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Sectarianism in Egypt one year on from the Maspero massacre

This article is over 9 years, 8 months old
On 9 October 2011 the Egyptian army attacked demonstrators protesting in support of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. The Maspero massacre left at least 27 people dead.
Issue 2324

On 9 October 2011 the Egyptian army attacked demonstrators protesting in support of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. The Maspero massacre left at least 27 people dead.

Sameh Naguib from Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists spoke to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre at Cairo’s Centre for Socialist Studies. This is an edited translation of his speech, which can be viewed in Arabic here.

» Hossam el-Hamalawy’s report of the massacre

The Egyptian revolution is passing through a very difficult transitional period. This has led a lot of people to think that the revolution is over. A small number of corrupt leaders have been removed, people have been elected in their place—and that is the end of the matter.

But this isn’t correct. We are only at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, which is one of the great revolutions of history. At times there have been more than 20 million people in the streets. There are very few revolutions in history which have involved popular mobilisations on that scale.

The revolution filled a wide section of the masses with confidence to fight for the right to equality, justice and freedom. This sort of change in the consciousness doesn’t just evaporate overnight. That will only happen if we see defeats on the same scale as the revolution itself. Defeating the revolution will have to involve counter-revolution on a scale that we haven’t yet seen in Egypt.

This doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The counter-revolution is still present, and the Egyptian state is still the state of Hosni Mubarak. All its institutions were built on discrimination and sectarianism, alongside corruption and exploitation.

Getting rid of Field Marshal Tantawi and replacing him with the head of military intelligence hasn’t changed the army either. This army has the same economic interests under its control and the same power in its hands.

The Egyptian revolution is a classic revolution in that the masses and the workers are playing the central role, but other groups are playing a part too: the Christians, the Nubians, the people of Sinai. All the oppressed and downtrodden sections of society are in motion, because the revolution gives them a feeling of confidence. They feel that we can change the world around us.

And people’s experiences during the early days of the revolution won’t suddenly disappear from their memories. That’s why it’s wrong to think there is no possibility of renewing the revolution, or of seeing a second Egyptian revolution.


During the last two months we’ve seen 1,480 strikes—the biggest strike wave since immediately after the revolution. Large sections of the Egyptian masses are still continuing their revolution. They still want social justice, they still want a dignified life—and they have the confidence to move.

But still we need to explain why sectarian feelings are on the rise. Let’s start by noting that Mubarak’s rule coincided with a period of neoliberal economic and social policies. We saw privatisation and the withdrawal of the state from all basic services.

So what do ordinary people do when they need medical treatment or education? The Christians will go to the church and the Muslims will go to the mosque, which are the only places they will find these services.

These services were once provided to everyone, but now we find they are completely separated. It becomes a matter of “us” and “them”. People end up taking refuge in their identity.

This, of course, is extremely useful to those at the top of society. Under Mubarak there were 490 billionaires in Egypt. (We are talking about billions of US dollars, by the way, not Egyptian pounds!) Some are Christian and some are Muslim.

Those 490 billionaires were billionaires under Mubarak and have remained billionaires under Mohamed Mursi. Meanwhile, 45 percent of Egypt’s population live below the poverty line. These people are also both Christian and Muslim. Poverty doesn’t discriminate in relation to religion.

Any revolution which talks about social justice, and includes this kind of class contradiction, is not a revolution which is completed. It is one that is only just beginning.

Nor has the revolution been completed at the level of the liberation of the oppressed, which is a vital component of social justice. We can’t have genuine equality if women haven’t won equality. It is the same with the Copts, or the Nubians, or the people of Sinai who are being bombed by planes at the moment. All of these are a fundamental part of the revolution.


This explains the Maspero massacre. The counter-revolution always hits the weakest points. It couldn’t go into Tahrir Square when a million people were there. But it could hit a march by ten thousand Christians. The state used direct sectarian incitement, claiming that Copts were attacking the army. Some Salafists went and started dragging and beating Christians on the protest.

In every revolution in history these kinds of things happen. If the minority are Jews, then Jews are the target. If the minority are Armenians, then they are attacked. Why? Because there are certain sections of the masses that are less conscious, who may start to think that Christians are the problem rather than the state. That is what the counter-revolution exploits.

This means we are in a transitional period, and we must prepare for a second wave of the Egyptian revolution. The counter-revolution—the people who have an interest in restoring the old order—still has the power and the money and the capability to mobilise. Each side is preparing.

We have to understand that no revolution can succeeds without the liberation of all the oppressed. Those who say “let’s achieve social justice, and then we can think about women’s rights or the rights of the Copts” are wrong. Coptic youths played a central role in the revolution. The Egyptian revolution will not be completed without them.

Dividing people along religious lines is a weapon in the hands of the counter-revolution. If we can’t unite our ranks, they will use this weapon against us. It will change from strikes and demonstrations in Tahrir Squares to the arson attacks on churches and mosques, and sectarian clashes.

There is an important link between social liberation and the struggle for social justice. Strikes today involve Muslims and Christians, women and men. The bosses’ first weapon is to stir up sectarianism or talk about how women shouldn’t be working in the first place. They’ll say anything to divide our ranks. Our role as revolutionaries is to do the opposite.

Muslim workers must fight against discrimination that Christians face, in order to unite the ranks of the revolutionary movement and the workers’ movement. The same is true in relation to women.


The counter-revolution takes many forms. Sexual harassment and the Salafists are two sides of the same coin. When a Salafist preacher says husbands have the right to beat their wives, this misogyny naturally translates into sexual harassment in the streets. People like this don’t want women to be in the streets or in the workplaces, or on public transport.

And you hear other reactionary ideas, like the idea that Christians are all rich, or that they stole the country. Or that women have taken men’s jobs. Reactionary ideas like these can have a big impact in a country that has a high degree of illiteracy, where people often have no way of discovering a different story.

But we mustn’t treat the Islamist movement as if it were a single bloc. Large sections of the Christians have looked at the Islamists and concluded that they are all united against them. This is completely untrue.

Here’s a simple example—lots of the recent strikes have been led by people from the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the Brotherhood opposes strikes very strongly. Sheikh Tareq, the leader of the bus workers’ strikes, is a Salafist. Sheikh Tareq mobilised 7,000 votes for Mursi in the elections, because he believed that the Brotherhood would represent people like him.

So class divisions are always there within the Brotherhood and among the Salafists. They aren’t united. The youth of the Brotherhood are beginning to leave, looking for an alternative. That alternative must be the left—and the left must be able to work with them.

The global phenomenon of Islamophobia also affects the situation of Copts in Egypt. Islamophobia is one of the basic ideologies of the ruling regimes in Europe and of American imperialism today. It blames Muslim minorities for all the problems of these societies.

Coptic youth must take a firm stand against Islamophobia. They dream of going to Europe, but they must realise, that there people will look at the colour of their skin and think they are Muslims.

The ideology which is being used here is Islamophobia—but the target is the minorities. This is why we have to stand in solidarity against all forms of religious discrimination.


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