Sadly, the only thing that we can be certain about is the 26 coffins. The Christian victims of the Sunday massacre in the Cairo district of Maspero died a cruel death, many of them under the treads of military vehicles. What we do not know is why the massacre happened. It started with an attack of sword-wielding thugs on a thousand-strong Coptic demonstration against an earlier attack on a church in Aswan. The church was allegedly illegally built; in Egypt it is allowed to build a new church only if the old one is crumbling down. This early attack, unfortunately, is hardly news; in Egypt, attacks on Copts are almost the norm. One day after the Maspero massacre, Haman al-Kamony, who was convicted of having in 2009 murdered six Copts leaving their church after Mass, was executed by hanging. After the revolution, and the growth of influence of the hitherto banned Islamists, such attacks only grew more common. Police and troops were sent to Maspero to quell the riots – and the State TV broadcast appeals to “honest Egyptians” to rush to the scene and defend the Army, allegedly under attack by Copts. Dramatic footage of wounded military personnel was shown. Crowds flocked to the scene, and the riot turned into a massacre. The army also found the time to thrice interrupt the program of a private TV, 25 Channel, which did not broadcast appeals, but simply covered events as they unfolded.
The appeal by State TV was the direct cause of the massacre, and yet the authorities did not condemn it; the Minister of Information only said that the announcers were “stressed out”. A leading anchorman announced he had no influence over the news that Sunday evening, a well-known colleague of his stated that she was ashamed of working for State TV, “a slave to every authority”. There is no doubt that State TV did incite the populace against the Copts, already under attack by thugs. The journalists who did this should stand trial. Still, it is hard to imagine that they got the idea that civilians should protect the army from unarmed demonstrators just because they were under stress – and even if they really thought such an attack is under way, they should have rather called on the populace to stay away from Maspero. It seems clear that this was not a stress-induced slip of tongue, but rather a premeditated provocation. The Egyptian authorities should have announced that those responsible for it will be investigated and put on trial. Yet in his speech, PM Essam Sharaf only made dark hints about conspiracies and “foreign hands” – as if he did not understand that some of that blood is on his hands as well.
What is taking place in Egypt is not only a sectarian conflict, even if the Christians – and, it should be stressed, the liberal section of Egyptian public opinion – legitimately denounce the systematic discrimination and unpunished violence they suffer. This is a conscious attempt to whip up this conflict so much, that only state violence will be able to stop it, and be considered legitimate. Marshall Tantawi’s junta which since the revolution has been running Egypt (including state TV) probably intends to use provocation in order to reintroduce martial law, which the revolution had abolished, and thus consolidate its own power. The free elections the revolutionaries fought for are finally to start in November and last, under an extremely complicated law (open to abuse) until January – while Tunisia will simply go to the polls on October 23.
Almost none of the promises of the revolution have been implemented, but food prices have gone up by 80%. The junta’s rule is being threatened. If the Islamists are blamed for the Maspero massacre, as official propaganda suggests, a crackdown will loom, and liberals will be hard-pressed to oppose it. 26 coffins might seem to the junta an acceptable price for such a development. And only el-Kamony went to his death not understanding why he is being hanged by a state which does what he did, but on a larger scale.
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