Egypt: Armed clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians

Counter-revolution strikes – old regime has not given up

Just days after Tahrir Square was packed with hundreds of thousands of people in a united show of joy and determination to change Egypt, signs of counter-revolution have emerged, showing the old regime has not yet given up.

Armed clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians erupted in different parts of Cairo, starting last Friday after fights between two families followed the discovery of a relationship between a Christian man and Muslim woman. Two people died, followed by the partial destruction of a church.

The Copts, who make up 10% of the population, are the largest minority in Egypt. Large Coptic demonstrations took place over the last days, and fighting erupted last Tuesday in which at least 13 Muslims and Christians died and 140 were injured. On Thursday 10 Mach, thousands of Copts attended the funeral of eight victims, chanting, “We sacrifice our souls for the sake of our cross.”

However, on Wednesday 9 March, in the village where the fighting began, thousands of residents attended a conference to strengthen solidarity between the two communities. Another chant rang out – “Muslim and Christian, we are united as one!”

Some Copts claimed ex-convicts had attacked them in an organised assault. A resident reported that Muslims had been told the protesting Copts were going to burn a mosque, so they had turned out to defend it. State Security may have whipped up sectarian conflict to divert attention away from demands that this notorious force be dismantled asking, “Whose security? Whose state?”

Even the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) accused the old regime. “These people are operating under the principle of ‘divide to conquer’ and have incited a group of Muslim extremists to bring up sectarian issues, which should not be discussed at present,” their statement said. There are growing divisions within the MB, with an open challenge to the leadership announced this week.

The Coptic priests are also losing their tight grip over the community. The political earthquake shaking Egypt since 25 January is bringing down every pillar of the old society. Priests who had warned Copts not to get involved in the pro-democracy demonstrations were ignored. Younger Copts have been fully involved in the demonstrations from the start, joined by older layers as they grew in size.

The Security forces imprisoned and tortured many thousands of Egyptians under Mubarak’s Emergency Laws. Now their buildings have been stormed by protestors, uncovering records on many opponents of the old regime. This is reminiscent of the exposure of the Stasi in 1989, following the downfall of the Stalinist regime in East Germany. Evidence has now come to light suggesting Security forces were involved in the New Year’s Eve church bomb in Alexandria and the infamous horse and camel charge into Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution.

International Women’s Day event attacked

The old regime did not just rest on its massive state machine, but had some social support among the most backward layers of society. Last Tuesday, on International Women’s Day, a march of a few hundred women in Tahrir Square was attacked, verbally and physically, by some of these elements. Pro-democracy protestors who camped in Tahrir for the past month were stoned by hundreds of men and youth, some carrying knives and swords. Some of these may have been plain-clothed police.

Some people have also started to call for an end to protests, including strikes, until a new constitution has been drawn up and elections held. Some middle class layers and some business owners who supported the 25 January revolution, may now feel that their main demands will be met – an opportunity for them to participate in the running of the state that they were previously excluded from by Mubarak’s ruling clique.

But workers, the poor and the youth cannot sit back and wait while capitalist-supporting ministers and politicians decide how to divide up power between them. The working class needs its own independent organisations – trade unions and a mass workers’ party, with democratically elected leaders subject to recall and on workers’ wages.

Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary trends exist side by side in Egypt today. The overwhelmingly dominant direction at present is towards building a new society in the interests of the majority, but if the revolution stalls and living standards do not improve, or continue to fall, there is a future danger of growing support for reaction.

The only guarantee to prevent this is for democratic local and workplace committees to be formed, linking up at regional and national level. A revolutionary constituent assembly could then be elected and a majority workers and small farmers’ government could nationalise, under democratic workers’ control and management, big businesses, banks and large estates. The resources of the economy could then be planned to meet the needs of all. The creation of a mass socialist party, uniting working people, youth and the small farmers across all religious lines, is essential to struggle for this alternative.

Every part of the old state must be dismantled, with trade union rights for members of the armed forces, with election of officers and the replacement of all security forces by a democratically-controlled armed peoples’ militia. This could maintain real security for the millions of working Egyptians who had none under the old regime. It could protect people from sectarian strife, violent attack and the threat of counter-revolution by the old regime. A democratic socialist Egypt would inspire the continuing revolution across the Middle East and North Africa.

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March 2011