More than 3 weeks after the deadly clashes that left 27 dead (so far) and hundreds injured on Sunday 9 October in front of the Egyptian State TV building, Maspero, there are still more questions than answers. The only thing that is clear is that the brutal attack against peaceful, mostly Coptic, protestors, marks a dangerous turning point in the ruling military council’s (dis)management of Egypt’s transition and sends a number of worrying messages.
First, although this is not the first time that protestors in post-Mubarak Egypt have been violently attacked, arrested and abused by security and armed forces, Sunday’s clashes were by far the worst, the deadliest and the most damaging in their long-term effect. In earlier incidents, anti-riot police forces were often at the forefront of the action and took most of the blame for the violence, thus saving the face of the military and allowing them later to protest their innocence. This time, however, it was the military that were clearly, and perhaps even defiantly, at the heart of the violent clashes.
Secondly, this is the first time that Egyptian Copts have been overtly at the receiving end of state violence. The Two Saints’ Church bombing on New Year’s Eve might have been masterminded by the Ministry of Interior. But no official statement has been issued until this moment to declare once and for all who was really responsible for the carnage. If successive regimes in Egypt played the sectarian cards with the aim either of intimidating the Coptic population or distracting attention from other pressing popular demands, they always did so in an underhand, non-confrontational manner.
Thirdly, this is the first time that State TV has been engaged in an open and shameless incitement against Copts. It did the unthinkable when it alleged that the army was being attacked by Copts and called on “honourable citizens” to come out to help defend the army, not realizing perhaps that it is the army that is supposed to defend citizens and not the other way round. This was tantamount to an invitation to extremists, bigots and racists to assault Copts on the streets.
When three days following the clashes a press conference by two of SCAF’s generals was announced, we thought that SCAF would admit mistakes and offer explanations and apologies. What we got instead was one denial after another. “We did not kill the Maspero protestors but we don’t know who did”. “It’s not our doctrine in the army to crush people under the wheels of military trucks”. “The Military police did not fire at anyone because they didn’t carry live ammunition”. But the ultimate in clarity and eloquence was the statement by one of the generals: “While I don’t deny that somebody might have been hit by a moving vehicle, I don’t confirm it either”.
Thus spoke Egypt’s generals at their first press conference and again as guests at a popular TV show on October 19. In both instances, there wasn’t a single word of sympathy for 20-year old Mina who was shot dead by a sniper bullet. Nor was there any compassion for Vivian Magdy whose fiancé, Michael Saad, was crushed to death under the wheels of an army vehicle before her very eyes. There was nothing but the cold, matter-of-fact indifference of the gods looking down with disdain from their altitude on Mount Olympus at the sufferings of dispensable mortals.
One cannot, however, miss the meaning of the coded messages that SCAF’s actions and words seem to be sending to various parties:
To the Coptic population: Beware of my wrath. This is just a foretaste of what I can do in the future. Don’t ever forget that you are citizens of the church and like a good, obedient flock you should follow the dictates of your leaders, which are ultimately my dictates.
To the Coptic Church: Please control your citizens, contain their anger and keep them in line. I will hold you responsible for their actions.
To Islamists: I can see you smirking with suppressed delight at what happened in Maspero. You may believe that you are now in my good books because you helped me quash dissenting voices and steer the revolution the way I wanted. But if you dare cross me, I’m going to do exactly the same to you. So mark my words. I have no friends. I’m my own friend.
To all Egyptians: Did you see what happened to your compatriots? Expect more of the same treatment in the days to come. You think you deserve freedom and dignity? You will see them in the dungeons of my security prisons if you dare disobey my orders. When I tell you that the sky is red, you will have to see it as such. I will teach you how to see through my eyes and hear only the words I speak.
To Western governments: You supported Mubarak even though you knew that he was a corrupt tyrant who abused his people. I expect no less from you. I know and hope that you will conveniently turn a blind eye to this unfortunate incident because we both know that it is in your best interest to keep Egypt under tight control. Only I can do that.
But the question is: can SCAF succeed in ruling Egypt through intimidation and propaganda as it is clearly trying to do? The answer is most certainly in the negative. Ruling Egypt with the mind-set of Nasser’s Egypt in the fifties and sixties, when news sources were severely restricted and the airwaves tightly controlled, is no longer a viable option. SCAF may control state media and monitor private channels. But the internet is awash with testimonies and videos contradicting the official narrative. A few days after the clashes, thousands of protestors surrounded the State TV building shouting, “Here are the liars!” in condemnation of its role in propagating state-sponsored lies.
Egypt’s generals may try to shirk responsibility for the Maspero deaths by blaming everybody else except themselves: radical Islamists, counter-revolutionaries or foreign hands. They may try to beat around the bush and use the strategy of “confuse and rule”. But as the wielder of absolute authority in Egypt at the moment, with legislative and consecutive powers combined, SCAF has absolute responsibility. Everything that happened on that fateful night or may happen in the difficult days ahead is, and will be, SCAF’s direct responsibility and one day it will be held accountable.