Dispatch

Fear and Loathing in Christian Cairo

Fear and Loathing in Christian Cairo

CAIRO – The brutal assault on Sunday, Oct. 9, on Coptic protesters — the deadliest violence since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February — resulted in at least two dozen deaths and was seen by many of Egypt’s Christians as confirmation of their fears that the revolution would usher in an era of violent Islamist ascendancy.

That was certainly the concern among many in my Coptic family. I had landed in Cairo at noon, a few hours before the clashes broke out, and the unease among Christians in Egypt was almost the first topic of conversation when my father’s cousin came to pick me up and drive me to a family birthday party at the nearby Heliopolis Club. "Why is America endorsing the Muslim Brotherhood?" his wife asked me. (She was referring to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments in June that Washington would engage in limited contacts with the Islamist group, which she and many others here took as support of the Brotherhood.)

Given the escalation in sectarian tensions — a member of their church had been beaten at a demonstration just weeks earlier — she and her husband were understandably fearful about where the country was headed, as are the vast majority of Copts. At the same time, though, they both said they thought the revolution had been a good thing and were trying to remain hopeful about the future of Egypt.

That, though, was before the news of the Army’s attack on the protesters had come through. As the children played at the club, some of the adults followed news reports of the unfolding event on their cell phones. I had spent much of the evening engrossed in conversation with a cousin in his mid-20s, one of just a few of my relatives who had supported the revolution from the get-go and had visited Tahrir Square. He was attuned to the Coptic community’s worries — "terrified" is a word one hears a lot these days — but he remained convinced that Egypt could emerge from its period of turmoil a better country.

By that point in the evening, everyone in our group had heard that live ammunition had been fired into the crowd of demonstrators; my cousin’s mother sternly urged him to be careful going home and call her once he got there. He remained sanguine, nodding his assent, but there was no denying that tensions had risen perceptibly among our group.

It wasn’t until I got home at about 10 that evening and was able to read news reports that I realized the extent of the tragedy — and of the disinformation that had been disseminated on government-controlled television. Early reports said — falsely — that soldiers had been set upon by Coptic protesters and killed, and encouraged the public to go protect the soldiers from the Christian demonstrators. Mobs took to the streets and were randomly attacking anyone they believed to be Christian, according to Facebook and Twitter accounts from people on the scene.

Many Christians have long believed that the Army and the police had strong anti-Christian columns within them; the killing of protesters who were, by the vast majority of accounts, peaceful just validated those suspicions for them. By and large, Copts see it as no coincidence that the most brutal crackdown since the January uprisings was inflicted on a group that was predominantly Christian.

I found myself wondering, too: Is Egypt reaching a tipping point for Copts? Earlier that evening, my cousin told me that his church was filled with people talking about emigrating; by that night, I’m sure the resolve to leave had strengthened for many Christians.

As funeral Masses for the victims were held Monday, the revision of the previous night’s history began. No soldiers had been killed after all, the media reported. For Copts, though, the genie was out of the bottle; too many Egyptians now believed that Christians had started the violence, and anti-Christian rhetoric had reached a crescendo.

A young man from my family’s church, Wael, had been at the march when the unrest began and saw things in much starker terms. "We’re going to suffer; it’s going to be more," he said. "They are killing the Copts."

My cousin was also frustrated, though somewhat less so. "It’s part of the expected plan," he said, explaining that the Army — now in power — wants to divide the public, much as Mubarak had. He didn’t think the Army was targeting Christians so much as it could never kill that many Muslims without sparking a massive outcry. But moderates of all religions were outraged by the killings, and on Tuesday, Egypt’s finance minister submitted his resignation, citing the deteriorating security conditions.

On Monday evening, I met with Mariam, a young Coptic girl who lives near my grandmother, one of the few from the local church who had made the trek to Tahrir during the revolution. She was dismayed by the anti-Christian comments she’d seen on Facebook all day and was losing confidence in the prospect of positive change. Still, she wouldn’t turn back the clock, she said. "Today, I have two options: Either the country will get worse, or it will get better. Yesterday, with Mubarak, my only option was that the country gets worse."