Why did the Egyptian Military Attack the Copts?

Monday saw clashes yet again between Coptic Christians and Egyptian police, when a crowd of mourners gathered outside a hospital where the bodies of some of the over 30 protesters killed Sunday night are being kept because relatives haven’t yet given permission for them to be sent for autopsies. The protesters threw stones at police. They were joined by a prominent woman protester from the New Left April 6 movement, Asma’ Mahfouz (a Muslim), who said she blamed the military for those killed in the Maspero district. Mahfouz has been calling for the officers to go back to their barracks, and was briefly jailed in August.

Al-Hayah writes in Arabic that thousands of Coptic Christians had marched on Sunday from the Cairo slum of Shubra to the area of the state television station, where they were attacked by soldiers in armored vehicles. Some 28 were killed, the bulk of them crushed by an armored vehicle, and dozens were wounded or arrested.

The demonstrators appear to have intended to camp out in front of the television station in the Maspero area, and presumably the military used such unusual amounts of force in an attempt to forestall the emergence of another ongoing Tahrir Square-type rallying point. The military may also have been angered by calls from the Coptic Christian crowds for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to withdraw and let civilians rule. Copts had been angered by military dispersal of an earlier protest, and a general feeling that the ruling officers are unsympathetic to their demands for more equality.

The current round of Christian protests was sparked by a Muslim-Christian dispute in the town of Mar Inabu near Edfu in distant Upper Egypt, over whether a storefront church there was properly licensed. The small Christian congregation of two dozen families in the town of 50,000 maintain that it it has been, for some time. Local fundamentalist Muslims argued that the building was not zoned for religious use but was rather a private apartment. The Christian attempt to build a second story over it with a dome was attacked by local Muslim fundamentalists. You wouldn’t think a dispute like that would be best resolved by burning down the church, but that is what the fundamentalist Salafis are accused of doing. The latter were taking advantage of the reduced presence of security forces in the new, revolutionary situation.

The conflict between the Salafis and the Copts in Upper Egypt is likely at least partly over class and status hierarchies. Although Coptic Christians are only 10 percent of Egyptians, they are a larger proportion of the population in Upper Egypt, and there some are part of provincial elites, being landowners or merchants.(I’m not saying this was the case in Mar Inab, just regionally). Many Salafis are working or lower middle class. Well-off minorities are often attacked by disadvantaged members of the dominant majority, in what might be called the Virgil Tibbs phenomenon.

Then the governor of Aswan more or less took the side of the fundamentalists, questioning whether the Copts had had the right to maintain a storefont church in the building.

But the conflict also cuts across religious divides, since many of the pro-democracy protesters of Muslim heritage are taking the Coptic Christians’ side against the authorities of Egypt’s interim government.

The important thing to note is that while one can understand Christian anger over the events in Mar Inabu, it is a tiny place way out in the boondocks, and what happened there is, while hardly unprecedented, not typical of the fate of Christians in Egypt. The Coptic Sawaris family, with more than one billionaire in it, did not get to where they are without partnerships and alliances with Muslim Egyptians. There is an open alliance, e.g., between Naguib Sawaris and Egypt’s Sufi orders, comprised of more open-minded mystical Muslims who reject Salafi fundamentalism.

The big question is why the military in Cairo responded so violently to the attempt to stage a sit-in at the television station. After all, there have been much bigger protests on many occasions since Hosni Mubarak stepped down, which have not been dealt with so brutally. There are only a few possibilities:

1. Relatively green troops went berserk on hearing from state television that the Coptic protesters were attacking military police (which was untrue before the military ran their friends over with tanks). State television is still full of Mubarak appointees and sympathizers.

2. The officers who gave the crackdown orders are tired of public protests and decided to send a signal that they should end, figuring that it was safe to crack down hard on a minority to make them an object lesson.

3. The officers deliberately wanted to divide and rule by distracting the public with sectarian tensions, as an excuse to maintain military rule.

The last explanation is the darkest, and one credited by many in the democracy movement. Personally, I think explanation 1) above is more likely.

In any case, it is not true, as Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said Monday, that sectarian issues are a threat to Egypt’s movement toward more democracy. The threat came from heavy-handed military intervention against demonstrators. This is proven by the solidarity of Muslim-heritage protesters with the Christian rallies. If the government had supported the rule of law in Mar Inabu and honored the right of peaceable assembly at Maspero, there would have been no crisis. Blaming the problems on religious tensions is just a way of muddying the waters. The problem is that authoritarianism, coddling fundamentalists, and heavy-handed military rule are incompatible with human freedoms.

