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Police Day Palpitations

Last year Egypt added a 16th day – Police Day – to its official list of public holidays. It may prove that this designation will backfire on the government.

The day was created to honor the memory of fifty police officers murdered by the British in 1952, which provoked an uprising eventually leading to the Free Officer’s Revolution and establishment of the modern Egyptian Republic. Since then, however, the police have been a primary object of contempt for opposition figures and the general man on the street, who consider them the enforcers of the Emergency Law, by which, it is said, the government squelches all opposition. Others say the Emergency Law is necessary to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, such as government supporters and members of the National Democratic Party. They believe the police allow the people to sleep soundly at night. Many Egyptian Christians, meanwhile, find the police and security forces to be biased and unresponsive when aggression is directed at their community or churches. Regardless of religion, though, the complaint of random arrests and brutality is circulated widely.

Inspired by the recent uprising in Tunisia, and frustrated by what were understood as deeply fraudulent legislative elections, Egyptian opposition figures have chosen to launch nationwide protests on the occasion of Police Day. The reverse symbolism is poignant – demonstrators will demand the repeal of the Emergency Law and the dismissal of the Interior Minister. Additionally, they call for a rise in the minimum wage and terms limits on the presidency. Activists hope that, as seen in Tunisia, initial protests for limited concessions might lead to a wholesale rejection of the regime.

Will they succeed? Over 80,000 Egyptian Facebook users have pledged to participate. So have leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized opposition party in Egypt. They will be joined by the Wafd, Karama, and Ghad parties, the movements of April 6 and the National Association for Change, as well as representatives of the labor movement. Reluctant presidential hopeful Muhammad al-Baradei has signaled his approval of the protest, but will not participate.

Trepidation is understandable. The government has announced the demonstration to be illegal, and will deal strictly, though within the law, against any violators. At least three activists have already been arrested for promoting the campaign. Fresh in the minds of any protestor will be the recent deaths in police custody of Khalid Sa’eed, accused of drug dealing but purported to have informed against police corruption in drug deals, and Sayyid Bilal, an Alexandrian Salafi rounded up after the church bombing on New Year’s Eve. Investigations into their deaths are ongoing.

Other objections are raised. The Tagammu Party rejects the protests on the grounds that the nation’s policemen deserve a day of honor. Meanwhile, the ruling National Democratic Party has announced its intention to hold a counter demonstration of loyalty to President Mubarak, in which half a million of its younger members will participate. Additionally, the heads of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches in Egypt have urged their members not to join the protests, but instead to devote the day to prayer asking God to bless Egypt.

The weight and immediacy of the protest is in the air, especially in light of the events in Tunisia. One friend, an older gentleman, believes that nothing substantial will happen, though some may try to force the issue. He said this, however, on his way back from the bank, where he withdrew money ‘just in case’. Another friend spoke of the protest by listing a litany of common Egyptian complaints about the government. A sensible journalist, he spoke with a passion which betrayed his normal demeanor. Yet he has a wife and children, a reasonable income, and much to lose. Even so, he was itching to participate for the benefit of his country. Wisdom is necessary.

Yet where should wisdom lead? Certain factors suggest that a Tunisian style uprising is not imminent. First of all, the Tunisian demonstrations were by all appearances spontaneous developments arising from a disenfranchised lower class. Efforts at imitation in Egypt, however, are led by political elites looking to move the masses. Perhaps they will succeed; public frustration with government is widespread. More likely, however, is though the social media dissemination of dissent is spontaneous among the upper class, it will fail to mobilize greater society to any substantial degree.

Second of all, when the Tunisian demonstrations began to gain steam, they were joined by the middle class, which transformed an originally economic protest into one fully political. Critical mass was reached, and the president fled. Here, however, the middle class will be asked to lead, not support. Their cause is political, not economic. Though certainly the poor in Egypt could stand a drastic improvement in their condition – far more than in Tunisia – will they follow the comparatively rich into an unknown future, for political freedoms that do not generally concern them anyway? Can the family man mentioned above command their allegiance? Will he even be willing to try?

In which light, then, should the decision of the church to abstain from protest be understood? Church leadership is also frustrated with the government, especially following the use of live ammunition on Coptic protesters in Umraniyya, a suburb of Cairo. The Alexandria attack, however, may have served as a reminder that church security is tied to good, secure governance. Perhaps a known stability is preferable to a chaotic, unknown future.

