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Egypt's military provokes sectarian clashes

Tensions between Christians and Muslims are being stoked up by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in the run-up to parliamentary elections in November and January. Senior army figures are determined to cling to power whichever way they can.

The number of casualties after a police-army crackdown on Coptic Christians last night has risen to at least 24 killed and hundreds injured on the streets of Cairo. The ruling military council imposed a curfew as protesters snatched weapons from police and hurled stones at them.

Provocateurs were clearly at work, as plainclothes thugs with protection from the police and military attacked the mainly Coptic demonstrators. A peaceful protest/sit-down at the state television building in the centre of Cairo was quelled by a ferocious and co-ordinated assault.

Anger had been simmering in southern Egypt ever since the Marinab Coptic Christian church in Aswan was demolished on 30 September. Coptic Christians are the largest religious minority in the Middle East and make up around 9% of Egypt’s population of over 80 million people.

The attacks on Egypt’s native Christians are a reversion to the blatant religious discrimination practised by the ousted Mubarak regime. The 25 January Youth Coalition has called for unity between Muslims and Christians, and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party has attacked the military council. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has blamed both Coptic protesters and the military.

Prime minister, Essam Sharaf, Egypt’s first post-revolution Prime Minister, has written on his cabinet’s Facebook page that “invisible hands are plotting to partition Egypt” with "attempts to spark chaos and strife among the homeland sons," in an attempt to defuse tension. Sharaf has called an emergency meeting with the “ministerial crisis management committee” for today.

Protesters marched on Egyptian state television in the Maspiro district of Cairo when it only reported police casualties but said nothing about the ferocious attack on the protesters. Three news producers on state TV had denounced their own channel’s bias, and accused it of “sectarian incitement”. As clashes continued around Tahrir Square, a prominent Coptic activist, Naguib Gobrail was reported as injured. Thugs were seen throwing rocks at protesters.

Eye witnesses saw armoured vehicles driving straight through crowds of protesters. In one place 15 people were crushed. The bodies taken to the Coptic Maspiro and Abbasseya hospitals had injuries showing they had been killed by massive force. Security forces followed the wounded to hospitals and prevented journalists and relatives from entering.

Al-Hurra television’s Cairo office was stormed by military police searching for Coptic demonstrators and to prevent the channel airing its news programme last night. (Al-Hurra is a US Congress-funded satellite network which broadcasts in 22 Middle East countries). The offices of private TV25 television channel were also attacked and closed down by police, who demanded that journalists show their ID cards to see if they were Christian. Solidarity protests took place in four other regions, including Alexandria.

As the Guardian’s Jack Shenker writes from Egypt:

Egypt's beleaguered Coptic community, who have known from the early days of the anti-Mubarak uprising that those seeking to protect the status quo would try their hardest to sow social instability as a precursor for rolling back revolutionary gains – and that with a current of genuine communal distrust often bubbling away below the surface, sectarian tension would be the easiest of targets.

When a political regime is in crisis, provoking religious and ethnic clashes is par for the course, as history has shown time and again. The state-sponsored attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christians confirms that the Egypt’s political revolution is in danger.

The issues of unemployment, poverty and discrimination that drove the January revolution forward remain. They cannot be tackled while the discredited army leadership, which was in Mubarak’s pay and owns large chunks of the economy, remains in control.

The ousting of Mubarak must be continued by people’s assemblies taking action to oust his remaining cronies and the military council for good.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
10 October 2011

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