13 Responses

  1. I wouldn’t think that scenario number 1 (green troops) is really very likely. In the past the military has always had good intelligence. The Midan al-Tahrir protests were thoroughly infiltrated from the beginning. Whenever the military broke up protests it was always with efficiency and without using live ammunition. In this case eyewitness accounts suggest that the security forces stood by passively while the military attacked. No rubber bullets were used. The demonstration was infiltrated with provocateurs, whose role effectively was to make it appear to the public (not to the army) that the soldiers were under attack. The videos of army vehicles swerving into crowds deliberately targeting civilians who were clearly not attacking those particular vehicles certainly don’t suggest that the military’s attack was in any way accidental. Also, state t.v. and allied private t.v. stations (including even OnTv, owned by Sawiris) issued a very coherent program of blaming the protestors. So, “green soldiers”? I think probably not.

    • Thanks a million, Walter! I wasn’t saying that the attacks on the Coptic protesters were accidental, but rather that they displayed an indisciplined anger deriving from the t.v. reports of attacks on military police. But you would know better about all this as a long-term resident in recent years and I am glad to defer. If it is #3 then it is very bad.

      • I too thought that it would have been soldiers losing their cool, but Heba Morayef, HRW’s Egypt researcher, told me yesterday that the military has a history of placing highly trained soldiers around Maspero and Tahrir precisely because they know it is such a sensitive issue. She said it was possible but unlikely that soldiers went off-orders out of rage.

    • As a foreigner who has had numerous encounters with plainclothes security forces in Tahrir throughout July, and was present at Maspero on Sunday, I wholeheartedly support Walter’s assessment. There were numerous provocateurs in the crowd who were harassing foreign and English-speaking journalists in an attempt to place the blame on “invisible hands”, as Sharaf accused in his speech on Sunday night.
      Also, the onset of violence was very abrupt; the crowd was peaceful and chanting, and moments later, the army were charging in with batons, with no apparent provocation. The marchers resorted to throwing rocks to defend themselves, and the army opened up with live ammunition without using rubber bullets at all. From the ground, Option 3 appears very clearly to be the rationale.

  2. I can put credence in the ‘green soldier’ theory, but I don’t see how they would have been affected by the media coverage. The latter may have had a big effect on getting neighborhood residents to come down to the streets – media called for citizens to ‘protect the army’ – but events with the soldiers happened right away. #2 is possible, and yes, #3 is scary. Perhaps even more scary is the possibility that the army itself is infiltrated, or some acted rogue. But all public statements by government and military refute the idea of delaying elections. I think this shows they were caught off guard, and reeling a bit.

  3. The taking sides of Egyptians with the copts across religions and special interests seems like a worrisome sign to me. After almost a year of unrest and protest, I don´t think they´d stick out their heads in unison like they do if it wasn´t in their own interest as well. For me, that´s a proof that they are angered by the arrogance of the army and worried what the military is actually up to.

  4. It seems inevitable that the Army would draw the line somewhere. It still dominates the economy, and I can’t imagine it willingly giving up its companies. If Egyptians keep poking into the details of how their economy got into its current state, the Army and its companies are bound to come out looking bad, and become the targets of populist redistribution. Something will be needed to put the brakes on.

    • Substitute Americans for your reference to “Egyptians . . . poking into details of how their economy got into its current state” and we have a remarkable systemic equivalence. But no surprise, Egypt is our neo-colonial baby.

      Naturally, our Secretary of State, Ms. Clinton, immediately came to The Mubarek Family’s defense, stating with pride the friendship between their families. Nor was it a surprise for the Vice-President of the United States of America, the Honorable Mr. Biden, to scold the world for referring to President Mr. Mubarek as a “dictator”.

      I too “can’t imagine it (US Military Industry) willingly giving up its companies”! There is Systemic Authoritarian Rot being exposed around our spinning globe. So let us give thanks to all the Brave Young People willing to be battered & pepper-sprayed be they in Cairo, New York or Athens (or any number of World Cities – Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu) for conscientiously demanding Political & Economic Democracy.

      Trans-national corporations have unknowingly opened the doors to Trans-National Citizenry. Something indeed “will be needed to put the brakes on.” Righteous populism when disrespected will rage.

