A Window into Character: The Conflict at Maspero

The Coptic demonstration prior to the attack

All men have ideals; it is when they are tested that they are revealed as true or false, or somewhere in-between. Psychologists have identified the ‘fight or flight’ response to conflict: One either meets it head on or withdraws from the scene. Neither one nor the other is wisdom necessarily, but rather the gut reaction to a situation of danger. Such urges presumably can be resisted in either direction, but decisions made in these few seconds will either haunt or honor the character of a man.

On May 14 the Coptic sit-in protestors at the Egyptian TV and Radio Building at Maspero, along with their Muslim sympathizers, faced such a challenge. I have written about this previously here, and in more detail shortly thereafter here. In an effort to disperse their sit-in ‘thugs’ led by certain Salafi Muslim elements attacked their location, using guns, knives, stones, and Molotov cocktails. For this text I have had opportunity to speak with Fadi Phillip, one of the leaders of the Maspero Youth Union (MYU) which called for the protest. He was on the scene, and described his role in and perspective of the attacks.

Fadi is the English language media representative for the Maspero Youth Union; as such he is not generally to be found on the front lines. Some Copts are assigned roles with security, others in the clinic. In general, though a leader, Fadi works hardest when things are calm and journalists arrive to seek a story. When the attacks began he was idle, far from the front lines, like most other protestors. As a leader he tried to spring into action, but the situation was spiraling out of control.

Quickly he ran to the front lines to inquire what was going on. Whoever he spoke with grasped his badge and seemingly rebuked him for not knowing. The MYU is well organized internally, but a sit-in attracts all sorts. This enthusiastic Copt, from wherever he came, was eager to defend the group, but he did not fall in with or recognize Fadi’s titular leadership identity.

The initial attacks were not hand-to-hand combat, but rather the ‘thugs’ taking advantage of their elevated position on the bridge and off-ramp to fire pistols and hurl Molotov cocktails. Fadi joined in with a group trying to get MYU parked cars away from the range of the attackers. With most sit-in protestors still far removed from the front lines, using keys was not possible. Fadi and others broke the windows of many vehicles to disengage the parking brake and then roll the cars to safer position.

During the altercation Fadi ran back and forth several times between the front lines and the group, which included many female protestors. On one occasion he went to the police, who were standing by in the open area between the protest group and the front line attackers. He asked them to get involved, but they communicated they had no orders to do so. He then went to the army, which was deployed closer to the sit-in site, and told them eight people were not injured. When an officer stated only that those afraid should go home, Fadi brazenly asserted that they would not desert their sit-in; they would not go home unless dead. Yet as another Copt was there also screaming at the officers, Fadi left him to make his point and returned again to the group.

At one point as the conflict was increasing in intensity, Fadi lifted his arms to heaven, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and asked that God would not allow his children to be eaten by dogs, should they be killed today. It was a strange prayer, but Fadi remembered that it was said of the Copts who died in the Alexandria bombing that after the major remains were collected, the smaller body parts were left in the streets and consumed by dogs. Before he finished praying, however, someone interrupted him and rebuked him, saying this was no time for stillness. After this, Fadi reengaged.

On his way back to the front lines he found an enraged Copt, pouring water all over himself and picking up a gas canister to run with into the fray. Fadi tried to reason with him, trying to stop him, but somewhere in his effort he was struck with a blunt object in the middle of his back. Stunned, he fell, and was disabled for a period of time. After this he left, limping back to the protest area.

From here on out Fadi sought to make himself useful in the clinic, which was now overflowing with injured. Though possessing no medical training, he was stitching wounds and bandaging gashes. He purposed to avoid head injuries, out of fear he might do more harm than good. Yet even so on one occasion he was given some sort of medical ointment, and spread it upon the head of one injured to the point of revealing his skull.

Among the injured were some of the ‘thugs’, captured by the Coptic protestors. One who appeared to be a ringleader suffered deep cuts and was brought into the clinic. Fadi witnessed how he was told that if he confessed on videotape to his crimes they would treat his wounds; otherwise, they would leave him languishing in the clinic. Under such duress, he confessed to being paid 500 LE (about $85 US) to take part in the attack.

A more serious confrontation took place when the Copts purposed to capture one of the Salafis involved in the attack. They formed a small group, rushed forward, and then snatched one from the front lines, tossing him backwards into the Coptic throng. The one who apprehended the Salafi suffered several stab wounds in the effort. Once captured, however, the protestors beat the Salafi relentlessly. Fadi relates this was due to their rage over the attack on their sit-in; a supplemental factor may have been the pent up anger over allegations that Salafis orchestrated several attacks on Copts after the revolution.

