Questions for Egypt’s Christian Community

Concerned with the standing of minorities and the under-represented in the new Egypt, Amador Square has followed events relevant to the Egyptian Christian community through a number of blogs, including, “A Sense of Belonging.” The blogger, Jayson Casper, is an American writer with Christianity Today, Lapido Media, and Arab West Report, living in Egypt. A professed Christian himself, Jayson’s approach is to build understanding between cultures and religions, even as he wears the hat of a journalist.

Jayson Casper, American writer living in Egypt.

Two of Jayson’s recent posts alternated between bold analysis—“Islamo-Fascism”–and straight reporting—“Statement of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Leaders of the Evangelical Church in Egypt.” Jayson’s balancing act prompted me to invite him to a Q&A, and I am privileged to share his thoughtful insights today—along with some wrong assumptions on my part. Before our Q&A, a quick—assumedly narrow—introduction to the history of Christians in Egypt and review of recent events is in order.

The majority of Egypt’s Christians are part of the Coptic Church and make up about 10 percent of the country’s population of 80 million. Their history began with the arrival of gospel-writer and Apostle Mark in Alexandria, during the Roman occupation in the first century. Even after the Arab conquest in 641 A.D., Egypt remained largely Christian for another four centuries; Muslim dominance was not fully established until the 12th century.

A long history of persecution and marginalization of the Copts gave way to greater integration in the 19th century, with the abolition of the Jizya tax and the right to serve in the army. But conditions worsened again during the Nasser regime (1950’s-1960’s) when Pan-Arab policies and nationalism, property confiscations, etc., eroded the Copts’ pre-Arab identity and economic power. Their minority standing continued to be, and remains, threatened by periodic hostilities and violence.

The same month that would bring the revolution to Tahrir Square began with the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, killing 21 worshipers. Eight months after January 25th uprising–in the wake of another church attack—Christians gathered at Maspero-Cairo to demand equal rights and legal treatment–namely the right to build houses of worship without fear of violence and persecution.  Clashes with the military (Daily News Egypt raw video) resulted in 27 deaths and hundreds of injuries (NYT slide show). These violent clashes were portrayed very differently by the military and justified as action against sectarian vandalism.

The potential for sectarian violence is, in fact, very much on the minds of Christians. Strong defenders of the separation of church and state, the plight of Egypt’s Christians is now heightened by the Islamist push for a Constitution article that defines Egypt as a Muslim nation, with laws founded in Islam.

Such is the context that informed the Q&A with Jayson Casper.

Amador Square (AS):
Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Copts were there, at Tahrir Square, demanding the ousting of Mubarak’s regime. What has changed for Copts, a year later?

Jayson Casper (JS):
A couple clarifications, first. Though the Muslim Brotherhood was not there officially when the revolution began, many of their youth were. Furthermore they were there officially after January 28.

Similarly, the Coptic Orthodox Church was not there in the beginning, or afterwards, though Christians did contribute from the earliest days. Christian activists I know, however, lament that their fellow believers were so few.

But you refer to the changing euphoria that Copts had following the revolution. Simply, they were dealt a huge blow by the military in the events of Maspero, and the other powers which emerged are mainly Islamist. I don’t think Copts want to go back to the old regime – they recognize the limitations and false freedoms of Mubarak. But they would not mind a reformed continuation of what was, though this creates a dissonance that mutes overt support for the revolution.

AS:
When you talk to Egyptian Copts about the community’s future prospects vis a vis Egypt’s political present, what do you hear most? Concern-to-fear; hope-to-optimism? What are some of the concerns and what are some of the opportunities Copts still hope to reap from the advent of the revolution?

JS:
There is the specter of Islamist rule that terrifies many, but it has little to do with the current political discourse and more to do with longstanding mistrust and the weight of sectarian incidents over the years. Even if the near-term political future is bleak, Copts generally still maintain hope that what the revolution has unleashed is good. Yes, Islamists seem to be reaping the fruit, but the revolution was clearly not an Islamist movement, and thus can hold any future government accountable. But there is also the worry that the revolution was Cairo- and elite-driven, and the basic conservatism (though not necessarily Islamism) of the masses may blunt the long term effects of the revolutionary cry.

AS:
For some years already, there has been talk about a decline in numbers and in religious freedom for Christians in the Middle East. Last year, for instance, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Kurdish-region of Iraq was quoted by The Catholic Herald as saying, “Iraq’s ancient Christian community has run out of time and will disappear soon.” DoEgypt’s Copts have reason for a more optimistic outlook than other communities inMiddle East societies under Islamist rule? How and why so? (What makes Egypt different?)

JC:
Egypt is different because there are so many Christians among an already large and still rapidly growing population. Birthrate differences, emigration, and conversions to Islam continue to shrink the population proportionally, but it will still take generations to see a similar dissolving of Copts in Egypt.