  5. Interesting “western” analysis. Facts, army soldiers MPs had no ammunition, their tanks were left open so was their armored vehicles, in military terms:there were no per-notions to strike at innocent “protesters”. No one is addressing the synchronized marches in major cities in Egypt by the Copts and their alliances to protest the Church incident. Regardless, I argue that the “church” incident was just an enabling event. Again, regardless of who started what, the demands that surfaced after the incident were very revealing. For example talk about “securing” a quota in the would be elected parliament for the copts, appointing a christian general in the Military council. However, more curious was the organization of two conferences, public mind you, by ex-national party members to decry the intended law that prohibits their participation in future political life.
    In your post there were indications about salafis and fundamentalists and their role, one has to remember that fundamentalism and fanaticism is also practiced by the Church in many contexts. After all, the Coptic church at one time laid its cards on the would be heir, the now jailed Gamal Mubarak. This is the real fear of the clergy that they will lose power post the elections. In the past, similar to the Mubarak regime, the church also has married into big money.
    Finally, the army in Egypt is not like that in Pakistan, it doesnot have a grip on the economy as an institution.

  6. Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists’ statement on the massacre of Copts at Maspero

    Glory to the martyrs of Bloody Sunday
    Shame on the military and the reactionaries

    The Revolutionary Socialists send sincere condolences to the families of the peaceful demonstrators who were murdered by the bullets of the Central Security Forces and crushed by the military’s armoured cars after they came on the night of 9 October to defend the right of Coptic Christians to freedom and equality.

    The police repression of the demonstrations is an extension of Mubarak’s policies, just as it is a continuation of the policies of oppression of the Copts which goes hand-in-hand with a policy of divide and rule between Christian and Muslim working people, while the bosses and the military from both sides enjoy the fruits of their hard labour. And at the same time as these events, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has announced new decisions which will assist the followers of the old regime in their takeover of parliament, in order to tighten their grip once again.

    The goal of the counter-revolution led by the Supreme Council at this moment is to distract the masses in preparation for striking a blow at the revolution. The military’s crime is an expression of their fear, and the fear of their internal and external allies of developments in our continuing revolution.

    Over the last three weeks more than half a million working people, Muslim and Christian have joined the struggle, in the historic strikes by teachers, public transport workers, doctors, irrigation ministry workers and others. Muslim and Christian have been on strike together, and they have joined the sit-ins together. Sometimes they have faced repression, at other times they have been victorious. Their struggle has provided the finest examples of how to erase the false divisions which our exploiters impose on us for their own benefit.

    This coalescence between Muslims and Christians proves the interconnections between the struggle for social justice on one hand, side-by-side with our fight to defend full equality for the Copts and all the oppressed in this country.

    Meanwhile Mubarak’s generals continue to use the blood of the workers and peasants who fell in battle during their past wars with Israel to glorify themselves and their role in history. The truth is that the policy of the Military Council is an extension of Mubarak’s policy of weakness and subservience to the Americans and the Zionists. The generals have not taken any position against the continued aggression of the Zionists against our brothers in Palestine, or even over their killing of Egyptian soldiers. The Military Council responded with silence, and with the crushing of demonstrations demanding the rights of the martyrs.

    The perpetrators of the massacre at Maspero are not only those who took part in the killing in person; soldiers and those the military and the Interior Ministry like to call “honest citizens”, the thugs which the Interior Ministry put into action and some of the reactionary religious forces which spout sectarian rhetoric and whose followers are themselves directly involved in the crimes of burning churches and incitement to tear down buildings in the name of religion. They did not commit the massacre of Maspero on their own. Their accomplices are all those who published ‘facts’ in order to mislead the masses, all those who justified the slaughter in cold blood, and all those who refused to see that these are crimes against humanity and not only crimes against the Copts.

    We will continue to defend our revolution, and the people’s right to free expression, to protest, demonstrate and strike, in order to restore our stolen rights, and to cleanse the country of the roots of corruption, which is still poisoning our revolution and attempting to overturn it.

    In defence of freedom of expression, we declare our condemnation of the attack by the Military Council on the 25 January and Al-Hurra TV stations because they were broadcasting the massacres committed by the army and police that night.

    While we know that it will probably not wipe away the tears or quench the burning loss of a son or loved one last night, we swear to continue the struggle for the success of the revolution, so that our country can become a nation of equality, freedom and justice.

    The Revolutionary Socialists
    4am, 10 October 2011

  7. “The important thing to note is that while one can understand Christian anger over the events in Mar Inabu, it is a tiny place way out in the boondocks, and what happened there is, while hardly unprecedented, not typical of the fate of Christians in Egypt.”

    Mr. Cole seems to be trying to downplay the recent events and completely ignore the increased attacks on Copts, their churches and property within the last two years.

  8. If anything the Sawaris family is not typical of most Copts, many of whom are poor and experience discrimination on a daily basis. It is appalling that what they have to go through in order to build churches or worship freely. Protecting the freedom of religious minorities in Egypt is crucial. What happened in Aswan is indicative of a long-standing problem that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with honestly. The Copts have legitimate historical grievances. Anybody concerned with universal human rights needs to take them seriously.

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