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An Egyptian Bloody Sunday

However long it takes, the truth of events outside the television building in Cairo last Sunday in which 26 people were killed will necessarily have to emerge

Mona Anis , Wednesday 12 Oct 2011
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I am not sure how many of my compatriots will recognise the allusion in the title of this piece. Some, who are not old enough to remember the original 1972 incident I am referring to - the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland, also known as the Bogside Massacre - may have known about it through an influential book published in 1997, Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, which led to the famous 1998 Bloody Sunday Inquiry, or, later still, to the 2002 film Bloody Sunday. This film, written and directed by the British filmmaker Paul Greengrass, won the Golden Bear, first prize at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, in 2002.

I for one am old enough to recall the struggle in Northern Ireland, thanks to my early initiation into politics on radical university campuses in Egypt and England in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. If Palestine was the focal point of Egyptian student politics at the time, rallying against the partition of Ireland was the cause célèbre on radical British campuses during the 1970s. I vividly recall the numerous meetings I attended and the many marches we staged at Essex University, where I was studying during the second half of the 1970s, calling for “Troops out of Ireland.” On more than one occasion we travelled to Belfast to join protesters from across Britain marching against the presence of the British army in Northern Ireland and the crimes committed there, including the shootings on Bloody Sunday.

These distant memories came back to me last Sunday (9 October), as I witnessed the “Maspero Massacre” unfold outside the state television building on the Nile embankment in Cairo. There were parallels one could draw between the two incidents. In Cairo, what started out as a peaceful march by Egyptian Copts protesting against the demolition of a church near Aswan, which the authorities claimed had been constructed without the proper permits, and demanding the relaxation of the stringent legal constraints on the construction of new churches, ended in a fully-fledged massacre in which 26 people were killed, some by gunfire and others as a result of being run down by army vehicles.

In the Northern Irish case, a civil rights association march on 30 January 1972 turned violent when 26 unarmed civilians were shot by soldiers of the British army and run down by army vehicles. 14 people died either instantly or soon afterwards from their wounds. Another comparison that comes to mind between the two events is the institutionalised discrimination that the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland faced at the time and the discrimination suffered by the Coptic minority in Egypt.

But this is perhaps where the comparison should end, as beyond these similarities in numbers and in minority grievances, the socio-political and cultural context of the two incidents is widely divergent. One difference is that while the shootings in Northern Ireland were confirmed beyond doubt as having been a cold-blooded massacre committed by army soldiers as a result of two investigations, last week's massacre in Cairo is still shrouded in mystery, especially as regards what instigated the violence and the source of the gunfire.

The Egyptian army claims that its soldiers were not armed with live ammunition and that they were themselves attacked by the protesters before they began to defend themselves, while the Coptic Church has issued a statement saying that suspicious elements infiltrated the peaceful march and instigated the riots. The army has even tried to wash its hands of the blood of those killed under the wheels of army vehicles by claiming that some of its armoured vehicles had been stolen on that day.

It is difficult to understand what the Egyptian army could gain by planning and executing such a cold-blooded massacre at a time when it already has many problems on its hands and when most political forces in the country are calling for a speeding up of the process of transferring power to civilians. Some commentators have argued that an incident of this sort could have been intended to provide the military with an opportunity to prolong its rule by declaring martial law and postponing the elections. However, the measures taken the day after the massacre intended to bring about reconciliation do not point to any such scenario. It was officially announced on Tuesday as I write this column that a single law governing the construction of both churches and mosques will be issued before the end of this month and that new articles outlawing discrimination against religious minorities will be added to the penal code. Finally, a full investigation into the incident is also to take place.

Here, I should like to return to the Bloody Sunday massacre in Northern Ireland to mention the two investigations conducted by the British authorities that I mentioned earlier. Two days after Bloody Sunday, the then British prime minister, Edward Heath, commissioned a special tribunal to undertake an investigation into the events, and this tribunal's report, completed within ten weeks of the events and published within eleven, supported the army's account of the events. Many politicians and activists disagreed with the report's findings at the time and tried to speak out against it before finding themselves silenced. 25 years later, and following the publication of Eyewitness Bloody Sunday, a first-hand account of the incident by an author who was a child at the time, another investigation, the Saville Inquiry, was commissioned in 1998 to re-examine the events of Bloody Sunday.

This inquiry, one of the longest, most elaborate and most expensive in British history, concluded in November 2004, though its final report was only published last year. The report stated that “the firing by soldiers of 1 Para on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” It said that British paratroopers had “lost control,” fatally shooting fleeing civilians and those trying to help people shot by British soldiers. “In no case was any warning given before soldiers opened fire,” the report said, and none of the soldiers “fired in response to attacks or threatened attacks by nail or petrol bombs.” The soldiers later “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing.”

After the report's publication on June 2010, the present British prime minister, David Cameron, told the UK parliament that “the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of our armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am deeply sorry.”

Last Monday, as I attended the funeral services of those killed in our own Egyptian Bloody Sunday at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the rage among the congregation - men and women and old and young - was such that I was sure that the incident would be etched in the hearts of many of the people I saw there that day, and that the children in the congregation will keep the narrative alive for generations to come. Even if the public inquiry that has now been announced fudges some of the more ugly facts, one day the truth will come out, just as it did 40 years after the Northern Irish Bloody Sunday.

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