Thoughts and Photos from Friday Protest: National Unity and Palestinian Solidarity

I was present at the Friday, May 13 million man demonstration in Tahrir Square. It has become commonplace for activists of all sorts to call for ‘million man’ demonstrations these days. While impressive in size, it was nowhere near the crowds assembled in Tahrir during the revolution. Rather, about one-third to one-quarter of the square was filled, which has been one of the largest gatherings since the revolutionary days.

Participation was fueled in two directions. In the works had been a solidarity demonstration in advance of May 15, the establishment of the state of Israel, which is called the nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, throughout the Arab world. Egypt has been excited with the newfound independence of its foreign policy, which is widely credited with urging the recent Fatah-Hamas reconciliation.

The other direction came after the horrible attacks on churches in Imbaba. These have been condemned by all sectors of Egyptian society, and many activists and political groups called for Friday to be an assertion of ‘national unity’, the catch phrase that declares Muslims and Christians in Egypt to be one people. It is, depending on perspective, a lofty goal, an essential fact, or an empty expression.

It is laudable to demonstrate for national unity, and it is laudable to demonstrate for Palestinian rights. Bringing the two together, in this instance, left a very bad taste in my mouth.

The main stage activities began with a Christian ‘church’ service, followed by Muslim Friday prayers, and a number of statements by religious, political, and activist leaders. I put church in quotes, unpleasantly mindful of the sarcasm, but recognizing the difficulty of the speakers. Apparently representing evangelical traditions, though with one Orthodox priest speaking prominently, their time consisted of efforts to connect with the crowd through chants that mostly fell flat, praise hymns that no one recognized, and assertions of national unity and Palestinian solidarity against Israeli oppression.

Most Arab Christians recognize the Palestinian people as having legitimate rights, and the Israeli government of having oppressed the occupied territories. Yet to an overwhelmingly Muslim audience, significantly representing Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, it appeared their main objective was to present their credentials as Palestine supporters. Little was spoken that could be understood as Christian-particular, though one speaker did urge those present to remember the cause for justice must be joined by truth and love.

Contrast their effort with Islamic Friday prayers, which was a masterful performance by the speakers. Islamic to the core, they wowed the audience, weaving assertions of national unity and Palestinian solidarity with cries to continue the revolution and purge the remnants of the Mubarak regime from the nation. The official Friday prayer speaker called for a civil state, and brought many in the audience to tears as he implored God to protect the revolution, save it from religious division, and spread it to other Arab states.

The next speaker represented the Salafi perspective, which equally condemned the Imbaba attacks and promoted national unity. There was little that would represent any of the recent controversial Salafi statements, such as opposition to democracy or the eventual return of the caliphate. There was much anti-Israel rhetoric, however, calling for millions of Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, to pray in their holy sites in Palestine, proclaiming Jerusalem to be their capital alone.

Other speakers continued on the same lines as those above, and I have little argument with either cause, inasmuch as Egyptians have the right to express these perspectives. Two disconcerting trends emerged, however.

First, it seemed that national unity was being built upon the back of a common enemy. Yes, Muslims and Christians can come together to condemn Israel, but will this solve the real domestic, if sometimes exaggerated, issues that produce sectarian conflict? Furthermore, speakers adopted the ‘national unity as fact’ perspective, blaming all problems on ‘the remnants of the NDP and security forces’ for instigating chaos in counter-revolution. There may well be manipulating forces at play in Imbaba and elsewhere; the proclamation of the truth in this conspiracy only masks over real tension. Yet it was not just lingering Mubarak cronies who are to blame; these, it was said, were working, as before, at the behest of Israel and the United States.

Yes, it would seem Israel would benefit from a divided, weakened Egypt. Yes, Israel has manipulated sectarian tension previously, at least within its own borders.[1] Is there evidence of it here in Egypt? I have seen little, but this is the nature of conspiracy. It may well be true, but it is believed as mantra. In the end, it does no good, since it closes the mind and turns a blind eye to one’s own faults.

Second, flowing from this, there was a distinct lack of civility in discussing the issues. Perhaps it is the nature of politics, populist politics in particular. While the speakers generally did not use incendiary words, the chanters from the stage led reprehensible, inflammatory cadence. ‘We demand expulsion of the ambassador of pigs.’ ‘We are going to Tel Aviv as a million martyrs.’ Though not everywhere or fully representative of the crowd, Israeli flags were burned, and an effigy was hung.

There was also the presence of a green headband-wearing ‘Army of Muhammad’. These proclaimed the eventual formation of an Islamic army that would liberate Palestine. In conversation with one adherent, he made several nuances that delay quick rejection. First, the Arab Spring has taught us that we can have a peaceful army. We will march to Israel, though there will be bloodshed wrought against us. Second, Palestinians are strong enough to win liberation on their own. We must support them by becoming strong ourselves, so as to pressure Israel, not to attack it. Third, we are a distinctive Islamic army, remembering the great Islamic victory over the Jews in Medina. But we will march side-by-side with our Christian brothers in support of this cause.

In this youth there was civility, and it showed in his discussions with Christian protestors who engaged him about the issues of Egypt and national unity. Though both sides championed the same phrase, there was deep division in understanding the problems at hand. One wanted an Islamic state which would protect Christians, the other wanted a civil state which would protect Christians, and others. They could not come together on essentials, but they departed friendly, after giving ear to the explanations of the other.

Perhaps this encounter should give me pause in my uneasiness. The rhetoric of the day was both lofty and base. One worthy cause was emptied of depth; the other was adorned with contempt for an enemy. Yet the people involved – even from extreme interpretations – discussed. There was no violence, no aggression, only the inflammation of public words. This gave me much pause, and interestingly, the Christians were not very good at it (though the Orthodox priest was better). Yet in personal conduct, even with those of completely opposite persuasion, there was peaceful exchange.

If only such exchanges might be had more often – between Muslims and Christians, even with Zionists. Alas, people do not often talk about that which divides them. An event such as this, as uncomfortable as it was to my Western Christian sensibilities, at least gets people talking, and puts them in one arena so as to discuss together. May all have the bravery to stay there, and keep alive the dialogue.

translation: Muslim, Christian – one hand; the people, the army – one hand; Fath, Hamas – one hand
the Palestinian flag, carried through the crowd
an Orthodox priest addressing the crowd
sitting to listen to the Friday sermon in the heat of midday sun; my neighbor shared his newspaper with me, and several others
prostrating during Friday prayers; see some standing away from the crowd; among them, I was asked to politely sit
cheering for Palestine during the speech of a popular Salafi preacher
a side stage rally for Palestine, with a Christian to the left and an ‘Army of Muhammad’ Muslim to the right
an effigy of the State of Israel
burning and stomping on the Israeli flag
the ‘Army of Muhammad’ supporter described in the text…
… and 2nd and 3rd from the left are the two Christians who discussed national unity with him
(note: this last picture was taken from a visit to Maspiro, I hope to post a second text on the attacks tomorrow)

[1] See ‘The Body and the Blood’, Charles Sennot, formerly a journalist for the Boston Globe, for examples he has documented.


‘Smelling the Breeze’ – In, and of, Tahrir

Yesterday was the ancient Egyptian holiday of Shem al-Naseem, translated ‘smelling the breeze’, which is a national observance the day after Orthodox Easter. It is the custom for all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, to eat raw, salty fish, and go out and about, enjoying the pleasant spring weather. We decided to join the festivities, choosing Tahrir Square as our location of picnic.

