Egypt's Bloody Sunday

by Mariz Tadros | published October 13, 2011

At first, it looked like a repeat of the worst state brutality during the January 25 uprisings that unseated the ex-president of Egypt, Husni Mubarak: On Sunday, October 9, security forces deployed tear gas, live bullets and armored vehicles in an effort to disperse peaceful protesters in downtown Cairo. Joined by Muslim sympathizers, thousands of Coptic Christians had gathered that afternoon in front of the capital’s state television and radio building, known as Maspero, and in many other parts of Egypt, to protest the burning of a church in the Upper Egyptian village of al-Marinab. A few days earlier, their initial demonstrations had also been met with violence.

What happened next, however, was worse than any single incident of state violence in January and February: Captured live by the cameras of the al-‘Arabiyya satellite channel, armored personnel carriers bearing army markings sped toward the protesters, at one point bumping cumbrously over curbs and a sidewalk, and crushed several people to death underneath their massive treads. By night’s end, 17 demonstrators were dead, and 300 more injured, some in critical condition. The death toll is now at least 25 and counting. Furthermore, the army’s claim to fame during the January-February popular uprising -- that it would not, under any circumstances, harm Egyptian civilians -- has now been given the definitive lie.

How it all started is hotly debated. At a press conference on October 12, representatives of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s de facto ruling authority since Mubarak’s ouster, insisted that the army did not attack first or even engage the demonstrators. Some SCAF defenders put forward the notion that the army did engage, but only because it was provoked by the assaults of the protesters. Others argue that “thugs” of unknown provenance infiltrated the demonstration to foment chaos and invite the army’s retaliation. Yet the overwhelming thrust of eyewitness accounts, from both Muslims and Christians, is that the army initiated the violence, first throwing stones, then wielding batons, then firing live ammunition, before taking the grim final step of grinding protesters into the pavement. Certainly, several protesters threw stones as well, but eyewitnesses are adamant that they did so in response to the bullets being shot at them.

Appearing on Al Jazeera on that bloody Sunday, Gen. Mahmoud Zahir of the Interior Ministry placed the blame squarely on the protesters’ shoulders. “Some incident worth less than three milliemes [pence, nearly worthless in today’s economy, 100 of which equal an Egyptian pound] in Upper Egypt and people congregate at Maspero,” he said, dismissive in his anger. Yet the tensions leading to the supposed three-millieme incident had been escalating for more than a month, with no government or SCAF remedy applied.

Churches Into Rest Stops

As usual with violence against Coptic Christians in contemporary Egypt, disputes emerge at the local level and then smolder until a national crisis erupts. The church burning in al-Marinab on September 30 is a case in point, both in terms of how it happened and why.

Probably the most accurate account of the events that led to the blaze in al-Marinab, near the town of Edfu in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost Nile province, is found in the report submitted to Prime Minister ‘Isam Sharaf on October 4, five days before the Maspero conflagration. The “justice and freedom committee” of the cabinet had charged a fact-finding commission with investigating the arson. The commission reported that the church’s license as a house of worship was valid and that the state had issued a permit to rebuild the church from the ground up, because it was too dilapidated for simple renovations. Hostile residents of al-Marinab, however, organized a protest against the church reconstruction, claiming that the structure was a private residence that had been used as a “rest stop” (istiraha). Further, they complained, the new steeple was 11 feet (or roughly three meters) taller than what the license allowed. Concurrently, the church leaders sent a copy of the license to the SCAF, asking the junta to intervene. [1] The generals did nothing. Rather than interpreting and enforcing the law, provincial authorities convened a “reconciliation meeting” for the village elders, Muslim and Christian, who agreed that the church would shorten its steeple and install no cross, bell or microphone at the top. Construction was brought to a halt, and a contractor was hired to knock a few feet off the steeple. But it was not long before a mob intervened to torch the church and several other properties belonging to local Christians.

The fact-finding commission submitted its report to Sharaf along with a series of recommendations: The governor of Aswan should resign; the arsonists should be tried; and the state should assume the expense of rebuilding the church. The prime minister took no action. The commission’s findings and recommendations were later published in the newspaper al-Yawm al-Sabi‘. [2]

The report did not include another set of facts, which have been documented elsewhere. [3] A local sheikh, who remains unnamed and thus unaccountable, stirred up worshippers against the church during his Friday sermon on September 30, likely goading them into launching the attack. The actual arsonists were held for a very short time and then released with fines of 500 Egyptian pounds (around $83).

