Has the Egyptian revolution stalled?
It should come as no surprise that Sunday night’s violent clashes, which again brought death and chaos to Cairo’s streets, took place on a day that saw many other developments underline the febrile power struggle at the heart of the Egyptian capital.
Bloodshed will capture the headlines, but the quieter moves by Egypt‘s military rulers and the plainclothes thugs whose motives increasingly appear inseparable from the army elite are also worth mentioning: the rapid shutting down of a television station that had been broadcasting live footage of the mayhem; the earlier announcement that military tribunals for civilians would remain operational in certain circumstances (despite a public outcry against them); a violent assault on a university strike in Alexandria; and the ongoing tussle over electoral law, which some political forces believe is designed to kill off genuine moves towards democracy.
Collectively, the day’s events illuminate something that has been clear to many on the ground for a long time: that despite its co-option of revolutionary rhetoric, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is doing everything in its power it can to stifle and frustrate meaningful change.
The ruling generals will do their utmost to paint the latest tragedies as the product of sectarian hatred and shadowy mischief-makers , and will waste no time in trotting out platitudes about national unity and strength in the face of adversity.
But it is between the generals and those on the street where the division really lies. There, amid the tear gas canisters, rubble and spent ammunition cartridges, the chants ringing out are: “Christians and Muslims on one hand” and: “The people want the downfall of the Field Marshal” – the latter a reference to Egypt’s current de facto leader, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, couched in the language a nation used to articulate its rejection of Mubarak.
That does not take away from the very real grievances of Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic community, who have known from the early days of the anti-Mubarak uprising that those seeking to protect the status quo would try their hardest to sow social instability as a precursor for rolling back revolutionary gains – and that with a current of genuine communal distrust often bubbling away below the surface, sectarian tension would be the easiest of targets.
It has not been easy for Christians to embrace the wave of post-Mubarak nationalism that has swept the country this year, even as institutionalised forms of discrimination against them remained in place. Mubarak’s regime regularly stoked religious animosity as a self-preservation measure; the sight of the SCAF borrowing from every other page in Mubarak’s copybook in recent months – from emergency law to arbitrary arrest and the criminalisation of peaceful protest – has only added to their fears that horrors of the magnitude seen on Sunday could not be far away.
But although it is the Salafist mobs reportedly trying to break down hospital doors to get at wounded Christian demonstrators that present the most obvious figures of blame, it is Egypt’s broader political elite, and particularly its increasingly brazen junta, that shoulder the biggest responsibility for Sunday’s events.
The clash for legitimacy – between those who understand the language of revolution and those who merely exploit it in the service of frustrating change – goes on, with a fresh set of victims that have died in its name.