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21. Protest and Religion Egypt - Perspectives on the Revolution

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Article title: 
21. Protest and Religion Egypt - Perspectives on the Revolution
Publishers: 
Year: 
2011
Week: 
9
Article number: 
21
Date of source: 
February 27, 2011
Author: 
Margaret Coffey
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Article summary: 
AWR was pleased to cooperate with Encounter, a program of ABC radio, Australia. For the interviews and transcript of ABC please check this address: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/encounter/stories/2011/3147651.htm#transcript
 
Article full text: 
Transcript of Encounter:
 
The Christian population of Egypt numbers about ten per cent - but eighty per cent of Egyptian emigrants are Christian, and Australia is home to 80,000 Coptic Christians from Egypt. What roles did Christians play in the revolution, and what are their hopes and fears for the future?
 
Music:Bell announcing Sunday morning Mass, recorded at St Mary's Coptic church, Luxor. Multicultural media (1997) MCM 3005
 
Margaret Coffey:Welcome to Radio National's Encounter - Margaret Coffey with you this week for an Encounter with Egypt's minority Christians, and their hopes and fears for an inspiring revolution. And, is there a productive role to be played by Egypt's diaspora Christians, including the 80,000 in Australia?
 
This Encounter brings you a many layered story.
 
[Note: The Christian proportion of the Egyptian population is disputed. Ten per cent is the commonly quoted figure, including by the US Department of State. This figure includes Coptic Orthodox (Copt means Egyptian) and other Christian (including Greek Orthodox, Latin and Eastern Rite Catholics, Anglican and various other Protestants) who amount to approximately one per cent of the total number of Christians. However, the figure is disputed by Dr Kees Hulsman who argues that now Christians amount to fewer than six per cent of the Egyptian population. His detailed analysis is to be published shortly and a link will then be added here.
See also the 2010 International Religious Freedom Report on Egypt from the US Department of State.]
 
Tarek Osman: Throughout the three weeks of demonstrations not only in Tahrir it was almost impossible to distinguish between Muslims and Christians and in a number of times there were displays of faith ... it was also very inspiring because for example in Tahrir, and I have seen that, we had a number of Muslims who had a prayer actually and they were protected by a cordon of Christians - and it was very symbolic obviously, it was meant to be that way, but also very inspiring, and on a Sunday a number of Christians held a small Mass and also they were protected with a cordon of Muslims and there was an emphasis throughout this past month whether in Tahrir or again elsewhere in Egypt and also in Egyptian media to emphasise this unity and to emphasise the Egyptianism of the revolt rather than any sectarian rhetoric.
 
Margaret Coffey:Tarek Osman writes incisively in a recently published book, Egypt on the Brink, about the country's Christian population and the growing and influential Christian diaspora. Seventy per cent of emigrants from Egypt are Christian, part of the widespread exodus of Christians from the whole of the Middle East - and 80,000 of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Christians have found a home here, many more than the number of Muslims of Egyptian background who have settled in Australia.
 
Bishop Suriel:I think it is really a historic occasion for Egypt that we never imagined would happen.
 
Margaret Coffey:I met Coptic Bishop Suriel, the leader of Australia's Copts, in Melbourne as he left a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd...
 
Bishop Suriel:Oh I just spoke with him about our concerns as Christians back in Egypt and what may be the future outcome for our people and concerns about extremist groups that may take hold of Egypt in this transition period or in the future government and that this would cause a lot of problems not just for the Christians but I think for all of Egypt and the Middle East and I think would have ripple effects all over the world that more extremist groups may rise up and more terrorist attacks may take place - I don't think this would be the outcome that we would look forward to.
 
Margaret Coffey:Bishop Suriel has in mind a series of attacks against Christians in Egypt that have been part of any recitation of recent Egyptian history - until they were supplanted by the events of Tahrir Square.
 