The above account of the al-Marinab incident is not what Egyptians were reading in the lead-up to the Maspero demonstration, however. It is striking, indeed, that both state-affiliated and independent newspapers consistently misreported the circumstances of the church burning and its immediate aftermath, raising serious questions about the ethics (or perhaps the skills) of journalists in the post-Mubarak era and suggesting, again, that the SCAF’s penchant for censorship and press intimidation is on a par with that of the deposed regime. In the October 1 editions of the independent al-Misri al-Yawm and Nahdat Misr, as well as the official al-Ahram and the former opposition al-Wafd, front-page or page 3 stories evinced considerable empathy with Muslim villagers’ anger at the church’s purported “illegality.” The al-Ahram headline echoed the canard that the church was a “rest stop.”

As for the state, its sympathies were plain as day. Mustafa al-Sayyid, the governor of Aswan, appeared on state TV to deny that a church had been burned down. He repeated the line that the torched building was a “guest house.” Al-Sayyid said he had issued a permit for a structure 30 feet high, not the 42-foot edifice that was erected, and blamed the church leaders’ delay in addressing this alleged violation for causing the sectarian strife. [4] This statement threw fuel on the fire, prompting Copts in Aswan to demand al-Sayyid’s resignation in protests before the governorate’s main offices. The Gama‘a Islamiyya, one of Egypt’s most prominent salafi groups, stepped into the fray, pledging to intervene further if the SCAF bowed to Coptic pressure on the matter of the church. In his Friday sermon on October 7, Sheikh Khalid Ibrahim al-Kusi, amir of the Gama‘a, insisted that the Coptic Church apologize for a priest who had threatened SCAF head Gen. Husayn Tantawi with action should the church not be rebuilt, labeling the priest’s interjection as humiliation of a Muslim ruler by a non-Muslim subject. [5] The priest had said, “Tantawi knows well what we can do. We will show them a march that the country has never seen, ending inside Maspero.”

On October 4, around 10,000 Copts across the country began open-ended protests organized by the Maspero Youth and the Free Copts, two lay groups independent of the Coptic Orthodox hierarchy. In the capital, the protesters assembled at Maspero. An army unit deployed to the broadcasting headquarters assaulted eight protesters, sending two to the hospital in serious condition, including one young man beaten severely on the ground by a gang of soldiers. This youth’s ordeal was filmed and widely disseminated on YouTube. [6] The protesters made specific demands of the government: immediate restoration of the church in al-Marinab; the Aswan governor’s resignation; justice for those assaulted; compensation for Aswan Christians whose property was damaged; and a quota for Copts in the parliamentary elections coming up in late November.

The Politics of Deceit (or Denial)

The official reaction to the bloody Sunday of October 9 has been consistent with state responses to attacks on non-Muslim citizens in the Mubarak era. It can be summed up in three D-words: denial, demonization of protesters and (specious) distribution of blame equally among all the parties involved. Much of the Egyptian media and many important public figures have also reacted in one or more of these ways.

On the evening of October 9, Information Minister Usama Haykal went on the air to deny that the army had been involved in any act of aggression against protesters, even as al-‘Arabiyya broadcast pictures of the camouflage-painted army vehicles running down Maspero demonstrators at high speed. The SCAF released a statement expressing its condolences to the victims, but claimed no responsibility for the army’s acts, instead warning of plots aiming to create friction between the army and the people, in line with the diversionary tactics of the Mubarak years. Prime Minister Sharaf delivered a televised speech in which he also pointed to “hidden hands, domestic and foreign,” as drivers of the violence. (The Muslim Brothers later employed the same phrase in their first commentary on Maspero.) At a press conference held on October 12, the SCAF maintained its stance: Army officers and soldiers did not fire on the Coptic protesters. They did not even have live ammunition. A third party may be implicated. “We are not circulating conspiracy theories, but there is no doubt that there are enemies of the revolution,” said Gen. Mahmoud Higazi.

