Pent-up Rage

For over a week one issue has dominated the Egyptian media, an issue which has provoked rage, despair and profound shock amongst the population: the murder of the thirty-two-year-old Marwa al-Sherbini at the beginning of July in the regional courtrooms of Dresden, Germany

photo: AP
Amazement and outrage: more than a thousand people took part in the funeral procession for Marwa al-Sherbini who was killed at the Dresden regional court on Monday

​​Since the attack on Marwa al-Sherbini, on the front pages of all the major Egyptian dailies, in the internet and on TV, the talk here in Egypt has been of alleged Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims in the West.

A coloured illustration on the front page of the opposition-friendly Egyptian paper Al-Dostour, best shows how deep many Egyptians' anger runs; it shows a man shouting, holding an unsheathed knife in his right hand and attacking a woman with it.

Another man comes running from behind to throw himself between the attacker and the screaming woman. In the background sits the judge, his mouth open, while a policeman points his gun at the attacker. It is a dramatic scene, like something from a second-rate movie, but sadly it became reality.

Brutal murder

The twenty-eight-year-old Axel W, a Russian immigrant of German descent, stabbed the defenceless woman eighteen times. Her three-year-old son was forced to witness the murder, along with her Egyptian husband, who was also seriously injured. Not only did he receive stab wounds, he was also shot at mistakenly by a policeman who appeared to have mistaken him for the attacker.

Marwa al-Sherbini, a pharmacist who was three months pregnant, died from the wounds while still in the courtroom. The motive for the brutal murder was clearly the Russian-German man's racism. The state prosecution in Dresden spoke of a "xenophobic attack by a fanatical, lonesome wolf".

photo: Amira El Ahl
For days the murder of the young pharmacist from Alexandria has occupied papers loyal to both government and opposition

​​Axel W's xenophobic, racist remarks were what led to the court case at the end of which Marwa al-Sherbini was so tragically killed. Last year he had verbally abused al-Sherbini on a children's playground, calling her an "Islamist", "terrorist" and a "whore".

Al-Sherbini, whose husband Elwi Ali Okaz was undertaking research for his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics took Axel W to court, and in November he was ordered to pay a 780 Euro fine. It was during the court case for his appeal against the fine this July that he made the fatal attack.

Mourning and protest

Al-Sherbini's body was taken back to Cairo last Sunday evening. Hundreds of people were already waiting at the airport to pay their respects. Thousands came to her funeral last Monday in Alexandria, her hometown.

Demonstrators gathered in front of the German embassy in Zamalek, an up-market district of Cairo. "Terrorist, Terrorist," chanted the women, referring to Axel W, "I will never take off my veil!" Others shouted, "there is no god but God, and the Germans are our enemies!" Some demonstrators demanded retribution, and the death penalty for "the terrorist", as he is known in the press.

In Egypt, shock and outrage over the young mother's death are coupled with anger at the apathy of the western media towards the attack. The blogger Bikyamasr, for instance, writes: "Western media are unable to write that an Arab woman has become the victim of an act of violence fuelled by hatred, because that contradicts everything they stand for; the Arabs are the enemy."

In another blog, Hisham Maged asks the question many Egyptians are asking: what would happen if a pregnant German woman was stabbed to death in Egypt?

For many Egyptians it now seems clear that Muslims are discriminated against in the west on the basis of their religion. Marwa al-Sherbini was attacked and killed because of her headscarf, the hijab.

A "headscarf martyr"

Al-Sherbini's mother told the opposition-friendly newspaper Al-Wafd that her daughter had had problems finding a job in Germany because she wore a hijab. Now she is being honoured in Egypt as the "headscarf martyr".

photo: dpa
The murdered woman, Marwa al-Sherbini, was the mother of a three-year-old child and in her fourth month of pregnancy. Her husband was also severely injured in the attack by the Russian immigrant of German origin

​​Marwa's brother, Tarek al-Sherbini, even goes so far as to say that her husband was shot deliberately, because he was not blond. "The guard no doubt thought that because he wasn't blond he had to be the aggressor," he said on Egyptian television.

Germany's ambassador to Egypt, Bernd Erbel, is making conspicuous efforts to counter these prejudices and pour oil on troubled waters. In interviews, speaking fluent Arabic, he repeatedly emphasised that this was a case of an act by an individual: "The incident in no way reflects German feelings towards Egyptians in general. Muslims are highly respected in Germany."

The fact that Erbel travelled personally to the airport to receive Al-Sherbini's body and express his condolences to the family was well received in the Egyptian press. He is calling for a tough sentence, but continues to point out that people of various religions and cultures live together peacefully in Germany.

Criticism of the Egyptian government

Many people in Egypt are asking why the chancellor, Angela Merkel, has not made an official apology, but they have also criticised their own government heavily, during demonstrations and in the media.

"When the national football team returned from South Africa they were met at the airport by Gamal Mubarak," says one demonstrator. "Where was he on Sunday, when Marwa al-Sherbini's body arrived there?"

The foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit is being accused of failing to represent either the interests of al-Sherbini's family, or of Egypt. In the government-loyal daily paper Al-Ahram, the parliamentary president, Fathi Surour called for a change to the law, allowing criminals such as Axel W to be brought before courts in Egypt. "We have to be able to protect our citizens abroad," explained the parliamentary leader.

Germans living in Egypt find that people frequently want to discuss the events in Dresden with them. Egyptians want to talk about the murder, but also to try and understand how such an act could have taken place in a courtroom in Germany.

"My fellow students soon realise that the man was simply mad," says a twenty-eight-year-old German MA student at the American University in Cairo.

Despite this, one question remains hard for the German woman to answer: how was this madman able to stab the Al-Sherbini eighteen times without someone in the courtroom intervening?

The other unspoken question, which however hangs in the air according to the student, is: was it because of lax security tacitly assumed to be acceptable when dealing with Muslims because they are not particularly liked anyway?

Prejudices about the life of Muslims in the west

During all the many conversations Germans have held with Egyptians in recent days it has also become clear that there are enormous prejudices and gaps in their knowledge about the life of Muslims in the west.

"It is mostly concerned enquiries about how safe it is for Muslims," says the student. For many it is a surprise that nearly 3.5 million Muslims live in Germany alone, that they are free to practice their religion and that there are mosques in all the major cities.

Just as the image of Muslims as terrorists who suppress their womenfolk and keep them veiled is maintained by the western media, many Egyptians believe that Muslims in Europe are repressed and discriminated against on the basis of their religion.

The case of Marwa al-Sherbini clearly shows how much serious prejudice and misunderstanding about the other's culture exists on both sides, and how much cultural exchange and work towards mutual understanding still has to be done.

Amira El Ahl

© 2009

Amira El Ahl was foreign correspondent for SPIEGEL in Cairo for two years. Since 2008 she has been a freelance reporter in the Middle East.

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