High stakes and hopes for Egypt's Christians in historic protests

Emad Shahin CNA World Catholic News 1 28 11 Professor Emad Shahin

As clashes between anti-government protesters and Egyptian police intensified on Jan. 28, some Coptic Orthodox Christians disregarded their church's call for peaceful non-involvement – in hopes that the possible abdication of President Hosni Mubarak could advance the cause of their freedom.

Professor Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, specializes in Islamic affairs and has been monitoring the Egyptian situation closely. He told CNA that many Coptic Christians were joining with Muslims to express their frustration with three decades of authoritarian rule.

“The different statements that called for today's demonstrations were calling on participants to come 'from the mosques and the churches,' to go to public squares,” Professor Shahin explained. “We have seen evidence that some Copts have been participating in the demonstrations.”

The protesters, he said, “need an end to corruption. They need the rule of law. They call for freedoms, and dignity – for social justice, and of course, for democracy.”

Officially, however, “the Egyptian Church is taking a separate side – it's not really participating, or encouraging its members to participate in the events.”

The unprecedented protests have brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the streets since Jan. 25, prompting President Mubarak to deploy security forces and shut down the means of communication – including internet access, text messaging and phone service – within the country.

At least 26 people have already been reported dead, although some government troops have allegedly refused to act against protesters. As of Jan. 28, the president was holding his ground, while acknowledging a number of economic and political grievances and demanding the resignation of his cabinet.

“This is an uprising calling for profound changes,” Shahin said. “It has narrowed down the options for the Egyptian regime: either change, or leave.”

Professor Shahin mentioned a number of statements coming from officials of the Coptic Church –including its leader, Pope Shenouda III – asking Copts not to participate in the demonstrations. They were urged, instead, to attend church services and pray for the peace and the well-being of their country.

But for many Coptic Christians, the prospect of a future without Mubarak – notwithstanding the uncertainty about who would replace him – held more appeal than the Coptic Pope's call for restraint.

“If President Mubarak is removed, and these uprisings lead to the establishment of a true democratic system, then I think everyone will benefit,” Shahin stated. “It would ensure a fair representation of the Copts within the political structures and the state.”

“But we're still really far from being there,” he acknowledged.

Egyptian Christians want their rights and legal status to be handled by what Shahin called “real governing institutions” – the judiciary and legislature – instead of the frequently brutal and corrupt state security apparatus. They want the right to build new churches, and an end to discriminatory policies that leave them socially, politically, and economically marginalized.

Shahin believes most Egyptians want to grant these rights to the Coptic Christians. President Mubarak, however, has not been inclined to do so.

“Mubarak doesn't want to appear weak – because Pope Shenouda is a very strong and highly political figure. He doesn't want to give any concession to him. He's been at war with the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, so he doesn't want to appear – in front of a majority Muslim population – as giving concessions to Copts, while cracking down on Islamists.”

It's not clear whether the protesters can achieve their goal of ousting Mubarak, or how they will move forward if they succeed. “It's difficult to anticipate where this is going,” Shahin reflected. “It all depends on the public, and how steadfast they will be in continuing with the protests and demonstrations.”

The two most likely outcomes, Shahin predicted, were “someone from the military taking power – either directly or indirectly –  or a transitional unity government.”

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“In terms of names,” he said, “I can think of 10 or 15 people who can successfully head a transitional government – one that would prepare the groundwork for a true and meaningful change, and a democratic transition.”

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