In Islamist Bastions of Egypt, the Army Treads Carefully, and Christians Do, Too

DALGA, Egypt — A convoy of more than a dozen armored police and army vehicles arrived here just before dawn on Monday, rolling into the rural village that has witnessed the most horrific sectarian violence in Egypt since the military’s ouster two months ago of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Among the damage, a 1,650-year-old monastery, its two churches and as many as 35 homes belonging to Christians have all been burned or ransacked.

But the security forces did not bring such heavy weapons to protect Christian residents. Interior ministry officials said the expedition was an attempt to capture a single fugitive Islamist, and it may depart soon. The overwhelming force, they said, was merely for self-protection: the surrounding province of Minya is still considered a bastion of Islamist support for Mr. Morsi.

The scale of the operation — including helicopters and scores of heavily armed troops, in a town with a population of 120,000 — was the latest indication of the challenge the government appointed two months ago by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi appears to face as it struggles to control the Islamist strongholds in rural southern regions of Egypt.

In Cairo, where Islamists were always weakest, the security forces have ridden a wave of public approbation as they have moved quickly to impose a tight lockdown on street protests. Demonstrators opposing the new government are ever wary, fenced in by security forces, harried by hostile residents and fearful of attack. But in Minya, the provincial capital, the situation is so starkly inverted that a visitor might almost think that Mr. Morsi was still president of Egypt.

Hundreds or even thousands of his supporters march through the streets for hours almost every night. Families parade infants on their shoulders, brigades of women march together and neighbors smile and wave from windows. Any who disapprove hold their tongues, aware they are outnumbered.

The security forces seldom venture beyond a tight ring of barbed wire and armored vehicles protecting the provincial headquarters. During a recent weekday evening protest, a lone police car waited patiently at an intersection for a parade of Morsi supporters several blocks long to make its way past. “Keep hoping, President, Sisi is a good donkey,” they chanted — a play on the general’s last name, which is the Arabic word for “pony.”

“This coup is not going to last for long, because it is committing suicide — it is clinically dying,” Galal Fahim, an Islamist, insisted confidently, smiling as he marched with thousands of others here in Dalga on Friday. The province, a center of the armed Islamist insurgency that flared up in the 1990s, voted two to one in favor of Mr. Morsi in the 2012 presidential election. And dozens of people were killed here last month in clashes with security forces on the day they also stormed two Islamist sit-ins in Cairo, killing nearly a thousand, according to a recent estimate by the interim prime minister.

But since then, Islamist leaders say, their demonstrations and marches have avoided the provincial government headquarters, and the security forces in turn have largely stayed put there.

Local leaders of the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, are all under arrest or in hiding. Provincial leadership of the Islamist opposition has passed to Gamaa al-Islamiya, a more conservative group that led the armed insurgency here in the mid-1990s but has since renounced violence. Members of the group organize and guide marches, passing out props like signs that depict protesters from Minya who were killed by the security forces.

Despite the crackdown the group’s leaders appear to operate freely out of their downtown office. “The people sitting in front of you have spent more than 20 years in jail, so what can happen to them now?” Rajab Hassan, 47, the group’s leader in southern Egypt, asked, gesturing with a smile to four colleagues on a couch.

In Minya, he said, the mass arrests and shootings of Islamists were only bolstering the opposition. “If the coup leaders think the anger is going to fade they are wrong, because we are gaining support every day,” he said.

Mr. Hassan denounced the violence against Christians. But Christians, who make up more than a third of the provincial population, say that unchecked sectarian violence underscores the relative impotence here of the government in the face of the Islamists’ strength.

Almost as soon as security forces began clearing the Islamist sit-ins in Cairo on the morning of Aug. 14, dozens of churches across the province came under a wave of retaliatory attacks, priests and residents said, while soldiers and the police did nothing.

The Rev. Samuel Aziz, 68, of the Anba Moussa church in Minya, was trapped inside as a mob attacked it, and he said the police initially called with an offer to send officers to sneak him out. But they quickly backed out.

“They were too weak and outnumbered,” he said in an interview after a Mass in a concrete basement with debris piled next to the altar. Both the basement and the burned-out sanctuary above it had been stripped of all metal, glass and even wiring by scavengers, and Father Aziz said the police had yet to return.

Priests and Christian residents in Minya and other towns said that over the three days beginning Aug. 14 Islamists were joined by apparently apolitical “thugs” who took advantage of the opportunity to loot churches as well as homes and businesses belonging to prominent Christians.

Nowhere was the violence worse than Dalga. Inside its Virgin Mary and Father Abraam monastery, looters ransacked its two churches, library and residences, stealing or destroying ancient books, relics and even a medieval baptismal font — again, stripping the walls of window glass, iron and even electrical wiring.

“Egypt is Muslim,” someone scrawled on the walls.

To escape intimidation by Muslim onlookers, a handful of Christian residents drove a reporter to a priest’s home one day last week to discuss the violence.

One resident, identified as Eskandar Tows, was killed while trying to defend his home with a gun, then dragged through the streets, they said. As many as 1,000 of the town’s roughly 20,000 Christians fled, they said.

The violence stopped but “fear and tension” remained, said the Rev. Abraam Tenesa, 47.

Christian residents said opportunists in the town had tried to demand money to protect local Christians from further attack, recalling a tax levied on Christians centuries ago.

“The thugs are asking for money for protection,” said the Rev. Yoanas Shawki, 33. The security forces met no resistance when they arrived early Monday, interior ministry officials and local witnesses said, although a resident said the police later used tear gas to disperse an afternoon rally. Ministry officials said the expedition was hunting Assem Abdel Maged, a veteran leader of the Gamaa al-Islamiya, so far unsuccessfully.

Magid Nessim, a Christian, said he feared the security forces might soon leave again. “There could be retaliation attempts against Copts,” he said, “from Islamists or other people who are angry now at the army’s presence.”