Shortly before devastating clashes exploded across Cairo and killed hundreds of people in mid-August, workers at the Bible Society of Egypt in Assiut noticed something strange: Someone had scrawled the word “Islamic” on most of the Christian-owned businesses in the town more than 200 miles south of Cairo.
A few days later, Egyptian security forces in Cairo raided two sprawling camps filled with thousands of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The ensuing violence has killed about 1,000 people, including hundreds of demonstrators from the camps. Mosques became makeshift morgues, and mourners searched for family among blood-soaked corpses.
Within hours, an Islamist mob swept through downtown Assiut (also spelled Asyut) and set fire to the Christian-owned businesses tagged a few days earlier. When they reached the Bible Society’s storefront, assailants broke a security door, smashed a window, and burned the store to the ground.
Ramez Atallah, president of the Bible Society of Egypt, said the attacks appear preplanned, since the crowds arrived shortly after the Cairo raids and burned the marked buildings.
Indeed, during the first three days after Egypt’s deadliest clashes in decades, Islamists had attacked, looted, and torched dozens of church buildings, Christian-owned businesses, and Christian schools across Egypt. At the Bible Society’s store in Minya, assailants stole cash from a safe, torched the building, and built a bonfire with Bibles.
Islamists also attacked police stations and burned government buildings. Dozens of police officers died in the clashes. Atallah noted demonstrators had promised they would wreak havoc if police raided the Cairo encampments. “And they did. They went on a rampage,” he said. “They burned Egypt.”
Egypt’s burning is more than the latest installment in the country’s ongoing political revolution: The recent chaos reveals a defining battle for the soul of the largest country in the Middle East. The lines are stark between those fiercely devoted to an Islamist rule and those dedicated to broader freedoms, including the already tenuous religious liberty in a nation with the largest number of Christians in the Arab world.
The roots of the current crisis began more than two years ago when millions of Egyptians demanded the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.
A year later, many Egyptians worried when Mohamed Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—narrowly won the country’s first free presidential elections in decades. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood won nearly 50 percent of the seats in Parliament.
Disillusionment developed quickly: Food prices spiked, gasoline supplies plummeted, and unemployment rose. By last November, Morsi had fast-tracked a controversial constitution with Islamist rules, and decreed sweeping powers for himself. He gave his own decisions immunity from judicial review.
By June of this year, millions of demonstrators—including former Morsi supporters and secularists, moderate Muslims, and many Christians—demanded his ouster. The Egyptian military announced Morsi’s removal on July 3, and appointed an interim civilian government.
Some critics of the country’s second revolution said Egyptians should adhere to the outcome of free elections. But Morsi’s critics said his power grabs and Islamist leadership would have stripped many Egyptians of critical freedoms before they could vote again.
Ramez Salama is a freelance tour guide and an Egyptian Christian who attends a large Presbyterian church in Cairo. When I visited Cairo last year, Salama, 31, served as my guide in the city. He was worried then the country would move in an Islamist direction.
When I reached him by phone as the recent violence broke, Salama said he supported Morsi’s ouster. His Muslim friends agreed. “If we wait four years the entire culture would have been changed,” he said. “We were losing our identity. We were going rapidly toward a strict Islamic state.”
That’s the direction many Morsi supporters wanted. After the president’s ouster, and despite hundreds of thousands who took to the street calling for it, thousands of his supporters formed two sprawling encampments at major intersections in Cairo, and vowed they wouldn’t leave until the interim government reinstated Morsi.
The massive encampments—as many as 40,000 people at times—caused chaos for Egyptians living in the area. Some of the speeches inside the camp caused fear. “If you go and hear the speech of hatred they promote against the Christians of Egypt—you can’t imagine,” said Salama. The Associated Press quoted one speaker: “We are standing up to a world of infidels that refuses to follow Islam.”
In early August, Amnesty International released a disturbing report describing torture in the pro-Morsi camps. The report said anti-Morsi protesters had been “captured, beaten, subjected to electric shocks or stabbed by individuals loyal to the former president.” One victim said assailants dragged him to a location near one of the encampments, and beat him. He said armed men slit the throat of another captive.
By mid-August, Egyptian officials warned Morsi supporters to leave the camps, but some demonstrators insisted they would die before they allowed security forces to expel them.
Mohamed al-Imbabi, a teacher from the town of Mansoura, told The Financial Times he, his wife, and four children would leave as “corpses or victors.” He added: “I am not afraid for the children. I even wish they would die, then their place would be in paradise.”
It’s unclear how many women and children died when Egyptian security forces raided the Cairo encampments on Aug. 14. Most of the photos from local mosques and hospitals showed the bloodied corpses of young men.
