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.
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 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
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
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.
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
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."