The Egyptian Revolution and the Role of the Copts

On the morning of January 25 of this year, many were glued to their TV and computer screens to glean the latest information on the upheaval in Egypt.  As the revolution progressed and held on for the removal of Mubarak, highly romanticized narratives began to take shape among the American media, including misplaced accolades for Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.  It isn't that Facebook's role wasn't significant, but the heroes in Egypt were on the ground.  Who exactly were these brave and tenacious people who took to the streets en masse in the Lotus Revolution?

The lack of investigative reporting into the origin of the Egyptian street protests leads to our further misreading of current events in the revolution's aftermath.  We glamorize the event with seductive headlines, as on the recent Vanity Fair homepage -- "Turning his camera on Egypt's 18-day miracle, Jonas Fredwall Karlsson captures face-to-face the thrilling, tech-savvy tide that drew all eyes to Tahrir Square."

Things really began with a street clash a few months earlier.  The altercation was born out of a backlash by the Copts against the regime's police, who had violently attacked workers at a church construction site in Omrania, just north of Cairo.  Having reached the point of no return regarding abusive police brutality, Coptic protestors cried out for freedom of religion and demanded equal treatment under the law in order to build their place of worship.  In addition, these protesters demanded that Mubarak step down.  Police retaliated by attacking protesters, killing three and injuring many.  These actions were not caught on camera, and they certainly were not sparked by Facebook organizers.

The Copts paid dearly for this when, on January 1, a car bomb was planted in front of the Coptic Saints Church of Alexandria and rigged for three explosions, timed just ten minutes apart in order to maximize the killing of innocent worshipers departing from their New Year's service.  Mubarak's police would never allow the "infidels'" demands for fair and equal treatment under the law to go unpunished.

As a friend and ally of the United States, Mubarak straddled a very fine line in order to maintain his U.S.-provided financial sustenance.  His expertise was in keeping Islamic fundamentalism at bay while sanitizing the surface for Western view -- not executing, but imprisoning jihadist enemies of state, who then flourished and wrote manifestos to further their cause.  As the image-maker, Mubarak ordered his police to "round up the usual suspects" for the heinous crimes his regime had been involved in, manufacturing cover-ups all the while. 

Mubarak moved deftly to obviate any outcry, be it on account of the unprovoked massacre of Copts by Muslims in El Kosh in 1999 or the killing spree by a member of Mubarak's police force, who opened fire on innocent passengers riding public transit bound for Cairo earlier this year.  Whenever the international community asked to see justice, Mubarak would have someone arrested (preferably a Muslim).  If Westerners wanted to see a trial, Mubarak gave us a trial -- albeit a continuously postponed one.  If American observers wanted to see Copts afforded the country's police protection, indeed, the police would appear and then disappear at a critical moment.  Mubarak gave us obfuscations from the Interior Ministry and offered us al-Qaeda to blame for every tragedy.

On the eve of National Police Day, January 24, 2011, as reported by Egyptian Al-Ahram news, the Interior minister stood up and greeted the members of the police force at the Egyptian Police Academy in Cairo, after which President Mubarak, head of all law enforcement in Egypt, took the floor and congratulated his police on their fine work in arresting the perpetrators of the deadly car-bombing attack on the Coptic church during New Year's service.  Only one suspect had been arrested.  And when Mubarak waffled on what to do with Muslims being held by authorities for the killing of seven Copts leaving church service on Christmas Eve one year earlier, Copts viewed his hesitancy as one more nail in the coffin of the Coptic community.

Repeated attacks upon Copts (their homes, churches, and businesses) and the sleazy dealings of the Mubarak regime which made this violence possible have scarred Coptic memory and driven fear into the hearts and minds of Copts both young and old.  But suddenly, as if overnight, something new took place: the Copts fought back during the attacks of November 2010.  Then, by January 25, 2011, it wasn't just the Copts; it was all like-minded Egyptian youths.  Standing for justice and drawing the line spread like wildfire and, in a matter of weeks, brought about the dramatic overturn of the Egyptian regime.

The Western media has largely ignored the story of the Christian minority (numbering 18 million in Egypt alone) and the high price of sacrifice and bloodshed the courageous Copts have been made to pay.  Their brewing discontent and recent confrontations set the tone for the larger rebellion against the Egyptian religious state and developed the groundwork for the Lotus Revolution.

The Mubarak regime, aware of Facebook's swelling numbers, expected to utilize its usual brutality to silence the freedom-fighters in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere.  This "stable" democratic government, evidenced now by citizens freely protesting in the streets, would have no problem getting things under control.  To his surprise, Mubarak found a do-or-die confrontation punctuated by tenacious demands by Christian and Muslim alike to expunge a dictatorial ruler along with his family and his infected regime.  When he couldn't back them down with his own hires -- the fake pro-Mubarak protestors brandishing clubs -- this "democratic" leader backed away and finally shuffled offstage.

It has now been more than two months since Mubarak's overthrow, and progress toward democracy has not taken place.  In fact, the opposite has happened.  The dangerous and formerly banned Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the protesters' ranks and drowned out the voices of freedom.

Now Islamic fundamentalism has made serious inroads into the shaping and the rewriting of the new Egyptian constitution.  As a result, the situation for Copts in Egypt has worsened, leaving them more vulnerable and dangerous than ever.  Mubarak remains alive and safe, occupying the presidential palace in Sharam El Shek, Egypt.  If the palace is state-owned, why is an ousted president living in it?  If the palace is Mubarak's personal property, where did he get the funds to build it?

As the thirty-year keeper of Egypt's pseudo-democracy, Mubarak relinquished power by first nominating his own Secret Service director, Omar Suleiman, as vice president (no strings attached there) and finally by means of a fake military coup.  The military is now in control, complete with major players directly connected to Mubarak's interests, power, and will.

Now the question remains: will Mubarak and his regime, after thirty years of complacency in blocking aggression against Egyptians in general and Copts in particular, be investigated for crimes of torture and murder against Egyptian Copts and others?  Let's not hold our breath.

Ashraf Ramelah is founder and president of Voice of the Copts, a human rights organization.

If you experience technical problems, please write to