Podcast #15: After Maspero

In this week’s podcast, we turn to the tragic events on October 9 in Downtown Cairo, when at least 25 people (mostly Coptic protestors) were killed at the Maspero state TV building. Ashraf, Ursula and I host New York Review of Books contributor Yasmine El Rashidi, an eyewitness to the massacre, and talk about what happened and its consequences.

Links for this week’s episode:

Arabist Podcast #15

Mariz Tadros on Maspero

This part of her excellent MERIP article highlights the state media complicity in the violence:

The second action was to announce on state-run television that “Copts” had put the army itself in peril. Subtitles at the bottom of the screen read: “Urgent: The Army Is Under Attack by Copts.” The presenter called upon all “honorable citizens” to go to Maspero to help defend the soldiers. Around this time, a report was also circulated that that two officers had been martyred at Coptic hands. Viewers at home were not unmoved. Indeed, that evening, many residents of Bulaq and other nearby working-class districts armed themselves with clubs and other weapons, before heading off to Maspero to assist the army in beating up and even killing protesters. One corpse had its head split in two, clearly by a sword or another sharp instrument, not an army-issue weapon.

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In Translation: Alaa al-Aswany on bigotry

As every week, we bring a selected commentary piece from the Arabic press translated into English, courtesy of Industry Arabic, a full-service translation company founded  by two long-time Arabist readers.

Alaa al-AswanyThere was not enough time to wait for the reaction to the sad events of October 9 — and in any case many commentators are simply speechless, as are so many Egyptians — so instead we picked an op-ed by the novelist Alaa al-Aswany published last week. It touched on the issue that motivated last week’s Coptic protest: a lack of government reaction to an attack on a church in Aswan governorate by local Islamists, with the governor preferring to impose a negotiated solution between the Salafists and Christians rather than impose the rule of law, which would have protected the Christians.

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Notes from a shell-shocked Egypt

Here are links to pieces I read yesterday about the massacre at Maspero on October 9, in no particular order, while above is Rawya Rageh's report for al-Jazeera English last night. A longer post is forthcoming, but the mood in Egypt is one of mourning and suspended life (Cairo felt eerily empty yesterday), with the political outcome unclear. There has been some focus on whether elections will be postponed (SCAF says no), but I think this is besides the point: the real question is whether political parties and civil society will push for genuine accountability (for the military and the state media), and more generally whether the parties and revolutionary movements have the appetite to take on SCAF. More on all this later.

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More on yesterday's violence in Cairo

A piece of mine just went up on the Daily Beast about yesterday's clashes and deaths. Visited the Coptic Hospital this morning, and were told that while the bodies of 17 dead protesters lay inside, it was attacked by gangs last night and Christian men in the neighborhood had to defend it for hours. The footage below is of those clashes, from Al Masry Al Youm. 

And now I am hearing that State TV is admitting that no soldiers were killed. Can we confirm this? If this is true it is absolutely unbelievable. The automatic goverment agit-prop on this is almost as bad as the deaths. Every single (Arabic language) Egyptian newspaper with the exception of Tahrir newspaper led with stories and images today that emphasized the violence on the part of the demonstrators, not the army. Al Ahram's disingenuous headine reads: "Twenty-Four Soldiers and Demonstrators Dead.." It really is a full return to the days of the revolution. 

Maspero and sectarianism in Egypt

The clashes that broke out a few hours ago at Maspero, the large Downtown Cairo building near Tahrir Square that houses the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (basically, state TV and radio), are a deeply worrisome turn in Egypt’s fledging transition.

Worrisome because they started off at a protest of Christians (joined by some Muslims) over restrictions on church-building and have taken on a more sectarian overtone than anything we’ve seen so far.

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Now here's enlightening analysis

Lina Attallah on the Alexandria bombing and Egyptian Copts' re-politicization:

While Coptic anger should not be misinterpreted as a sign of overall political dissent, the act of taking to the streets frames the tension along clear political parameters. This is particularly interesting given the decades-long state-engineered process of trivialising politics amongst citizens by co-opting religious institutions, such as the Church, by giving it full authority over the religious and social aspects of Egyptian Christians’ lives in exchange for preaching de-politicisation. This has consequently led to the Church playing a large role in Egypt’s Coptic community, encouraging its members to congregate, to become isolated and to direct concerns to religious authorities as opposed to civil leadership, resulting in a decreased interest in politics over time. 

The anger generated by recent events has the potential to reverse this political apathy amongst Egypt’s Copts and could result positively in renewed civil engagement. The fact that their anger is directed towards the regime, as opposed to their fellow citizens, is healthy and could lead to greater solidarity between fellow Egyptians of all faiths.

