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The Maspero Massacre: The Military, the Media, and the 1952 Cairo Fire as Historical Blueprint

[A young man hurls stones at security forces during clashes between protesters and military police in Cairo. Image by Abdelhamid Eid, European Pressphoto Agency] [A young man hurls stones at security forces during clashes between protesters and military police in Cairo. Image by Abdelhamid Eid, European Pressphoto Agency]

The Maspero Massacre and the official media policy that emerged in its wake can only be understood in the context of the ongoing struggle between the national security state and forces working to achieve a fledgling democracy in Egypt. The January Revolution was a transformative moment in the country’s history: a moment of transition from a security regime that had grown rotten to the core after sixty years in power towards a nascent democratic state. Freedom of speech and the personal dignity and political agency of citizens are understood to have become natural rights in the struggle for justice and progressive social change.

The revolution unfolded, however, without the benefit of a structured leadership thanks to the difficulties—the impossibility—of freely organizing political parties, syndicates, and civic organizations under the reign of a security state’s autocrats whose consolidated  power after 1954 came to control all aspects of contemporary Egyptian political and civic life.  From this situation, a polarization emerged between, on the one hand, a nascent democratic movement whose institutions have yet to take shape, and on the other hand, security state institutions critically wounded by the revolution. In the political vacuum resulting from this polarization, the state and its media apparatus continue to scheme against the revolution.  

But the struggle between these opposing forces cannot continue to reproduce itself forever in ‘incidents’ like the storming of the Israeli Embassy last September or the recent Maspero Massacre. With each recurring confrontation deliberately engineered to destabilize public security, both parties to the conflict—revolution and counter-revolution—are growing increasingly organized and mature; though the split between revolutionary secular and Islamic forces, with all its complexities, remains a major obstacle to the democracy movement’s unity and efficacy.

Consequently, the cycle of confrontation between these two opposing sides is bound to grow increasingly violent, and a neo-fascist solution to the crisis is beginning to emerge as a very real possibility. It is now clearer than ever that the old regime is no longer tenable. The only alternative as far as the counter-revolution is concerned—an alternative that is becoming more and more evident as time goes by—is a move towards a more-or-less openly reactionary state modeled on Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s.

The success of this possible scenario in Egypt is far from given, however. The revolution’s forces are alive and well. They include not only those political organizations and individuals in their millions who rose up against the Mubarak regime, but also an increasingly militant labor movement and a growing reformist movement struggling to cleanse state institutions, such as the state’s university and various ministries, of rampant corruption.

The national security regime depends entirely on corruption and the resulting condition of general impotence to grease the pockets of its allies on the ground. It also depends on the creation of a deteriorating security situation in order to fracture society into competing segments locked into attitudes of mutual distrust. State television coverage of the savage massacre that took place in front of the gates of the Maspero Public Broadcasting Building, which turned on an open call to the ‘citizenry’ to ‘rescue’ the army, was a glaring example of this strategy.

First: The SCAF and State Media

Sunday night’s massacre was the first ‘operation’ that state media and its private satellite channel partners were called upon to help orchestrate, justify, and to the extent possible, cover up. While Coptic demonstrators, and their Muslim supporters, were being mowed down by live ammunition—dozens dead and hundreds wounded—and as military tanks ran amok amongst the crowd in what could surely be characterized as a crime against humanity, state television was reporting that the army had come under attack by armed Coptic demonstrators. It subsequently appealed to ‘the people’ to come out and ‘protect’ the armed forces from their supposed assailants. At the same time, armed gangs from the Bulaq neighborhood were given their marching orders. Who exactly gave the order to set them loose against the demonstrators with swords, switchblades, and batons—perhaps even firearms—is still unclear.

