Saturday, October 15, 2011

What did SCAF have in mind when it ordered to crush the demonstration at Maspero?

One of th armoured vehicles on 9 Otober near Maspero.

 Guest author: Noha Radwan
It should not take long for anyone who looks at the footage and the eye-witness testimonies to believe that the army personnel that were stationed near the state television building in the Cairo neighborhood Maspero on Sunday October 9, 2011, should be held fully responsible for the bloodbath that happened that evening. This responsibility for the murder of 26 and the injury of over 300 people who were taking part in a protest march, becomes even more incriminating when one considers that the underlying causes for the march to be called in the first place, were the brutal and oppressive measures that SCAF has been undertaking against Egyptian citizens since February. SCAF’s escalating brutality therefore becomes part of the narrative of the Sunday events before we even begin to parse the specific actions that led to the Sunday bloodbath.
A website, Maspero Testimonies that was started by a young Egyptian has so far collected over thirty personal accounts from people who were present between Maspero and Tahrir Square during the onslaught and/or shortly before and after. The witnesses include both Muslims and Christians, men and women, participants in the protest and onlookers who chanced to be at or near its location.
 One of the more comprehensive testimonies is that of Lobna Darwish, a 25 year old woman whom I had personally known while she was working on her BA in sociology at UC Davis last year. Darwish was taking part in the march from the time it started in the Shubra neighborhood at 3 p.m. She noted “large numbers, whole families; children with parents and grandparents. At 4:30,” she continues, “I tweeted: The priest who is speaking to the marchers is confirming that this is a non-violent march and honoring the Muslims participants… At 5:30, the march was out of Shubra and on its way to Maspero when a number of people began throwing rocks at it from atop a flyover in the area. Some marchers responded with hurling rocks but the majority were calling for restraint and that the march continued peacefully on its way.”
At 6:00 p.m., the march had reached Maspero. Darwish’s estimate puts the number of participants at about 25, 000, who at that point were in high spirit, as they met up with the protestors who had stationed themselves outside the television building. She herself felt confident that the army and police personnel who were there in huge numbers “could not be crazy enough to open fire on a march full of women and children.” Her testimony continues: “Then the shooting began. I saw rows of Central Police Forces rushing towards us and shooting in the air. Then their shots lowered to our body level. I ran to the Nile side of the TV building to look for my friends.The shooting continued. Everyone was running, especially those who were accompanying children and elderly people. No one was prepared for violence….''
''Next I was near the Hilton Ramses where it overlooks the Nile. I was in the middle of the street trying to get a look at what was going on, when I heard people screaming at me to get on the sidewalk. I saw two armored vehicles driving at a mad speed down the street that was full of people. At first, I thought that they were driven by some stupid soldiers who were going to kill the people out of their stupidity. Then the vehicles began going at the same mad speed up and down the street. They were going in a zig-zag, chasing after those trying to escape and even climbing up the sidewalk to crush people. I could not believe my eyes. I was terrified. The two other vehicles joined the first one and did the same thing. The people ran in the direction of the Central Police Forces, and the vehicles dashed away from the scene. One of them was slower than the other two and the marchers tossed rocks, and hurled a street light that had been broken and had caught fire at it. The vehicle was caught in the flames. The rock volleys continued and I saw the soldier inside climb out. The people at this point were divided. Some wanted to beat him up. Others wanted to save him. In the end I saw him walk away in the company of two elderly men.” Darwish’s account continues with a description of her shock as she found herself in the middle of the carnage until a point where she writes:“ I cannot continue to tell.” What happened was too painful to narrate, let alone to witness from nearby.