We headed out early by Egyptian standards, hoping to avoid anticipated throngs of breeze-smellers, mostly sure they were not scheduled to be joined by demonstrators. On our way down in the metro we saw evidence of the popular campaign to remove the mark of Mubarak from public display, extended in this example also to his predecessor:

Tahrir Square is located at the metro station named ‘Sadat’, which in this graffiti artist’s conception is to be renamed ‘Martyrs’. Mubarak station, meanwhile, is poignantly rechristened ‘Blood of the Martyrs’. Nasser station escaped his erasure.

Our arrival at the square coincided with the end of a military band performance, followed by the dispersal of gifts. By the time we arrived the scene was somewhat chaotic, and a later report stated the effort fell flat, and that people tried to abscond with extra gifts. Still, there were several military personnel lingering around the central grassy circle, shaking hands and taking pictures with passers-by. In the background of the photo below is also seen the Egyptian Museum to the right, site of the fierce Battle of the Camel, and to the right is the burned out remains of the headquarters of the now disbanded National Democratic Party:

We were correct that the holiday would pass without demonstrations. The biggest crowd seemed to be a gathered remnant from the military musical performance, gathered around two banners. The first extols the current military and interim government leadership, while the second, to the right, provides a long list of former government figures ‘for sale’, in reference to ongoing corruption investigations against them:

As we noted in a previous post, there were many examples of revolutionary graffiti. Here is a sampling:

(translation: Live the Revolution)

(translation: I love my country. The blue writing seems to list the names of those who died in the uprising.)

(translation: Lift your head high, you are an Egyptian!)

(translation: Oh God, protector of he who reforms. Smaller print in blue: God, make this country safe.)

(translation: Martyrs Square)

Walking around the square it was clear there was a new normalcy, rather than a return to normalcy. While some iconic restaurants had been restored and reopened following the looting of the revolution:

Others remained boarded up:

Meanwhile there were new business ventures of all varieties:

Including a mobile face painter:

After our tour of the square we settled down for our picnic, but Emma was still troubled by the attention her Egyptian-ness received:

Hannah, meanwhile, was less affected, and simply enjoyed her Oreos:

Our Shem al-Naseem celebration continued that afternoon, as we were invited to join with a family we know from the Coptic Church. Though details would be good to verify, I learned that eating fish served as a reminder of Jesus’ post-Easter meal with his disciples, mentioned in Luke 24:42, verifying the reality of his physical resurrection. That the fish is raw and salty is in continuance with the Pharaohnic practice, before modern refrigeration. The fish is actually from a catch three months old, for if they heavily salted the more recent supply, they would all get sick.

Fortunately, for foreigners, those with high blood pressure, and others of broader taste, the spread also included selections leftover from the Easter meal the day before. Many, however, chose to eat nothing but the fish. Go figure.

As I spoke with those there, one person in particular showed me photos he had taken from the revolution, many of which were of phenomenal quality depicting both the violence and the celebration. He did so not as a paid photographer, but as an involved citizen, wishing to know the reality of what was happening in his country. What he saw, at least in his interpretation, contradicted the standard narrative.

During the aforementioned Battle of the Camel, news outlets depicted the demonstrators as recipients of violence against a sizeable, but clearly outnumbered group of pro-Mubarak ‘thugs’. His pictures, however, showed thousands of Mubarak supporters, consisting of what appeared to be ordinary people, without weapons. Across the way, aside the Egyptian Museum, stood a small crowd of demonstrators, many with rocks or cement chunks in their hands. He stated that the violence was initiated by the demonstrators, some of whom then went up to the roofs and threw stones down on the pro-Mubarak crowd. Official implications had pro-government forces on the roofs, hurling stones on the demonstrators. Indeed, some of his pictures were of individual protestors, wearing makeshift helmets of plastic, towels, and even bread.

In another photo he captured a tank, with graffiti etched upon, reading, ‘Down with Mubarak’. The image was from the first days in which the army occupied the square, and was welcomed exuberantly by the crowds. This gentleman enters the slogan as evidence that the army was not neutral, but was with the protestors from the beginning. Early worries were that the army, while not killing protestors, was still biased toward the government, as they stood idly by when the ‘thugs’ attacked. Yet as this individual alters the narrative of violence, he also believes that had the army been neutral, they would not have allowed government equipment to be turned into the canvas of the revolution.

This person states that he is neither with one side or the other, seeing both as suspect, even though there were good people involved in the demonstrations. He finds that their early successes were subsequently hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and others, who have conducted secret deals with the military. Further evidence of this alliance is found in the number of sectarian incidents which have taken place since the revolution, in which the military has not prosecuted Muslim offenders, but continues the Mubarak era practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’.

Aspects of this testimony were disputed by others there, especially the point about the rooftop attacks. Most, however, did not contradict the concern about the intentions of the military. As I proffered other explanations, stating that a confluence of interests does not necessarily imply an alliance, and furthermore, the co-religious sentiment from the Alexandria bombing onward still carries over and offers hope of a better future, I was gently rebuked. I have been here less than two years; we Christians, however, have been here during fourteen centuries of Islam. My hope is not echoed.

Testimony has been gathered from the confessions of pro-Mubarak thugs, which I have written about before. Yet it is true that a number of the initial pro-Mubarak demonstrations did consist of ordinary people. It is also true that members of the Muslim Brotherhood were credited with the primary defense of Tahrir Square. Their ‘expertise’ had been forged in numbers of confrontations with the government, while the majority of common protestors had never seen violence. As for the military, they have stated they will not allow sectarian tensions to divide the people. Their role, as is obvious, is vital in determining the coming political realities. Their makeup is generally stated as secular, and equally obvious is their reliance on and training by the United States military. Will they then lean Islamist? Democratic Islamic transformation in Turkey has not jeopardized their US-NATO alliance, and the Muslim Brotherhood has pointed to Turkey as a model for the coming Egyptian state. Claims and counterclaims abound. Where does reality lie?

It is good to be back in Egypt. While news can be followed from anywhere, contact with people is essential for comprehension. The tea leaves multiply with alternate testimonies; smelling them correctly, amidst the breezes of Egypt, is the task at hand.


The Sole of Belonging

There is nothing, or more properly rendered, no one in this photo that suggests Egyptian-ness. Perhaps we are not blue-eyed and blond, and thus may not stand out immediately as foreigners in a crowd. But any casual glance from a local resident would eye us as ‘khawaga’ – a dialectical word stating that one is not from around here, yet lives here all the same.

The only suggestion of Egyptian-ness comes from our assertion: We are foreigners, but we wish to live with a sense of belonging to the people here. We do not belong, nor can we, ultimately. Yet we hope that our lives will intertwine with theirs that we might contribute to the greater good of all.

This idea is one we have written about before, but this post generated from the need to update the ‘About the Caspers’ section of this blog, especially the photo. Our third daughter, Layla, was born in Egypt eleven months ago, yet we still pictured ourselves as a family of four. Laziness and procrastination, really – but who clicks on the sidebar links anyway?

The above picture was selected as the best representation of our family, even though Layla has grown considerably since then. Yet the careful reader will notice something which illustrates our efforts to belong will forever run into unintended faux pas. Layla’s foot is extended, sole-showing.

The reader may remember the confusion in the Western world when then-President Bush visited Iraq only to be greeted by a shoe-throwing assailant. Or, he or she may remember the images from Tahrir Square where the protesters removed their shoes and held them high in defiance of President Mubarak. Even in Mauritania, where adults routinely sit on cushions six inches or less from the ground, one of the first lessons I learned was never to extend your legs in the direction of someone sitting opposite you in the room. Showing the sole of your foot or shoe is among the biggest insults in the Arab world.

Layla does not know this, but we do. Should we then discard this photo lest we offend any Arab readership? Perhaps. But it seemed better to use it specifically, in humble demonstration of our sense of, and not true or essential, belonging. We stand in a long line of khawaga; some have been honorable, some have not. We hope our heart and conduct might make this designation as limited as possible, increasing our ‘sense of’ all the more. To the degree we achieve, Layla can enjoy. Even if her parents keep stepping on her feet.


