UPPER EGYPT – Maha, an Egyptian merchant in her 40s, doesn’t sleep well at night. Ever since the January 25 revolution, she is experiencing a difficult period. “In the first days of the mass demonstrations against Mubarak, my mother and me couldn’t even sleep because of fear,” said the Christian Copt. “We didn’t know what will happen to us. Ever since then, even though the general security situation in the country has stabilized, our fears were confirmed.”
In recent months we have seen significant escalation in violent clashes between radical Islamists and members of the Copt minority across Egypt. It started with the lethal suicide attack in one of Alexandria’s main churches in the first days of the year, even before the popular protest against Mubarak gained steam. Twenty three worshippers were murdered and some 100 were wounded.
Egyptian opposition sources claimed at the time that the attack was organized by a secret unit established by the former interior minister in order to undermine domestic stability and reinforce the regime’s hold on the country. A few weeks ago, when angry Islamist masses attacked a Cairo church where two Christian women who converted to Islam were apparently held, some charged that loyalists of the outgoing regime were identified among the radical Muslim activists. Ten people were killed in the clash, while security forces stood at the sidelines and observed.
Maha has no doubt as to who stands behind the growing violence against Copts – the Salafiyun, the ultra-conservative Islamic camp. Al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahri hailed from the Salafiyun’s ranks. So did Mohammed Atta, the commander of the September 11 attacks, who was a member of mosque affiliated with the movement. The Salafiyun are inspired by Saudi Arabia and seek to impose traditions from the early days of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad era.
“They hate everyone,” said Maha. “They also hate Muslims who are not like them, but they mostly hate us, Christians. One of their leaders said during a TV show that he dreams of waking up one day and discovering that Egypt is free of Christians. ‘They should go to the US and Canada,’ he said. ‘It’s not their country.’ Unbelievable chutzpah….we were in this country hundreds of years before Islam and the Arabs arrived.”
‘Islamists are taking over’
According to official figures, some eight million Copts live in Egypt, comprising 10% of the population. The Copt Church claims that the community numbers 13 million. Many Christians, young and wealthy, left Egypt in recent years, seeing no future for themselves in the country.
“At first we thought that the revolution would put Egypt on the right path,” said Maher, who immigrated to Canada and returned to visit his family. “We believed that the many minorities in the country would be able to live freely in a new society, yet today we no longer believe it. The Islamists are reckless and are taking over the country. It’s only a matter of time before they impose Islamic law here.”
In post-revolution Egypt, almost no day goes by without the Salafiyun assaulting Christians or members of other Muslim sects. They even took over a Cairo mosque held by the State, removed the local Imam and appointed one of their own instead – an elderly preacher who was recently released from jail and boasts of fighting the “Zionists” in 1948.
Indeed, Egypt is still far from being a free country, and radical Muslims are doing as they wish, under the auspices of the supreme military council. The despair of non-Sunni minorities is so deep that many Copts have armed themselves and are opening fire every time Muslim masses threaten their communities. Representatives of the Shiite and Sufi camps also declared “jihad” against the Salafiyun this past week, making it clear that from now on violence will be met with violence.
The tense atmosphere also drew, against their will, Mickey and Minnie Mouse into the fray. The Twitter account of Egyptian-Copt billionaire Naguib Sawiris, a telecommunication tycoon who recently formed a liberal-secular party, featured a photo of Disney’s stars with Mickey boasting a thick Salafi-style beard and Minnie’s face covered by a black niqab. The Salafiyun responded quickly: The immediately issued calls to boycott Sawiris’ phone companies and torch their offices. “We must cut off the tongue of those who attack our religion,” boycott organizers declared.
Sawiris already stirred a storm in the past after declaring that he feels like a foreigner on Cairo’s streets when facing the growing number of people adhering to radical Islamic dress codes. His party, which endorses separation of religion and state, still waits for approval from the central elections committee. Islamic parties established ahead of the upcoming elections for parliament were not forced to wait.
Should the planned elections timetable be adhered to, nobody in Egypt doubts that the big winner of the “freedom revolution” would be the Islamist movement on all its shades. Following the elections, Egypt will be under the control of Islam that is more radical than the one ruling Turkey. “Today’s Egypt is very different than the Egypt we knew so far,” a Western diplomat said.
The initiators of the January revolution – the liberal, secular and democratic youngsters – are feeling that they are losing control over the movement they launched. While the revolution against Mubarak’s regime was initially led by members of the middle class, now it is being taken over by the simple folk, who pull it in entirely different directions: More Islam and aspirations for the return of a powerful leader.
“Before, we barely had any parties, and now we have too many,” says Mohammad while sipping tea at a Luxor teahouse. The 25-year-old studied industrial design but like many others didn’t find a job and is making a living from tourism. “We need a president that will restore Egypt’s stability. Everything happening around here now greatly harms the state and our economic situation.”
Muhammad, a Muslim, said he will not be voting for one of the Islamist parties and boasts of having Christian friends. “We cannot afford to isolate Egypt from the world,” he said. This is what will happen if the Islamists win the elections. This will harm tourism even more. How will we make a living?
The uncertainty over Egypt’s future under Islamist rule is making some people long for Mubarak’s days. “At the end of the day, he was a good leader,” said Ahmad, a young student. “He did not lead us to adventurous wars; we had stability and security. It’s a pity that at the end he became detached from the people. His great mistake was to groom his son, Gamal, as his successor.”
The Islamists are careful not to voice overly zealous sentiments in respect to Israel. They know that after the elections they will have to swallow some bitter pills. Some of the people interviewed for this article estimated that the Islamists will expel Israel’s ambassador from Cairo should they win the elections but that they still realize they must show some flexibility.
However, the Islamists don’t need to make much effort on the Israel front. The supreme military committee, the transition government and the secular democratic parties are doing the job for them by spreading hateful anti-Israel propaganda and erasing any sign of peace, with the exception of the business normalization. In the days of the previous regime, anti-Israel propaganda was the only area where almost absolute freedom of speech was allowed, but now we are seeing reckless abandon.
Israel is accused of everything – causing the “civil war” between Muslims and Christians, causing the terrible Egyptian economy’s terrible state, and of course, engaging in reckless espionage. The best way to eliminate someone politically is to accuse him of having ties with Israel. Egyptians are eagerly reading reports about Israel’s “secret takeover” during Mubarak’s era; most of the stories are pure inventions meant to implicate former top officials in the gravest crime of all: Normalization with Israel.
Meanwhile, businessmen associated with the previous regime are accused of planning to sell Cairo’s main streets to the Jewish Agency, “which is planning to take over Cairo as it took over Palestine.” If this hysterical witch-hunt, which is replete with anti-Semitic tones, wasn’t enough, Egyptian daily al-Wafd reported this week that Israel also stole the opera Aida from Egypt.
“Israel, as usual, is exploiting events in Arab states in its favor…as it considers itself a Middle Eastern state, it organized several Aida shows at the Dead Sea on June 5th and 6th. It appears Israel chose those dates in order to celebrate our defeat in the 1967 war. Aida was written especially for Egypt, yet Israel is always trying to take over the property of others.”