Four years ago around this time, a small revolution occurred in the country. Any news of it was suppressed. Perhaps also, attention was drawn away from it by the bigger revolution, which occurred some days later on January 25, 2011.
This minor revolution was sparked by the bombing of the All Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve. On January 3, thousands of Copts gathered on Shubra street and in front of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the same neighborhood. They were protesting the failure of security forces to protect churches. In fact, they accused security forces of being in cohorts with those who carried out the bombing.
Footage abounds of clashes with security forces during the January 25 revolution, but it is unlikely that many know that these same scenes occurred 22 days earlier on Shubra street.
The demonstration began peacefully in front of the church. The idea was to light candles for the souls of the victims of the bombing. I went with some journalist friends of mine to monitor the demonstration as part of my work for a human rights organization. The first thing we noticed was the large number of security forces surrounding the demonstration. As was usual at the time, security forces were kettling the demonstrators, squeezing them tighter and tighter in a manner which reminds one now of the protest in solidarity with Khaled Saeed in Lazoghly square.
As the pressure increased, voices rose against the then Minister of Interior and the Mubarak regime as a whole. Among the chants: “I am Egyptian, I am Copt. Mubarak is persecuting me” … “If the one that died had been the son of a minister, heads would have rolled!” … “No to Adly Habib, the minister of torture” … “If State Security is so tough, where were you when the bombing happened” … “Treat Mariam like you treat Fatma, then we can talk about citizenship.”
The security forces, as usual, resorted to violence. In a single moment, the scene turned into a battle that continued well into the early hours of the next morning. The demonstrators retreated to the main road, which was itself manned by large numbers of central security personnel. The demonstrators continued to move through the various areas of Shubra. Hundreds of people joined with every street they passed. This mass of people then moved back to the main road, which was still blocked off by central security soldiers. Angry shouts vied with one another. The protesters began to pelt the security forces with rocks, and they returned them back. I will never forget seeing one demonstrator throwing a rock at the security forces and witnessing a rain of rocks return in his direction.
The attack went on for so long that we began to run back along the streets. The security forces followed. In the midst of all this, the camera I was carrying was struck with a rock and stopped working. A friend of mine was also struck while trying to escape, collapsed, and was covered in his own blood. We carried him to a nearby hospital to get stitches. When we returned an hour later, the scene had become a fully-fledged battle. Police cars were on fire. There were wounded people sitting on the ground, which was covered in rocks. The electricity had been shut down in the entire neighborhood and all the shops had closed. The clashes continued for the rest of the night and into the next day.
I saw with my own eyes, for the very first time, protesters clashing with such violence with security forces and burning police cars. It was a scene that was to be repeated frequently after January. But on that night in Shubra, I witnessed a foreshadowing of the future, one that was very close to arriving. I knew then how angry people were at the regime and what that anger might bring about.
What amazed me though were the statements from the church and Pope Shenouda. They maintained that Coptic people do not revolt or disobey the powers that be. These were statements that made clear — if they made anything clear at all — that the church was completely out of touch with reality, and with the feelings of Copts towards the regime. In a television appearance, Pope Shenouda said to Lamis al-Hadidy on January 22, 2011, “We know who is organizing these demonstrations and who is taking part in them, and we do not agree with them. We want peace for this country.” Just after the 25th, and before Mubarak’s removal from office, the Pope said on the Amr Adib show, “It is in our nature to desire a quiet life. We don’t like to take part in demonstrations or things like that.” Shenouda then declared his support for Mubarak, but I think this is not the heart of the problem.
The problem is the suppression and misinformation relating to the events that happened prior to these statements, and which demonstrates clearly that Copts are not cowards or quietists, and that they do get angry, and resist the regime. In fact, they were the first people in the country to revolt against injustice, at a time when it was almost impossible to imagine such violent resistance against the regime.
The church continued this strategy of denial and sycophancy and all they got out of it was the massacre at Maspero in October of the same year. It seems that they have still not learned their lesson. The sycophancy continues, and they sacrifice the safety of Copts in order to ensure the security of the very regime that murdered their people in the first place.
The scenes from January 3 in Shubra now seem like a dress rehearsal for what happened afterwards, and a kind of proof that Copts cannot be separated from the revolutionary reality Egypt has experienced, and which the church, and many others, have attempted to deny and cover up.
The events of that night also show something else. They show that what happened in January was not a conspiracy. The events in Shubra were carbon copies of the events later that month, and were a completely spontaneous reaction to the failure of security forces to do their work. This discredits accusations that protesters were trained to burn police cars and attack police stations.
What the events of that prior Coptic revolution make perfectly clear, is that an intense degree of anger had developed among the population, and had boiled over into violence against the security forces and the regime. The government denied this popular anger, much as the church denied the anger of the Copts. They considered all who resorted to violence to be funded by foreign enemies, traitors, collaborators, or conspirators. They did not consider for a moment that this anger on the streets was real, and that it had become explosive.
I can understand the desire for stability that perhaps most Copts have, and which the Church shares, for which they are willing to give up their rights. What they do not understand, however, is that by giving up their rights, they are also giving up the very stability and security they are seeking.
To put it as bluntly as possible, you will simply become the weak party in the equation and you will be completely bullied — for good reason or for no reason at all — by both the regime and other parties. Your situation is like mine when that police officer who arrested me in February 2011 said to me, “Even after we kill you, we will owe you nothing.”