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The deadly crackdown on protesting Egyptian Copts marks a turning point in the military’s post-Mubarak rule. Is this what democracy looks like?

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The funeral on Thursday of a Coptic Egyptian killed in the clashes. (Mohammed Hossam/AFP/Getty Images)

Sunday’s deadly attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, in which armored military vehicles killed 25 and injured hundreds by driving into crowds demonstrating against the recent arson of a church, represent a possible turning point in Egypt’s rusting revolution. The military’s responsibility for this bloodshed—apparently carried out while senior officers were helping broker the Israel-Hamas prisoner swap announced Tuesday—makes it harder to believe that Egypt’s military leadership will promote the democratic changes that it has promised. “The military council has stated time and time again that it will not attack Egyptians,” said U.S. Copts Association president Michael Meunier, who was in Egypt during the attacks. “But on Sunday, for the first time, it did. And that’s a disaster.”

But in Egypt, illusions rarely die quickly—especially when the government doesn’t let them. And from the moment that the violence broke out on Sunday evening, Egypt’s transitional government has mounted a tireless campaign to manage the public’s response and keep it firmly on the government’s side.

The government’s propaganda effort began on Sunday evening, when, according to reports, Information Minister Osama Heikal ordered state-run media to cover the clashes “wisely.” State-run television obliged, reporting that protesters were attacking soldiers and calling Egyptians into the streets to defend the military. As if on cue, thugs showed up in full force. Shouting “Islamiya! Islamiya” and “the people want the fall of the Christians,” they beat protesters, looted Christian-owned shops, and even attacked a Coptic hospital where victims were being treated. Meanwhile, soldiers raided the U.S.-funded Alhurra satellite channel and the privately owned Channel 25, both of which were broadcasting the ongoing violence. (According to reports, at the Channel 25 studio the soldiers asked for employees’ ID cards and then proceeded to beat those identified as Christian.) When a number of state-television producers began criticizing the government’s coverage of the violence on Twitter, Heikal appeared on state television and announced that anyone who “spreads rumors” about the state-run media would be tried.

While the state-run media has been forced to walk back some its initial propaganda— such as its false claim that three soldiers had been killed during the fighting when, in fact, none had died—the transitional government has promoted a series of conspiracy theories that firmly absolve the military. The most predictable of these was uttered immediately following the violence on Sunday night, when Prime Minister Essam Sharaf addressed the nation and warned of “the external fingers that stir conspiracies.” Translation from Egyptian: The United States and Israel are to blame.

Another conspiracy theory peddled by the government is that the anti-Coptic violence was entirely the work of thugs from the previous regime. Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdelnour, a Coptic billionaire who served in parliament from 2000 to 2005, repeated this line to me over the phone. What about the videos showing military vehicles running roughshod over protesters? “I saw the vehicles running into protesters,” he acknowledged. “But I didn’t see who was driving those cars. And it is very possible that the same attackers who shot gunfire or threw stones or threw Molotov cocktails took the cars and rode them.”

In a way, the government’s conspiracy-theorizing been useful because it has highlighted its alliance with Islamists, who have overwhelmingly echoed the official story. Former Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel-Fotouh—a “liberal Islamist” according to the New York Timessaid that the attacks on Coptic protesters had the “foreign and Zionist aim to foment sedition in Egypt.” The Muslim Brotherhood also sought to absolve the military. “We need a fact-finding committee to see who started it, and how people who dared to attack the army,” Essam el-Erian, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, told me. “The army is not in conflict with the people because the army is only guarding the high institutions, like television and others.”

That’s not how many Copts see things. “Our media is inciting hatred, because they said that the army needs protection,” Sally Moore, a member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, told me. “As if the Christians are stronger than the army, and as if it’s a Muslim army—it’s an Egyptian army.” While Pope Shenouda, the Coptic patriarch, has called for a three-day fast and urged restraint, many Copts are demanding further action. At funerals held for those killed in Sunday’s violence, worshipers called for the downfall of the transitional government.

Egypt’s pro-democratic youth activists, however, are taking a more conservative approach. They fear that the government’s misinformation campaign has won over the broader public—and that they will lose the battle of ideas if they push against the government too directly. “People are being influenced by this. I feel it on the streets,” Shadi El-Ghazali Harb, a leading activist in the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, told me over the phone as he stood outside of a Coptic hospital awaiting autopsy results. “There is a widespread belief that it was not the military’s fault.” So, in the short run, the activists seem inclined to direct their protests against Egypt’s less popular transitional government, rather than denouncing the military leadership directly.

