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.

Worrisome because, while the initial spark to the confrontation between the protestors and the army is still unknown, the army crackdown was quite brutal, as these videos show. This marks the first time that the army has taken such an aggressive posture against a predominantly Christian protest, which will easily lead the framing of today’s events as the first time that the military chooses to kill protesting Christians.

Worrisome because state television has behaved thus far tonight much as it did during the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising this winter. In other words, it has deployed propaganda, unverifiable allegations, talk of “foreign agendas” and “outside hands”, and extremely partial reporting. It has repeatedly used sectarian language, with presenters referring to protestors as “the Copts” and using sentences such as “The Copts have killed two soldiers.” On top of this, the military cut off the live TV feeds of several satellite TV stations, including 25TV, al-Hurra, and at a later point al-Jazeera, reducing the independent reporting of an unfolding event. And most of all because TV presenters were urging Egyptians to “protect the army from the Copts.”

Worrisome because many appear to have responded to that call, and tonight on one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares you could see young men marching to that chant of “There is no God but God”, or a woman being attacked simply because she was wearing a cross, or simply because sectarianism has reared its ugly head again after last May’s Imbaba church arson.

Worrisome because this is all happening at a time when the political class is in crisis, its confidence in the SCAF at an all-time low, and the general population is so fed up of all the uncertainty and chaos that it is having buyer’s remorse about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Most worrisome of all because, taken altogether, this paints a picture of the Egyptian military as resorting to sectarian impulses almost reflexively. It is the flipside of its continued unwillingness, after the sectarian clashes (between civilians as well as between police, military and civilians once fighting had already broken out) of earlier this year, to end once and for all the official discrimination that Copts face when building, expanding or renovating places of worship. SCAF, which rules by decree, could have acted, but did not — and acted weakly in the face of the arson of a church in Aswan last week, which was the cause of today’s protests. And because from so many sides we are getting the old passing of the buck to “foreign agendas” and “foreign hands” in what was

We’ll get a clearer picture of what happened tonight in the next few days, when heads will have cooled and the Twitter-fed hysteria and emotion will have died down (I mean really: you had people on Twitter talking of civil war or another January 28 — it's not). Video evidence already suggests that while the protestors may have been aggressive, the army response — notably running over people at high speed with an armored vehicle — is utterly unnaceptable. And far too reminiscent of similar images in late January of this year.

Here are a few early accounts: