ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Looking out at the Mediterranean Sea from this ancient port city’s dilapidated Corniche, the chaos and political violence of Cairo seems a world away, rather than a two-hour trip by train.
But the Pearl of the Mediterranean, as Alexandria still styles itself, has all of the capital’s problems and then some on the eve of the first round of several months of voting for the first parliament since strongman Hosni Mubarak was deposed nine months ago.
Away from the media glare that shines constantly on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, several protesters demanding an immediate end to military rule died in clashes with security forces in Alexandria last week. To emphatically underscore who is still in charge in a community established by Alexander the Great three centuries before Christ was born, the army has parked tanks behind barbed wire at a military base near the waterfront. The economy, which once benefited enormously from the cotton trade and from the port’s location at the crossroads between the Middle East and Europe and the Nile Valley and Greece, in particular, is worse off today, too.
Egypt’s always potentially explosive religious fault line between its Muslim majority and its large Coptic Orthodox Christian minority feels more ominous here than elsewhere.
“This used to be the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, but it has been slowly fading for more than 20 years,” said businessman and blogger Mohammad Hanou. “It has become poorer and more conservative. The conservatives are not only Muslims. There are conservative Copts, too. But their differences need a trigger — an event.”
One of those flashpoints occurred at a midnight mass marking the beginning of 2011 when a homemade bomb exploded at the front of the al-Qiddissin (Saints) Church. Twenty-three worshippers died and nearly 100 were injured.
That act of violence was followed by a sporadic acts on churches across the country. It is one of the reasons why Copts fret about the potential electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood and their more extreme allies, the Salafis, whose Saudi-like puritanical ideas about Islam are popular in Alexandria’s slums.
“Many Muslims are tolerant and feel free to elect Christian parliamentarians,” said Hany Mikhail Botros, a prominent Copt businessman who was only five metres away from the blast and lost his future daughter-in-law and many close friends in the attack.
Proof of this tolerance, he said, was that many Muslims personally contacted him to express their sorrow after the New Year’s bombing.
“I can even say that some Muslims fight more for our rights than we do ourselves,” Botros said as he looked up at a wall in the church with photographs of those who died in the bombing.
There was, however, inevitably, a “but” coming as Botros continued his reflections.
“But such turmoil has always existed under the surface here. Kids in some primary schools are actually taught to hate Christians. After this year’s revolution such sentiments began to come out more.”
Alexandria was once the largest Jewish city in the world, but only a handful of Jews live here today. Whether a similar fate may befall the Copts is a subject that is not much discussed in public but it is at the back of many minds.
“Do we have a Plan B? No,” Botros said. “We could live overseas and I have the chance to do that, but I do not see that as a solution. I really love this country and I am not only making a speech.”
Religion is such an emotive topic that there has never been a reliable census of how many Muslims and Christians there are in Egypt. Copts claim they number about 15 million and make up about 20 per cent of the population. Many Muslims reckon that the true percentage of Copts is only eight or 10 per cent.
A similar problem exists for anyone trying to figure out which party or coalition of parties will fare best in the election. There has been almost no polling and there are no previous results to act as even a rough guide. The secular or liberal vote, including the Christians, may reach 30 per cent. The Islamist vote may be as much as 40 per cent. A few candidates who served in the old regime will get elected. But this is all total guesswork.
“If the Islamists gain power it won’t be good and not only for us but for all Egyptians,” said Father Mina Adel, who leads prayers at al-Qiddissin Church. “This is because some in the Brotherhood and some Salafis do not properly understand the Koran. They want to use religion to abuse people. They oppose freedom.
“When they see a woman uncovered, as Christian woman are, they tell her to cover head when it is none of their business.”
Whatever transpired, Adel said that God would protect him. There were also, nevertheless, secular reasons why he was optimistic about the Copts’ future.
“Such conservative ideas can still exist in the Egyptian desert,” he said. “But we are in an Internet age where we are connected to and part of a global village where information is always available.”
“What I think that it will be fragmented poll and that the people in the middle — the large group that is not Islamist or secular — will have control,” said Hanou, the businessman and blogger.
“This group is heavily influenced by the Islamists right now, but they could shift. Most of these young people do not want to grow beards or go to the mosque. Their weak point until now is that they are fundamentally religious but they will rebel if somebody tells them how they should live.”