Rebuilding the Social Fabric: Muslims and Christians in Community Service Organizations

Yousry Fu'ad Abdel Latif (and me)

Civil society is one of the hallmarks of a strong nation. Conspicuously, it was rather absent in pre-revolutionary Egypt. President Mubarak did his best to depoliticize the people, with even extension of social services neglected. While religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Orthodox Church picked up the slack on both counts, this also contributed to the increasing polarization of the two religious communities, especially Christians, who felt discriminated against in the public square and thereafter largely abandoned it.

These faults have been recognized since the revolution; overcoming them is the current challenge. Yousry Fu’ad Abdel Latif is one man who is trying.

Yousry is a lawyer, aged 44, who lives in Hadayak al-Maadi. Following the revolution he has created and coordinated the Coalition of Dar al-Salaam Youth, submitting paperwork to establish it as a legally recognized community association. Dar al-Salaam is a traditional, working class area to the north of the affluent Cairo suburb of Maadi; Hadayak al-Maadi belongs more properly within its ensign.

I stumbled upon this group quite by accident. Wandering through the Hadayak neighborhood I saw signs posted calling the youth of the area to join in a trash cleanup campaign. Two things were noteworthy: One, the signs were posted on both the mosque and the church, opposite one another across the street. Two, the campaign was taking place the very hour I was passing by. I met three or four of the youth, wearing surgical gloves and mouth coverings, hauling garbage bags behind them. They introduced me to Yousry, and we set up an appointment.

Poster for the Coalition of Dar al-Salaam Youth

The goal of the coalition is to begin transforming Egypt from the local community outward. Individuals must take responsibility for themselves and their area, seeking reform, development, moral consciousness, social justice, and cultural awareness. It is meant to deliberately include Muslims and Christians together, ultimately producing a democratic society in which all are free to participate. Though the coalition organizes seminars and medical testing to accomplish its goals, garbage collection was the starting point. It is the practical work that will forge youth of the area together as a team.

Yousry introduced me to a few members of the coalition. Mahir Fayiz is a 24 year old Copt, of Orthodox heritage but involved with an evangelical social group. He possesses a high school diploma and works in his family’s neighborhood shop, selling rugs and tapestries. One day he heard the calls of a few youth, who he knew but was not necessarily friends with, to come out and clean the streets of Hadayak. Thinking it was a good idea, he joined in.

Mahir asked specifically if he could clean the steps of the mosque, and was so designated. He saw the goals of the coalition as worthy in their own right, and wished to promote community integration by taking this symbolic act of service. He stated that doing so earned him respect among his peers in the coalition, most of whom were Muslim. “The more we focus on our nation,” he says, “the more our country will grow. The more we focus on religion, the more we will divide.” Yousry was particularly impressed by his attitude and actions.

Sharif Muhammad Zakaria is a 21 year old Muslim. He possesses a high school technical degree and works as an interior painter. He knew of Yousry previously as a neighborhood lawyer, and as such has been involved from the beginning. What originally took his attention for the garbage cleanup campaign, however, was the pile of trash accumulated on the side wall of the church. This was unacceptable, he said, and dishonorable for a place of worship. Sharif is a practicing Muslim, but finds groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to focus too much on religion. “Religion is for God,” he says, “but the coalition is united around service to our country, which is for all.”

Yet despite the intentions of the coalition to integrate community Muslims and Christians, so far it has been slow going. Yousry states there are about 70-80 committed members of the group, but only 3-4 of these are Christians.[1] Meanwhile, though the coalition consists of eight separate committees, none are coordinated by Christians.

Fayiz stated that he hoped to bring other Christians into the coalition, but as his friends are primarily among the fewer evangelicals in Hadayak, he is not part of the much larger Orthodox youth group. Sharif stated he has found a good reception to the coalition among his friends in general, but he has not yet invited the one Christian friend he has. He plans to, however.

Yousry noted this was an issue, and stated he desires to increase Christian participation in the coalition. He noted his instructions to the youth to ask permission at the church and mosque before posting their flyers. In separate conversation with Fr. Arsanius of the local Orthodox church in Hadayak, he signaled receptivity to meet Yousry, which was appreciated when I relayed the news. Hopefully, the two will be able to sit down soon.

Yet instead of critiquing the coalition makeup, it should be remembered the effort is only five months old. The forces which have worked to separate Muslims and Christians in Egypt have been operating for decades, largely overcoming the inherent national inclination for tolerance and cooperation. What is necessary now is commitment to fight the status quo.

Sharif noted that about 80% of his friends reacted positively to the ideal of the group, but far fewer have joined. “They are used to initiatives coming to nothing,” he says. Post-revolution Egypt has given new hope, but old mindsets are hard to change. The power of inertia requires great effort to reverse.

Time will tell if Yousry and his team possess the dedication necessary. Time will tell if Christian youth will emerge from the church to join a Muslim majority community effort. Yet Yousry’s focus may appeal to their Christian virtue: “Love is the basis of my organizing. If they feel you love them, they will follow you.”

Love can be a fickle emotion, or it can be the most powerful force in the world. To be the latter, it requires commitment to serve the interest of the other. May the youth of Dar al-Salaam find the means to discover it together.

[1] This equals about 4%, whereas the Christian population in Egypt is about 6-7%. I am unaware of the percentage split in the Dar al-Salaam area.

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