Bishop Suriel:As you heard perhaps at New Year's there was an attack against a church in Alexandria where twenty four Christians lost their lives. Last year another six were killed as they were leaving Christmas Eve liturgy on the 7 January and never is there any justice for these people. In 2000, twenty one Christians were massacred in Al-Kosheh village and the perpetrators go away and the government does not take any action against them and even though they know who they are.
 
Margaret Coffey:Are there points where Egyptian Copts and Muslims meet in Australia?
 
Bishop Suriel:I mean there is cordial relationships but not very close relationships. We greet each other in certain festivities, we meet with Egyptian officials, the consul, the ambassador regularly, and also some people from the Muslim community come to greet us at Christmas and Easter in our churches as well.
 
Margaret Coffey:And you would go to the mosque, for example Preston mosque, would you, at particular Muslim feast days?
 
Bishop Suriel:No I haven't been to the mosques - once in Sydney when there was some issues early on there was a ecumenical group of Christian leaders that went to the Lakemba mosque and I was with them on that occasion.
 
Margaret Coffey:Is there a reason why there are no contacts of that kind?
 
Bishop Suriel:Well I think you know the sensitivities that have happened back in Egypt and the great suffering of our people back home has made it difficult to continue some of these communications. But I am certainly open to the idea of dialogue and I think it is very important for us here in Australia to have such dialogues together and perhaps to put pressure back home on the Egyptian government to try to change the situation of the Christians and to have full human rights for all Egyptian citizens.
 
Margaret Coffey:And have Coptic Christians extended an invitation to the Muslim community to take part in any dialogues?
 
Bishop Suriel:Not yet, but as I said, because there has been these severe attacks that are escalating against Christians in Egypt. So this has caused a lot of hard feelings for our community at the moment.
 
Margaret Coffey:We'll hear more from Bishop Suriel later but first an eye-witness account of the revolution as it began. Dr Kees Hulsman with his Cairo based Arab West Report is committed to promoting better cultural and religious understanding. He was conducting one of his regular tours for Europeans interested in inter-religious dialogue - they had travelled from a then peaceful Cairo to Alexandria, in part to visit the church outside of which on New Year's Day a bomb was detonated.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:We saw the first of this in Alexandria where we were in a restaurant seeing in front of us, looking through the windows, demonstrations taking place. When was it? On the 25th in the evening. Most of the people we saw were young men between fifteen and eighteen years old. They were looking shabby - for us this was quite clear that these were the poorer people in Egypt who had gone out on the street.
Egyptians in the restaurant also responded - they used an Arabic word saying these are [language] - people who are poor, people who didn't succeed - describing them in that way, that these were the losers in society. Forty per cent of Egyptians is living below two dollars, two US dollars per day - well that's extreme. I know the prices, the food prices in Egypt and that would be totally insufficient - so those people are then surviving on well mere subsistence - on bread and rice, but not much more.
 
Sound of demonstration in Egypt
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:Members of our group didn't really realise what was going on so they were waving to them and they were waving back - it was all very friendly until the police came.
So they were shooting teargas -and we didn't realise at that moment that we were seeing the beginning of this revolt in Egypt.
 
Margaret Coffey:It's possible that among those shabby youth demonstrating on that first night in Alexandria there were Christians. As Tarek Osman explains, Christians are all over Egyptian society.
 
Tarek Osman: It is very important to understand that in Egypt Christianity has and continues to have major history and Egypt was a Christian state for at least nine centuries and it took at least four centuries after Islam came to Egypt than the numbers of Muslims started to edge to its majority and there are many historical reasons why that happened but even over the past two centuries when by far Egyptian society by far became from a demographic point of view more Muslim than Christian there was not any seclusion if you like of Christians into a specific class, specific profession or specific geography in Egypt. The Egyptian society is by and large Muslim slash Christian.
 
