Roving thoughts and provocations

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Massacre in Cairo

Khalil Hamra/AP Photo
A relative of one of the Copts killed in the violence on October 9 mourning over his coffin outside the morgue of the Copts hospital, Cairo Oct. 10, 2011

On the morning of Sunday, October 9, members of Cairo’s large Coptic community went to the Abbasiya Cathedral, the papal headquarters of the Coptic Church. They prayed, as a Coptic youth leader told me, “for the day to begin and end peacefully, and for a million people to turn up” at the protest march to the State TV Building planned for that afternoon. But the day would be far from peaceful: by its end, more than two dozen civilians, many of them Copts, and several soldiers, would be dead; and in the days since, many Egyptians have come to regard the events surrounding the march as a dark turning point in the country’s bid to build an inclusive democratic society.

The march had been organized to protest growing attacks on churches and the lack of protection for the country’s large Coptic minority under Egypt’s military-backed interim government: most recently, on September 30, Muslim fanatics burned down a church in Aswan. The protest route—approved by the authorities—would go from a central square in the densely Coptic neighborhood of Shubra, pass through downtown Cairo, and end on the wide street and sidewalks in front of Maspero, the huge State TV and Radio Building —an area that in the months since the revolution had become the Tahrir Square of the Coptic community. (“Our voices are never heard, so we protest here, right under the nose of State TV, to make a point,” one protester told me back in May.)

By 3:40 p.m., a few thousand people were gathered in Shubra, many holding candles and the cross, others the Egyptian flag, and even more, banners bearing the symbol of a united Egypt—the cross within a crescent. Among them was a young Copt named Michael Mosad, who that morning had persuaded his fiancée of two months, Vivian Magdy, to accompany him to the march. Michael had heard that the slogan of the march would be “We’re martyrs on demand”; he told Vivian that she couldn’t leave him alone on a day like this. Michael was introduced to me by a friend —“God bless you,” he had said, urging me to keep safe. Muslims had joined the march too, some holding the Quran and a cross. “Muslims and Christians are one,” they chanted alongside the others, as well as demanding that the country’s defacto president Field Marshall Tantawi step down.

The Maspero complex stands on the corniche, a main downtown avenue along the Nile, minutes from Tahrir. It is flanked by two small side streets that separate it from the Foreign Ministry on one side, a row of residential buildings on the other, and two bridges—15 May and 6 October—that are connected to elevated highways some 70 meters apart. In anticipation of the marchers, rows of military police armed with body shields and batons had filled the two side streets and lined both sides of the corniche around the building. A particularly large contingent had been positioned at the foot of the 6 October Bridge, which passed directly over the street from which the march was approaching. Four armoured personnel carriers (APCs) with guns on their tops were stationed behind them. They formed a wall of sorts, seemingly to corral the marchers in a tightly designated route. The TV building itself was barricaded with barbed wire and metal contraptions that had gone up during the revolution.

As the march moved forward, many more people joined in, and there were some 10,000 by the time we neared Maspero, just after sunset. I rushed ahead, taking a side street past rows of riot police to reach the State TV building in advance of the crowd. A few hundred Copts were already gathered there, and I noticed plainclothes State Security agents among them and other men lurking around who looked like they might be thugs. It was in those moments, as I stood at Maspero and the march approached the corniche, turning the corner, that chaos broke out. At first there was shouting, as the police used their batons to deter protesters, and then suddenly, a siren, before gunfire filled the air—not single shots, but rounds. The sound seemed to be coming from the front line, near the October 6 Bridge, which I now stood behind. It kept coming in bursts, and the marchers were running, many back in the direction of Tahrir, where they later tweeted that they were confronted by thugs and security forces.

Almost everyone I talked to thought the army was doing the shooting, saying that security forces were firing randomly at the crowd. More plausibly, from my vantage point and the accounts of some, it looked like the army had first fired warning shots in the air to prevent the protesters from reaching the TV Building, which some activists had been proposing to storm (a theory subsequently confirmed in part by the discovery of blank shell casings at the site.) But this then raises the question of who else might have been shooting, since it became clear that live rounds were used.

One witness said the first shot came from behind the security forces’ front line, in the area between the bridge and Maspero. And a friend later told me a pickup truck had driven by the march as it was approaching the corniche, and that men had shot at the crowds through the windows, stirring panic. This weekend, I was shown a video that seemed to confirm this—it showed a pickup truck that had first gone to Maspero, where five or six men with clubs and swords had got off, pelted the army with stones, and beat some soldiers. Clearly there to stir trouble, these thugs—whose identities remain unknown—put the army on alert. The video shows them then driving off, in the wrong direction down the street and round the corner, towards the protesters. The account of the first gunshot coming from behind the army as the protesters approached might be explained by this mob—it is possible one of them stayed behind in Maspero.

