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Attack on Coptic Protest at Maspero: Early Details and Context

Two people were killed and scores were injured following an overnight clash at the site of an ongoing Coptic protest outside the Egyptian Radio and Television building at Maspero, Cairo. According to Mina Magdy, head of the political committee for the Maspero Youth Union organizing the sit-in, hundreds of thugs arrived around 12:30am and began attacking the protestors. Magdy stated the police did not involve themselves immediately, but the attack continued until 1am when police fired live ammunition into the air, and fired tear gas to disperse the attackers. Magdy relates there were around one thousand demonstrators at the time of the attack, and though the numbers have now decreased, the sit-in is continuing.

Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reports there were 250 attackers, fifty of whom have been arrested by police. Attackers lobbed rocks and Molotov cocktails from an overhead bridge nearby. Al-Masry al-Youm reports the attackers fired ammunition into the demonstrators. CNN reports that the Coptic demonstrators broke up the sidewalk so as to defend themselves by throwing chunks of concrete at their assailants. One, it is reported, was apprehended and beaten badly.

Al-Ahram reports the altercation originated following arguments with the protestors and drivers of vehicles on the major road in front of the protest area. It quotes a protest organizer who stated the driver of the vehicle tried to enter the demonstration area, but refused to be searched for weapons, and tried to instigate trouble. The paper states the attacks were in revenge of this altercation, but the driver is not identified.

None of the reports or Coptic sources at Maspero stated the assailants were Salafi Muslims in their appearance; rather, they were thugs. The identity and motivations, however, are unknown. Salafis stand accused of fermenting and perhaps perpetrating many of the recent attacks on Copts and others since the revolution, though it is also claimed remnants of the former regime and security system have been provoking sectarian conflict.

I was able to visit the Maspero protestors yesterday, before the attacks, and learned of their organization, witnessing the layout of the area.

The protest area at Maspero has three main entrances, each with both army personnel and Coptic guards to search all before they enter. The system is similar to that established at Tahrir Square during the revolution, to ensure all weapons were kept out of the protest area.

Yet despite the precautions taken at the walkway entrances, the protest area stretches parallel with the major north-south thoroughfare running along the Nile River. There was simply a string of rope separating the protest area from the street, and traffic passed smoothly. Several policeman were present, but there was no cordon to separate the protestors from the street. Sporadically protestors would cross over to the opposite sidewalk, and relax on the other side. I witnessed what appeared to be one or two minor altercations with vehicles as they passed by. Nothing transpired, but traffic slowed as protestors emptied into the street inquiring about the vehicle.

The Maspero Youth Union is coordinated by Rami Kamel, a 24 year old law student at Cairo University. It represents a merger of several Coptic organizations which organized following the attacks on a church in Atfih, to the south of Cairo. The conducted a sit-in protest over several days, vacating the premises upon promise of the ruling military council to investigate and rebuild the church. Yet Fadi Philip, foreign media spokesman for the media committee, states their departure was not entirely voluntary, as they were attacked by the army as they were leaving. Nineteen protestors, including three Muslims, were arrested on charges of weapons possession and thuggery. Philip stated these charges were baseless.

The location of Maspero was chosen for three reasons. First, they believed holding their sit-in at Tahrir would be too provocative. Second, the site of the Radio and Television headquarters represented their belief concerning media bias against Coptic affairs, especially in the reporting about the Atfih church. Third, they had established Maspero as a place of protest earlier, following the attacks on Nag Hamadi, in January 2010, and Alexandria, on New Year’s Eve 2010. Before their initiative, Coptic protests had almost universally been within church grounds.

Following the attacks on churches in Imbaba, Copts returned to protest at Maspero, where the sit-in has now continued for over a week. On Friday, the day of protest at Tahrir Square for national unity and Palestinian solidarity, thousands of Copts joined the sit-in protest instead at Maspero, about a ten minute walk to the north of Tahrir Square.

The protest area at Maspero hosts a stage from which speeches are delivered and chants issued. Rami Kamel states the stage is open to anyone; Michael Munir, a youthful activist stated I could speak if I so desired, and introduced me to the committee member who could arrange this. Kamel states even Salafi Muslims are welcome to speak, though none have as of yet. Several Muslims, however, have joined their protests in expression of solidarity.

The Maspero area also houses several tents. One is for medical supplies, another for food, and two for providing space for interviews and committee discussions. Banners proclaiming Coptic slogans are everywhere, also lining the street in front of the area. Among these was a large sign showing sixteen pictures of recent incidents suffered by the Coptic community. Most banners were not provocative, but did emphasize a particular Coptic frame of reference.

Rami Kamel, however, states the efforts of the Maspero Youth Union are to emphasize Coptic rights within a framework of citizenship, far from sectarianism. He desires the sit-in to be seen as political action, not as religious or church based.

Two Coptic Orthodox priests have joined the sit-in, Fr. Philopater Jamil, from Giza, Cairo, and Fr. Mattias Nasr Manqarious, from Ezbet al-Nakhl, Cairo. Kamel states the presence of two priests helps lend legitimacy to the protest in the eyes of the Coptic faithful, but that it is good to have only two priests, and not more, or else the Maspero effort might appear to be more religious than is intended.

