Seated on the side of a pavement, speaking loudly so as to be heard above the noise of cars and hooting horns, Christine and Nancy Fahmy are talking in front of the video-camera of the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry al-Yaoum, explaining why they ran away from home in June. “I left to visit Cairo and learn more about Islam,” said sixteen-year-old Christine. “I want to tell my parents to leave me in peace,” adds her fourteen-year-old cousin Nancy. Having vanished mysteriously two months ago, they have reappeared with their heads covered by a dark hijab, a common garment for Egyptian Muslim women. Before disappearing, Christina and Nancy were, however, two Christian adolescents belonging to the country’s Coptic minority, which makes up about ten percent of Egypt’s population. Some suspect that these two young girls were kidnapped and obliged to convert to Islam by extremist groups that, since the fall of Mubarak, have started to recruit new believers so as to impose shari’a, Islamic Law. The girls, however, shyly continue to deny this.
“Shari’a cannot be imposed, it must be accepted by parliament and also by the society in which it will be practiced. Those who believe Egypt will change overnight are mistaken. The Islamic identity is already present on the streets of this country and everything that will happen in the future will take place gradually and in compliance with society’s wishes,” explains Rafiq Habib, the Coptic vice president of Freedom and Justice, the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly created political party. Holding a rosary and paying attention to see if his colleagues are listening to what he says when speaking of Muslims, Christians and the political transition, Rafiq Habib is not worried about the risk of a rise in conservative Islamic influence. “The problem is that everyone thinks that at some point the Muslim Brotherhood will take to the streets and use force to implement shari’a, but that will not happen. My party is currently dealing with practical issues concerning the country’s revival and there are many differences within the Brotherhood that are increasingly visible in this new phase.”
It may surprise some to discover that the vice president of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood’s most important political party obliged for decades to exist underground, is a Coptic Christian. And yet it is true. Professor Rafiq Habib, an academic who has for some time been studying Islam, is a Christian who has accepted to work with the new Islamic party, believing that at this time the Freedom and Justice Part represents the main nucleus of Egyptian society. “At the moment the Muslim culture can be a way of finding shared values capable of strengthening a society pulverised in recent decades by a regime wishing to keep people divided. Its fundamental values are shared by the majority of the Egyptian people,” explains Habib.
Nancy and Christine’s experience, and that of many other girls who in recent months suddenly decided to convert to Islam, should not lead one to think that the sectarian problem is something new. On the contrary, this issue has worried Egyptian society since the Seventies. Over the past thirty years, instead of solving the problem, the regime tried to use it to strengthen its authority, presenting itself as the only one capable of finding a solution. It is sufficient to bear in mind the New Year’s Eve massacre outside the Church of Saint Mark and Pope Peter in Alexandria. The regime had officially said this was an attack carried out by extremists intolerant of the Coptic minority, but in recent months it has been discovered that the Interior Ministry was involved in the organization of this attack. The explosion of a car-bomb parked outside the church killed over twenty believers who were leaving after the service.
“After the revolution, we Egyptians have had greater possibilities of finding a solution, because a strong and united society will emerge and address the problem, but we Christians should not be afraid,” said Rafiq, the first Christian to be interviewed by the on-line magazine Jamaa al Islamiyya and a professor whose work has been read by many members of the Muslim Brotherhood even when they were in prison.
Nevertheless, the more the Muslim Brotherhood’s power and that of other Islamist movements becomes evident, the more the Coptic Church becomes fearful. Fearing an Islamic reawakening, the Church had already distanced itself from the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, asking its members not to cause disorder. “The Church is very frightened, now more than ever, mistakenly believing that Muslims are against it. It perceives the Islamic movements incorrectly, wrongly believing the Muslim Brotherhood is like Al-Qaeda, but we all know that is not true,” says Rafiq. “Previously there was only one group in power, but Christians are now obliged to start to interact with various political players. They must learn to establish a dialogue with them so as to debate the values on which they can reach an understanding. Now Christians have the responsibility of becoming really active, of interacting in the country’s daily life. They should not fear this role, but take advantage of this to take part in building the country. I hope my work will contribute to this too. Obviously most Christians do not accept what I do, but there is a minority that appreciates it, understanding the mediating role I am trying to play for my country. Not everyone has criticized my choice, there are Christians who, like myself, believe that a dialogue with Muslims is not only possible, but is at the basis of the new society we want to create.”