Sectarian tension also does not seem to be an essential part of the Egyptian religious identity. In history harsh periods of persecution were few, and generally tied to social instability or foreign pressures. Similarly, for all the incidents that have happened to Copts from Sadat’s presidency onward, most were of limited provenance and tied to specific social factors. While not excusing the real tensions behind and resulting from such attacks, it is wrong to extrapolate these and suggest they represent the core of Muslim-Christian relations.

That said, Egypt is undergoing social instability, and it is not out of the question to imagine Copts paying the price as local scapegoats, with some taking advantage of the situation to enact an extremist understanding of Islamic hegemony. Copts have been immigrating from the villages to the regional capitals, and from there to the big cities. The ease of modern migration enables further mass exodus. The Iraq example is a concern, but it should not be taken as a prediction.

AS:
What are some of the initiatives and organization the Copt community and leadership are undertaking to protect their religious freedom and their identity in the new Egypt? Who are the Copts allies?

JS:
The Coptic community suffers division in terms of who should represent it. Many fear the loss of Pope Shenouda means the church will lose its protective role and desire another strong pope to continue his tradition.

Others believe the strong role of the church damaged the community and its social integration. Some have made Coptic pressure groups and revolutionary organizations like the Maspero Youth Union, while others are simply diving headlong into politics such as the Free Egyptians or the Social Democratic Party. There is even talk of creating an organization similar to the Muslim Brotherhood – a Christian Brotherhood.

But other initiatives are like the one you ask about next.

AS:
One of your recent posts describes a new agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Evangelical Church in Egypt. What significance do you attribute to this document?

JS:
The significance is not in what was agreed; similar statements have been made by the Brotherhood in the past. The significance lies in that Christian groups are seeing the necessity of dialogue and relationship with Islamist forces. Relationships are vital in Egypt; they may not get you what you want, but if you are known, there is a great social bond which cannot be violated. Pope Shenouda is celebrated as having crafted such positive relationships.

It is also significant this agreement was signed by the Evangelicals only, though the stipulations cover all without distinction. But as the Orthodox Church has not entered into such dialogue may indicate they still have their eggs in the basket of old regime/military elements, for good or for ill. That may be too much of a speculation, of course, and as the representative of the vast majority of Egyptian Christians they may simply – and wisely – be refraining from entering too deeply into the vagaries of the current political transition.

“Raise your head, Samira!” And Other “Women Making Democracy”

I am calling it bold, inspiring and a timely summit of brilliant women-minds, but a long list of impressed qualifiers would apply to “Women Making Democracy” at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Friday, March 30.

Intent on writing a thoughtful and comprehensive review of this conference, I had hoped to watch and rewind the announced video recordings, but it now appears they will not be available in the short-term. In the meantime, I will reflect on questions raised and lessons learned, by using the tweets of #RadCon participants—including my own—as notes. Given the scope of this blog at present, I will turn a spotlight on panelists who addressed realities and developments in Egypt and Tunisia.

Clearly, some speakers were more optimistic than others about the future of democracy and the role of women—beyond elections and the writing of these countries’ new constitutions. Moreover, different interpretations of Islam informed their visions.

Tunisian scholar, Dalenda Larguèche, Professor of History and Women Studies at the Université de la Manouba, declared that gender parity is already an irreversible gain of the Tunisian Revolution. During a discussion on the political representation of women and the good and bad of quotas, Rima Khalaf—undersecretary General and Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia—said that “quotas are a temporary measure to address a deficiency in the system,” but to be relevant they must be competitive.

How relevant and competitive are they? According to QuotaProject, in Egypt, women hold two percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. In Tunisia, women hold 26 percent of the seats in the National Constituent Assembly. While Dr. Larguèche has reason to be more optimistic about Tunisia, quotas and matters of representation are not reduced to gender.  Egyptian panelist, Dr. Heba Raouf Ezzat,

Heba Raouf Ezzat

an Assistant Professor with the Department of Political Science at Cairo University, pointed out that she’s yet to see one young woman represented in these quotas.

In the face of elections results in both countries, with overwhelming majorities achieved by Islamist parties, the issue of religion was in order. On the topic of Sharia law, Dr. Heba Raouf pointed out that conservatism is much more dominant in Egyptian society than Sharia law itself. Earlier in the conference, Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin also defended that Egyptians are not ultra-religious but moderate by nature—and, she added, the Muslim Brotherhood swept the elections based on their superior organization.