Fr. Philopater and Fr. Mattias were among the original Coptic demonstrators which merged into Maspero Youth Union, and Fr. Mattias is the official spokesperson for the group. They are also the editors of al-Katiba al-Tibiya,[1] a Coptic newspaper focused on reporting about grievances suffered by the Coptic community. The newspaper is widely distributed in Coptic Orthodox Churches, and has been understood as enflaming the widespread Coptic perception of persecution. They are linked also to Copts in the United States, which often call for the intervention of the US government or the international community in defense of Egyptian Copts. For their activities they have come under approbation from church hierarchy.

The CNN article quoted Rafiq Hanna, a protestor, as calling for international protection, stating the Copts are threatened all over Egypt. As I visited Maspero, identifying myself as an American, I was often asked why the United States did not intervene, putting pressure on the Egyptian government to secure their human rights. Yet during the national unity and Palestinian solidarity protests in Tahrir Square, Fr. Philopater, officially representing the Maspero Youth Union, addressed the crowd in the strongest language possible: We reject all international interference in Egyptian affairs. The concerns of the Copts are Egyptian concerns only.

Mina Magdy explained this was part and parcel of their Egyptian identity; the continuity of Christianity in Egypt is in their hands alone. If support was sought from a foreign power, this power would only support as long as it was in their interest to do so. Meanwhile, the effort to appeal internationally would be seen as traitorous. One only would have to look to Iraq, he stated, to see how poorly the United States has protected the Christian community there.

I asked Madgy if his position had changed after the attacks on Maspero. It did not, he said. We reject foreign interference in Egyptian affairs.

The goals of the Maspero Youth Union are to work for a civil state, the concept of citizenship, and equal rights and equality for all. Their particular rights, demanded in this sit-in, are for a unified law for building houses of worship, a law against discrimination in any form, the right to be ruled by Christian law in personal affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), opening of churches which had been closed by security prior to the revolution, the release of their imprisoned colleagues, and the release of a nun, Maryam Raghib, who was arrested for adopting children, as adoption is forbidden under the Islamic sharia.

Additionally, the union supports calls, made also by others, for a joint military-civilian council to guide Egypt through its transitional period of government. It seeks the trial of all criminals involved in recent sectarian attacks. It wishes the cancellation of all traditional use of ‘reconciliation committees’ to smooth over sectarian conflicts and release perpetrators. It does not call for removal of Article 2 of the Constitution, which declares Islam to be the official religion of the state, with the principles of Islamic sharia as the source of legislation. Though it finds this article to be contrary to principles of civil government, it believes the removal thereof to be impossible, and is thus not on the agenda of activity.

Kamel stated negotiations with the ruling military council were resulting in progress in crafting an anti-discrimination law, and also in securing the opening of several churches.

The Maspero Youth Union does not advocate any particular political position or party, but rejects official dialogue and cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups. This is on the grounds that, whatever individual members of these groups might profess, sincerely or otherwise, as ideologies their written words speak against the concept of citizenship. Therefore, until this changes, the union will not allow itself to be co-opted into the betterment of the Islamist image.

Rami Kamel states that the political and non-religious stance of the Maspero Youth Union is informed by his personal philosophy of liberation theology, in an Orthodox Christian perspective. He emphasized this was not of the Latin American variety which promoted violence; rather, non-violence was the rule though self-defense is permitted. He believes the Christian faith should drive one to strive for social justice, though through means limited by Christian ethics. Specifically, one should submit to violence and not strike back, not cowering from the attack but insisting on one’s rights all the while. Paul the Apostle, in Acts 22, is taken as a model.

Yet it seemed that despite the sincerity of this philosophy among Maspero leadership, it did not necessarily reach the hundreds of ordinary Coptic Egyptians who populated the protest. Kamel stated they do their best to instill this value and reign in the excitement of the protestors. There were not, however, religious activities such as prayer groups or Bible studies, through which commitment and discipline might be achieved. These activities, Kamel stated, would transform the demonstration into a religious activity. He purposed their efforts be seen only as political action, in defense of Coptic rights, but from a position of citizenship, not religion.

The facts of the overnight attack on the Coptic demonstration are still yet to be determined. The day before, Mina, an ordinary protestor, stated that Maspero was suffering from attempts to instigate conflict. He was afraid that if fighting broke out, the army would use this as pretext to evict them from their place. In terms of instigation, this fear now appears justified, but so far, the army has allowed the sit-in to continue.

There is much distrust currently among Copts concerning the direction of the revolution, the space Salafi Muslims have to operate, and the suspected secret intentions of the ruling military council. Many Egyptians of all persuasions have equal concern and confusion, even if their questions are directed differently. May patience and wisdom be sought by all, as they continue to cling to calls for justice. May civility reign as this process, however messily, is determined.

[1] In Coptic history, al-Katiba al-Tibiya was an Egyptian legion from Thebes, fighting for the Roman army in Europe. When demanded to renounce their faith and worship the emperor, the entire legion refused, submitting instead to martyrdom.

The concept of martyrdom is key for the Coptic Orthodox Church; indeed, their church calendar begins from the era of Diocletian, a Roman emperor responsible for the deaths of thousands of Christians. A popular chant of Copts states, ‘with our souls and our blood we will redeem you, oh cross!’ As Kamel explained, this was not an aggressive slogan. Rather, as Jesus redeemed humanity through death, so also are Copts willing to suffer martyrdom for the sake of the cross.

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