10/19/11 - The Hill
As the United States government receives a delegation of Egypt’s ruling military junta, Egyptians mourn the tragic and heinous murder of 26 of their sons and daughters, most of whom are Coptic Christians, at the hands of that very junta. On October 9, as peaceful protesters marched toward Egypt’s radio and television building known as Maspero to object to the latest in a long history and pattern of sectarian attacks targeting Egypt’s Christian minority, they were greeted with live ammunition and mowing by armored personnel carriers (AMC’s).
The New York Times reported that according to initial autopsy reports, at least seven of the dead were killed by live ammunition and 10 were crushed to death by vehicles. As the massacre was ongoing, Egyptian state media was reporting that “Coptic sectors were attacking the military, and had killed three soldiers,” an allegation later refuted by media and unconfirmed by the military, which until now refuses to release the names of its alleged dead soldiers.
State television further called upon “honorable citizens to come to the defense of Egypt’s military, which is facing attacks by the Copts,” in a manner, according to one anchorwoman, “not even the Israelis would dare.” As a result, the tragedy was further exacerbated when roving mobs went searching for Christians to avenge the alleged attack on the military, and some Muslim extremists took to the streets with sectarian chants and threats against Christians, which played out in random acts of vigilante violence.
In the following days, thousands of Egyptians again took to the streets to demand the resignation of the Minister of Media for his role in criminal incitement to civil strife. Several workers in Egypt’s television and radio sector resigned after the massacre, explaining in a statement that they were under direct orders by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), at the helm of the country's executive power since Mubarak's ouster in February, to deliberately misrepresent the facts.
Adding insult to unspeakable tragedy, the SCAF held a press conference in which it denied any responsibility for the attacks despite the overwhelming evidence clearly depicting armored cars mowing citizens, and the mangled bodies of protesters in the morgue. Several of the corpses, the pictures of which were widely disseminated across the media, had missing limbs and body parts, and one had his skull crushed so severely to the point that most of his brain was missing. Instead, SCAF called upon reporters to “put themselves in the place of that poor soldier driving the AMC,” calling the alleged dead soldiers “martyrs,” and designating the 25 Copts as “the dead.” SCAF further praised the “honorable” role of the state television sector in handling the “incident.”
Coptic Christians, while comprising roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population, have been under mounting pressure in the last four decades, culminating during the last five years of the Mubarak regime. Suffering from institutionalized discrimination ranging from severe handicaps on the right to worship and unequal to nonexistent protection of the law, to growing attacks by Muslim extremists on their churches and property, Coptic Christians took to the streets in the same peaceful manner as all Egyptians had in January to demand basic civil rights and to protest to the latest burning of a church in Upper Egypt, a hate crime which was praised by the city’s governor.
In fact, in 2011 alone, before the Maspero massacre, Copts had been the target of 33 sectarian attacks, 12 of which involved an attack on a church, leaving a total of 49 dead. Counting the bombing of an Alexandria church on New Year’s Eve, which added an additional 23 casualties, the death toll rose to 72, with dozens injured and a number of Christian homes and properties burned down. After Maspero, the death toll of Egypt’s sectarian violence rises to 97, with over 400 injured--and immeasurable psychological damage.
For years, rights groups have decried the Egyptian state’s complicity in the growing sectarianism targeting Egypt’s vulnerable religious minorities, but had held hopes high after Egypt’s peaceful revolution that had toppled a brutal dictator of 30 years. Now, the self-proclaimed “guardians of that revolution,” Egypt’s military rulers—SCAF—have extinguished hopes for genuine equality for all of Egypt’s "children" by itself undertaking this heinous massacre in cold blood, and scheming a cover up that would make Mubarak proud, indicating that the repressive ways of the past are alive and well in post-Mubarak Egypt.
Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, with the Egyptian military receiving the bulk of the assistance, approximately $1.3 billion, annually. The United States funds and/or is the principal supplier of most of Egypt’s weapons systems and equipment—and in some cases licenses the assembly of armored fighting vehicles in Egypt.
The latest foreign appropriations bill indicates the U.S. government is making some feeble attempts to restrict the unconditioned flow of military assistance to Egypt. But those efforts are being strongly rebuffed and challenged by the SCAF and its substantial U.S. lobby, with the support of the Pentagon. The United States’ relationship with SCAF, positively reaffirmed by U.S. officials such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who have recently gone on record to proclaim their faith in Egypt’s generals, is recalling for many in Egypt the days of the Mubarak era.
Then, the U.S. provided strong, some argue unconditioned, support for Mubarak in exchange for perceived “stability” and tenuous protection of U.S. strategic interests, all while ignoring and alienating an increasingly angry public. And the SCAF is following suit. In succeeding in a timely prisoner swap for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the SCAF served the U.S. and Israel with a message of its indispensability in regional politics--all while losing credibility at home due to a series of growing mismanagement on the domestic front.
When Egyptians peacefully expelled Mubarak despite his being bolstered by the U.S., Egyptians sent the U.S. and the world a powerful message that reliance on dictators as stable partners is a time ticking fiction that holds no promise of enduring prosperity or partnership. It is ironic that only months later, Egyptians find themselves having to repeat the arguments of the last few decades: namely that U.S. interests—not to mention principles—demand that that the U.S. cease unconditional support of dictatorial regimes that do not abide by basic human rights principles.
Dina Guirguis is an Egyptian American democracy activist and attorney. She is a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.