Define Egyptian 'liberal'; give three examples

Violent, chaotic events are hard for journalists to cover -- period. This means it is especially important to pay attention to second-day news reports. Thus, I would urge readers who have not done so to read yesterday's post on Sunday's bloody events in Egypt: "Time to nix ‘sectarian’ in Egyptian reports."

The big news here is that the word "sectarian" is missing in the latest New York Times report. The emphasis in this story is on the fervent laments and protests of Coptic Orthodox leaders -- who are being supported by "liberal activists" who oppose the military's current role in that tense and shattered nation.

So who are these "liberal activists"?

The bloodshed appeared to mark a turning point in the revolution, many here said. It comes just eight months after Egyptians celebrated their military as a savior for its refusal to use force against civilians demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Confidence in the military had already been eroded by its repeated deferrals of a handover of power to civilian rule, now set to take place perhaps as much as two years after parliamentary elections, set to begin next month.

Now political liberals as well as Copts said the brutal crackdown had finally extinguished the public’s faith in the ruling military council as the guardian of a peaceful transition to democracy.

“The credit that the military received from the people in Tahrir Square just ran out yesterday,” the party leader Ayman Nour said at a news conference of prominent parties and political leaders denouncing the military. “There is no partnership between us and the council now that the blood of our brothers stands between us.”

The word "liberal" in this case seems to imply either "secular" (whatever that means in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation) or pro-Western, in terms of support for human rights, especially for minorities. Truth is, the Times never makes that clear. Is this an interfaith coalition? A coalition led by progressive Muslims who are clashing with the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties?

This is crucial information to report, if readers are to understand just how complex the Egyptian political/religious scene is at the moment. The divisions within the Islam community there must be pinpointed in order to show why the "sectarian" label is too simplistic.

And what about the other crucial question: Who initiated the violence? Once again, reporter David Kirkpatrick quotes the conflicting voices, even within the military leadership and the alleged government.

Witnesses, victims and doctors said Monday that demonstrators were killed when military-led security forces drove armored vehicles over as many as six people and fired live ammunition into the crowds. Doctors at a Coptic hospital showed journalists 17 bodies, including one with a crushed skull and others with mangled limbs. ... More than 300 others were wounded in four hours of street fights, the Health Ministry said.

The military council did not explain Monday why shots were fired or why military vehicles ran over demonstrators. In a statement on state television, it appeared to distance its officers from any responsibility for the deadly clashes. The statement referred only to unspecified “unfortunate events” that “transformed peaceful protests to bloody ones.”

What is implied, in my reading, is that gangs of Islamists attacked the demonstrators -- Copts and the Muslims who openly support them -- which drew the military into the violence, either in support of the gangs or due to a loss of control by officers.

For Coptic leaders, the key question seems to be this: Are the nation's civilian leaders strong enough to enforce laws that protect religious minorities? On that front, the Times reported these new developments:

The civilian cabinet, meanwhile, announced a series of long-promised measures to deter discrimination. The measures would impose jail time and large fines on anyone found guilty of discrimination on the basis of religion, with heavier penalties for government employees. And to address the legacy of cumbersome rules on permits to build churches, the cabinet said it would implement a law to standardize procedures for all houses of worship.

The minister of information also backed away from state television coverage of the protests on Sunday that urged “honorable Egyptians” to defend soldiers from a mob of armed Christians. The announcers who made those statements were “under emotional stress,” the minister, Osama Heikal, said, according to the Web site of the state-run newspaper Al Ahram.

Can the civilian leaders deliver? Stay tuned.

And over at the Los Angeles Times? Suffice it to say that it's latest report from Cairo continues to center on "sectarian tensions." The Copts say one thing. The police say something else. Move along.

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