Column: Out of tragedy, opportunity

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm, on the opportunities arising of the Alexandria church bombing, is up. An excerpt:

If there is a silver living to this horrible act, it is that we’ve seen a genuine outpouring of grief and indignation about the bombing, and a real willingness to break with taboos and platitudes from many ordinary Egyptians. There appears to be a growing realization that even if there is often little to be done against terrorists’ determination to carry out acts of murders, there is much to be done to defuse the tension of an environment in which many Copts consider the bombing the latest indignity they must endure.

Out of this terrible tragedy, therefore, is an opportunity for political and civil society actors. It is no coincidence that many of the Muslims who joined with Copts in the last few days’ protests were doing so not merely in solidarity, but also against a generalized failure of the state to build a positive vision for what it means to be an Egyptian citizen in the twenty-first century.

Note that a coalition of Egyptian NGOs has called for the state to act now to correct its own contributions to sectarian tensions.

The Alexandria Church Bombing

I just returned this afternoon from a few days in the Egyptian countryside, with no phone and internet. News of the Alexandria bombing had reached us, but it didn't quite hit home until I caught up with news reports, all the activity on Twitter and today's various protests (confusingly both about the church bombings and in solidarity with Tunisia's Sidi Bouzid protests). The protests are ongoing, with a novelty being the police cordon and heightened security around the TV building in central Cairo. This story will unfold over the next few days, with so far little confirmed about the perpetrators.

I will thus reserve my take, for now, to the main issues:

1. The attacks could indicate a new al-Qaeda inspired group is operating in Egypt. It's unlikely that such a group is foreign, as the authorities were very quick to say (because somehow no Egyptian would do this?), although this could be a first manifestation of the "returnees from Iraq" phenomenon experienced elsewhere. It is unlikely that it's the revival of an Egyptian Islamic Jihad sleeper cell either, so we are probably talking about a "freelance jihadi" cell of some kind, the radicalization of a Salafi group (with Alexandria being a major center of Salafi activity) or, less likely, a more serious attempt at destabilizing Egypt by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had issued threats against Egypt a few months ago (again the "returnees from Iraq" scenario would point to that). Whoever the perpetrators are, this goes to show how interconnected the world of jihadi Salafism is, and the porous borders it has with "Scientific" or non-violent Salafism.

2. It's yet another very worrying indication of rising sectarian tensions in Egypt. It's not so much the attack itself, but the recriminations it has engendered and the rioting that followed it. At that same time, it's also heart-warming to see so much indignation and solidarity on Twitter and elsewhere. Hopefully something good can come out of this drama and seeing Muslims call out for genuine, total equality between themselves and Copts is a good sign. Let's hope it's not all wasted by security interference, irresponsible clergymen and imams, and the other usual spoilers.

3. There is also something specifically Alexandrian about this. Yes, sectarian attacks have taken place elsewhere, but usually sparked by some clash over conversion or church-building, or in the case of the Naga Hammadi murders most probably local politics. This is of a completely different order, and more similar to the 2006 church murders I wrote about here. Something is rotten in Alexandria, not for the first time.

Here's a collection of links, articles and more about the church bombing.

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The Nag Hammadi massacre

I should be on al-Jazeera English around 1pm GMT to talk about the attack on a church in Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, which claimed six lives. The attack was retaliation on the Coptic community after a Copt (from a different area) raped a young Muslim girl in November. It appears to have been led by a man who had publicly sworn to take revenge against the local bishop (who had nothing to do with the rape), but had not been arrested by security (the bishop says he was protected by local ruling party figures). The Coptic community in Nag Hammadi is now protesting lax security and the hostility they've felt since the rape. I recommend keeping up with al-Masri al-Youm which has some excellent reporting from the scene: ✩ Shadow of violence, displacement looms over Christian holidays in Upper Egypt - background to the recent attack. ✩ Copts in wrath following Egypt’s bloodiest Christmas - on the attack, subsequent riots and the security response. ✩ A different sense of belonging - on Copts' isolation from politics and retreat into the church since Sadat. Update: See also: ✩ Egypt police close in on Christmas murder suspects - AP. ✩ Egyptian Christians riot after fatal shooting - The Guardian. ✩ Also worth keeping an eye on Copts United, although take their info with a grain of salt. ✩ Follow al-Masry al-Youm English journalist Pakinam Amer on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates. Here is Pakinam's latest story.
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Links for 10.21.09