The government can also be seen as solidifying its relationship with the church following the Alexandria bombing. The prime suspect in the Nag Hamadi Christmas killings from last year was recently sentenced to death – the first such sentence rendered against a sectarian criminal in modern Egyptian history. Furthermore, the government has stated that a new law to govern the contentious issue of church building will be introduced soon. For its part, the church has rejected the efforts of the US Congress to conduct a special hearing on the Alexandria attack as interference in domestic affairs – exactly the same language used by the government. The church’s longstanding position is that Coptic affairs are a matter of concern to Egypt only, interpreting even sincere international efforts at assistance as detrimental to the national unity between one people of two religions.

It can also be said that the Bible itself is an anti-revolutionary document. Many verses encourage believers to submit to the king, whether he is just or unjust. While undercurrents of protest exist in Biblical interpretation, the Egyptian church perspective is well within the mainstream of historical Christian understanding. It may well be within the mainstream of wisdom as well, but this is a pragmatic, political matter. Should the church throw its hat in with the uprising? Where will the repercussions be greatest should the effort fail, or succeed?

Fr. Matta al-Miskeen represents a minority position in the church today, but one that has been forged by an intense monastic spirituality. In his book ‘Church and State’, he urges Christians to become full participants in the life of society, and devote themselves spiritually in the life of the church. A mixing of the two identities, however, pollutes the two streams in which Jesus said to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar, and the things that are God’s, to God’. Though now deceased, he recognized the increasing politicization of the church, and warned against it.

As things stand now, the church is tied to the ruling political establishment, no matter how frustrated it is in this relationship. Alliance with government makes proper sense; after all, having suffered through sectarian and terrorist attacks over the past three decades, it is only the ruling power that controls the forces of security. Witnessing great police commitment to defend the sanctity of churches during Christmas Eve services testifies to this fact.

Yet Matta al-Miskeen hints at the greater strategy. If the church is apolitical, then individual Christians can be as political as they desire. The government can trust the church not to mobilize its members, either for or against government policy. Society, including the Muslim majority, can trust the church to urge its adherents toward morality and cooperation. Then, if a Christian becomes a government loyalist, he is free. If a Christian takes opposition leadership and calls for regime change, he is free. For his actions he is responsible to God, as well as the state and society. Yet this responsibility is his, it does not belong to the church. The church is responsible for nurturing the spiritual life of believers, not securing their political rights.

Police Day is January 25. Tension is afoot. Different strata of society have chosen sides, and the church has declared its allegiance. Perhaps the day will pass insignificantly; perhaps this is the first step towards Tunisia. Will society follow the lead of the elitist agitators, no matter how deep their dissatisfaction with government? Will Christians follow the lead of the church, and continue their submission to the ruling powers? For all involved, where does wisdom lie?

For the good of Egypt, may the right answers become clear. May all have the courage of conviction and the goodness of heart to act on such wisdom.

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Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Umraniyya through the Eyes of the Church

On November 23, 2010, clashes erupted between security forces and Christian demonstrators at the construction site of a church service building in Umraniyya, Giza, just outside of Cairo. The protests began when authorities halted the construction process of a building which was rumored to be transformed into an unauthorized church. The protests were subdued by a show of force resulting in the death of two Christian protestors and the injury of dozens, including security personnel. The clashes attracted national attention, and as with many sectarian incidents, adduced differing interpretations.

This paper will focus on the interpretation of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The official church television channel ‘Aghabi’ devoted the bulk of two episodes of Nabd al-Kanisa (Heartbeat of the Church) to special reporting on the Umraniyya incident. Nabd al-Kanisa is hosted by Shenouda Victor, and describes itself as ‘the official church voice’, bringing ‘the truth from the church to you’. The first episode aired on November 26, and the second a week later on December 3. Supervision for the programming is provided by Bishop Armiya, secretary to Pope Shenouda III.

Reporting on episode one lasted about thirty minutes, twenty of which consisted of an interview with Bishop Theodosius, General Bishop of the Churches in Giza. The rest of the time provided video footage from the scene, clips from Pope Shenouda’s weekly meeting in which he answered questions about the incident, and commentary from the host. Episode two was devoted entirely to Umraniyya, with over an hour of video footage, statements from eyewitnesses, a survey of media coverage, and further commentary. The following will provide the presented summary of events:

The Official Church Perspective

Four years ago the church purchased the land on which the building in question stands. Though there were some complications at that time, the permissions were given to build a church service building, and Bishop Theodosius explicitly denied that there were Muslim-Christian tensions in the area over the issue. Then, in 2009 the church received official license to construct a service building. He also emphasized, though, that many of the common people in Giza cannot differentiate between a service building and a church, and assumed the building was to be a church, as it was on church property. Incidentally, this particular building had no distinguishing church characteristics such as crosses or domes.