At the time, rushing back in the direction of the side street as the crackling of gunshots filled the air, I found myself facing dozens of police in riot gear beating down protesters with batons. I returned to the main street a few meters away, where people were being knocked to the ground. Men around me—civilians—were throwing rocks in the direction of the march, and people had by that point begun screaming as the APCs, which had been stationed at the foot of the bridge, began maneuvering out of their sidewalk parking spots, and then roared, zigzagging down the corniche, pushing protesters onto sidewalks and to the ground as they picked up speed.

According to subsequent statements by the ruling military council (SCAF), the armored vehicles were simply attempting to disperse the crowd (though military officials added, “they may have panicked, acted frantically, and sped with their vehicles to get away”). As eyewitness and video records show, amid the confusion, the APCs began to chase people down, accelerating wildly and hitting and running over protesters as they plowed through the crowds. Video footage shows two men running down a stretch of corniche, fleeing an APC bearing down on them. They narrowly escaped, onto a sidewalk. Other footage shows protesters who were a step too slow and were pushed under the vehicles. There were also indications that rounds were being shot from the guns mounted on the APCs, but it remains unclear whether these were blanks or live ammo. I ran in the opposite direction, bumping into a group of people gathered around a body. It was an 18-year-old boy. His t-shirt was ripped and soiled, his face covered in blood. He had been killed, apparently by a bullet wound. Nearby, a soldier was also being carried away. No one could tell me the cause of his death.

In that first hour after the violence broke out, rocks and broken glass and Molotov cocktails rained down on us —some of it from what looked like thugs who had joined the crowd, some from atop 6 October Bridge, and some from the line of buildings adjacent to Maspero. (Someone said objects were being thrown from the State TV building itself.) Teargas was also fired, and it lingered in the air. I continued to hear shots, seemingly fired at random, no one could really tell from where. Protesters that I had seen marching lay injured. An army car was engulfed in flames—the first in a series of army and private vehicles that would be set on fire that night.

By this point, many of the protesters had dispersed—women and children fleeing, young men doing what they could do defend their families and friends. Blood and broken glass had become muck on the roads and sidewalks, and word was circulating that the Coptic hospital fifteen minutes away was filling up fast. People picked up used bullets and put them in their pockets. (Images examined later show that most of the bullets were Egyptian-made blanks—sound bullets of the type usually fired by the army at protests to disperse crowds. A few, however, appear to be live ammunition from arms not normally carried by military or riot police).

Around 7:30 PM, I received text and Twitter messages that an announcer for State TV had on air called for Egyptians to go down and “defend the soldiers who protected the Egyptian revolution” against “armed Copts” who had opened fire and were killing soldiers. Looking around me, I could see that many of those gathered in the tight area around the TV building seemed to have responded to the call. Rough-looking men were arriving in groups; people said they were neighborhood thugs. They held bludgeons, wooden planks, knives, and even swords, and walked boldly into the chaos of burning cars, flying bullets, and glass. “We’ll kill any Christian we get our hands on,” one of them shouted. Someone tweeted that he was in the middle of what looked like a militia, “men with clubs and antique pistols.” Nearby, a young girl was harassed, and a mob assaulted a young Coptic couple, beating them and ripping their clothes. One of the perpetrators emerged from the gang with blood on his hands. “Christian blood!” he boasted. (The couple survived—rushed away by ambulance to be treated for wounds and possible fractures.)

For the next few hours, the violence ebbed and flowed between riot police, soldiers, Copts, and mobs. I could see clashes up on the bridge and was told that the army was chasing protesters through the streets of downtown. I was chased myself at one point, up a ramp. Young boys were also flocking in—many of them teenagers, some as young as nine or ten. They picked up rocks and threw them, challenging anyone to fight back, shrieking insults about Christians, and chanting for an Islamic state. Many of them looked familiar—the same youth I had seen gather outside the Israeli embassy a few weeks before, and at other protests in recent months that had turned violent. Soldiers looked on, many of them leaving the rowdy crowds to battle, while others tried to break up the mobs. The sirens of ambulances rushing to and from the area could be heard in all directions.

Vivian and Michael

By 10 p.m., as the crackdown continued and dozens of box-shaped olive-green Central Security Forces trucks rolled in as reinforcement, 23-year-old Michael, the young Copt I had met in Shubra that afternoon, had been confirmed dead. Images and footage from the morgue taken by friends show him covered in a white sheet while his fiancée Vivian sobbed by his side, holding his hand, saying she wouldn’t leave him. He had been crushed beneath a twelve-ton APC. His legs had been almost severed and internal organs ruptured. Police then beat him as he lay on the sidewalk, Vivian begging them to have mercy as he gasped his last breaths. “You infidel,” they had screamed back at her.

