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Anxiety in Cairo

Christians confront challenges and change

text by Magdy Samaan with photographs by David Degner

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When gunfire sounded near her home, Ragaa Anwar reached out frantically to her only son. Again and again, she dialed Mina’s phone, but he never answered.

Mina, a 29-year-old Coptic Christian, had been caught in the crossfire between the military and supporters of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood when violence erupted in his neighborhood of Ain Shams in northern Cairo.

The loss weighs heavily on Mrs. Anwar. She speaks to pictures of Mina hung throughout her house beside icons. Every year, she visits where he is buried; she knocks on the tomb and calls for him, but again there is no reply.

“I can’t believe my son was taken from me. I feel as if he will knock on the door and come back,” Mrs. Anwar says.

In July 2013, the Egyptian army deposed President Muhammad Morsi. Most Copts, together with more secular Muslims, rallied behind the coup for fear of the Islamist project of the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization’s supporters, however, orchestrated protests and sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda squares in Cairo. Forty days later, the army and police dispersed the sit-ins, killing hundreds.

Because of the government’s iron hand in Cairo’s main squares and downtown districts, the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters took their activities to the outskirts — to neighborhoods of the capital city where they have strong presence. One such suburb, Ain Shams, has a significant population of Coptic Christians, and tensions between the two groups have grown more pronounced.

After Mina’s death, his family could not bear to live in Ain Shams any longer, deciding to relocate to an area further north.

“I can’t stand seeing them every day,” says Emad Anwar, Mina’s father, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood. “When I see them I want to take revenge, but I have nothing in my hand to do it with.”

Mr. Anwar had sought justice, but the case was closed and nobody was charged.

Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of 82 million, have continued to support the former leader of the coup, President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, hoping he will promote a secular government and quell sectarianism. So far, this bet has not brought about stability. Despite good-will gestures such as his historic visit to St. Mark’s Cathedral — the seat of Pope Tawadros II of the dominant Coptic Orthodox Church — and instructing the army to rebuild around 65 churches attacked by mobs after the Rabaa massacre in August 2013, the main concerns of the Coptic people, the lack of justice and equality, remain. The deterioration of the economy has also brought more bad news for Egypt’s people.

“They tell us that Sisi will not protect us forever. Prices are increasing every day and if you helped Sisi in the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood will return for you,” Mr. Anwar said.

Since 2011, the Egyptian economy has foundered. The Egyptian pound has lost more than two-thirds of its value in the past six years. Half of this decline occurred after the government’s decision in November 2016 to float its currency, previously pegged to the U.S. dollar. Since the change, prices have doubled while most household incomes have remained the same.

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