First co-authored piece for the Atlantic Council’s EgyptSource blog. It was a pleasure to work with Nancy Messieh on this piece, looking forward to more…
After former Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, due to mass protests that started on January 25th, Egypt was at the most united it had been in a very long time. Photos of Christians protecting Muslims during prayers in Tahrir were inspiring the world, as were photos of Muslims protecting churches from attacks during the 18-day protests. The rich and the poor knew that their fate was linked and they had to work together. Liberals and Islamists seemingly sought one democratic country where they could settle their battles in the political arena rather than in street fights. Civilians and the army were hand in hand, working towards building a democratic Egypt and returning the military to its role outside civilian and political life. That unity had come from a sense of achievement and a sense of purpose. Egypt had removed a dictator who had ruled the country for thirty years and was now on the road to becoming a full-fledged democracy.
Fast-forward to today, a few weeks after former president Mohamed Morsi’s repeated failure to run a democratic, inclusive transition led to mass demands of his ouster, Egypt stands at a critical point. Over the past couple of days, over forty churches, monasteries, and Christian-affiliated schools and businesses were attacked, many of them burned down. The motive, according to a Facebook post by one branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party? Because “the Pope participated in removing the country’s first elected Islamic president and… supports armed groups to wreak havoc.” The post goes on to exclaim about people asking why churches are being burned, saying that, while attacking houses of worship is a crime, “the church waging a war on Islam and Muslims is a bigger crime.” Attacks were not limited to the property of Christians, however. Numerous police stations and government buildings were attacked. One police station had its personnel stripped of their clothes and sulfuric acid spilled on their bodies before they were killed [graphic]. The violence even reached the burning of the Raba’a al-‘Adaweya Mosque in Cairo, close to the scene of a six-week-long pro-Morsi sit-in dispersed by police forces Wednesday. While investigations have not yet confirmed who the perpetrators were, eyewitness reports by priests, nuns, and laymen at the Christian buildings and numerous civilians around the various places that were attacked seem to agree that these attacks were carried out by pro-Morsi crowds.
In response to these attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood (in the form of both its leadership and members) has taken a number of stands. These range from claiming that churches are being burned by the police in coordination with the priests for political gain, to an official statement that “anger at the dispersal has gotten out of control,” basically absolving the leadership of wrongdoing and blaming the people who believed in them. It is worth pointing out that there has been strong and pointed sectarian language by Brotherhood leaders that targeted Christians. Muslim Brotherhood leaders previously claimed that churches are stocked with weapons; sometimes even live lions, that were there in preparation to attack Islamists. However, in contrast, a Brotherhood spokesman claimed Thursday on television that only 20% of the pro-Morsi sit-ins were formed of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, while the rest included Christians and Muslims who wanted the return of Morsi to power, even though they “hated the Brotherhood.” What the Brotherhood fails to mention, however, is that the one photo of a sign that read “Christians for Morsi” taken at one of the sit-ins was soon followed by the one below*, in which the Cross and the word “Christians” were magically crossed out once the media was done filming. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, while reacting to the attacks on churches, have not made comment on the aggressive sectarian language used on the stage in Raba’a, and elsewhere, against Christians and the Coptic Orthodox Pope.
Despite their efforts to incite hatred against Egypt’s Christians, the one group the Muslim Brotherhood managed to get Egyptians to hate the most was themselves. Instead of helping the attackers, average Muslims were protecting churches. Reports of of torture, violence, death, and more atrocities at the pro-Morsi sit-ins that have been surfacing for the past few weeks have taken Egyptians by storm. A video of men and women saying they were enjoying the sit-in and its free food (with meat), one of them even going so far as to joke that she hoped Morsi would not return so they would not have to go home, left Egyptians with no doubt that the sit-in was anything but political. Statements from the stage saying that “anyone who tells you to leave is a traitor and should be apprehended and handed to sit-in security” showed that, among the many that were there voluntarily, there were probably many others too scared to leave. Add to that weapons found by the Ministry of Interior and unknown dead bodies buried among the sit-in, and you get a very different image from that of a peaceful sit-in by people with legitimate political demands.
When Morsi came into power, it was to rule an Egypt that had very high hopes for its first elected civilian president. His disregard for the importance of that position, the importance of the country he was presiding over, and the aspirations of its people all led to millions of people demanding his removal. Morsi received an Egypt that was embracing the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate, altruistic, viable political choice and left an Egypt united on one thing, its distrust and perhaps even outright hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any love that was left between the majority of Egypt’s population and the Muslim Brotherhood was gradually lost due to the live feed of the Raba’a sit-in, only to disappear altogether after the violence of the past couple of days. It is a tragedy that so many of the people who supported Morsi died in the events of the past couple of days, and an even greater tragedy their deaths will not be mourned, any may even be celebrated, by many Egyptians. It is also a tragedy that these deaths were caused by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who themselves were nowhere to be found while their followers were on the streets.
Tomorrow’s Egypt has the fear of violence still hanging over the cities and villages as Morsi supporters call for mass protests. Tomorrow’s Egypt, however, still resembles the one the world praised in 2011. People’s aspirations for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” still stand, and their hope for this country has not wavered, and hopefully never will.