CAIRO, Egypt – A day before bloody clashes between mostly Coptic protestors and soldiers sent by the interim military regime, I was on a tour of ancient mosques organized by a Coptic friend. In less than 24 hours, his Facebook updates – and those of many Egyptian friends – included photographs of mangled corpses with the hashtags #NoSCAF and #FuckSCAF.
“I don’t have hate for any Muslims, but I do have hate for SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s interim ruling military regime] and Egyptian TV,” my friend – who will remain anonymous for his own safety -- wrote in Arabic.
Another activist tweeted a sentiment I’ve seen online and heard often this week. “Yesterday was NOT a sectarian fight. It was the army against peaceful protesters. It was an inshallah failed trial for divide and conquer.”
Despite Western media depictions of Sunday’s fatal clashes as “sectarian,” many Egyptians – including families of the slain – are directing their rage at state television and military officials, who had been informed of plans for a peaceful protest march by the organizers.
The mother of Coptic activist Mina Daniel, who was killed Sunday, told reporters, "[The military] started firing at us as soon as we arrived in front of the media ministry. They were shooting and throwing rocks at the same time, while the armored vehicles chased us and ran people over."
A photo of her 20-year-old son laughing in a pink shirt before the march is circulating on Facebook – along with a photo of him in the morgue. Social media continues to be the main tool for Egyptians challenging official narratives, which often blame victims and incite divisions.
Video and photos uploaded on Facebook and Twitter during the clashes – which left an official count of 22 mostly Copts dead (many say the number is higher) – countered broadcasts on state television, some urging Egyptians to take to the streets to “protect the army” from Coptic protestors. During the violence, my Coptic friend tweeted, “Christians are not carrying weapons. They are carrying the cross.”
Egypt’s Coptic community dates to the 4th century, when the country was under Roman rule, and accounts for up to 10 percent of the population. It is the Arab world’s largest Christian community, and one that many here insist exists mostly in peace with the Muslim majority.
Except when political agendas fan the flames of sectarian hostility.
When Religion Meets Politics
Well before Sunday’s military-led violence, Coptic Web sites and news agencies carried several articles accusing conservative Islamists of intolerance and attacks. One article reposted in September and originally taken from a conservative American publication even expressed fear that Islamists were turning Egypt into “an Iranian-like theocracy.”
“The Revolution has been hijacked,” said the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which played a prominent role in the protests that toppled former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. “The military regime is using divide and conquer, and they’re succeeding.”
A poster displayed prominently in the April 6 headquarters announced his aim to run for a parliamentary seat, along with other members. They are competing against a much larger coterie of Islamic organizations.
Among the 27 political parties now vying for power are groups like the Salafis, ultraconservative Muslims accused by Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination (EARD), among others, of inciting rural hatred against Copts. There are also attempts by a younger generation of Muslim conservatives to reach more deeply into the masses.
During the Tahrir sit-ins in July, I encountered a tent set up by the “Costa Salafis.” The name is taken from the Costa Coffee brand, with the logo altered to show a bearded man instead of coffee beans. “We’re always paying for your drinks,” is their slogan, in reference to the group’s belief that Salafis are being unfairly blamed for problems since the Revolution.
Before the Revolution, Salafis and other Islamist groups – including the Muslim Brotherhood – were persecuted by the Mubarak regime. During the Revolution, Christians and Muslims protected one another from police and military attacks, particularly while praying.
Since then, however, media reports of sectarian clashes have heightened tensions, while suspicions increasingly point to the one group that stands to benefit most from sowing seeds of division.
“To instigate chaos and religious strife in order to show that without the military there will be more chaos, is the oldest and most villainous trick of authoritarian regimes,” a 21-year-old Muslim activist wrote on her Facebook page, “Shimaa from Tahrir Square.”
This type of sentiment has been tweeted and re-tweeted by young activists, including well-known blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy. “We must remain united as Muslims and Copts against Mubarak’s army generals, who are in effect the leadership of the Counterrevolution,” he wrote beneath videos he posted Monday of Coptic funeral processions.
SInce Mubarak's ouster, Egypt has been under the control of an interim military-led regime headed by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who is commander in chief of the armed forces.
Such unity is being hampered, however, by the actions of the country’s religious and political leaders.
One of the main calls of Coptic protestors has been for swifter government investigations into the bombing of a church in January in Alexandria that left 24 dead. It’s been reported that documents seized after the Revolution implicated the ex-Interior Minister in the attack.
Such news reports and a steady stream of on-line postings – including a Youtube video of a lone Coptic man being beaten by a group of military police – have cast government statements that Sunday’s clashes were fueled by Coptic protestors provoking a mostly Muslim military under a shadow.
Many here are greeting the news of Sunday’s violence with a typically Egyptian mixture of anger and irony.
One of the more shocking Facebook jokes shared across the dinner table in recent days goes: “We used to take pictures on tanks. Now we take pictures under tanks.”
A more pointed cartoon inspired by Sunday’s events has also gained traction on Facebook. Drawn by Brazilian Carlos Latuff, beloved by Egypt’s social media generation, it shows Khaled Said – a Muslim whose brutal death at the hands of Egyptian police contributed to the Revolution movement – wearing a sweatshirt with the hashtag of the Revolution, #Jan25. He is dangling a tiny Mubarak.
Next to Said is Mina Daniel – the Coptic activist killed Sunday – wearing a red Che Guevara style hat with #Jan25 in gold. Daniel is dangling a tiny Tantawi.
Below the cartoon, Facebook users have added the caption, “In your Death, our Freedom.”
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