RICHMOND, Va. – Millions of protesters have brought down a government for the second time in little more than two years in Egypt, a land where change once flowed as slowly as the Nile at its drowsiest.
Now comes the dangerous time.
The huge June 30 demonstrations that marked a year in office for President Mohamed Morsi – and sparked his downfall a few days later – were the biggest since the 2011 Arab Spring protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for three decades. Many Egyptians, particularly students and the urban middle class, vented their anti-Morsi rage and despair over the ongoing lawlessness, economic stagnation and repressive Islamism that have characterized Egypt during his brief rule.
As the Egyptian military that deposed Morsi moves to consolidate power, furious Morsi supporters from the still-potent Muslim Brotherhood have clashed with opponents across the country. An interim president has been appointed, parliament has been dissolved and the constitution suspended, but bloody street battles have raged alongside more peaceful demonstrations in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Dozens of people have died and hundreds have been injured.
The conflict took an even uglier turn July 8 with the killing of at least 51 Islamist protesters by security forces at an early-morning rally for Morsi. The military said Morsi supporters attacked them first with rocks and gunfire, but the protesters angrily insisted the shootings were unprovoked.
The Muslim Brotherhood has rejected the military takeover and vows not to recognize a new government, claiming a fairly elected president (Morsi) and Egypt’s infant democracy have been overthrown. Brotherhood leaders have called for a national “uprising,” deepening fears of civil war. Meanwhile, Al Nour, an Islamist party that initially supported the military takeover, suspended its role in the interim government.
What comes next?
A more inclusive and secular government, the current victors hope. But Egypt is deeply divided between urban and rural, secularists and religionists, between the Muslim majority and large Coptic (traditional Christian) minority, between moderates and fiery Islamists.
Egypt’s Christians, already reeling from increasing persecution, feel especially vulnerable. A Coptic priest was shot dead in the northern Sinai July 6. Christian homes near Luxor were burned by a mob, sending their residents fleeing for police protection. The Muslim Brotherhood has bitterly denounced Coptic Pope Tawadros, leader of the nation’s 8 million Copts, for supporting the removal of Morsi.
“We were worried that Morsi and the Brotherhood would not allow us to build churches or have freedom of religion because they were persecuting so many Christians,” one Egyptian believer said. “Now we hope and pray that the next president is more neutral and not an extreme Muslim, or Christian even, so it will prevent the protests and constant disagreement and all the chaos.”
A Coptic university professor who participated in the Cairo protests that helped topple Morsi told World Watch Monitor: “I am here at Tahrir [Square] because first, I am Egyptian. I am a part of this people. Second, as a Copt I present my Christian love of my country. I care about my people’s worries.
“I have compassion for all Egyptian people. I reject all kinds of unfairness to all the people, not only the Christians,” she said. “We will keep at our revolution until we achieve the three values of social justice, freedom and human dignity. The situation has become worse, but we will keep on until the end.”
She was talking about Egypt, but her words are being echoed in many other places from Turkey, to India, to Brazil. Hundreds of millions of young people with hopes of a better life are expressing their utter weariness not only with government and social corruption but a host of unmet expectations.
“We saw early versions of it in China in 1989, Venezuela in 2002,” observed New York Times columnist Bill Keller, writing from still-unsettled Turkey just before the latest Egyptian explosion. “We saw it in Iran in 2009, when the cosmopolitan crowds thronged in protest against theocratic hard-liners. We saw it in Russia in 2011, when legions of 30-somethings spilled out of their office cubicles, chanting their scorn for the highhanded rule of Vladimir Putin. While Turkey was still percolating, the discontent bubbled up in Brazil, where yet another ruling party seems to be a victim of its own success.
“The vanguard in each case is mostly young, students or relative newcomers to the white-collar work force who have outgrown the fearful conformity of their parents’ generation,” Keller wrote. “With their economic wants more or less satisfied [definitely less in Egypt], they now crave a voice, and respect. … The igniting grievances vary. Here in Istanbul it was a plan to build a mosque and other developments on a patch of the city’s diminishing green space. In Brazil it was bus fares. By the time the protests hit critical mass, they are about something bigger and more inchoate: dignity, the perquisites of citizenship, the obligations of power.”
The protesters may be put down or temporarily appeased, Keller acknowledged, but “morale does not improve. There is a new alienation, a new yearning, and eventually this energy will find an outlet. In some way, different in each country, the social contract will be adjusted.”
This is a dangerous moment. But it is also a moment of opportunity for the global church to respond to a vast generation of searchers. They yearn not only for political freedom, social justice and material opportunity, but for something far deeper and more lasting. Now is a time for them to hear Truth and have the chance to grasp it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board’s global correspondent.)