As for the seemingly obvious visual evidence of army involvement rocketing around the world on television and the Internet, the SCAF spokesmen offered a baroque non-explanation. It is against army doctrine, they said, for armored vehicles to run over human beings, even enemy soldiers in battle. The instances of crushing caught on film by cameramen were not “systematic,” and might have been the panicked acts of soldiers desperate to escape the roiling crowds. “None of you has experienced what it is like to face death,” Gen. ‘Adil ‘Imara told the journalists. An investigation, the generals promised, will show who was responsible for inciting the violence and firing the live rounds.

Initially, Haykal and state TV announcers claimed that army officers were also killed at Maspero. The October 10 headline of al-Ahram read, in part: “24 Soldiers and Demonstrators Dead.” One version of the reports that day claimed that three soldiers were among the dead. The SCAF denied that story, but kept mum about the number of army casualties or their identities. Many analysts therefore doubt that the army suffered any losses at all. At the press conference, the generals displayed fuzzy footage of a military policeman being stabbed.

Independent documentation of the violence, and grassroots fury among Copts, have been sufficient to push the Coptic hierarchy, usually loath to contradict the official narrative of sectarian incidents, into speaking out. On October 12, the day of the SCAF press conference, the Coptic Church’s Pope Shenouda broke his long silence about Maspero, pronouncing at his regular Wednesday audience that the protesters were peaceful and unarmed. For the first time in the church’s contemporary history, he continued, a single day’s events had produced 24 martyrs. The pope pointed out that forensic reports indicate that two thirds of the dead were killed by live ammunition, with the remaining third crushed to death. [7]

State-Sponsored Civil Strife

Before the denials, however, there were two immediate actions by the authorities as events unfolded that fateful Sunday night. The first was that the army stormed the offices of the two television stations whose personnel had managed to tape soldiers firing on the protesters, the Egyptian January 25 channel, set up by revolutionary activists, and the US-sponsored Arabic-language satellite network al-Hurra. The goal was to intimidate the stations into going off the air. At al-Hurra, soldiers carrying automatic weapons entered the studio while Cairo anchor ‘Amr Khalil was conducting an interview about Maspero. “I’m Egyptian, you guys! I’m Egyptian!” Khalil exclaimed as the noises of forcible entry were heard off-camera. The anchorman went on to explain to viewers that “angry” soldiers were searching the premises for “persons” who had done something wrong. “Maybe they’ll find someone in the couch,” he quipped before proceeding with his interview. [8] Soldiers also assaulted a news correspondent at the site of the protest.

The second action was to announce on state-run television that “Copts” had put the army itself in peril. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen read: “Urgent: The Army Is Under Attack by Copts.” The presenter called upon all “honorable citizens” to go to Maspero to help defend the soldiers. Around this time, a report was also circulated that that two officers had been martyred at Coptic hands. Viewers at home were not unmoved. Indeed, that evening, many residents of Bulaq and other nearby working-class districts armed themselves with clubs and other weapons, before heading off to Maspero to assist the army in beating up and even killing protesters. One corpse had its head split in two, clearly by a sword or another sharp instrument, not an army-issue weapon.

At its October 12 press conference, the SCAF stuck to its story that the protesters had placed the soldiers, and by extension the institutions of the state, in danger. The army spokesmen showed footage of the priest who had threatened the march on Maspero predicting as well that the Aswan governor would be killed if he were not dismissed. The carnage at Maspero could have been much worse, the generals claimed, were it not for the soldiers’ “self-restraint” despite their terror. “Thank God the soldiers didn’t have live ammunition or else it would have been a real catastrophe,” said ‘Imara.

