By Miray Philips –
When Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), died on September 21, 2021, the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement offering their condolences. The statement praised Tantawi for “serving his country loyally,” for “developing the capacities of the Armed Forces,” and for being central to the “country’s leadership during a critical period.” This came nearly a decade after Tantawi’s role in the Maspero Massacre, which symbolizes state-sponsored violence against Christians in Egypt.
Ten years ago on October 9, 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of downtown Cairo to demonstrate the demolition of St. George Church in Aswan. Upon reaching the Maspero state radio and television building, protesters were met with brutal force by Egyptian security and military forces. Personnel first threw stones and beat protesters with batons, then fired tear gas and live ammunition, before driving Armored Personnel Carriers into protesters and crushing them to death. Meanwhile, on national TV, news anchor Rasha Magdy called on “honorable citizens” to protect the military from Coptic attackers, inciting residents to aid the military in beating, and even killing, protesters. In what became known as the Maspero Massacre, 28 Egyptians, mostly Copts, were killed, 300+ injured, and others were arbitrarily arrested.
The Maspero Massacre is embroiled in the politics of memory. SCAF immediately denied using live ammunition and running over protesters, pointing fingers, instead, at “opponents of the revolution” for inciting sectarian tension. Even though several investigations were opened, none of SCAF leadership, including Tantawi, were held accountable for the massacre. Instead, a military court found three soldiers guilty of manslaughter, arguing that they were negligently driving tanks. Of the 30 civilians arrested on the night of the massacre, a civilian court sentenced two Copts—Michael Naguib and Michael Shaker—to three years in prison for stealing firearms from the Armed Forces. Riddled with inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and suppressed evidence, the trials brought no justice to the martyrs’ families, leaving the events of the day subject to politicized debate.
Even though Pope Shenouda initially denied accusations that Copts were armed and even acknowledged that protesters were killed by ammunition and tanks, the Coptic Orthodox Church has played an active role in suppressing the memory of Maspero. Despite the Church’s tradition of holding martyrs in high esteem, victims of Maspero are not officially recognized as martyrs by the Coptic Church. In contrast to the grande memorial of the 21 Libya Martyrs in Minya and the centrality of the Botroseya and Palm Sunday Martyr memorials in the heart of Cairo, for example, the memorial of the Maspero Martyrs lays at the outskirts of Cairo, in a less accessible location. Marking the memorial is a plaque that reads: “Here lays the body of martyrs, children of martyrs, who joined the heavenly altar on October 9, 2011, due to the Egyptian military’s ammunition and tanks in front of the Maspero radio and television building during an—unarmed—peaceful protest to prevent the demolition of a Church in Egypt.” After the memorial mass in October 2019, churchleaders, under instruction from the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency, approached the families of the martyrs, asking them to remove the implicating plaque. The families, of course, refused.
Behind the charge that “Copts have forgotten about Maspero” is a common trope that the community is apolitical and avidly supportive of the Egyptian state. Yet narratives that focus on the Church’s relationship with the state often conflates the Church’s position for that of ordinary Copts, overlooking the Coptic activism that has independently fought for equal citizenship. In fact, the Maspero Massacre within the broader context of the Egyptian revolution has had a transformative impact on Coptic politics and identity over the past ten years.
The Egyptian revolution gave rise to the framework of citizenship, providing Copts a renewed opportunity to shift away from the vague and volatile language of persecution. Citizenship identifies Copts as the responsibility of the state, tasked to prevent and protect them from discrimination and violence. The Maspero Youth Union, for example, emerged with the goal of mobilizing Copts to engage in political activism under the framework of citizenship rights. By creating an avenue for Coptic political participation beyond the control of the Church, they sought to advance Coptic citizenship and challenge the totalizing political authority of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Distinguishing the politics of Church leadership from its congregants is critical. The absence of Coptic representation in various political spaces has meant that the Pope has existed as the official representative of Copts in all matters, including politics. With growing marginalization, many Copts have also turned towards the Church for guidance on all issues, becoming an increasingly insular group. As a result, the generalization that all Christians are regime loyalists is a common, but dangerous trope. Accusations that Copts were behind the military coup in 2013, for example, prompted the Brotherhood and their supporters to launch vicious revenge attacks against Copts throughout Egypt. Such mischaracterizations of the community casts Copts as a homogenous group, oversimplifying their politics, and erasing growing frustrations with the entente between the Church and state. Importantly, it overlooks the crucial work that Coptic activists, in Egypt and abroad, have done to challenge the authority of the Church in their fight for rights.
Coptic activism, and human rights mobilization more broadly also troubles the government’s authoritarian stronghold and unsettles its image as the savior of Copts. In a context where state media misrepresents sectarian tension and activists, such as Ramy Kamel and Patrick Zaki, are wrongfully incarcerated for reporting on the precarity of Coptic life, Egypt is increasingly becoming an information black hole. Behind the symbolic optics of the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in the New Administrative Capital and obscure church building laws, the plight of Copts is reduced to construction projects rather than tangible justice and equal citizenship, especially for victims of state violence. This is why initiatives to memorialize and preserve the testimonies of the massacre are central to keeping the memory of Maspero alive, facilitating broader political activism that aims to hold the government accountable for its violations against citizens.
The continuity of large-scale massacres in the decade since Maspero has also transformed the meaning of martyrdom for many Copts. Through icons, traditions and rituals, the Church has inscribed martyrdom as central to the past, present, and future of Coptic faith and identity. Glorifying martyrdom as witness to God offers solace to Copts who experience relentless discrimination and violence as a marginalized community in Egypt. As Copts experienced the agony of each massacre, however, expectations to accept, and even celebrate, martyrdom as part of God’s providence became increasingly more challenging.
Many activists have argued that the narrative of martyrdom and persecution dissuades believers from political activism and absolves officials from their responsibility to protect Copts. Critics, instead, use Biblical figures and stories as examples to argue that the Christian faith encourages advocacy, truth-seeking, and justice in the face of repression. As one activist told me, “Jesus protested, Paul the Apostle protested, and saints also protested…The work of Christianity is bearing witness to the truth and fighting oppression…The Church, by telling Copts to accept persecution, transforms them into a passive minority group, unable to defend itself through rights.” Taking theology into their own hands, some Copts have reconfigured their relationship with martyrdom to pursue social justice.
The Maspero Massacre has left an indelible mark on Copts, shaping their activism and identity in significant ways, both in Egypt and abroad, over the past ten years. Despite the suppression of its memory by Church and state officials, the memory of the Massacre lives on through the people. The Martyrs of Maspero have come to symbolize the fight for citizenship, not only for Copts, but all Egyptians who suffer under successive Egyptian regimes.
This analysis is part of a project on Egypt’s religious minorities made possible thanks to the generous support of the European Commission and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.