Too Far Away to Celebrate

February 11, 2011 is a day that will go down in history.  The man who has been president of Egypt for 30 years finally took the cue from his people after 18 days of protests and stepped down.  Having lived in Egypt for the past 18 months, we were heavily invested in this story. We rejoice with the Egyptian people at what they have accomplished and how they have accomplished it.  We admire their steadfastness and their commitment to peace over these last two weeks.  And we quietly mourned as we watched the celebrations because we were not there to join them on this joyous day.

In some ways, this is a very selfish reaction.  How can we possibly mourn when the people that we have come to love and identify with are rejoicing?  At the same time, this may show some of the depth to which we wish to belong to them.  How could we leave them in the midst of their suffering?  As Jayson said, “If we didn’t stay with them in their suffering, we don’t deserve to celebrate.”  He agrees this may not be the truth exactly, but it sums up how we feel.

The last 18 days have been an interesting journey for our family.  We anticipated the first day of protests on January 25, police day. We didn’t really know what to expect.  We had followed the events in Tunisia with interest because we had lived there previously and had many friends there.  We were excited for their successes, but also glad not to have been stuck in some of the unrest that took place.  We didn’t really know what might happen in Egypt; would this day be an isolated incident?  And so, we listened to our neighbors and friends and followed the Twitter feed to see what was happening in Tahrir Square on that first day.  More or less, the day went by without too much hype.  Many people showed up for protests in a few parts of Egypt, and most of the population went on with life as normal.  Wednesday morning came, Jayson went to work, the girls went to preschool, and I went shopping.  Would this fizzle out?  Was this a one-time event that didn’t have much effect?

On Thursday we started to hear about the call for nationwide protests following Friday prayers.  There was a hope that people would leave their mosques on Friday and join the protests all over the country.  Again, we weren’t sure what to expect, but we noticed more fear this time among some of our Egyptian friends.  Emma’s afternoon Sunday School class was cancelled in anticipation of the unknown.  I went to a choir practice on Thursday night at our local Coptic church, and while I didn’t understand all the Arabic conversation going around, I definitely sensed fear that things could get out of hand.

Friday morning was the first day of the blacked-out internet.  Not only that, but all cell phones were shut off for the entire day too.  We went to church in the morning as normal, but the crowds were definitely smaller and the priests were urging the people to go straight to their homes following mass, as we didn’t know what would happen by noon.  We obeyed the edict and made ourselves comfortable inside our house.  We have a large mosque right across the street from our house and we noticed the police barricades and extra officers stationed in the area.  Jayson was interested in seeing first-hand what might happen, and walked out the door around 1pm to watch what was coming.  The girls and I stayed inside, watched movies and played.  We didn’t hear anything unusual outside when the prayers were ending, so I figured this thing that was hyped up basically fizzled out before it started.  However, I learned more later after Jayson was able to go along with the protesters and witness both the peacefulness and some of the conflict that occurred when they met up with the riot police.

While he was with the protesters, I was with the girls hanging out in our house.  I actually felt pretty isolated because the internet and cell phones were off; I had no way of communicating with anyone, or finding out what was happening outside of our house. After a few hours, I packed the girls up in our stroller and walked down the street to a friend’s house.  We had planned to have dinner and a playdate with them that evening, so we kept the appointment even though I couldn’t contact them to confirm.  My friend was home alone with her boys as her husband had been out of the country when the unrest began and was unable to get back into Egypt.  She felt for me as well since there was no way for me to contact Jayson in the last four hours since he left the house.  It was comforting to have some fellowship as the kids played together, unaware of both the personal and national events taking place around them.

Fortunately, the TV wasn’t shut down by the government, so we could follow the events through CNN and al-Jazeera English.  We watched as Tahrir Square filled up more and more, as violence increased in clashes with police, and as ultimately, the army rolled into the square and the police disappeared!  It was a little scary to watch as we heard news of tear gas and water cannons, and watched the NDP building burning.  It seemed that things were getting out of control, and even though the square was not that close to our homes in Maadi, we didn’t know how the effects would trickle down.  I was greatly relieved when a little while later, Jayson showed up at the door.  We watched the news together, he ate some dinner, and we packed up to walk back to our house even though it was past the newly established 6pm curfew.

The next few days were a bit crazy, but we did settle into somewhat of a routine.  In the mornings and early afternoons, we tried to get out of the house and walk around our neighborhood.  Jayson went out of his way to say thank-you to the local militia who had organized themselves to protect the houses and shops in the area.  We saw some of the burned out cars and broken glass that were the result of the looting and fighting that was occurring during curfew hours.

I did some shopping and saw most of the shops closed down and boarded up to prevent looting.

The few stores that were opened reminded me of the pre-snow rushes that we’re familiar with in New Jersey when news of a big storm comes.  We tried to schedule play dates for the girls each morning as the preschool was closed and some of our friends were feeling the strain of broken routines with their kids stuck inside all day.  Not only did the kids enjoy the company, but being able to talk together with the other moms was comforting.  We all had our news, stories and questions for each other.  Once the cell phone service resumed, I tried to call many of my friends, both Egyptians and foreigners, to see how they were weathering this storm.  My Egyptian friends thanked me for the call, made sure we were all okay, reminded me NOT to open the door in our home for any stranger, and seemed a little nervous about where things were headed.  Many of my foreign friends were making plans to leave the country as the US started sending evacuation planes for any citizens who wanted to leave.  It was a disconcerting time as we tried to weigh what we should do in this situation.  We felt safe, but more and more people seemed to be leaving, and the protests had a different flavor each day.  It was confusing.

Our curfew times were spent inside the house of course.  Some days this started at 5pm, other days it was 3pm.  People in our building were intent on securing the place and making sure we were all safe.

Some friends who lived closer to a more volatile area in Maadi came to stay with us for two nights before they left Egypt.  The camaraderie was nice.  Jayson took periodic trips upstairs to our neighbor’s house to watch the news as the internet was still off and we had no television.  One night we were warned that the water would be shut off in half an hour, so while trying to get our very tired girls into bed, we were also filling every container we could find with water.  Cooking was tricky as we tried to conserve food in case grocery stores started to run out of food, while at the same time use up perishables in case the electricity was shut off.  We tried not to eat too much food, but didn’t want to waste food if we ended up leaving the country quickly.  For someone who likes to plan ahead, it was hard to not be able to do that.

Jayson had a great experience on Tuesday when he visited Tahrir Square and got to witness first-hand the peaceful and unified protesters.  He really got to feel the spirit of the Egyptians who were gathered in the square … some for the first time, and others who hadn’t left for several days.  He saw the signs and heard the slogans, noticed the families having picnics and talked with some religious scholars about their philosophy.  He took lots of pictures and was eager to share these positive images with others.  On the way back home, though, he was stopped by some local militia who made him delete ALL the pictures on the camera.  This was a huge disappointment for him, and a disconcerting conversation overall, but one that he learned from.  We couldn’t believe the scene just one day later in the square as we watched on television as pro-Mubarak demonstrators began attacking the protesters with rocks, clubs, horses, and camels.  Once again, it felt like things were really getting out of control, and we didn’t know how far this would extend.

