CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt's latest bloodletting between Christians and Muslims has many fearing an explosion of sectarian violence in the Arab world's most populous country, fueled by frustration with plummeting living standards.
Increasingly radicalized Muslims, facing growing unemployment, have found it easier to take out their anger on the small Christian minority than confront the government of President Hosni Mubarak, social commentators say.
"It's a war with ourselves, with fanaticism and hatred among the sons of this nation," said Mohammed El-Sayed Said, an Egyptian political analyst. "What makes things more dangerous is that it is that the poor and marginalized who have become part of these clashes, which gives it a popular depth that is hard to control."
The latest clashes erupted Friday with knife attacks at three Coptic Christian churches in the port city of Alexandria. Three days of rioting by Christians and Muslims followed. Two people — a Christian and a Muslim — died, at least 40 were wounded and more than 100 were detained.
"Egyptians have become Muslim or Christian first, they only become Egyptians first in football stadiums," said Sherif Youness in the Egyptian independent daily Al-Masry el-Youm.
Observers elsewhere in the Arab world blame the same religious extremism that fueled violence between Christians and Muslims during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war and the sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that plagues Iraq today.
"The strife didn't start yesterday in Egypt, or a quarter of a century ago in Lebanon, or three years ago in Iraq," columnist Khairy Mansour wrote in United Arab Emirates al-Khaleej daily. "The worm has been growing inside the apple, eating up most of its fabric."
Others argue the Egyptian riots had little to do with religion.
"Those who have been clashing with Copts are in general people who don't pray except Fridays (the Muslim day of prayer)," said Magdi Shandi, a columnist for the UAE government-owned al-Bayan newspaper. "Some have never set a foot in the mosque."
"Their motives arise from a deformed popular culture," he said. "They are the marginalized in society because of unemployment and economic hardships."
Mubarak's government contends that conflict between Egypt's Christians and Muslims is rare — the work of aberrant individuals. The government called the Muslim man arrested in Friday's stabbing of Coptic worshippers "deranged."
"Egyptian people don't distinguish between Muslims and Copts and no force can affect its national unity," Mubarak said Tuesday.
The opposition weekly al-Karama scoffed at the government's attitude. "Mubarak's regime is mentally deranged," it declared in a headline.
But Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik at Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's most important seat of learning, also had a dismissive reaction. "We can't say that all Muslims or all Christians are angels," he said, insisting religious differences were part of life.
Coptic Pope Shenouda III kept quiet about the riots and, as in past clashes, retreated to Wadi al-Natroun Monastery.
Strife between Egypt's Muslims and Christians is nothing new. The Copts, whose liturgy follows Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, were a majority in Egypt when the Muslim Arabs conquered it 1,400 years ago.
They now comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's 73 million people. Modern tensions are fueled in part by a perception among some Egyptian Muslims that Coptic Christians control an inordinate amount of wealth compared to their population.
In January, a Copt was killed in fighting with Muslims and police over an attempt to turn a guest house into an informal church without government permission.
In October, Muslim militants attacked churches in Alexandria protesting the distribution of a DVD they deemed offensive to Islam. Four people were killed in weeklong riots.
In reality, most Copts are not wealthy and many contend they have too little say in Egypt's political and social life. They complain especially of job discrimination in the high ranks of the civil service where positions such as general, provincial governor and faculty head are almost invariably held by Muslims.
Yet the church is partly to blame for fueling divisions, said Coptic political commentator Gamal Asaad Abdel Malak.
"The behavior of the Church has added to the tense atmosphere. It acts as a political representative and protector of the Copts as religious adherents but not as Egyptian citizens," he said. "That's antagonizing the extremists on both sides."