Analysts have begun warning that the recent increase in violent protests in Egypt is putting the nation’s millennia-old minority Christian community in great danger, and members may be forced to leave their homeland.
“Tolerance is not a characteristic Islamists embrace,” said Michael Rubin, Middle East analyst for the American Enterprise Institute.
“Just as Arab nationalists drove Jews out of Arab countries in the 20th century, Islamists will drive Christians out in the 21st. I’m afraid a millennium-old community in Egypt will soon disappear.”
The worrisome warnings come in light of the move last year to depose former President Hosni Mubarak, who had a working relationship with the West. Since then, radical Muslim elements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have surged in power in Egypt.
International Christian Concern’s Aidan Clay, who recently returned from a trip to Egypt, says almost anything now can ignite the spark for further violence, including a soccer match.
He noted that the protests that ignited after the violence at a football match in Port Said Feb. 1 “primarily called for Egypt’s military council to speed up the presidential election scheduled for June and to step down so that the country can quickly transition into civilian rule.”
“All the protesters I spoke to believe the military had either a direct hand in the massacre in Port Said or, at the very least, stood by watching while fans from the home team attacked opposing fans,” Clay said.
The protesters, according to Clay, believe the violence was premeditated and that the military had ample time to intervene, but chose not to.
“It’s difficult to judge what really happened, but protesters claim that the military is pointing to these acts of sporadic and pointless killings in order to convince the Egyptian people and the international community that Egypt needs the military council to govern the country in one form or another,” he explained. “They’re saying, ‘Look, without us lawlessness will continue to control the streets. You need us to keep this country in order.’”
Meanwhile, Clay said, some Christians and moderates are also protesting against the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, who won about 47 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, the most powerful chamber, last month.
“These groups believe that the elections were not fair and do not adequately represent the voice of the Egyptian people,” Clay said.
During the recent parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Freedom and Justice Party won a plurality, with 235 of parliament’s 498 seat. The radical Salafists won the next largest bloc, 25 percent of the seats, taking 121.
Rubin said that even though Islamic militants may differ in the details of their beliefs and methods, they share some common characteristics.
“Islamists are like Koolaid. Both come in different colors and flavors, but their basic essence remains the same. The Muslim Brotherhood will have the upper hand by sheer numbers but they are not a monolith,” Rubin said.
Rubin says that the United States government will continue to try to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the gesture is likely to backfire.
“While the State Department will justify its outreach to the Brotherhood in their desire to empower more moderate factions, such logic acknowledges the existence of more radical factions. These radicals will ally with the Salafists, giving the most hardline group more power,” Rubin said.
Clay said that one of the shared characteristics of the Islamic radicals is the ability to manipulate events and circumstances to their benefit.
“Moreover, many told me that the Brotherhood had booths in front of the polling stations telling people, many of whom are illiterate, how to vote and who to vote for. Others have reported that the Brotherhood is selling gas canisters at a substantially low price and conducting social programs to secure votes,” Clay said.
“When many Egyptians live below the poverty line, they are not as concerned about politics as they are about having food on their table. Personally, I cannot confirm the degree in which the elections were fraudulent, but this is a widespread belief among Christians and moderates in Egypt,” Clay said.
Clay said that in the face of such opposition, Egypt’s Christian minority is willing to stand its ground.
“Right now, there is a lot of uncertainty among moderates, Christians and other minorities in Egypt. We’ve seen several reports that thousands of Christians are trying to leave the country. Yet, the church as a whole is taking courage and is determined to remain in their homeland,” Clay said.
Clay said that during his recent visit to Egypt he was able to spend time with the survivors of a family member killed in the violence.
“I recently spoke with the sister of Mina Daniel, who was a well-known Coptic activist that was killed by the military in an attack on protestors in Maspero on October 9. Mina’s sister continues to be involved in protests to both defend the memory of her brother and to demand the same freedoms that were sought when the revolution that overthrew President Mubarak erupted last year,” Clay said.
“‘Up until now, none of the aspirations of the Egyptian people can be realized until the military council steps down,’” Clay said, quoting Mina’s sister.
“Mina’s sister is also among those who believe that the Brotherhood is a big part of the problem, that the elections were fraudulent, and that the Brotherhood is tacitly allying with the military council,” Clay said.
“Again, according to her and other protesters, there are many in Egypt of the same opinion. In fact, she said that she was surprised at how many people, including Muslims, were protesting against the Brotherhood outside the House of Parliament in Cairo on Thursday,” Clay said.
Clay said that it’s not likely that there is enough secular support to weaken the Brotherhood’s grip on Egypt.
“It does not appear that there are enough secular Egyptians to manage an anti-Brotherhood campaign. And if there were, many Egyptians may be afraid to speak out publicly against the Brotherhood or the more radical Salafists, who took one fourth of the parliament seats,” Clay said.
“However, those who are protesting against the Brotherhood understand that their freedoms are closely intertwined with the Brotherhood’s rule and that their rights will further be taken from them if the Brotherhood gains more control,” Clay said.
“But, for many moderate protestors, they view this time as a significant and perhaps final opportunity to demand the free society that they have long fought for,” Clay said.
Clay said Mina’s sister put it well.
“‘Anything can happen in Egypt. We never thought Mubarak would be taken down in 18 days. The situation can change overnight,’” Clay said, quoting Mina’s sister.