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At least 25 Egyptian protesters were killed and hundreds injured this weekend, after a peaceful protest by Coptic Christians devolved into street violence. It was the worst unrest to hit the country since the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February. We examine simmering religious tensions and ongoing security concerns in post-revolt Egypt.
- Samer Shehata Assistant Professor of Arab Politics, Georgetown University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a different take on slavery in America. Author and NPR book critic, Alan Cheuse, discusses his latest novel. But first, simmering tensions in Egypt. It was the worst outbreak of violence in Egypt since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt began with a peaceful demonstration, this weekend. Hundreds of Coptic Christians marched in the streets of Cairo, protesting a state of recent deadly attacks on churches and the military's slow response, but the protests soon devolved into a series of violent encounters, pitting Christians against Muslims and protestors against the security forces.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, Cairo is once again simmering with protests. At least 26 people are dead and almost 300 injured. Observers are asking what this means for the future of Egypt and joining us in studio is Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. Samer, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. SAMER SHEHATAMy pleasure.
NNAMDISince the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt has been lead by a military counsel. But for all the euphoria at seeing the old dictator leave, people have been complaining about a lack of security in the intervening month especially Coptic Christians. Why were the Coptic Christians marching?
SHEHATAWell, they were marching, in this particular case, because of a church building that was attacked by a group of Muslims in Upper Egypt in the Aswan province, the previous week. The claim was made that the authority -- the church authorities didn't have the licensing -- the appropriate licensing to build this structure which has been an ongoing issue in Egypt's 20th century history.
SHEHATAThat is the discriminatory laws regarding the building of churches for Copts. Of course, they were angered, tremendously. They started this protest and as you mentioned, things devolved into armed clashes with thugs and then, also with the security forces in downtown Cairo, in front of the radio and television building.
NNAMDIThere seems to be some uncertainty about exactly what happened yesterday on the streets of Cairo. We know that hundreds of Christians were marching peacefully. They were then attacked by people in civilian dress. Who were these people attacking them?
SHEHATAWell, as you said, I mean, the situation is opaque. We know that there were at least several thousand Coptic Christians marching from the Shubra neighborhood to downtown, they were attacked. It's possible that they were attacked by religious extremists. It's one of the things that we've seen in Egypt, post Mr. Mubarak.
SHEHATAThat is the emergence of religious extremist groups. Some Salafis, not all Salafis how have a, kind of, a puritanical, very strict interpretation of Islam and that who want to create, essentially, an Islamic state in Egypt. So it's possible, very possible, that these were some of the people behind the protests, behind the attacks on the protestors.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number, if you would like to join the conversation. Do you think we're seeing a dangerous, maybe darker underside of the Arab Spring? 800-433-8850. And how should Washington position itself toward the Egyptian military and protestors? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIThese attacks are bringing focus on the ruling military tribunal, lead by field Marshall Muhammad Hussein Tantawi. The military was widely seen as a force for good when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February. But many observers have now been alarmed that the path the current government is charting. How do things stand now, in your view?
SHEHATAWell, I think it needs to be remembered that the supreme counsel of the armed forces lead by Mr. Tantawi intervened at the last moment to, basically, push Mr. Mubarak aside. These were not the people behind the revolution. They're not a pro-democratic force. All of the members of the supreme council of the armed forces were appointed by Mr. Mubarak. Field Marshall Tantawi was minister of defense and still is minister of defense, from 1991 until the present.
SHEHATASo this was part of the regime. And I think that's quite important to understand. So there have been very significant criticisms of the supreme council from shortly after Mr. Mubarak was ousted, until the present, having to do with not only the lack of security, an uncertain transition plan to democracy. The holding of civilians in front of military trials and so on, the slow pace at which they wanted to bring former regime elements to justice to trial.
SHEHATAThey only did so after a series of demonstrations and pressures. So I think that many people who sincerely want to bring about democracy in Egypt, as well as, in this case, the Coptic Christian minority who believes that they have not been protected in the ensuing period, have very significant and legitimate grievances with the supreme counsel of the armed forces.
NNAMDIOur guest is Samer Shehata, he is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. We're talking about protests and violence in Egypt and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. During the Mubarak era, the United States war was often criticized for supporting his government. Since September, the White House has tried to recalibrate its approach to Cairo. Where does all of this leave Washington?
SHEHATAWell, I don’t anticipate that Washington's position, in terms of the $1.3 billion of support that goes to the Egyptian military every year is going to change, certainly at the level of the White House. Now, there have been calls, of course, and there has been some concern at the level of Congress about the possibility of an Egypt developing that is, say, more critical of the United States, more critical of Israel, certainly.
SHEHATAAnd there have been persistent concerns from Congress and others about religious freedom issues and the status of Copts in Egypt. So I think that's likely to continue. But I don't see this leading to a major shift in American policy toward Egypt or the supreme counsel of the armed forces.