During this whole time, we were in conversation with parents and people from our organization regarding the situation on the ground.  I felt like my emotions were all over the place at times, one minute thinking that things were just too unpredictable here and we should get out of Egypt right away.  And the next minute, seeing the stores reopened and men filling the coffee shops, it seemed like life was back to normal and there would be no reason to leave.  We would watch the news and hear from friends about the US encouraging and then urging their citizens to leave Egypt, and we would wonder what information they had that we didn’t know.  It was really hard to know what to do, but in the end, on Thursday morning, Feb. 3, we made the decision to take the last guaranteed US evacuation plane out of Egypt.  There were various factors that went into that decision, but once made at 7:30am, we packed very quickly and left our house by 11am headed for the airport.  Our landlord graciously offered to drive us there, and once there, we were processed quite quickly for the next flight out to Frankfurt, Germany.

Our evacuation experience was really quite smooth, all things considered, and we are grateful to the US embassy workers in Cairo and Frankfurt for all their work.

After deciding to leave Cairo at 7:30am on Thursday, we touched down in Philadelphia by 4pm (local time) the next day.  All four of our parents were there to greet us, and following an hour-long drive where two of the three girls got car sick and three of the three girls fell asleep, we arrived at my parent’s home for the night.  We’ve now had about a week to adjust to the time change and get over our colds and enjoy time with extended family.  We definitely appreciate being here and all the positives that are here.  At the same time, we watch the news and talk to friends in Egypt and wonder if we still shouldn’t be there.

Yesterday was one of those days that we really wished we were in Egypt.  Mubarak’s resignation brought a mixture of joy and sorrow for us.  Joy for the Egyptian people as their commitment to peaceful demonstrations finally brought the downfall of the regime.  And sorrow because we watched from our living room in the US.  We wish we could have been there during the celebrations; maybe not among the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square, but at least among the hundreds in our neighborhood of Maadi.  We rejoiced with them from far away, and hope soon, that we can celebrate with them on their own soil once again.

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Egyptian Demonstrations and the Muslim Brotherhood

Translation: Islam is the Solution / Together towards Reform / The Muslim Brotherhood / We Bring Good to All People

According to the Pew Research Center, US media attention for the Egyptian protests has exceeded every foreign policy story over the last four years, commanding 56% of all news coverage. While initially surprising, upon reflection this story hits at the conjunction of many popular flashpoints: Israel, Islam, and popular democratic movements. It also takes place in a familiar civilization from Biblical storytelling, and involves to a lesser degree ancient Christian populations which can attract foreign sympathies. Yet one of the primary angles within Western media coverage has been the role, suspected or actual, of the Muslim Brotherhood. The dominance of this narrative has threatened to obscure the monumental shifts occurring in Egypt. At the same time, the specter rises and cannot be ignored.

In analyzing this issue it is best that I place my biases up front for the reader to consider. I am a Christian living in Egypt with my wife and three young daughters. I work for the Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation, a media and translation center in Cairo, dedicated to improving understanding between the Arab and Western worlds, as well as between the Muslims and Christians of Egypt. I believe that groups and individuals believed to be opposed to American interests or Christian freedoms should be specially designated recipients of Christian love, service, and favor. Their ideas, if necessary, should be rigorously opposed; utmost care, however, should be taken that they never be misrepresented or thoughtlessly rejected. They must not be feared, for perfect love casts out all fear. And love, we are told, hopes all things, believes all things, and keeps no record of wrong. Love never fails.

I confess also that I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood. They are a multi-faceted organization with a long history. As such, there is more information about them, even from their own sources, than can be easily digested in a short time. Complexity does not lend toward clarity. I hope to gain deep familiarity over time; I cannot yet claim it.

My background approach to this topic therefore suggests that I may be more openhearted and sympathetic toward the Muslim Brotherhood than they deserve. Though possible, it is not my intention. What follows will be my perspective, first hand and otherwise, in observing the role of the Brotherhood or other Islamist elements in the recent Egyptian protests.

To begin at the most basic level, I have heard Americans express sentiments worrying about these demonstrations, wondering what would happen ‘if the Muslims took over’. Egypt is more than 90% Muslim; the Muslims took over a long time ago. What is intended, of course, is the worry that a specifically Muslim government would employ sharia law and take away rights recognized in the Western world as universal, and assumed to be antithetical to Islamic law. The statement, however, betrays a deep unfamiliarity among many Americans about the diversity which exists among Muslims, and within Islam. Sharia law means different things to different people, and many Muslims do not favor its implementation in any form. The current Egyptian constitution states already that all laws must be based on principles derived from sharia law. Some Egyptian Muslims oppose this article in its entirety; others believe that its implementation has not gone nearly far enough. There is no monolithic Muslim entity.

Therefore, in the context of a greater than 90% Muslim population, the vast majority of those protesting have been Muslim. The key question is what kind of Muslims are they? Before considering this question, however, it is useful to take note that not all protestors have been Muslims. Among their number have been thousands of Egyptian Christians.

Christian participation has by and large taken place against the will of church leadership. The Coptic Orthodox Church, by far the largest Christian denomination, has counseled its members not to take part. The Catholic and Protestant churches have not been as unequivocal, but have looked as well to substitute organized prayers for organized protests, while leaving the decision to demonstrate to the conscience of the individual believer. These prayer meetings have been very well attended, and the majority of Christians look askance at the protests. They fear that they are being driven by Islamist forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and will only lead to instability and an eventual worse outcome for Christians in Egypt if they succeed. Orthodox Church leadership, as well as the common Egyptian Christian, is inclined to support the state from which it derives its protection, even if they simultaneously complain about discrimination and neglect.

What puts this confidence to question, at least temporarily, is the fact that churches have not been  attacked during this period in which nearly all law enforcement personnel have disappeared.[1] Every church in Egypt is assigned a police security contingent, and these vanished as well with the rest of their colleagues. Sectarian tensions have been rampant for years in the lead-up to these demonstrations, most notably seen in the bombing of a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve in which 20 Christians died. At that time many Muslims poured out their sympathies and joined Christians in their churches the next week for Coptic Christmas celebrations, willing to stand in their defense and die with them if attacked.

During the protests, this spirit of interreligious unity has been reciprocated. As Muslims bow to pray in Tahrir Square, Christians have surrounded them in protection. Last Sunday witnessed a Christian prayer and praise service in the square, and Muslims joined in abundance. Signs and slogans assert that Muslims and Christians are ‘One Hand’, and the cross and crescent are intertwined, as Bible and Qur’an are lifted high together. These images and pictures are commonplace.

But they are not everywhere. This is not to say that they are opposed in sentiment by other strands of protestors, only to assert that there are many other strands of protestors. As Muslims in Egypt are not monolithic, neither are the protests at Tahrir Square. Never do all the protestors share in one chant; among hundreds of thousands of people this is not possible. Rather, groups are formed, mostly organically, as chant ringleaders shout out their messages. Around each will form a following of a few hundred, but these are fluid and roll one into the other. For the most part the chants repeated are the same throughout:

  • The people want the downfall of the regime!
  • Leave!
  • Illegitimate!
  • Fall, fall, Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!
  • Coward, coward, beloved of America!

And, to a lesser degree, there have been cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’.

I was able to attend demonstrations on two occasions. The first was on January 28, when demonstrators departed from their local mosques to begin their descent on Tahrir Square and other locations. I lingered near the tail end of the demonstrators from my neighborhood, and walked with them for an hour and a half as they joined with others merging into the demonstration path. There was an attitude of joy and freedom among the participants, as if they were enjoying something never before conceived of. Chants were in the manner listed above, but included clever additions to cajole the onlookers to join them. ‘Descend! Descend!’ ‘One, two, where are the Egyptian people?’ Many enrolled.

