I received word of the protest earlier in the day. Having witnessed the Coptic attempt at a sit-in at Maspero five days earlier, which was eventually violently dispersed by the army, I wished again to get a sense for the manner in which Copts were expressing their grievances. These largely centered on the burning of a purported church in the village of Marinab, in Edfu, in the Aswan governorate on September 30. Many Copts believe the interim government to be lax in protecting their community and securing equality of citizenship; what is certain is that a lack of security throughout the country has led to abuses.
I arrived by metro to Tahrir Square near Maspero at 7pm. Coming up from the underground I received a phone call from my colleague Lamis Yahya asking if I was on my way, and to be careful, as a protestor had been shot. Stunned by her statement, I immediately noticed the tension in the air as the metro entrance area was surrounded by Egyptians – many of them presumably Copts from lack of head coverings – pale, and in shock. Many had tears in their eyes. Shortly thereafter I did as well.
This group stated with vehemence they had been attacked by the army, emphasizing it was the army, and not simple thugs. People had been shot and armored vehicles had run over protestors as they swerved through the crowd. Some claimed there were snipers. Confusion reigned, and it was hard to know what was happening.
Only a few minutes later a group of protestors marched by where I was standing on their way to Tahrir Square. They were carrying what appeared to be dead body, chanting against Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, head of the ruling military council. I saw no signs of blood, but the body was inert.
I moved northward along the side of the Egyptian Museum toward Abdel Munim Riyadh Square, site of a major bus station. Hundreds of Egyptians were milling about, simply watching events unfold. From a distance I could see clashes between protestors and police taking place on the 6 October Bridge, both sides throwing rocks back and forth.
Ahead of me at an intersection of the Cornish Road along the Nile River several protestors were angrily destroying stop lights and street signs. A scuffle broke out around a taxi – it seemed two people were simply fighting to get in and drive away. Several of those standing around carried planks in their hands. Others carried crosses. The former were presumably informal members of ‘neighborhood committees’ which had been formed after the revolution to combat looting. The latter were presumably remnants of the protest, now scattered about.
One of these latter was an older gentleman from the church I attend in Maadi, Cairo. He was livid, but despondent. ‘Let the whole country get enflamed,’ he said. ‘It will serve them right. Do you see what is happening! They are killing us!’ I tried to comfort, and remind. ‘No, remember your faith. Let love hold in your heart. Copts must now be peacemakers.’ It was of little use, as we stood and watched another clash take place on the bridge. Comfort was better. I put my arm around him and cried. ‘I’m sorry for what is taking place. God protect Egypt.’ A moment later a stranger noticed me and asked if I was a foreigner, and a reporter. ‘Why are you here?’ he demanded. I kept quiet, said I was only watching, and moved away.
It should be noted that although I use the word ‘protestors’ throughout the text, it was impossible to tell Muslim from Christian, protestor from bystander from ‘thug’. Who was committing violence, and who was suffering it, was impossible to say.
This fact makes interpretation of events near impossible as well. A phone call to my wife allowed me to receive updates from the news and Twitter. Reports were conflicting. Wildly different numbers of dead were being reported, from two or three to thirty or fifty. Furthermore, there were reports that army personnel were also killed. Some said that Christians had machine guns. Others reported that State TV announced the army was under attack, and urged Egyptians to come into the streets to defend it. The largely activist and liberal Twitter community understood that official media was blaming the protestors for what happened, saying that they fired first.
I cannot say the truth of what took place, for I arrived no more than fifteen minutes or so late to the scene, and was never in a front line position. Yet before too long an acquaintance from the Maspero Youth Union recognized me and gave me his version of events. He stated there were 10,000 Copts and Muslim supporters in the march from Shubra, which was met with violence when their path was blocked. He blamed thugs sent by the army, but also that people were pelting them with rocks and glass from apartment buildings along the road. Eventually, they were able to proceed again. He insisted the group did not plan for a sit-in, but was ready to disperse freely at 8pm. Upon arrival at Maspero, however, the army began attacking immediately, he maintained. People were shot in the head, and others were run over by military vehicles. I discovered later that one member of the Maspero Youth Union, Michael Mossad, was among those killed.
As he was relating events tear gas was fired on the bridge, and he left to go check in on events. From time to time waves of protestors fell back, and gradually security regained control of the area, pushing everyone back toward the direction of Tahrir Square. Suddenly a fire engine sped through the area and was pelted by rocks as it went by. Whether or not this caused the driver to lose control of the vehicle, it swerved, hopped over the central median, struck one or two people along the way, and crashed into a street light. Waves of protestors then descended upon it, but I could not tell if they were beating the driver or pulling him from the wreck. Several climbed on top and began vandalizing. A car fire raged shortly thereafter on the other side of the street.
Contrary to media reports, however, I did not witness ‘clashes’ in Abdel Munim Riyadh Square between protestors and others. There was much tension, sounds of occasional gunfire, and tear gas lobbed throughout the area, but I never witnessed actual fighting except at a distance. The area is large, however, so I am hopeful if it took place I was stationed in the safer locations.
Contrary to other media reports, I did not witness large reactionary protests in Tahrir Square. Egyptians were all over, and at times small bands of protestors would march and chant slogans against the military council. Yet when I was present there was certainly not a mass gathering in response to what took place. I wandered a bit more throughout the area, before leaving to go home around 9pm.
As news continues to unfold there will be much to confirm amidst the rumors. There are reports the military stormed media offices preventing transmission of live feeds. There are reports of clashes outside the Coptic Hospital where many injured are being treated. There are reports liquor stores – owned by Christians – are being attacked downtown. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has called for an emergency cabinet meeting tomorrow, and has posted on his Facebook page:
What took place was not a confrontation between Muslims and Christians but an attempt to create chaos and ignite sectarian sedition, which is not fitting for the children of the nation who were and will remain ‘one hand’ against the powers of destruction and extremism. Application of the law is the ideal solution for all of Egypt’s problems. I urge all children of the nation who are keen for its future not to answer those who call for sectarian sedition. This is a fire which will consume us all, without distinction.
These are wise words. May they prove true especially now and in the days to come. God protect Egypt.
Jayson Casper also blogs regularly at A Sense of Belonging. Follow him on Twitter at @jnjcasper.