Construction proceeded normally, until a violation was recorded and a work stop order given by the local Umraniyya district authorities. The violation concerned a second staircase, anterior to the building, which was not approved in the original blueprints. The bishop questioned why, with building violations all over the city, should an extra safety measure stop the whole project. A local Muslim was also filmed stating the original issue concerned only this secondary staircase.

When the work stop order was issued the workers and craftsmen began their protest. The program emphasized that it was composed of Christians and Muslims together, depicting one holding a sign stating, “I am a Muslim and I refuse the persecution of Copts.”

When the bulldozers came it was interpreted as a threat to destroy work on the building. The workers then, according to the bishop, quickly constructed a dome on the building to give it the appearance of sanctity.

They hoped that demolition workers would respect work done on a building with a ‘churchy’ appearance. During this time the protest began to swell. Certain vehicles from the district government entered the premises to investigate, but were attacked and had their windows smashed in. The bishop emphasized, though, that many of the people there were unknown to the church, and church officials immediately apologized for the damage and offered to replace the car.

As the protest continued, certain of the church priests went to visit the governor, with whom the church, it was stated, had good relations. They returned with a decision of the governor to turn the building into a church as soon as the proper papers were presented to him. The announcement of this decision to the protestors was met with great applause. Footage shown captured the enthusiasm.

That evening, November 22, however, security started to assemble. Dozens of policemen cordoned off the area, and also perched above on an overpass. Early the next morning, the order was given to attack. The bishop stated that he doesn’t know who issued this order. Tear gas was employed, and live ammunition was used. Rocks were thrown, both by protesters and by security. Chaos ensued, and everyone dispersed. Police began arresting the protestors, and eyewitnesses claimed they went around yelling, “You have ‘Christian’ on your identity card? Get in!” Over 100 people were taken into custody. Video and pictures captured that several of these were handcuffed to their beds in the hospital while being treated for their wounds. Two of the wounded later died.

Analysis and Questions

The above sequence of events was culled largely from the interview with Bishop Theodosius. Five eyewitnesses also presented testimony, but none of their names were given, and three were given in silhouette. For one of these, an eye patch – presumably from the attacks – was visible in the black and white profile. In addition, three priests provided brief statements, and official church press releases were read, addressed to the president, parliament, and others. In addition, three different newspaper articles were read, selected from al-Masry al-Youm, al-Uyun, and Nahdat Masr.

Music played a central role in the presentation of images and video. During scenes of violence it was presented in staccato, ominously highlighting shots of police firing tear gas or throwing rocks. During the aftermath of events the music shifted into quieter, mourning melodies, audible against the backdrop of bloody victims or hospitalized patients.

Coverage on the program revolved around three themes:

First, this was not a sectarian conflict. Christians and Muslims worked together in building the church, and protested together when the stop work order was given. Given the preponderance of sectarian issues in recent weeks, and also against the backdrop of elections widely believed to be fraudulent, the program emphasized this was an issue between government and people, not between Muslim and Christian.

Second, this was initiated by security, responding to administrative matters with disproportionate violence. Rumors about changing the building into a church were based only on popular misunderstandings, and violations in the agreed upon blueprints were necessary for safety reasons. A telling segment on the program offered video footage of police violence under the heading ‘for every action…’ followed by scenes of protesters throwing rocks with the heading of ‘there is a reaction’. The main question, however, asked but unanswered, is why such violence was necessary. Even had there been countless violations, could the situation not have been handled differently?

Third, this is a matter to be solved by President Mubarak. Bishop Theodosius stated his confidence in the wisdom of political leadership to solve this crisis. The building under construction displayed large banners with an image of the president, following the governor’s decision to initiate a procedure to license it as a church. One of the anonymous eyewitnesses also dramatically expressed his desire to see President Mubarak’s intervention, stating the president enjoyed ‘all respect, esteem, and love.’

The perspective of the church given during the program served effectively to create a narrative of events that makes sense of what happened. Yet, like any perspective, it left out elements potentially detrimental to the narrative. For example:

It is confusing to determine the status of the building. The bishop emphasized it was not originally meant as a church, and that the dome was not built as part of a transformation project. But when exactly was the dome built? The bishop stated it was after the threat of demolition, but other sources indicate it was the building of the dome which sparked the clashes. Furthermore, if the church did not intend it to be a church, why did the governor issue a statement that he would authorize it to become a church? Additionally, columnist and author Hany Labib notes that only the president can issue license for a church building; governors only have the authority to license repairs or reconstruction. How is the narrative affected by this fact?

