The serious incidents that took place in Cairo on Sunday, October 9th, in which 24 Coptic Christians died (and the number may be even higher) is a moment of worrying regression for the “Egyptian Spring” for which one can try and identify responsibility and assess the risks, while it is premature to estimate its consequences.
Reduced to the bare essentials, the incident involved a crowded protest that left Cairo’s Shubra district to march towards Tahrir Square and the city centre to protest the setting alight of a Coptic Church in the village of el Marinab in Aswan, a crime that has remained unpunished. According to rather confused reports, once the protest reached the banks of the Nile near the centre of the city, it was attacked by a group of armed men, and clashes between the Coptic protesters and their attackers degenerated further outside the state television’s headquarters. At that point the Army intervened (not the police which now stands out for its absence in Egypt) with great brutality, using weapons and tanks that caused the death of two dozen people, maybe more, and dozens wounded. The images of tanks driven at full speed running over protesters are horrifying. Reports speak of Muslim citizens taking to the streets to defend the Copts from the army’s attack, and other Muslims, among them certainly a number of Salafites, siding with the troops against their Christian fellow citizens. It was therefore an extremely confused and ambiguous situation that caused great trauma in a very delicate moment in the transition, on the eve of the first post-Mubarak elections that will begin in various stages at the end of November.
Are we faced with a revival of hostilities between Muslims and Christians in Egypt? It is true that the existing tensions between the two religions have deteriorated recently, but this does not appear to be the reason for what took place. In fact, there was not an interdenominational clash but rather a deliberate provocation at a peaceful protest held by Coptic Christians who were then brutally assassinated by army units.
It is true that in Egypt Coptic Christians have always been considered second class citizens, with legislation on this subject dating back to the Khedivial period. Copts are effectively excluded from more important civilian and military appointments, from building new churches and even the restoration of ancient ones is subject to authorizations that are hard to obtain, and conversion to Christianity is seriously repressed. However, within these restrictions, the two religions have coexisted for over a thousand years and the continuous interdenominational incidents that have always occurred have always had a tribal element linked to local interests and social envy.
If anything, since the fall of Mubarak there has been a clear danger that external forces against Egypt’s democratic evolution might use this fault-line in Egyptian society for provocations addressed at derailing current projects. One has in fact seen in Egypt (and also in Tunisia) the appearance of active Salafite groups organizing anti-Christian provocations, very probably (and this is a euphemism) financed and supported by Arab regimes in the Gulf area for whom a democratic evolution in Egypt represents a direct threat. Interdenominational tension therefore appears to have increased.
However, having analyzed these recurring incidents, one cannot state that there is open conflict and opposition between Egyptian Christians and Muslims. The Egyptian Muslim world is extremely complex, and, while it is true that Salafites and Jama’a Islamyia are openly anti-Christian, these are very small groups. The Muslim Brotherhood, which alone represents perhaps 20% of the population, maintains an attitude of separateness but peaceful coexistence. Sufi movements (greatly opposed by Islamists) also have a friendly attitude towards Coptic Christians and also represent a significant part of the population. The successors of the el Azhar University Sheiks have always spoken out in favour of peaceful coexistence and against all kinds of interreligious violence.
This time the provocation appears to be of a different kind, and coming from different groups. The removal of President Mubarak and his relatives does not mean that the social-economic power group formed in shadows of the regime has also vanished. This consists of a large group of business men who have made a great deal of money working with state institutions, high-ranking officials and leaders of the corrupt National Democratic Party, local authorities whose social and economic status would be directly threatened by the democratization process in Egypt. From the very beginning of the Tahrir Square uprising, they have often paid hundreds of armed agents provocateurs to cause incidents at clearly peaceful protests, intimidating protesters and justifying the intervention of security forces. Their sudden appearance on camels and horses at one of the first protests held in Tahrir Square has remained famously iconic and resulted in a trial for those thought to be behind it.
