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The country's 'orphaned' Coptic minority is still hurting seven months after 27 died at the hands of the military.
CAIRO – With fluffy beige pillows propped behind her still recovering back, Evon Mossad takes a deep breath and reclines on a velvet couch in her apartment in a middle class suburb of Cairo.
The 53-year-old Coptic Christian woman reflected on what has happened just seven months after an evening of violence which became a defining moment for many in Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
“What happened after? Nothing,” says Mossad, who emerged from the incident badly bruised and became an activist and community organizer. “Nothing has changed, except there’s more fear and anxiety.”
Seven months ago, Mossad says she was in the crowd of protesters when she was suddenly assaulted and beaten by an officer who called her an “infidel.” The demonstration erupted into a horrific night of brutality in which 27 people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between Egyptian security forces and mainly Coptic Christian demonstrators who were protesting against an attack on a church by Islamic extremists.
In Egypt’s sequence of bloody flashpoints since the January 25 uprising, the event is known simply as “Maspero,” the state TV building where demonstrators rallied against what Copts saw as indifference to the attack on a church.
“In Egypt, rights of Christians just aren’t a winning campaign issue.”~Shadi Hamid, Brookings Doha Center
In the aftermath of Maspero, though in great physical pain and mournful over the deaths of friends, Mossad was wheeled around Cairo’s Coptic Hospital, visiting other victims and encouraging them to keep up the fight for their rights. She encouraged them not to lose hope that the violence might produce a productive turning point in Egypt’s often stilted discourse around the rights of its Christian minority.
But, as it turned out, Maspero was not so much a turning point for Copts as it was an open wound, and one that Mossad says is still healing. Copts have suffered discrimination throughout hundreds of years of history in Egypt. Individual Copts have also been great Egyptian nationalists and leading thinkers, industrialists and artists who are frequently quick to point out that Muslims and Christians are like brothers in Egypt. It’s a complex relationship – as fraught as any sibling rivalry. But what is clear as Egypt takes its first faltering steps toward electing a civilian president, is that a democracy and the constitution upon which it is based are defined in how the rights of minorities are protected. Today Copts are left wondering and worrying about their place in a new Egypt.
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Sporadic but intense demonstrations over the past year reflect mounting fears in Egypt’s Coptic community (who make up an estimated 5 to10 percent of Egypt’s total population) and its Diaspora that after the country’s uprising, the predominantly Muslim Egyptian society seems as indifferent to the Christian minority’s concerns as ever. And with the recent death of Pope Shenouda III last March after 40 years at the helm of the Middle East’s largest Christian community, many Copts are looking for a leader who can help redefine their community's role in a rapidly changing, increasingly Islamist post-Mubarak Egypt.
“You can call us orphans,” Mossad says with a bitter laugh.
On the eve of the nation’s first free presidential elections, Mossad still finds herself struggling to stand after back surgery and extensive physical therapy. But her hardest struggle, she says, is encouraging her fellow Copts to stand up for their rights.
“We have no real presidential candidates. It’s either ex-regime officials or Islamists. We’re between a rock and a hard place,” she bemoans. “No one is talking about us. No one wants to risk losing favor among the majority.”
Maspero has left a scar on a post-revolution Egypt that was supposed to be more equitable than three decades of life under the repressive rule of Hosni Mubarak. Though Mubarak is easily one of the most hated figures – both real and symbolic – of the region’s pro-democracy uprisings, many Copts lament a sad truth. That is, their protection as a religious minority group actually seemed more assured under the police state of the ousted president’s regime.
Many Copts were initially reluctant to take part in Egypt's uprising, fearing increasing marginalization as political Islam was given space to mature. Under Mubarak, many Islamists were thrown into prison or relegated to underground status. Coptic activists suffered too under Mubarak and there were sporadic incidents of violence directed against them, but overall they were a protected, some might even say coddled, minority.
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Just how safe Copts were under Mubarak will be debated by historians. But now, in the raw aftermath of sectarian violence there is widespread suspicion among Christians about the direction of the ‘unfinished revolution.’ The late pope was widely popular and his funeral marked one of the largest Egyptian public gatherings in decades. But many Copts like Mossad now wish the Coptic hierarchy had been more critical of the regime and of the military council which is ruling in the interim and which has so far failed to hold any one accountable for the deaths of Christians at Maspero.
Looking up at framed portraits of the pope, who Coptic Christians called “Baba,” father in Arabic, she said, “He was always in a hard place. … If Christians are critical, they can become the target. We saw this at Maspero and we’ll see it again.”
As presidential candidates have been busy campaigning the past six weeks, no rally has been complete without a communal requisite appeal to the people of Egypt – both “Christians and Muslims – one hand.”
Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a candidate widely deemed “felool,” or “a remnant” of the Mubarak regime, went even further promising to appoint a Christian woman as his deputy if he is elected. Yet despite the almost routine reassurance that “Christians and Muslims are equal in Egypt,” many Copts simply aren’t convinced.
“The first step is acknowledging the problem,” says Michael Hanna, an Egypt analyst at The Century Foundation, which is “that the current Egyptian society and legal structure does not have them equal.”
Many are slow to acknowledge that inequality. Just last month, Dr. Abdul Mawgoud Dardery, a member of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, quickly dismissed the notion of systemic sectarian divides in Egypt.
“There’s not so much an issue between Copts and Muslims in Egypt,” Dardery says. “Small problems are exaggerated by the media and used by the old regime to divide Egypt and dismantle the revolution.”
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It’s all part and parcel of the Islamophobia, he says, Mubarak perpetuated among the West and within his own country to assure no formidable competition to his regime’s own rule.