Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 May 2011
Issue No. 1047
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Staying put in Maspero

Following deadly sectarian violence in Imbaba earlier in the week, Copts staged an open sit-in at Maspero. Nader Habib asked them their demands and thoughts on how the crisis can end

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The masses, mainly Copts, protest in front of Maspero

My taxi driver refused to turn into the Maspero area where Copts were staging their second day of demonstrations following events in Imbaba in which churches were burned and at least 10 killed in sectarian clashes. He was afraid both for his car and for his own safety. Understandably. The previous day -- Sunday -- there were outbreaks of violence, including Molotov cocktails thrown at protesters as they made their way towards the television building. He dropped me off at the Nile Hilton, suggesting that the best route from there would be to walk up the ramp of the 6 October Bridge, which ends in front of the Hilton, and then down the other side, which would take me almost to the television building.

Entering Maspero was like entering a war zone. Central Security forces had cordoned off the streets leading towards the Corniche from behind the television building in order to protect the demonstrators, or more specifically in order to keep thugs and anyone else that might be carrying concealed weapons from infiltrating into the crowd. I was particularly struck by how firmly yet politely a military officer prohibited entry to several young men. On the Corniche itself, the demonstrators had erected barbed wire barriers with narrow openings that served as checkpoints to ascertain the identity of people wishing to participate and to check for concealed weapons.

On the other side of the barbed wire barrier, I found myself in the midst of a huge throng, although I quickly discerned that it consisted of several groups. The one in the centre had drawn the largest crowd, most of its members carrying crosses and placards whose slogans protested the events in Imbaba, and all shouting impassioned chants. Another contingent marched back and forth inside the cordon, carrying megaphones through which speakers appealed for national unity at this time of crisis. A third group was made up of those who needed a short break before they resumed the sit-in they had started two days earlier. In the fourth category were those who had chosen to sit on the banks of the Nile, observing the proceedings in general, and the to- ing and fro-ing of food and drink vendors in particular. But this was only a minor counterpoint to the sense of urgency and spirit of commitment that greeted me in this open-ended demonstration that the Copts have vowed to sustain until those responsible for the attack on the Mar Mina Church in Imbaba are apprehended.

"We've been here since the day before yesterday," said Antonius El-Gawargui, a Coptic monk. "We began with a march in front of the Supreme Court building and that led us here to the State TV building. We will not leave until our demands are met, which are the apprehension and trial of all those responsible for the attack on the church in Sol to the attack and the events in Imbaba. If the [Higher Council of the Armed Forces, HCAF] had brought the criminals responsible for the first incident to justice we would not be here today. If it does not take a firm stance on the events in Imbaba, who knows where sectarian violence will erupt next?"

El-Gawargui added: "On Sunday, there were some outbreaks of violence when some thugs started to pelt people coming here with Molotov cocktails and stones from the roofs of the buildings overlooking the backstreets where security forces are now stationed. Fortunately, there were only minor injuries."

El-Gawargui deplored the fact that the events in Imbaba were ostensibly triggered by the appearance of Camilia Shehata on the Christian Al-Hayat channel denying that she had converted to Islam. "No one, whether Muslim or Christian, has the right to speak on behalf of Camilia, apart from her husband," he said. He was further incensed by offensive remarks against Pope Shenouda III. "We have told the army that it must arrest anyone who insults the Pope, who is a symbol of the whole of Egypt and not just Christianity," he said, continuing, "We formed an association that we called the Federation for National Unity, and we took the decision not to leave this spot and not to negotiate with anyone until our demands are met. We demand the arrest and trial of all those responsible for the incidents of sectarian violence in Qena, Abu Qurqas, Minya, Assiut, Sol, Moqattam, and most recently Imbaba. We decided to rally in Maspero in the hope that our voice would reach those responsible in Egypt as quickly as possible."

Aziz Said travelled from Suez to Cairo in order to stand together with his Coptic brothers in Maspero. "This isn't the first time I came to Cairo to demonstrate in Maspero. I was here in February after the attack on the church in Sol and we held another demonstration to demand the release of 34 people who were wrongly arrested. After Father Mathias called off the strike, they merely stayed on to clean up the area in front of the TV building. They were arrested without cause, while those who destroyed the church were left free. What sense does that make, to arrest those kids while not laying a hand on the ones who attack monasteries, burn churches and insult His Holiness the Pope, a symbol of the whole of Egypt and a line no one here or elsewhere should be allowed to cross?"

