Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Bridge on the River Nile

I went out tonight, not just to determine why Copts are protesting in the streets, but mostly why the protesters insisted on stopping traffic on the vital 6th of October bridge.

I left home on a bicycle and made my way through the strangely diverted traffic. When I got to the top of the bridge I saw a very empty 6th of October bridge, with a few cars parked on the side and in the middle of the road. No cars were allowed to pass by a group of young men who took ownership of the bridge. Further along down the bridge I could see thousands of protesters just outside Maspero, the television building. They had their volunteers set up searching anyone who enters the protest site and looking at their IDs ala Tahrir republic.

I must confess that at the time I could not see with clarity how the protesters were thinking. With Tahrir, it was always easy. We all knew what needed to be done and I am able to answer the questions put forth by the Kanaba (couch) party as to what was needed. With these protests, I needed to gauge the mood. Unlike some of the Kanaba party who insist on getting things wrong just because they don’t understand protesters’ motivations and thinking, I went ahead and did something unthinkable; I tried to understand.

I asked one of the protesters, vigilantly set on not letting any car through, as to the purpose of his actions. He answered with an air of impatience, obviously having had to answer that same question over and over again. I made it clear to him that I understood all of his concerns and agreed with his goals but was merely concerned with the technique. He answered a little more patiently and explained the situation.

A church in a small village called Soul in the governorate of Helwan was attacked and demolished. Furthermore, a great majority of Christians were kicked out of their village and threatened. Those who tore down the church claimed it as a mosque and accused the church of practicing magic.

As I talked to the young Mena, he explained that people there were unsafe, that they can’t protect their women and can’t protect themselves.

Why not just stay outside Maspero, why stop traffic?

He said that they were outside Maspero for three days and nothing happened, nothing changed, no one heard them. “I’m the first person against doing something like this, but we have no choice, we need to do this to have our voices heard. We’re doing this for all Copts so that they can feel safe in their homes.”

“My friends are surprised that I’m doing this because I’m usually very calm. But now I’ve had enough.”

He added, “My father came driving on the bridge and I would not allow any exceptions. I told him to park the car and wouldn’t let him through.”

For over thirty years Copts have tried to be heard. Today it seems there is a lot of listening going on and it may be an opportune moment. I doubt that they’re abusing the situation, for it was the Copts who started the most effective protests near Maspero and Shubra after the bombing of the Saints Church earlier this year that gave us a hint that 25 Jan was possible.

It’s easy to be judgmental and claim that this sort of action should be condemned, but the young man spoke with so much conviction. He held that bridge as if letting one car through was the complete destruction of his cause. They young men managed to let some ambulances and private cars through depending on the urgency. As we were speaking, a group of young Muslim men came to talk to the protesters on the bridge, telling them they were watching television and that they understood what was happening and that real Muslims would not have done this. It was a great moment of understanding but also filled with so much rage and confusion.

It’s difficult to fathom that their voice has been heard. Decades have passed with the voice of Coptic Christians silenced either by ignoring their cause or asking them to stop because there really are no problems. I came out understanding their desperation, and the urgency of their cause. They were attempting something extreme in order to fight the extreme. I would not say I approve of the method, but I don’t have any method of my own that I’m sure would work. I left the bridge hoping that their voices would be heard and that everyone would be able to cross from one side to the other.

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