Copts fear Arab Spring is a Christian winter


The latest violence in Cairo marks an ominous development in the story of Egypt’s unfinished revolution. It is very bad news for several reasons.



First, it demonstrates more starkly than ever the dubious role being played by the army. Eyewitness reports are clear that it was firing by the army, followed by the repeated crushing of unarmed demonstrators by an armoured car, that turned a peaceful demonstration into a violent altercation that left 24 people dead.
More specifically, the violence is very bad news for Egypt’s Coptic minority – by far the largest Christian community in the region. The Copts now face an uncertain future with a wide spectrum of possible outcomes, from a liberal democracy to an Islamic republic or, most likely of all, a continuation of army rule with different window-dressing.
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That sectarian violence was likely to follow the end of the Mubarak regime was something the Copts have been fearing for decades. Three years ago I attended workshops run by the Coptic newspaper editor Youssef Sidhom, intended to prepare his people for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sidhom, editor of Watani, Egypt’s leading Coptic newspaper, believed that dialogue between the two faiths was a pressing necessity and that the Copts would have to learn to live with the Islamists.
The Copts have long suffered petty discrimination. But the revival of the Islamists over the past few years made the Copts’ position more uneasy, and their prospects more uncertain, than they had been for centuries.
Throughout the 1990s the Copts, especially in southern Egypt, were targeted by the Islamist guerillas of the Gamaa Islamiyya. Since then, the Gamaa have renounced violence, and the Islamists have concentrated on reaching power through the ballot box. The Copts reacted by retreating ever deeper into sectarian isolation, further polarising the country.
A generation ago, most Egyptians chose names for their children that could be either Christian or Muslim, such as Karim or Adel. Now they tend to give their children names such as Mohammed or Girgis (George) that define their sectarian affiliation. In the face of growing polarisation and discrimination, the Copts have tended to form their own schools and social clubs, keeping their distance from the Muslim majority. This is something the Coptic clergy – every bit as conservative as their Muslim counterparts – have often encouraged. At the same time, the Copts have seen their political influence slowly diminish: under Hosni Mubarak’s last government there was still one Coptic provincial governor and two Coptic ministers. But in contrast to the situation at the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, no senior policemen are Copts, nor judges, nor university vice-chancellors, nor generals.
In the growing uncertainty and violence that followed the fall of Mubarak, a spate of anti-Coptic riots broke out in Cairo and Alexandria, which the army did very little to stop.
The dilemma and fears of the Copts mirror those of Christian minorities across the Middle East. Just as the elderly Coptic Pope Shenouda III supported Mubarak right up until his fall, whatever individual Copts were doing in Tahrir Square, so the churches in Syria are still publicly supporting the Assad regime, even if many Christian activists are at the forefront of the opposition.
At the back of their minds, the Christian hierarchies are aware of the devastation of the Iraqi Christian community after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when more than half the Christian population – some 400,000 people – were forced to leave the country in a wave of Islamist pogroms.

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