As Egyptians Celebrate, Some Are Fearful

JERUSALEM (CNS) — With events changing by the moment, Egyptians were left feeling angry, frustrated and uncertain, said a Catholic priest in a phone interview Feb. 11 minutes before Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman announced President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.

“They want Mubarak to go now, and all his government,” Father Shenouda Andraos told Catholic News Service from St. Leo Great Coptic Catholic Seminary in Cairo. “There is anger in the streets. We are waiting for someone to speak to the people. We never know what will happen. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. It is difficult to imagine.”

He noted that more than 1 million people had gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with many of the protesters marching on the presidential palace demanding Mubarak’s resignation and that a parliamentary tribunal of five or six parliament members take control of the government until the planned September election.

Father Andraos also said it was uncertain what role the military would take in the reconfigured government until the election.

Jason Belanger, country representative for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, told CNS in an e-mail exchange that pro-Mubarak loyalists had blamed outside forces, such as Israel and the United States, for fomenting the demonstrations, which he said, could pose a threat to foreigners in Egypt.

At the same time said Comboni Sister Anna Maria Sgaramella said in an e-mail exchange from Cairo a clear sense of fear remained in the Egyptian capital. She said Egyptian television only showed the protestors in Tahrir Square while ignoring the other 80 percent of the population that was not demonstrating.

“Have they the right to be considered? There are people all over Egypt who see that the transition time is necessary, to gradually prepare the nation to become a democratic country,” she wrote.

“At the moment, unfortunately, the role of the army is not clear: Are they going to support the vice president or not? If not, it will prolong the sense of insecurity and fear in which people have gone through in the last two weeks,” she explained.

She was especially concerned for Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living in Cairo. The lack of security during the protests placed them at risk of violence, she wrote.

“They don’t have the services as before, and have no protection because they are foreigners and have no possibility of going back to their countries,” said Sister Anna Maria, who has been in Egypt for eight years and worked in educational centers for about 1,200 Sudanese refugee students who are following their country’s curriculum.

Despite the risks, Sister Anna Maria said, classes remained in session for older students, who are scheduled to take exams from Khartoum in March.

“We hope that the way toward normalcy can go ahead so that they can succeed,” she said.

In Luxor, 320 miles south of Cairo, the atmosphere has been quiet, said Coptic Catholic Bishop Youhannes Zakaria, although he cited the economic hardship people have experienced because the flow of tourists — the primary business driver — had dwindled since the protests erupted Jan. 25.

Most people, he told CNS by phone Feb. 11, were angered after learning how much the leaders had used their power to amass their own wealth.

“In Egypt, the rich got richer and the poor got very poor,” he said, noting that young people couldn’t find work and prices for food were skyrocketing. “They want a change to democracy after 30 years of an authoritarian regime. People are willing to suffer for the change.”

Throughout the 18 days of unrest there were no threats, verbal or otherwise, against the Christian population and in fact Christians and Muslim young people were united in the protests in Tahrir Square, he said.

“I hope and pray we will become a democracy and Egypt will become like other countries,” he said.

A big question mark remains about what role the Muslim Brotherhood will take in any new configuration of the government. Leaders of the fundamentalist Islamic organization have pledged not to field a presidential candidate even though they want to take part in the political process in the planned balloting.

“Until now, we can’t say what will happen with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Father Andraos said. “They said they don’t want to be president and want a secular country, but we still can’t know (if they will hold to these statements.)”

Sister Anna Maria expressed concern that while the “true values” of justice, freedom and defense of human rights were propelling the demonstrations, extremist Islamic groups were in a way “manipulating the protest.” She felt that some Islamic extremists who had been jailed for violent actions and were subsequently freed supported the demonstrations in what she described as an effort to destabilize the country in order to secure governance more in line with their views.

She also praised the courage of Coptic Christians who stepped forward to demand basic rights and to be visible among the protesters.

“For sure it’s the time in which Christian denominations should overcome divisions and find the way to say ‘one word’ as Christians to the parliament, to the civil society,” she said. “A new awareness is growing within the churches: to help and prepare people for a different commitment at the social level. To form people (with tools for) critical and free thinking is the new challenge for the church and for educational agencies in general.

“The exodus has started,” she added.“Egypt won’t be the same as it was before; therefore we ask God to bless the new journey, may it be the beginning of an abundant life for all, even for those who up to now have been excluded, repressed, ignored.”

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