Today marks the third anniversary of the Maspero massacre – what had started out on October 9, 2011 as a peaceful protest ultimately led to the death of 25 Egyptian citizens, dozens injured, and the arbitrary arrest of countless Egyptian Christians. Earlier that day, Coptic and Egyptian activist groups had called for a mass march to protest the burning and destruction of the Mar-Guirguis church in Aswan at the hands of Islamist extremists. Starting in the Shoubra district in Cairo, tens of thousands joined the march, chanting protests against attacks on churches and the state of military rule. As the march arrived at the headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (better known as the Maspero building), army vehicles started shooting at protesters, and the violence escalated from there.
Three years have passed since that day. In those three years, Egyptians have witnessed two regime changes and three presidents. At the time of the massacre, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was running the country. In 2012, after the country’s first democratic elections, power was handed to the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the now-deposed president Mohammed Morsi. On July 3, 2013, the regime – and its president – changed yet again with the removal of Morsi from office and the installation of the President of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Judge Adly Mansour, as Interim President of Egypt. The most recent change occurred when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi won the presidential elections held in mid-2014, becoming the current president.
Despite the vast ideological differences between the leaders who have come to power since that fateful day in 2011, the Egyptian Government’s apathy towards the Maspero massacre has remained surprisingly constant. There has been no justice for the victims, and the rights of Egypt’s Copts continue to be violated. More shockingly, those who perpetrated the massacre seem to have been rewarded by ever more prestigious political posts.
Even now, on this third anniversary of the massacre, Egyptian state media is actively trying to misrepresent the protests that led to the massacre by adding a conspiratorial air to them. The media is also trying to claim that Muslim Brotherhood agents carried out the massacre, an attempt to remove blame from the army. The anniversary is also marked by a wider campaign to constrict citizens’ rights and freedoms, exemplified by the draconian protest law issued by former Interim President Mansour. As a result of this new protest law, dozens of Egyptians are in prison and numerous others are currently on trial. Most prominent among these is Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the most outspoken defenders of the rights of both Maspero protesters and victims. Since the massacre, Abdel Fattah has been interrogated by both military and state security prosecutors and was held in custody for almost two months, after having been accused of attacking army personnel and destroying army equipment during a different protest.
The acts of violence and killing carried out by the military police and central security forces against the Maspero protesters were illegal and unprecedented. Eyewitness reports confirm that the half hour from 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. was the most brutal. The police initially attacked the protesters with batons, then upgraded to shooting blanks into the air. Soon thereafter, armed vehicles rolled through the protesters, crushing many. Finally, the attack continued with live ammunition and tear gas. Although the brunt of the attack occurred in one brutal 30 minute period, the clearing of the protesters from Maspero and the surrounding area continued into the early hours of the next day.
The attack was not limited to police and central security personnel. A number of civilians from the surrounding neighborhood of Boulaq Abo-el-Ela and other neighborhoods showed up to support the army. Civilian participation was exacerbated by state television reports that Coptic protesters were attacking the Egyptian army. These reports led to random searches for Coptic Christians. Downtown Cairo and the surrounding areas even witnessed civilian manhunts for Christians, who were chased and attacked throughout the night, all while army and central security forces were patrolling the streets. These chases then moved to the Coptic hospital in downtown Cairo, where hundreds had gathered to identify the dead and injured.
Three years later, what has become of the investigation into this massacre? And what has come of the demands raised by the protesters that day?
For reasons that remain unclear, investigations into the massacre have been split along two tracks – one handled by the military courts and another by civilian courts.
The first investigation, handled by the military courts, concerns the accusations that soldiers ran protesters over with armored vehicles. The worst crime army soldiers were charged with was that of manslaughter via negligence, that is, for driving army vehicles haphazardly in a way that was unsuitable for the streets packed with protesters. On December 2, 2012, three soldiers were found guilty, with one receiving a three-year prison sentence and the two other each receiving a two-year sentence. However, the case was riddled with irregularities. During the courts martial proceedings, the civilian prosecutor withdrew, which led many rights organizations to contend that the court was playing the role of judge and defendant simultaneously.
An investigative court headed by Judge Tharwat Hammad handled the second part of the investigation, which examined civilians’ culpability. On April 24, 2012, Hammad decided to withhold the reports of investigations into 54 individuals, including a Christian priest and officials from the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. His decision to dismiss these cases was based on his claim that there was a lack of evidence. Security personnel were then tasked with carrying out investigations to gather further evidence. While the civilian part of the investigation has not progressed since, two Copts who were accused of stealing firearms during the protests and two others were sentenced to three years in prison each for the alleged theft of firearms from an armed vehicle.
The families of the victims have since filed official complaints against the top members of the SCAF, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, President of the SCAF, as well as other members of the Council and a number of field leaders. The complaints ask that these leaders be formally questioned and that the truth regarding who was involved in the attacks, both directly and indirectly, be made public. However, the investigating judge and the prosecutor have thus far ignored the complaints.
Many of those in charge during the massacre have actually been promoted. Deposed president Morsi even went so far as to appoint Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Anan, then Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces and one of the leaders named in the complaints, among his advisers after removing them from their official posts. He also named Major General Hamdi Badin, then Commander of the Military Police and another named defendant, as a military consultant to the Egyptian embassy in Beijing.
Needless to say, the investigations into the massacre have, at best, fallen on deaf ears. What, then, has come of the initial demands that led to the protests in the first place?
At the time of the massacre, the demonstrators were protesting the rising tide of attacks on churches, including the recent attack on the Mar-Guirguis church in Aswan. This attack happened with the full knowledge of the Governor of Aswan and the local security forces. It is even claimed that the attack happened with official cooperation, under the premise that the church was unlicensed, despite the fact that services had been held there for decades. The church remains closed to this day, even though Field Marshal Tantawi issued a decree requiring the return of the church to the condition it was in before the attack. However, some extremists have opposed this decision, refusing to allow prayers to occur inside the church. As for the state officials, they either condone these closures or stand helpless before the pressures of extremists.
After the massacre, then-Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met with a number of Coptic leaders, and produced a list of over 50 churches that were closed either by order of the security forces or due to pressure from extremists. The excuse for the closures was illegitimate building licenses, an excuse that has long been used by some extremist Muslim groups to justify attacks on churches. Meanwhile, security forces intervene on behalf of the extremists, allowing unofficial councils to determine the fate of churches instead of the justice system. These illegal closures are still occurring, with two churches in Minya shut by security forces in August 2014, purportedly due to the lack of an official license.
The Egyptian state’s many attempts to mislead public opinion, to hide facts, and to support criminals in their attempts to evade justice are bound to fail eventually. The crimes committed at three years ago today were recorded and broadcast locally and internationally, with videos clearly showing attacks on peaceful protesters. Many in Egypt have become more than capable of making excuses for those in power, citing the need for security and the eventual removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power as reasons to look past the army’s mistakes. There remain, however, many victims’ families, eyewitnesses, and countless others who still stand by holding those responsible for the massacre accountable for their crimes. This determination to use all legitimate means to bring about justice is the best way to press the investigators. What they need to do now is to re-question those who were in power at the time and disclose the details of the massacre. Efforts to memorialize the massacre and continue to collect information, evidence, and eyewitness reports by countless groups and activists also ensure that the truth comes out one way or another.