CAIRO, Egypt - Sectarian domination was not what Egyptian protesters and self-described revolutionaries had in mind when they drove President Hosni Mubarak from office during Egypt's Arab Spring in 2011. But to underestimate religious sectarianism in the Middle East is to misunderstand one of its core realities.
After forcing out Mubarak and electing Mohamed Morsi last June, revolutionaries are back on the streets, this time with cries of "Leave, leave, Morsi."
As I walked toward the presidential palace in Cairo after Friday prayers, now the center of protest, I passed families, with children in tow, seemingly not wanting to miss the historic showdown between the power of the mob and police. Soon the festival-like atmosphere turned into Molotov tossing, police in riot gear lobbing tear gas, and in the end, a man shot in the head by the police.
Many factors have converged to create this ongoing backlash. The economy is in tatters: 25% of Egyptians live on $1 a day, while another 25% make $2 a day. There are 45 million Egyptians under 30, and 90% of them are unemployed., providing an ideal breeding ground for unrest and protest. European powers are reluctant to provide financial aid until the social unrest abates.
And yet, looming in the background of every public debate is religion. The U.S. recently, and European powers historically, have to their discredit blinded their eyes to the fundamental nature of the Middle East. The pressure between the Islamic majority and the Christian minority, but long-established, other faiths is reaching a boiling point.
The Coptic Orthodox were in Egypt long before Islam arrived. Once one of the central branches of Christianity, today, the Coptic Church, along with evangelical Protestants, constitutes 15% of Egypt's population. Yet it has been this group, especially the Coptic Orthodox, that have felt the heavy hand of Mubarak's police (or their absence) when attacked by extremists. People have been fired or denied educations, or even harassed and killed, on the basis of their Christian faith, which they are required to declare on official government documents.
Christians and Muslim moderates had high hopes after Mubarak was ousted. They hoped for a modern, progressive Egypt. It hasn't happened. Morsi stacked the committee to write the constitution with Muslim Brotherhood members and Salafists (fundamentalists) and rushed the draft to a referendum. Christians and moderates were dismayed to see the lack of meaningful protections of religious freedom. But the constitution passed.
I asked Dr. Sameh Maurice, minister of Al-Dubara Church next to Tahrir Square, where the revolution might lead and what Christians expected from the future. During the revolution he had opened his church as field hospital and center for dialogue between moderate Muslims and Christians. He has since become a leader in Egypt's Christian community.
He offered two possible scenarios. The first, of course, is that moderate forces win out and that Egypt's religious minorities are allowed to live in peace. But the other seems more likely. "Many Christians in the rural area today are being persecuted," Dr. Maurice told me. "Homes and fields and shops are being taken. In cities it is not that bad. But outside them, Islamists take by violence and guns and the government does not protect Christians. If the Islamists take over fully, we expect persecution to move into the cities. The economy will collapse, people will starve."
"If that comes, the church will go underground and be oppressed. If the [moderates prevail], we will bring truth and love to the people of Egypt. But we are working to prepare ourselves for either scenario."
Indeed. The Arab Spring has become a Christian Winter. Egypt faces an exodus of its Christian population similar to those that have already been seen in other Middle Eastern states in the grips of Islamist governments. This will be tragic for Egypt. Not only do Christians control almost a third of business, they are well educated, trained as professionals. They contribute greatly to Egypt's economic and social well-being.
It will be a tragedy if Egypt's Christians are forced to flee after 1,300 years of largely successful co-existence with their Muslim neighbors. And it will be a tragedy felt even by those who would drive them from their homes.