For Egypt's Christians, conditions could worsen -- or even improve
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The turmoil in Egypt threatens to unleash chaos in a country long ruled by a dictator where militant Islam has been growing for years -- and the outcome is difficult to predict, two Southern Baptist observers said Jan. 31.
Massive protests, at times violent, have rocked Egypt's major cities for nearly a week, partly inspired by successful democracy protests in neighboring Tunisia that drove that country's strongman from power. Over the weekend, police vanished from the cities and allowed mobs to pillage and loot at will, according to media reports. Gangs of armed men attacked at least four jails Jan. 30, freeing hundreds of Muslim radicals and criminals.
While some demonstrators in Egypt have called for democracy, most are venting their anger over poverty, joblessness, food prices, corruption and police brutality. The Muslim Brotherhood, a hard-line Islamist organization of 600,000 members, also has organized demonstrations.
"Islamic factions of various stripes are interacting with secular and democratic groups with common immediate goals in mind -- overthrow the tyrant," said Mike Edens, professor of Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. "The common energy of youthful idealism, awareness of the injustice of the status quo, and impatience with structure has caused these and other factions to cooperate for immediate outcomes with disregard for who will lead after the dust settles."
The Egyptian turmoil is not primarily a democratic uprising like the one in Tunisia, said Eddie Pate, director of the David and Faith Kim School of Global Missions at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary.
"I doubt very seriously that this is some kind of 'grass-roots' popular uprising by people that are disenchanted with the government, fed up with poverty or a lack of jobs," Pate said. "While they may be some of the people protesting, I would see this as being orchestrated by people seeking to capitalize on what happened in Tunisia.
"I think the fact that the situation worsened after Friday prayers is an indication that Muslim leaders are at best not discouraging the protests," Pate added. "We have to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood started in Egypt. They are likely to demand a more influential role in the next government should the current government be forced to step down."
The Muslim Brotherhood advocates imposing Islamic Sharia law and is closely allied with the radical Hamas and Hezbollah organizations, both of which also are linked to Iran. Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been suppressed by the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for 29 years. The jailbreaks freed 34 Muslim Brotherhood members, including at least seven senior members of the group, according to news reports.
Since its founding in the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood's goal has been to establish militant Islamic control over Egypt, noted Egypt-born Michael Youssef, founding pastor of the non-denominational Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Ga.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has been thirsting for power in Egypt for many, many years," Youssef wrote in a Jan. 28 column. "Look at what is happening in Gaza today and you will have a very good idea of what could happen in Egypt if Hamas' friends and allies, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt come to power. It will not only spell disaster to the west and to Israel, but also to the Christians and the secular-minded Muslims."
Pate also sees danger in the uprising for Egypt's Christians, who have been under rising persecution, including a Jan. 1 suicide bombing in which 21 worshippers were killed at a church in the port city of Alexandria.
"Whatever the outcome [of the turmoil], the church in the Middle East is still going to be vulnerable," Pate said. "Presidents and kings in the Middle East generally provide some 'bubble' of freedom for the church -- whether that be in Egypt or elsewhere. They are offered some protection. When regimes change, the status of the church will be an issue. It's time for Christians in the West to pray for the church and all the peoples of the Middle East."
In a bid to appease demonstrators demanding he step down, Mubarak created a new office of vice president Jan. 29 and named his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to that role, apparently as a proposed successor, news reports indicated. Many protesters, however, are demanding complete removal of Mubarak's government.
Residents in many neighborhoods have formed their own vigilante protection groups, arming themselves with firearms, sticks and clubs and setting up checkpoints and barricades, news reports indicate. Young men also have been seen directing traffic and chasing away criminals.
It may take a couple of weeks to see what direction Egypt will take, Edens added.
"What do I think this world looks like? This world is Internet driven and youth oriented. It could be concept driven, but that is unsure," Edens said. "For certain the power brokers -- generals, mega rich, old machine leaders, and diplomatic corps -- will be attempting to create a favorable outcome for themselves and their interests."
If Islamists fail to gain control and Egypt becomes a more open, democratic society, Egyptian Christians would be encouraged, Edens said.
"I think, in an open world of ideas where the biblical Jesus can be shared, the Gospel wins," Edens said. "There will doubtless be sacrifices to come if such a world is to be born and sustained."
Mark Kelly is senior writer and assistant editor for Baptist Press.