One more thing about Maspero

For the last week, I and most people I know in Egypt have been shell-shocked by the events of October 9. It is partly because they came after a period of growing unease about the SCAF's handling of the post-Mubarak transition, and partly because the event appears like something new, previously unseen, in the Egyptian context in several ways.

One is that the military fired on protestors after its whole claim to be a protector of the revolution came from supposedly refusing to fire on protestors — I say supposedly because whether or not Hosni Mubarak asked the military to do this is unclear, according to SCAF head and minister of defense Tantawi himself. And it is new because it has been a long time since Copts became under the direct assault of state agents (i.e. soldiers and policemen) in what seemed to be explicitly sectarian terms, particularly in the context of state media presenting the incident as one of Copts attacking the military. Finally, equally shocking is that large numbers of people appeared to respond to sectarian incitation in a way that might be not so unusual in rural Upper Egypt, but has rarely been seen in Cairo.

So Maspero cristallized the rejection of SCAF that many revolutionaries have felt and that it being echoed widely on the internet these days. But we forget that it may have also cristallized the majority of Egyptians in another direction: that of supporting the army, and condemning challenges to it, precisely because they believe the best way to avoid a worsening of the situation is reducing tensions. Among Copts in particular, no matter what they may believe privately (and I think that is mostly fear, anger and anguish), this appears to be a common public position. Hence the meek response of the Coptic Orthodox Church to the massacre: it rather work towards a calming of tensions (and, hopefully, obtain long sought-after concessions such as the new anti-discrimination law and a new law regulating places of worship) than an escalation of the kind called for by more radical figures. This is partly because Pope Shenouda is old and ill, and not the man for this confrontation, but probably mostly because church leaders are scared for their flock — that things could much worse and October 9 could be a harbinger of a much worse crisis.

More generally, though, the way the SCAF is perceived has changed. Most people not only long for stability, but also see the military as the only institution left standing in Egypt. Calls by radical activists for unknown, and supposedly well-meaning, younger officers to overthrow Mubarak's generals do not convince many. Maspero may have accelerated the trend to stay quiet and let the army get on with things, and added to the chorus of voices calling for a period without "sectoral demands" — i.e. protests and strikes by particular social and professional groups — so that the transition can go ahead. Along with this are mounting calls by the political class for SCAF to go and a president elected as soon as possible, and continued (in my anecdotal appreciation) commitment to civilian rather than military government. In short, I see a rising consensus (which I am merely observing, not endorsing) to let SCAF get on with things so that it can be disbanded.

Where I disagree with this is that I don't think Egyptians can afford the luxury of letting the SCAF simply "go ahead" with the transition. It has done far too poor of a job so far. Parties and activists need to push hard to get their way, and marshall the population against a transition plan that will be palatable to all. To do this they will have to think beyond protests, which are increasingly alienating good parts of the population, and offer an alternative that combines desire for change with stability.

In the statement below, leading Egyptian human rights groups reject the SCAF's fact-finding committee, on the grounds that it has no credibility to investigate on the military (i.e. itself) and that its previous claims that abuses will be investigated have proven hollow. It's hard not to agree, and not admire their resolute stance after what happened in Maspero.


Press Release by 21 Egyptian human rights associations
— 16 October 2011

Maspero: State Incitement of Sectarian Violence and Policy of Extrajudicial Killings

The undersigned organizations condemn the unprecedented extra-judicial killings and acts of violence committed by military police and central security forces, on the 9th of October in the Maspero area and central Cairo. Peaceful protesters demanding rights for Coptic citizens were attacked, leading to at least 25 deaths and 300 injuries, some critical. We further condemn the arrest of an unknown number of demonstrators and their referral to a military tribunal for investigation. We call for an independent investigation committee, and categorically reject any investigation by the military prosecutor; as it a part of the military establishment charged with the killing and wounding of demonstrators, and cannot therefore serve as a neutral party to the case.

The demonstration consisted of a peaceful march, which began in Shubra at around 4pm, and a silent protest outside the state television building. The demonstrators were protesting against the demolition of the Church of St. George, in the village of Al-Marinab in Edfu District, Aswan Governorate, as well as against the complicity of the Governor of Aswan and security forces in said demolition. The church, which had been carrying out religious services for eighty years, was destroyed on the pretext that it did not have a licence, an argument increasingly used by some extremist Muslim groups to justify attacks on churches. Rather than deterring such crimes by enforcing the law and punishing the instigators and perpetrators, the authorities have borrowed the methods of the ousted Mubarak regime. In an open violation of the law, security services persisted in holding ‘traditional’ reconciliation meetings in which victims were denied their rights and criminals escaped punishment. As such extremists came to realize that they would not be held accountable before the authorities.

According to video footage and eyewitness testimonies from Maspero, military police and central security forces dispersed protesters by opening fire and by using military vehicles to run them down. Demonstrators threw stones at security personnel and set an army vehicle on fire; the two sides then threw stones at each other.

