Egypt – Where it Goes, No one Knows
Egyptian specialists conversing in Washington on February 7-8, 2012 seemed the perfect combination to discern Egypt’s future and the role Christians might have in its public and civil society. We learned answers are hard to come by.
It was only months ago that the country celebrated the fall of its dictator, President Mubarak. It was just a matter of months, most believed, that democratic rule would take hold, the military would humbly submit to the democratic will, the economy would be fuelled into roaring strength, young people would find jobs and the hostility of Islamic fundamentalists towards Christians would ease. Today the political machinations are so complex and unpredictable that the assumed gains are no longer sure.
Last December during the elections I walked the streets of Cairo, visited leaders and talked to demonstrators in Tahrir Square and felt their excitement: for the first time, they had unhindered opportunity to vote in their choices.
Underestimated was the majority that would be won by moderate and extreme Muslim parties: the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) won 46% and the Salafists 23%. The political intrigue of Mid-East politics continues to play out, and some fear, on the backs of Christians.
From my summit notes, these caught my attention.
• The big lie is gone. Before the revolution, the country was fed a lie from the president on down. Egyptians hope they have driven out pretence and rid itself of deceit and misrepresentation.
• There is no political center. The Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed for years, provided social care for the poor and carefully built their political infrastructure in preparation for their time to run for office. Now many are sceptical of their intentions. The mood is shifting to distrust of them.
• 60% of the population is under 25. Most voted for the MB but now question their ability to control the military. So to whom will they now turn?
• The military is powerful. They have close to one million in their forces and it is estimated they own up to 20% of Egyptian business. Historically they were seen as friend to its citizens but today they’re a wild card: during the elections, they said they would not bow to an elected parliament. Lashing out at protestors, the army’s credibility is tarnished and demonstrators challenge their role.
• Egypt is experiencing the second wave of Islam. The first was 1400s years ago and today, the ruling majority of the MB and Salafists spells out the second wave. What is considered possible is the reintroduction of the jizya poll tax on Christians, intended to humiliate “people of the book.”
So what is the political future and what can Christians expect?
Politically, the unknown is how the military and MB will oppose each other or work together. One theory is that the military will allow the parliament to work under its elected officials but the president will be chosen by the military. If so, how will the two interface? Added to that is how much will the MB be influenced by the fundamentalists? The 26% of seats they hold in parliament has enormous power.
As well, for years the military has surrounded itself with power and privilege. Allowing any of that to migrate away will be cunningly resisted.
Finally comes the writing of the new constitution. Will it include, Shari’a Islamic law? Will Christians and other religious minorities be cordoned off and marginalized? Its writing is foundational to Egypt’s future and intentions.
Now to the core question that underlay the summit: what is the future of the Christian witness?
There were moments during the revolution when Christians and Muslims came together, protecting each other in Tahrir Square, and the Jasr El Dobara Church, located at the square opened its doors to serve as a hospital and became a gathering place for protesters wounded and exhausted. It soon became known as the “Church of the Revolution.” This important connection speaks of the work of Christians serving Muslims in so many ways. Whether this will influence how Christians will be treated is unknown.
What is known are the many stories of how churches and ministries are harassed and kept from renting or buying buildings. Forced to be creative, they seem to be on the edge and often disenfranchised.
Yet economically, Christians are in the upper levels of many professions and while constituting at best 12% of the population, they own up to 35% of business. Even so many see the future as bleak. Mirroring what has and is going on in other Mid-East countries, Christians are leaving in droves. A Washington lawyer said a large number of her asylum cases are from Egypt. I noticed this week another large Coptic Orthodox church being built in Markham, just northeast of Toronto. In a recent visit to an Arabic speaking evangelical church in Cairo I heard of a number of families that had left, were about to leave or were in process of applying for citizenship elsewhere.
Ramez Atallah from the Bible Society of Egypt noted, “The reality is that many Egyptian Christians wouldn’t think twice about leaving Egypt if they had the visas to do so.” He concluded, “However, we cannot leave Egypt because this is our calling from God.”
When we asked the Egyptians present at the summit what they saw in the future, they candidly admitted, “We don’t know.”
However, what did emerge—as critical to the life and witness of the Christian community, regardless of political outcomes—is the role human rights and freedom plays in securing for people space to live out their faith.
Andrea Zaki, General Director of CEOSS (the largest Christian agency in Egypt) put it this way, “Although the Lord gave us the calling to focus on mission through His mandate in the Great Commission, we believe that our calling now is securing religious freedom for all people; this is the very most basic human right. If we lose the right to share Christ, then we lose our present and future.”
Living under the claustrophobic and oppressive presence of Islam for 1400s years, Christians have learned to adapt, finding ways to be faithful and strong. I am amazed at the large and varied ministries, aggressively working, careful not to violate laws or upset Islamic leaders, all the while finding creative ways to speak into the hearts and minds of Egyptians.
The pervading concern at the summit was this: how many Christians will leave Egypt? The answer to that question may have more to do with the long term Gospel witness than the role of the military and parliament, as this culturally rich and ancient civilization of Egypt zigzags its way into the future.
Brian C Stiller
The World Evangelical Alliance
February 09, 2012