08/20/2012 04:26 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Protracted Sectarian Conflict in Egypt Can't Be Fixed With Knee-Jerk Reforms

If patience is a virtue, committing long-term to the gradual reform of Egyptian society so that it embraces both Muslims and Coptic Christians equally is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The recent clashes in the village of Dahshur, just south of Cairo, between the supporters of a Coptic laundry worker and a Muslim patron whose shirt he burned with an iron serve as another reminder of the need to devise homegrown strategies for tackling sectarian violence in Egypt. Moaz Mohamed, a Muslim, eventually succumbed to the severe burns he sustained from a Molotov cocktail, and violence resumed once again in the aftermath of his funeral, this time against the security forces protecting the village's Mar Girgis Church. 120 Coptic families have also been compelled to flee Dahshur, which the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Goma'a, has claimed was done voluntarily to deescalate the violence in their village and has urged Muslims to provide these Copts with protection as they return to their homes.

Whether religion was the source of these confrontations or they were fundamentally acts of criminal behavior that have been couched in religious parlance becomes moot when we consider that evidently the irenic religious values of both Christianity and Islam were not communicated effectively and embraced profoundly enough to prevent this violence in the first place or offer nonviolent alternatives.

Indeed, the complexity of such noxious incidents as this one suggests the need to considerably rethink the one-dimensional reliance on both internal and external pressure to invigorate Egypt's commitment to religious freedom.

Among the myriad reforms under consideration in Egypt today, Article 2 of Egypt's constitution, which cites the principles of Shari'a as the main source of legislation, and a proposed new article that obligates all Egyptians to pay the Islamic zakat -- alms that benefit the poor -- have received a lot of attention in the past few days. Bishop Paul of Tanta, a Coptic representative on Egypt's Constituent Assembly, has recently added his voice to the choir of human rights activists who believe that a new statement should be affixed to Article 2 that safeguards Coptic autonomy over their religious affairs in no uncertain terms, which presumably includes their choice to either pay or withhold the zakat.

Even if well-intentioned and highly suitable in ideal political conditions, these provisions unsheathe a double-edged sword: while it is true that they may provide a legal framework that encourages government officials to take measures to prevent discrimination against Coptic Christians, especially under the watchful eye of locally placed human rights organizations and other NGOs, they may also counterintuitively embolden extremists who disagree with increasing the civil rights of Copts in equal measure to those of Muslims, thereby intensifying the persecution that these measures sought to undermine.

Given the yet untested political fortitude of policy-makers during this unprecedented episode in Egypt's history, it is also past time that the more mature Western democracies withhold their interference in Egypt's internal affairs using public channels.

When the U.S. State Department issues a statement, as it did a couple weeks ago, that denounces "both the Egyptian government's failure to curb rising violence against Coptic Christians and its involvement in violent attacks" in such a visible and public forum, as laudable as these indictments might appear on the surface, it only complicates matters even more. And, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserts that religious freedom in Egypt -- which debuted on the list of "countries of particular concern" in the 2011 International Religious Freedom Report -- is "quite tenuous," Egyptians worry how this and similar assessments might hit their country's threadbare pocketbook.

Two reasons that Western governments should temper their pious platitudes against Egypt's track-record are worth considering: first, these denouncements on behalf of Egypt's Coptic community only confirm the suspicions of extremists, real or imagined, that Copts have been colluding with U.S. foreign policy-makers, against whom widespread rebuke is axiomatic in Egyptian society. Second, these denouncements could put the constitutional enshrinement of Coptic religious self-governance in jeopardy, as ensuring their rights might give the impression to the Egyptian electorate that the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly bowed to American pressure -- always a bad thing in Egypt. This doesn't mean that such measures should not be taken in some form, but that the United States should tailor its actions and words -- stressing self-restraint and back-channel engagement -- to account for the current volatility of the Egyptian political landscape.

What's more, there's a precedent of Coptic disapproval of the United States' meddling in Egypt's internal affairs, even when their goal is to improve Coptic fortunes. Such hostility toward American interference was on display in 1998 when the U.S. Senate ratified the International Religious Freedom Act, which allowed Congress to reduce the $2 billion in foreign aid to Egypt if it did not take action to curb religious discrimination and contain sectarian violence. Although the American Coptic Association successfully lobbied the Senate appropriations subcommittee to tie the entirety of the $2 billion to the Egyptian government's improved respect for Coptic Christians, this was met with strongly-worded objections by prominent Coptic political and religious leaders living in Egypt, from Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the nephew of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to Pope Shenouda III.

In this case, the Coptic community demurred over the negative impact that a loss of $2 billion in foreign aid would have on Egypt's fragile economy, which would amplify the adverse socio-economic conditions that tend to inflame violence. If Coptic Christians were identified as the orchestrators of such a duplicitous strategy, they'd be the first to feel the fury of Egyptian extremists who could view the economic pillory of their homeland as an affront to Muslim society.

These possible scenarios undermine the desired outcomes and are more about muscle-flexing by Western democracies than clear-thinking consideration of the complexities of human behavior, the nature of Egyptian political and cultural sensitivities and the need for gradual democratic reform, thereby subverting the legitimate internal, private channels for positively reforming policies and attitudes so they more willingly affirm religious freedom. Indeed, good things will come to those who wait in eager -- yet reflective and purposeful -- anticipation of an Egypt with "Muslim, Christian, one hand," as the Maspero demonstrators had courageously proclaimed almost one year ago.

Andrew P. Klager teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, BC, Canada.