NNAMDIHere's an e-mail we got from Anna, who says, "I'm already glad the topic of violence against Christians in Egypt is coming up. Not only are the Muslims committing this crime, but the government, governor in this case, the military ramming the Christians with an armored vehicle and police being absent in areas and times when attacked. Muslims beat their drum as being peaceful. How do the Muslims here and everywhere explain this? Why are we giving Egypt $2 billion each year and yet cannot control this?
NNAMDIMost of this fund is going to the military which it's giving without conditions. Can our government do more than just giving speeches after such incidents? Why are we wasting this money which can help our country?" Several thoughts come to mind, but you first, Samer.
SHEHATAWell, I mean, the first thing that has to be said is, you know, largely what the e-mailer has said is correct with one major caveat, which is, you know, it is not certainly the majority of Egypt's Muslims who are behind the attacks on Christians or who want to create an inhospitable environment. The prime minister and the -- and other, you know, government officials immediately condemned the violence as has -- as have most political leaders.
SHEHATASo I think that it is the case that there are extremists, religious extremists who are intolerant and who have -- are certainly not interested in a democratic prosperous Egypt with full citizenship rights for all. But I don't -- I think it would be, you know, completely mistaken to paint all of Egypt's Muslims as being responsible for this or wanting to persecute Egypt's Coptic Christian population.
NNAMDIYou're an Egyptian-American, what is it like watching this situation unfold from here? And do you have any idea if you have your finger anywhere close to the pulse of the Egyptian-American community, how it tends to view these issues?
SHEHATAWell, yeah, I think I can -- yeah, I can answer both questions. I mean, clearly for the first issue is that it's incredibly troubling because we certainly want to have a smooth and steady transition process and a new Egypt emerge, an Egypt that is a democracy, an Egypt that is economically prosperous, an Egypt that provides full citizenship rights and equality before the law to all Egyptians, regardless of their age, gender, religion and so on.
SHEHATASo something like this is incredibly problematic because it, as the prime minister said yesterday on television, it is possibly the most critical issue that threatens the successful transition to the kind of Egypt we imagine. With regard to the second part of the question about how Egyptian-Americans view this, I would hope that all Egyptian-Americans would condemn this type of violence whether they were Muslim or Christian.
SHEHATAI can't speak for the Coptic community, but I'm certain that among the Coptic Egyptian-Americans, which there are many, they're particularly incensed at this as they have been for legitimate reasons for some time now, even before Mr. Mubarak was ousted, at the discrimination that takes place and the limitations on religious freedom that occur for Coptic Christians in Egypt.
NNAMDIOnto the Jonathan in Washington, D.C. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JONATHANHi Dr. Shehata and Kojo. I'm actually a graduate of the Center for Contemporary Studies, Masters program. And that said, I want to ask you if you could comment on the role of the leadership of the Coptic Church before the revolution, during the revolution and after the revolution.
NNAMDIAnd for many of our listeners, can you explain what a Coptic Christian is?
SHEHATARight, well, Coptic Christianity is one of the oldest forms of Christianity. And it is indigenous to Egypt. There are, of course, theological issues that I, myself, am not thoroughly familiar with, the differentiate...
NNAMDIOh we, have a Coptic Christian community in my native Guyana so there you go.
SHEHATAAnd in Ethiopia and in other parts of the region, but they're primarily centered in Egypt, of course. And with regard to the caller's question about the role of the Coptic Church and the Mubarak regime, he's completely correct to point out that official religious institutions, the Coptic church, the Coptic pope, as well as, Al-Azhar, one of the oldest academic institutions -- universities in the world and a seat of Sunni religious learning in Cairo, were thoroughly supported and co-opted by the regime.
SHEHATASo you had the Coptic pope, Pope Shenouda III ask Copts to vote for Mr. Mubarak in the 2005, less than free and fair, Presidential elections. And...
NNAMDISo there's a political aspect of this?
SHEHATAThat's the position of -- that was the position of the Coptic Church. And, of course, the idea was that Mubarak's ostensibly secular regime, right, was preventing Islamist's from coming to power and that therefore really protecting the rights and status of the Egyptians. And that's, of course, false in many sense, but that was the position, I think, of the Coptic Church.
SHEHATAAt the same time, though, as all of us who witnessed the Egyptian revolution take place between January 25 and February 11th, it was mass protests across the country that were made up of Egyptian Copts and Egyptian Muslims, women and men, people of different religious persuasions and intensity of religious feeling and so on. So the revolution was not one that was made only by Muslims or only by secular individuals and so. It included everybody.
SHEHATAAnd, in fact, this is what this -- much of the tenor of the statements that were made condemning the violence by many parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood and others, was today. That if we remember back at the revolution and the days of violence perpetrated by the regime against the protestors, there were Christians who were protecting Muslims as they prayed Tahrir square and there were Muslims who are protecting Christians as they prayed in Tahrir square when Mubarak's thugs and regime were perpetrating all kinds of violence.
SHEHATASo that was a different moment. And unfortunately, things have changed in Egypt and we're seeing these kinds of fissures, intensions emerge -- not only emerge, but exacerbate in this society.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jonathan. We move onto Zane in Washington, D.C. Zane, your turn.
