The Youth Revolution in Egypt and the Church’s Response?

Where Did this Come From?
[1] Anyone familiar with the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports published between 2002 and 2010 watched the events unfolding at Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo on January 25, 2011, and wondered, “What took them so long?” The AHDRs were major research projects undertaken by Arab social scientists under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme. For the first time ever, Arab scholars publicly excoriated the 22-member Arab Nations for their social-political problems. While most of the world has experienced waves of democracy, they argued, the Arab world lagged behind the rest of the world in just about every category of human development. The region was resource rich, with petroleum and gas reserves, and yet its populations were economically, educationally, and politically impoverished.

[2] The reports claimed that there were three major issues prohibiting positive change in the Arab Middle East: the lack of good quality education that facilitates poverty, the disenfranchised status of women, and the arbitrary governance of autocratic regimes. The statistics were stark. The Arab Middle East had the highest percentages of illiteracy in the world; half of the female population was determined to be unlettered.1 One in five Arabs lived on less than $2.00 per day.2 Furthermore, one third of the nations were under state emergency laws that facilitated police violence under the guise of national security. Even before the War on Terror, several governments instilled martial law simply as “a pretext to suspend basic rights and exempt rulers from any constitutional limitations.”3 The 1981 “emergency laws” in Egypt have allowed security forces to arrest, detain and search citizens, prevent lawful association, and prohibit the development of a wide variety of political parties, including secular parties.4 Our images of oil rich sheikhs and Sex in the City 2 in Abu Dhabi have been sorely misrepresentative of the region as a whole.

[3] On December 16, 2010, 26-year-old Tunisian university graduate Mohammed Buazizi lit himself on fire in an act of defiance against an autocratic police that had confiscated his small vegetable kiosk. This event led to the “Jasmine Revolution,” the peaceful protests that succeeded in ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Buazizi’s act was emulated by other youth in Algeria and at least one man in Alexandria, Egypt. These events and their import were quickly disseminated throughout the electronic media of the Middle East and sparked a fire of youthful energy that quickly ignited in Egypt, a country were 23.5% of the population is between 18 and 29.5

[4] Thus, while the information revolution has democratized the world, allowing individuals from all walks of life the power to speak for themselves, a predominantly young Arab society has been looking beyond the borders of their homelands at the possibilities of the world, chaffing under state-sponsored censorship, stagnant economic realities, and as one friend told me, “no future for my children.” In an eerie pronouncement, the 2010 Egypt Human Development Report prophesied: “Eighty four percent of the youth sample expressed strong support for the importance of living under a democratic rule…. This may indicate a wish among young Egyptians for more democracy than presently available.”6

[5] It was this educated, tech-savy, but highly frustrated cadre of Egyptian youth, al-shabab, who Facebooked and Tweeted their way to Tahrir Square. What took so long for the revolution to take place had been fear – fear of the mukhabarat (the secret police), fear of the police station, fear of death. But that fear is now gone. As if some collective sigh has gone up, Arab citizens have stood up and, at least for the time being, are not afraid. First it was the Tunisians, then the Yemenis, and then the Egyptians. The rhetoric of freedom and human rights has been heard and taken to heart. The words “life, freedom, human rights,” were chanted throughout Tahrir square in the midst of unprecedented peaceful demonstrations.

[6] Rather than providing an opportunity for rejoicing, however, such events have caused anxiety in Amrika – fear of another Iran, fear of an Islamic revolution, fear of al-Qaeda. One thing is certain. The status quo that the United States helped to create and has promoted for over thirty years in the Middle East is now over. There is no going back.

Juggling Bowling Balls
[7] Larbi Sadiki, in his article “The ‘Bin Laden’ of Marginalization,” has argued that since 9/11, the perceptions of the Middle East has been driven by a myopic view of terrorism, and the War on Terror. Much like the Cold War fever where there was a communist plot behind every international event, Bin Laden has been looked for behind every destabilizing international affair. According to Sadiki, a more sinister problem facing world order is the marginalized of the Middle East, those whom he calls the “khubzites” (the bread people), meaning those unemployed and struggling for their daily bread. Sadiki’s article, written only days before the Tahrir demonstrations, once again points to the fact that the explosion of frustration by Egyptian youth should be of no surprise; and yet to many Americans, it has been.7

[8] American foreign policy in the Middle East in the middle of the twentieth century focused upon the dual interests of securing and protecting oil resources and the containment of Soviet influence. Throughout the fifties and sixties Israel and Iran were seen as important allies against any Soviet danger. It was this dual policy that drove the United States to overthrow the popularly elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossedeq and re-install the Shah in 1953 in Iran. Egypt, then ruled by the revolutionary Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, was to be courted as a possible ally. Oil has continued to be a major policy decider, but it was not until the nineties when the Soviet threat took a backstage.

[9] The June, 1967, Six-Day War, in which Israel defeated its neighboring Arab nations, was a major flash point that changed the Middle East. It not only redrew maps but it gave birth to Christian Evangelical support for the “miracle” of the Jew’s restoration to the Old City of Jerusalem (that developed into the political movement of Christian Zionism). It was also the genesis of a widespread Radical Islam that blamed secular Arab Nationalism as the cause of defeat. This event propelled the ideology of the Muslim Brother Sayid Qutb into the limelight.8 It was not, however, until after the 1979 Iranian Revolution that Islam began to replace Communism as the regional bugbear. Throughout the 1980s the United States struggled to come up with a comprehensive foreign policy. With one hand we decried Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its proxies in Lebanon and with the other we supported the mujahideen in Afghanistan (including Osama Bin Laden). The Iranian hostage crisis, however, is the scarring moment that continues to drive American fear that al-Qaeda or other Islamists, including al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (The Muslim Brotherhood), might create another Islamic State in Egypt.

