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A Political Turning Point for Egypt?

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
October 11, 2011


Egypt faces a possible turning point in its revolution (NYT) after the October 9 protest in Cairo that left twenty-six dead and hundreds more wounded--most of them Coptic Christians--at the hands of Egyptian security forces. It was the most violent demonstration in Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak from the presidency earlier this year, and it raised questions both about sectarian rifts and the Egyptian military's hold on power. Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has called for a speedy investigation (al-Jazeera) into the clashes. The country's finance minister resigned October 11 (NYT), the first official to do so in the wake of the clashes, though he gave no explanation. Egypt's deputy prime minister also resigned (VOA).

Egypt's Coptic minority accounts for between 10 and 15 percent of the country's population of eighty-two million and faces an uncertain future as Islamist groups are poised to rise in political clout. CFR's Ed Husain writes that the "increased Islamization of the Egyptian public space was partly to blame" for the punishing response to the weekend's demonstrations, which were organized in response to an attack by Islamist radicals on a Coptic church in the country's south. CFR's Steven Cook had stronger words, calling the violence an "anti-Christian pogrom." The Muslim Brotherhood adopted a tone sympathetic to the military-led SCAF in its response to the protests, urging the Coptic Christians (GulfNews) not to "play into the hands of the country's enemies inside and outside to stir up trouble."

The protests and their aftermath highlight the uncertainties surrounding Egypt's future after its heady revolution. Many are concerned that the twenty-four officers who comprise the SCAF, which has said it wants to hand over power quickly, are unwilling to relinquish control and setting a timetable for elections that would keep it in office for a year or longer. Next month's parliamentary elections are to be the first vote since the fall of Mubarak. The military recently failed to prevent a mob from attacking the Israeli embassy, and it hasn't been able to protect Coptic churches. "They then cite such outbreaks of violence as justification for still more repression--including the extension of the previous regime's autocratic emergency law," writes a Washington Post editorial. The SCAF has tried civilians before military courts and applied "the same harsh emergency laws that became notorious during Mubarak's thirty-year reign," writes the Economist.

Egypt's Coptic community has long suffered discrimination. Even before the overthrow of Mubarak, CFR's Cook noted the tensions between the Copts and Muslims as a "political pathology" confronting the country. Additionally, "the revival of the Islamists over the last few years made the Copts' position more uneasy, and their prospects more uncertain, than they had been for centuries," writes William Dalrymple in the Guardian, who adds that the "dilemma and fears of the Copts mirror that of Christian minorities across the Middle East," notably in Syria, where the churches still support the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Without a move to an elected civilian government and a stabilized economy, it's possible that sectarian violence in Egypt could grow. A White House statement noted, "These tragic events should not stand in the way of timely elections and a continued transition to democracy." The Washington Post urged the Obama administration to "use its leverage with the Egyptian military to drive home that message." The SCAF also needs to prod the Egyptian economy, says the Financial Times, observing, "As often as not, it is competition for scarce resources, rather than ideological difference that sparks inter-faith conflict."

Background Materials

"Egypt After Mubarak: Whither the Revolution?" Washington Institute for Near East Policy

"The Emerging Political Spectrum in Egypt," Commentary

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