A candlelight vigil Thursday night for the victims of Sunday's bloody events at Maspero turned into a passionate protest against the ruling military council and Egypt's de-facto ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Hundreds gathered in downtown Cairo's Talaat Harb Square, adjacent to Tahrir Square, holding candles and chanting for the removal of Tantawi and an end to military rule.
On Sunday, Egyptians witnessed a peaceful march by Coptic Christians, protesting an attack on a church in Upper Egypt, turn deadly after armoured military vehicles ploughed through scores of protesters. The army and the state-run media have since come under fierce criticism.
On Thursday, the press of mourners and protesters surrounded the square and the roundabout, chanting: “Mina was murdered and the field marshal is the murderer.”
Mina Daniel, a young revolutionary and member of the Socialist Popular Alliance who sustained several injuries during the 18-day revolt, has put a face to the many victims of Sunday's violence. Several of Thursday night's chants honoured his memory, transforming his death into a revolutionary symbol: “Mina Daniel, oh young man, your blood will liberate this land.”
Addressing the military council, protesters chanted: “Apprehend the revolutionaries from the streets, from the churches and from the mosques. You who ask, 'Who are we?' We are all Egyptians to the teeth.”
Some mourners stood in silence while others chanted, teary eyed. Some sat in circles, chanting and singing songs of dissent around lit candles and crosses etched in the tarmac. At one point, a protester seized the megaphone: “From this moment on we won't say Christians and Muslims are one hand. We won't run after the military council and their sectarian ways. We won't play their games. We're Egyptians.” His words were met with overwhelming approval and soon the crowd roared. A chant emerged, echoing the anger and grief of the mourners: “The people demand the death penalty for the field marshal.”
Socialist Popular Alliance member Hisham Ismail commented that those gathered have shown that they will not be dragged into any sectarian conflict. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is trying to shift the focus from one of class, in light of the wave of strikes and the growing labour movement, to a sectarian one. They can't deal with the rising discontent among workers and professionals.”
He added that it was of the utmost importance to bring Tantawi and the rest of the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to trial for killing protesters, as they are no different than ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his associates.
Ismail's words reflected the underlying sentiment of the vigil. It was clear to those present in the square who bore full blame for Sunday's bloody clashes between the army and demonstrators. “Tantawi is the minister of torture” was often shouted as well as “Tantawi is Mubarak.”
A lit candle in hand, activist Elham Aidaross attended the vigil to remind people of “the fallen Egyptians.” “The Egyptian media is fascist. It portrayed the protesters as thugs and many believe this line. We want to tell these people that we are the brothers, sisters, colleagues and friends of these revolutionaries. Frustration and disgust at the Egypt's state-controlled media was widespread sentiment. A large sign stood out in the throng, calling for the “purging of the media.”
Remarking on the vigil's protest-like atmosphere, Aidaross stated: “Candles wouldn't do. They understand why we've come, but they don't understand the issue. They think those who died were thugs who attacked the army. It is because of this that the main chant is 'this is not sectarian strife; this is a military massacre.'”
With a poster of Mina Daniel pinned to her black blouse, Aidaross carried a sobering message. In what has been a week marked by apprehension and uncertainty, many, shocked by the bloody events in front of Maspero, have questioned the meaning of such a sudden descent into violence.
Aidaross, however, spoke lucidly: “The army are playing with the weakest group in Egyptian society. Let's be honest, the military council wishes it could have suppressed the workers' protests and the teachers' strikes, but it can't get away with this. They can, however, suppress the Christians because they are cheaper to them. Citizens are all cheap to them but Christians are cheaper because the council can use the weapon of sectarian strife to divide people.”
The activist called on all powers to finally take action. This is not the first time, she stated, referring to the largely Christian community in the Moqattam area called the 'garbage collectors' district' which in 2008 saw a devastating rock slide, attributed to several uptown building projects, kill scores of residents. “They stood by and watched the first time, but now the minority suffers directly at the hands of the military.”
The vigil continued for several hours until the assembled marched to Tahrir Square, eventually disbanding. Protesters vowed to continue their action on Friday through a march between Al-Azahar mosque and Abassiyah Cathedral after noon prayers.