After a brief pause in my saunter I took a taxi down the path to rejoin them, but found instead a smaller group of about fifty youths. These were from a poorer neighborhood, and had a bit of an edge about them. ‘Allahu Akbar’ was heard a bit more frequently from their lips, whereas it had been absent entirely in the group of thousands I witnessed earlier. My neighborhood is composed more of middle to upper class Egyptians, but the route taken wove through many poorer neighborhoods. While representing a cross-section of Cairo, it appeared to be dominated by educated citizens, with at least sufficient means of livelihood, if not more. This was not true of the second group I encountered.

After walking behind this group for a while, I veered off and took another taxi in effort to get closer to downtown. When I finally arrived on foot after a circuitous route due to many road closings, I found thousands of protestors jammed into an artery leading towards Tahrir Square. These were under fire by tear gas and water cannon, blockaded by riot police. It was an impasse, and there was minimal violence on either side. No one was bent on destruction, and the police were using restraint. At the same time, tear gas is not pleasant. I witnessed demonstrators convulsing from the intake, and colleagues carrying them to the local hospital. On a side street I wondered why no one was using this path in their approach. I took a few steps and staggered backwards from gas used earlier that lingered unnoticed. Immediately my eyes watered and I began to choke. Quickly in retreat, I found fresh air and the symptoms subsided. Back on the main artery, however, the front lines refilled as some colleagues were evacuated. Most came prepared with surgical masks and onions. The people were not giving up.

As curfew approached I headed home, though the demonstrators remained. That evening the police disappeared, jails were opened by unknown forces, and looters descended upon the city, setting fire to the NDP headquarters and ransacking police stations throughout Cairo. Neighborhood militias were formed, and we barricaded our doors and slept unsoundly. This scenario followed for the next few days, as curfew obliged all to be home my mid-afternoon. Having by now taken Tahrir Square, the demonstrators ignored curfew, reticent to give up their hard won gains. Local militias in each neighborhood did so as well, reticent to surrender their properties to looters.

To return to the original question, then: Who are the demonstrators? First of all, it is important to assert that they were categorically not the looters. Those who took advantage of the police absence were either organized gangs of criminals or else ordinary Egyptians seeking quick profit. By distinction, the demonstrators, at least in the group I observed, had no inclinations toward violence or destruction of any kind. Even when under fire, there were no efforts against the shops which lined the streets of the artery. To be noted, however, a few Molotov cocktails were thrown at the feet of the police.

Second of all, though at this point it should be remembered that the crowd of my observation emerged from a middle to upper class neighborhood, they appeared educated, cultured, and aware of the new political import of their actions. They realized they were enjoying a freedom late discovered after the removal of fear. They were users of social media – Facebook, Twitter – and aware of freedoms enjoyed in other countries, and pursued by Arab colleagues in Tunisia. As I attempted to figure out the social makeup of the protestors, I wondered if they represented also the disenfranchised, largely depoliticized lower classes of Egypt. I did not notice these in abundance, though it is perfectly possible they emerged from other locations. Yet from my readings and following of the news, the protests appeared to be largely a middle class phenomena, to its credit or discredit. It was also disproportionately young, and there were significant numbers of women.

Third of all, there were no observable manifestations of religion. Many, if not most women wore the hijab, but this is representative of Egyptian society as a whole. Though it may be interpreted by many women as a religious statement, it is also the culturally mandated fashion at large. Not wearing a hijab in Egypt, for a Muslim, is more of a statement than wearing one. Christian women, to note, do not cover their heads.

As for men, a Muslim is indistinguishable from a Christian unless he chooses to identify himself. For a Muslim this can be through a particular dress – long robes and a beard – or by a callous mark on one’s forehead, indicating frequent prostrations. For a Christian this can be through wearing a cross around one’s neck or by a tattoo on the hand or wrist. These markers are harder to observe unless made obvious, and few of them were obvious to me. The crowd I followed appeared to have no religious identity, either in dress, appearance, or slogan. For a population in which religious identity is near paramount, this was remarkable.

Returning specifically to the Muslim Brotherhood, they took a very cautious approach to the protests. The movement emerged rapidly, but there was advance warning. Social media sites began spreading the word that protests would be held against police brutality, in deliberate irony, on Police Day, January 25. A few months earlier a Facebook group had formed around the memory of Khalid Said, a young man allegedly killed while in police custody. This group mobilized the early demonstrations, and other non-establishment political movements, such as the one labeled April 6, carried forward the call.

The Muslim Brotherhood did not. Some members made statements that they would attend the Police Day protests, and then more official voices denied their participation. While in all likelihood there was involvement on the part of individual members, there was no leadership provision. Certainly the Muslim Brotherhood took no role in mobilization, which is significant as this is one of the strengths of their organization. Earlier, would-be presidential candidate Mohamed El Baradei, an established secular reformist figure, conducted a signature campaign to press for constitutional amendments, and the greatest number in support by far was brought by the Brotherhood. El Baradei expressed his support for the protests, though he initially did not attend. The Brotherhood, by contrast, was far from clear in their position, but noticeably absent in any tangible way.

Much like the Orthodox Church, the Muslim Brotherhood has maintained an ambiguous relationship with the state. The church maintains official and public support of the ruling system, though it harbors complaints over its handling of Coptic affairs. Conversely, the Muslim Brotherhood is officially a banned political party at odds with the ruling system, though it is widely suspected of making back door deals with the government to secure political gains for each. Over the past few decades there have been alternating periods of severe repression and relative openness toward the Brotherhood, with repression being the prevailing stance. Brotherhood members are routinely arrested and jailed, even if they are released shortly thereafter. This is especially common in periods preceding electoral contests, which bolsters their opposition to the state.

During the 2005 parliamentary elections the Brotherhood experienced a slight opening vis-à-vis the state. President George Bush was actively pressing President Mubarak for political reforms, and in a manner, Mubarak relented. While few will maintain that the election was free and fair, ‘banned’ Muslim Brotherhood candidates running as independents won nearly one-quarter of the seats. Had the elections been open it is possible that many of these candidates might have won anyway; the suspicion, however, was widespread that the Brotherhood made a deal with the regime. For the government, one-quarter representation would pose no threat toward legislative intransigence toward executive policies. Furthermore, the challenge posed by Bush was given an answer: If you don’t like our governance, look at the alternative. Shortly thereafter, Bush’s public stance toward the promotion of democracy began to wane.

For the Brotherhood, if a deal was reached, the benefit was a major step towards legitimacy. Their ‘independent’ candidates could monitor and criticize government policies from the inside, and achieve a national presence with several perks of position. Over the following years, many Brotherhood members became household names. Their grassroots activities of mobilization and social service provision continued, but they added a political platform from which to make their message known.

What was this message? I confess that here my lack of expertise in Muslim Brotherhood affairs will limit my ability to speak authoritatively. My impression, however, is that they behaved as a typical political party, and as such had a message that vacillated. Voices emerged in defense of a civil state; others preferred greater implementation of God’s laws. Voices asserted that Copts and women had equal rights with all other citizens; others stated that Copts would need to submit to Islamic law as dhimmis ,  in which they are tolerated, protected, but not equal. It was clear among all, however, that the movement had renounced violence, and while it opposed vigorously the ruling party, it did not want to be seen as an imminent threat to stability.

Fast forward to the 2010 parliamentary elections, and it will be clear that this time a deal was not in the works. Though observers imagined final results would shift the minority opposition from the Brotherhood to the liberal Wafd party, the results were astounding. A mere 3% of opposition candidates won seats, which included only one ‘independent’ candidate affiliated with the Brotherhood. Though several candidates advanced to the runoff stage, by this point the Brotherhood was ready to denounce the elections as fraudulent, boycotted the runoff, and decertified the one winning candidate who refused to give up his seat. Incidentally, El Baradei has urged all opposition parties to boycott the entire election. Muslim Brotherhood leadership which had supported him in his signature collection campaign ignored his advice, believing it better to work within the system and expose any fraud which emerged in the election process. Their position was not illegitimate, but the results were far from what they expected.

