In a small village in Aswan Province in Upper Egypt, a group of Christians want to rebuild their local church. They apply for, and are granted, the necessary permits. They are then told they can build their church, but it is forbidden from having a cross, a bell, a beacon, or domes on the roof. They agree to all these conditions, except the domes, because they have already been built and to remove them would necessitate rebuilding the entire roof. A group of Muslims from the village lay siege to Coptic houses. The Christians are told they must remove the domes in fifteen days or the whole church will be destroyed. They agree, and begin demolishing the domes. Eight days later, after incitement from a local preacher, a mob firebombs the church and begins demolishing it. Fire services are prevented from entering the village. The soldiers who were assigned to protect the church stand by and watch. Ten days later, the governor of Aswan Province goes on Egyptian state television and states categorically that there is no church in the village and no churches burning in the district.
As a vignette, this story sums up quite succinctly the mixture of petty humiliations, bureaucratic obstructionism, and sporadic violence faced by the Copts as a matter of course in Egypt – to say nothing of the official complicity in all of this. These types of stories, while not uncommon and certainly not unnoticed, are not front page news in Egypt. I only knew the intricate details of Al-Marinab – the village in question – because I spent a day translating a detailed report on it, in a slightly bad mood as it was Armed Forces Day and I was supposed to have the day off work. At the end of the report, my colleague had written: ‘With the confrontation continuing, and demonstrations escalating…it is not unlikely that matters will flare up again.’
They did, and the next part of story was front page news. On the 9th October, a demonstration against the Al-Marinab affair turned into nothing short of a massacre in the heart of Cairo. Outside Maspero, the Egyptian state television and radio building, the criminals in the army mowed down demonstrators with machine guns and crushed their skulls under armoured personnel carriers, while the criminals inside the building spouted poison on the airwaves. Sitting in my flat, I listened to an Egyptian state TV anchor reporting that Coptic demonstrators had seized weapons and turned them on troops, and urging ordinary Egyptians to go to Maspero and defend the army. I switched to Twitter and read that my boss was in the Coptic Hospital and had just personally counted 17 corpses, some without facial features or heads from being run over by APCs. In the most traumatic and horrifying event since the uprising in January, Egypt’s armed forces had done what they claimed they would never do, and killed their own people in the most brutal and indiscriminate of ways.
Al-Marinab is evidence that there is still a ‘sectarian’ problem in Egypt, to the extent that the religious majority in Egypt still imposes humiliating and oppressive conditions on the religious freedoms of the country’s minorities (not just Christians, but Shi’a, Ahmadis, Baha’is, and Jews as well). At their worst, the ever-present tensions erupt in incidents of horrific violence, such the Nag Hammadi massacre in 2010 or the Alexandria church bombing at the beginning of this year. The problem is perpetuated, exacerbated, and exploited by Egypt’s government and security forces; indeed, the Alexandria bombing is now widely believed to have been the work of the Egyptian security services themselves. The Copts who marched on Sunday, and the many Muslims and others who joined them, were demonstrating against a state which systematically and relentlessly discriminates against them and, worse, exploits prejudices and inter-religious tensions to make them feel like second-class citizens, aliens in their own country.
Maspero, however, was different. One of the most blood-boiling things that I read on Sunday night was one of the most trivial: a Facebook status posted by an acquaintance in Alexandria complaining that her planned ‘relaxing weekend’ in Cairo was now coinciding with ‘Muslim-Christian riots’. Leaving aside the sheer noxiousness of such a remark, the assumptions it makes about what happened on Sunday night are both ignorant and damaging. The events outside Maspero were not riots, but a massacre. They were not a crime committed by one religious group against another, but a crime committed by the state against its own citizens. There is a line which can, and should, be drawn between Marinab and Maspero. Yet to characterise this as the latest outbreak of sectarian violence in Egypt is to swallow hook, line, and sinker the excuses peddled by the generals themselves, who in an Orwellian press conference on Wednesday claimed that they had been drawn into clashes between Muslims and Christians and had never opened fire on anyone, despite all evidence to the contrary.
What happened at Maspero was more proof, as if any were ever needed, of the hollowness of the army’s pretensions towards being the ‘defenders of the revolution’. The more conciliatory argument says that SCAF are just inept; that they have little experience of policing demonstrations, much less running the country; that on Sunday they lost control of a volatile situation. The less conciliatory and far more accurate argument says that SCAF had ample time to prepare for Sunday’s march; that they deliberately chose to terrorise peaceful demonstrators; and that they must take full responsibility for the bloodshed that ensued. They are not the defenders of the revolution, but the protectors of the ancien régime. On Sunday they showed that they had inherited not just its authoritarianism and political stagnation, but its brutality, too.