Has Egypt’s revolution imperilled its Christian community?by Rachel Aspden / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
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…