Amateur video and mobile phone footage that began to surface almost immediately on YouTube and other social networking sites blew the official story to bits and pieces, exposing a barbaric crime against the most basic of human rights, In a telling and gruesome irony, the crime flagrantly contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in territories occupied by foreign armies. This was the first resounding blow to Frankenstein’s state media, which then turned to depicting the massacre as if it were a sectarian conflict and a Christian conspiracy aided and abetted by foreign and domestic ‘elements’: a conspiracy not against those murdered in cold blood but one against their murderers – the military police and Egypt’s ‘noble citizens’.

In this televised scenario, the dead themselves became of no consequence. Anchors instead wheeled out the usual ‘experts’ with well-known ties to the security apparatus, in order to theorize about a connection between mayhem on Cairo’s streets and the revolution. Their byline was that organizers of the most recent, poorly-attended million-man (milyuniyya) demonstrations in Tahrir Square were desperately trying to make up for past failures by deliberately planning and executing a crime against public order and their fellow citizens. A fabricated claim that soldiers had been killed was stated as if an established fact.

The media’s deliberate attempt to incite violence on a mass scale did finally produce sectarian clashes in Cairo and a number of other cities, but the violence that bubbled to the surface in these clashes never came anywhere close to the atrocities perpetrated on Sunday by the military police against peaceful demonstrators at Maspero. 

Second: Security Services and the Subversion of Public Order

What then is the relationship between the current national security state and state media’s blatant attempt to incite a broader massacre on the evening of Sunday, 9 October 2011?  It is the following. Inciting sectarian conflict can be used to not only justify the  Maspero Massacre itself, but also other massacres to come, which will then be deployed to re-establish ‘law and order’ by a security apparatus intent on leading marching masses to a martial tune of ‘national unity’. 

‘Public order’, not the rule of law, is the ultimate mandate of any security state, and public order in a revolutionary context can only be achieved by destabilizing the space of peaceful civil action. Martial law, courts of exception, manipulation of the judiciary and the key post of state prosecutor—as well as vicious state media campaigns against individuals, political and civic organizations, and entire communities—are all weapons in such a state’s arsenal. Everyone must feel that they are directly threatened and that their only salvation is to submit and cower in fear. The Syrian regime’s handling of the ongoing uprising there is an extreme example of this strategy. There as here, in Egypt, the ruling regime emerges as both the greatest threat to and the beneficent guardian of the nation’s security.

Stripping the masses of their hard-won self-confidence and self-respect is equally an important tactic in the state’s arsenal as is destroying citizen trust in each other. As the space for dissent, public activism and political organizing expands and social conflict proliferates in and between parties, syndicates, and independent associations, the security state increasingly appears to many ordinary citizens as an inevitable, if unfortunate necessity.

There would seem to be no place in this context for a revolutionary slogan like “Raise your head high; you are an Egyptian!” Instead, the message that constantly circulates in ancien regime circles and their sympathetic camps is the exact opposite: “You are incapable of defending yourselves…Left to yourselves you would butcher each other…The masses are a ragged bunch of good-for-nothings.” Add to this the rumors and accusations of covert ‘foreign conspiracies’ regularly unleashed by state media at strategic moments, and the script is complete; the masses are powerless, unless called upon to play the role of extras in the next massacre.

During Mubarak’s reign as in the present moment, destabilizing public order and provoking conflict remains the security state’s only reliable means of self-preservation—as was evidenced by police force withdrawal from the streets of Egypt’s cities during the January Revolution. But destabilization alone is not enough. The ideology of sectarianism ‘translates’ tactics into ideas: ideas that mobilize panic and terror—the people’s terror of themselves, of their problems, and contradictions. So the deadly magic wand can then be waved, and Emergency Laws put in place yet again, this time with ‘popular support’.

Third: The General Political Context of the Massacre … and again … Maspero.

