The forty-year-old Virgin Mary Church on Cairo’s al-Wahda Street—the name means unity, or oneness—looks striking these days. Its cream and white façade is unscathed by the dust and smog that otherwise blanket neighboring buildings and the rest of the city, and inside, its walls and floors glisten with newly laid cappuccino-colored marble. The church, its guardians say, has never looked better. “Ever, in its entire history.”
On May 8, this church, in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, a ten-minute drive from Tahrir Square, was a scene of devastation. It had been ravaged by flames and its insides gutted, smashed, looted, and charred after clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians over the case of a Coptic woman named Abeer Fakhri, an alleged convert to Islam whom ultraconservative Salafis had claimed was being held against her will at the nearby Church of St. Mina, which was also attacked. Fifteen people were killed in the violence and almost two hundred injured.
The attack was one of a series against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority in the weeks since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11. Since then, widespread and escalating crime has gripped the country. But the campaign against the Copts has stood out as by far the most egregious violence in post-revolutionary Egypt. “Stirring up sectarian tensions,” the Coptic activist Michael Meunier told me the week after the attack, “has always been the best way to keep the country divided—the Copts always get the biggest blow,” he said. “There are many actors who have stakes in causing this chaos.”
Copts have been outraged at the ruling military council’s lenient response to other recent incidents of violence against them. In March, armed thugs bulldozed a church on the outskirts of Cairo to its foundations, allegedly over an illicit relationship between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman. This led to riots and clashes that left thirteen people dead and 140 wounded. No arrests were made and no one was charged.
The day after the Imbaba attacks, several thousand Copts from across Cairo marched to Maspero, the state TV building, setting up tents for what they planned would be a lengthy sit-in. “We are here to make sure our demands are met,” Father Metias, one of the priests of the Virgin Mary Church, told me that day. “We want protection. We want the dozens of churches that the government has closed to be reopened. The people who are causing this trouble against us must be held accountable.”
For almost two weeks, the Copts—who were joined by several hundred Muslims who came out in solidarity—chanted outside the building, calling for protection and demanding that Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council and the de facto head of state, step down. They slept in tents made of nylon and blankets—sweltering in the rising temperatures of the city’s scorching summer heat—and on several nights, they warded off thugs who attacked them with guns, knives, and rocks.
Eventually, on the thirteenth day—May 21—after statements from the armed forces that they would “not clear them by force,” as they have done in the past, and that they would reopen three of the dozens of closed churches, the protesters agreed to pack up and go. One of the young organizers told me that they did so “to give the ruling military council the chance to act on demands.”
That week, the interior minister promised to clamp down with “an iron fist” on thugs and the general atmosphere of violence in the city. The prime minister said he would proclaim a general law covering places of religious worship; and the military council said it would act with urgency to prosecute those implicated in both the Imbaba and other recent sectarian attacks who had escaped disciplinary action.
The police quickly arrested more than two hundred people suspected of involvement in the Imbaba incident—radical Islamists, thugs, former members of the ruling party, and many Copts—and also swiftly moved to stop fighting in Ain Shams, on the outskirts of the city, when Muslims began demonstrating against the opening of a church in a former garment factory that they claimed lacked the necessary legal permits.
In the weeks since these promises were made, and since the Copts voluntarily abandoned their campsite at Maspero, sectarian tensions appear to have been pacified. The ultraconservative Salafis—whom many blamed for the Imbaba attacks and who had been staging weekly demonstrations against the Copts since Mubarak’s ouster, often at churches—have been largely quiet. (The Salafis are organized in several groups and parties outside the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the al-Nour party, which has just been officially approved.) YouTube videos of radical Islamists inciting violence against Coptic churches are no longer circulating widely; and the interim cabinet has just approved a draft law giving Muslim and Copts equal rights in establishing places of worship. The Islamist political parties and movements—which many fear may rise to power and turn Egypt into an Islamic state modeled on Saudi Arabia—have all denounced violence against Christians. Although stories of violence and crime are still frequent in the pages of the local press, none of them, these days, are about attacks on Copts.
Still, within Egypt’s Christian-minority community—which accounts for some 10 percent of the country’s 82 million people—the fear of further incidents of violence and persecution has not subsided, and daily life remains strained. Many Copts I have spoken to say they are considering emigrating to the US or Canada and seeking political asylum on the basis of religious persecution, though many also feel they have an obligation to stay in Egypt to “look after the churches and monasteries.” “The media quiet is deceptive,” Father Sarabamon—the pastor of Imbaba’s Virgin Mary Church—told me on June 5 as I sat with him on the ground floor of the church. Final touches of reconstruction were being put in place, among them a new protective metal fence surrounding the building. “There are no sizable attacks,” he said,
but each week there are incidents of women having the cross grabbed from their necks as they walk in the streets. In this very neighborhood people are still being insulted as they leave church; and we still have young girls disappearing, kidnapped, being harassed for what they are wearing or for bearing the cross tattooed on their wrists.
