Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not fully characterize the consulting done by Dalia Mogahed, who works primarily with public and private entities seeking to understand Islam and Muslims. The story has been updated to clarify her work.
For years, Steve Messeh watched his small Egyptian American Coptic Christian community remain splintered in a jumble of weak advocacy groups. But now, since the violent ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the young Virginia financial analyst is seeing something new: an effort toward real influence.
Messeh belongs to Coptic Solidarity, which on Thursday pulled together perhaps the largest local Egyptian American effort in memory. About 500 people gathered at the White House and outside several media organizations (including at The Washington Post’s building in Northwest) to voice their support for the military’s removal of Morsi in June. Like-minded Copts who Messeh knows are lobbying Capitol Hill policymakers on the topic this month, and a contingent from political parties was in town this week in a drive to mold the Egyptian Americans who supported the coup into a more unified, effective voice.
And for the first time, Messeh sees not just Christians — about 10 percent of Egypt’s population and between 40 and 60 percent of America’s Egyptian population — at protests, but Muslims as well.
“My view has changed 100 percent. I used to think: ‘Woe are the Coptic people,’ typical pity party, the same old song,” said Messeh, 28, of Dunn Loring. He was referring to the low expectations held by some members of the ancient Egyptian religious minority group, who were accustomed to being treated like second-class citizens and persecuted in their home country.
“Copts had been beaten down to think: ‘This is the best you’ll ever have. Take the little annoyances and shut up, because you don’t want the alternative,’ ” he said Friday. “Now it’s completely shifted. It feels not like a Christian thing, but an Egyptian thing. It’s not Christians versus Muslims, but Egyptians who want freedom and people who want to stop this.”
The same burst of organizing is happening among Egyptian Americans who oppose the military’s removal of Morsi, who was democratically elected. New groups have popped up since Morsi’s overthrow, including Egyptian Americans for Democracy and Human Rights, which is focused on the hundreds of civilians killed by the military in recent weeks.
But if the sudden activism this summer among Egyptian Americans, who for decades during the rule of Hosni Mubarak tended to be largely quiet, has solidified and motivated the two camps, it has also embittered them, activists and experts say. People’s positions have become hardened, and Egypt’s politics have become too fraught to discuss among friends and even family.
Some say this summer reminds them of America after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when many Americans felt that patriotism called them sharply to one side or the other.
“There is an extremely deep polarization going on among Egyptian Americans,” commented Dalia Mogahed, a Washington-based native of Egypt who is the co-author of “Who Speaks for Islam?” and consults primarily with public and private entities seeking to understand Islam and Muslims.
Having left an Egypt defined for decades by oppressive dictatorship, many Egyptian Americans felt proud for the first time — and interested in Egyptian affairs — during the Arab Spring and because of Mubarak’s overthrow, she said. “But those efforts now are much harder to pull together because of the polarization and violence endured on both sides. It’s much harder with so much emotion on both sides. Just like it is in Egypt.”
Helping mobilize Egyptian Americans is Michael Meunier, a dual citizen and Copt who heads an anti-Islamist political party in Egypt. This week, Meunier, who had run for office from Fairfax County and still has a home there, was in Washington, as well as other U.S. cities, to rally people.
“In the past, [Egyptian Christians] talked only about religious freedom, and [Muslim Egyptians] didn’t see any of the issues. Now everyone sees something is at stake. That is apparent,” he said.
Messeh has seen that take shape in his own life. Growing up in Tysons Corner as one of three sons of Egyptian-born parents, his identity was primarily one of a minority in a defensive crouch.
There are about 3,000 Copts in the D.C. region, many entrenched in government and professional careers. It’s not clear how many non-Christian Egyptians are in the region, but Washington has a midsize population of Egyptian Americans, smaller than those of Chicago and Los Angeles.
As in other U.S. cities, Copts have received special attention here as religious refugees. Lawmakers, including Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), regularly cite the oppression of Copts. This week on Twitter, commentator Glenn Beck has taken up a campaign called #IamCoptic.
Many Copts feared the 2011 rise of the Muslim Brotherhood because of its Islamist foundation. But Messeh said he and many younger Egyptian Americans were “cautiously optimistic” because of the broader goals of the Arab Spring, the hope for democracy and a new priority on human rights.
“I thought the revolution could change Egypt and the younger generation would step up and get into government and bring about change,” he said.
But Messeh grew strongly opposed to Morsi. Mogahed said she believes that the majority of Egyptian Americans were also very critical of Morsi, although they are divided over the coup.
In recent weeks, Messeh has seen Egyptian Americans like him become increasingly active.
“This is a do-over for everything we wanted two years ago that was hijacked by the Brotherhood,” he said.
Messeh said lawmakers on the Hill have told Egyptian American groups that their influence has been hampered because it has been disorganized. Now, he said, groups that were divided by age and religion are trying to find common ground. He said Egyptian American activists are reaching out also to Muslims from other Middle Eastern countries for the first time.
“We inhibit our influence when we speak on so many different platforms [with different] messages. But now, I think, that influence is growing,” he said.
Ahmed Ghanim sees the same energy, but from the other side. The Michigan-based activist, who has 35,000 Facebook followers for his Egypt updates, is working with Egyptian Americans who oppose the coup. He’s now working with groups starting in Michigan and Texas.
“Even if we didn’t agree with Morsi, it’s a black comedy when you see an elected president in prison and Mubarak going free,” he said.
The new activism is tempered by the polarization, he said.
The revolution created a lot of Egyptian American interest in Egypt.
“Now everyone is accusing one another of being for or against democracy, or for or against revolution.”