What we have seen though over the past fifty years if you like, give or take, is with the rise of socio Islamism, with the rise of Islam as a social framework, especially in the past forty years we have started to see some withdrawal of Christians into certain geographies or into certain social enclaves. But by large, if you take a macro picture, Christians are all over the society if you like.
 
Margaret Coffey:The question is, did Christians withdraw because they were being persecuted? Is that the right language, I asked the Anglican Primate of Egypt, Bishop Mouneer Hanna Asis.
 
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis:That is not the right language because I understand persecution as an organised situation by the government. However because of the growing fanaticism, especially at the level of the people in the street, there is a continuous clashes. Some people may call this persecution, but I don't see it an organised one by the government. Having said that I must say that in the recent months and years there is ignoring some rights.
 
Margaret Coffey:What about the evidently increasing exclusion of Christians from leadership in professional organisations for example?
 
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis:Yes, I think that is happening more not with policies but happening more because of increasing extremism and fundamentalism and also it is happening more because of the fear of the reaction of the extremists. So some people who are moderate are afraid to appoint a Christian in a prominent position lest the extreme Muslims would react and make demonstrations or get angry, so they suppress the right of Christians in such a position. Yes, that's happening especially at the level of the university, at the level of the local administrations, like the governors of the provinces, and in the army, in the police and in security police. It became like a phenomena and the Christians were talking more about this, openly.
 
Margaret Coffey:And then?
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:Yes, and the day after there was nothing.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:So we went on our tour in Alexandria meeting with church leaders - the whole tour was meetings with church leaders, speaking about Muslim-Christian dialogue and speaking about the effects of the bombing of the Church in Alexandria.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:We went to the church Al-Qiddissin where the attack had taken place and we met with the people in Al-Qiddissin, in the church.
 
Margaret Coffey:There is still a puzzle around the identity of the bombers and the mastermind: did the State play a role, as is suggested, via its now arrested Minister for the Interior and other officials , or was it a terrorist group, or the fruit of the kind of sermonising heard at the mosque over the road. The story points to the complexity of factors at play in the Egypt of Mubarak. Muslims turned out to provide cordons of safety around Christians celebrating the Coptic Orthodox Christmas Eve on 6 January. 'We are all Egyptians' many of them were quoted as saying. This was a significant event, coming early in the month of the revolt against President Mubarak. Was it the harbinger of something new? Bishop Mouneer.
 
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis:The moderate Muslim view is the majority, but they don't speak much. We saw it after [the] Alexandrian bombings. Many, many moderate Muslims demonstrated in the streets, they came to the churches at the Christmas Eve to be with the Christians, they said we are one, we will not allow terrorism to come in, we will not allow fundamentalism to divide us, and for the first time, I must say, for the first time the moderate voice grow up like this, after the Alexandria bombing. Before that, it is the Muslim Brotherhood, the extreme Muslim, has the louder voice.
 
Margaret Coffey:So what prompted this moderate voice to speak up - first in response to the New Year bombing, then later in response to the calls to protest? Tarek Osman puts it down to what he calls strikingly 'an aching nostalgia' on the part of elements of the Egyptian middle class: nostalgia for a past formed for centuries out of a now corroded social mix, nostalgia for a powerful idea of Egyptianism.
 
Tarek Osman: I can see it from many examples of primary research that I have done, whether interviews with lots of people or just observations from the Egyptian street. Very briefly, the social story of the past forty years, it was characterised by three very clear things. One the rise of Islam, not only political Islam but Islam as a social framework, and you can see it in simple things such as the number of veiled women or women wearing the headscarf in Egypt, in Egyptian slang even, in the overall feel of the Egyptian street. The second thing was the withdrawal of the state from the provision of services, from education, healthcare, transportation, the likes, and increasingly in a very poor society such as Egypt, the religious establishments, the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Azhar, the largest Sunni university in the world, or the church, started to fill that void, basically starting to go beyond their religious mandate and start to offer social service. And the third thing because of many economic transformations, you had the Egyptian middle class itself suffering major socio-economic pain. What all of these factors led to basically is that the coherence of the middle class that it had had for centuries started to disintegrate.
 