When asked about reports that some youth attacked the TV building, Aziz dismissed them as lies. "The behaviour of the people here has been totally peaceful and civilised. They did not come here to retaliate or pick fights, but as people with a rightful cause and just demands. Why put these demands and themselves in jeopardy for the sake of tossing a stone and breaking a window? In fact, we'd be willing to change all the windows in the TV building in exchange for an effective response to our cause." In this regard, he addressed a request to General Tantawi, the head of the HCAF: "Sir, you are responsible for a transitional government in a large institutionalised state, not in some small remote village. Therefore, the rule of law should prevail instead of the mediations of village elders. Why in the world is Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, a Salafist, regarded as some head of state, flitting here and there after every incident in order to solve problems? Where's the law?"

Some people have wondered why the TV building at Maspero was chosen as the site for the demonstrations. Simon Wafiq, spokesman for the National Unity Youth Federation, explains, "It is a symbol. During the 25 January Revolution, when we reached Maspero we toppled Mubarak. This is a major symbol for us, as Egyptians." On the other hand, he regreted the minor incidents of vandalism and violence that occurred there, although he attributed them to mounting anger at the attacks on Coptic churches during the past three months combined with frustration at what he described as the passiveness, defeatism and conservatism of the army. This, he said, culminated in scuffles with soldiers and some stone throwing at the TV building.

Echoing El-Gawargui and Aziz, Wafiq said that demonstrators have one non-negotiable demand, which is the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for the attacks against Coptic churches. He added: "We can not foretell when the army will respond to our demand, but we would like to inform it that we are very patient and prepared to wait until the end of time. Even if they beat us and force us to leave, we will return again. We are sworn to continue and no one will be able to divert us from our aim. Even if the Salafis attack us with their swords, we will persist. The Muslims and Christians here are united in their determination to defend the civic character of the state with our blood against anyone."

On reports of brawls in the neighbourhood Sunday, Wafiq relates: "Fighting did break out between us and some thugs in the area behind the TV building. They had begun to hurl Molotov cocktails at us because we were chanting, 'The people want the general to go!' We were familiar with the old game, of course. At the time we were calling for the fall of Mubarak they brought out the thugs and the same thing happened again when we called for the fall of Tantawi."

Wafiq went on to assert that both Muslims and Christians in Egypt were -- strictly speaking -- Copts. "The word Copt means Egypt, literally. When we say we're Coptic we are literally saying we're Egyptian. And as Egyptians we say that we will not leave our land and we will not leave our churches, and we will not leave our mosques, our homes and our friends for any reason whatsoever." At the same time he stressed, "We do not want anything from the West. Anyone who tries to use Western support to gain the upper hand against his fellow citizens is a traitor. We are here as Egyptians. We will continue to resist and to fight for our right to exist and we have many Muslim brothers who are standing by our side, opposed to the destruction of the civic nature of the state. The unity between Muslims and Christians will accomplish great things and lead us to the Egypt we aspire to. There's a chant that goes, 'With Muslim and Christian hand in hand, we'll build Egypt to be strong and grand.' This is what we hope for with all our hearts."

Father Flopater Gamil, priest at the Church of the Virgin and St Mark in Giza, could readily understand the feelings that motivated the protesters at Maspero. They were driven, he said, by their anger at the repeated attacks on churches and the absence of any deterrent. "Moreover, on this occasion, 80 per cent of the 190 people they arrested were Copts, which is to say the intended victims. But even the 20 per cent of Muslims who were arrested were victims, because they had been brainwashed, misled and incited into doing what they did. Therefore, we submitted an official complaint to the prosecutor-general's office, bearing the number 7249 and dated 5 May 2011, against the following individuals: Sheikh Hafez Salama, Sheikh Al-Zoghbi, Sheikh Yehia, Khaled Harbi, Hossam Al-Bukhari, Mamdouh Ismail El-Muhami, Hisham Kemal, Mahmoud Al-Qaoud, and Tareq El-Masri. In this and previous complaints, we contend that these individuals have formed a coalition of 'neo-Muslims' who actively engage in incitement against Copts and the Coptic Church, using such weapons as fraudulent claims that Muslim women are being held captive in monasteries and churches in order to dupe simple-minded Muslims into attacking Christian houses of worship and insulting Pope Shenouda III. We demand a full investigation into these people for incitement. It doesn't matter whether we arrest the persons who threw the Molotov cocktail, who pulled the trigger, or lit the match that set fire to a church. What matters is putting a stop to those who drove those persons into those actions. If nothing is done to deter the inciters, they will only continue to incite and we will see more of these incidents of sectarian violence."

Father Gamil continued: "So far the HCAF, which we honour and respect, has not responded to our demands." Nevertheless, we sense considerable Muslim sympathy with our cause and many Muslim men and women are standing here together with us. We are certain that 95 per cent of the Egyptian people, Muslim and Christian alike, are moderate in their beliefs and attitudes. The problem is not with our fellow Muslim citizens but with certain Salafi leaders, and I stress not all Salafi leaders, for I know moderate Salafis. In the past we used to say that there are hidden forces seeking to destroy the unity of the Egyptian people. Today, after the revolution, we can not pretend that the hands are hidden and working in darkness; they are flagrantly apparent, working in full daylight and we know who they are."

Father Gamil quickly rejected any notion of foreign intervention or any special type of domestic protection as a Christian. "I disapprove of the idea of being a Christian under the protection of Muslims. I am an Egyptian citizen and I want to be protected as such by the rule of Egyptian law. Any other type of protection would mean that we have become a theocratic state, controlled by religious movements."

Heba El-Sheikh is a Muslim woman in a veil. She is carrying a placard that reads, "I am a Muslim in solidarity with Copts. Burning a church is the same as burning a mosque." She said, "I'm here today because what happened in Imbaba is like some insane comedy that no rational person can believe. It has to have been caused by thugs or extremist Salafists. Why are they burning churches and causing strife? Surely there are important things that should concern us as our country passes through this historic phase and sectarian strife is the last thing we need. We should be building Egypt's future. The People's Assembly elections are coming soon and we should be creating political parties and blocs. Naturally, I have no idea who stands to benefit from the rise in sectarian strife and the sudden reappearance of the Salafis and the resurgence of extremism. However, what I do know is that Egypt should not become a theocracy. It needs to become a civic state now and it needs a strong constitution that safeguards the rights and wellbeing of all citizens, Muslim and Christian alike.

Amira Mansour is a journalist. Today she is carrying a sign that reads, "I am a Muslim in solidarity with Copts. Religion belongs to God; the nation belongs to all citizens." "People need to be aware of a very important fact," she told me. "Anyone who has read Egyptian history must realise that Egypt, from ancient times, has always been home to all races and religions. Christians, Jews and Muslims, and even non-believers, have a right to live in this land. 'Egypt is the nation for all its people' should not be a hollow chant. This is why Egypt should become a civic state, not a theocratic one. The Muslim who prays five times a day and goes to the mosque to hear the sermons should know better than others that Islam prohibits the derision of other religions and the things that other people hold sacred, including idols. Anyone who does not know this should go back and open their religious textbooks again."

The elderly Madame Laurice told me that this was her first time in Maspero and that she was happy to participate in this occasion alongside both Muslims and Christians. "When harm comes to Christians in Egypt it affects Muslims too," she said, adding, "I oppose the idea of soliciting help from the West. We are not too weak to protect ourselves. In fact, we are strong because we stand together as one Egyptian people, which is what the word Coptic means."

Laurice took the opportunity to offer a word of advice to the young people around her. She urged them to remain calm, "because our Lord will bring the wrong to justice".

Yvonne, coordinator of the Maspero Youth Federation, says that the Coptic Church is itself the Church of the Martyrs, martyrdom being "an attribute of our church since the dawn of Christianity in Egypt". She explains: "If the era of martyrdom returns, we will welcome it. Our ultimate aim is to be one with Christ and how glorious it would be to be with Him in the fastest way possible, which is to die for His sake. Yes, we are fully prepared to die for the sake of Christ and for our Church. Many people have tried to destroy it in the past, but they are gone while our church remains eternal."

The sun was now about to set and the Coptic demonstrators were asked to remain quiet so that their Muslim brothers and sisters could perform their prayers in peace. As the call to prayer sounded, words from the Coptic liturgy helped maintain a tranquil communal air. Following prayers, the coordinating committee asked permission for food trucks to be allowed to pass through the cordon. It was another tangible indication of the protesters' determination to stay in Maspero until their demands are met, their churches rebuilt, and those responsible for their destruction and for sectarian incitement to be brought to justice.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met on Tuesday with a group of Maspero protesters. He promised to set up a committee whose tasks are as yet undetermined until all Copt-related problems are resolved. This would include the situation of churches and related services, the latter of which stopped functioning under the former government.

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