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.
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.”
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.