Egypt Protests: Coptic Christians' Painful Split

While some Egyptian Christians are chanting among the protesters on Tahrir Square for Mubarak's resignation, others fear the rise of Islamic radicals, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and the fallout for the Coptic community.

Mohammed Abed / Getty Images

The cry of “Allah Akbar” rang out across the crowd and thousands of Muslims kneeled in unison for noon prayers Sunday in Tahrir Square. The prayer services have been held regularly since protesters took over the Cairo square 10 days ago, but another service was held for the first time in the square Sunday afternoon: a Mass. Many Muslims joined the Christian service in a show of interfaith unity.

Still, Egypt’s Christian community is deeply divided about the protests. While Christian protesters seeking the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak prayed in Tahrir Square on Sunday, the day before, Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church, called for an end to the protests in an interview with state-run TV.

Even before the demonstrations began, the Coptic community in Egypt, which represents about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people, was already in shock. On New Year’s Eve, a suicide bomber attacked a church in the city of Alexandria, killing 23 people and wounding nearly 100. The Egyptian government blamed the attack on an Islamic radical group based in Gaza, but the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda had also issued warnings about a possible attack.

The protests have only increased the Copts’ anxiety. They fear that if Mubarak goes, Muslim radicals—read: the Muslim Brotherhood—may step in to fill the vacuum. Many Copts surely took note that the Muslim Brotherhood joined a handful of other opposition leaders in talks with Vice President Omar Suleiman on Sunday afternoon.

Maryam, a 28-year old telecommunications engineer sporting a large silver cross over a black sweater, was in Tahrir Square on Sunday with a handful of friends. She hadn’t come for the Mass but wanted to show solidarity with the protesters. “I think the change is needed,” she said. “But no one has a plan. It looks like chaos. We’re worried that the Muslim Brotherhood will use this for their political benefit. It’s a potential threat and we have to stop it from growing.”

Marianne Khoury, a well-known Egyptian film producer and director who’s a member of the Greek Orthodox community, said the fears of many of her fellow Christians are overblown. “There’s this huge fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over—RAAR,” she said, mimicking a roar and raising her hands. “But I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the situation. There’s huge solidarity between Christians and Muslims.”

“We’re worried that the Muslim Brotherhood will use this for their political benefit. It’s a potential threat and we have to stop it from growing,” said one Christian on Tahrir Square.

For Khoury, the bigger threat has been the pro-regime mobs that have sown chaos around the city in the past week. Last Thursday, she decided to take some supplies to the protesters in Tahrir Square. She bought 50 blankets and headed to the square with a driver. They never got there. Less than a mile from their destination, a pro-regime mob attacked their car when they spotted the blankets. “There were hundreds of people on the car. It was extremely violent and aggressive,” said Khoury, still shaken up by the attack. “They pulled me out of the car and began pulling my hair and beating me. They were shouting, ‘You are a spy!’ and ‘You are not Egyptian!’” Khoury paused a few moments to collect her thoughts. “The situation now is extremely bad. I don’t know how I’m alive,” she said.

Since the protests began, the Egyptian government has hardly acknowledged the chaos that its supporters have caused. Instead, it has stoked fears about the Muslim Brotherhood at nearly every opportunity, a strategy the government has used for 30 years. Mubarak conjured up the reliable boogeyman in an interview with Christiane Amanpour last week. “If I resign now there will be chaos,” he said. “And I’m afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.”

For their part, the leaders of the Brotherhood have been doing their best to dispel any fears about their plans if Mubarak goes. In an interview last week, Rashad Bayoumi, the deputy head of the Brotherhood, said the group isn’t planning a power grab. “We were not waiting to jump and take power. We are a group that’s a part of society. What we want is for power to go back to the people so that everybody in society will be represented,” he said. “We will not impose anything on the people. We want the people to decide for themselves.”

It remains to be seen whether the Christian community will believe the Brotherhood’s promises.

Babak Dehghanpisheh was named Newsweek’s Baghdad bureau chief in December 2006. He has been covering Iraq regularly for the past five years.