Margaret Coffey:And with that, says Tarek Osman, the old idea of what he calls Egyptianism started to get diluted. In its place other identities entered the ring: Islamism versus Christianism.
 
Tarek Osman: In its place you had Islamism started to be against or versus Christianism. But then we have seen that sectarianism turning violent, and if you have that over forty years, the Egyptian middle class which is very wide, people sometimes assume has been eradicated, that's not true, the Egyptian middle class which is in the tens of millions of people, even without being able to express it clearly were starting to hold to this old idea of Egyptianism of the middle class that has shaped and ruled our society for many centuries and at the core of that Egyptianism is the idea that we are all the same and if we let go of Egyptianism and stick to a sectarian idea of the society we are actually letting go of the notion of being Egyptian itself. So I see it as a way of the middle class holding to its existence really, or the existence of this country, not just a reaction to the rise of Islamism.
 
Margaret Coffey:The idea of Egypt embedded in the notion of Egyptianism is so powerfully attractive for historical reasons that Tarek Osman suggests that it attracted even elements in the Muslim Brotherhood. Or at least elements of the Muslim Brotherhood recognised the threat if posed.
 
Tarek Osman: That's true. In order not to romanticise things, there are still very, very hard core conservative elements within the Brotherhood, especially at its leadership actually and at its millions of adherents on the Egyptian street. But there were some elements, especially within the office of the general guide, if you like the executive council of the Muslim Brotherhood, who noticed that social change and who were very aware that continuing the traditional goals of Islamising society is going to turn off vast sections of the middle class. So there was this rhetorical change in many of the manifestos actually and programs that came out of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past ten years, in which they started to accept the notion of citizenship, the notion that Islam can be a guide but not necessarily the strict framework of ruling, and in which they actually started to reach out to a number of prominent Christians in Egypt to have an open dialogue with them.
 
Also another point to keep in mind about the Muslim Brotherhood's relationship with Christians in Egypt is that there were internal divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood that led to some defections and some of those were very notable in terms of how prominent the people who defected were. And those who defected started to form other groups competing with the Muslim Brotherhood and started to drift towards the centre rather than the right, becoming more open to this idea of Egyptianism as we talked about it. So it was also an internal strategy, a strategy of managing the internal structure of the Brotherhood to try to rein in the rhetoric. The Brotherhood was actually reacting to the trends we are talking about, rather than the initiator of them.
 
Margaret Coffey:On Radio National abc.net.au you're listening to Encounter - considering Egyptian Christians and the revolution. It's available on Encounter's website as a podcast, and also as a transcript. Go to abc.net.au/rn and locate Encounter.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:So if I continue our travel itinerary...
 
Margaret Coffey:When the protest movement broke out in Egypt, Dr Kees Hulsman was taking a group of European inter-faith activists on a tour of Christian religious sites. Among these sites were archaic ones honoured as places where the Holy Family fled, to escape King Herod's slaying of the 'Innocents'.
 
Kees Hulsman:...we left Alexandria to Minya, passed by Cairo, there were demonstrations that day in Cairo, the roads were over-crowded because of the demonstrations and then the day after, on Friday the 28th, we heard that there were going to be demonstrations after Friday prayer, the Muslim Friday prayer, so we have a program in churches early in the morning, going to the pilgrimage location of Abdel Mesih al-Managhry, a modern Coptic saint, a very pious priest who lived there in the 1960s who had passed away and around him an entire cult has developed and lots of people going to church. We attended church, and the priest in the sermon was speaking about the authority of God - he didn't mention Mubarak but it was very obvious a reference to Mubarak and he was saying that the only true authority is God and God only and we should place our trust in God. Well, when you do this in situations of tensions and a growing revolt against the President - that of course is saying a lot.
 
