What Happened? Sunday October 9th In Perspective

DISCLAIMER: I am fine.  Things are basically business as usual, but we all have a new major topic of conversation: the clashes in Cairo that killed at least 24 people on October 9th.

The details remain foggy of exactly what happened and why. To find out for myself, I talked to a few people and did some research through various sources (the best of which I will list in this post).

Before you read, I want you to take a second and realize that you have certain preconceived notions about how you expect the world to work.  One of the things I struggle with in terms of this story is the way in which the government, the police, the army, the media, and sometimes the citizens themselves are all suspect in this country.  This makes ideas like conspiracy theories reasonable and often legitimate responses to the situation.  The point is we don’t know all of the details of what has happened and what is going on.  So, what happened on Sunday?

1. On September 30th a mob burned and partially demolished a Coptic church in the town of el-Marinab in Edfu, Aswan province in Upper Egypt.

St. George’s church, a Coptic church built over 100 years ago, was under renovation.  As a Coptic church, it represented a minority religion—10 to 20 percent of the total population (exact figures are hard to come by). Coptic Christianity has been present here for at least 1600 years and many Copts think of themselves as the original Egyptians, as their ancestors lived here before the Arab invasion in 641 AD. The early Arabs imposed special taxes on Christians but were intermittently tolerant and violent toward them.  During the most violent period, the Mamluk era, following the Crusades, Copts were subjected to forced conversion and raids on their religious spaces. In modern Egypt, things are better, but religious discrimination is widespread.  There is no more jizya, or religious tax, but there is job discrimination, political exclusion, official recognition of converts to Islam but not converts to Christianity, limits on how many Copts can enter military and police academies, unequal media coverage and media bias against them.  Most importantly for this Sunday, Copts need to get approval  to build churches and prayer spaces from local authorities and the state security agency.  This is not the case for mosques.  Permits can take years and often face multiple rejections.  Once permits are received, the plans are sometimes extended somewhat, knowing how hard it is to get another permit to allow for bigger changes.  Thus a renovation on a broken toilet could turn into the construction of an entire annex.

In the case of the church in Aswan, the new plans involved crosses and domes not covered in the permit.  Local Muslims complained about this to the government, who met with church officials.  The bell, spire, and crosses would come down and there would be no artificial amplification in the church, as per the government’s requests, but the domes would be harder to remove since there were concerns for the stability of another type of ceiling.  Still, the church officials said that demands would be met.  All seemed well (if grossly unfair) until a wall which was permitted to be 9 meters high was built 13 meters high.  When the builders were too slow in taking it down again, anger started in the local community.  A mob made up (apparently) of Muslims demolished major infrastructure as well as building materials. Eyewitnesses claim that they also destroyed electrical goods from Coptic households, all the while blocking the fire brigade from gaining access to the scene.

The media and the governor denied any wrongdoing, saying that the church had actually been a “guest home”  or service space and that there were never any churches in el-Marinab

2. Protests began all over Egypt, including Alexandria, but most importantly in Cairo.

When the news spread protests began, demanding the resignation of the governor of Aswan, an investigation of the demolition, the rebuilding of the church, and general religious equality.  Protesters accused SCAF- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces- of supporting the mob and the governor and state TV of spreading lies about what had happened.  There were Muslims present on both sides, some out against the Copts and some joining forces with them.  In Cairo on October 9th, protesters marched from the Shoubra district of Cairo to Maspero, the headquarters of the state media.  They intended to hold a sit-in at Maspero.

 3. Violence

Somewhere along the line, violence broke out.   Tear gas was fired, stones were thrown, and in the noise it was unclear who was firing guns. There is dramatic footage of army vehicles driving into protesters at full speed, running some of them over.   At least 24 people were killed and 212 wounded.  Although it is hard to confirm, there are reports of baltagea (thugs) beating protesters in an attempt to disperse them.  If there were, it adds a new layer to the scene because these people are usually hired by someone, as was the case during the Battle of the Camel back in February.  If you believe these reports, it is hard to see the violence as a result of religious tension alone.  In the instability of Egypt’s current state, it is certainly conceivable that someone is trying to distract Egyptians from the matter at hand—rebuilding their country.  An easy way to do that would be to encourage existing tension.

4. Reaction

On the 11th, the supreme military council announced that no permits for either mosques or churches will be required.  This could be an attempt to appease the people, but some say this will encourage the rise of fundamentalism, which grows especially in the small mosques built within pre-existing buildings.  For the cause of the revolutions and for religious equality, this could spell chaos.

It is clear that the military council cannot hold on to power for long, regardless of whether they are secretly stirring up these protests or not.  One of my professors put this in perspective: can one group, let alone one man be a doctor, a lawyer, a mediator, an architect, a pundit, an economist, and a social worker at the same time, all while having only a military background?  No, but all of these are required of whoever will gain power with the support of the people.  Emergency law cannot exist forever, especially now that the frustrated people have realized just how much power they hold if they continue to unite in one movement.  The Revolution was a hopeful period for many of the minority groups in Egypt, seeing at last a glimpse of reconciliation and equality within a representative state.  After these clashes, it seems even less likely that Copts will have their demands met.  I hope that any future clashes will not interfere with the general elections to be held November 28th.  That would be the honorable way to pay homage to those who lost their lives on Sunday and throughout this revolution.

On a purely selfish note, I really really don’t want to have to evacuate. Alexandria is fantastic, the people I meet are great, and it’s inspiring being here during such a time of upheaval and aspiration.

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