In fact, and as commentators with ties to security services are keen to note, there is an important connection between the relatively small size of recent ‘milyuniyya’ demonstrations in Tahrir Square and the dangerous recurrence of security "incidents" that follow in their wake. It would seem fairly obvious that if the protest movement has indeed grown weaker, then now is the time for the counter-revolution to incite the chaos that will further undermine the movement. This was the strategy that led to the "Giza fire" damage to  the Giza Police  headquarters and a number of other nearby buildings on 9 September, the second day of protests at the Israeli Embassy. The subsequent chorus of wailing and collective wringing of hands over the crumbling security situation and the harm done to the country’s international reputation was surely intended to prepare people for the re-activation of the emergency laws that was announced in the immediate wake of the incident.

Here, however, the script did not unfold as expected. The wave of public and private sector strikes that swept across Cairo and the major Delta cities forced the SCAF to swallow its threats. Moreover, for the first time since coming to power, the SCAF leadership explicitly recognized the new political parties as partners in a negotiation process that culminated in the SCAF-sponsored document of 1 October and signed by fifteen political parties. It is surely no coincidence that the Maspero massacre was deployed to manufacture a discourse of conspiracy and sectarianism as well as ludicrous claims of an army ‘threatened’ by civilians at the same time that the SCAF was being increasingly maneuvered into a corner by pressure from all directions in the pro-democracy arena.

In this context the frueseom Maspero operation was a failure, relatively speaking, though it did accomplish what the Israeli Embassy incident did not. People are more afraid now than ever of the security apparatus and of themselves, but they have also witnessed their army unleashing unprecedented levels of barbarous violence against civilians. The "gang of thugs" that were sent the Coptic Hospital on Sunday evening failed to destroy the evidence of the massacre before forensic teams could arrive. The security state has been obliged to retreat for the time being, in order to sort out its next steps in the wake of urgent calls for an independent investigation. In this context, all the talk about "the stolen tank" used by a protester against protesters is nothing but a very sad joke.

Flagrantly biased "investigative" organs, deep hostility towards the revolution, systematic tampering with evidence and witnesses: these are the inner workings of the security state that are becoming increasingly visible.  

And now, a chattering state media chorus is busy organizing its retreat as well: voices are being raised to demand the resignation of Prime Minister 'Issam Sharaf’s resignation, as though it is the cabinet – which has been unable from the moment of its formation to draw the slightest breath thanks to the SCAF’s stranglehold – that is responsible for this catastrophe. The hunt for a scapegoat is well underway. Until, that is, a new ‘incident’ explodes onto the scene, and an even more serious ‘disruption’ of public order gets underway.

The Egyptian security state knows that its very survival is at stake in the present circumstances, and the fascist option is therefore very much in the cards. In January 1952 the fire that razed much of downtown Cairo provided the occasion for a nation-wide imposition of martial law in peacetime and laid the groundwork for a military coup that gave us sixty years of dictatorship built on a state of emergency. This history is very much present in the collective memory of the organs of the security state, whose options might well include organizing a coup against the SCAF itself to definitively allow for the restoration of "public order" (read: widespread repression) and the launching of a so-called new era of reform under the banner of ‘the great revolution’.

But the demands of the January revolution are neither vague nor negotiable. They are nothing short of freedom; freedom from military rule and the freedom to build a democratic state from the ground up. These demands are embodied first and last in the chant, “Raise your head high, you are Egyptian.”

Our heads are still raised high and we will not submit, as the coming days are sure to show.

[This article first appeared in Akhbar al-Adab, and was translated for Jadaliyya by Samah Selim]

2 comments for " The Maspero Massacre: The Military, the Media, and the 1952 Cairo Fire as Historical Blueprint"

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Excellent and very clear-eyed analysis. Thank you.

Ines wrote on October 18, 2011 at 02:08 PM
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Even though I live in the USA, I find that the Maspero massacre and related counter revolution movement are shame and very sad. Egyptians should insist on harvesing the results of the revolution of February 9 and defeat counter revolution movement at any price. You can not go back to dictatorship and poverty. God bless you.

Al Abraham wrote on October 21, 2011 at 12:17 AM

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