Coptic Christians are worried about their future in the new Egypt, as I could see Thursday night at a political rally in a poor Coptic neighborhood known here as Garbage City.
Gathered in an alleyway framed by heaps of trash, and Christian symbols decorating every nearby wall, the residents heard a simple message: To protect their families, Christians must vote in the parliamentary elections that begin late this month. Otherwise, Egypt may be controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is mobilizing its own supporters.
“Muhammad and John need to live side by side,” admonished one of the speakers, arguing that Christians must fight for a secular state that will be moderate and tolerant. “If you don’t go vote, you have only yourself to blame for the consequences.”
Christians have “definitely” become more afraid since the revolution, explained Dina Beshay, a 29-year-old woman from the neighborhood. If the Muslim Brotherhood gained power, it would be a “big shock,” she said, because Christians would feel marginalized. “It is impossible for us to live in constant fear.”
This issue of sectarian tension lurks behind the election campaign now being waged across Egypt. People don’t often speak about it directly, but it’s an abiding fear here — as in most other countries shaken by the Arab Spring. The question is whether, as democracy empowers Islamist parties across the Arab world, Christian minorities will have a viable future.
The rally here was organized by the Free Egyptians Party, a secular, pro-market group founded by Naguib Sawiris, who is one of Egypt’s wealthiest businessmen and a prominent member of the Coptic minority. The party aims to get a turnout of 85 percent of the roughly 40,000 eligible voters in this district, who are mostly Copts.
Garbage City is an unforgettable spot, a vision that might have been imagined by a surrealistic movie director. Pickup trucks rumble in with towering loads of rubbish, which is picked over for anything that can be recycled. Fires burn across this trash landscape. Because garbage collection is seen by Muslims as “unclean” (garbage is fed to pigs), this work for untold generations has mostly been done by Christians, who labor in their gritty stalls surrounded by icons and crosses and posters of Jesus.
My guides were Karim Abadir and Omar Khashaba, two party officials. Abadir, an economics professor in London, says he came back to Egypt after the revolution to “stand my ground” as a Copt and be part of the new Egypt. “When Christians tell me they have no future in Egypt, my response is, ‘Go vote,’ ” he says.
Abadir was injured in the Oct. 9 Maspero incident, when police and the army attacked demonstrators who were protesting the burning of churches; 27 people died in the violence, mostly Christians. A Muslim who joined the marchers told me there was sectarian tension on both sides, with Copts chanting, “We are owners of the land” (meaning that Copts were in Egypt before Islam), and Muslims responding, “Islam, Islam.”
I talked with Christians from many areas of Cairo last week to gauge their worries. Every one of them expressed anxiety, but most said they remained hopeful that a democratic Egypt will remain tolerant of minorities. A sign of their wariness was that many asked me to use only their first names.
A woman named Nesrine said that every Sunday at her church in Heliopolis, several more Coptic families announce they are leaving the country. Nesrine has a Canadian passport, and her husband wants to move, but she’s waiting to see what the elections bring. The priests at her church are trying to calm the flock, telling them: “We have to stay. We have to take our place in our country.”
A woman named Raymonda, who lives in a mixed neighborhood and doesn’t attend church, says she fears the “very negative feelings to Christians” since the revolution. She doesn’t have another passport and never thought she would need one, but now she wonders. Her husband argues that they shouldn’t delay until it’s too late. “I don’t want to lose hope,” she says. “I want to bet on the Egyptian people.”
At a gathering of students and faculty at the Gerhart Center of the American University in Cairo, people talk honestly about religious tensions. They fervently hope this issue doesn’t subvert the promise of the revolution.
The Muslim woman who marched with the Christians to Maspero remembers hearing the sectarian chants, back and forth. “I started to cry,” she says. “I hated both sides.”