The Curtain Rises on a Growing Rift in Egypt
Friday, November 25,2005 00:00
By (Times)

The Curtain Rises on a Growing Rift in Egypt
By Ashraf Khalil, Times Staff Writer

Mina is in crisis and Ahmed offers a helping hand, with a hidden agenda.

A moody young college student, Mina hates his family’s humble means, his father’s inability to buy him new clothes. How will he ever be able to save enough to get married?

His priest is no help, repeating empty platitudes about the benefits of spending more time in church.

But Ahmed, his new friend from college, has answers. He offers Mina money, work opportunities, even a wife.

Of course there is a catch: Mina has to convert to Islam.

"Don’t you know that Bible of yours is altered?" Ahmed smirks, as horror-movie music swells in the background. "Do you really think that 60 million Muslims [in Egypt] don’t understand, and the other 10 million [non-Muslims], they do?"

On the surface, the play "I Was Blind but Now I See" comes off as an amateurish student production with stilted dialogue from young actors wearing bad fake beards. But two years after its performance, it improbably became the focal point of Egypt’s worst sectarian flare-up in years.

In the process, it exposed a growing chasm between the country’s Muslim majority and Coptic minority, Orthodox Christians who follow their own pope and make up about 10% of Egypt’s population.

It’s a reality, observers say, that contradicts the rote statements of national unity regularly issued by religious and political leaders.

"Things are getting worse," said Mohammed Sherdi, a parliamentary candidate with the opposition secularist Wafd Party. "The same old government line is, ’All is well, don’t worry.’ But all is not well."

The play was performed once by a student group in 2003 at St. George’s Church in Alexandria’s Muharram Bey neighborhood, apparently without controversy. But recordings of the performance began circulating this fall and a national newspaper printed a description.

In scenes viewed by The Times, the most sensitive aspects seem to be the overall idea of an active Muslim campaign to convert Christians. Mina is recruited by Ahmed into a cell of cartoonish Muslim extremists. In an emotional scene, he leaves home amid the shrill pleas of his sister, who accuses him of "selling our savior for money."

Eventually he becomes disillusioned with the teachings of the cell’s rotund, bearded leader and attempts to return to Christianity. He’s shot while trying to leave and crawls to his family’s doorstep, where he is welcomed and forgiven.

But the content of the play seems secondary to the fast-spreading accusation that it is offensive to Islam.

Muharram Bey is a religiously mixed middle-class neighborhood, and St. George’s is bracketed by two large mosques, which last month became centers for Muslim protesters demanding an apology for the play’s presentation.

On Oct. 21, thousands of Muslim demonstrators attempted to storm St. George’s after Friday Islamic prayers. Club-wielding riot police beat back the mob; three protesters died of rubber-bullet injuries and tear gas inhalation. The following Friday, a clampdown by at least 2,000 Central Security conscripts prevented a repeat of the violence.

The clash prompted public soul-searching, with many wondering whether the centuries-old harmony between Egyptian Muslims and Christians was fraying.

"We cannot continue to bandage the wounds, exchanging soothing words at inter-sectarian banquets," wrote venerable columnist Salama Ahmed Salama in the nonsectarian state-owned Al Ahram weekly. "What we need to do is face up to the fact that religious fanaticism has been spreading in our midst for some time, infecting Muslims and Christians alike."

Outbursts of sectarian tension have become a common event in Egypt. Each side accuses the other of kidnapping and forced conversions. Mundane disagreements between Muslims and Christians in the countryside often turn violent; most recently in 1999, rural clashes left 22 people dead, mostly Christians.

It remains unclear just who began distributing DVD copies of the play. Its sudden reemergence has all sides whispering about the possibility of sinister forces at work.

"The Egyptian people aren’t like this. But someone is exploiting this for personal benefits," said Ali Abdel Fattah, a spokesman for the officially banned but active Muslim Brotherhood.

Several Alexandria politicians say the crisis is tied to the weeks-long parliamentary elections that began early this month. Many blame the Muslim Brotherhood, which is fielding dozens of nominally independent candidates and looks to make major gains in the voting.

Abdel Fattah responds that the current security alert hurts the Muslim Brotherhood, providing the government with cover to crack down on campaign activities. He implies that the government willingly allowed long-simmering tensions to boil over to bolster the credibility of a police state.

"We benefit from calm," said Abdel Fattah, an Alexandria native who says he first saw a copy of the play seven months ago and felt it was "done by someone ignorant."

Others point to Mohammed Badrashini, a Muslim parliament member from a nearby district seeking advantage over Maher Khilla, his Christian opponent. Khilla, the candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party, briefly announced he was withdrawing from the race, then returned.

Badrashini, in an interview with The Times, blamed overseas Coptic activist groups that have long claimed official persecution back home. The groups are a particular sore spot for the government, often organizing protests timed to embarrass President Hosni Mubarak on U.S. visits.

"They’re always causing problems," Badrashini said.

Even those who say the crisis was manufactured acknowledge that street-level mistrust has left fertile ground for such incidents. Some observers speak of rising Coptic paranoia fueled by the spread of the ultraconservative Wahhabi sect of Islam, which has been exported from Persian Gulf states.

The Cairo-based Coptic pope, Shenouda III, joined Muslim leaders in a statement of national unity. But in private, especially to non-Muslim foreigners, Coptic Egyptians vent their feelings of alienation. Their homeland, they say, has been filled by black-shrouded women and bearded men with "prayer raisins," the forehead mark that comes from hours of prayer.

"Every time I go to a government ministry, I’m surrounded by [fully veiled] women and men with huge raisins," said a Coptic man who requested anonymity.

The play’s true legacy could be a rare insight into something most Egyptians already knew existed: the inherent clannishness of a religious minority and a deepening siege mentality.

Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, one of a handful of Copts among the 444 elected members of parliament, is concerned by what he sees as growing self-isolation among Egyptian Christians. The sentiment clearly runs through the Alexandria play, in which the family priest advises Mina’s worried parents that their son’s friends "must be Christian, so they’ll go to church together."

Abdel Nour recalls recently speaking at a church group and urging its members to mix openly in society.

"I told them, ’Get out of church … get integrated,’ " Abdel Nour said. "A young man raised his hand and said, ’You’re telling us to go and mix, but if we do, our values will be reduced.’ "