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After Deadly Clashes, Is Partnership Between Egypt’s People, Military Over?

October 10, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Cairo struggled to return to calm Monday after clashes Sunday between Coptic Christians, Muslims and security forces killed 26 people and wounded more than 500. Ray Suarez discusses the latest violence with The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick, reporting from Cairo.
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RAY SUAREZ: David Kirkpatrick has been covering the story for The New York Times in Cairo.

David, what kind of night has it been in the Egyptian capital? What’s the latest from the streets?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, The New York Times: Today, it has been more or less peaceful.

There was a funeral this morning that was fairly rowdy. The funeral, I should say, was called off at the last minute. A number of Coptic families decided they didn’t trust the state-run hospitals to perform the autopsies on their children. So they’re summoning doctors to their own Coptic hospital and as a result thousands of Copts left the cathedral and marched to the hospital in protest. The funeral couldn’t go on without the bodies.

RAY SUAREZ: So that funeral that we saw at Saint Mark’s Cathedral stopped short of an actual burial?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: That’s right. There will be another funeral. There were some bodies that made it.

But some 17 bodies at the Coptic hospital were retained so that their families could bring in their own doctors to do the autopsies.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the interim government made any statement about the loss of life, its causes, who was responsible?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: The Military Council, which is the real government, expressed some condolences to the victims.

They described some unfortunate, but unspecified events that they said — quote — “turned a peaceful demonstration violent.” But the implication was that someone other than the military and the police forces themselves had turned that demonstration violent. And they took no responsibility for any of the killings that took place.

The military has instructed their prime minister, their civilian prime minister, to launch an investigation into the events and the attacks of last night. But, of course, right now, we’re living under military rule, so it’s unclear how much authority that investigation will have to probe into the military itself, since there’s no higher authority they could appeal to.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it fully understood yet how all this got started?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: There was a demonstration, a peaceful march that began in the neighborhood of Shoubra, Copts demonstrating over the attack on a church in the southern part of Egypt. And they joined another group of demonstrators that had been stationary outside the radio and television building.

At about 6:00, something went wrong. There had been scuffles with neighbors who had wanted to oppose the protests along the way, but nothing too serious. Some witnesses said that there was some stone-throwing at the security forces. One account I read described some of the Coptic Christian demonstrators trying to attack a security officer.

And then, after that, very quickly, the security forces were driving a trucks into the Coptic Christian protesters and firing ammunition also at the protesters. So, today, we had bodies that were badly mangled by those vehicles and others that had those bullet wounds.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a big change for the army? Isn’t this the same army that was hailed a couple of months ago for not targeting civilians during the uprising?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, now you’re really getting to the big issue here.

To my mind, I think this is a qualitative change in the army’s posture with relationship to the public. A number of liberal politicians today said this is it; it’s over; the partnership between the people and the military has come to an end.

But, really, it’s also the culmination of a long deterioration. Things have been rocky here economically in terms of stability since the revolution. And the military is the incumbent. They are responsible for running the country. And so anything that goes wrong, they take the blame for.

And so over time, the tremendous prestige that they had for exiting of President Mubarak has gradually worn off. And at the same time, they have put off and put off and put off their promises to hand over power to some new civilian authority.

So you have a kind of a volatile mix right now of people that are impatient with the protests, impatient with the military for not bringing about stability and impatient with the military for not getting out of the way. And it is against that backdrop that yesterday’s protests really caught fire, because what started out as a kind of sectarian event became a kind of anti-military event by the end of the night, with both Muslims and Christians joining in to fight against the military, while other Muslims came out to help the military and fight against the Christians.

RAY SUAREZ: This is not the first time that churches and Christians themselves have been attacked since the revolution. Did the Christian minority lose a protector in Hosni Mubarak?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: They very much did.

President Mubarak had a kind of a practical, pragmatic partnership with the Coptic pope. The pope would endorse President Mubarak around election time, not that elections were very competitive here under President Mubarak. But it helped to have his endorsement and his patronage. And he would remind his people that Mubarak was looking out for them.

And in exchange, every once in a while, Mubarak would do the pope a favor. The pope might disappear for a few weeks — or — I mean, I’m sorry — for a few days, go on a hunger strike, and, in response, Mubarak would let some Coptic prisoners out of jail and in various ways intervene to keep laws that the pope liked because they enforced certain Coptic moral codes just on the Coptic population and not on the Muslims and other quirks of the Egyptian legal system.

RAY SUAREZ: David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times joined us from Cairo.

Good to talk to you, David.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Good to talk to you, too.