Some of the Copts tried to intervene from their Christian convictions. Others, including Fadi, intervened for more practical reasons. First, he said, they wanted to get information from him. Second, they wanted to secure proof that Salafis were involved in the attack, lest the media portray it as simply the work of ‘remnants of the former regime’, as has become a common accusation. Third, Fadi was concerned that the repercussions could be severe should a Muslim die in their custody. In his efforts to stop the beating Fadi was kicked in the groin as Copts fought each other over the Salafi. Eventually he was freed and transferred to a nearby ambulance and taken to a hospital. He provided no confession.

Eventually the police became involved, firing tear gas in-between the two groups to disperse them. The direction of the Nile air, however, wafted the gas toward the sit-in area, choking those who stayed back either to avoid clashes or to help in the clinic. At this time objects also began raining down from the apartments of residents situated above the sit-in area. This enraged the Copts further, but Fadi recognized they were tossing onions, which are a known local antidote to the symptoms produced by tear gas. He made effort to calm down his fellow protestors.

Though the tear gas did put an end to the fighting, Fadi related that the sounds of gunfire started again as the ‘thugs’ pulled back and the tear gas clouds obscured vision. The Copts did not know if this was from the ‘thugs’ or the police, and Fadi began to run back toward the front lines to see what was happening. On the way, though, he stopped, vomited, and then collapsed from exhaustion and tear gas inhalation. Shortly thereafter all was calm once again.

In reflecting on the event, Fadi stated that the altercation showed the need for an emergency committee in the Maspero Youth Union. Initial shots were fired from the bridge around 8pm, but the actual fighting did not get underway until 10am. The whole time, Fadi states, many Copts were itching to rush and engage the attackers, sensing they were under threat. Yet during this two hour interval wiser heads might have been able to prevent the chaotic clashed did not take place, or were at least more strategic.

Fadi stated in retrospect that the Copts should have had more discipline to hold their line at the sit-in, instead of rushing out to meet the attacking group. In their haste they ran past the army and police, which can now accurately portray the clash as between two attacking parties. Had the Copts at least waited until their assailants passed by the authorities on their way to the sit-in, it would have forced the hand of the police and army. Either they would have to interfere and stop the attacking group, or else the evidence they stood by and did nothing would be clearly confirmed.

Such are the thoughts one may have after involvement in a crisis. There are always things which could have been done differently, words that should or should not have been said, and lessons earned through simple hard knocks.

It is not possible to confirm Fadi’s testimony, but it corresponds with earlier investigation into the Maspero sit-in. Yet just has humans have a tendency towards ‘fight or flight’ when facing conflict, they also may be tempted to exaggerate the severity of danger in their flight, or the degree of heroism in their fight. Could this have been true of Fadi? You can be the judge.

In reading the testimony, however, are you able to envision yourself in his place? What would you have done? Would you have been there in the first place?

Everyone has times when they imagine themselves in a potential conflict, writing a script for how they would behave. While this is likely useful, it can also be an exercise in self-flattery. Rarely will anyone fail in such a test.

Instead, the best preparation for a test of character is simply to live by your ideals in the day-to-day monotony of life. Temptations to cut corners or compromise will be many, and the stakes, as well as consequences, will be low. Giving in to these base urges whittles away character, imperceptibly, until a crisis comes and the test is failed before one realizes it is even being administered. Conversely, moral muscles are strengthened through such exercises of resistance.

Preparation is no key to success. People of great character may stumble, and virtue may arise from the unlikeliest of sources. Grace is needed for all, to prime the pump in advance and aftermath of a crisis.

Egypt languished without active moral exercise for years, but people summoned the courage to rise in revolution. While some, and perhaps many, transgressed boundaries the great majority acted with conviction and character. In the months that have followed there have been other challenges, but the revolutionary struggle has slipped back into routine monotony. Some seem fixated on maintaining the crisis, or beginning new ones, and their intensions on the whole should not be doubted. It can be easier to summon courage in a crisis. It is more difficult to maintain character in monotony.

Yet having passed their test, can Egyptians cement their gains? I do not mean the gains of the revolution, however legitimate they may be. I mean the gains of character, taking pride in their dignity, their unity, and their integrity. Rebuilding their country will require such strength, for not all will honor these virtues.

Finally, for the reader outside of Egypt, in what stage of life are you? Where will your character lead when put to the test? What little tests are faced now, far from the heat of battle?

May we all be strengthened, encouraging one another, giving grace in time of need. May Egypt, and all mankind, meet its many challenges.


note: I hope tomorrow or the next day to post an interview with Fadi about the Maspero Youth Union.

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