As Father Sarabamon—who has been a priest at the church since the 1970s—spoke, men and women streamed in, kissing his hand, offering donations. Many shed tears at the sight of the renovated church. The father told some young women to cover themselves up or remove their crosses. “There are hungry, angry people outside,” he warned them.
Of those arrested for the attacks in the Imbaba quarter, many have been released without sentences—including Salafis who had been seen on videos inciting violence against the churches. One had said about the Coptic Church, “It’s a mafia that harbors weapons.” Of those still under investigation, forty-eight have recently been referred to the Supreme Court for trials—among them many Copts. Only two of sixteen people arrested for attacking the Copt protesters during their thirteen-day sit-in received sentences—two years, with bail. “It’s telling. These are all simply gestures,” Father Sarabamon told me between his conversations with well-wishers. “The government has made the gesture of arrests, of trials, but when you look at action, nothing has happened. Even the churches they promised to reopen have not been opened.”
In the case of the Ain Shams church, which remains closed, two Copts were sentenced to five years in jail—for violence, possession of weapons, and trying to turn a factory into an unlicensed church. When I visited the neighborhood in early June, even Muslim residents said there had clearly been bias in this case. “There were thugs who should have been sentenced too,” one eyewitness to the violence told me.
Although the military council commissioned the district’s governor to oversee the church renovations in Imbaba, at a reported cost of close to $1 million, Father Sarabamon points out that some of that budget has gone elsewhere—across the street, to a mosque that is being refurbished too. “At our expense,” he said. The construction workers, sent by the governor’s office, can be seen moving back and forth between the mosque and the church. “The portion of the budget that has gone toward the mosque would have covered the electrical goods and equipment that are needed, but I don’t ask any questions,” the Father told me. The construction workers themselves wouldn’t reply when asked if they had formal instructions to work on the mosque. “There are definitely biases in how the military is handling things,” the former Coptic MP Mona Makram Ebeid told me recently.
Since its rise to power, the ruling military council, headed by Mubarak’s close friend Field Marshal Tantawi, has increasingly been criticized for its biased and repressive handling of the country’s affairs. Youth protesters and bloggers have been prosecuted and given jail sentences of several years; yet Tantawi’s regime has repeatedly stalled trials for corrupt government officials, who are sent to civilian courts with private lawyers or released on bail. The trial of Mubarak, and his transfer to Tora Prison where his sons are, have consistently been postponed, allegedly due to his fluctuating health. Few believe the trial—now set for August 3—or the transfer will happen.
The council has also come under fierce attack for its management of the constitutional referendum in March, which had been designed as a yes/no vote on a package of amendments to nine articles in the constitution—mainly those dealing with presidential powers. A yes vote would approve the amendments and reinstate the suspended 1971 constitution until the parliamentary elections in September, at which point a new constitution would be drafted by a committee elected by the new house of representatives.
Although the amendments were approved by a wide margin—the yes votes largely representing the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative movements and groups that were aligned with the army—in the weeks since then, the members of the military council have all but ignored the 1971 constitution. Without a public vote they drafted an addendum of over fifty articles that give them powers to govern beyond those established by the constitution. (The liberals have criticized and protested against this; the Islamist groups have remained largely silent.)
The referendum, which had set the military and the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest organized movement—against the liberals, exposed the first significant division in a movement for change that had otherwise united protesters during the eighteen days in Tahrir Square. In many ways it served as a harbinger of what was to come. Since then, the army has acted with leniency toward Islamists, and has moved forward in step with the Muslim Brotherhood, with which it has cut deals. As the longtime backbone of the regime, with its own broad economic interests to maintain, the army—so it is widely believed—wants to consolidate a status quo that it will dominate in years to come. It will do so in part by manipulating a parliament ready to cooperate with it. A retired general recently repeated to me what he has been saying during the past few months:
With the Brotherhood they [the military] know what they are getting, with remnants of the former regime they know what they are getting, but with revolutionaries and liberals, they don’t. The Brotherhood needs their approval just as the army needs the Brotherhood right now.
Of all the organized political movements and groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, its Freedom and Justice party, and its loose alliance of similarly conservative political entities—such as the recently approved Islamist al-Wasat party—are the only ones pushing for elections in September. Liberal opposition groups have called for their postponement, citing the need for more time to organize, but the military, so far, has said it will not change the date.
It is in part this growing influence of Islamist thinkers over Egypt’s political life—and the army’s apparent collusion with them—that is troubling the Coptic community as well as liberals. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been viewed as the greatest threat to a democratic regime, has increasingly stayed away from any attempts at unified action. It did not participate in the National Conference meeting on May 8—which gathered over one thousand participants from every other party and movement—claiming “work not talk” needed to be done ahead of the elections. It was later revealed that the Brotherhood hosted a joint conference with Salafis that same day; some 50,000 people reportedly showed up.
Then on May 27, when activists called for a “day of rage” and a “second revolution”—in large part in protest against the military’s handling of national affairs—the only groups absent were the Islamists, some of whom released statements calling the participating protesters sinners. The Muslim Brotherhood said that the protest was “against the people of Egypt.” Of the estimated 30,000 protesters who did show up—among them many Copts—one of the most popular chants was “Here are the people of Egypt, where are the Muslim Brotherhood?” Many people there that day said they were coming out for the first time in weeks. “I’m here to prove to the Brotherhood that we can do it without them. This has become about us and them.”
