Disorder spread throughout Egypt’s urban centers as the second anniversary of the beginning of a popular uprising and overthrow of the Mubarak regime on Jan. 25 became an opportunity for women, secularists and Christian Egyptians to protest the nation’s increasing tilt toward Islamist rule. Protestors demanding the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and parallel protests led to violence in other metropolitan areas. The chaos accelerated when clashes flared after a Cairo court handed down death sentences for 21 supporters of Port Said’s Al-Masry soccer club for their part in a 2012 riot that left 74 people dead. Scores have been killed and wounded in street violence. Egypt’s army chief, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, even warned on Jan. 29 that the political crisis could lead to the collapse of the state.
In the two years since the Arab Spring reached Egypt, the nation’s Christians have faced growing uncertainty and intimidation. Thousands have joined an exodus out of Egypt into the United States, where as many as 100,000 refugees have swelled a pre-revolution population of 350,000. With the continuing disorder in the streets and the damaged economy, which relies on a tourist trade that has collapsed, and amid new threats against Christians emerging from among Islamist groups, that emigration is likely to continue.
This existential threat has not gone unnoticed by Christian leadership. In January the Catholic Church in Egypt issued a stinging critique of President Morsi, accusing him of manipulating public opinion and acts of gross incompetence that led to the deaths of protestors. The Rev. Antoine Rafic Greiche, spokesperson for the Catholic bishops’ conference of Egypt, accused Morsi of failing to adequately ready security forces for the clear likelihood of street violence. President Morsi “must take responsibility for the deaths of those who were killed in the recent unrest,” he said. “The security forces were unprepared for these protests, even though they were predictable. This is the government’s failure.” By Feb. 1, 57 people had died in clashes with police and security forces.
“The people are dissatisfied with the Islamist regime,” Father Greiche said. “Divisions are increasing. The bloody protests in the Suez region and in Cairo show how the country is falling apart. But perhaps this will also lead to new reflection and to a new unity about the future of Egypt. At any rate, it cannot go on like this.” Father Greiche also condemned Morsi’s initiatives at dialogue as insincere. The president, he said, “must finally start a national dialogue that is worthy of the name. We had plenty of staged events that were designed to produce nice pictures, but were otherwise a waste of time.”
Of key concern to Egyptian Christians, according to Father Greiche, is the constitution that Morsi signed into law in December in the face of bitter opposition, not least from the Catholic Church, which withdrew from the negotiations to draft the document. Bishop Kyrillos William, administrator of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, warned that the “religious orientation of this constitution prepares the way for an Islamic caliphate.”
Among other incidents that have concerned both secularists and Christians since the constitution was approved, an Egyptian woman and her seven children were sentenced to 15 years in prison for converting to Christianity. Reports in January describe how thousands of people emerging from a mosque destroyed a Sunday school under construction in Fayoum. In a separate incident, on Jan. 18 thousands of Muslim protestors in Qena reportedly attacked eight Coptic Christian homes and businesses, torching Coptic-owned pharmacies and vehicles.