Egypt-born Dalia Mogahed—Executive Director and Senior Analyst for the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think­—shared seemingly corroborating data on Tunisia: a Gallup poll found that 10 percent of Tunisians want no legislative role for Sharia, while the majority wants Sharia to play some role in informing the country’s laws. According to Mohaged, while there are very different views of the role of religion in society, there is greater agreement about the role of women. To Mohaged, it is important that women’s rights not be seen as excluded by religion, and she defended that progress in men’s views of women are not tied to the secularization of society but around human development. One speaker cited Bangladesh as an example of a predominantly Islamist country with a strong women’s movement. Rima Khalaf distinguished “ruling by Sharia” from “drafting laws by Sharia,” and emphasized the danger of the former: it is no law at all as it relies on interpretation, she argued.

Shahira Amin, Egyptian journalist.

Journalist Shahira Amin, one of the hopefuls, said she’s not worried about the Islamists. Moreover, she’s optimistic for the women of Egypt. Consider this: 10 million Egyptian women have graduate degrees (population is 81 million)! But there’s optimism for the men as well. Remember Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims of the so-called “virginity tests” who braved the military doctor in court? Amin was there when hundreds protested the acquittal of the defendant. She reported that men and women alike shouted, “Samira, hold your head high!” I must say, long after memories of this conference have faded, I will remember this chant!

Men and women protested outside the High Court of Justice. Photographed by Virginie Nguyen. Published by Egypt Independent.

Reflecting on the meaning of the Arab Spring movements, Amin said they are much more than a unique, unforeseen phenomenon. They represent—and have inspired—a broader category of collective global commitment to “having a voice.” Blogger and Rhode Island University PhD candidate and professor, Jenn Brandt—a remote attendee of the conference– tweeted an even greater commitment:

And how’s this for the role of women?

Closing words by a conference rapporteur:

__________________________________________________________

MEN MAKING DEMOCRACY:

There were two equally brilliant men on the conference dais: Architect Dr. Hashim Sarkis, Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies, Department of Urban Planning and Design, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. Representing the link between space/architecture and democratization movements, Dr. Sarkis moderated a panel on “Public Places, Alternative Spaces.” 

Presenters on the fluidity of, and between, the political and the public spheres, included Dr. Philip N. Howard, a communications professor with Washington University. Dr. Howard elaborated on the role of digital space–how it exposes the status of women and gender relations worldwide, and how it is changing family dynamics. “Women have aggressively invaded the new public space of digital media,” Dr. Howard said.

Come Back to Egypt

As Egypt observed the one-year anniversary of its revolution, one inventory item  weighed heavily: Egypt’s tourism rates dropped by 28.5 percent in January, the country’s tourism officials told Al-Masry Al-Youm/Egypt Independent on Friday. According to the same source, the decline in Egypt’s second largest industry began during the first week of the January 25th uprising, when 1 million tourists fled the country—at an estimated loss of $1 billion.

Since then, tourism authorities and industry have worked to reverse the trend with creative campaigns. Inspired by awakened sentiments of patriotism, concerned Egyptians turned to Facebook and called on fellow citizens to sponsor and boost local tourism. And attempts have also been made to use the revolution as a tourist attraction.

In “Sightseeing During the Egyptian Revolution” travel writer David McKay Wilson chronicles his September 2011 tour of Egypt’s classic routes. Squired by Academic Travel Abroad, an agency specializing in cultural travel, Wilson and journalist friends dined on the Nile at the invitation of the Egypt Tourist Authority. The official host told Wilson’s group that tourist visits were down by 46 percent since the January uprising. In the wake of an attack on Israeli’s Cairo embassy on September 10, the official was questioned about matters of safety: “How can I say that it’s safe when something like that happens?” he questioned back.

However, as Wilson also noted, the shortage of visitors improves the chance of securing free escorts by armed tourism police—as offered to his group—and he is reassuring about his own sense of safety throughout the trip, from the streets of Giza after dark, to the crowded streets of downtown Cairo.

Giza at dusk.

Still, the threat of anarchy is a present and discussed danger, and the Egyptian government has acknowledged the impact of recurrent outbreaks of violence on tourism rates. Other concurrent factors haven’t helped: the NGO crisis, growing instability in the region—Syria, Iran-Israel tensions—as well as changes in relations with Mubarak’s old friends—Saudi Arabia, Israel. In fact, the decline in tourism rates originated primarily from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait. Topping the toll on an industry that employs over 2.5 million people (1-in-8 Egyptians workers), the climate of instability also promotes the exodus of capital from the country and slows the flow of foreign currency to the nation’s treasury.

The concerns of tourism authorities and industry are echoed by Egypt’s citizens. Shortly after Wilson’s sightseeing tour, a poll by the Charney Research for the International Peace Institute asked Egyptians whether they saw necessity or disruption in continued protests, “’ at time when Egypt needs stability and economic recovery”; 53 percent to 35 percent of respondents wanted to focus on economic recovery.