To some extent, the public outrage that the youth activists have helped channel against the transitional government is already paying off. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi tendered his resignation to protest the government’s handling of the clashes. Though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ultimately rejected his resignation, it represented an important setback for the military junta, and rumors that Prime Minister Sharaf has resigned are further undermining it. Meanwhile, the transitional government has moved quickly to pass new legislation that Copts have long demanded, including laws that ban discrimination, legalize churches that were built before licensing became available in the 1900s, and ease church construction. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still has to approve these laws, however, and many Copts remain skeptical. “If the law is issued, what’s the guarantee that it will be applied practically?” asked Coptic human-rights lawyer Naguib Gobrail, who was injured in Sunday’s attacks.

The deep divide in the way that the Copts and Egypt’s pro-democratic activists on one hand and the broader Egyptian public on the other view Sunday’s violence is potentially explosive. The rage within Egypt’s Coptic community—the understandable reaction to the violence against them before and after Mubarak’s toppling—will only intensify as Egypt’s state-run media continues to dismiss their anger.

Some are predicting that Copts will be inclined to leave the country in the face of this state-sponsored brutality. Gobrail, the human-rights lawyer, noted sadly that two of his sons are pharmacists in Australia and Canada. Moore, however, rejects this notion out of hand. “Copts are ethnically part of this country,” she said. “We’re not building a new Israel somewhere else.”

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This is the dilemma of our times.
On principle, liberalism is always the way to go. But in Islamic-Arabic nations liberalism always always gives way to Islamism because the committment to liberalism is so incredibly weak.

Give them choice, and they will choose Hamas(or Hezbollah, or the Muslim Brotherhood and so forth).

Or, support the dictators and be hated by the people(who will turn on you in the end anyway, albeit slower).

And then people wonder why Belgium alone releases more original books in a single year than the entire Arab world combined?

This is your answer.

Always works? What a typically broad general racist statement.

sharon says:

Not racist, unfortunately true. Reality should rule the day. I only feel sorry for the young, idealist people, who thought change would be better. As we’ve seen before, it only gets worse.

What no one mentions is the fate of the Egyptian Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Egypt during the 1960s and 1950s. Do you think that there may be some kind of a pattern here in Moslem-ruled countries? In fact the only country in the mid east where the Christian population is increasing is Israel.

philip mann says:

Yes, liberal democracy. Where the government does not care in the least what religion you belong to,does not harass you for wanting to build a place of worship, protects all citizens equally,and people can go against popular opinion and not fear being killed ,and their murderer go unpunished.

Or,you can have countries like Egypt,where the citizens gobble up anti _Jewish slander like we eat sliced rye,and always find another scapegoat.

It`s all too late, though. The americans will withold the aid, and the whole place will dissolve into chaos. No,I don`t cheer for it,but Pogo said it right ; ` In the land of the blind,the one-eyed man is king. In the land of the insane,the sane man is hanged`.

Rob Braun says:

What is sad is that the Egyptian Islamist doesn’t care about the historical ethnic identity of the Coptic people (who are the most ancient group of people in Egypt) or anyone else for that matter. After all, they ran out another of its most ancient ethnic people, the Jews, not too very long ago. The pro-democracy revolution of Egypt is going the way of many other revolutions in the Arab world, the way of Islam and Islam only.

What’s tragic is you don’t care about the historical ethnic identity of the Palestinian people Rob…now there’s a double dose of most truly troubling for all of your I’m sure deeply felt concerns.

Dani ben Leb says:

First they came for the Jews.
Then they came for the Christians.
Then they came for the democrats.
Then they came for the unionists.
Then they came for the women.
yada yada yada…
until only Jules was left.

Kenneth Mathews says:

Is this what democracy looks like?

Yes, this is exactly what democracy looks like without a broad-based acceptance of true morality. Democracy without true religion and sound morality looks exactly like this.

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

George Wasgington’s Farewell Address

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The deadly crackdown on protesting Egyptian Copts marks a turning point in the military’s post-Mubarak rule. Is this what democracy looks like?

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