By Wissam al-Saliby*
As Egyptian developments unfold, many Christians in the Arab World and in the West are asking which position they can take to best preserve the Christian community from harm, and maintain its voice and role in Egypt.
Media outlets, including satellite news channels, YouTube and Facebook, have recently broadcast images of a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators. Graphic videos (such as this one http://youtu.be/ZCgsh5HfctQ) show the use of live ammunition against a demonstration in Rabaa al-Adaweya Square. Another video that equally went viral was the shooting of an unarmed demonstrator standing in front of an army tank (http://youtu.be/_IBW9Y94tIU).
Additional online media coverage:
Credible local and international human rights NGOs have strongly criticized the army’s crackdown of demonstrators. Keneth Roth, Human Rights Watch Executive Director, tweeted after the declaration of emergency rule in Egypt:
#Egypt’s last emergency rule went on for decades w/ mass injustice. It’s a huge mistake to go down this road again. http://t.co/iarpDwnND0
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 14, 2013
Amidst these developments, various Christian voices from the region decried the portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood as being the victims of injustice, and criticized imbalanced coverage by the international media. However, I would argue that the death of more than 500 persons in one day – demonstrators and security forces alike – puts the onus on the government and military, no matter how the media portrays it. The footage that came out of the crackdown condemned the military’s actions, and overshadowed Muslim Brotherhood attacks on churches and schools and Christians’ property.
How can we, followers of Christ, adopt a stand that promotes the protection of Egypt and its Christians from Muslim Brotherhood extremists, without simultaneously condoning what has been described as “one of the deadliest single-day instances of police-on-protester violence since Tiananmen Square”?
Does Muslim Brotherhood violence, including sectarian violence, justify this series of events? Under modern democratic standards, the answer is no.
This is where the human rights framework becomes relevant.
Since the late seventies, an international human rights framework for law enforcement officials has been developed. In international human rights standards, a key document is the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (adopted by the United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Cuba, 1990). The main purpose of these principles is the protection of the right to life and physical integrity. These principles state that:
(1) Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, (…)
(2) Only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.
(3) And such use of force should be proportionate to the threat and to the seriousness of the crime.
These principles favor alternatives to firearms, including the deployment of non-lethal incapacitating weapons, and “the use of non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms”. The use of teargas and water cannons are commonly used alternatives to lethal force.
According to reports and to media coverage, the Egyptian military failed to respect these principles. On August 15, nine Egyptian human rights NGOs published a common statement titled “Non-peaceful gathering does not justify collective punishment – Human rights organizations condemn both deadly violence used against demonstrators and the terror practices of the Muslim Brotherhood” (Statement in Arabic; Summary translation in English on Jadaliyya.com, Egyptian Human Rights Groups Condemn Violence by State, Brotherhood).
The statement by the Egyptian organizations pointed out that in the eyes of international laws on the right to peaceful assembly, the fact that some sit-in participants and leaders committed crimes, possessed weapons, and engaged in violence did not give security forces the right to exact collective punishment and use excessive force.
Neither the attacks on church property or government property, nor the use of violence or threat to use violence by demonstrators – and ultimately acts of terrorism – can justify under twenty-first century legal standards the killing by military or police of so many persons.
Relevant to this discussion is a blog post by Martin Accad on this same blog, written one year ago titled Our Utilitarian Ethics and the ‘Arab Spring’. On August 16, 2012, Accad wrote, “the Church ought to adopt a moral stance that is driven by a concern for the protection and preservation of human life, whoever that life may belong to. We condemn violence wherever it is found and whoever is its author, and we applaud those who seek peace wherever they are found and whoever they are.” Accad added, “rather than being driven by fear, the Church’s stance needs to be values-driven, affirming and seizing the opportunity and possibility of increased freedom and human dignity.”
Yes, Egypt’s Christians are facing an unprecedented attack. I believe that what would protect Christians is the respect of human rights standards by government forces and the advancement of the rule of law. Under these principles, Egyptian law enforcement officials can equally be held responsible for failing to protect the lives and property, namely those of Christians, in Egypt, and for failing to bring to justice those accountable for the crimes. On August 19, 2013, Human Rights Watch issued a statement titled “Egypt: Security Forces Used Excessive Lethal Force“, in which they wrote:
“Security forces did little or nothing to protect churches, despite the high likelihood of such attacks. (…) Egyptian security officials bear responsibility not only for what they did in breaking up the protests but for their failure to protect churches and Christian communities against predictable reprisal attacks.”
Church buildings can be rebuilt. Burnt books can be reprinted. Businesses can be compensated for their loss. But the rule of law becomes entrenched through a lengthy and tedious practice, and what is happening now in Egypt is setting a precedent – counting from the fall of Mubarak – for an oppressive rule that disregards human rights under the banner of fighting terrorism.
* Wissam al-Saliby is the Development and Partner Relations Manager at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS). He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian law in Lebanon and the Middle East.