Cairo’s streets were on fire again on Sunday evening after a protest march headed towards the Egyptian television broadcasting building known as Maspero. As the march from Shubra, a majority Christian district inCairo, neared Maspero the army met them with violence. In doing so they may have opened a Pandora’s box of renewed sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians.
On 30 September and in the latest in a series of sectarian assaults, a church in Edfu near Aswan was destroyed apparently because the church was rumoured not to have the correct permit to be used for prayer. The incident swelled the numbers of Copts and Muslims already holding a sit-in in front of Maspero but they were forcibly disbanded by the army on 5 October. But anger and frustration were not dispersed.
In the week leading up to 9 October there had been a heated debate over the right of Copts to protest publically for their rights. A consensus of the comments on social media and online articles expressed anger that Coptic protests were blocking public areas and condemned Copts for seeking their own interests.
Such criticism was not levelled at demonstrations held by doctors or bus drivers or any other groups. This suggests that for some Egyptians sectarian violence is seen as a purely ‘Coptic problem’ and not a legitimate part of the movement that seek to shapeEgypt’s political transition.
In the past the Copts might have indeed taken their grievances to the Church but the striking increase of violent attacks on Christians and churches have raised tensions to a point that they cannot be absorbed and managed by the Coptic Patriarch alone any longer. Religious discrimination is a national issue, not one for Copts to accept or address alone.
Copts had already begun to take to the streets in protests in November 2010 after the licence for a church inGizawas refused by the local governor. The crisis of the bomb attack on a church in Alexandria on 1 January 2011 killing 23 compounded Coptic frustrations. Now, in this new environment of post-Mubarak Egypt, public demonstrations have become the norm for expressing criticism and Copts, like Muslims, aspire to be heard in their national Egyptian public space and protected by their government. But they face a series of barriers.
The Salafist al-Jama’a al-Islamiya released a statement on 6 October, in which they criticised Copts for holding strikes and fabricating incidents in order to seek foreign support and obtain “rights they don’t deserve”. It is groups like these and such statements that many believe are stirring up sectarian discord. And they have been given space to do by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Since the SCAF took power in February, the number of attacks on churches has increased dramatically. In a report by the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights into the burning down of two churches in Imbaba on 7 May, they found that army forces were present while Islamists were attacking the churches and Christian-owned properties. Yet they failed to intervene for the first 10 hours of the assault.
State media also remains dangerously biased in its reporting of sectarian incidents. Reports that army vehicles deliberately ran over protesters circulated all over Twitter and Facebook. Yet state media constructed an entirely different picture. They failed to report the rising numbers of Copts killed in the clashes, while repeating the reports that three soldiers had been killed.
Thugs who reportedly gathered in the district of Boulaq with sticks and swords to join the army against the protesters were praised by the Egyptian Satellite Channel “for the defending the army and forcing the Copts to retreat”. Early reports on al-Arabiya used the same language, describing the clashes as between Coptic protesters and the army provoked by Coptic protesters.
At the same time independent television channels such as pro-revolution Channel 25 were stormed by the army and taken off air. This kind of interference by the army in the media is just another example of the heavy-handed censorship imposed by the SCAF.
While the SCAF has been so focused on securing its political position it has failed, some would say deliberately, to ensure security for Egyptian citizens or to protect the ethos of the 25 January revolution. In fact it appears to have left open a security vacuum to be exploited by newly assertive Salafist groups.
The interreligious harmony that appeared during the 25 January uprising has been the price of this negligence and blinkered pursuit of political power. But this on 9 October attack was not a sectarian one, arising from a local dispute. It was horrific force used by the Egyptian army against the Egyptian people.
In this current climate it seems hard to imagine that elections planned for November can go ahead without chaos. Yet a fast and smooth transition to civilian leadership may beEgypt’s best hope to avoid a further rise in sectarian violence.