These epigones of the past regime are setting up various political parties, for the moment it is hard to assess their consistency, in search of alliances for the coming elections with other more conservative forces including Islamic parties. More recently, however, this sector of society has been facing a new threat. Under pressure from progressive movements, there has been the reinstatement of the “Treachery Law”, a provision approved in the days of Gamal Abd el Nasser to place on trial representatives and exploiters of the monarchy, and, in particular, to deprive them of political rights. A number of Mubarak’s ministers and businessmen linked to them have already been placed on trial or have fled the country. The reaction promises to be harsh and determined. At a recent press conference attended by six new parties from this sector of political life, a representative of the NDP said, “We will not leave the country to the people of Tahrir Square. We have men who can exercise total control. We are capable of setting Egypt alight.” It is therefore very probable that provocations against Coptic protesters, following models previously used by the same political elements, come from this political sector and are aimed at enflaming interreligious tension to obstruct the transition towards a more democratic regime. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, has clearly stated that responsibility for these incidents must be attributed to former members of the NDP. The current situation is therefore extremely delicate and very little would be needed to destabilize matters.
What is instead surprising, and also more difficult to explain, is the violent reaction from the army (I must reiterate that the police does not play a significant role) and their stand against the Coptic Christians protesting against an injustice suffered, and who, at least until that point, had been the victims of a serious attack. The dead and the many wounded were almost all Copts, as were those arrested, and state-owned newspapers and television minimized the incidents, blaming them on Christians. It seems that one state channel even appealed to citizens asking them to side with the police, basically asking them to take part in the repression of the Christian protest.
These events are easier to report than to understand. It is true that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the government condemned the violence (as expected!), promised an inquiry and apologized to the families of the victims. But, for the first time since the beginning of the political transition, the Army violently repressed a peaceful protest, appearing to totally abandon its “super partes” position which has eroded in recent months, and it appears to have done so siding with the representatives of the deposed Mubarak regime who are still numerous and powerful in the country.
On this subject one must bear in mind that high-ranking officers too were essential to the regime led by Mubarak, who, thanks to very extensive network of military and para-military industries, had implicated them in important industrial economic deals with the “military industrial complex” that exists in Egypt too and is significantly large. This too may become an important element in trials.
The non-governmental media’s reaction was extremely powerful and, confirming the aforementioned considerations, did not linger excessively on interdenominational issues, denouncing above all the attitude assumed by the armed forces now in power (“Marshal Tantawi must go”), expressing doubts on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ability to govern the transition (“the SCAF portrays the worse behaviour of the Mubarak regime”), expressing concern over the fairness and transparency of the coming elections, and fears the military wishes to postpone them to govern directly. This hypothesis, sparked by Marshall Tantawi who was filmed by state television as he walked through the streets of Cairo in civilian clothes, seems improbable if not impracticable, and has been sharply denied by military sources. It is worth reporting these rumours to provide an idea of the current atmosphere. In the animated atmosphere that has resulted from these events, there have also been articles in the press reporting on divisions within the SCAF between generals in favour of a democratic evolution and those wanting a restoration. But that all involves mysteries that at least for now are unfathomable.
To conclude, the first impression one has a few days after these events, is a net loss of political legitimacy for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which, in recent months, has consumed most of the prestige and trust it enjoyed at the beginning of the transition. However, unless the election results surprise us, Egypt’s new political forces continue to be extremely fragmented and largely unprepared to manage power. It will not escape the careful observer that when in recent days the procedures for presenting electoral lists opened, the first to present their lists were the parties inspired by Mubarak’s NDP. They were obviously the only ones prepared.
The transition to democracy has still a long way to go. Elections for the Chamber of Representatives and for the Shura will begin at the end of November and, with various phases, will end in February. The new parliament will appoint a Constituent Assembly that will have six months to draft a new constitution, which means that presidential elections will probably be held in 2013. This is a “road map” already amended on a number of occasions, and requires political vision and a continuity of action hardly ever seen for the moment. Progressive and innovative forces that until a few weeks ago wanted the electoral process slowed down to have time to prepare, now demand that it be speeded up because they fear the military leadership may cause its involution.
In the meantime the economic situation is deteriorating rapidly and the incidents reported on here will certainly inflict further serious damage on tourism, one of the strong points in the country’s economy. In recent weeks there has been a revival of strikes and trade union protests, which, leaving aside their at times valid demands, could also be used for political provocation and exploitation.
it is therefore possible, that when with hindsight we revisit the history of these months, the October 9th incident will be considered a turning point in the “Egyptian Spring.”
Translated by Francesca Simmons