Monday, October 10, 2011

Egyptian protests: "It is chaos."

Last night, Egypt was rocked by a night of violent protests that the New York Times calls "the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February." The protests apparently began as an expression of Egyptian Christians' anger and frustration following over a recent attack on a Coptic church, but media reports suggest that last night's clashes offered a further flashpoint for sectarian tensions. Here's a brief summary of what happened, courtesy of Toronto's Globe and Mail:
The protest began in the Shubra district of northern Cairo, then headed to the state television building along the Nile where men in plainclothes attacked about a thousand Christian protesters as they chanted denunciations of the military rulers.

"The people want to topple the field marshal!" the protesters yelled, referring to the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Some Muslim protesters later joined in the chant.

Later in the evening, a crowd of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis turned up to challenge the Christian crowds, shouting, "Speak up! An Islamic state until death!"

Armed with sticks, the Muslim assailants chased the Christian protesters from the TV building, banging metal street signs to scare them off. It was not immediately clear who the attackers were.

Gunshots rang out at the scene, where lines of riot police with shields tried to hold back hundreds of Christian protesters chanting, "This is our country!"

Security forces eventually fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. The clashes then moved to nearby Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the uprising against Mubarak. The army closed off streets around the area.

The clashes left streets littered with shattered glass, stones, ash and soot from burned vehicles. Hundreds of curious onlookers gathered at one of the bridges over the Nile to watch the unrest.

After hours of intense clashes, chants of "Muslims, Christians one hand, one hand!" rang out in a call for a truce. The stone-throwing died down briefly, but then began to rage again.
A protester quoted by the NYT may have offered the best summary of last night's events: "It is chaos." At the start of a new week, I hope and pray that the coming days will be better - for Egyptian Christians especially, but also for all in the Middle East seeking to find their way through a confusing, unstable and often violent period. AMDG.

UPDATE (3:25 PM, 10/10/11): A story on the aftermath of the protest posted this afternoon on the New York Times website includes this paragraph:
In a statement, the Coptic Church, which represents about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, accused military and police forces of allowing anti-Christian instigators to turn what had been a peaceful protest into a sectarian riot, then used the violence as a pretext for deadly force directed largely against the Coptic protesters.
Sad if true, but also unsurprising: Egypt's security apparatus has never been particularly evenhanded in its treatment of the country's different religious communities. Elements of the military could be sympathetic to anti-Christian forces or merely indifferent to the rights of religious minorities, though some military leaders may want to play up religious divisions simply to excuse a broader crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression. All the more reason to pray for peace and unity in Egypt. Kyrie, eleison.


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