The Egyptian television building at Maspero on the Nile corniche has looked nothing short of a street-based church for the past 12 days. Posters of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are hung on ropes from one end of the street to the other. Christian hymns are heard issuing from a loudspeaker.
This has been the site of a Coptic demonstration that started on 8 May, after a group of locals and Salafis attacked churches in Cairo’s working-class Imbaba neighborhood, setting fire to one of them, and leaving at least 15 dead and hundreds injured.
In response, Copts gathered at Maspero, staging a prolonged sit-in to demand the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators of the Imbaba violence, as well as those responsible for attacks on churches elsewhere. Copts have also been demanding the release of at least 18 Christians arrested by the military during the clashes in Imbaba, and the re-opening of closed churches across Egypt.
But besides the hymns and the pictures, Copts at the sit-in are moving away from the long-term guardianship of the church regarding their political life. While the demands are related to issues of religion, the protesters are pursuing their aims independently of the religious establishment.
At the site of the sit-in, next to religious signs, other signs read, “No to a religious state and no to a military state.” And as the religious hymns come to an end, one young man shouts his slogan into a loudspeaker, “Why are you silent? Say enough to oppression,” the crowd repeating the chant in their turn.
Pope Shenouda III, who heads the Coptic Orthodox Church has called on protesters to end their strike. But protesters see the call as no more than advice they can choose to take or leave. “We respect the words of the pope. But he is expressing a personal opinion. We’re here because our brothers have died and we want their rights,” said Kamil Shenouda, a casual worker.
“I am here to demand justice, equality and transparency. This is my right,” said Sameh Adib, an air conditioning technician. Adib has been sleeping in the Maspero area for five days.
“I think there is a general sectarian problem marring society here, but we also think there are particular groups aiming to harm us, such as the Salafis. What is alarming is that, like the police in the past, the military now doesn’t seem to care,” said Adib, who first became involved in political activities of this sort during the protest of 6 March this year.
The 6 March protest started when a church in Atfeeh, Helwan was set on fire following clashes between Muslims and Christians in the neighborhood. The protest was also held at the Maspero site, and became a sit-in staged over several days, giving birth to the Maspero Youth Union, which has been at the forefront of Coptic dissent over the past few months.
“We all met at the [March] protest and decided to form a union that caters to Coptic issues,” said Mina Thabet, a member of the union.
The union, a young entity, has already divided itself into media, public relations and organization committees and is working across the nation on raising Copts’ awareness about their rights. With around 100 people on its founding board, the union aims at “re-invigorating the Coptic mindset,” according to Thabet. “We believe that all Copts should participate politically and should let go of their long-time passivism.”
When asked about political role models, Thabet cited liberal Coptic politician Makram Ebeid who was a leading member in the Wafd Party between 1936 and 1942 and served in the Egyptian cabinet as minister of finance.
In fact, many people attribute the de-politicization of Copts to the 1952 military regime, which put an end to the liberal project that was shaping up with the turn of the century, of which Ebeid was one recognizable face.
But Thabet said that the subsequent assumption of a political role by the church became a normal response to the on-going circumstances.“The church became the only refuge for Copts. I can’t blame the church for anything.”
The church was generally seen as being subservient to the past regime, endorsing its stances and supporting it in elections, despite various grievances by Copts.
For Thabet and others, the political silence of the Coptic community was broken after two attacks on its community: the killing of six Christians in the Upper Egyptian town of Naga Hammadi after Christmas mass in January 2010, and the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day 2011.
“Now we’re inspired by the revolution. The Egyptian people at large have changed and are more engaged, and Christians, by extension, have changed,” said Thabet. “The Copts’ protests at the events in Naga Hammadi and Alexandria served as a training for the revolution.”
Thabet said Copts are not working closely with any existing political force, but said they welcome collaborations with anyone who, along with them, would call for a secular state.
However, a total break with the church is inconceivable, analysts say.
“Copts will always maintain a spiritual relationship with the church as an umbrella for them, but politically, the church is no longer a patron for them,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Coptic Watany weekly. The political void in which the church brokered all deals with the regime in the name of Christians is long gone, according to Sidhom.
“Copts have a vested interest in keeping their relationship with the church, because they don’t really want a confrontation with it. But the church will no longer be able to dictate their political choices.”
But there will be resistance from the Coptic Church, according to Sidhom, “Just as the Catholic Church resisted losing its long-term control in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, it won’t be letting go of its control easily.”
“At any rate, we’re very happy that after Tahrir, the Copt’s sit-in took place in Maspero and not at the Cathedral,” Sidhom concluded. Most protests by Copts in the past were centered around churches and cathedrals, which housed and contained their growing dissent.
Back in Maspero, Kamil Shenouda had a message for his fellow Christians. “We call on Copts everywhere to do the same, to take to the streets and express their opinion. The church has a role to play, but we as a people, have our own word.”