“Bring lots of pepper spray,” my brother said jokingly on the phone when he learned that I would be visiting Egypt in March. “You’ll make a fortune selling it here nowadays.”
Much has been written about the Egyptian revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak after his 30-year reign. The world took its hat off for what Egyptians accomplished in 18 days. But it’s been 18 weeks since, and with the media’s attention understandably turning to other revolutions in Yemen, Syria and Libya, not much is written about Egypt today. So please allow me to give you a glimpse into what life there is like now.
On many levels life is back to normal after it halted for weeks in late January and February. People have returned to work, schools have resumed their sessions, shops are re-opened and traffic flows through city streets once barricaded by the military. But it’s definitely a “new normal” – an Egypt we’ve never known before. Women carry pepper spray in their purses for fear of reported mugging and kidnapping, men keep handguns under their driver’s seats to fight off potential car-jackers and army tanks sit on street corners to protect civilians against the 30,000 thugs released in February by the formerly corrupt police. Daily demonstrations are still erupting in various cities by underpaid union workers, repressed journalists, disgruntled university students, oppressed Christians and discontented Islamists.
Recent weeks have seen a governing philosophy of acquiescing to “whatever the street says.” This can mean deposing a qualified Christian governor a few days after his appointment because conservative Islamists had sit-in demonstrations blocking the railroads or cancelling daylight savings this spring because the people viewed it as an enduring symptom of Mubarak’s regime. No doubt the street has finally found its voice after decades of silence, but it feels like the little child who goes through a babbling phase en route to intelligible speech.
Initial images of unity among young and old, Christian and Muslim, educated and illiterate, all driven to Tahrir Square in the millions, has inspired the world over. Sadly, this unifying hope of change has not turned into lasting gain. Instead, it seems likely that the present state of chaos and lawlessness will usher back disunity and disengagement if it is permitted to prevail. The cynicism which Egyptians once disguised with humor, out of fear of the former oppressive regime, is starting to surface again. Now, unfortunately, the cynicism is no longer mixed with subtle humor, but with anger and public cries of intolerance.
As promised, the revolution has birthed new freedoms: to protest against injustices, to speak and write without the threat of arrest and to report and investigate acts of corruption. Unfortunately, this also opens the door for expressions of extreme religious views by various Islamist groups. For 30 years, Mubarak kept Egypt’s Muslims moderate by arresting (often without trial) members associated with suspected extremist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Akhoan), the Muslim Group (Al-Jamaat) and the Ultra Conservative Muslims (Salafis). For all of Mubarak’s corrupt and oppressive practices, his determination to keep Islamic extremism at bay is what ensured the safety of the church in Egypt in recent years.
Within days of his deposing, some Islamic extremist groups started to shamelessly bash the Coptic minority in the national media. Another extremist group destroyed a church in Atfeeh, while members of another cut a Christian man’s ear according to Sharia law because of rumors that he was dating a Muslim girl. Thirteen people were killed and 60 were wounded in an attack on the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Moqatam. Even as I wrote this, Salafis burned down two Coptic Orthodox churches in Embaba, killing 13 people and injuring 223, both Muslims and Christians.
Christian families have been fleeing Egypt in bunches over the past three months; in fact, three of my personal acquaintances left for Australia and the U.S. during my two-week visit. And yet there are others who are determined to stay and live out their calling as Christ’s presence. I was grateful to attend one of many public lectures offered by churches prior to a recent referendum to provide their youth with political education and resources for voting. I was moved by the seminary’s decision to host a blood drive to meet the shortage in the blood banks due to recent acts of violence. And just this week, I discovered two Christian families who will return, after years of living abroad, to stand in solidarity with the Egyptian church. All these things plant in me a deep conviction that despite the current chaos, God is opening new doors for the gospel in Egypt.
My prayer for the church is that we remain engaged and invested in the present and future of this country, holding in tension the truth that we are in the world but not of it. To do otherwise is to tear ourselves from the forming fabric of the new Egypt, only to find ourselves living on a margin of our own design.
(Photo of sign reading "Muslim + Christian = Egypt" courtesy of Kodak Agfa/Wikimedia Commons.)