Available languages:
Carta di credito
Christians in the Muslim World

Egypt: from the Hopes of Tahrir Square to the Shadows of the Present

The revolution exploded in Cairo on 25 January 2011 was a spring, no doubt. Who would have thought the protesters to clean up Tahrir Square and repaint its pavements, a Christian girl to take water to a Muslim Brother for his ritual ablution, a veiled woman to lift up the cross together with the crescent? Or that Muslims would form a human shield around a church to protect it during the Easter celebrations? Or that one of them would write in Egyptian dialect a banner addressing the former president, before his resignation: «May God curse you, you let us love one another»? Peaceful protesters remember that the Muslim Brothers did protect them from being forcefully dispersed by forming three military-like ranks: a front line armed with long sticks, the second with bricks and the rear one manned by older people who supplied the other two lots with ammunition.



The Islamic youth persuaded the Muslim Brothers of the importance of this national coalition for the success of the revolution. In Tahrir Square, again, some Islamic youths surrounded a group of Christians to defend them against extremists. In short, from Tuesday 25 January to Friday 11 February 2011, the day of the president’s resignation, there was no split in the national unity of Muslims and Christians.



At the first signs of the revolution’s success, the Muslim Brothers started to ride on its wave, until February 18. After the Friday prayer in Tahrir Square, led by imam Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who, for political and religious reasons had not set foot in Egypt for a long time, one of the revolution leaders, Wael Ghonim, was forbidden to speak to the people gathered in the square. Barely controlling his anger, he wrapped his face into an Egyptian flag and disappeared among the crowd. The Muslim Brothers were, and still are, the only (doctrinally, economically and politically) organized group both inside and outside of Egyptian society, whose foundations are shaken by a powerful anarchy which has been seeping into all aspects of life, as has emerged from the live television images. The revolutionary youths, unaware of their rapid success, are neither homogenous nor organized as a group (even in terms of their representatives), and the faces of their heroes are unknown. So the Muslim Brothers have reaped the fruits of what they had untiringly pursued from the very beginning.



But the real danger began after the withdrawal of the police from the streets and the escape of thousands of prisoners (criminals and extremists). The walls of different prisons were simultaneously demolished by bulldozer: people provided with lists of Islamic extremists guilty of various crimes (such as the murder of Anwar Sadat), helping them escape by car. The escapees immediately took their revenge: they assaulted police stations, attacked officers and soldiers, set fire to State security buildings containing dossiers relevant to them and burnt the archives of various civil tribunals. This persisting void of power has surprisingly allowed many Islamic extremists to circulate freely in the streets. In the absence of any deterrent, they have begun to call the shots: after provoking Sufi anger by destroying the shrines of the saints venerated by Muslims, they turned their attacks against churches, using futile pretexts (which still excite the crowds of those who consider jihad a divine order) to burn them.



One such excuse is about the delivery of some women, mostly married to Coptic Orthodox priests, since, according to the religious authorities, they had spontaneously converted to Islam -- and whose “return” to the police had already been requested by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Copts, Pope Shenouda III before the beginning of the revolution. Similar instances re-occur when matrimonial disputes end with the conversion of the women to Islam to free themselves from their marriage vows. It is after such cases that in the past too churches and shops were sacked and Christian homes set fire to, not to mention the numbers of dead and injured. The Supreme Armed Forces Council did not intervene promptly enough, nor did it take any counter-measures, presumably to abide by the non-alignment principle.



The police waver between shame and indifference or, in fact, between bad faith and ineffectiveness. In some cases they have taken the side of the Islamic extremists, and some bearded youths may even be surrounded by the favour of high officers. Sectarian tensions dating back to Sadat’s 1970’s have determined an increase in the attacks aimed at Copts; another cause of the violence has been the growth in illiteracy rates, which undermines national consciousness and finds its expression in participating in imaginary feats of heroism, such as the liberation of a Christian woman, whether or not converted to Islam, kept prisoner inside a church -- as reported by some ignorant people and believed by the most naïve; or the destruction of shops and houses owned by Christians and the burning of churches. They have gone as far as cutting the ear of a Coptic man, for the sake of inflicting on him an Islamic form of punishment.



Not everyone knows that Egypt was one of the first Countries to sign, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, in the time of Hosni Mubarak, this document was amended by the following clarification: «unless [such rights] are incompatible with the shari‘ah».


For a short period Al-Azhar suspended the dialogue with the Vatican just because Pope Benedict XVI, following the massacre in Baghdad Cathedral and the explosions in the church in Alexandria, had asked for the «protection of Christians in the Middle East»: this was considered an interference in [Egypt’s] internal affairs. In the same circumstance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had gone as far as saying that «in the Middle East religious cleansing is taking place»: for political reasons, this statement was left uncommented by Egyptian officers.



In the meantime, after the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini in Germany, pandemonium had broken out in Egypt. Not only was the girl defined a “veil martyr” and her name chanted in the streets; lawyers and jurists declared themselves prepared go to Germany to follow the murderer’s trial. Why has the blood of Egyptians been shed in their own Country? Are human rights really applied in Egypt to non-Muslims too?



From a British Intelligence report published on the Web emerges that Egyptian former Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly was the mind behind several murders of Christians as well as church explosions (such as the one in Alexandria on the night of 31 December 2010). When will the extremists stop colluding with government members? When will the era of human rights – of the rights of every human being – come about? When will the huge gap between reality and expectations be filled? When will they finally bury extremism and illiteracy? When will violence perpetrated in God’s name and murder justified by religion come to an end? When will those in power lift up their heads from under the sand? When will the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces exert its rights and its duties to ensure safety for all citizens? The now defunct Council of Ministers used velvet gloves when shock therapy was needed. Where has a 7000-year old civilization ended up, since anyone who wants to solve old issues needs to take up clubs and sticks, chains, swords, hammers, axes, petrol bottles and Molotov cocktails to aim at churches?



It is true that what the Salafists are doing «is mortifying for Islam even before it is mortifying for Egypt », in the words of Dr Saad al-Din Ibrahim on Al-Sharq al-Awsat. But when will the majority of Muslims remove the mark of this extremist minority from their religion? It seems that in Egypt the spring of revolution has quickly come to its end and the fire of confessional disagreement has started. Can anyone see a difference between the two?



Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal