Egypt riots reveal brutal reality behind 'Arab Spring'

Christians carry the coffin of a man on October 10, 2011. Credit: Bora S. Kamel (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Christians carry the coffin of a man on October 10, 2011. Credit: Bora S. Kamel (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

.- An Egyptian political scientist says the latest violence against Coptic Christians shows a harsh reality behind the “Arab Spring,” including a lack of control over rogue elements in Egypt's army.

“We've had a number of attacks against Christians in the past couple of months, and the problem has intensified. There's been a dramatic increase in violence against Christians in the central land of the 'Arab Spring,'” said Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian Copt and research fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.

“I would hope that such an event as what happened on Sunday would serve as a wake-up call to people here,” Tadros told CNA.

An Oct. 9 march on Cairo to protest church burnings turned into a riot pitting largely unarmed Christians against both the army and Muslim mobs, leaving at least 24 people dead – including at least 17 Christians – and 272 injured. Father Rafic Greiche, a spokesman for Eastern Catholics in Egypt, said on Monday that the army used “vagabonds” and “street fighters” against a “peaceful demonstration.”

Tadros said the outbreak of religiously-charged violence, the worst in Egypt since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, was an “unfortunate moment” that should serve as a “turning moment –  not in terms of the violence that could follow, but in terms of how the Western media, and the West in general, sees the problem and realizes the existence of a problem.”

Sunday's violence, he said, stemmed largely from elements within the army that oppose the country's historic Christian presence along with anything that seems “Western.”

Egypt's interim military government officially runs the country at present, since Mubarak's departure. But the nation's strongest institution seems unable, or unwilling, to control rogue elements within.

Tadros says he doubts the “dominant narrative” emerging from many Egyptians about Sunday's violence, which assumes that the army as a whole either “ordered, or was ordered, to kill” protesters.

Rather, he believes the responsibility lies with particular individuals and groups within the military.

It is not a thought he finds comforting.

“I think the more likely scenario – and I hate to put it this way, but perhaps the more frightening scenario – is that the army actually lost control of its own soldiers during the attacks.”

“The more likely thing that happened was that there was an order to disperse, the army took the position that there would not be any demonstrators in front of the TV headquarters, and the soldiers were given that order.”

“However, we have to remember, when we talk about the Egyptian army, that this is not a professional army – 90 percent, if not all, of the soldiers are conscripts,” Tadros explained. “They serve one year of their 'national duty' in the army, after which they return to their normal lives again.”

“So these are regular Egyptians, that have suffered from the same hatred and prejudices that exist in society.”

A series of events both before and after Sunday's protests have led Tadros to believe that the killing of demonstrators – who were reportedly shot at random and run down with military vehicles – was the work of radical individuals and subgroups within the army.

He recalled a telling scene that took place at a smaller Coptic protest four days before the clashes in Cairo. In that instance, too, protesters were “dispersed and beaten by the army, the soldiers and the officers.” But a video from the event shows a struggle of different attitudes within its ranks.

“We see, in one of the videos, after the initial beating of a protester, that the army officers – no human rights lovers, of course – are satisfied that the guy is beaten (enough), and try and stop it.”

The footage shows how one officer “order the soldiers to stop. They don't.”

“He tries to stop the guy on the left. He stops him, but the soldier on the right continues to beat the protester. He turns to him, only to have the one on the left return to beating. Every new soldier arriving on the scene beats the protester.”

“The officer – for two minutes, as we see in the video – is doing his best to stop it. Again, he doesn't like the guy, but he doesn't want a dead body. And he even slaps one of his soldiers. Yet the beating continues.”

Tadros pointed to a second piece of footage, which emerged after the violence on Oct. 9, as evidence for his belief that rogue soldiers took their orders to disperse the crowd as a license to kill.

“The second video that we have, that's equally disturbing, is from after the attack on Sunday. The army soldiers are being put on their buses to return to their barracks. And we have one of the soldiers emerging from a window of the bus.”

“He shouts at the Muslim onlookers surrounding the bus, 'I shot him in the chest'” – an apparent reference to the shooting of a Christian protester. “He screams, 'I shot him in the chest.'”

“The Muslim onlookers are clapping and praising him. One of them shouts, 'By God, you are a man!'”

Incidents of this kind lead Tadros to believe that top army officials told soldiers “to disperse (the protesters) – using force, definitely.” But “no one on the top level … could possibly imagine that the scene would be like this.”

Both Egyptian officials and Western diplomats, he said, must now reckon with the presence of criminal violence in the institution charged with ensuring the rule of law.

“If I were the Egyptian army's leaders at the moment, I would be really scared and really worried about what happened – not just the international ramifications, and internally, but because of this prospect: if the soldiers don't follow orders anymore, how do you deal with that?”

Tadros doesn't think a scenario like the one that happened on Sunday is “likely to happen in other instances” besides those involving a religious minority. Given orders to stop brutalizing a “regular demonstration,” as opposed to a gathering of Coptic Christians, he thinks soldiers “would stop.”

“But I think it has much more to do with the nature of the people they were beating – that is, that they were Christians,” he observed.

“Imagine that those soldiers had not been serving their one year in the army,” Tadros speculated. “Back in their villages, is it possible to imagine that they would have been part of the same crowds in Egyptian villages, that sometimes go and attack Christian homes and burn churches? Is that possible?”

“I would say, yes. They are very much a part of the Egyptian society.”

But Tadros says many U.S. government officials respect the Egyptian army for showing restraint during the protests that brought down Mubarak, and might be too caught up in the idea of the “Arab Spring” to take a closer look.

The simple narrative of a liberating Egyptian revolution is “very appealing to different groups,” he pointed out.

“You would find both neoconservatives and liberals – people across the American spectrum – who found in the Arab Spring something appealing, and for their different reasons, (something) to support.”

“There is a general assumption in the West, that if a country is on the road to a democratic government, then naturally religious freedom will be there,” Tadros observed. “Unfortunately, reality is very different.”

“Even if a democratic Egypt ends up holding regular, free, and fair elections, it might actually not be good for religious freedom.”

In fact, Tadros noted, it might “create the exact opposite situation.”