It is confusing to determine the size of the crowd and their activity. Videos on the program show gathered protesters in the tens, or perhaps hundreds, and it is implied these were composed mainly of the construction workers engaged in building. The only act of violence admitted is the damage done to visiting vehicles. Yet other sources describe up to three thousand protesters. These are described as marching out to block traffic on the busy overpass near the church, and vandalizing government buildings and property. Without gauging the accuracy of these reports, there is no mention of them at all in the program. Yet a crowd this size, engaging in civil disobedience, might well qualify for a large contingent of security to subdue it. Whether or not the security response was warranted, these details cast doubt on the church narrative of innocent protesters being met by government thuggery.

It is confusing to determine the exchange of violence. The program represents the use of live ammunition as flagrant excess of force, but admits to an exchange of stone throwing between the two sides. Yet other sources picture the protesters as hurling Molotov cocktails at police. Hany Labib, however, emphasizes that Molotov cocktails result in conflagration, and there is no evidence of burned damage from the scene, nor reports of fire in the locality. The program contains no scenes of Molotov cocktails; is this because it would do damage to the greater narrative, or because there were none at all? If absent, who is trying to craft a different narrative of Christian weaponry, and why?

Finally, it is confusing to determine the nature of the protests. The program suggests that they emerged randomly, as workers and local residents took issue with government threats to stop their labor. Hundreds of people, however, and certainly thousands if that number is correct, suggests organization of presence. Furthermore, why were there so many so early in the morning? In addition, the protests took place over a few days, and sources indicate they drew attention to their cause by blocking traffic. Again, organization appears likely, but at the least, could not church authorities have stopped the protests had they wished this? Premeditation offers a different perspective on the narrative than spontaneity.

There is also the larger contextual issue of church service buildings themselves. These began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s in reaction to the sectarian crisis at that time. Beginning on university campuses, there was a trend for students to segregate themselves by religion for social activities. As such, the church began providing places for Christian students to congregate. Mirroring also the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood and others, the church expanded the use of service buildings to provide education, training, and material support for Christians throughout the nation. As these buildings do not have the traditional appearance of a church, they tend to be less controversial in society and receive more easily official government authorization. At times, due to the difficulties in church building regulations, they have been transformed into places of worship.

So while aspects of the church presentation require greater research, some of their questions raised do so as well. For example:

  • Why did these building violations attract the attention of the government, when so many go unheeded throughout the city?
  • Why did security assemble in the dark of night, and why did they attack early in the morning?
  • Why would policemen throw stones at protestors, even if provoked (as seen in video footage)?
  • Why was live ammunition used?
  • Why were so many protestors arrested?
  • Is there any relation between these events and the parliamentary elections scheduled five days later?

Answering the questions raised in this text, unfortunately, are beyond the current resources of the AWR office. Raising the questions, however, serves to highlight a consistent theme: Easy answers and polemic accusations rarely reflect the reality of events. Should the government issue clear regulations for building houses of worship? Likely. Does security react with more force than necessary when dealing with protests? Often. Is the loss of life regrettable, and should those responsible be held accountable? Absolutely.

With this program the church, however, is walking a fine line. On the one hand it seeks to portray itself as an innocent sufferer at the hands of an aggressive security force. On the other hand it seeks to reiterate fidelity to the ruling regime on which it depends, it believes, for protection. Toggling between criticism and loyalty, while ignoring worthy considerations of its culpable role, the church risks giving evidence of acting as a state within a state. This is a damaging accusation against it, and the church would do well to work stridently against the perception.

Even Pope Shenouda has undone part of the greater church narrative. During the parliamentary elections he voted for the oppositional Wafd party candidate, signaling his displeasure with the government’s NDP party. With what, however, is uncertain. Is it simply a protest against government handling of the Umraniyya crisis, or reflective of a deeper change in his convictions? In any case, his personal vote and voice always signal more than that of one man, given his developed representation of all things Coptic.

In his response to a question on the Umraniyya crisis during his weekly meeting, Pope Shenouda quoted Colossians 3:21, applying it to the role of government – “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they do not lose heart.” Though questions abound about the role of the church, ‘exasperation’ – with government, with society – accurately describes the condition of many Copts. Will they lose heart? Only they can decide.

