Maspero: Remembering the sectarianism of the "secular" regime

Maspero: Remembering the sectarianism of the "secular" regime
Four years on, families of the Maspero massacre victims have not seen justice and the state's commitment to anti-sectarianism remains in doubt.
5 min read
09 October, 2015
The massacre at Maspero State Television Centre in October 2011 occurred during a demonstration by predominantly Christian Copts to protest the coverage of the demolition of a church in southern Egypt. 

Two military armoured vehicles drove out of the television building, killing protesters by running them over and firing live ammunition.

Twenty-eight were killed, and 212 were injured in the space of minutes.

Four long years from the massacre, justice has still not been seen for the families of the 28 people killed that day.

Despite this being the heaviest death toll of attacks on Christians in Egypt, the Coptic Church remains fairly supportive of the Egyptian regime, perceived as a secular vanguard against Islamist rule.

Egyptian State television within minutes of violence first reported the death of three soldiers and requested that all noble Egyptian patriots protect the military against the "violent crowd of Copts," also alluding to "foreign infiltrators" inciting violence, simultaneously broadcasting images of the APCs running over protesters.

The image of a shot Daniel Mina, a well-known activist around the downtown area, was haunting for many.

However, the videos did not serve as 'fundamental proof' of the army's cruelty, with rumors that the tanks were stolen either by Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, or thugs to stir up sectarianism (reflecting the state television news coverage.)

In an attempt to counter this, activist-video group Mosireen put out a tragic video named 'what really happened', showing videos with eye-witness descriptions of the event.

In it was footage of a woman sobbing, holding onto her fiance's hand as he lay dead, and a young man holding remnants of brains in his hand saying to the camera "I don’t know who he is but he’s my brother, I’m certain he was my brother".

However, the massacre did not produce a mass uprising by the Copts against the army, or overcome the Church’s institution support for the state.

"It is not wise to talk about Maspero now," Pope Tawadros, head of the Coptic Church said last year, asserting that he did not know who was at fault for the incident, as it occurred before he was elected pope.

"We are seeking the truth, but at the suitable time," he added.

However, within the 'revolutionary' narrative the incident at Maspero was remembered and commemorated in the way that many other acts of violence against citizens were not.

And in the case of Maspero and the discourse around it, it is not simply religious sectarianism that the army has fostered, but social and political.

People emphasised the helpless nature of the protesters, the fact that they were demanding rights rather than being an organised movement and came from a persecuted minority.

Liberal activists specifically addressed the comparison of Maspero to the Rabaa massacre, where in 2013 the Egyptian military killed at least 830 people, most of whom were supporters of the deposed President Mohammad Morsi.

Reflecting the comments of many, activist Lobna Darwish told Mada Masr that: "Maspero was a cry for a better country that would include us all, while Rabaa was a fight over power by people whose project by definition contradicted with ours, and excluded us and the people who were in the Maspero march. I have a big problem with equating the two events."

The speakers in Rabaa, some of whom displayed sectarian views, did not show the Muslim Brotherhood in the best light, which may explain why endless live broadcast of the Rabaa stage was permitted by the regime.

In the wake of the Rabaa massacre, churches were attacked, and the Muslim Brotherhood were slow to condemn them, stating that: "Burning houses of worship is a crime. And for the Church to declare war against Islam and Muslims is the worst offence. For every action there is a reaction." These attacks were described as "politically motivated".

It became a vicious cycle; the Church's support of the regime encouraged pre-existing sectarianism within the victimized Muslim Brotherhood, which increased (also oppressed) revolutionary Copts' and liberal activists' hatred of the brotherhood, and so on. A war over which sides' deaths mean the most.

However, reflecting on how institutions contribute towards sectarianism, professor Laleh Khalili, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, noted the massacre "showed that a lot of the sectarian violence is produced by the state and its security apparatuses, rather than 'spontaneously' emerging out of the public."

However, the Maspero massacre is an especially blatant example of that state-sanctioned sectarianism; Christians were being killed not by men with beards, but men in uniforms, driving tanks.

That same army slaughtered at least 817 people. It seems unlikely that in this case my-enemy’s enemy is my friend, and different political and social groups in Egypt have yet to adequately tackle the question; who is my enemy? The liberals? The army? The Islamists?

In Palestine, although there are severe political splits, there is at least a clear external enemy. The essential validity of the martyrdom of various political factions is not questioned, and when it comes to direct confrontation, forces join up.

In Egypt, although there is plenty of history of contentious rhetoric between the Muslim Brotherhood, there is not yet bloodshed. And while that remains the case, perhaps that question could at least be posed.

If the military regime is indeed found to be the overriding enemy, that possibly – a neglected conversation should take place in Egypt, as well as many of the other countries needs to take place; could – and should – liberals, leftists and Islamists join forces to counter regimes?

Are these divisions ones that State attempts to foster anyway?

While the struggle for the justice for the victims of Maspero continues, possibly these are questions that some could be brave enough to at least consider, if not answer.