WORLDVIEW: Christians, holding their breath in Egypt
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CAIRO (BP)--For Sabri,* the daily lurch between excitement and fear has settled into queasy uncertainty about Egypt's future -- and what it holds for followers of Christ.
Sabri, a white-collar worker who lives with his family in Cairo, is an evangelical Christian. When massive demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities sparked national demands for freedom in January, he joined many other Egyptians in hoping positive change might be coming after decades of stagnation and dictatorship.
As a member of Egypt's embattled Christian minority, he also wondered how Islamic extremists would react to the situation.
Hope and concern, however, took a temporary back seat to terror as chaos spread. Longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak first tried to hang on to power, then lost his grip amid bloody clashes on the streets -- and behind-the-scenes maneuvering among contending government factions and the military.
"There were no police on the street," Sabri recalls of the worst moments leading up to Mubarak's exit. "It was very scary. We had to guard our homes. We would stay up all night in the street with whatever we could carry -- a bat or a piece of metal -- just to defend ourselves. There were criminals and guns firing all the night. Everything was moving very fast and we didn't know what would happen tomorrow. We didn't know what was right or wrong [politically], so our prayer was: 'God, whatever You think is right, we are asking for Your will to be applied.'"
Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11, unleashing a wave of euphoria among millions of young Egyptians calling for freedom. Political tensions have eased in the months since, or at least moved to other stages, as the military runs the government while the nation prepares for elections in September. World news coverage has shifted to more violent locales -- such as Libya, Syria and Yemen -- as movements for change continue to shake the Arab world.
Police have returned to the streets of Egypt's cities, but crime is on the rise.
"Business is not yet back to normal," Sabri reports. "The police are scared of taking action because they are afraid the people will attack them."
Everyone is "holding their breath" and waiting for what happens next, adds a recent visitor, as the young reformists, the old power structure, the military, secularists and Islamists jockey for position. Despite the disillusionment of recent days, a deep sense of pride in the change that has been accomplished remains from the early, heady days of the demonstrations.
"They are proud of what they have done, and there seems to be a sense of hope about the future that we haven't really seen in the past," says the visitor, who lived in Egypt for many years. "There's also a great deal of caution, like they're trying not to get too excited. One man said, 'It's going to be five years before we see the results.'"
What about prospects for minority Christians, who continue to suffer attacks by Muslim extremists?
The worst such incident in recent weeks occurred May 7, when a radical Muslim group, the Salafis, assaulted a Coptic Christian area of Cairo. The attack resulted in 12 deaths, at least 200 injuries and the burning of two churches. Enraged, Copts took to the streets to fight back. The Salafi movement, Coptic leaders charge, is trying to foment sectarian civil war between the Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million people.
The conflict illustrates divisions that could sabotage change throughout the Arab world, according to Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times.
"The revolutions and revolts in the Arab world, playing out over just a few months across two continents, have proved so inspirational to so many because they offer a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship," they wrote in a May 21 article examining the fissures confronting reform movements.
"But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions -- religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya -- has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era. … [T]he question of identity may help determine whether the Arab Spring flowers or withers. Can the revolts forge alternative ways to cope with the Arab world's variety of clans, sects, ethnicities and religions?"
The situation is "supremely complicated," says Sabri, who urges outsiders not to jump to conclusions about where Egypt is headed. "For Mubarak to step down, that's a miracle. For unity between average Egyptian people in the street -- Christians and Muslims together -- that's a miracle that's still happening now. There are miracles happening from a spiritual point of view."
The many young, educated people who demonstrated for democracy in Tahrir Square support religious liberty for all Egyptians, he believes. Other forces do not -- including the influential Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak but now allowed to participate in politics.
"I would be very concerned if the Muslim Brotherhood or the extremists get power over the parliament," Sabri warns. "If they write the new constitution, it will be more tight on us as Christians. They're not going to do it through violence. They'll try to do it very smoothly so they don't lose international support."
Some Christians don't intend to stick around to find out which scenario plays out. They're leaving the country, or considering it. Sabri, however, isn't going anywhere. He's using this historic moment to share the hope of Christ with other Egyptians.
"Muslims are asking a lot of direct questions -- questions we're not used to being asked" without years of relationship building, he says. "Now you can meet somebody in the subway and he or she wants to know the truth."
*Name changed. Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.