Normally harmonious relations between Egypt's Muslim majority and its Christian minority have been shattered by two days of rioting in a poor section of Cairo.
The first sectarian rioting ever to erupt in the Egyptian capital was suppressed only after the minister of the interior threatened to shoot those responsible.
Tens of thousands of riot troops moved in to quell the violence that broke out in the working-class neighborhood of Zawia El Hamra last Wednesday evening. Using plastic shields, sticks, tear gas, and even armored cars, the specially trained police dispersed burning and looting mobs.
This journalist witnessed crowds of youths gathering in narrow streets to burn the belongings of Christians who lived in the predominately Muslim neighborhood. They danced around the bonfire triumphantly, sticks held high.
The mob dispersed only after a police advance. Behind them the rioters left piles of smoldering ashes and gutted shops. In other areas Christian mobs were taking similar vengeance on Muslim property.
The area quieted down after a tough speech to the Egyptian parliament in which Minister of the Interior Nabawy Ismail promised to "shoot at anyone who tries to exploit this tension."
At time of writing, police were sealing off areas and searching homes. Some 77 illegal firearms had been seized and some 200 suspects arrested.
The official toll following the two days of rioting was 10 killed and 54 injured. But independent hospital sources indicated that casualties may be considerably higher than government officials are willing to admit.
Violence erupted apparently after a Christian accidentally threw garbage on his Muslim neighbor's balcony. Insults were exchanged and bystanders became involved in a fight.
The Christian and Muslim communities in the area were already at odds over a 180-square-meter plot where Christians wanted to build a church and Muslims wanted a mosque. Apparently rumors began spreading about a Christian who opened fire on Muslims while they were praying at the site, and the situation deteriorated quickly.
Increasing extremism in both the Coptic Christian and Muslim communities puts the government in an awkward position. Tracts distributed by both sides' extremists threaten violence if their demands are not met.
Extremist Coptic Christians have been demanding a quota of ministers in government, a Coptic university, and Coptic television and radio programs.
Muslim fundamentalists already complain that Copts have too much influence. Although they represent only 10 percent of Egypt's population, in 1977 Coptic Christians succeeded in preventing the enactment of an Islamic law by calling a four-day nationwide fast.
Muslim fundamentalist groups are also concerned by the growing alliance between Egypt and the United States. They are suspicious that the US wants to destroy them for the sake of Christians in the country. One Muslim fundamentalist magazine, Al Itessam, has claimed that American aid to Egypt is conditional on Egypt adopting a birth control program for Muslims only.
Al Dawaa, another fundamentalist publication, reprinted a letter indicating that the CIA is conspiring to destroy Islamic groups in Egypt.
This extremism has been inflamed by both Coptic and Islamic religious revivals over the past decade. Egyptians increasingly look to the differences rather than the similarities between their faiths and make political demands based on these differences.
President Sadat is obviously concerned that the situation could escalate into a civil war if it is not handled carefully. As an alternative to fundamentalist Islam, Sadat preaches a moderate Islam emphasizing its tradition of religious tolerance. He concentrates on doctrinal similarities rather than differences between the two faiths.
Yet Sadat last year made it clear that he is "a Muslim ruler of an Islamic country" and will not accept extreme Christian demands that amount to an attempt to create "a state within a state." At the same time he has imprisoned a number of Muslim fanatics who had committed acts of violence.