CAIRO-In a barren village just outside Cairo, two barefoot toddlers in tattered shirts perch on a pile of rotting garbage and play with a trash-heap find: a six-inch kitchen knife plucked from the refuse.
Deeper inside the enclave of tin shacks and one-room dwellings, heaps of trash serve a distinctly grown-up function for villagers in this predominantly Christian community. Egyptian aid worker Emad Beshay explains: "They get their daily bread from the garbage."
That's the daily reality in at least six garbage districts scattered across Cairo: Nearly 60,000 Egyptians live among the garbage and scour the refuse for materials to sell to local factories or to recycle. Nearly 90 percent of that population is Christian.
Women and children here in the Helwan district swat the swarming flies and rummage for materials like plastic, metal, glass, and cardboard. A good day's work might yield a dollar in sales. Most days, it's closer to 50 cents.
This treeless patch of hot sand on Cairo's outskirts is home to several thousand Egyptians, but it lacks nearly every major service: no electricity, no phones, no schools, no hospitals, no churches, and no markets nearby. Villagers rejoiced when water began running to a few spigots earlier this year.
Walking along the village's rutted paths, Beshay, a worker with Egyptian aid group Stephen's Children, says the short distance to Cairo makes a huge difference for villagers with scant resources. "This is what happens with Christians," he says. "They send them outside the camp."
These days, poverty-stricken Christians aren't the only ones wondering if they'll live outside the camp of Egyptian life. Just months after my visit to Helwan, a new question confronts all members of Egypt's minority Christian population: How will they fare under a Muslim Brotherhood president?
It's a gnawing question. When Egyptian officials announced on June 24 that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi had won the presidential run-off, thousands of Egyptians erupted in cheers in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Indeed, it was a momentous moment. After 30 years of former President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule, Egyptians had accomplished a remarkable feat: Less than 18 months after ousting Mubarak, they freely elected a president for the first time in the nation's modern history.
At a somber inauguration ceremony, Morsi pledged: "Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life-absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability."
A few miles away, some Christians weren't convinced. In an email on the eve of Morsi's inauguration, Pastor Nagi Said of Kasr el Dobara Church just off Tahrir Square described the mood among Christians as depressed. "Just minutes after the announcement of the results, some Christians felt uncomfortable walking the streets of some parts of Egypt and even Cairo," he wrote. "Many are afraid of the future under an Islamic regime."
It isn't a far-fetched fear. Despite Morsi's assurances that the government won't oppress Egyptian Christians, many point to the Muslim Brotherhood's motto: "Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Koran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope."
That doesn't inspire hope for many Christians, but some remain determined to press for equal rights in a country where they've long faced oppression. They compare the new dynamic to freshly poured cement: Though it's beginning to harden, there's still time to make an impression.
That adds urgency to a set of critical questions: How should Egyptian Christians interact with the Muslim Brotherhood?
How should the United States-with its billion-dollar aid package to Egypt and a commitment to protecting the rights of all-use its influence before an Islamist agenda is set in stone?
And what happens to millions of poverty-stricken Christians-like those in Helwan-who have no chance of fleeing the country, no matter what the future holds?
Atef Gendy has been grappling with how to interact with the Muslim Brotherhood since last year. The president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo says the question became unavoidable after the Brotherhood's political party gained nearly 50 percent of the seats in parliament.
After that victory, Gendy and other evangelical leaders got a surprising call: The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to talk. At first, the leaders declined, but they eventually agreed to a February 2012 meeting to discuss their concerns about Christians living under an Islamist parliament. The two groups published a joint statement that agreed on a number of items, including equal rights for Christians and other minority groups.
From his office in Cairo (before the presidential elections) Gendy acknowledged the statement was controversial: Some Christians opposed the meeting and doubted the Muslim Brotherhood's sincerity, particularly on points like allowing Christians to build and renovate churches-something the country hasn't allowed without substantial obstacles for decades. Coptic Christians, who make up the majority of Egypt's Christian population, are especially suspicious of interacting with the Brotherhood.
Gendy acknowledged he didn't know what the Brotherhood would do, or whether they would keep their pledges: "We have no guarantees. We are just adding moral pressure to them so that one day we can make them accountable."
Half a world away, Coptic Christians in the United States wonder if the Brotherhood aims for accountability at all. At a June conference on Capitol Hill of the Virginia-based group Coptic Solidarity, the tone of the meeting was lament over Morsi's election. "In a word, it's a disaster," said board member Halim Meawad.
Meawad, 70, fled Egypt more than 43 years ago during Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime. (He worried his political activism had endangered his freedom.) He became a U.S. citizen, but still advocates for Egyptian Christians and minorities.
Meawad worries that an Islamist parliament and president pose an imminent danger for Christians, and says: "They [the Muslim Brotherhood] see democracy as a ladder. Once they reach where they're going, they're going to burn the ladder."
Those fears-together with the violence and significant human-rights abuses in Egypt over the last year-have led some Christians and others to question the Obama administration's ongoing aid to the Egyptian government.
The U.S. Congress voted last year to place conditions on U.S. aid to the Egyptian military, including requirements that the Egyptian government meet a slate of pro-democracy standards.
After a series of Egyptian crackdowns on pro-democracy groups in Cairo, including charges made against 16 Americans, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered some lawmakers and human-rights activists by waiving the conditions for economic aid in March.
