Attack on Copts: How a Demonstration Turned into a Massacre
By: Mohamed Fawzi
Published Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Copts demonstrating in central Cairo Sunday were met with lethal force that left over two dozen people dead. Military and Salafi gangs have been largely blamed, but media and clerical incitement were likely culprits as well.
Downtown Cairo witnessed a dramatic and bloody crackdown against Coptic protesters Sunday. The dramatic turn of events is being hotly disputed with little attention to how the escalation took place.
Thousands of peaceful protesters had marched from Shubra, in North Cairo, through the Ramsis area to the center of the city. The drama peaked when demonstrators arrived at the state TV building on the Nile Corniche. A swarm of military police gathered and Egyptian state television warned of an imminent confrontation between the military and protesters. The procession finally made its way to Maspero, gathering in front of the state television building.
The demonstrators raised their crosses while chanting hymns, and criticized the recent attack on St. George Church in the Aswan area, in southern Egypt. The crowd demanded that the Coptic community be given the right to build churches using the same regulations governing the construction of mosques, as well as the dismissal of Aswan governor Mustafa al-Sayed, who publicly stated that church administrators were as much to blame as the attackers for the church’s destruction. They also demanded an investigation into the events by the Aswan security director, the arrest of those who attacked the church, and a unified law of worship banning religious discrimination.
The former regime used to exploit these same demands to promote tensions between Muslim and Coptic communities. But the climate in the country is now different as a significant number of Muslims support the demands.
Last week, as the protest leaders announced their march, they did not express any intention to stop in front of the state television building. The march left from Shubra as planned at 3:30pm on Sunday and headed for Maspero. The marchers were joined by huge crowds from the heavily Christian Shubra area. Their excitement was fueled by rumors that Bishop Yohannes, the personal secretary of Pope Shenouda III (of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria), was among the crowd, alongside members of the clergy who usually join in the demonstrations.
The procession reached the Maspero neighborhood at about 5pm, at which point the demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands, with some estimates as high as 50,000. In Maspero, the crowd divided into two groups: those who wanted to gather in front of the state television building across the street from the Ramses Hilton and those who wanted to proceed across the Corniche.
The military police for their part held back the demonstrators and secured control over the entrances to the square in front of the television building, setting up barricades at key locations. When the demonstrators arrived, police fired tear gas canisters in hope of dispersing them. Friction between the two sides remained light until some protesters destroyed a number of light posts.
At this point, armored personnel carriers began to move and break up the protest. They were met with resistance from the crowd. The first person killed was crushed under the wheels of a military personnel carrier. This sparked anger throughout the large gathering, which had by now completely blocked the Corniche road. They carried the dead man’s body and circled the area. Then they breached the security barrier and set fire to three cars, a military bus, and armored personnel carriers parked near the demonstration.
The escalation precipitated the military’s brutal onslaught, and demonstrators responded with stones and pieces of metal removed from the October 6 Bridge. The military and security forces continued to attack the demonstrators and armored vehicles killed and injured more protesters. The back and forth continued until police joined military forces in front of the television building.
When the police arrived, groups of thugs appeared carrying swords. The newcomers attacked the demonstration, resulting in more bloodshed. Thugs on motorcycles and young men carrying swords and chains chased the demonstrators through the streets of the downtown area.
Around 10pm, the stream of people arriving from around the Maspero area increased while the number of demonstrators sharply declined until none were left. In their stead were supporters of Salafi groups who called to organize a march from Maspero to Tahrir Square in condemnation of the Coptic demonstration.
This is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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