Fear Factor: The Life of Copts in Upper Egypt

Sarah Topol shares her thoughts on reporting on the Copts of Upper Egypt.

Sarah Topol reports on the struggles of Coptic farmers in Upper Egypt for the Winter issue of ONE. Here, she adds some personal context.

When I visited Abu Qurqas, it was early summer and only the dawn provided respite from the sweltering heat. The small village in Upper Egypt, about 160 miles south of Cairo, is only a few miles from the banks of the Nile River, but inside the warren of dirt-packed alleys, there was no breeze. Frequent power cuts interrupted interviews and tours, but people were unfailingly hospitable.

In April 2011, 70 Christian homes in Abu Qurqas were vandalized in a week of sectarian riots. Dozens were injured and two Muslims were killed. Three days into the clashes, Upper Egypt’s military prosecutor arrested 12 Christians and 8 Muslims on charges of “murder, rioting, damaging public utilities and spreading panic among citizens,” according to local media. Three months later, a judge found all 12 Coptic Christians guilty and sentenced them to life in prison. The Muslims were acquitted.

While trying to find the family whose story I thought would be interesting to readers, I interviewed a cross section of Abu Qurqas’s residents and all of them expressed concern about what that verdict signified.

Atef Labib, the Christian farmer whom I eventually profiled for the story, was born and raised in Abu Qurqas. He lived in a predominantly Muslim part of town. During the riots, he found himself trapped on the roof of his house with his wife and 20-year-old daughter, fearful of the violence that raged below.

Mr. Labib described his concerns about their midnight flight to a safer part of the village: “The biggest ache wasn’t leaving the house; the worst pain would be if the women were attacked,” he said. “Even me, I couldn’t sustain that. I’m an old man with a weak body. I don’t know how to fight.”

As with residents of small towns everywhere, Atef Labib had known his neighbors for years. I found myself wondering what it would be like to live through a riot that eventually grew to include neighbors — people Labib saw every day and those on whom he thought he could depend. I couldn’t imagine the fear that they would attack you or the women in your family as you tried to flee. While Mr. Labib said many of his neighbors tried to help the family, the rest of his story was deeply unsettling. Eventually, he felt he had to move to a more Christian part of town.

Though I relied mostly on his experience in writing the story, he wasn’t alone. Christian residents in Abu Qurqas, as in many villages in Upper Egypt, were terrified of burgeoning sectarian attacks. Others also reported hiding on the roofs of their homes. Some said they had armed themselves with whatever they could find and waited, prepared to defend against a violent intrusion.

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was in control of the country. A military coup in July toppled Brotherhood president Muhammad Morsi. A subsequent crackdown on the group jailed the organization’s leadership and pushed members underground. Violence against the state has increased, allegedly perpetuated by Islamist extremists with no known affiliation to the Brotherhood. Today, I wonder if Atef Labib feels more or less secure under the country’s new regime.

I wonder whether he has placed his trust in the military-appointed government — or whether the dizzying increase of bombings and attacks on the military still has residents in Abu Qurqas wondering whether it is just a matter of time until it trickles down.

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