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.