Last night, Egypt’s U.S.-supported armed forces ruthlessly crushed a protest against religious repression. The mayhem that erupted in the Maspero section of Cairo on Sunday was horrifying both in terms of its carnage and for what it signals about the Egyptian state’s intolerance of the country’s Christian Coptic community.
So far, between 25 and 35 people have been documented killed and hundreds wounded in violence that broke out when the Egyptian army brutally dispersed a crowd of Coptic Christians, gathered in front of the state broadcasting building to protest against a church burning in Aswan on September 30. The protest was a reflection of the Coptic community’s growing despondence after a rash of mob attacks directed toward the country’s Christian minority since the January 25 revolution — and their frustration with the military caretaker government that has been largely indifferent to their complaints.
With last night’s violence, that earlier indifference has turned to complicity and direct hostility. The army appears to have suppressed this protest with unrestrained violence — one amateur video from the scene includes footage of a military vehicle careening through the crowd — and early reports suggest that they were joined by armed local thugs who were either out to teach a lesson to the Christians (who had the audacity to demand equality as Egyptian citizens), or were paid to do so. Security personnel were among the casualties, and as of this writing it is unclear who assailed them or how, since there is no evidence that the Coptic protestors were armed.
Regardless, by Monday morning, Egypt awoke to the aftermath of violence that has now left more Copts dead than the New Year’s church bombing in Alexandria.
The caretaker government’s public reaction to the Maspero violence may precipitate worse things to come. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf blamed the events of Sunday night on “invisible hands” — which he did not care to further define — seeking to divide the country. This may appear to be an impromptu deflection of responsibility, but it is in fact a carryover practice from the Mubarak era, in which any Muslim–Christian tensions (on those rare occasions they were even acknowledged) were blamed on “foreign elements.”
This stance has allowed the increasingly toxic sectarian atmosphere in Egypt to fester and intensify, and at this crucial and tense moment, the Prime Minister’s indifference may indeed turn into incitement. It is almost certain that rumor-driven anti-Christian mobs, such as the one that led the church burning in Aswan on Sept. 30, will take his ominous words of “invisible hands” as license to terrorize the Copts. The Copts, who comprise ten percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million, now find themselves crushed between Salafi and other ultra-conservative forces seeking to “put them in their place” from below, and a ruling military demonstrating from above that its patience for public demonstrations does not extend to non-Muslims demanding equal treatment in their own nation
The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) must move quickly to prevent this overnight violence from spreading and to cut off possible reprisals against Coptic Christians throughout the country. It must prosecute the drivers of the military vehicle who ran over the protesting Copts and other members of the security forces who used abusive force against the protestors. At the highest levels, U.S. officials must be firm in informing Egypt’s military that the American people will not allow its foreign aid be used for religious cleansing of the nation’s long-beleaguered Coptic minority.
— Kurt J. Werthmuller is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.