rumour, innuendo and exaggeration." This state of affairs, he added, "has led many Egyptian commentators to accuse particular newspapers of promoting a counterrevolutionary agenda."
Independent political activist Abdelrahman Abu Zeid pointed to two prominent independent dailies, Al- Masry Al-Youm and Al-Youm Al-Saabaa, in particular. "Both papers, owned by business interests known for their closeness to the former regime, have actively contributed to recent incidents of sectarian unrest by twisting and exaggerating the facts," Abu Zeid told IPS.
Al-Masry Al-Youm is owned by a handful of prominent businessmen, including Sallah Diab and Coptic- Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris. Al-Youm Al-Sabaa's chief stakeholder, meanwhile, is the son of former NDP secretary-general Safwat Sherif.
Some political figures have also asserted that Egypt's counterrevolution was being aided by Israel, which had publicly described the Mubarak regime as a "strategic treasure."
In mid-April, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb, Egypt's leading religious authority, while visiting the district of Atfeeh, said: "The sectarian disturbances that happened here last month are the work of the Zionist state, which wants to break the region into small, ethnically-based statelets."
Hussein agreed for the most part, saying that, "along with remnants of the former regime, the counterrevolution also involves U.S. and Zionist elements." He added: "After the fall of their chief agents in the region - Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali - religious discord now represents their primary means of influencing events on the ground."
But according to al-Arian, such attempts to sow discord in post-revolutionary Egypt are destined to fail, "due to a new political awareness on the part of the public and the solidarity between all segments of the Egyptian people."
"The counterrevolution has already started to wane with the impending prosecution of Mubarak and his henchmen," said Hussein. "And with the democratic election of a new parliament and president, it can be expected to die out completely."
Egypt is scheduled to hold its first free parliamentary elections in September, to be followed by presidential elections shortly afterward.