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What Do Coptic Protests Mean? Different Political Goals Suggest Different Answers

May 16, 2011

Coptic protests outside Cairo's Maspero Building. Al Masry Al Youm photo by Fouad Elgarnousy

The public narrative about sectarian violence continues to evolve, as various stakeholders in Egypt’s unfolding revolution stake out claims.

According to a story in Al-Masry Al-Youm May 16, several members of 25 January revolution youth groups have urged Coptic protesters at the Egyptian state television’s Maspero Building to “suspend their protest and respect the state of law.”

After thugs attacked protesters May 14, resulting in two deaths and multiple injuries, several groups called on the Copts to end their protests. While recognizing the importance of freedom of expression, and insisting that the government (i.e. army) needed to do more to protect the protesters, the Youth for Stability Coalition said in a statement that the high frequency of protests drains the energy of the youth and impedes the creation of a state of law, which is one of the primary demands of revolutionary youth.

The coalition issued a statement saying that the high frequency of protests drains the energy of the youth and impedes the creation of a state of law, which is one of the primary demands of revolutionary youth. Coptic sit-ins provide an opportunity for Muslim and Coptic extremists to abuse the situation and break religious unity, it said.

Amr Hamed, a member of the Revolution Youth Union, explained that the clashes at the television building were premeditated by those who want to use sectarian violence to promote a return to a Mubarak-like authoritarian regime. He called on Copts to end the protest to bolster stability and deprive the “enemies of the revolution” of the chance to spark sectarian violence.

The protests are, of course, signifying events, and the issue here is over the possible interpretations of those events.

From the Coptic perspective, their protests are mimetic–they are doing exactly the same as the 25 January Tahrir protesters (many of whom were Copts): They are demanding political redress and they are willing to take whatever their opposition can dish out, confident that their revolution will be televised, and blogged, and Tweeted, and posted, and that remedy may be offered if their protest remains an active sign.

The position of the 25 January leadership is based on a different semiotic reading. There have been so may protests since Mubarak stepped down–by women, labor movements, syndicates, unions, journalists–that the impact of the original protest movement is getting lost. Moreover, each protest offers an opportunity for counterrevolutionary movements to introduce violence, which tends to signify to viewers that chaos reigns in the absence of the Mubarak regime.

The irony is that some of the leadership of a protest movement that owes its success to a willingness to continue in the face of arrests, assaults, injuries and martyrdoms is calling on a minority group that is demanding that its existing political rights be protected and recommending that they do not do the same, but rather capitulate.

The protests began after riots in the poor Imbaba neighborhood in Cairo left 15 dead, 200 injured and two churches burnt down. Coptic protesters have been demanding the prosecution of those involved, as well as the opening of closed churches and the release of Coptic prisoners detained in previous protests. Many members of 25 January protests are out there in solidarity with the Copts–I know, because some are Facebook friends and are posting about it.

Authorities have since made several arrests in the Imbaba incident and referred suspects to prosecution.

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