Mariz Tadros on Maspero
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.
At its October 12 press conference, the SCAF stuck to its story that the protesters had placed the soldiers, and by extension the institutions of the state, in danger. The army spokesmen showed footage of the priest who had threatened the march on Maspero predicting as well that the Aswan governor would be killed if he were not dismissed. The carnage at Maspero could have been much worse, the generals claimed, were it not for the soldiers’ “self-restraint” despite their terror. “Thank God the soldiers didn’t have live ammunition or else it would have been a real catastrophe,” said ‘Imara.
The demonization of the Maspero protesters is partly in keeping with standard operating procedure for the Egyptian state in dealing with political dissidents, whether they are Copts, workers or youth activists. The state always presents itself as protecting a silent majority from an unruly few. When the dissidents are Christian, however, the demonization is served up with a twist: Copts are implicitly or explicitly depicted as lacking patriotism, even as traitors. This portrayal extends beyond the state into the wider public realm. When such groups as the Maspero Youth began to be active, prominent commentators did not celebrate Coptic agency independent of the church, but suggested that young Copts had become too big for their boots.  Worker protest is demeaned as “special-interest” pleading, but Coptic protest is denounced in stronger terms as divisive. This state of affairs persists despite the fact that Copts are not calling for additional rights, but simply for due respect for their citizenship and proper application of Egyptian law amidst a backlash targeting perfectly legal churches and other property, as well as people. The renowned Hasan Abu Talib, editor-in-chief of the prestigious annual al-Ahram Strategic Report, told al-‘Arabiyya said that the Maspero demonstrators had provoked the public sentiment against them by asking for international protection, though this request was nowhere on the protest’s agenda. The army and the January 25 revolution are “one hand,” and the army is the protector of Islam, Abu Talib continued, so Egyptians are bound to react negatively to such veiled criticism of the institution. The fact that the protesters made very specific demands for civil rights makes no difference to the perpetrators of such discourse, because protest under the banner of Coptic identity is seen as illegitimate.
On October 9, however, the SCAF and state media went well beyond the usual insinuations that protesting Copts are overly demanding, ungrateful or unduly provocative: The messages crawling along the bottom of the TV screen were an open incitement to civil war.