Margaret Coffey: As the protests developed and the crowds refused to go home, and many priests and Christian faithful supported the demonstrations, the Coptic Pope Shenouda spoke on national television: we are with you, he told President Mubarak.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman: He was criticised by own priests, not bishops who would be of course more diplomatic and more careful, but Coptic Orthodox priests were criticising the Pope for this and saying he should not have made a statement at all.
 
Bishop Suriel:Yes but you have to understand that as a church and as Christians we respect our leaders. Pope Shenouda is a very dignified man, a very holy man, that we all respect very much and we respect his opinions and I think this was the stand that he needed to take at this time.
We are not a people of protest. We are a people of prayer and we believe in the power of prayer. And even Pope Shenouda when they asked him, Aren't you going to put pressure on the government to take action against this massacre of Christians in Alexandria, the response of Pope Shenouda was 'I will put pressure on Heaven and Heaven will put pressure on the government'.
 
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis: I want to remind you that when the revolution of 1952 happened, and they asked the King, King Farouk, to leave the country, he left but they made a proper goodbye for him in Alexandria and he was waved goodbye, the national anthem was played for him and with dignity they said goodbye to him. Many people who remembered this and read this in their history would like to see this happening as well because President Mubarak served the country for 62 to years, 30 of them as a president. He did many, many good things and he did mistakes as well, and as civilised people we would like to say thank you for the good things that's happening. That was a sector of people who were supportive to what Pope Shenouda said. Other people were angry, and they wanted to get rid of the president as soon as possible.
 
Margaret Coffey: On the Coptic Christmas Eve, among the Muslims who turned up to protect the Christians going to Church were the two sons of President Mubarak.
Pope Shenouda has now issued a statement saluting the youth of 25th January who led a peaceful revolution and the Egyptian army. It supports the dissolution of the people's assembly and calls for a democratic and civilised nation with an elected parliament representing all facets of the people. Pope Shenouda was not alone among religious leaders in initially standing back from the demonstrations. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood also stood back. At the beginning, none of these prominent religious
leaders or movements endorsed the protestors.
 
Margaret Coffey: Soon the protests spread beyond the big cities...
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:Then we went to cross the Nile to Gebel el-Tayr. We have to be fast to cross the Nile because it was nearing the end of the Muslim Friday prayer and in the village that would not be safe so we went to G on top of a cliff and there indeed burst in the area demonstrations in different villages, in towns, and it was no longer in Cairo and Alexandria only but it was throughout the country.
 
Margaret Coffey: At a point early in the protest period there was a particularly frightening day, the day the Mubarak Government withdrew the police from the streets throughout Egypt and prisoners walked free. Neighbours organised to protect their streets and property.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman: Gebel al-Tayr was quiet, safe, there was nothing happening. It is a Christian pilgrimage location with a Christian village around it. But of course you get phone calls from friends throughout Egypt and you hear what is going on. There were priests with us - they were telling us what was going on. They were in contact with their own people, including Fr Yo'annis of Matariya who a day later told of us of the killing in this village - on the 30th.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:When we returned back to Upper Egypt, it was very remarkable. On the way to Cairo we had seen police, on the way back to Minya there was no police wherever to be seen on the road. Normally there were all those police check points, now there was nothing. Then on the 30th we went from Minya to Ein Sukhna wanting to go to the monasteries of St Paul and St Anthony and it is on that day that the Christian family in that village had [sic] killed. And Fr Yo'annis who had been our host in Minya then explained us that this was revenge. The daughter of the Christian family has had a sexual relation with a Muslim guy. They were both in the Christian home at the moment that the Christian family was not there. The mother came home, saw them both naked in bed according to the priest, took a piece of cloth and killed both the Muslim young man and her own daughter. This was for her - this is now very upper Egyptian - totally unacceptable.
 
