Egypt: The Saddest New Year's Day

Egypt's "dictator compromise" -- people foregoing democracy and free choice to a police state in exchange for guaranteed basic services and security failed this weekend, and resoundingly so.
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"2010 is over... I had the most wonderful days of my life in 2010, and I wish 2011 will be even better, I have so many wishes for 2011.. Lord, stand by me and help me achieve them". Mariam Fekry, 22, wrote those words on Facebook a few hours before she was killed.

Twenty minutes. 2011 gave us exactly twenty minutes of celebrating. At 00:20, a car-bomb went off across from the Saints Church in Alexandria, murdering what we were informed were 2, then 3, then 10 -- the final toll being 21 dead and 96 injured, including Muslims -- and sending Egyptians into a new year depression bound to cast its shadow over the entire year, if not longer.

Like many who spent new year's eve following the news, I followed event updates coming via Twitter faster than they did on dedicated news networks, with firsthand reports, photos and live-streamed video coming from the site of the explosion and the ensuing demonstrations. Emotions flowing were as important as news there and it was a generalized sense of anger and sadness -- and utter fear. Almost a year ago, on January 7th 2010, the eve of the coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting killed 7 churchgoers in the southern town of Naga Hammadi. And it was happening again, but more gruesome -- more violent, more anonymous, more indiscriminate. We felt like hostages to a faceless enemy and we hated it -- but didn't know what to do about it.

An impromptu vigil was held by the church, and unavoidably feverish clashes between Christian and Muslim bystanders left a few injured, who joined the explosion's in seeking help in the city's overextended hospitals. News of clashes were rapidly replaced by calls for blood donations to the neighboring hospitals.

I could not sleep. None of us could. Before it was 4 am, blame had already been thrown on 'extremists', 'Al-Qaeda', and 'Israel' by various government or government-connected figures (if we were the US, we'd be bombing Afghanistan as we speak in retaliation).

Saturday was a morose morning and I, and I suspect many, lacked the strength to get out of bed to this morose new year's day. Body parts are piled up by the church's door, rather than snow.

It didn't rain on Friday, as it usually does on new year's eve in Alexandria -- it's as if, like many, the heavens were too numb to cry. But tears, like rain, always find a way out. For me, it was reading Mariam Fekry's last-online-words.

On the ground, the NDP, the government's political party, staged its 'solidarity' and national unity marches in Alexandria, which failed to fool anyone.

The funeral for the victims was held by a church in the East of Alexandria on Saturday afternoon, and took, unavoidably, airs of a political protest. As the priest officiating during the funeral went to the customary thanks to the president of the republic, the crowd responded with a resounding, repeated 'No! No! No!', and demanded that the governor of Alexandria -- who was present -- be fired.

Clumsily, people are trying to go about their business -- but demonstrations in Alexandria have not quieted, later in the day to be matched by a 3,000-person strong demonstration, huge by Egyptian standards in Shubra, one of Cairo's neighborhoods with a strong Christian presence. As always, the demonstration was met by police brutality, with protesters clashing with the state police that reacted the same way it always did. But the demonstration was nevertheless deemed as extremely successful -- it was even described by one foreign correspondent as the "most unique protest I've been to. First time it seems protesters outnumber police"...

Demonstrations did not falter on Sunday -- they multiplied. In Alexandria, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with the police -- then with each other. In Cairo, no less than half-a-dozen demonstrations, ranging from a few dozen to several hundreds, set the city on high alert -- from a large demonstration on the western Nile bank of the popular neighborhood of Imbaba to downtown Cairo, where a few dozen demonstrators were promptly outnumbered, dispersed and roughed up by riot police, to the Abbasseya neighborhood in the East of the city where a large number of Christians demonstrated by the neighborhood cathedral where clashes with the police left 27 injured, it seemed that the police forces were infinitely more nervous than demonstrators -- they had likely never had to deal with such an impromptu generalized outburst of anger before.

At one demonstration, metres from the central Ramses square, a few dozen demonstrators were kettled by no less than 120 policemen for more than seven hours -- from 6:30 pm to 2 am.

And people chanted. They chanted for unity, for solidarity, for the lives lost. The chanted, not only against violence and terrorism -- but also against President Mubarak and his Minister of Interior Habib El Adly, whom they view as responsible for the religious tension and the deteriorating security environment, and against everything going wrong in the country - and there's plenty of it.

48 hours after the bombing, no arrests have been made but the president hinted that the "terrorist attack contains signs of a foreign intervention" and vowed to punish the perpetrators.

Egypt's "dictator compromise" -- people foregoing democracy and free choice to a police state in exchange for guaranteed basic services and security has failed, and resoundingly so.

I doubt there's a serious risk of a descent into a spiral of sectarian violence. But we do fear a repetition of the 1990s, when frequent terrorist attacks destabilized our lives.

And the chasm between Egypt's Muslims and Christians is now more visible than ever.

I, along many, take this bombing very personally, as one on all Egyptians; but there's no denying, of course of its sectarian character. And far from rehashing the cliched 'national unity' and 'the two elements of the nation', unease between Muslims and Christians has always been real. It will not take much for some to capitalize on this terrorist attack to fan the flames of religious tension. We're stepping into uncertain times.

Tonight, Egyptians everywhere will end the prayer the Alexandria churchgoers were not given the chance to finish.

May the victims rest in peace, and may their families find the strength to carry on.


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