CAIRO, Egypt — When a pregnant Egyptian woman fell victim to the hatred of a white supremacist in Germany last week, no one expected her death to resonate outside of a small circle in her hometown of Alexandria.
But it has done more than resonate: It has set off shockwaves of protests and brought to the surface Egyptians’ deepest insecurities based on a history of tension with the West.
Marwa al-Sherbini, 32, was testifying in a Dresden courtroom last Wednesday against 28-year-old "Alex W.," whom she had successfully sued for insulting her in a playground for wearing a headscarf. Alex W., so named by the police, was appealing the 780 euros in damages the court awarded Sherbini when he launched himself at her, stabbing her 18 times before security forces could intervene.
Sherbini's husband, who scrambled to his wife’s aid, was also stabbed, and police accidentally shot him in the leg. He remains in critical condition.
Sherbini had reportedly lived in Dresden since 2003 with her husband, Elwi Ali Okaz, a genetic engineer who reportedly was just about to earn his Ph.D. The couple had a 3-year-old son and were believed to be planning to return to Egypt at the end of the year. They were expecting a second child in January.
German authorities were quick to argue that such attacks are not representative of German sentiment toward Muslims. “This incident does not represent a trend or current in Germany,” said German ambassador to Egypt Bernd Erbel.
But as Sherbini’s body arrived back in Alexandria late Sunday night, it was clear that the killing had touched a deep nerve in Egypt.
“I hold the German government wholly responsible for the death of my sister,” Tarek al-Sherbini, the victim’s brother, told local television early this week.
“We will avenge her killing,” he told The Associated Press. “In the West, they don’t recognize us. There is racism.”
Outrage over Sherbini’s death has spilled onto the streets of Egypt’s two largest cities.
Thousands took to the streets in Alexandria for her funeral.
“There is no god but God and the Germans are the enemies of God,” mourners yelled.
On Tuesday, a small but vocal crowd gathered in front of the German Embassy in Cairo, chanting anti-Western slogans and accusing Germany of negligence.
Erbel met Sherbini’s casket at the Cairo airport, but that has done little to blunt a harsh range of criticisms both in the Egyptian media and on the streets.
Though at the heart of the Middle East, Egyptians have long felt themselves politically squeezed between East and West. This latest outrage is a manifestation of long-held suspicion towards the West. It may also be a reaction to criticism from much of the Arab world that Egypt has aligned itself too closely with the U.S. and Israel.
Some of the protesters in Egypt have decried what they call a double standard in Western-Arab relations.
“What would Germany do if it had been a German woman?" yelled one man at the German Embassy protest.
Local media has noted the outrage in the West following the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh by a Muslim extremist in Amsterdam in 2004.
Others who took part in the protests criticized the fact that the assailant was able to stab Sherbini 18 times before being apprehended. Security forces wouldn’t have moved so slowly, they said, if the victim had been white.
Since the presidency of Anwar Sadat, in the 1970s, the Egyptian government has firmly aligned itself with the U.S. and has also often found common interest with Israel.
As a result, Egypt has come under harsh criticism from many corners of the Arab world. Egyptian relations with Syria, Hamas and Iran are notably cool, but the country has also drawn criticism from more moderate regional factions.
More problematic for the Egyptian government, perhaps, is that its relationship with the West has provoked backlash from the Egyptian people themselves.
The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist party within Egypt, controls one-fifth of the Parliament on a platform of social welfare and anti-Western sentiment. It led the protest in front of the German Embassy this week.
In another sign of growing disillusionment with the government’s relationship with the West, Egyptians protested their country’s tacit support of Israel in its war with Gaza this January.
The Egyptian government has found it increasingly difficult, in the polarized relationship between East and West, to maintain strong economic and political ties to the West while continuing to hold onto its traditional leadership role in the Arab world. And the Egyptian people, fearing the government has veered too far to one side, are responding.
Sherbini’s murder has brought the expression of those tensions onto the streets.