Since the attack on the Imbaba churches on May 7 and 8, the Islamist groups have made gestures toward more inclusive policies. At the opening of the new headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party on May 21—a gaudy multimillion-dollar building in the suburbs of Cairo—Essam el-Erian, the party’s deputy president and longtime spokesperson, boasted that its membership included over nine hundred women and almost one hundred Copts. He was also quick to speak about the appointment of a Christian, Rafiq Habib, to the party’s upper ranks. Many say Habib likes to provoke his father, a conservative Christian preacher. Although these attempts at inclusiveness are a media-savvy move on the part of the Brotherhood, for many, they are too little too late.
The Brotherhood made scathing statements against women and Copts soon after Mubarak’s ouster. Its leaders are now openly calling for an Islamic state, something they had previously denied was among its goals. “They will never change,” the outspoken newspaper editor Abdel Halim Qandil told a friend and me recently. “I don’t trust them. They are deceptive.” In a press report, the political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah described the Brotherhood’s recent appointments of Coptic members as “just for show…like flowers on the Brothers’ jackets.”
Stéphane Lacroix, a scholar of Wahabism and Islamist movements, spent a large part of last year in Egypt researching the Salafi movement, and he has close relations with prominent Islamists. In early June he described intimate meetings and dinners he’d just had with some of the Salafist leaders. “In many ways the Salafi battle has been won,” he said. “Certainly the conservative one has. To people like Abou Elela Mady”—the leader of the al-Wasat party—“it’s a question of which of the conservatives can win more votes.”
Despite disagreements with its younger members, the Muslim Brotherhood seems confident that it will emerge victorious in September’s parliamentary elections. In February it said it would win no more than 20 percent of the seats; it is now—officially—aiming for 50 percent. Essam el-Erian recently told me, “But of course we want a majority or the largest percent we can get.” Through a coalition agreement with other Islamist groups, Lacroix said, this “seems increasingly likely.” With its outreach programs that offer free and subsidized food and services in the poorer neighborhoods, the Brotherhood’s popularity will likely only grow—in particular as inflation rises and prices go up. “They know they are in the strongest position,” Lacroix said. It is not unusual for those who are not keen on an Islamic state modeled on Saudi or Iran to point out that, with 40 percent of the population living beneath the poverty line, the Brotherhood’s previous slogan, “Islam is the answer,” has strong appeal.
At the end of May, in a public library in Imbaba, not far from the Virgin Mary Church, a group of Salafis—who call themselves “Salafyo Costa” after Costa Coffee, which they like to drink—held an open meeting, intended “to begin a dialogue with liberals and help cast aside this idea of us as devils,” as Mohamed Tolba, one of the group’s organizers, told me. He asked the gathered group to mix: “Let’s sit together,” he said, “Salafis next to non-Salafis, come on.” Mohamed, who had recently returned to Egypt after years in Sudan because “of persecution against bearded men that look like me,” said that he wanted to create dialogue and unity, “just like in Tahrir.” Mohamed is funny, lighthearted, and quick to poke fun at the Salafi stereotype. “I know you are scared of us,” he said, addressing the row of women in jeans and exposed hair that had come to listen in. “Tell us your fears, let us answer to them. We know you have Salaphobia, but we won’t bite.”
A lively debate went on for five hours, ending with a recurring question to Mohamed and his colleagues: Are you representative of most of the Salafis out there? The answer was “no,” but since the meeting—which was reported in the local press—Mohamed and his colleagues (their group has a Facebook page with almost five thousand members) have, he says, been receiving phone calls from ultraconservative party leaders and more radical sheikhs. “I don’t want to mention names,” he told me yesterday, “but some sheikhs who said we were crazy, even sinners, now want to work with us. So do the emerging political parties. I’ve received so many requests for collaboration—they see our method is a more effective one.”
After the meeting, one of the Salafist wives approached me, inviting me to a women-only gathering at her house. “You’re so young,” another said, before proceeding to explain how she slowly converted from being uncovered to wearing a full-face veil. “It just takes time,” she said reassuringly. “You get used to it.”
That night, one of the two politically knowledgeable friends with whom I attended the meeting called me. “I’m not convinced,” he told me.
All the men’s wives wore the niqab. They all said that in another context they would wear the short galabiya like the Prophet. They want Egypt governed by the Sharia. I bet they will slowly turn, just like the Brotherhood has, constantly changing its position. Before we know it we’ll be like Saudi Arabia. They shouldn’t be trusted. It’s no coincidence the Saudis gave us such a big loan.
Sitting in the Virgin Mary Church with Father Sarabamon, I told him about the invitation of the Salafi women. He smiled. “They want to convert you,” he told me. “I fear the worst. You know already that they don’t teach Coptic history in schools. It will take time, but I see the direction we are moving in.”
—June 15, 2011