ZANEYes, I just wanted to say that what's happening right now in terms of the attacks on the Copts -- and I speak as a Muslim who has served in Coptic orphanages every year in so, like, in the most impoverished area of Egypt -- that what's happening is actually ruminants of the properties of the Mubarak regime, not the dark sides of the Egyptian revolution. The Egyptian revolution, what it contains is what was just described, that kind of unity that was unheard of before there were displays between Copts and Muslims.
ZANEAlso I want to remind everybody that after the Copts were attacked by security forces and the army that -- recently in this most recent incident where the security forces basically ran over some Copts, that Muslims joined in and started shouting the slogan that they were shouting in Tahrir Square, which is that Christians and Muslims are the same.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call.
SHEHATAAnd that's exactly true. I mean, I remember in March when I was in Cairo there was a protest -- a largely Coptic protest in front of the radio and television building, which I went to and many other non-Copts Muslims participated in. So there has been, you know, significant sympathy and support by Muslims for this issue.
SHEHATAI think something else that the caller said is also interesting and also is getting a lot of discussion in Egypt. When the prime minister spoke yesterday on television he explicitly said that -- and we can, you know, read into this what we want -- that there were external forces or outside forces or hands that were not, you know, visible that were playing a role in the increasing sectarian tensions. Some people believe that it's elements of the old regime, the Mubarak regime trying to subvert Egypt's transition to have people become nostalgic for the good days of Mr. Mubarak.
SHEHATAAnd certainly I think -- and this isn't farfetched, although I haven't seen hard evidence about this, there are regional actors who don't want Egypt to emerge as a stable democratic model so that the winds of democratic change can blow across the Red Sea into the Arabian Peninsula where other...
NNAMDICare to name those regional actors?
SHEHATAWell, I think, you know, it's no secret that Saudi Arabia has emerged as the primary reactionary power in the region against the winds of democracy. Whether that has to do with the February 14 pro democracy movement in Bahrain, which was brutally suppressed by the Bahraini authorities with the help of the Saudi military going across the bridge there and supporting them, or in the lack of a democratic transition in Yemen. I mean, why was Ali Abdullah Saleh allowed to return to Yemen, you know, after seeking medical treatment in Saudi Arabia?
SHEHATAAnd of course many people in Egypt believe that the Saudis have been supporting -- and they were supporting Mr. Mubarak up until the end asking European allies and the United States to not push Mr. Mubarak out of power. So I think it's not farfetched to think that there are certainly regional actors who have a stake in how Egypt develops without putting forward any kind of a conspiracy theory.
NNAMDIHere's Mike in Alexandria, Va. Mike, your turn.
MIKEThanks for taking my call. I have a question about why certain actors are so often spoke of, especially in context of the Muslim world or the Arab world as rogue actors or extremists when they're attacking other minorities. And there's a lot of care made to say, well, these guys are not part of the mainstream, they're not part of the mainstream. But there's this sort of tacit approval -- maybe not approval but allowance that people know who these guys are and they don't get turned in. And they just know who they are, but they let them alone.
MIKEWhereas if you take the flipside of that, like in Kosovo, then there's a NATO bombing campaign. Why is it that when a small minority of Muslims attack another minority within their country or bomb something or blow something up they're marginalized, but there's no blame taken for that? That doesn't make sense to me.
SHEHATAWell, I mean, there's a couple of ways to, you know, respond to the caller's question. Part of it is certainly correct. I wouldn't accept all of it. The part that states that people who have been responsible for -- the particular individuals who have been responsible for acts of violence in the past, for example the attacks on the two churches in Baba in March of this year and so on, it's perceived, and I think somewhat rightly, that the authorities did not fully take that matter seriously and prosecute them in the way that they should have been. And this, of course, leads to larger anger.
SHEHATAI think the more general point, though, the caller seems to intimate that, you know, the majority of the Egyptian population somehow either is supportive or complicit or not terribly outraged at the events that have happened. And I think that's not fair to say. All of the political candidates, the presidential candidates, including those who come from an Islamist background, have condemned the attacks that took place yesterday.
SHEHATAThe Muslim Brotherhood even issued a statement that -- and, you know, I shouldn't say even -- issued a statement that condemned the attacks and the violence and so on and that spoke of the legitimate rights of Copts to build churches and so on. And this is an issue that's actually being taken up right now. So I think it would be inappropriate and a mischaracterization to intimate that the majority of Egyptian Muslims are behind this. That's not at all to downplay the fact that there are serious sectarian tensions in the country that were not addressed well under the previous regime. And that the security lapse that has taken place in Egypt has only exacerbated. That is correct as well.
SHEHATAIt's a complicated situation, unfortunately. Some things aren't complicated, that is that, as you mentioned, 25 or so individuals were killed, many of them Copts who were peacefully demonstrating in Egypt and were attacked, some by thugs and some by the security forces. And there's no way to justify that completely inexcusable. But the sources -- the kinda deep sources of the sectarian issue in Egypt are very complicated.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Samer Shehata is a professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, a different take on slavery in America. Author and NPR book critic, Alan Cheuse joins us to discuss his latest novel. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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