Christian Killings In Egypt: More Evidence That Making The 'Arab Spring' Work Won’t Be Easy

Analysis: This year’s revolutionary wave in the Arab World has already toppled several dictators. But as the “Arab Spring” turns to Autumn, incidents like last weekend’s attack on Coptic Christians in Cairo offer a grim reminder that the region’s troubles

Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Clemens Wergin

The "Arab Spring" has by now become the "Autumn of Disgruntlement" -- particularly in highly populated Egypt, the key country in the Arab world. Ridding the nation of its dictator, Hosni Mubarak, didn't only create social fault lines based on creed. It also opened the way for a governing military council that in many ways represents an even stricter regime than the previous one; within a few months, military courts have convicted more civilians than were convicted in 30 years under Mubarak.

Mainly, what's been exposed to the light of day are the demons that Arab societies carry within themselves – demons that on the one hand were controlled and repressed by the former regime, and that on the other were the object of targeted disinformation.

The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few weeks back shows that a movement that was at its outset happily devoid of the old hatreds towards Israel and the United States is partially engaging with those old hatreds -- spurred on by Turkey. What's happening now in Libya is a good example of how deep anti-Semitic conditioning in Arab societies is.

In Libya, former dictator Moammar al-Gaddafi made a point early during his long reign of going after Jews. By 1970 he'd chased Jewish Libyans out of the country. Earlier this year, one of those exiled Jews, David Gerbi, joined the rebels and helped free Libya. When he tried to clear up rubble in Tripoli's synagogue, which had been closed for decades, and to pray, angry demonstrators demanded he leave the country. They even brandished placards in Hebrew stating that there was no room in Libya for Jews. Gerbi has left the country.

Violence erupts in Egypt

The violence against the Christian Coptic minority in Egypt is another example of the difficulty Middle Eastern societies have in dealing with a varied ethnic and religious mix in their populations.

Over 80 million people live in Egypt. More than 90% are Muslim; 8% are Christian. The largest Christian group is Coptic, and they claim that both society and the government discriminate against them. Religious conflict between Muslims and Copts keeps manifesting over and over. The violence this past week-end, when 24 people died, was a case in point.

There have been numerous attacks in Egypt against Christian targets in the last few months, and the Copts complain rightly about biased reports in the Egyptian media and about a security apparatus that is apparently little oriented to preventing and investigating such acts of violence.

Religious minorities in the revolutionary countries are generally anxious – and with good reason. The majority Muslims appear to perceive their countries as Muslim-only and have little patience for communities like the Christian ones, even though Christianity has long historical ties to the region.

It is a fact that Middle Eastern societies have over the past two decades become markedly more conservative – and more Muslim-oriented. That goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the world is often seen in terms of a Muslim "us' that exists separately – and often in conflict with – "the others," which generally refers to the secular Christian West.

This type of identity politics, supported just as much by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood as it was by autocratic rulers, sees Muslims as a group being pressured by the West. In this world view, their own Christian minorities played the role of a kind of fifth column for the West, whose task was supposedly to "infiltrate" Islam.

Who benefits from the chaos?

Obviously, not all Muslims share this outlook on the world. Many of the Arab Spring's young, urban revolutionaries were looking more to hook up with Western models than split further from them. But there are also a large number of groups that would benefit from an escalation of religious tension.

One of them is the Saudi Arabia-backed Salafists, for whom democracy represents an abomination. It is difficult to say whether foreign powers have a hand in the many attacks against Christians in Egypt. But it can be assumed that Saudi Arabia, for example, doesn't have a lot of interest in seeing this revolution come to a "good." A "bad" outcome would better serve their efforts to discourage democracy in their own country.

The same goes for Egypt's military powers that be, and for the people that remain from Mubarak‘s old government. The first attacks on Cairo's Coptic demonstrators came from well-organized thugs who may well have been hired by die-hards of the Ancien Régime. The first reactions of the military were also disproportionately brutal – it was almost as if the leadership was determined to create as much chaos as possible.

Because the more unrest and violence there is in Egypt, the more people will start calling for a strong and authoritarian state. On the other hand it would be too easy to see dark powers at work here. The strategy of fanning religious tension can only work if there is already existing mistrust between the different societal groups.

It is not unusual, when a dictatorship comes to an end, for all the unresolved and conflicting issues of a society to erupt on the surface. We experienced this with Eastern Europe, where in many cases, the transition from a communist system was accompanied by very turbulent political developments.

Arab societies are just beginning to face what will perhaps be even more turbulent conflict with their own demons and inner contradictions. What happened after the fall of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, is a cautionary tale showing just how much destructive force these ethnic and religious conflicts can unleash.

The young rebels driving the Arab Spring wanted to rid their societies of the old obsessions. The question is: this time around, are the modernizers going to be able to prevail against the obfuscating old men?

Read the original story in German

Photo - Gigi Ibrahim

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!