It goes without saying that -- as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- I have been trying to keep up with the news coverage of the rapidly unfolding events in Egypt. I fear, I think, what many people fear -- a three-way conflict, in Cairo and the rest of the country, between (a) the current government of President Hosni Mubarak, (b) the surging tide of "reformers," vaguely defined (can it be said they are those who seek to defend human rights, period?) and (c) the well organized ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood loyalists.
But there is a problem. To be blunt about it, what is happening with the 10 percent of Egypt that is part of the ancient Coptic Church, the church that has suffered so much in recent weeks and months and for ages and ages before that? Is there some chance that various camps of Islamists could find unity in opposition to a common enemy? Yes, I am well aware that many Muslims in Egypt understand the importance of the Copts to their land and want to protect them, at least in some kind of subservient cultural niche.
If you do a search in Google News, you find once again that most of the articles about the dangers facing the Copts are in "conservative" or even "Christian" media. Click here for an example from the Daily Caller.
But the article that disturbed me the most was the New York Times think piece that ran under the headline, "Egyptians' Fury Has Smoldered Beneath the Surface for Decades." How can one deal with the violence and the tensions in Egypt over recent decades without mentioning the plight of the Coptic Church?
Instead, here is a typical chunk of this article:
The litany of complaints against Mr. Mubarak is well known to anyone who has spent time in any coffee shop or on any corner chatting in any city in Egypt. The police are brutal. Elections are rigged. Corruption is rampant. Life gets harder for the masses as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. Even as Egypt's economy enjoyed record growth in recent years, the number of people living in poverty actually grew. ...
That is Mr. Mubarak's Egypt, a place where about half the population lives on $2 a day or less, and walled compounds spring up outside cities with green lawns and swimming pools and names like Swan Lake. It is a place where those with money have built a parallel world of private schools and exclusive clubs, leaving the rundown cities to the poor.
"The whole system is seen as being his fault," said Anne Mariel Peters, an assistant professor at Wesleyan University, who closely follows events in Egypt. "People do believe that Mubarak is the absolute dictator."
But would things be worse for religious minorities and others if the force at the top fell (think about current conditions in Iraq)? Who would step into the void?
Once again, read the Times article and try to find even the slightest hint that the large Coptic minority even exists. Did I miss a separate article on this angle of the conflicts?
Meanwhile, consider this option for what lies ahead, published at the website of The New Republic. The headline fits the events of Friday, when the wider waves of protests began right after the Friday morning prayers in mosques across the city: "The first round of Egyptian protests was liberal. The second will be Islamist". Here's a key passage that rings true to me:
The actual involvement of Islamists ... make the regime's case more convincing to international and domestic audiences that fear Egypt becoming "another Iran." Islamist groups seem to be aware of this. While expressing their support for the protests, they have insisted that their followers will be participating as citizens, rather than as members of specific Islamist organizations. "Muslim Brothers are among the people," said Brotherhood official Mohamed Morsi. "They will move with others to the mosque and make demonstrations with the others."
Whatever happens, the linkage of prayer and protest -- and the fact that the protests will originate from such a wide variety of locations -- promises to make this the most consequential day of the current standoff. And if the regime prevents people from praying or interferes too overtly in their day of worship, the gloves will surely be off.
As a Muslim scholar once told me: When dramatic events unfold in a Muslim culture, Allah will always have the right to vote.
That's true, but which body of Muslims will carry the day in Egypt? As you follow the drama, please help me watch for coverage of the Copts, Catholics, Protestants and other religious minorities, including Muslims who have backed reforms to protect minorities.
UPDATE: This Times sidebar this morning ("Egyptians Wonder What's Next") takes the same approach as yesterday's story, with the same missing elements. However, the newspaper's main story offers this quote that is ominous, to say the least.
... (Among) more affluent Egyptians, some said the country needed stability more than upheaval. After night when men took to the streets armed with broom sticks and kitchen knives to defend their home against looters in Heliopolis, one resident, Sarah Elyashy, 33, said: "It has been the longest night of my life."
"I wish we could be like the United States with our own democracy, but we can't," she said. "We have to have a ruler with an iron hand."