Arabic Spring or Winter of Discontent?

In recent days, tragic events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have overshadowed the previous gains of the Arabic Spring. The violence claimed the lives of 26 and injured some 300 more - all unarmed - after Coptic Egyptians had walked to Tahrir Square to voice their frustration over several recent incidents of anti-Coptic violence. The weekend violence seems to have been instigated by elements of the Egyptian army and security forces.

Some ten to 15% of Egyptians are Copts, an indigenous ethnoreligious group distinct from Muslim Egyptians. The Coptic Church is an ancient Christian community that predates the arrival of Islam into Egypt. It bears some superficial similarities with the Eastern Orthodox Christianity of Greece, but is theologically and ecclesiastically distinct. The Coptic language fell into disuse for everyday purposes several centuries ago.

In an op-ed published in the Guardian, William Dalrymple, best-known for his authoritative writing on Indian society and history, gives some historical context to these events. According to Dalrymple, Egyptians as a whole hold their army in high esteem, despite the abuses of the Mubarak era, because of the role the army played in key national events in the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, Dalrymple suggests that, when Egypt was under the sway of European powers, Coptic Egyptians dominated the national economy, a privileged status that has since been eroded. Now that, in the post-Mubarak era, the political balance of power in Egypt is being contested between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Copts are in danger of becoming the one scapegoat both sides can agree on. Senior army figures are now reported to be in negotiations with Coptic leaders, who have called on Copts to observe three days' mourning beginning today.

To make sense of these and other events consuming the Middle East and North Africa, join us next Thursday, 20 October, as chair Hamish McDonald and a panel of specialists discuss the Arabic Spring, its achievements, its failures and its future implications.

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