Given this reality, why did the Muslim Brotherhood not take an active role in advancing the Police Day demonstrations? Like most Egyptians, they were probably not anticipating the great turnout that emerged. Protests in Egypt had by this point become common. Though limited in size and cause, nearly every day downtown could be heard the chants of this or that group, protesting wages, housing, or some other issue. Yet it was clear that the Police Day protests were political, and the authorities gave ample warning they would not tolerate it. If the Brothers were present, in their likely estimation this would only increase the clampdown. Hundreds of Brotherhood members had been arrested in the recent parliamentary elections, and organizational focus was concerned with survival, as well as internal fissures that had emerged as younger members favored the boycotting position of El Baradei. Surely they figured these ‘social media’ protests would pass, and their battles would be best pitched at another time. Besides, though the parliamentary option was closed for now, might true political legitimacy be better won in cooperation with the state, rather than in outright antagonism? As an old and venerable organization founded in the 1920s, they could afford to take a long term view. Certainly, the power of the state showed no signs of enfeeblement.

As the protests gained steam, however, opposition parties across the board began taking notice. Observers generally posit that all legal opposition political parties have made similar deals with the government throughout the years, and do not have a broad base of support. This is not quite true among the Egyptian elite, but their reach does not generally extend to the street, to the common Egyptian. The Muslim Brotherhood does, though their appeal is debated. Substantial numbers of observers do not believe their political agenda is favored by the majority of Egyptians, even though their work in social service provision is appreciated. In any event, the Brotherhood operates in this regard as a quasi-political party that does deal with the ruling system, even if it is not aligned with it as the other parties are believed to be. Everyone, however, began making cautious statements in support of the protestors, waiting to see if some sort of spoils could emerge.

As I observed the demonstrations for the second time, I could sense the changes. On February 1 the protestors had taken firm positions in Tahrir Square, and the army had taken to the streets to reassert some control and stability, welcomed enthusiastically by the protestors. By and large the crowd was the same as I had experienced earlier. Though the majority was young and apparently middle class, all segments of society were present. Women were out in abundance; several bald heads were present; families held children on their shoulders with placards calling for the downfall of the regime. Several signs bore particularly Christian messages. Many asserted national unity. All exclaimed they were Egyptians, and flags flew with pride. It was a carnival atmosphere, though very serious. The people anticipated winning, and were reveling in their newly discovered political power.

From some quarters, however, the main chant began to change. Now it was ‘the people want the execution of the president’. By no means did this replace ‘… the downfall of the regime’; by no means was it present everywhere. But, neither was it isolated. It caught me off guard; nearly did I approach one of the chanters and ask him to reconsider. If there is to be a new system, it should be based on mercy and forgiveness, which are completely compatible with Islamic values. Yet the situation, as described before, was so fluid that by the time I considered raising the issue the group had changed chants again, this time to one of the more familiar slogans. Yet if you looked up, there dangling from a lamppost was an effigy of President Mubarak, hung from a noose. It must be emphasized that these were simply elements of the protest, they did not characterize it. But they were there.

It was impossible to tell if the sporadic groups chanting for the execution of the president bore any Islamic marks. This time as well, most men were indistinguishable as per religious affiliation. But in one particular section of the square 30 to 50 Muslim sheikhs had gathered, and were leading their own version of the chants. One changed the popular slogan into ‘The Azhar wants the downfall of the regime’.

These men were Azhar graduates, proclaiming in their dress and demeanor that they were Muslim scholars. It seemed the majority were employees of the Ministry of Endowments, which oversees the regulation of mosques and religious properties. Yet despite their proclamation, they did not represent the Azhar, which is the highest institution of Islamic learning in Egypt, and widely credited as chief in the whole Muslim world. It is also a state-run body, and the Grand Sheikh is appointed by the Egyptian president. These protestors wanted him removed as well.

Were these sheikhs members of the Muslim Brotherhood? It was impossible to say; within the Azhar there are scholars allied with the Brotherhood, while others are opposed to their agenda. Clearly, however, their chanted slogans were Islamic. They proclaimed ‘Allahu Akbar’. They cried for the implementation of God’s law. Yet they also preached that God’s laws brought freedom, to Muslim and non-Muslim alike. They carried signs that stated no church had been attacked during this period of lawlessness. They asserted that this was an Egyptian revolution, and they were simply one segment of the Egyptian population, and certainly not in leadership. They were frustrated with the government for corruption, for violation of Islamic rules of governance in terms of justice and equality. Allahu Akbar, they explained, was not meant as an Islamic cry of identity, but as a religious challenge to the regime. It was purposed as jihad in all its proper manifestations – an effort to put right what is wrong. I sensed deep anger; I did not sense violence or any anti-Christian sentiment.

Yet the mood in the square was slightly different, and in a way that was somewhat disturbing. The next day the horses and camels descended on the protestors, and a night of violence engulfed Tahrir. Pro-government gangs led a charge against the demonstrators, but by the breaking of dawn they had held their ground. Some of the chants the next morning reflected a night under siege: ‘The people want the execution of the murderer.’

Afterwards the government began reaching out and inviting the opposition groups into dialogue. The first day all of the traditional political parties rejected the overture, demanding first the resignation of President Mubarak. The next day, they agreed to talk. The Muslim Brotherhood was among them, though they insisted they were participating as a ‘feel out’ process to test the sincerity of the government, as well as to make sure the demands of the protestors were heard.

Regardless of the wisdom or sincerity of the Brotherhood position, it was at sharp odds with the amorphous, leaderless reaction of the protestors. They consistently rejected each and every concession as a simple effort to placate the protests and keep ultimate control over the system. Their rejection also stemmed from fear that if they would give up in this stage the government would find them later and punish them.  Certainly the Brotherhood by this time was part of the protests, but their interaction with the government cost them much legitimacy among the majority of their colleagues, who had engineered these demonstrations on their own. How much legitimacy lost is yet to be seen, as the story is not yet over and this analysis describes a situation only a few days old.

Therefore, the big question remains; the specter over the entire proceedings: What is the Brotherhood up to, and will they emerge victorious in the end? Will the pangs for democratic change result ultimately in an Islamic state constructed by the Muslim Brotherhood? Are they taking over the movement? Are they hijacking it?

Again, it is impossible to say, for the story is ever evolving. Only yesterday, however, I received testimony from an evangelical pastor who visited the square. He related that he went not to protest, but to observe what was being said, what attitude was manifest. There were no signs, he related, of a peculiar Islamic character to the demonstrations. There were no Islamic slogans; there was no sectarian spirit. Instead, he declared it to be a fully Egyptian movement, with many Christians present. It is focused on freedom, not sharia. Did he misread the situation? It is possible; Tahrir Square is wide and its denizens are diverse in perspective. Yet he went wary of Islamic tendencies, and he found none.

This essay does not argue on behalf of the protestors or in defense of their demands. It takes no position on the question of whether President Mubarak should step down, or if his government will sincerely negotiate. It makes no statement on US policy objectives, or on legitimate political reforms. Rather, it is a description of the nature of the protests. Many concerns are expressed that these demonstrations are the work of the Muslim Brotherhood and an effort to achieve an Islamic state. From the perspective described here, this is highly doubtful.

What cannot be asserted with similar certainty is the outcome of these demonstrations. Is the Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings? If there is democratic transformation will their organizational prowess and social service reputation be sufficient to win governing majorities? Once in governance, will they reject pluralism and consolidate power, violating principles of freedom and human rights for which they now clamor? Will they marginalize Copts and restrict Muslims with opinions other than their own?

