The unsung heroes who bore the brunt of the vicious Islamist revenge against Egyptians once the Muslim Brothers (MB) were overthrown in July 2013 were, indisputably, the Copts. The MB had risen to power in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 and, in June 2012, their candidate Muhammad Mursi became president, winning the elections by a very thin margin. One year in office proved to Egyptians beyond doubt that an Islamist regime is disastrous for the country; they rose in mass protest on 30 June 2013 demanding that Mursi should leave. The army stepped in and, on 3 July, a new order was instated through a Roadmap to a democratic future drawn by the representatives of the various sectors of the Egyptian community.
A sacrifice for Egypt
Egyptians knew all along that overthrowing the Islamists would come at a hefty price and, sure enough, once the MB were toppled the terrorism began. The army, police, and civilians were all targeted. The Copts came in for more than their fair share especially when, on 14 August 2013, the police disbanded the five-week-long Islamist sit-ins at the Cairo squares of Rabea al-Adawiya in the east of the city and al-Nahda in the west. The sit-ins had become a scourge for the local residents, and spearheads for daily violence against the police and civilians.
Once the disbanding operation started in Cairo, a string of nationwide attacks began against Copts, their churches, schools, businesses, homes, and even an orphanage. The assault was especially pronounced in Upper Egypt where close to 100 Christian establishments were torched. Despite the trauma, pain, and loss, Copts uncomplainingly sustained the terrorism. They instinctively realised that this time they were being targeted not because of their Christian faith but because attacking them would effectively divide and inflame Egypt once they start protesting. So they kept their mouths shut; Pope Tawadros’s only comment was: “It’s a sacrifice we willingly offer Egypt.”
At the time Watani offered full coverage of the attacks and the losses.
The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) dispatched a fact-finding commission to document the attacks. Presiding over the commission was human rights activist Manal al-Tibi; members included human rights figures, journalists, and researchers. The commission wrote a 39-page report that cited eyewitness testimonies and included video clips of the assaults and hate literature posted on websites belonging to the MB and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya. It blamed the MB and its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya for conducting the wide-scale assault.
Extensive, systematic assault
The report began by pointing out that although Egypt had previously suffered from occasional attacks against Copts, the assault which took place concurrently with the disbanding of the Rabea and Nahda sit-ins was unprecedented in terms of its massive nationwide scale and systemised attack. Attacks took place simultaneously in 17 out of Egypt’s 27 governorates and resulted in the total or partial destruction of churches, houses, shops, private property, schools, monasteries, charities, libraries and cars through arson, looting and plundering. Four victims were killed, others were dragged through the streets and tortured.
The attacks constituted crimes against the freedom of belief and the right to practice religious rites, the right to life, the right to personal and physical security, the right to ownership, the right to housing, the right to education, the right to work, children’s rights, and other basic rights guaranteed by international treaties signed and endorsed by Egypt.
The report stressed the simultaneous, organised, systematic pattern of attack spotted along the 650km-long line of villages and towns in Upper Egypt. The assault started by demonstrations which all began at the same time on the morning of 14 August 2013 and targeted first the police stations [to make sure no protection could be offered to the residents]. The demonstrators then took a pre-determined route that passed by churches and quarters with high Coptic population. They broke into the churches, Christian establishments and homes, and cut off the water and/or power supply. Then followed the systematic plundering, looting, and torching. The commission reported that an (X) sign was in many neighbourhoods spray-painted on the Christians’ houses and shops to mark them and alert the attackers to the Christian targets.
The fear lingers
The report noted that the attacks that took place in the Delta governorates were not organised or systematised but rather random and sporadic, as opposed to the massive and widespread attacks in Upper Egypt.
With the exception of the Christian taxi driver killed during a demonstration by MB supporters in Alexandria, individuals were not the main target of the Islamist attacks; it was the churches and Christian establishments. At this point it is worth noting that analysts were quick to remark that the MB wished to have no blood on their hands in order to sustain the ‘peaceful’ image they were attempting to propagate worldwide.
Although the Christian assault victims recognised many of those who attacked them, the report said, they would not report them to the police for fear of revenge.
The report highlighted the general sentiment of dread and oppression among the Copts in the aftermath of the attack, aggravated by the incapacity of the State to protect them or their property. The insecurity lingered in their hearts even after matters calmed down.
Swept under the rug
The report recommended an investigation into the 14 August crimes, that the aggressors should be brought to justice, the victims compensated for their losses, and the churches restored and better protected.
Other recommendations included that State-owned youth centres should not be used to foster sectarian violence, especially since information surfaced that some of these centres were used to store weapons during the time when Mr Mursi was president. The report also recommended that the Ministry of Education bans hate speech at schools and that the Ministry of Local Development intensifies its role in developing the villages in cooperation with the civil society organisations. Many of these recommendations have gone into action but not the restoration of the churches in full or the compensation of the victims, owing to shortage of funds.
Although the report was presented to the Post-30 June 2013 fact-finding commission headed by prominent international Judge Fouad Abdel-Moneim Riad, it has not been published despite the invaluable information it contains. The NCHR held two press conferences to tackle the Rabea and Nahda disbanding incident, but the report concerning the attacks on churches has to date been swept under the rug.
17 June 2015