Egypt is going through a revolution and it would be naive to expect it to proceed smoothly, without finding a reverse gear. Nevertheless, the violence and the government’s response to the killing of the Coptic Christians are of real concern.
The unrest originated from Coptic protests about the burning of a church in Upper Egypt. The arson has been attributed to comments (probably mischievous) by the governor of the region who suggested the church had been illegally built – an invitation for anti-Christian radicals.
Seeds of protest
Violence involving Copts is a continuing problem in Egypt. The Coptic community offers a tempting target to extremist Muslims seeking to provoke unrest around the country. Attacks on churches and disputes about religious practices occur regularly.
Egypt’s Copts, who number between 10 and 15 million people out of the country’s population of 80 million, have long complained about discrimination in education, employment and senior positions in government and the judiciary.
They resent restrictions on their ability to build new churches or repair old ones. They frequently resort to erecting buildings that are designated as community centres, but which effectively operate as churches. This is a source of tension between communities, especially in more remote regions.
The picture is not entirely bleak. In much of the country, especially in Cairo, Copts and Muslims live side-by-side in relative harmony – even to the point of sharing religious festivities and schools.
After the violence on Sunday, many Muslims demonstrated their support for victims of the attacks. Tahrir Square - the centre of the revolution which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak - played host to impressive displays of Muslim-Christian solidarity.
Communal tension will take time to overcome. In the meantime, it is important that the government demonstrates its determination not to tolerate communal violence, as well as its commitment to equality for all Egyptians.
There have been periods in Egyptian history when these ideals have been approached but, the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Mubarak sought to exploit tensions for their own advantage.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces may not be averse to employing a similar tactic. The Council is committed to holding presidential elections in November.
There are, however, signs that it intends to retain control of the process, perhaps by promoting its Chairman, General Tantawi, for the presidency.
The concern is that the military has no interest in the development of democracy in Egypt. Members of the Supreme Council were integral to the regime of Mubarak and they have grown rich through the armed forces’ extensive involvement in the economy. Perhaps 40% of the economy is controlled by the military.
Military support for the Tahrir demonstrators was largely based on the desire to prevent Mubarak’s son, Gamal, from succeeding to the presidency. Now that Gamal has been dealt with, military enthusiasm for the revolution, for trials of members of Mubarak’s regime and for the principles of human rights has waned.
The Council announced that military tribunals for civilians would remain and reports of torture of people detained by the military persist.
It seized on violence on the border with Gaza to retreat from its commitment to revoke the emergency law, one of the most important and symbolic demands of the Tahrir demonstrations.
The government’s reaction to the protests – it seemed intent on putting all blame on the Coptic demonstrators - is in contrast to its subdued response to the attack on the Israeli embassy in September.
It also closed a television station that broadcast Sunday’s violence - thereby reinforcing the fear that the authorities intend to exploit the unrest as the product of sectarian divisions and to promote the importance of their role in maintaining national unity.
Equally concerning is that after long being seen by the public as the protectors of Egyptian integrity and the heroes of the Tahrir Square uprising, the military are now being viewed differently. There is widespread condemnation of the authorities handling of the violence and increasingly loud demands for the removal of Tantawi.
Successful transition to democracy requires the effective withdrawal of the military from the political process. The signs aren’t good so far.