'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: Nozette: Pollard, 2.0? | On the latest Israeli spy scandal in the US. ✪ "friday-lunch-club": Netanyahu refuses Kouchner's request to see Gaza's destruction ... | Gaza? What Gaza? ✪ To Earn HIs Nobel Prize, Obama Will Need a "Plan B" | Stephen M. Walt | "If I were President Obama (now there's a scary thought!), I'd ask some smart people on my foreign policy team to start thinking hard about "Plan B." What's Plan B? It's the strategy that he's going to need when it becomes clear that his initial foreign policy initiatives didn't work." ✪ ذاكرة مصر المعاصرة - الصحافة | Alexandria Library's online collection of historical Egyptian newspapers, including the first issue of al-Ahram (which was founded, it must be reluctantly noted, by Lebanese.) ✪ News Analysis - Painful Mideast Truth - Force Trumps Diplomacy - NYTimes.com | Painful Media Truth: For NYT, bias always trumps journalism. Look at the language used in this piece: Palestinian violence is "very bloody" and Israel carries out "military action." Israel's plans to attack Iran are considered as legitimate. And there is a mixing of terrorism and the attacks on Israel's "legitimacy" -- i.e. the legitimacy of its landgrabs, occupations and militarism. Pure hasbara. ✪ Israel, US start major joint air defence drill - Yahoo! News |
The exercise will test the Arrow (Hetz) system, the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence), the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defence System, as well as Patriot and Hawk anti-aircraft systems, media said. It will simulate the firing of long-range missiles from Israel's foes Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and towards the end it will include a "live" missile interception, reports said.
Matthew Yglesias » Bernstein on Human Rights Watch | A good retort to the latest silly attack on HRW (by one of its former chairman) "or having the temerity to hold Israel to the same standards of international humanitarian law to which it holds every other country." But this just points to the problem of bias in the higher echelons of HRW - among former and current staffers. ✪ Almasry Alyoum | No Fly Zone | Nice story looking at the recent airport detentions of various kinds of activists. ✪ Almasry Alyoum | Pope Shenouda: "I Support Gamal Mubarak" | What a nasty little man, and what disservice he does to his flock. I hope Copts flee the Orthodox Church en masse over this. ✪ Arab states consider joint counter-terror police unit | "Arabpol." Oh Lord Have Mercy. ✪ Egyptcarpoolers | A carpooling connecting website for Cairo. ✪ Saddam Interview | Transcripts of interviews with Saddam Hussein during his captivity in 2004.
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Links for 10.18.09 to 10.20.09

Egypt's Moussa does not rule out presidency run: report| International| Reuters | Moussa throws his hat in the ring, sort of, and does not discount a Gamal Mubarak presidency either. ✪ Report: Israeli cafe boycotts Turkish coffee amid tensions | Because Turkey's cancellation of joint military exercises with Israel... hilarious. ✪ Can Egypt protect its Copts? | Khaled Diab | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | On growing sectarian tensions, Hassan and Morqos, etc. ✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Features | Time to give back | "According to economist Abdel-Khaleq Farouk, Egyptian business people spent more than an estimated LE300 million in 2008 on what he described as "publicising their provocative and socially irresponsible lifestyles," with money spent by business people on social programmes not exceeding LE50 million per year." ✪ Arab League says US donations used to finance settlements - Yahoo! News | This should be pursued much more aggressively. ✪ Al-Ahram Weekly | Front Page | Obituary: A beautiful mind Mohamed El-Sayed Said (1950-2009) | Obit of the late Egyptian scholar, leftist and founding Kifaya member. ✪ Khalil Bendib interviews Shlomo Sand « P U L S E | Author of "The Invention of the Jewish People." ✪ Orascom Is Building Hotel Of Doom | In North Korea...
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Links for 07.31.09

allAfrica.com: Egypt: Bloggers Fly Into Security Trap (Page 1 of 1) | On the recent spate of arrests of bloggers at Cairo Airport. Makes you think, did they get a new computer system or what? Grading places - The National Newspaper | Marc Lynch on AHDR 2009: I don't get what all the debate is about. The Federal Budget and Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2010: Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights in the Middle East | Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) | Well-researched report on US democracy promotion spending in the Middle East. From the inside - The National Newspaper | Iason Athanasiadis on his ordeal in Iran. EGYPT: Coptic pope likes president's son | Babylon & Beyond | Los Angeles Times | Shenouda yet again says he supports Gamal Mubarak presidency.
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Obama's Lost Opportunity to Address Coptic Persecution

Obama's Lost Opportunity to Address Coptic Persecution
If you read this release from something called the Assyrian International News Agency, where the same person that voices concern for the Copts also condemns "the Islamization of America", you'll worry that some Coptic activists are making the mistake of associating with fringe loonies to the detriment of their worthy cause. But then again Copts in exile have long played political football with the situation of their brethren who remain in Egypt.
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