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The Men Who Stayed

Egypt’s Copts hang on and hope

In June 2012, when it became clear Egypt’s new president would be Muslim Brotherhood candidate Muhammad Morsi, Atef Gamil decided he needed to start planning for the inevitable. The Coptic Christian real estate agent and father of three got his family’s paperwork together and headed to the Embassy of Georgia to apply for a visa. He also started to explore moving to Cyprus. Mr. Gamil worried the rising power of political Islamists would make life in Egypt even harder for the country’s Christian minority. He knew he had to think about his family.

Mr. Gamil received the Georgian visa without a problem. And he was soon in contact with other Egyptians he knew in Cyprus. Then, he began to think about his children. With one son halfway through medical school, a daughter about to enter college and an 11-year-old in primary school, he thought it might be unwise to uproot them. He decided to wait. He still is not sure it was the right decision.

“There is a fear now when it comes to your personal life — like your family,” Mr. Gamil says, sitting in his small storefront office inShobra, a neighborhood in Cairo known for its mixed Muslim and Christian community. The yellow and pastel green walls are crumbling and adorned simply with a religious icon and a large photograph of his late father.

“Before, tensions in society were controlled under the Mubarak regime, but now with new freedom comes fear for your children that things may get worse.

“Politically, we thought when the former regime was gone things would improve and stabilize, but now we are going backward.” As he speaks, Mr. Gamil’s disappointment plays across his brown eyes. “Later I thought, ‘This is my country, this is where I grew up.’ It’s not fair,” he says, shaking his head.

Two years after the revolution that deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak, the idealism of the uprising and the unity of the opposition have disappeared. A new, more volatile Egypt has emerged. In the face of rising political Islam, increased violence and religious prejudice, Egypt’s Christians, roughly 10 percent of the population, feel a heightened sense of insecurity in a country they have called their own for millennia.

The country’s faltering economy and subsequent turmoil have affected all Egyptians, but Christians are feeling even more precarious about their prospects.

“Copts, after the revolution, had very high hopes that they were coming out of a dictatorship where they longed for lost equality,” says Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of Watany, a weekly Coptic newspaper. “But after the revolution, everybody is suffering from the absence of state, the lack of security and of course the shameful rise of violence. This affects both Copts and Muslims.”

Salafis, extremist Muslims who eschewed politics under Mubarak, have risen to the fore in post-revolutionary Egypt. They have become increasingly vocal about their vision for Egypt and have ratcheted up their anti-Christian rhetoric.

“For Christians, the atmosphere is really threatening on a day-to-day level,” Mr. Sidhom adds. “In political bodies, in their media, in all of their talk shows — they don’t cease revealing their intentions that Egypt should be transformed into an Islamic state, and that they are coming back in order to put Egypt on the right ethical track via Islamic Sharia. They are saying this daily.”

With the growing influence of radical Islam, more and more Christians are considering their options. Atef Gamil knows many Christians who have already emigrated. He wants his 21-year-old son, Bishoy, to move to England when the young man finishes his medical degree in three years. But Bishoy Gamil has other ideas. He does not want to leave Egypt.

Discussions about migration are playing out across the Coptic community, says the Rev. Shenouda Andraos, the rector of the Coptic Catholic Seminary of St. Leo the Great in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. Father Andraos says the church leadership continues to tell its flock emigration is not the solution.

“The church is trying to raise awareness that we must have a positive and effective role and we cannot leave the country — this is our homeland and we have to participate in building it. It is important we don’t become terrorized, that we continue to have hope in the future.”

Bishoy Gamil and his friend Michael Girgis, a 24-year-old e-commerce investor, agree. “Even with all that is happening, Egyptians are emotional and can’t leave Egypt easily — I love my friends, my people. It is hard to live in a new place,” Mr. Girgis says.

Both young men act in their local church’s theater troupe, where they have found an outlet for their creative energies in postrevolutionary Egypt. Mr. Gamil, handsome and fashionable in his imported glasses, directs the two-dozen other troupe members. Together, they put on a new play every three months.

“I believe everyone can play a part in Egypt’s revolution in their own way,” Bishoy Gamil says. “I express myself in the theater.”

Soon after the revolution, the group worked on a production, called “Chaos,” about life in the country after the revolution. It is a sign of how little has improved that the group is now rehearsing a sequel. Frequent clashes and demonstrations in downtown Cairo have shuttered parts of the city, striking at the heart of the country’s vital tourism sector and destabilizing the economy.

Initially, the young men worried that putting on a political play that deals with the influence of Islam in a Christian community center would be too controversial — perhaps even get the church in trouble. But when they took their concerns to the center’s priest, Father Bishoy told them it was an important production and encouraged them to stage the show. “He said, no, you are talking about your country,” Mr. Girgis remembers. The show was a hit. They even took it to a theater festival.

