Egyptian Copts protest in Cairo
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Holding Accountable Those Who Engendered Violence In Egypt
By Michael Jansen
The eruption of violence in Egypt on Sunday was predictable. The clashes were part and parcel of the protracted struggle for Egypt, waged by the country’s democratic revolutionaries and the army high command, which has been in power for nearly 60 years and is determined not only to stay on but also to protect its political and commercial interests.
Several thousand Copts and liberal Muslims were assaulted by “thugs” - armed men in civilian clothing many Egyptians suspect belong to the internal security apparatus - Sunday evening during a peaceful march from the Shubra district of Cairo to the state television headquarters on the Nile corniche. The march had been called to protest the torching of a Coptic church in the southern province of Aswan on September 30.
As the Shubra marchers joined hundreds of Copts and Muslim supporters holding a candlelight vigil in front of the television building, armoured vehicles charged them, troops opened fire, and extremist salafists attacked with staves and broken bottles. At least 26 were killed and more than 300 wounded, some critically.
There were disturbances in Alexandria and two other Egyptian cities as well. This was the worst violence seen in Egypt since the uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak on February 11.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed presidential power after Mubarak’s removal, condemned the violence and called for an investigation, and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf hinted about the involvement of dark external forces and internal meddlers when he spoke of a “despicable conspiracy against Egypt”, instigating Muslims against Christians and the people against the armed forces.
However, many Egyptians argue that the conspiracy is, in fact, being hatched against the revolution by the SCAF, which has managed the transition to democracy according to a schedule that could keep the generals in charge at least until 2013 and perhaps beyond.
Egyptians who hold to the second conspiracy theory point out that Sunday’s clashes were carefully orchestrated. The “thugs” were pre-positioned to attack the Shubra marchers as they walked under a flyover and the official media was put into play. State television laid the blame for the violence squarely on the shoulders of the Copts.
But Copts were not alone in the protest. They were joined by moderate Muslims who agree with the Copts that since the ouster of Mubarak, the military has failed to reimpose order and to tackle rising ultra-orthodox salafist extremism.
Muslim-Christian cooperation seems to be viewed with suspicion by the SCAF, particularly because Egypt’s revolutionaries from both communities have grown highly critical of the military’s handling of the transition.
By making common cause, Copts and Muslims foil efforts undertaken by remnants of the Mubarak regime and, perhaps, some elements in the military, to sow sectarianism and divide the country’s two main communities, a strategy long used by Mubarak himself, one the revolutionaries had hoped had been abolished since his overthrow.
During the clashes, state television announcers also called upon Egyptians (Muslims) to go down to the streets to defend the troops who were not really in need of protection. Bikers from the slum district of Boulaq joined the mayhem, worsening the violence and prompting attacks on Coptic businesses and the Coptic hospital where many of the dead and wounded had been brought.
Some Egyptian commentators hold that the army will use the clashes to keep the 1981 emergency law in place and, perhaps, even to elaborate on its provisions. The military has already made clear that those charged with inciting riot and committing violence on Sunday will face military trials, although SCAF head, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, had promised these would come to an end. SCAF had also said that the emergency law would be lifted ahead of the parliamentary election campaign which began with the registration of candidates yesterday.
Egyptian human rights activist Gamal Eid pointed out: “The army was very violent in dealing with these demonstrations… and [the soldiers] were being very violent as they know they will not be held accountable and will use such protests to increase repression in Egypt.”
It is significant that Alhurrah television channel was ordered to halt live coverage of the clashes since they showed armoured cars targeting protesters, some of whom were run over and crushed to death while others died of gunshot wounds.
The arson attack on St. George’s church, one of several since the uprising, was followed by a statement from the Aswan governor who said that the church had been built without the appropriate permits. This is a burning issue with Copts, which should have been resolved long ago - and certainly since the uprising.
During British colonial rule, a measure was adopted specifying that churches - but not mosques - had to have permits from the executive as well as planning permission from the local authorities. Since the Egyptian president rarely signed such permits, the Copts were compelled to build churches without permits or to camouflage churches as community centres. St. George’s was a shopfront which had a congregation of some two dozen families.
Copts, however, have not always been the wronged parties in confrontations with Muslims and communal confrontations have often sprung from family quarrels and land disputes which, if between members of the same faith, would not result in sectarian problems.
Egypt’s democratic politicians renewed the demand, made soon after the uprising, for power to be transferred to a civilian council until parliamentary elections and presidential elections are held, and the constitution is rewritten. It can be expected that this call will become a clarion call if no independent investigation is made into Sunday’s clashes and officers who ordered the soldiers at the television headquarters to use force against protesters are not made accountable for their actions.
This should be true also for the “thugs” and armed elements who infiltrated the peaceful protesters or attacked them.
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 13/10/2011