As I left Maspero for Tahrir around midnight, mobs and thugs were still beating up Copts, and plainclothes state security agents seemed to be lurking everywhere, doing little to help. Hundreds of riot and military police had been dispatched into the area, and other parts of downtown. When I got to Tahrir, twenty minutes later, thousands of people—mostly men—were loitering, many of them chanting for an Islamic state; many of them had come in answer to the state media’s anti-Copt call. I felt uneasy, and left around 1:30 a.m., reaching home to news that growing numbers of people had been killed in the violence. By the next day, twenty-five people were confirmed dead. Autopsies later showed that ten had been run over by armored vehicles, seven killed by bullet wounds, and the rest declared dead by unidentified blows. One protester, Mina Daniel, was killed by a bullet that entered his left shoulder, and exited at the foot his spine (“possibly from a sniper or the top of a tank,” the human rights worker Hossam Bahgat explained.) The autopsy report said, “bullet wound to the heart”.

The Military Council, whose handling of “Bloody Sunday” has enraged many, has until now refused to declare how many of its own soldiers were killed. But on the evening itself, as State TV called on Egyptians to protect their soldiers, it ran a banner across the screen saying three soldiers were dead. There was the one I saw being carried away, and a friend witnessed the killing of another, who he said was “dragged out of his APC, beaten, and had a sidewalk rock broken over his head”—apparently by protesters enraged by the APCs plowing into the march. “They’ve been buried quietly,” army spokesmen told a press conference Wednesday, refusing to confirm numbers.

The Military Council has flatly rejected claims that the army used live ammunition, maintaining that its forces “were only armed with riot gear.” Using elaborate multi-media presentations and footage in their Wednesday press conference, the generals denied allegations that APCs purposely ran over protesters, suggesting that they “may have panicked, acted frantically, and sped with their vehicles to get away.” Instead, blame was placed on “leading figures in the protest” who, they claimed, had stirred the crowd to violence against the army. They also spoke of “radical Christian priests,” who allegedly incited the Coptic community and planned violent protests against the state. But there seems to be little evidence to support these claims. It is true that priests have participated and supported the protest movement, and that the Coptic church is often criticized for its insular and fundamental practices. It is also known that increasing numbers of civilians (Muslims and Christians) have been acquiring guns for protection since the revolution. But authorities have not identified any single Copt leader or priest who has called for violence. Moreover, the Copts have organized and taken part in many protests since the revolution, and while some were eventually dispersed by the military, none involved the kind of confrontation that took place at Maspero.

What exactly happened at Maspero on October 9, when, amid a great deal of confusion, a peaceful protest turned into something of a massacre, has become a question of enormous implications for Egypt’s military and government, as well as for its increasingly divided population. Although many are critical even of the idea of “Coptic protests,” saying their premise is sectarian and that the Copts should instead be out defending a “united Egypt” in Tahrir, the events at Maspero have pitted those who believe State TV and support the army, against those who don’t. In the former camp seem to be many members of the working class—to which a majority of Egyptians belong—who are convinced the Copts are to blame. Although all political factions, including the Islamists, have condemned the violence, and the Islamist political bloc has been swift to publicly claim it embraces Copts and Muslims alike, insisting it will work for a democratic Egypt, at a grassroots level there are also growing indications that Muslim conservatism is spreading nation-wide. In the aftermath of the violence, I was reminded by friends that many young Egyptians are taught that “Christians are going to hell.”

Lost in this debate, are the many unanswered questions surrounding the events of that night. It was, after all, the government and military itself that had approved a request from organizers to hold the protest (a memo drafted on October 4 detailed the Shubra to Maspero route and 3-7 p.m. time frame). What seems probable is that the military never expected the protest to get so large, and when it did, became alarmed about the possibility that the TV building would be overrun—particularly given the history of such actions by protesters since the revolution (in March protesters stormed State Security headquarters and premises around the country, and last month, they stormed the Israeli Embassy). Still, it is doubtful that the military would have planned the kind of response that ultimately played out—and which has proved so disastrous for its reputation.

Then there is the matter of paid thugs who seem to have taken part. Official government memos obtained by local newspapers in recent weeks indicate that there is a network of some 165,000 thugs who worked for the State Security apparatus and who have been used by agents of the former regime in various assaults over the past six months. Within army ranks, it is believed that destabilizing SCAF itself may be one of their targets; a plot orchestrated from within the existent and underground remnants of Mubarak’s security apparatus. Indeed, amid the violence of Maspero, plainclothes state security agents and thugs seemed to have played more of a part then the soldiers themselves as the night wore on.

Above all, perhaps, was the role played by the state media, which actively incited violence against “armed Copts” and quickly adopted the narrative yhat the state has long fallen back on in such situations: namely, that there is always “foreign interference” or an “element” stirring trouble against the state. (During the revolution, it was State TV that claimed that protesters in Tahrir were being bribed to be there—LE50 a day and a KFC meal). In this instance, the Copts were the perfect scapegoat.