Mixed relations are not acceptable, not with Christians. Well with Muslims it depends on what the relation is. If it is a Muslin guy with a Christian girl then this is acceptable for Muslims, if it is the other way around then also for Muslims this is not acceptable and people in Upper Egypt can respond to that in an extremely harsh way including killing and this has happened about one year ago. The family tried to burn the bodies - they were then seen by Muslims doing so, police was informed, they were arrested, they have been under arrest for three months and then were freed again, the Christian father and the mother, but the court case was still going on. Well, that was the situation on the moment of the murder. Now the police was no longer on the street and the family members of the young man who was killed by the Christian family, they broke into the house and they killed the entire Christian family. The family knew this by the way, that this was dangerous for them, but the revolt broke out for them just at the wrong moment, before they had been able to leave the area.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:Otherwise I have not heard and Christian leaders keep on until yesterday, a priest saying that there were no attacks on Christians. And Christians repeatedly keep saying this, they were all saying this is not against Christians - this is creating cooperation between Muslims and Christians.
 
And to the extent that the Catholic patriarch, Cardinal Antonius Naguib, was comparing this to the days of 1919, the revolt against the British occupation, and 1919 is often used in Egypt as to say well these were the days of unity. Well those days of unity of 1919 have come back to Egypt. Now of course all Christians are worried about the future and of course all Christians hope that this unity will be maintained.
 
Margaret Coffey: Dr Kees Hulsman of the Arab West Report based in Cairo.
By the time Dr Hulsman reached Cairo, the demonstrations were in full swing.
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:I have been speaking with those people, you get comments like, I want to make a living for my family, but I can't, I cannot find work - those types of comments. Well of course that results in resentments and that was both Muslims and Christians alike - there was no difference between poor Christians in that category and poor Muslims in that category.
 
Margaret Coffey: In Tahrir Square you could also find Amin Makram Ebeid who comes from a famous Egyptian family - and who has made his own contribution to thinking through Egypt's contemporary difficulties. He has a famous grandfather.
 
Amin Makram Ebeid:Oh this is my grandfather - you mean Naguib Mahfouz! Naguib Mahfouz was the founder of gynaecology and obstetrics in Egypt.
 
Margaret Coffey:Not the Naguib Mahfouz the great Egyptian writer and chronicler of Cairo who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature. But Naguib Mahfouz the writer received his name when his Muslim family wanted to honour the great Coptic gynaecologist and obstetrician who had helped ensure his safe birth. Amin Makram Ebeid has written a book called Egypt at the Crossroad. Unsurprisingly, the book calls up that inclusive notion of Egyptianism by looking back to the way it was articulated in the early twentieth century.
 
Amin Makram Ebeid:Egypt at one time, in the beginning of the 20th century, had leaders that believed that Egypt should be part of a European culture, a Mediterranean culture - great people and all Muslims and most of them graduates of the Azhar - and they said we should look North towards Europe for our culture, for our future, for our democracy, rather than south towards the Wahhabi, which has been a trend in the past 30 or 40 years. The good thing perhaps and this revolution of 25th January in my experience going there and staying with the young people in Tahrir Square I found a very different thing. I found people who are really becoming secular in their understanding of the state. But I am talking of the young people who are of the middle class, who know how to use the internet and who are open to new things.
 
Margaret Coffey:Do they include Coptic Christian young people?
 
Amin Makram Ebeid:Yes, the Coptic Christian young people too. They also, because of marginalisation and discrimination, the Copts have almost formed a ghetto inside Egypt. I mean they would go to church to be entertained, to play various sports, instead of being with the rest of the people. Now, is it because they are rejected by them or because they are afraid of them? I don't know. Probably both. But now with this new trend, this new revolution, I hope this will go away because I have seen a change, I could see it myself, in which the Copts and the Muslims join hands to build a new state with creedal blindness. I hope I'm right. But it does not shock anybody when I say ok we need to have a secular state, an authentic democracy, where all men and women are equal under the law. It doesn't shock.
 
