It is September 2009; I’m in Upper Egypt, on this particular night, at the monastery and commemoration site of three martyred youth of Coptic history in a suburb of Luxor. As I passed a pathway littered with garbage set ablaze, I am told to look down, walk fast, and stay close to the Coptic sisters as we walked by a crowd of Muslim men or so my Coptic sisters told me. I felt their fear while we were walking through this neighborhood, but I didn’t entirely understand why. As soon as we arrived at the monastery, I asked my Coptic friends why we walked so timidly. They replied, “This area is unsafe for Christians at night.” With those words, I began to reflect on the reason and context for such words, and why fear of the Muslim other was so deeply seated in the Coptic community, at least the one I was acquainted with in Sheraton, Heliopolis.
During the three years of my time spent on and off in Egypt, my experience was framed mostly by the lives of my Coptic Christian friends and host family. I rarely, if ever, spent time with an Egyptian who was Muslim, for the simple fact that, my family’s social circle did not include their Muslim neighbors. Each time I left Egypt, I felt as if I was living in a separate Egypt or as I would term it, “Coptic Egypt.” There was an invisible separation between certain aspects of the two communities. The “ever-looming” presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most well-organized political front in Egypt for decades, became the figure of fear; fear of continued marginalization and imminent persecution. The Muslim Brotherhood and other political Islamic movements have kept the Coptic community continually looking to the Patriarch, Pope Shenouda, for religious, political and social answers. This has shifted slightly since January 2011, with campaigns for national unity and striking photographic images of Muslims and Christians praying together, but the fear of the societal “other” still has resonance.
This sentiment was palpable in previous experiences I had. It was a dry, cloudless day during the Summer of 2008, and I was walking with my Coptic host sister, Mariam, near St. Michael, the Archangel, Church in Heliopolis. As we approached the church from the road, I noticed a large banner along the outer church wall which read in Arabic, “We stand with Pope Shenouda, We stand with Mubarak.” I asked Mariam why our church, in a relatively safe and affluent neighborhood, needed to display this sign of support for then President Hosni Mubarak. She answered, “Because he is the only one that protects our community from the unknown.” “The unknown” haunted me. What did this mean? Was “the unknown” fear of political persecution and a reminder of the Church’s historical persecution discourse? Or was it an automatic reaction to the anxiety of a potential political vacuum that would emerge if the regime under Mubarak would fall?
Two and a half years later, the so-called Arab Spring has become the moment to determine what “the unknown” means for the Coptic communities of Egypt. If Copts can no longer stand with Mubarak, do they still stand with Pope Shenouda, even though he refuses to criticize the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces whose tanks massacred Christians? Will the cries of “Down, down with military rule” continue to grow louder in the Cathedral of Abbasiyya and will Pope Shenouda respond?
During the first weeks of the revolution, many Copts, including my host sister, decided not to support the demonstrators. Each time I logged onto Facebook, new pictures of a march in my old neighborhood, would show the church priest holding both an image of Mubarak and the hand of the imam of the area mosque demanding an end to the January 25 protests. As I celebrated with the people of Tahrir Square in their initial triumph over Mubarak, I pictured the Copts of Sheraton, Heliopolis sitting in their homes waiting for “the unknown” to come.
Today, aside from the stories of fear of persecution and a rise in “sectarian violence” between Copts and Muslims, political and social challenges facing the community are hardly discussed.
A new Egypt must rise from a united perspective, one that takes into account those that have been increasingly marginalized within Egyptian society over the past 30 years. However, in the comfort of my tiny New York apartment, I wonder what I will witness when I return to Egypt and how the new political landscape will shape the future of the Coptic communities of Egypt.
Candace B. Lukasik, co-founder of Baraza and Middle East coordinator, is currently a Master’s student in the Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) Department. Her current work examines the interplay between religious and secular discourses and Coptic ethno-nationalism in Egypt after 2010.