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October 23, 2011

A sad day in the life of Egypt's revolution

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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A revolution releases latent forces within a people. Scholars differ over what is the essence of the French Revolution, disagree about how long it lasted, debate its results and even discuss when it began. But they all agree that what began in 1789 was bloody but very important.

In the book of revolutions, a special chapter is being written about Egypt’s revolution with its unique characteristics:

How to turn a popular uprising into a revolution, how to use and insist on using non-violent means, how to reach agreement on a short list of demands, how to encourage all citizens to participate (men and women, young and old, people of the book and those who have no book, those on the far right and far left), how to turn leadershipless into a strength rather than a weakness, how to keep stakeholders focused and willing to sacrifice their time, effort and even their lives for public  good and finally how to  dynamically change the battlefield against the counter revolutionary forces, inside and outside the country.

One of the brilliant characteristics of Egypt’s revolution is that it was started by the youth, supported by the masses and protected by the military. If there is a revolution to be judged as almost-ideal within its 200 days of its life it would be Egypt’s revolution.

However the tragic events of Sunday October 9 are out of character for that revolution. Here is why.

Egypt’s Muslims and Copts have no problems in treating each other with respect and acceptance even care and love. Egypt’s Muslims and Copts have problems with their government, even after the revolution, but not with each other. All of these problems are solvable if there is a political will. But sadly that political will often comes too little too late.

I was born and raised in Shubra, a middle class area north of Cairo where my family still lives among a largely Coptic population. Our family doctor, many of my teachers, the corner storeowner, and many of our neighbors and friends were Copts.  

The corner storeowner, Amo Foud (uncle Foud), was very special to us as kids. Whenever we ran out of our weekly allowance, Amo Foud would get my mother’s permission to give us what we needed to be deducted from our next week’s allowance.

I was older than his son Faris by a couple of years, but Amo Foud used to treat me like his oldest son and encourage Faris to follow in my footsteps, as if I was his "older brother," and try to be first in his class at school. Faris and I also used to exchange sweets and cookies on our religious holidays.

We used to address Coptic priests with respect as Abouna – Father exactly as Copts call them. In high school Muslim boys and girls used to wear the cross sometimes to impress the Copts of the other sex.

On Sunday October 9, the streets of Shubra had thousands of protesters, mainly Copts. They were protesting an incident which happened in Aswan in Upper Egypt. They marched to central Cairo to be in front of Maspero building which houses Egypt’s public TV.

What had happened in Aswan did not involve loss of human lives but the protest at Maspero did, more than 25, mostly Copts. The Aswan incident was avoidable. It involved a legal debate concerning a church building permit.

Cairo’s news sources reported: Aswan's Governor said he had agreed to the building of a "guesthouse" for Copts nine meters in height, but the actual building was a church and was higher. Copts were then asked to remove the extra height but did not do so immediately. This angered a Muslim preacher who gathered young people after the Friday prayers and told them to remove the extra height themselves.

Among the dead at Maspero was 25-year-old Mina Daniel. Daniel was a well known young activist who had taken part in the 25 January Revolution. He was mourned by all of Egypt. Many of his friends were Muslims and came to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. His coffin was draped in the Egyptian flag. After church funeral services his young friends, Muslims and Copts, took his coffin to Tahrir Square. "Daniel told us that in case he died he wanted his funeral to take place at Tahrir Square," said a friend.

At 2 am next day, Monday Oct 10, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf – looking confused, exhausted and powerless briefly appeared on TV urging all Egyptians to unite in the face of "plots against the country". The next day he offered the resignation of the whole cabinet but The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) did not accept it.

Ahmed El-Tayeb, sheikh of Al-Azhar, called an urgent meeting of Bet-al-‘Alaa “Family House” – the committee that comprises Muslim and Christian scholars. During the meeting El-Tayeb warned that sectarianism could destroy the country.

The committee later proposed a new law to eliminate red tape in building churches. The government also proposed a law to criminalize discrimination on religious grounds. Both laws were demanded by many Egyptian politicians, both Muslims and Copts.

Kifaya leading member George Ishaq, a prominent Copt, said, "This violence was unjustified. It didn't have to happen. Running over protesters with armored vehicles is a criminal act and it calls for a thorough investigation."

A fact finding committee is established to answer some tough questions like: Did the police aided by the army in charge of the security of the Maspero TV kill protesters? Did the protesters fire on the police and the army? The committee mandate included also to take "all legal measures" against anyone implicated in the violence.

Today the public’s demands range from firing the governor of Aswan and the PM to handing over the top political post of the country to a civilian council rather than SCAF.

But the vast majority of political parties see that the answer is in a speedy end to the transitional phase, allowing an elected government and a president to take charge and for both to be accountable to all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts.

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