Despite the Egyptian government's failure to meet the conditions, the Obama administration released $1.3 billion to the Egyptian military. (The administration said the aid helped protect U.S. security interests in the region.)
If activists were concerned about releasing aid to Egypt's military, they're now concerned about continuing that aid to a country under Muslim Brotherhood leadership.
Indeed, some are alarmed at the Obama administration's interaction with the Brotherhood over the last year, and say White House officials are overlooking the Muslim Brotherhood's past connections to terrorism and its current Islamist ambitions.
The U.S.-based group Investigative Project on Terrorism describes the Muslim Brotherhood this way: "The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 with the goal of establishing a worldwide Islamic state through jihad and martyrdom. The group is considered the parent of all Sunni terrorist groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad."
White House officials met with a delegation of Muslim Brotherhood members in April. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said "mid-level" officials from the National Security Council met with Brotherhood members to engage Egypt's "emerging political actors." Sondos Asem, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood delegation, told The Washington Post that the group represents "a moderate, centrist Muslim viewpoint."
During the same week, Khairat al Shater, at that time the Brotherhood's presidential candidate, told a meeting of the Religious Association for Rights and Reform in Cairo: "Sharia was and will always be my first and final project and objective."
The Egyptian electoral commission eventually disqualified Shater (and 10 other candidates) from the presidency. But Shater remains a central leader in the Brotherhood, and his views are key to understanding the group's political ambitions.
In March, Shater told The New York Times that the Brotherhood believes that Islam requires democracy, and that the group would uphold democratic ideals. But the group's English-language website has stated that the Western concept of "secular liberal democracy" is undemocratic because it excludes religion in public life.
Shater said: "The Islamic reference point regulates life in its entirety, politically, economically, and socially-we don't have this separation between religion and government."
The newly elected president Morsi has been less verbose in his political philosophy, but in 2007 he led a committee that wrote the Brotherhood's political platform. The principles included appointing Islamic clerics to review legislation to conform civil laws to Islamic law.
Morsi also said he would press the United States to release Omar Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian-born Islamic cleric serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for his role in planning the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Those circumstances led to a heated question-and-answer session at the Coptic Solidarity conference when Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner addressed the crowd late last month.
Nearly a dozen audience members lined up at a microphone in the packed conference room and drilled Posner with rapid-fire questions: "Why did the American government give the green light for the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt?" "How can we support a group that is the mother of all terrorist groups?" "What real actions are you going to take?"
Posner told the group that the White House "doesn't pick winners and losers in elections," and that they were interacting with the Muslim Brotherhood "not because we agree with them, but because they are in power."
Other questions centered on why the United States continued military aid to Egypt, particularly after the Egyptian military used tanks to plow down more than a dozen Coptic Christians demonstrating against the burning of a church last October. The clash, known as the "Maspero Massacre," left at least 27 dead, mostly Coptic Christians.
Posner said the United States has serious concerns about human-rights abuses and religious liberty in Egypt, and that the government would revisit the issue of funding this fall. A handful of Republican congressmen have called on Congress to withhold funding unless Egypt meets human-rights conditions, including religious liberty standards.
Walid Phares, advisor to the anti-terrorism caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, is a Lebanese-born scholar who has studied Coptic rights for more than 22 years. He says the United States should establish clear religious liberty standards as a condition of foreign aid.
And he suggests something else: The Obama administration should meet with Coptic Christians. "It's the oddest of all things-we've never seen a delegation of Copts in the White House or the State Department," he says. "The weakest should get more attention."
If the administration fails to give more attention to minority groups, Phares says the Muslim Brotherhood will likely consolidate its power: "In Egypt you'll have an Islamist state-partly built by American money-and then they will use that power to gain more influence against us."
Phares believes that the Brotherhood will also eventually clamp down on Christian activity in Egypt, including churches and groups trying to serve needy populations: "They have to expect suppression."
Most religious liberty experts don't expect immediate suppression of Christians in Egypt. Kurt Werthmuller of the Hudson Institute says it will likely be a gradual process that might initially include more cases of blasphemy against Christians and apostasy charges focused on Muslim converts to Christianity.
Egyptian Christians and the U.S. government must use the "window of time," Werthmuller says, when the Muslim Brotherhood is still responding to outside pressure.
By early July, tensions already were rising as Morsi sought to reconvene the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament that the ruling military council had dissolved.
In the meantime, organizations like Stephen's Children continue their work among Christians in places like Helwan. The group has no political affiliation-and it doesn't make political comments-but focuses on serving groups that Emad Beshay calls "the poorest of the poor."
Like thousands across the garbage districts of Cairo, and in slums and rural regions across the rest of the country, many Christians here face little hope of advancing under an Islamist government, and virtually no hope of escaping the country if violent suppression increases. An outbreak of violence against Christians in the Mokattam garbage district last year killed at least nine, and some Christians fear that an Islamist government won't protect them in the future. And though their poverty is already extreme, some worry about the possibility of losing help from relief groups if those organizations face suppression.
For now, Egyptian aid groups continue to help as they're able, and poverty-stricken Egyptians who make up as much as 40 percent of the population continue to survive. So do churches. Back at Kasr el Dobara in Cairo, Pastor Said wrote that the church will continue its work: "We are holding more prayer meetings, and trying to encourage our people. The leaders of our church are not pessimistic. ... We might go through a hard time, and the road will be a steep hill, but we trust God's grace that will enable us to survive and persevere."