Events took a final twist at around 9pm when people in civilian clothes joined the army’s assault on protesters. A large number of witnesses stated that these were Muslims from the areas of Bulaq Abul Ela and Ghamra. The army and police continued to fire tear gas and bullets late into the evening; the hit and run attacks also continued. The military police also arrested a number of people, who were then detained for 15 days pending investigation.

We also condemn the storming of the offices of the satellite TV channels Al-Hurra and 25 January TV by teams of military police during the Maspero events, cutting off their live broadcasts. We also condemn the inflammatory role played by the official state media. A direct link can be traced between the outright incitement against demonstrators by state media and the events at Maspero – to say nothing of the subsequent sectarian clashes which took place between demonstrators and residents from the surrounding areas. Official state television threw professionalism to the wind and reported that Coptic demonstrators had opened fire on soldiers, killing three and wounding others, without referring to the victims amongst the demonstrators, who were completely ignored. State media broadcast an inflammatory appeal to Egyptian citizens to take to the streets and protect the army from ‘attacks by Coptic demonstrators.’

Monday morning saw a joint meeting between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the transitional government to discuss what had happened at Maspero. This led to a declaration by the Military Council tasking the Cabinet with the formation of an investigatory committee. It must be noted that over the past few months both SCAF and the transitional government have failed to reach any conclusions in a string of official investigations. These range from the virginity tests inflicted on Egyptian women arrested in Tahrir Square, to the dispersal of those gathered in Tahrir Square on April 9th 2011 during which several were killed, to the killing of Rami Fakhry at an army checkpoint on the Cairo to Ismailiyah road, to what happened at Nour Mosque in Abbassiyah on the evening of July 23rd, 2011, which led to the death of Mohamed Mohsen.

The undersigned organizations are deeply skeptical of all of the investigations announced by SCAF since it took power. We also emphasize our disappointment at the lack of a speech by the Prime Minister, and at the press conference held by SCAF, during which they took least possible of responsibility for this heinous crime. Both SCAF and the government were keen to describe the killings as clashes between Muslims and Christians, along with unidentified ‘foreign elements’. Both ignored the involvement of the armed forces, whose direct responsibility for the killing of civilians was evidenced by eyewitnesses and television cameras. SCAF, rather than opening an investigation into the official media’s coverage of the events, instead praised its neutrality. It ignored the media’s culpability in calling on citizens to take to the streets and protect the army, which constituted direct incitement of sectarian clashes. This confirms the unwillingness of both SCAF and the government to break with the policies of Mubarak’s security regime, which exacerbated the problem of sectarianism and made religious minorities, along with their property and places of worship, into targets for various forms of attacks without fear of consequences.

Therefore, the undersigned organizations reject the fact-finding committee established by the Cabinet, and demand the following: An independent committee, including both the judiciary and civil society groups, with broad powers including the power to question members of the armed forces. The committee should examine the extra-judicial killings at Maspero on the night of October 9th 2011, and the groups wearing civilian clothes who participated in the clashes – a scene which is repeated every time tensions develop between demonstrators and the government. It should also include an investigation into the official media’s incitement against Copts. The committee should announce its results at a press conference after a period of no more than three weeks, identifying the perpetrators and the necessary judicial proceedings, including judicial referrals of all those proved to have been involved – not excluding military officers, soldiers, and police.

SCAF and the government must shoulder their constitutional and legal responsibilities. These include ensuring due respect for the law by all citizens and groups, providing essential security to all, renouncing double standards, and strictly applying the law to perpetrators of sectarian violence and attacks on places of worship.

The scenes of the 9th October are a reminder of events still fresh in the minds of Egyptians. Yet the extent of the violence, its sectarian nature, and the unprecedented degree of media incitement, threaten to exacerbate the ongoing crisis of sectarian violence, which has been documented by the reports and recommendations of the National Council for Human Rights and other independent bodies. These bodies have conducted a number of investigations in previous cases of sectarian violence. A number of recommendations, which have been ignored by authorities both past and present, have stated that the solution begins with the state. The state can still defuse the crisis of sectarian violence and save the country from the threat of civil war looming on the horizon. Yet the necessary political will must exist. The state must adopt policies which uphold and respect the rule of ordinary (not extraordinary) law, which do not discriminate between citizens, and which establish the values of citizenship and the foundations of justice and equality.

Signatory organisations:

  1. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
  2. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  3. Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement
  4. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
  5. New Woman Foundation
  6. Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of the Conditions of Childhood
  7. Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression
  8. Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights
  9. Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture
  10. Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies
  11. Habi Centre for Environmental Rights
  12. Hisham Mubarak Law Centre
  13. Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination
  14. Egyptian Democratic Institute
  15. Nazra for Feminist Studies
  16. United Group of Lawyers and Legal Advisers
  17. Organization of Coptic Solidarity
  18. Al-Helaly Inistitute for Freedoms
  19. Arab Penal Reform Organization
  20. Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners
  • Land Center For Human Rights
  • Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.