Time to speak up is now!

This Thursday, October 13, a private bill expressing sympathy and support for the eight million or so Christian Copts of Egypt will be voted on in the Australian parliament.

The bill, introduced a few weeks ago by Craig Kelly, the Liberal Federal member for Hughes, could hardly be more timely. It comes just days after the shocking military violence against Coptic demonstrators in Cairo that has left at least 24 dead and 270 wounded and otherwise injured.  

This is not the first time Egyptian forces have killed Copts in the streets of Cairo. In November last year, Mubarak’s security police shot dead two Copts and wounded scores of others in a Cairo suburb near the Pyramids. The ‘crime’ of those Copts was their alleged failure to adhere to building regulations in the finishing touches they were adding to a new church. 

It was about a week after that incident that Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd arrived in Cairo for an audience with then-President Mubarak and talks with other senior officials. I was in Cairo at the time. The public record contains much that was then said by Mr Rudd about Israel and the Palestinians, but not a word regarding the appalling treatment of the Copts by the Mubarak regime.

Thursday’s vote on Mr Kelly’s bill gives the foreign minister and the government to which he belongs an opportunity to make amends. By supporting the bill, the government would help get the urgent message through to the junta in Cairo that to persist in its present course is to court catastrophe. It would also greatly help galvanise much-needed, broader international attention to the issue of a looming Egyptian catastrophe.

It needs to be understood that the latest atrocity against the Copts has been compounded by a concerted strategy of misinformation implemented by the military junta.

It has been well-reported that many of the dead and injured were run down and crushed by military vehicles ploughing into the crowds of demonstrators. Others were shot. The real figures for casualties may be significantly higher than those so far given.

Not so well-reported is that the attacks on the demonstrators were accompanied by army raids on privately-owned TV channels, forcing them off their air for the duration. The lie – retailed in some western media outlets – that Copts had opened fire on innocent soldiers was originated by state-owned Egyptian television, whose reporters also broadcast calls to ‘loyal’ Muslims to come into the streets to take up the fight. The intention has clearly been to turn a a story about military suppression of minority rights activists into a story about ‘sectarian’ conflict.

What remains of the independent Cairo print media, as well as the extensive reporting freely available on social networking sites, confirms that violence was purposefully instigated by the Army and its allied groups of plain-clothes security thugs. The reporting also confirms that the marchers, while predominantly Copts, were a diverse group that included Muslims as well as Copts.

In the words of one protestor’s Tweeter message (reported by the Cairo journalist Menna Alaa): “It’s either we all live happily, or we all get tried by the military.’ There is no false bravado in that statement: the number of liberal activists sentenced to lengthy jail terms at closed military ‘trials’ is now widely estimated at around 12,000 since February.

The collapse of the Egyptian tourist industry since January has taken the economy to the verge of an abyss. The country is fast running out of financial reserves. Growing hunger in the streets is a reality.  The latest piece of madness pushes the country closer to the edge. But while day-to-day life in Egypt becomes increasingly desperate, the junta, which in recent days has formally extended its ‘interim’ rule into 2013 (in other words, indefinitely), is playing the old Mubarak game of diverting the anger of the masses away from itself via the Coptic scapegoat. 

The regime’s permissive attitude toward attacks on Copts and their property over many months by Islamist fanatics is among the reasons for the 45 per cent collapse in the Egyptian share market in the year to date. Long denied significant employment in government, the Copts have become the backbone of the more productive and efficient sectors of the Egyptian economy, such as tourism, IT and telecommunications. Tragically, they are now queuing at all available exits.

In the Wall Street Journal , Brett Stephens asks the question that increasingly preys on many minds, namely: How will the world deal with eight million Copts? As Stephens says, they won’t: 

The overwhelming majority of Copts do not have easy exit options and will have to fend, and fight, for themselves in a country that despises their faith, envies their wealth, and suspects their allegiance. It’s a recipe for repression and murder on a mass scale. 

The issue of the Copts is an urgent issue for the world. Let’s hope the Australian parliament does the right thing on Thursday.

Peter Day is working on a book about Egypt and the Copts


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