EGYPT: 1 YEAR OF ARAB SPRING Christians look past surface tension to real need
CAIRO, Egypt (BP) -- Lucy Hamilton* can't really explain it -- even on a normal day, the air just feels strange in Tahrir Square.
People bustle about the giant traffic circle in downtown Cairo, going to the Egyptian Museum, to McDonald's, to kebab shops. Most days, Tahrir doesn't look anything like the place the world saw on the news a year ago -- a square filled with thousands of angry protesters, government soldiers and tanks.
"But there's always a feeling when I go through there that something's about to happen," said Hamilton, a Christian worker who has spent some time in Egypt.
The eerie feeling isn't eased by the fact that the burned-out government building of ousted president Hosni Mubarak sits on the circle, or that the walls of the large mosque nearby are covered with graffiti about the revolution.
"It just feels volatile even when nothing is really going on," Hamilton said.
That sentiment sums up most of Northern Africa and the Middle East ever since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, found its momentum in Egypt in January 2011 and spread across the region, experts say.
"In Egypt at least, there's a revolution attitude of 'I can do what I want' because people are disillusioned, desperate and the police force is unable to keep up with petty crime problems," Hamilton said.
Protests and violence still break out from time to time, with little if any warning. And international news sources report one after the other that the Egyptian people don't feel like they have gotten the jobs, economic improvement, new opportunities or respect for which they passionately protested.
"Last year's revolution was not the revolution that activists ... had been dreaming of," reported BBC News' Robin Lustig in Egypt. "The winners, at least for now, were not the socialist and communist activists of Egypt's labor movement, but ... the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour party, who espouse an even stricter form of Islam."
The new Egyptian parliament met Jan. 23 for the first time since Mubarak was pushed out and arrested, with Islamic political parties holding 73 percent of the parliament's seats, according to BBC News.
"Many people are still optimistic, but by far not all. One man I talked with said Egypt isn't ready for a democracy," said Beth Judson*, a Christian worker who visits Egypt from time to time. "Another woman I spoke with is terrified of the new government. She became visibly upset talking about it and thinks things will be much worse. When we talked about how the people voted, she said, 'What have we done?'"
The changes in Egypt haven't been as deep as many expected, but they have still made a region-wide impact, said Nik Ripken*, who has served 25 years with the International Mission Board and is an expert on the persecuted church in Muslim contexts.
"I believe that the Arab Spring and what has happened in Egypt has begun to redefine the Arab if not the entire Muslim world," Ripken said. "What has happened to Mubarak has so terrified the leaders of countries like Yemen and Syria -- and, of course, we saw what played out in Libya -- that no dictator or leader is now willing to participate in a peaceful transition to a more democratic or less corrupt form of government."
It seems to those leaders that the only option is to die or go to jail, he said.
The people seem to want something as different as possible from the leadership they had -- and that may mean a more Islamic form of government, Ripken said.
Citizens of these countries may have viewed their leaders as "something less than true, practicing Muslims" because of their dictator-like rule and ties with the West, Ripken said. "So what I would expect of these countries, if they do actually experience something nearing an Arab Spring, is that the population in general will turn to Islam more now than before."
But with this, much like Tahrir Square on its peaceful days, things may not be exactly as they appear, he said.
"This is not necessarily a bad thing from a believer's point of view, because having conversations concerning faith and religion are more important for us than conversations about government and corruption," Ripken said. "Often it is in the most conservative of Muslim hearts that we are finding God appearing to them in dreams and visions and sending them on a spiritual pilgrimage that can last for years, where they secretly read the Bible many times and have quiet discussions with followers of Jesus Christ."
Hamilton said a sense of hopelessness in the government also can bring them to Christ.
"We hear that many are turning to the One whose Kingdom is just and merciful and has no end," she said. "The church in Egypt also seems to be waking up as never before. It is great to watch Him use His church in the work of revolutionizing hearts."
In the light of this, prayers for the Arab world could look different from what believers in the West might normally pray, Ripken said.
"If you were talking to many Western Christians and we asked ourselves how to pray for places like Egypt, we might pray for stable government, government that is not corrupted, for government that is representative. But those are often very Western prayers," he said. "We want to pray that we will take every opportunity we can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give that cold cup of water in Jesus' name. We must pray for the absence of fear for both believers in country and those from the West who are seeking to meet the needs of both the body and soul inside these countries."
In many countries in revolution, the violence is so dramatic and unpredictable that access to the Gospel is "almost impossible," Ripken said. A sound prayer, he said, would be to ask for people to have access to the Gospel through any means possible.
Another, he said, would be that believers would begin now to learn the languages and cultures of unstable areas so that they would be ready at a moment's notice should doors open to take the Gospel there.
"One mistake that believers in persecution have taught us that we often make is that we prepare for open doors once they are open," Ripken said. "Yet now we have time to prepare the next generation for going to people groups and countries that have experienced massive change."
*Names changed. Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board based in Europe. For additional reporting on Egypt's parliamentary elections, see Baptist Press story from Jan. 23, http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=37014.