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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2


Egypt: Revolt in the land of the Pharaohs

The following article was written by Maryknoll Fr. Doug May, who, from 1999-2007, was the only U.S.-born priest assigned in Egypt.

I lived and worked with Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims, both working and upper class. However, for about six to 12 hours per week, I catered to three Catholic communities of people from over 20 countries who spoke English as a first, second or third language. They were embassy, multi-national, university and NGO employees and dependants. From both exposure and experience, I learned a great deal about Egypt from various perspectives. Even though I am currently assigned to Kenya, I still manage to spend time in Egypt twice a year to visit "family" and friends there.

While I don't consider myself an academic expert, I can claim to have a "sense" of Egypt that can hold its own among experts. An Egyptian Jesuit stated almost 30 years ago that "Egyptians would revolt tomorrow except that they are too tired trying to stay alive today." For most of my 18 years there, many of us referred to Egypt as "the gas bottle waiting for the match" to explode.

My first observation is that Egyptians have been formed and educated to be "followers" rather than leaders. This came from the home, the school, the work place AND the church or mosque. However, a new generation of Egyptians has enkindled the spark of liberty and courage that finally ignited the "gas bottle" made up of many of their countrymen: young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Muslim and Christian.

In April 1987, I visited a Bethlehem University student in his home at a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. Later, he asked me if I had noticed the picture of Gamal Abdel Nasr (Egypt's president from 1956-70) on the wall. I answered that I had. He then said: "My father is still waiting for Nasr to liberate us and he's been dead for [more than] 15 years. My generation will not wait for others to liberate us. We must liberate ourselves." The first "intifada" in Palestine began just a few months later. In much the same way, the new generation of Egyptians, after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak, was not willing to wait only to have his son, Gamal, and the National Democratic Party (NDP) continue to run Egypt like a personal fiefdom. The time had come for Egyptians to have their own "intifada" and liberate themselves.

Egyptian Christians struggle to be active in socio-political affairs as most feel they are a tolerated minority "protected" by the government. There is a sense that "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know." As Egypt evolved more and more from a secular state during Nasr's administration into a quasi Islamic state under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, their military dictatorships still seemed preferable to rule by the Muslim Brotherhood. Christians feel impotent as citizens due to religious discrimination by many Muslims and for the fact that they are not always sure who they are among "Arab" Egyptians. More than once I found Christian Egyptians rooting for Israel because "Israel could kick Arab-Muslim butts." They loved the Egypt of their ancestors without loving the country which often treated them like unwanted foreigners.

In the eyes of many Muslims, Christians are often seen as disloyal idol worshipers and polytheists. In the eyes of many Orthodox Christians, Catholics are often seen as heretics and "the illegitimate children of Rome." Catholic leadership normally keeps its head down and seldom is prophetic as "light, salt or yeast" in Egyptian society even though many leading Egyptians (mostly Muslim and Orthodox) went to Catholic schools. While Islamic extremism is on the increase in Egypt, much of it is the result of government oppression and economic frustration. If freedom becomes a reality and economic opportunities improve, extremism may decrease. Building a "crescent-and-cross" society that is religious in culture but NOT in government is the dream of many Egyptians, young and old. I have friends who grew up during the Nasr period. It is difficult to distinguish who is Muslim and who is Christian except around the time of religious feasts. Many Egyptians yearn for those days when there was mutual appreciation and respect.

Like most Egyptians, I am extremely proud of the peaceful revolution. I am confident that one form of dictatorship will not take over for the last one now that Egyptians have rediscovered their spirit. However, I can still remember those disenchanted with the new life of freedom in the old USSR after one or two years. They started marching with the old Soviet flag representing their former safe but sorry lives under communism. During the years of transition ahead, some Egyptians will most likely do the same, including some Christians, who had "safe" but sorry lives under the old military government.

It was only three years ago that I wrote that the people of the Arab world didn't value democracy. I stated that they preferred a strong leader who would offer them enough food to eat and enough money to buy the little things that make life seem better. Freedom referred more to freedom FROM fear and hunger rather than freedom TO live and develop as individuals and as a people. It seems that I was grossly mistaken then. Now, I pray that the dream of true freedom that was born in January becomes a reality for all Egyptian citizens.

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