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In Cairo, Communitas Is Shattered

March 9, 2011

Photograph by Jenna Krajeski; taken from Al-Masry al-Youm report.

The sense of unity from which the liberation protests drew much of their strength showed fractures yesterday in the face of separate Coptic and International Woman’s Day demonstrations which were met with ridicule and violence.

The discourse in response has followed three basic threads: those who feel the revolution just lost something important, those who see this as part of a counterrevolution, and those who are just tired of demonstrations and disruptions.

“Shame on the democracy of Tahrir” posted one of my Egyptian informants, angry and saddened by the failure of the pro-democracy protesters to support the protests of women.

One the other hand, several claimed the crowds were being infiltrated in order to provoke violence. If the protests turn violent, the army will finally have an excuse to put them down, goes this line of reasoning.

One of the most interesting posts was by my colleague Ted Swedenburg, who posted, “So is the lesson, it’s okay for ‘Egyptians’ to demonstrate but it’s not okay for ‘women’ or for ‘Copts’?”  I think that, irony aside, Ted is right on the mark. One of the most powerful symbols of Tahrir Square has been men and women (veiled, scarfed and uncovered), and Muslims and Christians all demonstrating together. When the Christians mobilize as Christians, and women as women, that symbolism is fragmented.

I’m not sure that it matters much whether the violence was deliberately provoked by agents provocateur or whether it was a result of people tired of disruptions and uncomfortable/angry with the positions taken–the capacity to exploit this violence toward a counterrevolutionary narrative will be much the same either way.

The Christian clash arose after a mob burned a church in Cairo Helwan suburb. Egypt’s military council has pledged to rebuild the church, and the new prime minister, Essam Sharaf, met Mar. 7 with Christian protesters. But the protesters were not only protesting about the church. They want the new government of Egypt to pay more than lip service to claims of Coptic equality in Egypt, to allow the building of new churches, and to ensure that violence against Christians is seriously investigated.

The predominantly Christian "Garbage City" part of Moqattam is inhabited by people who collect, sort and recycle garbage for a living.

There is also a significant class issue–one of the protests was predominantly made up of Christian garbage collectors from Moqattam. Thousands of Christians have lived in this hilltop community for generations, building churches that have become tourist attractions, with no legal claim to the land. Economic adaptations that evolved over several generations eroded rapidly over the last decade as the Mubarak regime took one measure after another to undermine the community.

About 2,000 of these Christians cut off the Moqattam access road running on the eastern side of the city and pelted motorists who tried to get through with rocks. According to NPR: “The clashes broke out when they were confronted by Muslims, witnesses said.” The Muslims most affected would be those in the affluent Moqattam suburb, built on land cleared of Christian “slum dwellers” whose families occupied the land (without title) for generations.

@jamalelshayyal tweeted today that “a Coptic priest and Muslim imam [are] driv[ing] around Moqatam in open back truck calling for calm and nat’l unity.”

Al-Masry al_Youm reports ten killed, 110 wounded.

Meanwhile, several hundred women gathered in Tahrir Square holding up signs demanding equality and a say in the ongoing constitutional amendments. They were met with ridicule by men and some were assaulted. Many men exhibited true Egyptian shaham (chivalry) by rushing to protest the women; but some used this as an excuse the get close and grope them.

For More Information:

Krajeski, Jenna. 2011. Death in Garbage City. The New Yorker Mar. 9

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