Vienna’s Coptic Christians See Danger in the Protests

Heightened fears of discrimination and risks from rising crime lead the list of fears for this embattled Egyptian Minority

News | Anna Nikolaus | March 2011

Since late January, the media have been full of the crisis in Egypt. Tuning in to any news station has been like tuning into CCTV Cairo. Even now, weeks later, things have still not settled down completely. Instead, a rift is beginning to grow in Egyptian society. Even with Mubarak gone, some are determined to stay in Liberation (Tharir) Square until their voices are finally heard. Yet others were satisfied already when Mubarak had announced he would step down in September.

Here in Vienna, the same kinds of disagreements among Egyptians have broken out. News feeds on Facebook are full of their quarrels: Some feel sorry for Mubarak, while others do not want him in office even for a few months.

But the Copts here have an altogether different take on the protest in Egypt. Most have fled injustice and the poor quality of life they had in Egypt. Because of their different history, they see heightened risks in the upheaval the protests have brought.

The Christians of Egypt

The Copts are the original Christians of Egypt. They account for approximately ten percent of the roughly 82 million Egyptians, making them the largest minority group in the Middle East. As Christianity spread quite quickly to Egypt from Palestine in the early years after the death of Jesus, it became the religion of the country. The word Copt comes from the ancient Greek term for Egyptian. The Copts believe they were the original inhabitants, and in fact, for hundreds of years, the nation was a Coptic nation. It was only in 641 AD that the Arabs invaded, establishing Islam as their religion.

The schism is not only religious. Copts are adamant about not being Arab; they inhabited the country first, and from the time of the Arab invasion till the late 1800’s, Copts were treated very poorly. They were not seen as ‘real’ Egyptians and were subject to special taxes and were forbidden to join the military.  Things improved in the first half of the 20th century; the Copts flourished as they were shown more respect in a liberal Egypt, and they held almost half the country’s wealth. Socially, they also did well, and side by side with Arabs, they fought for Egypt’s independence.


However, as Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in 1956, things began to get worse again for the Copts. There was little place for non-Arabs in the pan-Arabism that was taking hold, and so Copts were again marginalized as they had been in the centuries before. After Nasser overthrew the monarchy, much land was confiscated from Copts; special permits were required to build churches, and many felt a pattern of discrimination, that is thought to include a systematic under-representation in national census figures. Under Sadat’s rule from 1970 to 1981, things changed a little, although he did choose a Copt, Boutros Boutros Ghali – later United Nations Secretary General – as foreign minister.

During the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak (from 1981 to 2011), Copt fortunes declined even further,. Up until 2005, every minor repair on a church building needed presidential approval, and it was only in 2002 that the state recognized the Coptic Christmas (Jan. 7) as an official holiday. It is also very difficult to convert to Christianity in Egypt, requiring new identity papers some say are often never received. Converting to Islam however, is easy, and no papers are necessary. All these regulations serve to limit the number of Christians.

Copts in Egypt are also frequently victims of physical assault, and a strong wave of attacks in the 1990s have subsided only slightly. One of the latest headlines before the protests was of an attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria.

They also feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood – still outlawed in Egypt – that has called for a reintroduction of a tax on Copts that had been abolished in the early 1800’s. They also, do not want Copts in the Egyptian military, as they "cannot be trusted." The Muslim Brotherhood wants a Muslim state.

The Viennese Copts

Copts in Vienna have a complex view on what is going on in Egypt and because of their history, they have fears that a non-Coptic Egyptian might not have. Phoebe, a young Copt living in the 22nd district was pleased at first by the protests:

"I was so proud and happy to see my people finally voice their opinion and anger," she said. After Mubarak had announced he would step down in the fall, she was satisfied. "We had waited so long and let Mubarak mistreat and lie to us for so long, what do six more months really matter?"

A week later she had changed her mind, fearful for her family back home. "You have to imagine that three prisons were opened up and all the prisoners escaped. Criminals who had been sentenced to death were on the streets, let loose. I was very afraid for my family, so I wanted the protests and all the chaos to settle down so that peace can return to Egypt."

Then, like many others, Phoebe had argued that Mubarak should restore this peace and take care of the people. She said to herself "be patient" and wait for things to settle down, then change can come. But then she found out that these prisons had been emptied by Mubarak’s decree – to create fear and chaos in the city to disrupt what had been peaceful protests, and allow Mubarak to move in and "restore peace."

Niveen, another Coptic woman, had also decided that she no longer wanted to support the protests. She was afraid. She changed her mind, however, when she found out that Mubarak’s interior minister Habib el Adly was behind the recent attacks on a Coptic church in Alexandria. For her, it had become clear that the current regime was so oppressive to the Coptic minority, that she was ready for change, no matter the risk.

For Copts living in Vienna, their greatest fear in Egypt is discrimination. While Egypt is not a theocracy and penal laws are based on a Western codex, Mubarak’s regime amended the constitution in the 1980’s to incorporate the Sharia Law governing all matters having to do with personal status.

"The constitution needs to be changed before anything else should happen," says Amgad, another Copt living in Vienna, who fears the potential discrimination if the power is in the wrong hands. He believes, though, that the protests need to stop. If they were to continue and Mubarak stepped down, he said, "It would be like throwing a pack of hungry wolves some fresh meat." Now that Mubarak has stepped down, Amgad feels like Egypt has accomplished a great victory, "but corruption has been in place for the last 60 years in Egypt… You can’t really eradicate this overnight. Let’s take the US for an example of perfect democracy: It took more than 100 years to have an established civil system as we do today."

Danger from the ‘Wolves’

The ‘wolves’ are the uneducated, extremist Muslims, says Amgad, who are likely to act irresponsibly. The Muslim Brotherhood could participate in the elections, in spite of their promises to the contrary, and could actually win, because in times of crisis people like to take radical action. And with a group like the Muslim Brotherhood ruling in Egypt under the Sharia amendment, he is afraid for the Copts.

Phoebe is less concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Many Egyptians are anti-Christian," she says, "and many would rather vote for somebody they know, like the Muslim Brotherhood, than somebody unknown. But I am pretty sure that they could never win the elections."

But elections worry Amgad because the level of education in Egypt is so low. Nearly thirty percent of Egyptians – almost 25 million people – are illiterate. If they cannot become informed about candidates and issues through reading, the illiterate are largely dependent on what they hear.

And this is often the voices of extremists. This however, cannot be changed by the planned Fall elections. So Amgad would like to see not only a reform of the constitution, but also of the educational system, so that in the future the people can make better, more informed, decisions.

As they watch the growing unrest in Cairo from afar, Copts in Vienna fear for their future in a new Egypt. Even though things may have been difficult for them under Mubarak, many of them would prefer to hang on to an authoritarian regime like his, because they fear that any other government could be even worse. Yet maybe these protests, where Copts and Arabs were seen standing together hand in hand, have helped unite Egyptians in another kind of brotherhood which is more real and more lasting.

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