The demonization of the Maspero protesters is partly in keeping with standard operating procedure for the Egyptian state in dealing with political dissidents, whether they are Copts, workers or youth activists. The state always presents itself as protecting a silent majority from an unruly few. When the dissidents are Christian, however, the demonization is served up with a twist: Copts are implicitly or explicitly depicted as lacking patriotism, even as traitors. This portrayal extends beyond the state into the wider public realm. When such groups as the Maspero Youth began to be active, prominent commentators did not celebrate Coptic agency independent of the church, but suggested that young Copts had become too big for their boots. [9] Worker protest is demeaned as “special-interest” pleading, but Coptic protest is denounced in stronger terms as divisive. This state of affairs persists despite the fact that Copts are not calling for additional rights, but simply for due respect for their citizenship and proper application of Egyptian law amidst a backlash targeting perfectly legal churches and other property, as well as people. The renowned Hasan Abu Talib, editor-in-chief of the prestigious annual al-Ahram Strategic Report, told al-‘Arabiyya said that the Maspero demonstrators had provoked the public sentiment against them by asking for international protection, though this request was nowhere on the protest’s agenda. The army and the January 25 revolution are “one hand,” and the army is the protector of Islam, Abu Talib continued, so Egyptians are bound to react negatively to such veiled criticism of the institution. The fact that the protesters made very specific demands for civil rights makes no difference to the perpetrators of such discourse, because protest under the banner of Coptic identity is seen as illegitimate.

On October 9, however, the SCAF and state media went well beyond the usual insinuations that protesting Copts are overly demanding, ungrateful or unduly provocative: The messages crawling along the bottom of the TV screen were an open incitement to civil war.

In the aftermath, the same thinly disguised gripes about the Copts have reappeared in the public arena. The Muslim Brothers, for example, issued a statement on October 10 beginning: “Does what happened last night at Maspero make sense? To those who took turns praying each Friday in Tahrir Square, with Christians pouring water for Muslims to wash with, to those who belong to two religions calling for love, peace, kindness and fairness? And all, supposedly, because of a small incident in the far south of the country?” “All the Egyptian people have grievances and legitimate demands, not only our Christian brothers,” the Islamists’ press release went on. “Certainly, this is not the right time to claim them.”

What is most disconcerting is that the deadliest clashes since the downfall of Mubarak have not been a wakeup call for the country as a whole. By and large, Egyptian public opinion is sympathetic (if quietly) to the army’s version of events and susceptible to believing that the army may have been, in some sense, the victim. Columnist Wa’il al-Sammari wrote that after the crowds had dispersed on that Sunday night, he strolled the streets of downtown Cairo and asked passersby what had happened. “Someone told me that 20 officers from the armed forces had been killed at the hands of Copts, and that they are determined to kill our officers so that we remain without protection,” he recorded. “When I told him that the army protects us all, Muslims and Christians, he said, ‘Are you asleep or what? The army is ours alone. As for the Copts, they are protected by America. And we will see: Us or America!’” [10] Al-Sammari found it particularly depressing that many of the youths who responded thusly were apolitical and did not seem to be especially religious. Many, indeed, had come downtown to defend the army and told the columnist that, if need be, they would fight the Copts to defend Islam. The comments posted after stories on Arabic-language Internet news sites very much suggest that the army’s narrative is widely trusted; several commenters express their outrage at Coptic belligerence and disrespect for the armed forces and Muslim society. On talk shows, callers take umbrage at the fact that Coptic protesters hold up wooden crosses. Almost all of them seem to be sure that the Copts attacked the army, a belief that the Internet images of flattened bodies seem not to have shaken.

The Question of Justice

Most political forces in today’s Egypt are wary of seeming to side with the Copts or acknowledging their grievances, in all likelihood for fear of losing popularity. Hence, like the weak transitional government, various parties jockeying for position in advance of the parliamentary elections have issued anodyne calls upon all parties to show self-restraint, lest an outbreak of sectarianism undermine the progress of post-revolutionary Egypt. Such equalization of responsibility obstructs movement toward a policy of zero tolerance for religious discrimination. When there is no perpetrator and no victim, but only two competing sides, the question of justice is sidelined. Some liberal thinkers and activists have pressed for measures of justice: accountability for the army officers who issued the order to fire; Information Minister Haykal’s resignation; and the sacking of the news team responsible for inciting sectarian violence on live television. These liberals, however, do not comprise an aggregate voice of adequate political weight. As for politicians, they may feel uncompelled to pursue the votes of Copts, who are, after all, a geographically diffuse 10 percent minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The equalization of blame also obscures the truth, meaning that the identity of instigators of sectarianism can remain concealed. The priority is to restore calm. The sheikh who preached arson in al-Marinab, the governor of Aswan who falsified information, the people from Bulaq and elsewhere who set upon protesters -- all fade into the background, as do calls to bring them to justice.

