Egypt's Coptic Christians Remain Fearful

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: In Egypt today hundreds of people marched to observe a somber anniversary. It was on this day last year in Cairo that Egyptian security forces shot and killed 27 demonstrators who were protesting the lack of security for Coptic Christians. Since then, new Islamist president, Mohammed Mursi has reigned in the country's once almighty military. Still, the marchers today complained that now one has been held accountable for the killings a year ago. In fact, they say not much has changed at all for the Coptic community. Robert Springborg is a professor in the department of national security affairs at the Naval Post Graduate School. Now, Robert Springborg, today is the anniversary of what some Christians refer to as the Maspero massacre, that demonstration when 27 of them were killed by the army last year. And just over the weekend the home of a Coptic Christian was shot at in the Sinai Peninsula. Is President Mursi doing enough to protect Egyptians who are not Muslim?

Robert Springborg: Well, he's speaking about it, to give him credit. He has highlighted it in his most recent speech and talked about the need to defend Christians, but the practicalities are another matter and it raises the question of what is the relationship between Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and the very security forces on the other. And I think it's probably the case that the security forces are themselves pretty autonomous at this point, so the problems are the lack of control of those security forces as they are the attitude on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Werman: So how does that relationship affect the security of Coptic Christians in Egypt?

Springborg: Well, there is huge animosity, especially in the middle and upper Egypt between Muslims and Christians going back to the early 1980s, and because the Christians have believed that the security forces are sympathetic to the Muslims, if indeed not to Islamists internally. So what's true in middle and upper Egypt is increasingly the case in Alexandria, Cairo and various other places, the security forces need to be ever-present to tamp down any outbreak of problems, but the security forces are clearly not sufficiently well officered, nor are the recruits of a level that one could expect sort of competent policing. So it's a combination of a lethal problem, a government that's had some ambiguous attitudes and a central security force and normal police forces that are themselves not competent.

Werman: Did that fact have anything to do with this Maspero massacre last year?

Springborg: Well, the ones I were referring to just now were the central security force, which are under the minister of the interior, which recruits the lowest levels. It recruits those who cannot make it into the regular military, so at Maspero it was not the central security force comprised of these largely illiterate recruits from rural Egypt, it was actually the military police and that's the issue that has caused so much concern because the military police reports directly to the chief of staff of the Egyptian military. So this was a case that looked like it involved the military itself rather than the minister of interior and the much less competent central security forces.

Werman: This anti Muslim video that set off protests around the world last month and notably first in Egypt and Libya, that video was made by an Egyptian Coptic Christian apparently, living in the US. How is that information affecting the tensions in Egypt?

Springborg: Well, the Coptic hierarchy in Egypt has been condemnatory of the video and of the gentleman concerned has clearly alarmed the Coptic community which right now is leaderless because the last pope died, what is it, four months now, five months? And a new pope is yet to be chosen. So the video came at the worst possible time, thereby causing one to believe that it was calculated to be very provocative, so who are the agents behind that video is a question that everyone is asking.

Werman: Tell us why there is no pope for Coptic Christians right now in Egypt.

Springborg: Well, because the selection of the pope is a very democratic process that involves various stages of selection and election involving literally hundreds of people. And I believe in this case is further protracted by the sensitive situation at present involving Muslim-Christian relations.

Werman: Robert Springborg, a professor in the department of national security affairs at the Naval Post Graduate School. Very good to speak with you, thank you.

Springborg: Thank you, Marco.