Monday, October 10, 2011

Egyptian reflections on last night's violence

Egyptian newspapers from today. Left: "Egypt," dripping blood.
Right: "Egypt bleeds at Maspero," the site of last night's clashes.

Last night marked the deadliest incident of violence in Egypt since February's uprising, and throughout it all I sat gripped to my computer screen safe and sound in my apartment about a mile or two away from the fighting. Needless to say, I kind of gave up on homework.

Believe it or not, though, my classes started on time this morning, despite the fact that a curfew for my campus's downtown neighborhood had only expired two hours before. Talk of the clashes predictably took place throughout the day, particularly since many of the professors and administrators in my program are Copts, or Egyptian Christians. I wanted to share a few exchanges I had today about the violence; these views are by no means a representative sample of Egyptian society as a whole, but they do reflect a few different slices of the population.

Right off the bat this morning, my Egyptian colloquial Arabic professor, who is a Coptic Christian, seemed a bit anxious as we began class. He described the clashes in the greater context of the systemic discrimination Copts face every day. Shutting the door so passers-by wouldn't overhear, he told us he had heard two people on the subway discussing the violence. How did they characterize it? he asked rhetorically. "They said that there were Christian people who provoked it all."

My professor's young daughters, who attend school near the epicenter of the clashes, stayed home from classes today. "Are you afraid for your personal safety?" I asked. His reply came immediately: "I'm not scared—I'm angry."

But in a time when sectarian tensions could rise rapidly, there are rays of hope. Two classes and one eggplant sandwich after that first conversation, my Muslim professor sat down before us and apologized for not having prepared a formal lesson plan. At around 8 p.m. last night, he explained, just after the fighting broke out, his Christian friend instant messaged him with the news. Troubled by what they heard, the two jumped into a taxi to head downtown. No can do, said the cabbie, it's chaos down there. So they asked him to take them to the Coptic hospital, to which he obliged. "By the way," my professor added, "the taxi driver had been listening to Qur'anic verses on the radio at the time."

At the hospital, though, my professor and his friend encountered kids no more than 10 years old running with wooden sticks in their hands. Discouraged and concerned that the scene could deteriorate, they turned back.

So, visibly effected by what he had witnessed and heard the day before, my professor led us through an analysis of how state television had biased its coverage against the Christians, and of the prime minister's late-night statement about the clashes. At the end of class, he rushed out so he could make it to the funerals of the Copts who died yesterday, which were just getting underway.

Then, later this evening, my two taxi drivers shared their thoughts on the clashes, which they said were undoubtedly bad for Egypt. Both expressed frustration with events that seemed out of their control. Why can't protests occur peacefully, with no destruction? one pondered.

The other driver offered a rather fitting analogy. "Our government is like a fireman," he said. "They only put water on the flames after the fire starts—they don't do anything to prevent it."

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