Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Violence in Cairo

 Firmen try to put out the fire at the Mar Mina church in Embaba (AFP).

The more things change, the more they stay the same ( 'Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose’), the saying by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr seems quite apt to describe what happened last weekend in Egypt. Over the years I have so often had the feeling that what happens in Egypt can be described in terms of  events, facts, numbers even, but that the actual 'why?' and 'how' usually remains somehow completely in the dark. And now that we have had this revolution, and are in the midst of a process of transformation that may change virtually t everything, some things apparently stay the same. This weekend there was this clash in the very 'baladi', poor and underdevelopped quarter Embaba in Cairo, which left 12 dead, more than 200 injured, two churches, several shops and a cafe burned down or damaged, and 190 people arrested. 
And also this time it was as it always used to be: we know the facts and the numbers, but what was the course of events remains in the dark.
Not that the cause of the fight was an unknown phenomenon. Tensions between Christians and Muslims (Salafists in this case) tend to flare up from time to time. Even the spark that ignited the fire sounded strangely familiar: a story about a Christian woman from Assiut in Upper-Egypt, who left her husband some years ago for a Muslim and converted to Islam in order to be able to divorce and marry him, would have been abducted and hidden in the Mar Mina church in Embaba by Christian zealots. It sounds very much like the story of Kamilla Shehata, also from Upper-Egypt, who was married to a priest and after a fight with him left, and according fto the story converted, after which she was abducted and hidden in a monastery. Also that story left its traces of blood and destruction. Stories of compelled conversrions have trhis effect of stirring the emotions to the maximum. 
In the case of the woman in the church in Embaba, a certain Abeer, the word was spread trough Twitter and Facebook. Salafists gathered in front of the church and wante to search the building in order to free her. But what happened after that remains totally in the dark. The army came, and some shots were fired after which it all went loose. Was it Christian neighbours of the church who fired the first shots in the air, as some say, in order to disperse the crowd? Which had the opposite effect? Was it the army? The Salafists? It remains unclear, as can be concluded from the accounts here, by blogster Zeinobia, or by the journalist Sarah Carr.
What IS clear, however, is that clashes like this happen in a kind of vaccuum that has been left after the repressive security agencies of the Mubarak era have been dismantled or at least severely weakened. The army has stepped in to fill the gap, but is apparently not very suited to the task. And what is extra worrisome, is that many suspect that forces from the ancien regime are behind these flare-ups in order to sow unrest in the hope it will provoke calls for a return to a regime more reminiscent of the past with its relative calm and 'law and order'. And it is not only incidents as in Embaba. It is more widespread, as becomes clear from this beautifully written blog by Wendell Steavenson of the New Yorker. Let's hope that it is a phenomenon that will pass with the consolidation of the Egyptian revolution. 

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