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Understanding the October Violence in Egypt

October 16, 2011

Another cartoon by Carlos Latuff, used by permission, with gratitude.

What is the current conflict in Egypt about? International media make of it a sectarian conflict, but for most Egyptians, it is not about Coptic-Muslim tension–although that plays its part. Rather, this conflict is about the role that SCAF is playing in Egyptian society and whether or not the military council is going to really allow Egypt t transition to an elected civilian government.

Instead of exploring in detail what happened over the past several days, I’ll share several links to detailed, thoughtful accounts of the clashes between the army and the Coptic protesters and their secular and Muslim fellow travelers.

1. A firsthand account: Marching from Shubra to deaths at Maspero.

This is a firsthand account of the Oct. 9 march from the Shubra neighborhood to the Maspero Building off Tahrir Square, and the gradual increase in violence. It is a straight, personal narrative, not structured by the strictures of news reporting:

And then it happened: an APC mounted the island in the middle of the road, like a maddened animal on a rampage. I saw a group of people disappear, sucked underneath it. It drove over them. I wasn’t able to see what happened to them because it then started coming in my direction.

Carr is a well-known Egyptian journalist of British extraction, who writes primarily for the Daily News but increasingly also for the English on-line edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm.

2. Egypt’s Bloody Sunday

Mariz Tadros of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex offers a detailed account of the incident, beginning with the sectarian conflict in the south–and the injustice offered Copts by police, courts or national government when they sought redress. His account continues through the Oct. 9th violence, the government’s obscurantist response, and the quest by Egyptians across the political spectrum for justice for the Coptic protesters.

He concludes:

Meanwhile, it is important to recall that the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on January 1, and the countrywide Coptic protests that ensued, were precursors to pan-Egyptian uprisings that downed a dictator of 30 years. Could the church-burning demonstrations and their vicious suppression become the harbinger of another citizen-led upheaval? From the signs on the Egyptian street, only one thing is certain: The dust of Maspero has yet to settle.

The account appears in the latest edition of Middle East Report.

3. Reflections on the (In)Visibility of Copts in Egypt

The central problem of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, says Anthony Shenoda in this recent blog post to Jadaliyya is that they are invisible until they are attacked.

[T]he heart of the “Coptic Problem” as it is often referred to in English or the “Coptic File” (al-mallaf al-qibti) as it is called in Arabic, [is] labeling it as something that can easily be whisked away into a rusty filing cabinet or as a specifically “Coptic” problem rather than an Egyptian social one.

Shenoda offers a lengthy summary of the violence the Copts have faced this year, from the bombing of the churches in Alexandria in January to this week’s clashes, and the tense relations with the military in all these.

The army’s commitment to rebuilding the church in Helwan and restoring those in Imbaba, the recent meeting of Ahmad al-Tayyib the Shaykh of al-Azhar and Ali Gomaa the grand mufti of Egypt with Pope Shenouda III to express their condolences over the spate of violence, the meeting of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf with Coptic clergy and youth in Tahrir Square, as well as their subsequent meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Yehia al-Gamal are all steps in the right direction. But they are reactionary responses more so than attempts at confronting the real grievances that many Copts express: invisibility, or a visibility that can be so vexing that invisibility becomes desirable.

Anthony Shenoda is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

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