Ahmed Asad/Rex Features/AP Images
Coptic demonstrators during the clashes with the Egyptian Army, Cairo, October 9, 2011

Whatever is ultimately revealed about what happened at Maspero, many in the Coptic Christian community, which accounts for some 10 percent of Egypt’s 82 million population, regard their position in Egyptian society as increasingly tenuous. The original cause for the Maspero protest, the burning of the El-Marinab Church in Aswan on September 30, was the fifth such assault on a church since the fall of Mubarak, and the sixth in twelve months. Hours before the Aswan church was set on fire, a preacher at a nearby mosque used his midday sermon to incite further anger against the town’s Copts. And in Alexandria the week before the Maspero violence, I heard a Salafi preacher blame the ills of the world on Christians, Zionists, and women.

At a conference of Coptic parliamentary hopefuls on October 1, I listened to political and human rights activists urge Copts to stop talking about immigrating from Egypt, as many have begun to do, and instead engage in political life. “The only way to ensure that Egypt transitions to a democracy that respects minorities, is if we all stay, participate, fight for our rights,” said Ibrahim Saad Eddin, the Muslim human rights advocate who was jailed under Mubarak, and ultimately forced into exile. But many of those present expressed fear that without a strong and organized liberal coalition to counter the increasingly powerful Islamist bloc, secular and Christian voices will be wiped out.

Back in May, the Prime Minister and Military Council promised to clamp down on thugs and halt the incitements and assaults, but as the months wear on, it is becoming clear that they can do nothing of the sort. In the hours following Maspero, Egypt’s Deputy PM and Finance Minister, Hazem Beblawi, submitted his resignation to Field Marshall Tantawi: “This is not about whether there is hope for the economy or country, but rather, it is a statement about the current rulers inability to provide a secure and stable environment for the people.” His resignation was rejected.

Meanwhile, the Military Council has given increasing space in the political sphere for Islamist rhetoric. Despite confirming in March that the Mubarak law banning the formation of parties based on religious ideologies would remain in place, since then, a handful of Islamist parties have in fact been approved. Most recently this week, and despite an initial rejection, the Building and Development party—he political arm of the radical Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyaa—was formally licensed. Many of its members were until recently in jail or blacklisted and in exile out of the country. It is believed that within military ranks there is more sympathy towards the Islamists than the liberal revolutionaries.

While denying that it had given its soldiers orders to attack the October 9 protesters, the military has launched an investigation task force on Maspero. An independent human rights task force is also gathering evidence, saying that it can’t trust SCAF to be impartial since its own forces were involved in the violence. In a slew of announcements that seem in part designed to appease an increasingly mistrustful public, the SCAF has meanwhile declared that the gunman of a church shooting in the southern city of Naga Hammadi in January of last year has, at last, been executed; revealed news that Egypt had negotiated the release of one thousand Palestinian prisoners; that Israel had offered an official apology over the death of five Egyptian border soldiers killed by mistake in August; proclaimed a new law that would prevent agents of the former regime who had ‘corrupted political life’ from running for elections; pledged that the unified law on places of worship would be passed by months end; and sentenced the business tycoon and Mubarak ally Hussein Salem (along with his children) to seven years in jail and an LE4 billion fine.

But these various developments offer little consolation for many Egyptians, who fear that what happened at Maspero could easily happen again. On Tuesday, as Copts were mourning their loved ones, the funeral procession of the executed gunman, El-Kamouny, marched through the streets of the southern city where he opened fire on Copts as they were leaving church on Christmas eve, killing six. Thousands of Muslims marched through the streets with his coffin. They chanted “La Illaha IlaAllah, La Illaha IlaAllah, El-Kamouny shaheed Allah” (There is no God but Allah, There is no God but Allah, El-Kamouny is a martyr of Allah). People cheered them on. El-Kamouny, in their eyes, was a hero.

On talk shows and social network sites over the past few days, people have been talking about whether Egypt can recover from this latest tragedy, and if the unity of Tahrir will ever return. One friend, who lost her father during the revolution when he was hit by a runaway car stolen by thugs, has been tweeting throughout the week. Yesterday, she wrote:

Miss you baba. Are you watching what’s happening to our beloved egypt #dad”.

I see, listen & weep with Vivian. She said she didn’t know why. I also don’t know why. How? When? But most of all, again and again, why? #dad”.

I am angry at Egypt. I am angry at the revolution. I am angry at God. They took you away from me #dad”.

  • Email
  • Print
  • Comments

Please note that all comments are read by a moderator prior to approval. Comments posted using real names, rather than pseudonyms, will have a better chance of being approved. Abusive, repetitive, or incoherent comments will be deleted.