Maspero : A Year Since

The events of October 9 2011 were a micro-pogrom. A march of Egyptians, mostly Copts, was attacked by Army soldiers either under orders or under the influence of their prejudice. What followed was not a neat volley of disciplined fire, but a chaotic orgy of random violence, mauling, killing and mayhem. The soldiers were joined by gangs of roving Muslim fanatics whipped into a frenzy by the shameful mouthpieces of the state. No proper investigation was conducted, and none is likely to be. In a pogrom, non-accountability is an integral part of the terror.

Egyptians can be faulted for a habit of denial and undue attempts at face saving. Maspero has a sad historical symmetry, occurring exactly two centuries after the dawn of Muhammad Ali’s modernization program and exactly one century after the dueling Coptic and Muslim conferences of 1911. These two conferences offered Egypt two radically different visions of a future state, a modern tolerant and westernized state, or a return to a pre-modernization past but with some of the benefits of modernization painted on. Optimists will say that Egypt has yet to make that choice, while pessimists will note that since 1911 Copts have continuously whittled down their demands for full citizenship, while receiving even less. Beginning with the Islamist terrors of the 1980’s, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood patron saint Sayyd Qutb, the Copts have retreated into the fortress of the Church, their voice as citizens drowned in a cacophony of hate speech emanating from a variety of sources. Some will look at Maspero as the sad denouement of that retreat, while others will view it as the risk of rising up and ask for their rights as citizens.

Islamist thinkers often point out that across the arc of centuries Islam has been more tolerant than Christianity, and there is a certain truth to that. But that is of little comfort to those suffering today. The modern tolerant Western societies reached their current state by a violent road that started with a schism, traveled a path piled high with bodies until realization set in that only tolerance will guarantee prosperity and minimum level of dignity to its populations. Islamic societies need not retread this path. Those ascending to power in Egypt today are largely false prophets, having convinced a significant fraction of the population that it can reconcile the virtues of modern prosperity with the vices of ancient prejudices. It is an illusion likely to lead to grief. The current president is emblematic of that; a man schooled in the Western ways of technology but with little of the habits of open discourse.

In the struggle between human emotions and illusions, sagacity and experience frequently vanquish optimism, while hope on rare occasions will conquer fear. It is hope that tells you that if Egyptians learn the lessons of Maspero they might avoid a great deal of suffering. Otherwise the future might hold further impoverishment and violence, and perhaps partition.

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