Why Christians in Egypt Are Holding Their Breath, Part 2

Sadly, since the fall of the Mubarak regime one year ago, the Copts have continued to have it rough, and it's getting worse. The revolution itself inspired some Coptic youth with the hope that democratic reform would spread the religious inclusiveness of Tahrir Square throughout Egypt, and some -- such as the Maspero Youth Union -- have seized the moment to actively and boldly push Coptic rights. However, two dynamics have quickly deflated that initial optimism. The first is the public emergence of Salafi ultraconservatives, inspired by Saudi/Wahhabi-style puritanism, who are explicit in their calls for non-Muslims to be excluded from equal participation in Egyptian society and public life (among many worrisome stances). They have been especially antagonistic toward Christians: Salafi imams were responsible, for example, for inspiring a rash of mob attacks against Copts in 2011, such as burning a church in the village of Sol in March and sparking a massive riot in Imbaba in May.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's foremost Islamist organization, has emerged as the clear victor of the first free parliamentary elections in the country. Its Freedom and Justice Party has been quick to downplay such fears, but many Copts remain deeply concerned that a new era of religious oppression is approaching under Islamist rule, even if the implementation of conservative sharia law is gradual, as the Brotherhood insists. After all, the conservative interpretations of Sunni jurisprudence that it espouses would firmly and permanently affix Copts to a second-class position in society, making religious oppression official state policy; it would matter little whether this status comes in one year, or five. The ascendance of Islamists to dominance has convinced many Copts that their place in Egyptian society, strained as it has been already, is steadily growing less tolerable.

The caretaker military government of Egypt, it should be noted, has done little to address these concerns. It has perpetuated the Mubarak-era culture of impunity for the rash of dozens of attacks on Copts and their property in the months since the revolution, and in October its own soldiers participated in the massacre of twenty-seven mostly Coptic protestors in front of the Maspero building in Cairo. Few Copts, much less the Egyptian public as a whole, anticipate this changing ahead of an eventual transition to civilian rule.

Where does this leave the Copts in this era of the Arab Spring? I would argue that it leaves them in a dire position of uncertainty and fear for their long-term future in Egypt. There are far too many of them to simply pack up and leave Egypt, although it is likely that we will see an increase in the number of Copts looking to emigrate in the months and years to come (a trend of which we are already seeing signs). The Copts belong to Egypt, and many of them are prepared to fight for their place: the high turnout of Coptic voters in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections in November, in which they contributed to the slim gains of liberal groups, embodied this. The demonstrations of Coptic protesters in front of the Maspero state television building in May and October (despite their respective conclusions) were also evidence that Copts are no longer willing to remain silent.

But we should not be fooled into mistaking determination for progress: as of the beginning of 2012, the future does look rather unwelcoming for Egypt's Christians. In light of this, we must prepare for the worst -- a feared new age of authoritarian, Islamist rule -- even as we do what we can to help the Copts challenge it, and as we fervently pray for their future and that of all Egyptians.

Check back next week to continue this series on Christians in the Middle East.

1/26/2012 5:00:00 AM
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