Amidst the marches, street battles, and political deadlock covered night after night by the Egyptian media, one recent story almost escaped notice. On 4 February Michael Farag and Michael Shaker were each sentenced to three years in prison for having stolen weapons from the armed forces. With noteworthy decisions handed down by Egyptian judges on an almost daily basis, these sentences might seem, at first glance, rather mundane. What makes the media inattention harder to comprehend, however, is the context in which the theft was said to have occurred – the evening of 9 October 2011, at the Egyptian State Radio and Television Union Building in Cairo, commonly known as Maspero.
Coptic and Muslim activists alike have long awaited action from the Egyptian judicial system for the crimes that were committed that evening – namely, the murder of nearly thirty people, almost all of them Coptic Christians protesting sectarian violence, in what has become known as the Maspero massacre. Yet, the defendants in the 4 February case were not the soldiers who drove their armored personnel carriers into the crowds, without regard for the bodies of the demonstrators they were crushing. Rather, Michael Farag and Michael Shaker were among the Coptic demonstrators who were arrested shortly after the massacre – demonstrators who then stood accused of the very sectarian violence they had come to Maspero to protest.
One could hardly find a clearer case of “blaming the victim.” And yet here, over fifteen months after the event, the armed forces were simply perpetuating the lies they had fabricated the evening of the massacre – lies that were then spread without the least verification by Egyptian state media. Indeed, on the evening of 9 October 2011, state television had falsely claimed that Copts were roaming the streets of downtown Cairo with weapons they had seized from the military.
In August 2012, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s ruling military junta, was apparently sidelined by the country’s first elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, there was a slim measure of hope that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his peers on the junta might face justice for the crimes they had committed during their rule. Without question, the Maspero massacre was the greatest of such crimes. And yet only three soldiers have found themselves in court, charged with involuntary manslaughter. The sentences they received ranged from a meager two to three years.
To my mind, the whole sordid tale points to two principal conclusions about the state of Egyptian justice. First, the victims of the military junta’s violence and repression should expect no accountability for SCAF crimes in the near future, regardless of who is occupying the presidential palace. Emblematic of the impunity that the military continues to enjoy in Egypt is the vast discretion afforded to the armed forces in administering their internal affairs under the constitution recently rushed through an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly.
Second, there simply is no equal justice for Coptic Christians in today’s Egypt. And here again, the story of the constituent assembly is instructive. Copts were entirely unrepresented in the assembly that approved the constitution, due to mass resignations from the drafting body. Further, despite the powers afforded the Coptic Orthodox Church to govern the personal status affairs of the Coptic community under Article 3 of the constitution, the Church – an institution central to the everyday lives of the majority of Copts – has described the document as “discriminatory.”
Unfortunately, with the second anniversary of the revolution, Copts have had precious little to celebrate. One cannot escape a certain wistfulness as one recalls the human chains with which Copts protected Muslims and vice versa during their respective prayers in the eighteen-day Tahrir encampment. That so much hope and optimism has vanished so quickly is testament to the craven, narrow-minded political strategies pursued by both the military junta and the Muslim Brotherhood in power. But this collapse of the so-called Tahrir spirit is testament, too, to a broader failure on the part of Egyptians – a failure to come to terms with the sectarianism in their midst.