Another account, given by Bishoy Saad, confirms Darwish’s. Saad adds that he thought that this march was going to go well because it had “more Muslims than the two previous ones.” He quotes the words of one of the priests who addressed the marchers using a loud speaker, first after the rock tossing incident near the flyover and again as they approached Maspero. In the first speech, the priest said: “ This demonstration of ours is non-violent, and no matter how many provocations or skirmishes it meets, it should remain so. We do not want anyone to lose their temper please. Not even with verbal abuse. We do not want to ruin the image of this march.” 
At Hilton Ramses, he talked to the crowds again. He said: We are here to deliver a message, and we leave right away. Whatever happens, our march will remain non-violent. We are not here to fight or go to war. We call upon God and say Kiryalysoon (may God have mercy). If anyone should get hurt or die, I tell you that he would be counted a martyr in the name of Christ.”
Saad then continues with his account of what happened right after that. “ It was as if the priest had a premonition of what would happen in half an hour. The people were all fired up and we marched towards Maspero. I stopped to buy a can of Pepsi and call my mother, tell her that I was all right. This took about ten minutes My group had gone on without me and I was near the tail end of the march. Suddenly I heard the sound of gunshots. Those in the front began running and screaming: ‘They are firing at us!’ I thought that the army was just shooting in the air to scare us. Then suddenly all the street lights were turned off. I could hear the sound of a vehicle gritting the earth. I saw an army vehicle coming from the distance at a crazy speed. There was a soldier on top of it with a machine gun firing in all directions. People were running like mad and the vehicle was crushing everyone who comes its way. There was very little light at the time… I ran for shelter and saw two other army vehicles running the same way. They ran to the end of the street, then turned around and ran down once more crushing more people. Imagine the terror of the people! The march was full of women and youngsters.
I ran with others to a side street. It was pitch dark. Sounds of weeping and screaming were everywhere. I ran until I arrived at the Hilton Ramses. I was shocked at the sight of the carnage filling the place. About ten minutes later, the young marchers began to lift the bodies. I cannot describe the horror of the bloody scene I witnessed. I saw two people lifting a third whose lower half was missing. I looked at his face and recognized him. He was the one marching and chanting next to me from the time I joined the march until I stopped to buy the Pepsi. If I had not stopped, I could have been in his place. I saw many whose bodies were riddled with bullets. Their blood was flowing down the street.” 
Saad ends his account by begging people not to believe a word of what is being said on Egyptian state television about the Sunday events, and to pray, be they Muslims or Christians that this “military nightmare ends before Egypt comes to a complete ruin.” 
Wouneed portester carried away by friends
Two more testimonies that are included in the same file as those of Darwish and said can be found in English translation at big pharao and Al-Masry al-Youm, but I would like to now go on to a speculation about possible explanations of the military’s onslaught on a march that, according to these two and many other testimonies started out as non-violent with several thousands participants intent on keeping it that way. From the outset, let us dismiss the claim that the Egyptian state television is circulating that the drivers of the vehicle that crushed the marchers were not army officers but infiltrators and saboteurs from the crowd. This is not only because it contradicts the eye-witness reports that confirm that an army soldier climbed out of the vehicle when it caught fire. It is also, and perhaps more importantly, because I do not want to entertain the thought that the SCAF stationed such helpless poor trained personnel at this extremely strategic location, especially since the march was announced beforehand. Every member of the Egyptian military, like the rest of the Egyptians and scores of others, must have seen the footage of the vehicle with the diplomatic license plate and the police vehicle that rolled over several of the demonstrators on the 28th of January last. Assuming that the SCAF believes the official claims that those vehicles were also stolen, I am sure that they would not let their army vehicles be involved in a repeat of that scenario. Let us also dismiss SCAF’s own claims in its Thursday press conference that the soldiers in those vehicles were freaked out. All eye-witness reports confirm that the vehicles were intent on plowing into the protestors. So now we are back to the question of what could have possibly happened? Could the soldiers stationed at Maspero have received orders to shoot at the march? Could the soldiers inside the army vehicles have received orders to run over the marchers? To me, this seems to be almost certainly the case. But the question that remains is, what could have the expected outcome of that have been? Here, one is confronted with two possibilities. One is that SCAF was aspiring to crush the demonstration, put an end to the Coptic unrest that ensued after the destruction of the church in Aswan the week before, and get away with an act of brutal repression because it is directed at a religious minority in a country riddled with economic and other problems and plagued by a discourse of sectarianism that has assumed a louder tone in the last few months.
The second possible explanation is that SCAF was counting on its repression of the march not to put an end to the Coptic unrest, but to provoke it further. The provocation was meant to incite the Copts to attack the army and fuel a sectarian strife. This would explain why the state media was broadcasting news of Copts attacking the military and calling upon Muslim citizens to go defend the army. Let us pause for a moment and consider the bitter irony of this farcical call, calling upon citizens to come out defending, armed with nothing stronger than their anger and hate of a religious minority to defend the mighty army that has ordained itself the protector of the revolution. 

Funeral of victims (Reuters)
 But why would SCAF wish for a sectarian strife? Some voices in Egypt have been remembering that the ousted President Mubarak told the revolutionaries this would happen when they insisted he steps down. Others are talking about a possible pretext for foreign — read: American — intervention. Most immediately, however, it might also serve as a justification for the prolongation of the notorious emergency laws and laying the ground for a SCAF controlled round of parliamentary election.
I do not claim to know SCAF’s ulterior motives, but I know that whatever they are, a united resistance without sectarian prejudices still has a strong chance and the power to foil them.

Dr Noha Radwan is Ass. professor of Arabic and compartive literature at University of California Davis.  

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