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Egypt

Egypt's Muslim-Christian Fault Line On The Streets Of Alexandria

Protesting against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are worried by the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Muslim prayers in the midst of protests and army tanks (Iman Mosaad)

ALEXANDRIA - Though it pained him, Ibrahim Faouzi finally decided on Tuesday not to take part in the protest on the streets of Egypt's second largest city. Already last week, this young Coptic Christian felt isolated in a sea of mostly Muslim protesters. "Sometimes I felt that people were looking at me funny," he said, showing the cross tattooed on his wrist. So on Tuesday, when a group started harassing him near the al-Kaed Ibrahim mosque, this young Egyptian simply went home. "I was demonstrating to fight for my country, not to have the Muslim Brotherhood take control of it," he said.

Like Faouzi, many Christians in Alexandria seem to have backed out of the protests because of the Brotherhood's increasing role. Absent early on, the Muslim group officially called on their members to take to the streets last Friday, and are now actively participating in the protests. Tuesday, their buses brought waves of demonstrators from the suburbs while militants checked IDs. "We are playing an important role in today's movement along with other opposition parties," says Sobhi Saleh, a former member of Parliament and an official of the Muslim Brotherhood's Alexandria branch. "We are fighting without putting our political ideas forward and with only one goal: bringing down the dictator."

Avoiding being demonized

Alexandria's Christians, whether Orthodox or Catholic, still aren't putting up a united front in the face the Islamist movement's growing role in the Egyptian revolt. Afflicted by the recurring tensions between religious communities, and still traumatized by the New Year's Eve attack on a Coptic Church that killed 21 people, some are keeping a low profile, avoiding gatherings and hesitant to speak out in public. "If Mubarak falls, Islamists will definitely end up in power and impose Islamic law," says Faouzi. "And when that day comes, we will no longer have the right to wear our crosses in public."

On the other hand, Michel Emile, a doctor, refuses to worry. "It's true that there are more and more members of the Brotherhood in the protests, but we shouldn't be afraid of them," says the 40 year old. "The real enemy of Egypt's Christians is Mubarak. For 30 years he has refused to build churches and kept us away from power even though we represent more than 10 percent of the country's population. He uses the Brotherhood and Al Qaeda as scarecrows that he waves every time we demand more rights for our community, saying he's the best guarantee against extremists."

Like him, some Christians were among the tens of thousands of people taking to the street in Alexandria, booing the President, screaming "Allahu Akbar," calling for national unity and warning against attempts to demonize their uprising. "We aren't enemies of the West," read signs held up by protesters. "Christians and Muslims, we are above all Egyptians fighting for freedom," says Mandouh Reyad, an engineer, adding, "the opposition between the two religions was artificially created by the regime to divide the population."

A festive atmosphere

Throughout the march, people point out that no Christian building has been attacked since the police backed out last Friday. Joseph Boulad, a Catholic observer, refuses to dramatize the situation. "As much as we can fear that free elections will eventually bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, I don't believe the current uprising is in any way endangering Christians. The young protesters and militants of the other opposition parties are making sure that their movement isn't taken over by anyone."

In the festive atmosphere in the heart of the demonstration, rumors were flying, including Mubarak's resignation and word of a million protesters in Cairo. Saleh, the Muslim Brotherhood official, vowed that he was ready to share power with the other parties. We have "no desire for absolute control," he said.

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