October 9 is not, in fact, the first date on which the army has discharged live ammunition at peaceful Coptic demonstrators. In March 2011, soldiers fired upon the garbage collectors of Muqattam, who were protesting the burning of another church in Sol, and other soldiers shot at monks at a monastery in February. The armed forces and transitional government have responded to Islamist attacks on churches and Christian-owned property with a collective shrug, either ignoring the incidents entirely or compounding the injustice by sponsoring “reconciliation committees” administered by salafi leaders whose discourse on non-Muslims in mosques has been deeply disquieting. [11] If there will be no accountability for Maspero, there certainly will be none for these earlier, comparatively local incidents.

Yet while political calculations may explain the muted reaction of most political forces to Maspero, what is less easily understood is the scale and ferociousness of the army’s attack and the accompanying sectarian propaganda.

According to the novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif, timing is key: “In the last two weeks Egyptian civil forces have finally come together and issued a unified statement to the military: We want a civil and representative government and we reject the emergency laws and trial of civilians in military courts. They have presented the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces with four possible detailed timelines that would see a civilian government in place and the military back to its barracks by mid-2012. And now this happens. So who wrote this latest episode? Who is working our perceived sectarian fault line to derail the revolution?” [12] By this interpretation, the SCAF stands to gain from inciting sectarianism, as a way of justifying the extension of its tenure in power. Since the fall of Mubarak, security has generally been so lax in the country that Egyptians yearn for a sense of stability and safety.

Another possible explanation is the apparent alliance between the armed forces and the Islamist movements. In return for the Islamist groups’ protestations of allegiance to the army, manifest in their refusal to take part in many of the million-person protests mounted by youth coalitions since February, the army has agreed to overlook Islamist involvement in sectarian attacks on Copts in communities across Egypt.

Whatever the motive, to usher in the SCAF’s long-term rule or to appease the Islamists, the army and the transitional government have so far been able to bank on strong anti-Coptic sentiment in society. As long as political figures and intellectuals insist that religious prejudice does not exist in Egypt, pointing the finger instead at “hidden hands,” the state will be able to mobilize the prejudice to its advantage. In the political configuration of post-Mubarak Egypt, public figures and activists who champion human rights for all, including non-Muslims, are more marginal than ever. Deputy Prime Minister Hazim al-Biblawi presented an offer to resign on October 10, telling a TV interviewer: “The government failed in its main responsibility, which is to provide security, and it should at least acknowledge its failure to give this issue the effort it needed and apologize.” The army promptly rejected the offer. Had Biblawi wanted to make a strong statement against the army’s violence, or in favor of Copts’ citizenship rights, he would simply have quit, without giving the army a chance to say no. With so much sectarian violence now videotaped and circulated by satellite television and social media, the problem is not lack of knowledge. It is whose version of reality is given credence -- and whose version Egyptians want to believe.

Meanwhile, it is important to recall that the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on January 1, and the countrywide Coptic protests that ensued, were precursors to pan-Egyptian uprisings that downed a dictator of 30 years. Could the church-burning demonstrations and their vicious suppression become the harbinger of another citizen-led upheaval? From the signs on the Egyptian street, only one thing is certain: The dust of Maspero has yet to settle.

Endnotes

[1] Ruz al-Yusuf, October 5, 2011.
[2] Al-Yawm al-Sabi‘, October 12, 2011.
[3] Al-Ahram, October 1, 2011.
[4] Al-Dustour, October 2, 2011.
[5] See al-Dustour, October 8, 2011 and al-Tahrir, October 8, 2011.
[6] The video footage of the beating is online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OAYMw25Q2U&feature=youtu.be&skipcontrint....
[7] Al-Dustour, October 12, 2011.
[8] Live footage of the army raid on al-Hurra is online at: http://inagist.com/SultanAlQassemi/123262745566117888/Video_of_Al_Hurra_....
[9] See Mariz Tadros, “A State of Sectarian Denial,” Middle East Report Online, January 11, 2011.
[10] Al-Yawm al-Sabi‘, October 11, 2011.
[11] See Mariz Tadros, “Sectarianism and Its Discontents in Post-Mubarak Egypt,” Middle East Report 259 (Summer 2011).
[12] Ahdaf Soueif, “The Attack on Egypt’s Christians Was Not Sectarian,” Guardian, October 10, 2011.

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