The spectre of sectarianism is haunting Egypt, and last night it showed its bloody face. An attack on a demonstration led by Coptic Christians culminated in the worst night of violence since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, propelling questions of religious divisions onto the frontpages.
Conspiracy theories abound and the facts are still hard to discern. This much we know: as it stands, 25 have died and a further 200+ are injured. But disagreements arise regarding the extent to which the violence was purely sectarian, or whether it was manipulated – or even orchestrated – by the military. State media has been intent on emphasising the former dynamic, exhorting its audience to come out and defend the army against their (Christian) attackers. On the other hand, anecdotal and video evidence suggests that the latter scenario is more plausible. This clip, for example, seems to show army vehicles mowing down protesters, suggesting that elements of the military were in fact responsible some of the night’s fatal attacks. In addition, the state media’s initial claims regarding the deaths of several soldiers at the hands of the demonstraters have yet to be substantiated. If such allegations turn out to be false, this would suggest a degree of hithero unseen manipulation on the part of the military with state media as its messenger.
A number of excellent pieces have emerged online today. I hope the following will be useful in gaining a better understanding of what happened last night:
What is clear is that a confluence of forces—an army seeking the opportunity to consolidate power, remnants of a regime stirring havoc, a cabinet with little authority of its own, radical Islamists aspiring to an Islamic State, and deep-rooted currents of social intolerance that Egypt has long failed to confront—have created a situation in which the Copts, among other groups, have become particularly vulnerable.
Very little of the latest violence is purely sectarian [...] it’s more appropriate to view the attacks that you saw today as a threat to Egyptian democracy emerging, as a threat to the free Egyptian public discourse that we hoped to see emerge after the Revolution.’
Bloodshed will capture the headlines, but the quieter moves by Egypt’s military rulers and the plainclothes thugs whose motives increasingly appear inseparable from the army elite are also worth mentioning: the rapid shutting down of a television station that had been broadcasting live footage of the mayhem; the earlier announcement that military tribunals for civilians would remain operational in certain circumstances (despite a public outcry against them); a violent assault on a university strike in Alexandria; and the ongoing tussle over electoral law, which some political forces believe is designed to kill off genuine moves towards democracy.
‘Two armored personnel carriers (APCs) began driving at frightening speed through protesters, who threw themselves out of its path. A soldier on top of each vehicle manned a gun, and spun it wildly, apparently shooting at random although the screams made it difficult to discern exactly where the sound of gunfire was coming from.’
Most worrisome of all because, taken altogether, this paints a picture of the Egyptian military as resorting to sectarian impulses almost reflexively. It is the flipside of its continued unwillingness, after the sectarian clashes (between civilians as well as between police, military and civilians once fighting had already broken out) of earlier this year, to end once and for all the official discrimination that Copts face when building, expanding or renovating places of worship.
This is a tragedy of state failure [...] something was broken yesterday and it may have been fatal. Our organisation has been documenting sectarian violence for 10 years now – there is nothing like what we saw yesterday precisely because it’s the army. It’s the first time that the Copts are not being attacked by muslim extremists, they were attacked by the army. There is a certain sense of estrangement and anger that will take a long time to process.’
In essence, what they were telling Egyptians was to attack and murder fellow citizens. They also reported that military personnel were killed in the violence that erupted on Sunday. This was the image they painted, and which international media outlets picked up quickly and ran with. It was shocking display of poor judgement. Did the international media not learn anything from the 18 days of protests that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak?