10 Oct 2011

Call for investigation into Cairo violence

Egypt’s ruling military have today been criticised for their violent handling of a Coptic Christian protest, as the suspected death toll in Cairo rises to 25.

Army tanks drove into the crowd near Cairo’s state television building and online video footage appears to show mangled bodies that were crushed by the vehicles. The violent clashes left 25 people dead and 272 injured.

Violence between the army and protesters broke out during a demonstration, thought to be attended by thousands, against a Coptic Christian church attack in the province of Aswan.

The church attack was the most recent in a series of sectarian incidents that the Coptic Christian community say are not being properly dealt with. However the violence on Sunday was as a result of clashes between the army and the protestors, rather than religious factions.

Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi who leads the military council, appeared on state television today calling for an investigation into the fatal clashes.

The protest spread to Tahrir Square – the centre of the uprising that brought down Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak – and the army imposed a curfew from 2am to 7am local time.

The health ministry confirmed that at least 24 people died and a further 272 were injured in what was the worst outbreak of violence since the 18-day uprising in February. Egyptian media later put the death toll at 25.

Human rights activist Hossam Bahgat tweeted about the protest from hospital. “What happened today is unprecedented in Egypt. 17 corpses crushed by military tanks,” he wrote. “I saw bodies missing, hands and legs, heads twisted away or plastered to the ground.”

It may be democracy for the Muslim majority but not for the minority Christian group. Dr Erica Hunter, SOAS

Foreign Secretary William Hague said he condemned the loss of life. “It is essential that all sides take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation and engage in dialogue,” he said.

“The freedom of religious belief is a universal human right which needs to be protected everywhere, and the ability to worship in peace is a vital component of any free and democratic society”.

History of religious tension

Coptic Christians make up around 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population and they blame Muslim fundamentalists for recent sectarian attacks.

Although the Arab Spring was hailed as the beginning of democratic freedom for Egypt, the ousting of Hosni Mubarak has resulted in growing religious tension in the country, as strict Islamist groups that were previously repressed have been allowed more freedom.

“It is a very long standing tension that has been simmering away, but it was kept largely under control,” Dr Erica Hunter, lecturer in eastern Christianity at SOAS, told Channel 4 News.

“Mubarak was very heavy handed in keeping down the Muslim Brotherhood and things have really started to escalate since his resignation. It may be democracy for the Muslim majority but not for the minority Christian group.”

Twelve people were killed in attacks in Coptic churches in May, while another 13 people were killed in violent clashes between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Tahrir Square in March.

Violent clashes in Cairo leave 25 dead. (reuters)

Heavy-handed military tactics

Human rights activists in Egypt supported the Coptic Christian’s protest and blamed the army for heavy-handed tactics in this instance, rather than sectarian clashes. Some activists fear that the army will seek to keep control behind the scenes even after a government is elected.

The army is being very violent as they know they will not be held accountable and will use such protests to increase repression in Egypt. Gamal Eid, ANHRI

Gamal Eid of the Arab Network For Human Rights Information said: “The army was very violent in dealing with all these demonstrations … and they are being very violent as they know they will not be held accountable and will use such protests to increase repression in Egypt. That is evidence that the military has to leave power as soon as possible.”

An army statement today assured Egyptians that security was of paramount concern, and that the army had no intention of holding on to power following the November elections.

Christians “disappointed” by post-Mubarak power sharing

The country’s first elections on November 28 will be a test for the new political leadership in post-Mubarak Egypt who will have to negotiate power sharing within a democracy. Coptic Christians have been frustrated about their lack of political input in the ongoing power brokering.

“The Coptics were very disappointed that there has been very little power sharing for them,” said Dr Hunter. “They have a very reduced role in any of the political development.”

The Egyptian cabinet were quick to denounce the violence and appeal against a return to violence. An emergency meeting was called for Monday, and a cabinet statement said it would not allow any group to delay the process of democratic transformation ahead of the country’s first elections.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf toured the area near the state television building where the clashes first started. “Instead of advancing to build a modern state of democratic principles, we are back searching for security and stability, worrying that there are hidden hands, both domestic and foreign, seeking to obstruct the will of Egyptians in establishing a democracy,” Mr Sharaf said in an address on state television.

“We will not surrender to these malicious conspiracies and we will not accept reverting back.”