Or, if they win majorities, will they work sincerely according to their mainstream voices that reject violence and believe in a civil state? Will they incorporate the participation of women and Copts? Will their version of sharia be a moderate and inclusive interpretation of Islamic law? Will they create a political system different from the objectives of the West, but in accordance with the reasonable will of their own people? Widespread among Christians as well as secular leaning Muslims is the fear that the outcome will be a turn for the worst.

The Muslim Brotherhood should not be trusted, but on the account of their being politicians, not on account of their being Islamists. The West is rightfully wary of the outcome of these demonstrations, but Egyptians themselves appear to be more so, as is their prerogative. These are their efforts, and they do not wish to see them hijacked by anyone – the West, the government, opposition forces, or Islamist opportunism. Anyone of these forces may succeed in wrestling control of the movement in the end. Good analysis and political calculations must be employed by all in defense of their understood interests. Egyptian interests must be honored chiefly among all, as determined by Egyptians in their collective struggle.

This essay does not wish to outline the proper opinions, reactions, or policy positions to be adopted by Westerners. There are a variety of responses that are legitimate and logical. What is necessary is that the movement be understood for what it is. So far, it is not an Islamist movement; the Muslim Brotherhood is not in control. Attempts to paint the picture otherwise are suspect and perhaps manipulative.

They may gain control. This is a fair an open question. Similarly fair is the policy question of the balance between favoring popular democratic movements and controlling the results to ensure a government that favors Western interests, however defined. May the West have wisdom to advise and influence properly; may Egypt have the wisdom to decide best its own course in accordance with popular will and respect for basic freedoms and essential stability.

May all understand each other properly, and from the ensuing respect make their independent decisions, each to intend the good of all.



[1] In the town of Rafah, February 5, on the border with Gaza there was a fire set in a church while it was empty. Damage was limited and no one was harmed. This situation is believed to be unique due to the border tensions between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

A Christian Face to the Protests

Translation: Christian + Muslim = Egypt

Sunday, February 6 witnessed a peculiar exhibition amidst the drama unfolding in Tahrir Square. Christian Egyptians publically conducted a prayer service, honoring their fallen co-demonstrators who have died in the effort to topple the Mubarak government. Calling them ‘martyrs’, as is common Egyptian custom to designate all who perish in a cause or as a result of oppression, the opportunity was also used to demonstrate religious cohesion among all protestors. ‘Eid Wahida!’ – ‘One Hand!’ was the most popular chant uttered, exclaiming the essential unity between Muslims and Christians. Within context, a similar chant began when the Egyptian army took to the streets to restore order to society after the disappearance of the police, and was greeted with open arms by the protestors. They cried, ‘The people and the army are one hand.’ No less was the sentiment today confessed along religious lines.

This text was not composed based on first-hand experience, although the author was able to personally witness two days of previous demonstrations. Rather, it is compiled based on nearly eighteen minutes of footage posted on YouTube by the Coptic website, and an additional two and a half minutes posted by BBC Arabic. It is also bolstered by the first-hand account of Dr. Amin Makram Ebeid, a board member of the Center for Arab West Understanding, which cooperates with Arab West Report.

It is noteworthy to begin by stating that each day’s protests have not been monolithic. Tahrir Square is a large area, and protestors have by necessity grouped together in several ‘stations’, each pressed up against the next. Other protestors ring the square in procession, and the chants that break out in one location soon dissipate into the cries of the next one over. Dr. Ebeid, who went specifically to attend the announced prayer service, had much difficulty finding the right location.

Nevertheless, the YouTube videos demonstrate that the crowd assembled was very sizeable. Christians, despite the Orthodox Church stance against participation, and the statements of Pope Shenouda on state television to end the protests and support President Mubarak, have joined in the thousands from the very beginning. During the service these were accompanied by many Muslims, who stood with their Christian co-demonstrators, holding the Bible and Qur’an aloft together.

This spirit of unity was exhibited by the service leaders. The popular Christian chorus ‘Peace, Peace’ had a line changed from ‘Peace to the people of the Lord in every place’ to ‘Peace to the Egyptian people’. Jesus was addressed as both ‘Yesua al-Masih’ (Jesus the Messiah, in Christian parlance) and ‘Eisa ibn Maryam’ (Eisa, the son of Mary, the preferred Islamic title). Some of the chants were political in nature, including the ubiquitous ‘Irhal’ – Leave! Others emphasized common human rights, proclaiming ‘Life, freedom, and the principles of humanity’, and the nationalistic ‘Egypt for all Egyptians’.

Excerpts from the spoken portions of the service included:

  • Egypt is free: Muslims, Christians, and those of no particular faith. Freedom and peace to everyone; we are looking for a civil state.
  • Let us pray together for the martyrs, help us to love each other and to love Egypt. Preserve Egypt, and its Muslims and Christians.
  • Quoting John 10:10 – I have come that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Christianity, Islam, and all religions want this; we are all together, we do not fear each other.

Many of these types of statements led to the repetition of Eid Wahida, Eid Wahida, and the Christians celebrated together with their Muslim partners. One statement, however, led to an odd proclamation. When the speaker proclaimed, ‘We stand with the martyrs, in a spirit of love, chanting for peace, standing for peace’, the crowd erupted in ‘Allahu Akbar’, the typical Muslim chant confessing ‘God is great!’ Apparently, as is possible theologically, both Christians and Muslims asserted this truth.

It seemed that this chant unnerved the service leaders somewhat, and they proceeded to lead the crowd once more in singing the popular Christian chorus, ‘Bless my country’. Other aspects of the service were more distinctively Christian, which did not seem to unnerve the crowd at large. One song declared ‘Son of God, you are our king’, despite the Muslim abhorrence at the thought that God might have a son. A prayer invoked ‘Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’, despite the Muslim belief that Jesus was only a prophet, however elevated. Even so, it seemed the organizers were very careful to be Christian yet not offensive and supportive of the protests. A main line in the sermon quoted I John 4:18, proclaiming, ‘The Gospel says that perfect love casts out all fear; we saw this love on January 25[1] and on January 28.[2] Let us cast out all our fear in the name of the martyrs’.

Yet even so, Christian principles cannot simply serve the celebrated status quo. At one point the service leaders spoke the Lord’s Prayer, and after each line the people responded ‘Amen’. Upon the conclusion, however, the leader asked for God to forgive President Mubarak, and the people shouted, ‘No, no, no!’ Again, apparently, Christians and Muslims in attendance were united.

At this point it will be fair to introduce the service leader. He was Dr. Hany Kharrat, a psychologist and an elder in the Anglican Church. The flavor of the meeting was fully evangelical, lacking the gravity of the Orthodox mass, as well as its identifiable priestly leadership with its black robes and long beards. Instead, the service employed a guitar and was led by youth, representative of the makeup of the protests in general. It resembled a revival meeting in its fervor and participation. Yet it insisted on speaking on behalf of all Christians in Egypt, as Dr. Kharrat insisted, ‘All denominations of Egyptian Christians have come to share with you and to pray with you’.

This is less clear in conversation with official leadership. The bishop of the Anglican Church in Egypt is Bishop Mounir Anis, also a board member of CAWU. He has also taken a cautious approach to the protests, stating that most Christians fear that extremist elements will take these peaceful demonstrations in ultimately untoward directions. Instead of shouting slogans, he has encouraged his people to pray, which they have done in abundance. He believes people should be gracious to President Mubarak, though he supports a civilized transfer of authority. Otherwise, there might be chaos.

