The violence that rocked Cairo last sunday left at least two dozen dead and hundreds more wounded — and with at least 20 people arrested and due to face Egypt’s notorious military courts. The victims were mostly Coptic Christian protesters and the violence has been reported in many outlets as "sectarian clashes".
If that were the case, however, why was it that inside Cairo’s Coptic cathedral, the funeral chants called not for revenge against Muslims, but for the fall of Field Marshal Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the head of the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which has been ruling the country since the resignation of Hosni Mubarak?
It probably because what took place outside the Maspiro state television building was more a case of the army attacking protesters than Muslims attacking Christians (though that certainly happened too).
A march of around 10,000 mostly Christian protesters started out at 4pm from the northern Cairo suburb of Shubra, which has a large Coptic population. They were marching in anger over the transitional government’s apparent complacency regarding attacks on churches, including one in the southern city of Aswan. Their numbers were swollen by anger at the violent dispersal of a march over the same issue five days earlier.
On the way they were halted by people in civilian clothes throwing rocks. This attack lacked the force to stop the march, which continued to its downtown riverside destination. There they were confronted by hundreds of military police with armoured personal carriers, helmets, shields and heavy batons. Soon after, scuffles broke out with protesters pushing against army barricades, and according to some reports, throwing rocks. The army’s response was swift and brutal. They charged forward beating the crowd indiscriminately, and gunshots rang through the air. The shooting continued and some of the APCs began to drive into the crowd, crushing protesters to death.
Journalists were stopped by soldiers and police and had their equipment taken, and two TV stations with nearby studios were stormed by solders and forced to stop broadcasting from the scene of the clashes. It was confirmed yesterday that a journalist from Coptic broadcaster Al-Tareeq was shot and killed while filming the violence. Meanwhile, state TV was broadcasting that "the Christians" had attacked the army, killing three soldiers. This claim about military casualties was later retracted, and then made again with the added caveat that neither names nor photographs of the victims could be provided. A presenter called on "honourable" civilians to come and protect them.
To what extent these calls were heeded, and to what extent the organised thugs known as Baltagiya (the plural of Baltagia, Turkish word meaning "hatchet man") were deployed is hard to know. Either way, groups of men armed with clubs, swords, tazers and other weapons descended on the scene, fighting alongside the army. According to Egyptian blogger Ramy Yaacoub, as the Copts and their Muslim supporters, many of whom rushed to defend the protest after hearing about the attacks, were chanting "Christians and Muslims are one hand", those attacking them were repeating the chant of the original uprising that "the army and the people are one hand".
By the end of the night the army and the anti-Christian gangs had largely prevailed, with the army’s vehicles and guns responsible for most of the body count. Groups of men roamed downtown attacking Christians and Christian-owned businesses such as bottle shops. There are no reports of the army challenging them.
This comes less than two months out from scheduled parliamentary elections. Some activists fear that the army, having already shut down one TV station, will tighten its grip on Egyptian media and society. Playing upon and exacerbating sectarian tensions is part of this strategy. Leaving aside their own role in the violence, the SCAF used it the next day as a justification for taking all "necessary precautions to stabilise security" and announce the reinstatement of a curfew downtown. This has been taken as a not so subtle message that they intend to exert their power with less restraint than they have shown so far.
The army sided with the population against the dictator, and professed many times the desire to return to their barracks. Why would they want to stand in the way of Egypt’s democratic blossoming?
Apart from the ubiquitous desire of the powerful to remain so, the SCAF have very specific reasons. They at the core of the corrupt economic elite that is threatened by the leftward shift likely to accompany the election of a populist government. Both the individuals in the higher ranks as individuals and the army as an institution are major stakeholders in the current economic order. The army runs many businesses including factories, farms and luxury hotels. Indeed a flashpoint of conflict with any future civilian government is likely to be civilian supervision of the US$5 billion plus annual military budget.
This budget is further fattened by US military aid — of which Egypt receives the second largest portion after Israel. This aid, however, is contingent on Egypt’s continued co-enforcement of the siege of Gaza and other unpopular submissions to Israeli and American domination, policies that will be impossible in a truly democratic Egypt.
Until now the SCAF — while attacked relentlessly by a core group of activists, and defied by striking workers across the country — has enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Egyptians. A poll from the Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies found that almost 90 per cent of Egyptians said they trusted the SCAF. A similar number said they expected the SCAF to hand over power to a civilian government. The faith that Egyptians have in the military leadership is dependent on their supposed role as protectors of the population, and as midwives of democracy.
On Sunday night they further undermined both these claims to legitimacy.
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