October 9, 2011. A peaceful protest of the Copts joined by Muslims is taking place in front of the Egyptian state TV building, Maspero, named after Gaston Maspero, a famous French Egyptologist. Surrounded by young soldiers who are joking with each other and probably thinking this is a usual sort of protest, somehow somebody starts to throw stones and the security forces arrive out of nowhere to crush people with tanks, killing more than 24 Copts and some Muslims. I spent two months with some of the members of the Maspero Youth researching their grievances and the mobilization of the Coptic community in the last seven years. I have to pay tribute to the Maspero martyrs at this point, Muslim and Christian.
The Maspero Youth Union emerged out of the revolution as a small but influential focal point for university students and people from Shubra, a working class neighborhood in Cairo. An increase in violence against the places they held sacred, together with the deportation of some of their Coptic number due to rows over love affairs, and their attempt to raise the voice of Copts in Egyptian politics prompted them to entend the movement to the Delta and rural cities like Fayoum and Asyut. Their rationale was simple: the prevention of conflict and in case of conflict, to compel government authorities to implement the rule of the law rather than hold the more traditional meetings of reconciliation.
It was a warm March night when I met some of their leading activists in downtown Cairo to discuss the causes of the Maspero massacre and other violent incidents. One mid 30s professional who ran a crisis-mapping NGO dedicated to conflict prevention told me that the protestors came all the way from Shubra to Maspero peacefully. He remembers joking with the soldiers who were enjoying themselves. Copt protests directed at Mubarak’s regime and the shortcomings of the transitional government led by SCAF members were altogether peaceful added another student leader. They were calling for equality, the implementation of the rule of law, democracy, an end to latent and systematic sectarianism and a role for Copts in the post-Mubarak Egypt.
Since March, there has been no response to such calls. The situation of the Copts in Egypt has not improved, nor have the perpetrators of the Maspero killings been tracked down. The court case to find out what happened in Maspero, why it happened and who ordered the killings of peaceful protesters was held in limbo as the prosecutor claimed that there was a lack of evidence. Every few months, the case was adjourned. Finally, the court verdict read that three soldiers were found guilty but that nobody had been charged with any crime. Why there was no evidence? How did the court find three soldiers guilty but not charge them? Who then was responsible? Let’s assume there was no evidence or that the soldiers simply did not know who gave the order to kill. Does this justify the prosecutor in dropping the case? Quite the contrary. This denial of justice is obvious and unacceptable. Furthermore, the decision not to touch ‘the untouchables’ poses a grave threat to a revolutionary Egypt.
Skeptics might argue that justice mechanisms are dysfunctional for all Egyptians, so why should these people be treated any differently? But this case stands out as a prime example of how the past must be confronted. More than anything else, this would show ordinary Egyptians that the rule of law can be established, that their wounds and grievances could be addressed, and that diversity and national unity will be promoted as significant values for Egypt.
But this will not happen overnight. Egypt needs time, but the Maspero martyrs should not be forgotten. Egyptian civil society wants its judiciary to touch the untouchables, to provide justice for all and respect their dignity. Egyptians would like their government to ensure there is equality, rule of law, democratic principles and religious tolerance. Indeed, that’s why Maspero martyrs were protesting one year ago. May God rest their souls.