On “sectarian” violence

This post is provisional.  Horrible images tonight, videos, tweets, firsthand reports from the street and the morgue, of deadly violence against peaceful protesters outside Maspero, the state TV building.  [Update: see Jazeera roundup video.]  State media are more or less claiming the protesters attacked the police (“19 people were killed, some by gunfire, after a demonstration of hundreds of Coptic Christians turned violent” – or watch Nile TV here), and the “turned violent” phrasing has now been picked up by NYT and others, but on YouTube people have posted video clearly showing army vehicles running down protesters, kind of hunting them.  More people have died tonight, as Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell has pointed out, than during the famous Battle of the Camels in early Feb. So far, it is a clear story of army brutality against peaceful protesters, i.e., of regime continuity.

But the dead are mainly Christians; the Coptic Hospital is being attacked. There are also scary reports, including from Yasmine Rashidi on the ground (she writes on Egypt for NYRB), of street-level violence targeting individual Copts, e.g., Muslim guys beating up a Christian girl.  A pogrom?  Christians all over Egypt tomorrow will be reaching for their passports, saying they told you so.

The rhetoric of “sectarian violence” is circulating, edging out the tired old “foreign hands” and “forces seeking to foment chaos.” The danger of the “sectarian violence” meme is that it can self-fulfill.  You don’t even need a lot of pre-existing suspicion or actual grievance, and here you have some measure of both.

What now?

At some point – but we may be very far from that point here – people can decide not to be provoked.  In February 2005 I was in Beirut, working on an NGO project to develop a “culture of respect for the rule of law” (on which perhaps more later) in Lebanon. Amid the protests that followed Rafik Hariri’s assassination (and which eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from their explicit occupation of Lebanon), various foreign journalists descended on the country.  Many of them asked various forms of the same stupid question: “So, like, are you going to have another civil war now?”  To which the standard Lebanese answer was, “No, you idiot.” With an undertone of “We tried that. Enough already.”

The logic behind the question seemed to be an acceptance of the Syrian claim that the occupation was needed to keep Lebanese from killing each other.  Of course this was always Mubarak’s line too – not only divide-and-rule but actually stoking sectarian violence in order to appear as the one force capable of containing it. For instance, Mubarak’s Interior Minister was implicated in the New Year’s Eve 2010 bombing of a church in Alexandria, in which 23 people were killed.

Looking for a hopeful concluding sentence, something that starts with a “But.”  Maybe tomorrow?

[Update 9am: Streets very calm on the way to school; taxi driver said a lot of people are staying home from work because of fears of violence. He described last night’s events as “fitna,” intracommunal strife. Which is both reassuring and really not.]


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