Muslim and Coptic activists demonstrated today in front of the Attorney General’s office, chanting slogans condemning yesterday’s police violence in the district of Omraneya that left two people dead and dozens injured.
“We are against the thugs of the Ministry of Interior!” they chanted. “I’m a Muslim and I reject oppression of Copts.”
Yesterday’s violence — which intensified over the day and involved a show-down between demonstrators hurling stones and anti-riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets — erupted just after dawn, when Coptic Christians started protesting a government suspension on construction being carried out on in a neighborhood church. At least 133 people were detained on charges that include the use of knives as weapons, the attempted murder of police officers, and the intentional sabotage of public facilities.
The Ministry of Interior later claimed the Coptic residents of Omraneya were illegally transforming a Christian community center into a church without authorization. Residents of the area have said that the government moratorium was issued on the basis of a single staircase being built.
The 156 people implicated in yesterday’s demonstrations — of whom 133 are detained and 33 hospitalized — await forensic examinations and indictments following State Security interrogations.
“The detainees are currently held in police detention under a 15-day investigation pending release or trial,” said Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer from the the Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression who is among those calling for their release. “Should the case be transferred to court, the detainees face up to lifetime sentences if indicted for the highest current charge of attempted murder.”
Activists and critics have said yesterday’s incident spiraled disproportionally out of control, pointing the finger at government bodies for persuing discriminatory policies towards Egypt’s Coptic Christians. “Most construction violations go unnoticed except when it comes to churches” said Mounir Megahed, a Muslim and a leading member of Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination.
The Coptic community, which comprises 6-10 percent of Egypt’s 80-million population, has been increasingly alienated both by government policies and growing Islamic fundamentalism. Most recently, they have expressed chagrin at being sidelined by the government in the upcoming elections. Yesterday’s violence has only added to their general sentiment of insecurity and marginalization following a series of attacks and threats — most recently the siege of an Iraqi church earlier this month and subsequent threats by Al-Qaeda directed to Christian Arabs in general, and to Copts in particular.
Emad Gad, a Political Analyst with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), said the clashes are a result of an "unwise move on the part of state security”. He added that the problem stems from the fact that the laws are discriminatory. “If there was a unified law regulating religious constructions this would not have happened."
The Interior Ministry issued a statement offering regret for the injuries and loss of life, saying that "repeated police requests to cease violence were ignored by the demonstrators, putting the safety of local residents at risk, at which point security officials had no choice but to control and disperse the gathering through the use of tear gas."
The violence comes amidst a backdrop of already heightened tensions in the country in the lead-up to Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Hundreds of opposition-party members, demonstrators and activists have systematically been arrested in recent weeks, and the government has taken measures to tighten control over opposition activity by curtailing popular activist lobbying strategies such as SMS-campaigning. Critics have said yesterday’s violence is a measure by government to overshadow the elections and give justification for even further clampdowns and arrests.
Today’s demonstrations, which had originally been planned to protest the arrest of Alexandrian journalist Youssef Shaaban who was arrested on drug charges, gathered 30 lawyers from different organizations. By midday, they had secured the release of Shabaan.