(Photo: Reuters/Suhaib Salem)
The Egyptian armed forces ousted Mohammed Morsi and replaced him with a temporary civilian government on Wednesday, in response to huge demonstrations and a petition boasting the signatures of 22 million demanding his removal. Christian communities played a large role and face significant risk in what the BBC called "the largest political event in the history of the world."
Coptic Christians and "the other Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox communities, they'll tell you their status was more beleaguered and more fearful than it ever had been," said Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith and president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy. He recounted speaking to these marginal Christian groups during a February visit.
"They played a significant role in raising the masses," he said. He also predicted that Egypt's historic Coptic community and "some of the women's groups" will "play a huge role" in the political movements going forward.
Jasser also pointed out that the majority of the protesters were Muslim. "For those that think Muslims have it in our DNA to be run by theocrats, they've proven otherwise," he said. "This was just unprecedented in humanity – millions in the streets."
The protests proved that the Egyptian people "are both against Islamism and against military dictatorship."
Steven S. Bucci, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., agreed with Jasser about the importance of the Christian communities in both Egypt and Syria.
"I just think that the fate of the Christian communities in both of these countries is an underreported and underevaluated situation," he said. "I'm not saying they're more important than the other communities, but they're more at risk than other communities."
Bucci noted that Coptic Christians in Egypt and Antiochian Orthodox Christians in Syria have proven to be good citizens for hundreds of years. "They've been businessmen, they've served in the government, they've been non-disruptive elements of those societies for a long time," he argued.
He finds hope in the military-backed turnover. "I don't see it as a military coup," he explained. "If they turn it back over to civilians in a relatively short period of time – obviously not 10 years, obviously not a week and a half – it could turn out to be a positive thing."
While Jasser also insisted that the transition was "not a military coup," Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argued it was "a little bit of both."
He acknowledged the unprecedented size of the uprising. "If there were 20 million signatures to oust Morsi," he argued, "that's 25 percent of the country." In contrast, "historians estimate about 1 percent of Americans fought in the American Revolution, 2 percent of Frenchman in the French, 2 percent of Russians in the Bolshevik, and 10 percent in Iran in the pre-Facebook era."
"That is an amazing percentage, unprecedented in history," he explained. Nevertheless, "it is a military coup."
"That said, we can't call it a military coup because" U.S. law forbids giving assistance when "an elected government is overthrown in a coup."
"President Obama is like a gambler who is always hesitant to call his bets until he sees the cards on the table," Rubin explained. "Coups can actually be good for democracy, especially with someone like Morsi who used democracy to get into power, but holds the concept of democracy in disdain."
Rubin mentioned Morsi's "November 22 decree," by which the Muslim Brotherhood leader "assumed autocratic powers" by placing himself above the judiciary, and the constitution, which allowed the Muslim Brotherhood government to define and enforce morality.
"Egypt ended up with an Islamist constitution that marginalized women and minorities," Jasser explained. The government also imprisoned "American NGOs who came to teach freedom and ramming through appointments of radicals into governorships."
Morsi failed Egypt politically, legally, economically, and in terms of foreign policy, Jasser alleged. Reaching out to Iran and Hamas "infuriated the population as it also impacted tourism." Both the tourism and textile industries suffered under Morsi's policies.
Fortunately for freedom in Egypt, "Morsi brought about unity in opposition to the Islamists." In the 2012 election, between 30 and 40 parties battled for the electorate. Now one movement has united to oust the Muslim Brotherhood.
"I think these things take time," Jasser said, pointing to the failure of America's first Constitution – the Articles of Confederation. "It took us until 1789 to have a functional constitution."
All three experts called on President Obama to support the Egyptian military. "America has turned its back on the Iranians in 2009 and on the Turkish people last month," Rubin said. "Let's hope we don't make the mistake three times."
He highlighted the military's public relations success. "The military was deeply unpopular a year ago," but now it "has been able to resurrect its image in just under a year."
Rubin predicted a swift transition back to civilian government, due to impending economic troubles. "Since the Arab Spring has begun, Egypt's hard currency reserves have disappeared," crippling the government which "regularly subsidizes food and fuel."
"The coming economic shock – austerity, the reforms which are necessary – is going to make Greece look like an economic paradise," Rubin forebodingly prophesied. "The military wants to have reforms made but have someone else take the blame."
Despite their role in the uprisings, however, Christians still have a great deal to fear. "What they need to worry about is retaliation," Rubin warned. "There's a difference between persecution, which is official, and retaliation, which is unofficial."
"The Christian groups need to be worried about vigilante reprisals" from the Muslim Brotherhood.