In Egypt, Military and Christians Increasingly at Odds

In its desire to maintain stability and its own interests, the same armed forces that refused to fire on protesters in February now appear willing to look the other way, or worse, as anti-Christian sectarianism turns violent

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Riot police stand guard beside a car destroyed in Sunday night's clashes between Coptic Christians and soldiers in Cairo / Reuters

As Egypt's generals wrapped up their defiant presentation deflecting any and all responsibility for the killings of at least 26 people during a largely Coptic Christian demonstration on Sunday night, many Egyptians' initial bewilderment and fear had hardened into anger and foreboding. The Egyptian military's brutal attacks on the protesters represented a broader trend of limited tolerance for public displays of dissent and protest. But the attack was also distinctive for its sectarian overtones and its scale. Sunday night's killings in front of Cairo's radio and television building, commonly known as Maspero, were not simply a military attack on protest, but an episode in which the security forces sought to harness sectarian animus to bolster their crackdown and inoculate their actions. It's puzzling why the military leadership would choose to escalate at this moment. Whatever its intention, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the post-Mubarak body currently leading the country, has endangered the country's social fabric and risked unloosing civil strife.


The SCAF has been increasingly acting to quiet dissent, previously using the military to disperse protest by force, and now seeking political acquiescence through repressive, albeit calibrated, measures. Crackdowns appear to have targeted only those whom the SCAF might consider to be vulnerable and without a significant social support base -- in other words, people whose injury or death wouldn't provoke a wider popular backlash. In the mind of the military, then, repressing a largely Coptic protest would come at little social cost.

The armed forces are broadly reflective of Egyptian society. While the institution is not segregated, Christian advancement within the ranks is often limited by hierarchical discrimination. Although there is some degree of self-selectivity involved, the paucity of Copts within the upper ranks of the military reflects their withdrawal from the public sphere. It's part of a longstanding and deleterious change in how Christians participate in Egyptian society. The few high-ranking Christian officers -- such as Coptic war hero General Fouad Aziz Ghali, who played a key leadership role in the October 1973 war against Israel -- are exceptions to the rule. Egypt's Christians are excluded from leadership positions in key organs of the state -- including the one that now plays an increasingly prominent role in their country's future, the SCAF.  

Egyptian society is divided and its communal bonds have deteriorated, a trend that has left broad segments of the Egyptian population desensitized to the plight of the country's Christians. It's unlikely that the Egyptian army  acted out of hatred toward Christians -- even now, it's not in their character. But credible video evidence and eyewitness testimony from the Maspero crackdown show security forces standing by while vigilante groups attacked their Christian countrymen for no apparent reason other than malice. It certainly looks like outright collusion and cooperation, although we can't be sure without an independent non-military investigation (something the military is, of course, not permitting). Some troops were captured on video reveling in their assault on the Copts. Institutional self-interest is driving military decision-making, it seems, even at the risk of undermining national unity.    

State television and official media, in their incendiary coverage of the events, didn't come off any better than the military. One presenter called for honorable citizens to take to the streets to defend the armed forces against a Christian attack. State television sensationalized the events by neglecting to mention the protester casualties while announcing outlandish figures for military casualties. At this stage, the exact number of troops killed -- if there were any -- has become a state secret. The exact nature of interaction between the SCAF and the Ministry of Information (which runs state media) is opaque, but the latter certainly appears to have become an outlet for the former to cultivate popular support. Whether by directive or force of habit, state media has been repeating nationalistic tropes -- trumpeting SCAF chief Mohammed Hussein Tantawi as a great leader, for example -- in its obsequious coverage of the SCAF.    

Under the SCAF's few months of rule, the culture of impunity has continued and flourished when it comes to sectarian crimes. During the Mubarak era, the criminal justice system was often used selectively or manipulatively in response to anti-Christian attacks, exploiting Egypt's sectarian tensions for Mubarak's benefit. It was  used as a political tool to deepen Coptic dependence on the state. Since Mubarak fell on February 11 the new leadership has appeared largely indifferent to sectarian incidents. This has triggered widespread concern and outrage among Copts as well as their many sympathizers, and further undermined the concept of what it means to be an Egyptian citizen. While the SCAF has supposedly prioritized law and order and stability, the machinery of the state has not been brought to bear against the perpetrators of sectarian violence, further eroding conceptions of citizenship.

Egypt's most coherent political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has also responded to the rising sectarian violence with self-interest. After the attack, the group issued a statement that diverted responsibility from the armed forces while partially blaming Copts for the timing of their protest: "All the Egyptian people have grievances and legitimate demands, not only our Christian brothers. Certainly, this is not the right time to claim them." The Muslim Brotherhood, it seems, is too worried about how it will fare in the tenuous political transition to stand up forcefully for their Coptic fellow citizens.   

Perhaps the most damning behavior has come after Sunday's violence, with the SCAF refusing to admit error even as the sectarian ripples continue to spread. Instead, it has sought to preserve the perceived legitimacy of the armed forces among much of the Egyptian people, who are still grateful for the military's refusal to fire on protesters during the January and February protests. While the SCAF is genuinely concerned about the country's stability, it has come to understand that stability as primarily a function of its own standing within society. Whether as a means to avoid conflict or further their own agenda -- though they seem to see these two things as synonymous -- the SCAF has appeared willing to indulge and coddle the forces of intolerance, even at the risk of precipitating broad-based communal conflict.
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Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation, where he focuses on international security, human rights, post-conflict justice, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

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