Cover Story

The new Egyptian wilderness

"The new Egyptian wilderness" Continued...

Issue: "Trouble in Egypt," June 2, 2012

Indeed, during the revolution, the church's open-air courtyard became a triage center for demonstrators wounded during the protests. The church maintained a clinic that included 80 beds and volunteer doctors who treated as many as 300 patients a day at the height of the unrest. Medical supplies still sit piled high near the church's entrance, waiting for the next emergency.

"The revolution opened doors for us," said associate pastor Nagi Said after the evening service. "The church became more exposed."

That exposure draws visitors to church services that on a recent Sunday night included two hours of prayer, singing, preaching, and communion. The church's senior pastor didn't address the political instability directly, but he reminded his congregation that spiritual victory often comes through tribulation. "Sometimes the news seems to go from bad to worse," he said. "But we go from glory to glory."

Pastor Said, the associate minster, said that attitudes about the future vary in the congregation: some people are optimistic, some are worried, and others have fled. But he says the church is encouraging Christians to persevere through difficulties and seize new opportunities to serve others: "We encourage them to live their Christian life ... be servants, be loving, be compassionate, show the love of Christ, and be good citizens."

Discovering how to be good citizens in a new political environment is a challenge for many Christians long-marginalized by society. Though Christians enjoyed some protections under the Mubarak regime, they've had little voice in government or broader society.

From the early days of the revolution, Christians debated whether they should participate in protests or remain quiet-a debate that continues. From an Anglican church in Alexandria, pastor Emad Mikhail has encouraged his congregation to learn more about the political process and candidates and to become active citizens that advocate for the good of the whole country.

It's been a gradual journey. During the first days of the revolution, Mikhail spent hours on the phone with church members who feared for their safety as looters roamed the streets in the absence of police.

Now life is calmer. Visitors have returned to Alexandria's famed library, and the streets of the port city bustle with cars, buses, taxis, and pedestrians making harrowing commutes across traffic. Still, people are more cautious about going out at night, and the possibility of mass protests always looms. On a busy street near his church, Mikhail says: "We're still in the shaky transition."

That transition could take years. Though Egyptians have been eager to adopt a new government quickly, their task is formidable: elect a new parliament, draft a new constitution, elect a new president, transfer power from the military to a civilian government, and manage unrest when factions disagree.

Public distrust of political powers-including the military and the Muslim Brotherhood-has grown, as citizens worry about any one group gaining too much power. Meanwhile, tensions have grown between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, as both groups look to maintain measures of control.

And conspiracy theories abound, with some Egyptians convinced the military stirs unrest to make citizens long for stability that the military would promise to provide. Others believe the two groups have struck a secret political deal that will give both organizations lasting power.

Whatever the case, Mikhail isn't surprised at the ongoing uncertainty. But he's encouraged that Egyptians seem willing to discuss openly ideas that they once talked about in private. (Indeed, newspapers that once carried only state propaganda now carry letters to the editor criticizing the government-a definite shift in freedom of speech. But Human Rights Watch noted in February that the military has also continued to crack down on reporters covering political rallies, detaining and beating some.)

If the news seems hopeful and gloomy all at once, that's the new reality in Egypt. Mikhail says he remains "cautiously optimistic" about the possibility for progress in the next five to 10 years, but he also emphasizes: "We hope for a good political system to evolve over time, but as a church, that's not our primary goal."

For now, Mikhail continues his work as a pastor and as head of the Alexandria School of Theology. On a Sunday afternoon, classes weren't in session, but some students buzzed around the seminary and waited for evening services to begin at the church on the same grounds.

That didn't stop Tamer Hitler (his real name) from plunging into a discussion about politics. The young Muslim considers himself a secular revolutionary devoted to encouraging a secular government in Egypt. Before the revolution, he'd never visited a church. But since the country's upheaval, he says he wanted to learn more about his Christian neighbors: "I had no idea what went on behind these walls."

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