The following article was first published at Green Left Weekly on October 16, after the massacre of Coptic protesters the previous week. Given the advances made by the revolution in uniting the struggle against the SCAF since then, the incident was an important turning point.
Regime tries to whip up religion tensions with anti-Copt violence
Walking around downtown Cairo on October 10, everything felt relatively normal ― if, perhaps, a little more tense than usual for post-January 25 Cairo.
That is, until I came across the wrecks of burnt out cars on the Corniche el Nil in Maspero, just north of Tahrir Square, being pulled apart by enterprising young men.
The night before, Coptic Christians marched from Shubra to protest acts of discrimination against Copts by the interim government, including the destruction of St. George's Church in Aswan and the forceful break-up of a protest on October 5. The marchers were assaulted by unidentified groups of thugs before being massacred by the military.
At least 26 people were killed in the ensuing violence, many by army armoured personnel carriers that drove straight into the crowd of thousands, gunners firing wildly into the night.
But despite the headlines flashing across the world, it is wrong to call this an act of sectarian violence. What happened on the night of October 9 was state violence against peaceful protesters, on a scale not seen since Hosni Mubarak's ouster on February 11.
Eyewitness reports on social media sites such as Twitter claimed that the groups of thugs attacking the protesters grabbed people and dragged them over to army and police forces to be arrested. This suggests that the lion's share of violence was not created by the religious tensions, but the regime's baltageya (political thugs loyal to the interior ministry).
The regime has been busily exploiting religious tensions within Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, trying to split the unity between Christians, Muslims, atheists and other Egyptians shown during the occupations of Tahrir Square.
This includes broadcasts from the state media, which, as protesters were being massacred on October 9, were busily reporting that Christians were stealing weapons from the army and killing Muslim soldiers, the Al Masry Al Youm site said.
Mohamed Abou El-Ghar, of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said in a cross-party press conference on October 10 that condemned the violence that the state media had urged Muslims into the street to protect the armed forces. The state media claimed the protesters were burning Qurans in the street.
Yet, despite this campaign, the graffiti around the city showing the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent, with the words "2gether 4ever", has been some of the best preserved since the start of the revolution.
Another rumour repeated to me on the streets of downtown Cairo as the bloodshed was unfolding was that the protesters were marching to support Mubarak.
No doubt seeking to bolster their own support base and fan the flames of religious tension, the Muslim Brotherhood released a statement calling on Copts to cease protesting for the sake of "democracy".
“There are certain channels, means and times for demanding legitimate demands and all Egyptian people have legitimate demands, not only our Coptic brothers,” said the statement. “This is certainly not the right time to demand them since the current government is an interim government and the general conditions are abnormal."
The Brotherhood demanded the regime keep the current timetable for elections.
The Revolutionary Socialists, on the other hand, condemned the oppression of Copts "which goes hand-in-hand with a policy of divide and rule between Christian and Muslim working people".
"We will continue to defend our revolution, and the people’s right to free expression, to protest, demonstrate and strike, in order to restore our stolen rights, and to cleanse the country of the roots of corruption, which is still poisoning our revolution and attempting to overturn it," their statement read.
Coptic protests continued on October 10, with mourners rallying outside the Coptic hotel in the Cairo suburb of Ramsis. They chanted against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's power behind the throne since Mubarak's downfall, before marching to the State TV building in Maspero.
Reports from Al Masry Al Youm said up to 20,000 took part in the march.
Despite a huge police and army presence at Maspero earlier in the day, which looked like it was gearing up to block the protests, there was no massacre this time. Local residents showed support for the protesters, and some threw bottles of water to the marchers.
The interim government has responded to the violence and international condemnation by launching a quick inquiry, detaining 25 suspects implicated in the violence. It added the “Equality Law” to the penal code, which stipulates special punishment for anyone who carries out any action that causes violence against individuals or communities based on gender, race, language or religion, or which might lead to unequal opportunity or social inequality, reports from State TV said.
But in Egypt's current climate of lax police enforcement, and the open unity of the army and police in repressing the protests (a change in tactics from the days of the uprising against Mubarak), perhaps the only real change to Egypt's political landscape after October 9 will be a growing awareness that the SCAF, despite its rhetoric, is doing everything in its power to hold back the revolution.