BBC News

Cairo's Copts mourn their 'Egyptian Guevara'

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

image captionThousands of Egyptian Coptic Christians gathered for the funerals of protesters

Egypt's ruling council has denied that troops opened fire on Coptic Christian protesters and drove military vehicles into crowds during recent clashes, but many Egyptians have been left with a deepening sense of disenchantment with the authorities.

With his shaggy, shoulder-length hair, Mina Daniel tried to cultivate a physical resemblance to his hero, that notorious revolutionary, Che Guevara. And he often quoted his speeches in ordinary conversation.

It was something his family and friends used to tease him about.

But now - after the 19-year-old was killed in last Sunday's clashes in Cairo - they find solace in the fact that the media is identifying him as "the Egyptian Guevara".

"He lived like him and he died like him," one friend told me.

A new Facebook page, "We are all Mina Daniel" has pictures of the young Christian activist taking part in this year's popular uprising.

'Beautiful revolution'

One shot shows him running away from a cloud of tear gas as police tried to put down the protests.

And a video shows him smiling, with his arm around a Muslim friend in Tahrir Square. The two belt out an old Egyptian song. They have changed the lyrics so that it goes:

"Why is revolution so beautiful, and you are with me?"

In those heady days of demonstrations, there were many inspiring scenes of Christian and Muslim solidarity.

They offered an alternative utopian vision to the large number of Coptic Christians who had long feared an Islamist takeover.

People became more vocal in their complaints that the Mubarak regime had allowed discrimination against Egypt's Copts - who make up about 10% of the population.

It was yet another of the country's social problems that had been left to fester.

image captionThe violence was the worst seen in Egypt since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak

In February, I was in Tahrir Square for the night of jubilation as the military took control.

But since then, with each month that has passed during this chaotic period of political transition, public frustration has mounted.

And Christians in particular, have felt increasingly vulnerable.

Instead of seeing reforms to try to stop sectarian division, they point out that Islamist extremists, known as Salafis, have gained more free rein.

They are suspected of being behind many of the attacks on Copts.

After a church was set on fire in southern Egypt last week, a protest march was organised in the capital. Mainly Christians joined, with some Muslim activists.

Choking gas

It started off relatively peacefully in the mixed neighbourhood of Shubra and headed to Egypt's state TV building, called Maspero, in the city centre, by the Nile.

By the time I arrived, just as darkness fell, chaos had been unleashed. There was choking tear gas and military vehicles on fire.

image captionMary Daniel's poster pays tribute to her brother as a martyr

Military police in riot gear had moved in and I saw gangs of young men throwing rocks at the demonstrators as they tried to run away.

Video shot closer to Maspero shows Christians yelling threats at the army for failing to protect their community and an armoured vehicle driving erratically through the crowd.

At least 25 people were killed that night, most of them Christians.

A doctor at the Coptic Hospital inspected the bodies of 17 of the dead. He said 11 were shot and six run over.

As anger mounted about how the army had handled events, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces summoned journalists to a lengthy news conference.

Christian protesters and "enemies of the revolution" were blamed for triggering the violence. They had swords, gas cylinders and petrol bombs, a general said.

We were told that the military would never use live ammunition against Egyptians, and that if an army vehicle had crushed anyone then it would have been because the driver was in "an unprecedented mental state".

Some people I have talked to did feel greater sympathy for the military upon hearing its explanations. They point to unconfirmed reports that it lost three soldiers last Sunday.

A new Egypt

This week Egypt also took a comforting step towards a return to civilian rule, beginning to register political candidates for a parliamentary election next month.

Needless to say though, those who were close to the Coptic activist, Mina Daniel, are still angry.

image captionThe bloodstained clothes of Mina Daniel are displayed outside St Mark's Cathedral.

Outside St Mark's Cathedral, a man held up the blood-stained clothes in which Mina died, as worshippers entered the vast building for a memorial service.

Nearby Mary Daniel, a petite woman dressed from head to toe in black, stood among a group of her brother's friends, a mixture of Christians and Muslims.

She told me she blamed the Egyptian army for her brother's death, and wept as she remembered his dying wish - to have his funeral procession pass through Tahrir Square.

"Now it is our job to make sure his dream for a new Egypt comes true," she said. "Not a single drop of his blood that was spilled will be in vain."

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: A 30-minute programme on Saturdays, 1130.

Second 30-minute programme on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only).

Listen online or download the podcast

BBC World Service:

Hear daily 10-minute editions Monday to Friday, repeated through the day, also available to listen online.

More on this story

  • Egypt's army defends tactics in Coptic rally crackdown