While sectarian issues exist, the church does well in emphasizing this particular conflict is not sectarian in nature. Muslims and Christians alike oppose violence, and express shock at the level of aggression meted out in Umraniyya. As such, perhaps the antidote to losing heart can be found in a Muslim voice, highlighted during the program from an article in al-Masry al-Youm. Recalling the Christian values described in the Sermon on the Mount, Fatima Naout wrote: “We pray for all those who practice violence … so that from us the great love of God may be revealed.” In times of exasperation, greater purpose is needed to lift the sufferer from despair to hope. Perhaps a positive commitment to demonstrate God’s values can suffice. There is no loss of heart in love.

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Personal

Preparation of Tinder: The Umraniyya Riots as a Prelude to Christian Violence following the Alexandria Bombing

Since the 1970s Christians in Egypt have felt under pressure from a perceived Islamization of society and patterns of discrimination from the government. In recent years they have registered complaints about restrictions in church building, irregularities in prosecuting crimes against their community, and other issues. Until recently, however, Christian criticism was expressed only within their community or with the media. On the rare occasions when they have demonstrated, it has been almost exclusively restricted to within church grounds.

The murder of six churchgoers in Nag Hamadi on Coptic Christmas,  January 6, 2010, provoked small scale demonstrations of Christians in that Upper Egyptian town. This vulgar attack, however, precipitated the beginning of public protest elsewhere, as was witnessed in a peaceful demonstration in downtown Cairo in February. Over the course of the year other events – Christian homes burned in Abu Tisht, public polemics between religious leaders, conversion cases concerning wives of priests – all contributed to a deepening of tensions and a feeling of isolation among Christians. If tinder is present in abundance, only a small spark is necessary to cause an explosion.

November 2010, one month prior to the attacks in Alexandria, the first spark occurred in Umraniyya, a poor, traditional living quarter in a Cairo suburb. Rumors abounded that the church was attempting to transform a service building into a place of worship, and government authorities interfered and stopped the proceedings. This is a common occurrence in Egypt; church building regulations are restrictive, and there is often much subtle maneuvering between the circumvention of law and its enforcement. This time, however, violence exploded. Again, though not regular, this is not uncommon; what distinguished this event was that the violence began with Christian initiative.

At first the demonstration was led by disgruntled Christian workers, according to sources from within the church. Media reports, however, state that they were joined by up to 3,000 area Christian youth. They did not remain on the church grounds, but instead exited and blocked the ring road not far from the church. Reports also describe vandalism against local government buildings and vehicles.

When the security forces arrived to subdue these riots, the result was an exchange of stone throwing between the protestors and the police. Reports also describe Christians hurling Molotov cocktails at the guards. In an excessive show of force, the security responded by using tear gas and live ammunition. Two Christians were killed, dozens wounded, and scores were arrested.

As with most news events in Egypt, determining facts and placing guilt is a difficult matter. Whether or not the Christians, or even the local priests, bear fault, the overwhelming Christian response to the Umraniyya incident was horror at the unnecessary death of two individuals. Many Muslims and other activists also condemned the heavy hand of security in putting down otherwise containable protests, as had happened repeatedly in all nature of demonstrations over the previous year. Christians in particular, however, viewed it as one more piece of evidence that their community is beleaguered, if not persecuted.

This is the prevailing attitude among many Christians of all classes. Yet where this sentiment exists among the lower class and uneducated segments of society, it mixes with the problems of poverty and unemployment to create a dangerous tinderbox. This was seen on a minor scale in Umraniyya. The explosion was witnessed in Alexandria, and then elsewhere in Cairo.

The unprecedented bombing that took place at the church sent immediate shockwaves through the Christian community. How should one react when a place of worship has been desecrated, when fellow religionists have been ripped to pieces? Even if most victims were unknown to the majority of rioters, Alexandria represented an attack on the Christian community, and the spontaneous response in defense of Christian identity was to take to the streets.

Again, it is difficult to be precise. Did security fear the worst and clamp down, provoking the violence which ensued? Were the Christians bent on destruction, and thus needed to be subdued? Were local Muslims agitators, or innocent bystanders swept up in the fury? Certainly the combination of these factors intertwined to produce the riots widely held in Egypt’s urban centers. What is clear is that the preparation of tinder had been underway for some time.

Now that it has burned itself out, will Egypt – Muslims, Christians, and government – be able to find avenues to legitimately express grievances and seek common solutions? If not, the collection of tinder will quietly begin anew.

note: Shortly after the Umraniyya incident I wrote an article for Arab West Report summarizing the official church version of events. Having neglected to post that here originally, if you desire to read more I will look to do so in the next day or so.