Rev. Radi Atallah is an evangelical pastor in Alexandria, who has worked extensively with local Muslims to secure dialogue and understanding, especially following the bombing in his city on New Year’s Eve. He also expressed concern that the protests were the organizational work of the Muslim Brotherhood, and worried they could go down a wrong path. Even so, he encouraged individual Christians to follow their conscience concerning participation. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Committee for Peace and Justice, associated with the Council of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops, has stated that these peaceful demonstrations are as important as the nonviolent resistance of Gandhi in India and as the emancipation of American slaves. Ezzet Boules, a Coptic Orthodox activist living in Switzerland, believes that if Christians shy away from participation, it will lead only to their further isolation from society. Church efforts to prevent this, he believes, are counterproductive.

As such, the absence of Coptic Orthodox official representation at the Tahrir prayer service is noteworthy, especially given Bishop Anis’s comments that some were present at the pro-Mubarak rallies organized on behalf of the government. What should be made of their abstention?

The Coptic Orthodox Church represents the vast majority of Christians in Egypt, who represent perhaps 6-8% of the overall population. Since sectarian troubles began plaguing Copts in the 1970s, Pope Shenouda has taken a leadership role in speaking on behalf of the Christian community, seeking to secure its political rights and its protection against extremist Muslim elements. Though the relationship has been wobbly, Pope Shenouda has largely succeeded in crafting a positive political stance vis-à-vis the government of President Mubarak.

Having molded Coptic opinion behind his leadership, however, Pope Shenouda has faced accusations of turning the church into ‘a state within a state’, while President Mubarak has been accused of allowing the inflammation of sectarian tension when necessary to achieve political goals, either against the church or in larger society. Whether or not these opinions have merit, they do not mask the essential reality that all groups in society depend on the power of the state for police protection and preservation of order. Neither do they mask the Biblical reality that calls Christians to ‘honor the king’.

Therefore, though the reasons and motivations behind abstention may be many, it may be true that Pope Shenouda early on expressed sentiments similar to Hillary Clinton when she declared the Egyptian government to be ‘stable’, and when Vice-President Joe Biden declared President Mubarak to be a longstanding ally. Inertia in relationships is difficult to overcome. Falling on the wrong side of the state could be a great miscalculation.

Yet as a hierarchical organization, the Coptic Orthodox Church is built upon obedience and respect for the positions of its pope and bishops. In this regard some bishops have condemned the ‘spirit of insurgency’ that is pitted in some quarters against Pope Shenouda. The spontaneous and widespread Christian riots following the bombing of the church in Alexandria was interpreted by some as church leadership losing its grip on its youth. Youth participation in the Tahrir protests may rightly be seen as a second blow. Whether or not the Coptic Orthodox Church is right or wrong in its decision to abstain from the demonstrations, on February 6 they yielded ground to the evangelicals.

Long term, and even short term, this should not be understood as a significant challenge to Orthodox hegemony in Egypt. Although occasional flare-ups occur between the leaders of the Christian denominations, many ordinary Egyptian Christians dismiss the importance of distinctions. For these, when Christians represent less than 10% of the population, insistence on doctrinal divisions takes on less importance. They will not deny the specifics of their peculiar creed, but they will also not shy away from cross-participation in different congregations, and especially not from warm individual relationships of respect. A Christian, they believe, is a Christian.

In Tahrir, this has been extended to assert that a Christian, like a Muslim, is an Egyptian. What does this mean for the widespread fear that these demonstrations bear an Islamic stamp that will marginalize Christians in the end? Bishop Anis reflected the testimony that over time the composition of the protests has changed, and that some groups are trying to ‘take advantage of the youth’. Is this the case?

During the protests on February 1, the March of a Million, I witnessed one of the changes. As compared to the demonstrations on January 28, the Day of Rage, there was this time a large contingent of Muslim sheikhs, distinguishable by their deep crimson fez. Between 30 and 50 such individuals grouped themselves together in a section of the square, and led those around them in chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and calls for the implementation of God’s law (sharia). Yet they declared at the same time that this was a demonstration representing all of Egypt, and that God’s law grants freedom to Muslim, Christian, and non-religious alike. A sign upheld celebrated the fact that since the protests began, not one church in all of Egypt had been attacked.

After Islamic prayers there was a pause, and I sat down to discuss their message with Sheikh Mukhtar, one of the primary chant leaders. He is an employee of the Ministry of Endowments, which oversees mosques and religious establishments in Egypt. His particular position is as a ‘caller’ to Islam, that is, to full practice of Muslim religious requirements.

His testimony reflected anger at the government and its corruptions. He called for the deposing of all figures appointed by the government, including the Grand Sheikh of the Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, the highest Muslim religious authority in Egypt. He bore no malice whatsoever toward Christians or non-practicing Muslims, but, emboldened by the successes of the demonstrations, now desired to take part. As an Egyptian, no matter an Islamist, he wished to display his share. He recognized, though, that leadership was in the hands of the youth, and he was a latecomer.

I asked him about his chanting of ‘Allahu Akbar’. I confessed that many either through ignorance or willful distortion seek to disfigure the Islamist position, especially in reference to these protests and this chant. Yet all the same, Allahu Akbar is an Islamic cry. If he was insisting that these demonstrations were Egyptian, and not Muslim, why employ it? Would it not only serve to confuse Westerners and scare Egyptian Christians? Would this not be against your own interests?

His reply initially suggested that he had never considered such a question. Among Muslims, the Allahu Akbar cry is near-instinctual, and does not necessarily convey a call to jihad. When there is a cause to rally behind, however, it is jihadic in all positive senses (and at times negative as well), and comes quickly to their lips.

Upon reflection, though, he stated that in this situation Allahu Akbar does not express a sense of belonging to a particular creed. Rather, it is a challenging directive against the government. It is meant to state deep, religious dissatisfaction against a power believed to have violated the Islamic principles of justice, equity, and good governance. Besides, in its meaning, he stated, a Christian should not disagree. God is great. Apparently, at the February 6 prayer service, many Christians agreed, and cried Allahu Akbar all the same.

The impression received across the board is that protestors are eager, even desperate, for validation. They know their movement is subject to suspicion, criticism, and accusation – certainly from the government but also from Western liberal supposed allies who fear an Islamist imprint. For the past several decades religion has been a dividing point between Muslims and Christians. Many, however, have insisted these difficulties are invented or engineered, not reflecting the essential national unity that exists between the two groups. Among the makeup of Tahrir protestors, this certainly reflects their reality.

Yet they go forward to make certain this message is heard. When Muslims bow during their prayer times, Christians have encircled them to offer protection. Now, when Christians conduct a prayer service, Muslims participate freely. Has protection been necessary? Yes, but have attacks been immanent? No. Are such sentiments sincere? Yes. Are they meant to be a picture representation before the outside world, and therefore at least partially staged? Perhaps. Should they be criticized for this? No. Should the outside world consider its guilt in assuming religious relations are bad, therefore making these exhibitions necessary? Probably.

What does all of this mean for the uprising? What does it mean for Christian participation? As throughout Egyptian society, opinions are divided. The question now appears to be congealing into a discussion for the long haul. Protestors have established control over Tahrir Square, and the government is in negotiations over demands and concessions. The atmosphere, only a few days earlier a war zone, is now conducive to church services. Things change rapidly, and wisdom is necessary. Will good come about, and if so, who should define it? What should a Christian do? What should an Egyptian do? These are monumental, historical days for a six thousand year old civilization. Rarely does life have such weight. When it does, what is demanded?

Perhaps the Western reader’s life does not bear such weight at the moment, but allow your mind to process the questions as if you shared in the Egyptian experience. How should you think? Who should you support? How should you pray?

We do not share in their struggles, but we share in their humanity. Where does the good of all lie?

[1] Police Day, on which the protests began.

[2] The Day of Rage, the Friday on which protestors emerged from the mosques and marched downtown.