Has Egypt’s revolution imperilled its Christian community?by Rachel Aspden / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Above: Egyptian Copts celebrate Christmas
In the long queue of women that snaked out of the gates of al-Mazar primary school in northern Cairo on 28th November, colourful headscarves mingled with black full-face veils, jeans with traditional robes. The school is serving as a polling station during Egypt’s first free elections, which run until mid January. Halfway back in the line stood Samia Ibrahim, a tiny, unveiled 70-year-old wearing a western-style trouser suit and old plimsolls. The three-hour wait to vote had given her plenty of time to contemplate the future. “I’m not sure voting can save people like me, but I am here to try,” she says.
Alone among the women waiting, Samia is a member of Egypt’s Coptic minority: the ancient Christian community that makes up around 10 per cent of the country’s 82m people. Voting is confusing for everyone—there are 122 candidates, mostly unfamiliar, on Samia’s ballot paper—but for Christians particularly it marks a moment of both hope and anxiety. Some see it as a great opportunity:“Christian candidates in the election are standing not as Christians, but as liberals or leftists, appealing to all Egyptians,” says Ashraf, a 42-year-old university teacher of English. “This is a great step forwards.” Yet activists from the Muslim Brotherhood’s well-funded Freedom and Justice party also clustered round the queue, pressing fliers on the women. Samia shrugged them off angrily. She distrusts their slick rhetoric and worries what will happen to the Copts if Islamists—even the apparently moderate Brotherhood—take power.
After voting, Samia walked through the dusty colonial-era streets to her home, an apartment in a modest building neighbouring the sprawling palace occupied, until recently, by President Hosni Mubarak. “During the 18 days [the uprising in early 2011 that ended in Mubarak’s departure], the army blocked this street and kept us out,” she says. “Now Mubarak has gone I can go home, but I don’t feel much safer.”
The vacant presidential palace is a reminder of the power vacuum. For the last three decades the Copts have had a stable, if not cordial, accommodation with the Mubarak regime. In late January, Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic church, appealed to anti-Mubarak protesters to return home—before quickly expressing his support for the revolution two weeks later, after the president had departed. “We suffered discrimination under Mubarak, but at least we knew he would protect us and the rest of the country from Islamic fundamentalists,” says Samia. Now the old certainties have been shattered.
Since the military council, known as Scaf, took power in February, the Copts’ situation has worsened. Attacks on churches and congregations in Cairo and Upper Egypt were followed by the killing of 27 protesters, mostly Christian, by security forces at Maspero, Cairo in October. Like many Copts, Samia now believes the army has a clandestine power-sharing deal with the Muslim Brotherhood—and is willing to sacrifice the rights of minorities to secure it.
In the small flat where she lives alone, Samia worries about the future. On her bedside table, silver-framed photos of her daughter Nisreen sit next to a picture of the pope and an icon of the Virgin Mary. After Samia’s husband died 15 years ago, Nisreen emigrated to the United States. Samia joined her for eight years. “But the homesickness became too much and I had to return,” she says. “Many of my Christian friends here are securing foreign passports now. I have a green card, but I’ve decided I will live and die here.” Although many lack the will or means to emigrate, the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights estimates that 93,000 Copts have left Egypt since March.
At lunchtime, Samia took the metro to her job in downtown Cairo. In the office of a translation agency, she is the only Copt among the 25 staff. She says she is paid two thirds of the salary of her Muslim colleagues, and the divide has grown since the revolution. “But I’m too scared to complain. I just keep a low profile and get on with it. This is the mentality we’ve had to adopt to survive—at least those of us who are not billionaires like Naguib Sawiris.”
Sawiris, a telecoms tycoon and one of Egypt’s richest men, is the successful face of the Coptic community. Where the church hierarchy has responded to political turmoil by turning inwards, he has calculated that Copts must reassert their position in the mainstream of Egyptian society to survive. His Free Egyptians party fielded both Muslim and Christian candidates and emphasises economic development over religious ideology. It is popular with urban liberals of both religions, but is unlikely to calm the tensions faced by the large Christian population of Upper Egypt, where hardline Salafis regularly clash with Copts.
Dusk falls early in Cairo and after work, Samia hurries through the traffic-choked streets to the metro. Security has collapsed since the revolution and she is worried about criminals and the baltageyya, the regime’s hired thugs who joined the attack on protesters at Maspero. But she admits there is a generational divide, with many younger Copts excited and optimistic about the possibilities that have blossomed since February.
On the way, her mobile rings. It’s the student grandson of a Christian friend, who has been protesting against military rule in Tahrir Square and is ecstatic at having cast his first vote in a free election. “He sees a brighter future for all Egyptians, including the Copts,” says Samia. “As long as the rest of the country doesn’t forget that we are as Egyptian as they are, he could be right.”