For the Copts, an ominous symptom of the recent chaos is the rise in violence toward Christians. While Muslims and Christians live side by side in Shobra without incident, on television Bishoy Gamil and his friend see news programs about attacks on Christian communities and churches in the Egyptian countryside and even in the country’s capital.

Father Andraos says the desire to blame Christians for the country’s problems is a leading cause of sectarian clashes. Recently, a group of angry youths dressed in black confronted riot police in Cairo; they called themselves the Black Bloc and became a popular foil to the Muslim Brotherhood government on the streets. Father Andraos says the media accused the anonymous mob of being a Christian militia.

“This is laughable,” Father Andraos says. “But when there are accusations directed against Christians, that is when fear arises. People speak about leaving, they worry. It has nothing to do with the truth and incites the Islamist groups.”

As Mr. Gamil explains, there has always been injustice in Egypt in his lifetime: Copts often mention the lack of Christians in high posts in the government or in the army, which is why many Coptic Christians have thrived in the private sector. Yet, pointing out specific personal discrimination “is a subtle problem,” Mr. Gamil says.

The church has been providing many social and charity activities for its flock, especially after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to encourage Islamists as political allies in the 1970’s and Christians suddenly felt unwelcomed. The church began creating its own clubs — such as a football club and the theater troupe. However, many say this kind of separation complicates the process of fully integrating communities of Muslims and Christians.

“The church did something that is considered a very cherished service to its congregation by founding church clubs and church social buildings,” Mr. Sidhom explains.

“But the negative aspect of this is that it led to separating them from the mainstream of society.”

He thinks it is up to the Christian community to demand their rights and integrate into civil society in the new Egypt.

Men like Atef Gamil understand the need to try to integrate. But every time he tries, he says he is rebuffed, as with the football club. “Anyone who tries to leave the enclosed circle gets crushed, in terms of getting jobs or getting children into clubs outside of these,” Mr. Gamil explains.

He says the Coptic Church cannot take the lead in creating political change in Egypt, but the church leadership continues to provide spiritual support for the community, through charity, clubs and religious services.

“When it comes to religion, it’s a religion of peace and love,” Mr. Gamil says.

“These are the teachings and guidance of Jesus Christ. But the church is in a very sensitive situation because if it involves itself in politics people could accuse it of being sectarian and think it is against Islamists.”

The trend started by Sadat — and continued under Mubarak — has only gathered speed after the revolution. Islamists have gained dominant positions in government and written a constitution built around Islamic law.

Egypt’s new constitution, passed in December 2012, states Sharia is the basis of all legislation — a similar article was in the last constitution. However, one of the more controversial articles is Article 219, which reads: “The principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.”

The article has critics worried, fearing that the specific mention of Sunni doctrines could lead to legislation that could include more controversial aspects of the Islamic penal code applied to society at large.

It is a possibility that has many worried about the future of civil liberties — especially regarding the rights of Christians and women in Egypt. Already, the courts are being flooded with an alarming number of cases of people accused of insulting Islam.

Egypt’s new Coptic Orthodox pope and patriarch of Alexandria, Tawadros II, has been vocal about the rise of radical Islam. His predecessor, Shenouda III, was elected in 1971, and was seen as more accommodating to the government. But Pope Tawadros II, who was enthroned in November 2012, has openly criticized the new constitution.

“The constitution, the base for all laws, must be under the umbrella of citizenship and not a religious one,” Pope Tawadros told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

“Subsequently, some clauses were distorted by a religious slant, and that in itself is discrimination… because the constitution is supposed to unite and not divide.”

The political turmoil has cast a shadow over the economy as well. Beyond the rising intolerance, the fact remains that in postrevolutionary Egypt, whether you are Christian or Muslim, it is not easy to find a job. The shrinking economy is hurting everyone.

Father Andraos says the state of the economy concerns the men in his congregation. “Daily expenses have risen 200 percent. This has affected the entire society,” he says.

“The poor classes have become even poorer — this impacts everyone, including Christian families. These are problems that are getting worse day by day.”

Michael Girgis is among those young men who have university degrees but who have been unable to find stable work in the unstable economy.

He dabbles in e-commerce from his living room, he says, but he struggles to get by. “I think in the old days, it was hard to find a job if you were Christian, but now it’s a problem for us all.”

In the last two years, Egypt’s economy has contracted sharply, with foreign currency reserves down to just $13.6 billion in February 2013, dropping $1.4 billion from the previous month, imperiling imports like fuel and food. In January, the country’s central bank said their $15 billion in reserves was only enough to cover three months of imports.

With so much instability from all sides and no end in sight, these men are trying to be optimistic about the future. But there is a persistent sense of anxiety, especially among those who have decided to stay in the country, hoping and praying that things will improve.

Atef Gamil is still weighing his options. He is not sure what will happen to his children if he stays in Egypt or what kind of opportunities, if any, they will have.

“It is difficult to guess,” he says wearily. “Only God knows the future.”

Journalist Sarah Topol covers events in the Middle East from Cairo.

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