The End of Egypt's Revolution, or the Start of Its Second?

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Three weeks ago, peaceful Christian protesters were killed in what appeared to be an orchestrated attack by the state. But, whatever actually happened, many here believe it was the event that either closed the ill-fated Egyptian revolution or began its second chapter.

Mina's mother.JPG

Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- Mina Daniel's mother slumped over his coffin, sobbing and imprecating him one final time.

"We were supposed to be going to your wedding," she keened, slapping her face and thighs in grief. Before he was killed, her son had assured her he would fine. "Don't be afraid of the shooting, they are just trying to scare us," he told her.

Mina, 25, was killed on October 9 outside Maspero, the headquarters of Egyptian state television and the symbol of the dictatorship's propaganda leviathan. According to his autopsy, one bullet smashed the back of Mina's head while another entered his shoulder, ripped through his lungs, and exited his back. He died within moments, but has fast become the symbol of what Egyptian activists hopefully call "the second revolution."

His mother, Nadia Faltas Beshara, grieved as any mother would. She covers her head and speaks with the inflection of Upper Egypt, where she lived before moving to a working-class suburb north of Cairo where many poor Christians live. She is a stark riposte to the false claim that Egypt's revolutionaries are feckless bourgeois, armchair socialists.

The dominant storyline to emerge in the weeks after the Maspero Massacre is that it marks the beginning of the end of Tahrir Square. The military has shed its inhibitions about using violence against the people, according to this pessimistic view, while a great number of Egyptians has proved ready to believe official propaganda and willing to organize flash sectarian lynch mobs at the beck and call of state television.

There's another way of reading these events though, and it's the one favored by Nadia Faltas and by the many friends of Mina Daniel.

"The government engineered this to divide us," Nadia Faltas said even in the freshest hours of her mourning. With no self-consciousness, she has embraced the galvanizing role of the martyr's mother.

Khaled.jpg

Khaled and Mina's mother / Cambanis

She has appeared in Tahrir Square and at other demonstrations with the mother of Khaled Said, the young man beaten to death by police in the summer of 2010, apparently in retribution for his efforts to publicize police brutality. The regime laughed off the weekly 2010 protests over Khaled Said's killing, but within six months those small protests, and the Facebook pages connected to them, sparked the Tahrir Square uprising.

That is the model that Mina Daniel's friends invoke as they contemplate his death and the sheer unmediated brutality with which it was meted out. In front of Maspero, 27 civilians were killed and according to the military some number of soldiers that it is keeping secret "in order to protect the feelings of the nation."

"Mina's death has now put a burden on us. His blood is on our necks," his friend Kareem Mohammed, 20, said a week after the massacre, at a strategy meeting of the Youth Movement for Justice and Freedom, the grassroots group of which Mina was a member. "We have to achieve what he dreamed of, a united nation free of military rule."

Religious Copts sometimes come across as parochial and chauvinistic, concerned primarily with the oppression of their church. But Mina transcended that narrow categorization. He fought against military trials for civilians, and took part in all the major stages of the uprising against Mubarak's regime. During the initial uprising, he was shot in Tahrir Square and struck in the head with rocks. He contested the institutionalized discrimination that prevents Copts from freely building churches, but he exhorted members of his sect to engage in the broader political struggle against authoritarian rule.

Many of Mina's close friends were Muslims. After he was shot but before he died, he said he wanted his funeral to pass through Tahrir. Late on Monday night, after his autopsy and a rousing mass at the Abbasiya Cathedral, several hundred of Mina's friends marched several miles back to Tahrir Square with his coffin. They ignored a few toughs who pelted them with rocks along the way.


•       •       •       •       •

That Sunday night has seared visceral, unforgettable images on the minds of Egyptians of a certain conscience. Slowly, indefatigably, it is steeling them for another revolution. Regardless of whether they succeed, the October 9 Maspero Massacre will mark a turning point in Egypt's uprising.

On that Sunday, a march for the rights of Christians converged with a sit-in in front of Maspero, the squat concrete labyrinth that holds the headquarters of state television. Symbolically, it is the lungs of the regime, where its noxious but effective televised propaganda is authored. Among them were many revolutionary youth activists, hardly Coptic chauvinists, and Muslims who supported the protesters call for religious freedom and equality.

In short order, shots rang out. Plainclothes thugs milled among the demonstrators. Eyewitnesses saw men in civilian clothes shooting from passing vehicles. Military Police turned on the crowd. An armored personnel carrier drove over unarmed demonstrators, its driver appearing to hunt them down. State television reported -- erroneously, without evidence, and possibly with malignant intent -- that Christian mobs had attacked army conscripts. Announcers and officers summoned "honorable Egyptians" to Maspero to defend the army.

Lynch mobs quickly swarmed downtown. "The Muslims are here, where are the Christians?" they chanted. Christian men and women were beaten. The military police did nothing to control the murderous disorder for nearly six hours. Only after midnight did the army -- which doesn't technically need help from unruly thugs armed with swords and sticks -- reestablished control of the streets, finally allowing Christians to take their wounded to the Coptic hospital on Ramses Street without fear of attack.


•       •       •       •       •

The aftermath, as so often here, has begun to seem even more important than the event itself, with all the traumas it ignited and reignited. Egyptians hadn't seen such violence against peaceful demonstrators since the Battle of the Camels on February 2, a farcical and deadly dispatch to Tahrir of poor, paid thugs, many on horseback and some leading the camels they normally plied for the tourist trade in Giza. The Camel Battle exposed the regime's venality and turned the tide in favor of Tahrir: a mafia move that backfired. Activists hope that Maspero will do the same, although there are unanswered questions that are cause for a more generalized fear.

To the demonstrators, it's clear what happened.

"Tantawi is dealing with the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis and it will hurt the Christians," said Nabil Mansoor, a psychologist who accompanied his friends to the hospital to pick up their son, who had been beaten on Sunday but has escaped with scabs on his forehead and a sprained shoulder. "They want the Copts to leave Egypt. They want ethnic cleansing like in Bosnia."

The military has been tightening the screws of censorship while peddling a brew of lies, delusion, paranoia and justification. General Adel Emara said it simply wasn't military doctrine to run people over, even though Egyptian police have been known to do so as a crowd-control technique. At a briefing intended to exculpate the army, Emara and another general showed the video of the predator-APC chasing down and crushing people to death; most of the viewers already had seen photos of the young teenage boy, his skull crushed into a lopsided cartoon shape but his face still intact. General Emara had a cosmically diametric interpretation of the APC video; the driver, he said, was trying to escape the frightening crowds -- not to kill them. Of course, the general added, it was possible that a Christian fanatic had hijacked the APC and then killed his fellow marchers in order to incite anger against the military leadership. Among such claims -- which offend logic -- the military sprinkled dark accusations of a "hidden hand" at work, a favored rhetorical trope of Mubarak's time. It reeked of misdirection, or worse.

"We are not circulating conspiracy theories, but there is no doubt that there are enemies of the revolution," General Mahmoud Hegazy said.

As testimonies are collected and documentary evidence is amassed, and as time passes and the details and chronology come more clearly into focus, there is the stark suggestion of a hidden hand at work, though: the old secret police and their legions of minions.

Thousands of angry armed men materialized almost instantaneously the night of the Maspero killings. Some of the bullets collected by protesters appear not to be of standard military type. It's entirely possible that the protesters and the military both are telling the truth -- and that the violence was orchestrated by the veteran provocateurs and thugs who for the last two decades have unleashed themselves, with police permission, on political dissidents time and time again.

If this is the case, the revolutionaries and the military rulers have a common enemy: the feloul, or "remnants" of the ex-regime, who would be just as unhappy to lose power to a military dictatorship as to an elected civilian government.


•       •       •       •       •

Ola Shabha, a leader of Mina Daniel's youth movement, helped organize a detailed rebuttal to the military presentation on Maspero. She's collecting evidence, but more importantly, she's using the incident as a catalyst for her peers.

"We can't take our eyes off the bigger issue. The military is leading us toward fascism, especially by manipulating minorities," Shabha told an emergency gathering of Youth for Justice and Freedom. Mina's friends, most of them barely in their twenties argued about the most effective way to rebound from his death, and the murky massacre of which it was part. The room was filled with smoke, and some of the activists had tears in their eyes. After four hours of argument, they agreed to fight on in two arenas -- within the system, they would run candidates for parliamentary elections; against the system, they would stage memorials as protests, hoping sympathy for the slain Che Guevara-look-alike would turn public opinion against the state and toward the revolution.

In the weeks since, Mina's friends, and many who never met him, have held candlelight vigils across Cairo. Not just in Tahrir, but in other downtown squares like Talaat Harb, and far from the city center in rundown neighborhoods like Ezbet El-Nakhl at the end of the subway line.

"We have to go back to the streets and work with everybody, regardless of ideologies," said Hossam Hafez, another Justice and Freedom activist. "Otherwise, tomorrow, the day after, we'll all be Mina Daniel. Our nerves are strained, we're empty handed nine months after the revolution. This is the only way to regain it."

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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