Margaret Coffey:Amin Makram Ebeid - and his book? Egypt at the Crossroad.
The new Egyptian cabinet includes several opponents of the former president, among them liberals and secularists. But for Christians there remain uncertainties and fears...
 
Dr Kees Hulsman:There is among Christians a great fear that the revolt will be taken over by Islamists and in fact this is what you have seen in the demonstrations in later days,that more and more Muslim Brothers, Gama'a Islamiyya, other Islamists, have taken to the streets and they are very visible. You can see these men from the way they are dressed, the prayer spots on their foreheads, the way they do not shave their beards, women being veiled, sometimes also the niqab, the veil of the face, and then the slogans that were shouted became later on more Islamic so there was definitely an effort of Islamists to make use of the situation and to take over the initiative that did not start with Islamists.
 
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis:The Muslim Brotherhood are a reality on the ground and we don't care about it - that's ok - they have a voice. In a democratic country they should have their voice, they should participate in the changes that are going to happen. But I think the danger is for other groups to be excluded. I think all groups should have the same tone, the same voice and every voice should be heard, not just the people who are shouting, but everyone.
 
Margaret Coffey: The Friday after the demonstrators' victory brought even more Egyptians to Tahrir Square in a day of celebration.
 
Tarek Osman: There was at least 1.5 million people in Tahrir Square - that Friday you had Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi, give from Tahrir Square the Friday sermon to more than a million people there - I thought that was a very interesting point, and alarming to some extent as well. Very briefly, Al Qaradawi not only turned down the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood twice but he emerged the most important scholar of Islamism in the past twenty years despite the fact that he has left Al Azhar more than thirty years ago - forty years ago, he has been out of Egypt for thirty years and his writings are not really accessible to many readers actually, he is quite a rigorous writer, but that tells you something about the nature of the rise of Islamism over the past thirty years.
 
I found it interesting that the example we have seen last Friday in Tahrir Square with Al Qaradawi giving the sermon was to many people reminiscent [of] Khomeini's return to Iran in 1979. In my view the comparison is absolutely wrong in so many different ways. But many people just invoked that comparison and in my view it was an attempt by a number of forces within political Islam to portray that Friday of victory, as it was called, with a very prominent Islamist figure on national TV for the first time ever.
 
Again, I think the comparison is wrong and it gives more emphasis on political Islam's power than really what we are seeing on the ground. But it is certainly one of the signs of the political struggle we are going to see in Egypt over the next few months and maybe years between political Islam versus Egyptian liberalism that has actually led and given momentum to revolt we have seen over the past three four weeks.
 
Margaret Coffey:So, how is the Church - in particular the Coptic Church - placed as Egypt faces into these potentially years of political struggle? How have the events of the last month affected the relationship between the Coptic community and its leaders and prepared them for roles in conceivably a secular society? Tarek Osman.
 
Tarek Osman: The very prominent Christian faces we have seen in the last month were not attached to the church, were not part of the religious establishment within the Coptic community in Egypt.
 
The second observation was that a very large number of the leading capitalists in Egypt were Christians actually and they played an excellent role, because most of them, not all of them, but most of them were not associated with ruling NDP the party of President Mubarak, they were effectively independent centres in Egypt, they led very notable success stories and they resulted in obvious higher levels of employment, so they were seen as good forces in the economy and the society and actually a number of those also played very prominent roles over the past month. So there was and is the idea that Christian capital if you like is not just here to make money and then transfer the capital, the profits, to London or Switzerland or what have you. Actually, they are long term investors in this country because effectively they are Egyptians, which is a very romantic idea but it got resonance over the past month.
 