The tactics of Egyptian forces provoked fierce criticism, even among some who supported dispersing the camps. By the end of the day, over 500 people were dead, including at least 43 police officers, and security forces said they found weapon caches in the camps. Miserable scenes included wounded demonstrators weeping over the lined-up bodies of dead protesters. But as sites around Cairo burned, it was clear that those who protested also led in the destruction. The Obama administration—and many human rights groups—condemned the violence, saying the police used excessive force. But if the police tactics were excessive, the opposition they encountered from Islamists in Cairo and other parts of the country was explosive.
Attacks on churches—Coptic, Catholic, and evangelical—began within hours. Many Muslim Brotherhood supporters blamed Christians for Morsi’s ouster, noting the leader of Egypt’s Coptic church, Pope Tawadros II, stood with Egyptian officials when they announced Morsi’s removal (so too did the powerful head of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb).
Robert George of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called the violence against Christian churches and businesses “unprecedented in modern Egypt, both in its scope and the number of churches and structures attacked.” At one of the region’s oldest monasteries, the Virgin Mary Monastery near Assiut, priest Selwanes Lotfy said on Aug. 18, “We did not hold prayers in the monastery on Sunday for the first time in 1,600 years.”
Egyptian Christians reported assailants burned and looted over 50 churches, attacked three Christian schools, and burned a Christian orphanage. Many buildings were empty, and the death toll remained low: Christians reported two deaths from attacks.
Islamists also targeted dozens of police stations and burned at least two government buildings. In Kerdasa—a small town near Cairo—the violence was brutal: A few hours after the raids in Cairo began, a mob stormed the police station, shot 11 policemen in their heads and bodies, looted the building, and torched the structure.
The mob moved to Kerdasa’s only church. The Islamists burned part of the Coptic structure and used a sledgehammer to tear down walls. On another wall, a demonstrator spray-painted: “We will show you rage and we will make you see terrorism.”
Terence Ascott, founder of SAT-7, a Christian broadcasting station in the Middle East, said the encampments and the violence showed pro-Morsi supporters weren’t victims: “These Muslim Brotherhood occupations were dominated by calls for violence against the army, the police, the liberals, and specifically, the Coptic Christians in Egypt.”
Many Muslims agree. The military’s raids met widespread support in Cairo from Egyptians who said the actions were necessary to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from growing more entrenched. Ascott and other Christians noted many local Muslims tried to protect churches from attacks. Atallah of the Bible Society said he was as concerned for Muslims as Christians, and noted: “Every drop of blood is a sadness.”
Muslim Brotherhood leaders said they condemned the violence against Christians, but called for Morsi supporters to continue protests. Two days after the deadly raids, an imam prayed over a loudspeaker in Cairo: “God, please make Egypt an Islamic state, support freedom on earth, destroy tyrants, and destroy the media that is supported by tyrants.”
Nearly 300 Muslim Brotherhood supporters chanted after leaving the mosque: “Either we die like they did or we get revenge for our martyrs. … It’s going to be Islamic despite the secularists!”
As Egypt prepared for what may become protracted battles, some worried about the potential for regional conflict. Jihadists already have a stronghold in many parts of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and have killed more than 25 security forces there in recent weeks. The Sinai’s shared border with Israel has already led to cross-border clashes between Israelis and Egyptian militants. “America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people,” said President Barack Obama. But the standoff approach of the United States—condemning the recent violence but continuing military aid—makes it more likely Egypt will seek alliances in the region.
For now, many Egyptians say they will move forward, though that likely means business and everyday life will continue to suffer. Salama—the tour guide in Cairo—knows his business will decline further. It’s a reality he’s faced for the last two years as tourism, once 10 percent of Egypt’s economy, has plummeted.
When I visited Egypt last year, Salama’s enthusiastic voice swelled as he explained the wonders of the pyramids and the elaborate contents of King Tut’s tomb. He had to remind himself not to shout: The tour had five people, not the usual 15.
By August of this year, business is worse: A few days before the clashes, Salama led a tour in Luxor with just one client. The famed Nile River—usually filled with scores of tour boats—carried only a handful back to Cairo.
It’s a particular grief for a man who loves his country and its capital. Indeed, the city once called “Paris on the Nile” boasts a remarkable blend of French and Middle Eastern architecture, along with a museum filled with artifacts thousands of years old, and colossal pyramids that strike awe in visitors.
For Christians, the country remains a cradle of ancient Christianity—a place in which Christ found refuge from danger as an infant and a site for some of the earliest churches. For Salama, it’s the place in which his grandfather became a Protestant and started one of the first Presbyterian churches in the country.
Salama longs to stay in Egypt, even as many Christians are fleeing. (As many as 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled the country in the last two years, along with many evangelicals.) He’s found comfort from his pastor’s recent sermons about God’s protection, and has joined the church in praying for other Egyptians, including pro-Morsi supporters.
Still, in the days after Egypt’s clashes, Salama couldn’t hide his grief over Egypt’s fires: “My heart is broken for my beloved country.”