With an estimated 15 million Egyptians depending on the tourism sector, it is no surprise that many begin to weigh the cost of the revolution. “For the Egyptian tourism industry, freedom’s just another word for no one’s here to sight see,” wrote Wilson. Or, as a camel-tour businessman from Iza told the The New York Times, “The revolution was beautiful, but no one imagined the consequences.” The sharp decline of visitors and his loss of income had forced him to sell three-of-five animals to the butcher, and his horse buggies sat idling by, for days at a time.

While other sources of income held steady—Suez Canal, gas and oil, remittances from Egyptians working abroad—according to the same NYT article, and the Central Bank, tourism went from a record 15 million visitors in 2010 to a 42 percent drop and loss of $3 billion through September of 2011. And though authorities have also attempted to tap the allure of “sightseeing during the revolution,” Amr Elezabi, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, told the New York Times, “You cannot sell Egypt throughTahrir Square.” At any rate,Tahrir Square alone could not make up for such staggering losses, and the ongoing instability and potential for violence detours the way to more marketable and profitable sites.

Revolutions, “they are processes, not events,” as Wael Ghonim, another voice of the Egypt’s awakening, told NPR earlier this year. And elections don’t settle differences and tensions–not in emerging democracies or established ones. As revolutionary dust begins to settle, even the right price of freedom is subject to debate, as expressed by these statements quoted in the NYT article, “Euphoria Turns to Discontent as Egypt’s Revolution Stalls”: “We are ready to live on dates and water for our freedom!” said a young protester. “If you want water and dates, fine, eat that yourself,” replied a business man. “Most of those who took part in the revolution were satisfied with the fall of Mubarak,” said a Coptic female pediatrician. The “wavering of public opinion” in the wake of the revolution is well documented in a February 2011 report by the International Crisis Group, and so is the evidence that such diverging sentiments will live on.

Where tourism is concerned, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party has sought to quell public and industry fears (Egypt Independent). Meeting with the Union for Tourism in January, party leader Mohamed Morsy said that the FJC’s vision for developing the sector would require security, and political and economic support. As reassurance, he named God-given advantages that make the country an inevitable tourist destination: history, culture, weather, etc. But he also stressed that tourism is one of three main areas of concern, along with politics and the economy, and that Islamic law would inform all legislation, namely the writing of the nation’s constitution. As the article points out, secular Egypt fears that the infusion of Sharia in the constitution will impact minorities and impose religion-based changes to economic activities like tourism. “Tourism does not mean nudity and drunkenness. We Egyptians are the greatest religious people, and we don’t need that. We’ll prohibit alcohol,” a Muslim Brotherhood leader said at a December rally.

While the constitution is being drafted, in February the Ministry of Tourism announced a series of new incentives aimed at recovering 12-13 million visitors this year, and an estimated $11 billion in revenues (Egypt Independent, via Reuters). The campaign is heavily targeted at Emirati visitors and hopes to attract 1,500,000 tourists from the Gulf region. On the subject of safety, Samy Mahmoud, a ministry official said that 75 percent of tourist arrivals in Egypt head for sites outside Cairo—S-harm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam—which he termed “very safe.” “By the end of June we’ll have a president and a strong government. This will boost tourism inEgypt,” Mahmoud added.

Hurghada Coral Reef.

But not all potential for violence and safety issues are, or can be, clearly tied to the revolution: a woman gunned down in rich Cairo neighborhood, a wave of car-jackings, soccer game turned deadly, armed gangs, etc.  And so it is that in the second half of February there was an intense police campaign to address the country’s greatest security challenges: escaped prisoners (during the ousting of Mubarak), former convicts and unregistered criminals. According to the Interior Ministry, the escalation of security forces resulted in a 60 percent improvement, and increased police presence will continue in the short-term.

With that reassuring news, we return to sightseeing with Mr. Wilson:

The Egyptian tourism destinations, meanwhile, were refreshingly uncrowded, as we traveled to the tombs at Saqqara, the Great Pyramid in Giza, and to Al-Azhar Park out by the university, where lovers strolled hand-in-hand as the mournful call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. Here there wasn’t a hint of danger. Security was everywhere…

Al Azhar Park

Egypt: The Revolution’s Sense of Humor

In reading about the heroes of the Egyptian revolution this past week, I came across the word “fatalist” several times, in the writing of Western commentators [example]. I was surprised by the qualifier and wish to offer some counter-evidence with an example of Egyptian sense of humor. I am in the process of reading “THE INVISIBLE ARAB: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution,” by Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English Senior Political Director, published by Nation Books, 2012 (I will review it shortly). In it Mr. Bishara shares some revolution jokes passed around Tahrir Square. Here’s a short sample:

The interior minister asks Hosni Mubarak to write a farewell letter to the Egyptian people. Mubarak replies: “Why? Where are they going?”

Never far from Tahrir Square?