And the third point is that a number of the protest groups that have emerged in Egypt over the past five to seven years, the most famous of them is the Enough movement, one of its very prominent leaders, continues to be, is a Christian gentleman. He was the leader of an entity that comprised very prominent Muslim scholars, social luminaries, and that was very symbolic to have a Christian man [George Is'haq] leading a revolt movement that comprises very prominent Muslims. And finally some of the developments that have antagonised if you like sections within the middleclass especially the Muslims  within the middle class, were for example the emphasis on conversions, if you like, Muslims converting to Christianity, Christians converting to Islam, all of that, started to get out of the limelight over the past year and obviously this union we have seen in the past month also shifted the limelight to other areas of interaction between Muslims and Christians.
 
Margaret Coffey:Not all of those areas of interaction are positive - the limelight remains on the long term future of Article 2 of the Constitution:
 
Amin Makram Ebeid:This is the article that says Egypt is a Muslim country and that the source of the legislation is from the Shariah. The Copts would simply like to change it to 'a' source of legislation coming from the Shariah, which is not much. We accept that the sharia has interesting passages and it could be incorporated in a secular document. But it should not be 'the ' only one.
 
Margaret Coffey:The new ruling military council has appointed a committee to draw up a new constitution within ten days, not much time to deal with constitutional articles concerning the nature of the state. The committee is headed by an Islamist judge associated with a moderate offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
 
Bishop Mouneer Hanna Anis:Yes, in the same time the grand imam of Al Azhar and another prominent Islamic leader said there is no discussion over Article 2 - it should stay, it must stay - we are an Islamic country and it should be there. I know it constitutes a problem because when there is an issue they can go back to Article Number 2 but we are an Islamic country and the main source of legislation is the Islamic sharia. The problem is the sharia itself: we don't have a collective united interpretation of every item within the sharia itself.
 
Margaret Coffey:The Anglican Church's Bishop Mouneer. For Tarek Osman the problem of Article 2 does not have the same immediacy. He frames the question of the future this way.
 
Tarek Osman: I think this area is gaining lots of traction these days and very understandable but I think it is an area that the media focuses on because it is very contentious, while by far the more important areas are the socio-economic dynamics within the society. I'm more concerned really about what will happen after this euphoria evaporates. The question is going forward will the Egyptian middle class that have effectively led this revolt, lose the momentum, lose its sight of the overall picture and resort to its comfort zone of sectarianism or what it has got used to over the past thirty-five years of sectarianism - will we see the Al Azhar, the church, the Muslim Brotherhood and others taking their traditional influential roles in the society or will the middle class retain its momentum and insist on a liberal Egyptian narrative that will rule the society and the interaction between Muslims and Christians.
 
Margaret Coffey: And in Australia, amongst the Coptic diaspora, how does Bishop Suriel think?
 
Bishop Suriel:You know I think the Church gives us hope. We believe in a mighty God who said that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against his Church. He has protected our people for 2000 years. Last year there was an amazing apparition of St Mary in Giza in one of our churches in December and the people at that time saw this as a message from Heaven you know that perhaps there are difficult times coming ahead for Christians and for Egypt and we saw it as a sign of comfort from Heaven and from God saying to us, I am with you, do not worry. So I think the Church can offer people a place of solace, and also to strengthen them in their daily life to be good Egyptian citizens, to participate fully in the life of the society, to be interactive in all aspects of life and to try to build stronger relationships with our Muslim brothers and sisters. I think this is very essential for the future work of the Church and for the future of Egypt as well.
 
Margaret Coffey:Well perhaps Copts in Australia can model ways of building stronger relationships with Muslims?
 
Bishop Suriel:I really hope so and you know certainly throughout this year we will start making some contacts and see if we can work more closely together - I think would be good.
 
Margaret Coffey:This has been Encounter - perspectives on Egypt and its Christian population as the revolution unfolds. Thanks to all the participants - you can find information about each of them and links to various sources of information on abc.net.au/rn - just locate Encounter. There's a transcript as well and of course a podcast version of the program.
 
Technical production by Russell Thomson - I'm Margaret Coffey.
 
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