Clashes between Christian protesters and military policemen in Cairo this week have been portrayed as “sectarian” - but in fact, they say much more about Egypt’s revolution than they do about Muslim-Christian tensions.
“This was no sectarian violence,” Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Souief wrote in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “This was the army murdering 25 citizens.”
The clashes broke out on the evening of 9 October while Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 85 million, were protesting against the attack on a Christian church in the south of Egypt by Muslim radicals late last month. The toll - 26 dead and more than 500 injured - marks the bloodiest state-citizen showdown since a popular uprising forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in February.
Eyewitness accounts of the battle vary, but some people, including the Coptic Orthodox Christian Pope Shenouda III himself, allege that the peaceful Christian demonstrators were infiltrated by outsiders who started pelting military policemen guarding the area with stones and Molotov cocktails, provoking an angry response from the army. Protesters burned several military vehicles, private cars, and public buses, but insist the violence began after the security forces attacked them.
Egyptian State TV issued a plea asking Egyptian citizens to “protect the army from Christian thugs” - a move activists say was intended to divide people along sectarian lines.
In a televized address on 9 October, Essam Sharaf, prime minister of the caretaker transition government, said some people were trying to sow the seeds of sedition in Egypt to stifle its awaited transition to democracy.
“These incidents have brought us major steps backwards,” he said.
|Christian and Muslim demonstrators denounce the killing of Christian civilians in clashes with military policemen|
Many activists see in the incident an attempt by government forces to destabilize the country in order to justify the continued rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which could choke the revolution and bring a swift end to democratization dreams in the most populous Arab country.
The military rulers have been controlling the country during this transition period, ahead of the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections scheduled for November. There are growing signs the vote will be delayed. (On 11 October, the government decided to indefinitely postpone the Bar Association elections - due by the end of this week - because it said it could not guarantee the election would be peaceful).
"We all know that the military council is trying to sow religious strife to stay in power and extend emergency law," Maha Adel Qasim, a Muslim who joined Christians demonstrating outside a hospital where victims' bodies were taken, told the Associated Press.
“This is a strong argument in fact,” said Nabil Abdel Fatah, a leading political analyst from local think-tank Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
"Until now, the country's security conditions are deteriorating in ways that are incomprehensible to many. My belief is that the army will exploit these deteriorating security conditions to stay in power for long."
Defence Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de-facto leader of the country, has said many times that the army is not interested in staying in power. Instead, the government sees this week’s violence as instigated by members of the former ruling party, who threatened to spread chaos after they were banned from running in elections for the next five years.
Either way, these clashes do not bode well for the revolution.
Reminiscent of the old regime
There are other ominous signs. In a move reminiscent of the propaganda machine of the old regime, state-TV initially reported that 19 soldiers were killed by the demonstrators, without any mention of Christian casualties, before announcing that there were no deaths among the soldiers after all (although this is still in dispute).
|An injured demonstrator assisted by his friends attends prayers led by the Christian Pope Shenouda III in Cairo|
A few hours after the deadly clashes in Cairo, Sharaf blamed the whole thing on “hidden hands” - in language reminiscent of the days of the revolution.
It wouldn’t be the first time the government had reportedly manipulated sectarian tensions for its own interests.
Among the trove of government documents uncovered by activists who barged into the state security offices earlier this year was evidence that the Interior Ministry planned the bombing of a church in Alexandria in December, in which 21 people were killed (at the time, the ministry blamed the attack on a suicide bomber and today, it says the document was a fake).
Sectarian tensions remain
This is not to say there is no sectarian tension in Egypt. Sunday’s confrontations found their roots in the attacks Muslim locals launched against a Christian church still under construction in Edfu in the south of Egypt late last month.
Egypt’s Christians say the roots of their decades-old suffering lie in their inability to build a sufficient number of new churches to accommodate the growing Christian population.
Beneath the prime minister’s faint reaction to the 9 October events lies the failure of successive Egyptian governments to address the problems of the nation’s Christians, said Karima Al Hefnawi, a leading female political activist.
|Egypt is heading towards a civil war full sail… If we do not pay attention, we might lose our country all together.|
So far, the new government has not issued a law to allow Christians to build or reconstruct their own churches.
Now, Egyptians fear the long history of sectarian flare-ups could get worse. At an emergency meeting of the country’s political powers, many feared an escalation of violence between Muslims and Christians.
“Egypt is heading towards a civil war full sail,” Fouad Abdel Monem Riyad, a former diplomat and a human rights expert, told IRIN. “If we do not pay attention, we might lose our country all together.”
As clashes unfolded in Cairo, in other parts of the country, some Muslims attacked Christian properties, including the Coptic Hospital where injured Christian demonstrators were receiving treatment, and Christians called for retaliation.
In other areas, Muslims marched on the streets, brandishing copies of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, and called for the creation of an Islamic state in Egypt, raising concerns over future coexistence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.
Already, more than 100,000 Christians have left Egypt since Mubarak’s fall in fear of the swift rise of political Islam, according to a recent study by local Christian NGO Egyptian Federation for Human Rights.
They travelled to the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe, in search of more religious freedoms and business opportunities, the study said.