By Kurt J. Werthmuller


Egypt’s new anti-discrimination law — hastily announced by the transitional government in the wake of an international outcry over the October 9 killing of 27 mostly Coptic protestors in Cairo’s Maspero district — is being put to the test. The brutal murder of a teenage Christian student in southern Egypt on October 16 illustrates the ongoing threat that Egypt’s Christian minority faces from growing religious extremism, including within its public school system, and the discriminatory denial of justice in cases involving religion.

Ayman Nabil Labib was a 17-year-old high school student in the Upper Egyptian town of Mallawi, in the governorate of al-Minya. Egyptian media reports have claimed that he was killed in a fight at school that had no religious overtones.

However, according to our trusted source who has asked to remain anonymous and who spoke directly with Nabil Labib Jaballah, the victim’s father, Ayman’s classmates claim that his Arabic-language teacher, Usama Mahmud Hasan, began insulting and harassing the teenager during class on October 16. He reportedly told Ayman to wipe off the cross from his wrist where, like the majority of members of the Coptic Orthodox community, he had a small tattoo of a traditional Coptic cross. When Ayman responded that the cross was a tattoo and therefore impossible to remove, and added that under his shirt he was also wearing a necklace with a cross, the teacher became incensed. Witnesses report that he turned to the other students and asked, “What are we going to do with him?” 

According to classmates, two fellow students, Mustafa Walid Sayyid and Mustafa Hasanayn ‘Issam, were prompted by Hasan’s words and began to strike Ayman. Then they led a group of about 15 students in eventually chasing Ayman as he struggled to escape, finally cornering him in a bathroom. At that point, two school supervisors, Tahir Husayn and Muhammad Sayyid, reportedly forced Ayman into a teacher’s room, which provided the assailants with privacy. There the group murdered Ayman: His body allegedly showed marks of strangulation and having received a heavy blow to the head with a sharp object. His death certificate only specifies “a severe loss of circulatory and respiratory functions” as the cause of death, adding that “the condition is under investigation.” 

According to Ayman’s father, both in our source’s interview and in a corresponding one recorded by Copts United, a number of students who were eyewitnesses to the attack on his son told him that they are afraid to confirm these allegations on record, out of fear of retaliation from the teachers and the families of the accused students. Thus, who actually killed Ayman is not known, though it is clear that the teacher, both supervisors, and the 15 students were all complicit. Ayman’s father admits, “In the midst of all this, I still don’t know who really killed my son, and why he was pulled to the teacher’s room and finally killed there.” This ambiguity, weeks after the incident, gives urgency to the call for a proper investigation.

Egyptian authorities initially responded by questioning the two student ringleaders, Sayyid and ‘Issam, and subsequently charging them with murder. The governor of al-Minya, the local police chief, and officials from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (the ruling military authority, or SCAF) also visited Ayman’s family, who were receiving visitors at the office of the Coptic Orthodox bishop after their son’s funeral.

However, the teacher, Hasan, who incited the attack, and the supervisors, Husayn and Sayyid, who actively abetted the murders and may themselves have had a direct hand in the lethal violence, have not been arrested. These adults, who are public employees and whose actions led to Ayman’s death, have so far gotten off scot-free: The Assyrian International News Agency reports in its own account that although al-Minya’s governor referred these individuals to investigators, they have simply disappeared. None of the other students involved have been charged either.

In the days after the Maspero massacre, where military troops opened fire and deliberately ran over Coptic protestors with armored trucks, the Egyptian government tried to shore up its battered reputation by passing an anti-discrimination law that explicitly forbids discrimination on the basis of religion. But if the Egyptian authorities do not pursue justice for the school employees who incited and abetted Ayman’s murder, it will reveal that the government is continuing a policy of impunity for those who threaten and harm Egypt’s already anxious Copts.

This latest murder and the apparent failure of Egyptian justice have drawn little attention even within Egypt, where authorities have insisted that there was no sectarian dimension to this murder, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The United States and Egypt’s other allies must pressure the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to demonstrate its claims to be serious about protecting the country’s Coptic minority by pursuing a thorough and immediate investigation into all parties who may been involved, including Usama Hasan, Tahir Husayn, and Muhammad Sayyid of Mallawi. This investigation must include direct eyewitness reports from Ayman’s classmates and others who were present in the school, with clear guarantees of protection from retaliation from other teachers or school officials.

During its uneasy ten months in power, the response of Egypt’s transitional government to attacks on the nation’s Coptic minority has been haphazard at best and complicit at worst, as in its role in the Maspero bloodshed on October 9. Its failure to pursue a thorough and fair investigation for the tragic murder of Ayman Labib will only reinforce this precedent of impunity, at a time when the nation’s downward spiral of religious intolerance is drawing the world’s attention. The SCAF should be looking for every opportunity to prove its critics wrong. Unfortunately, this case may yet confirm instead that its new anti-discrimination law is, in fact, only a public relations ploy.

— Kurt J. Werthmuller is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom

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