[10] In our calmer moments we might recognize that Islam is really not the issue here, but rather our national interests. The United States has been quite cozy with the most conservative and repressive Sunni Islamic nation in the world, Saudi Arabia. We have very good relationships with numerous Islamic states – The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco, Pakistan, Malaysia, and other predominantly Muslim countries like Brunei and Indonesia. No, the fear is not Islam, but an Islamic regime that does not support our own national interests. The First Gulf War (1991) was initiated not because of some grand vision of protecting the liberty and freedom of the Sabah Monarchy of Kuwait, but to protect our vital economic interests in the oil fields. Fair enough. But if we had paid attention, we would have recognized that this war was a harbinger of things to come. The war pitted the Muslim “haves” against the Muslim “have-nots.”

[11] America’s foreign policy status quo since 1979 has been a trick of juggling bowling balls: protecting oil resources, unswerving support for the state of Israel, and containing Iran. After 9/11 an additional bowling ball was added: the War on Terror. Arab nations and its leaders, including Egypt, were utilized or invaded to support these foreign policy objectives. If this meant supporting police states or conservative misogynist sheikhdoms, so be it. Egypt became especially important in this status quo, as it was the largest Arab nation, the emotional center of the Arab world, and had a peace treaty with Israel.9 In addition, Egypt has received over 2 billion dollars a year as a reward for declaring peace with Israel. This foreign aid has been a “gift” that has supported the Mubarak regime and its ability to crack down on the Islamists, but has also suppressed political liberalization. While these bowling balls have been kept aloft for some time, the addition of the fifth bowling ball, the call for democracy in the world, has made such a circus act simply untenable.

[12] Throughout the 1990s, the United States trumpeted democracy and human rights around the world. Yet this rhetoric was tempered in the Middle East by the regimes that prohibited free and fair elections. Fred Halliday calls this “Hegemonic Abstentionism.”10 According to Halliday, while we might adhere to the principles of liberty, freedom, and democracy, we reserve the right to abstain from those ideals being imposed in certain places where it either does not suit our objectives, or where such ideals might be culturally inapplicable. While the call for democracy was publicly trumpeted, everyone in the Middle East knew that the United States was not serious about it. It was only kalam jarida, or “newspaper speech,” that is, state propaganda in a state-censored newspaper. In the new millennium, however, Arab youth have deeply yearned for these inalienable ideals and have taken matters into their own hands. The United States is now faced with difficult foreign policy decisions. The bowling balls have finally fallen, and it is no longer possible to put them back in the air. The status quo, which we have lived with for the more than thirty years, is over.

What Is the Role of the Coptic Church and the Ikhwan?
[13] Throughout the tenure of the Mubarak regime, the state’s resources, amply supplied by international tourism, receipts from the Suez Canal, oil, and U.S foreign aid, have been unable to keep up with a growing population and its infrastructural needs. The education system in Egypt is in shambles. Some neighborhoods, even within the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria, do not have paved roads or adequate sewage. The subsistence income for many Egyptians prohibits them from seeking medical advice, because it is cost prohibitive. And while the country has done a marvelous job protecting and promoting its antiquities, security police have bullied Egyptians into the corner by reminding them that foreigners have first dibs when it comes to celebrating Egyptian history. Many a time have I watched uncomfortably as police barred interaction between a group I was leading and local Egyptians, so that we would be “safe.” Leading study programs for me was always a matter of working within the confines of security, while trying to help foreigners see beyond the tourist path to the real Egypt.

[14] As the state has done a poor job in responding to the educational, social, and economic needs of its citizens, other players have stepped in to fill the gap. The most prominent social agencies have been churches and mosques.11 The Coptic Orthodox Church has offered medical, educational and financial support to its Coptic constituency. It has become so effective in caring for its own that some have claimed that it has become a “state within a state.” Local mosques, especially through women’s associations, have undertaken micro loans to their members to help them support their economic livelihood.12 The Coptic Evangelical Organization of Social Services, an independent branch of the Egyptian Presbyterian Church, has also been extremely successful in its development projects, especially by helping to bring Christian and Muslim communities together for civic economic development and social dialogue.13

[15] No non-state actor has been more pervasive, however, than the Ikhwan. Originally outlawed as a political party in 1954 for its role in attempting to overthrow the Nasser regime, the Ikhwan has become a prominent actor in Egyptian civil society. While the Egyptian government was floundering to respond to the effects of a devastating earthquake in 1992, the Ikhwan was on the streets providing medicine, blankets, shelter and food for the victims. This event cemented in the hearts of many Muslim Egyptians the idea that the Brotherhood was an effective and important part of the social care network. However, in the minds of most Americans, the Brotherhood has become synonymous with al-Qaeda, as a jihadist terrorist organization. While the Brotherhood’s official platform makes clear that it seeks to reform society based on Islamic principles, it has long since renounced violence and like the Church has worked within the confines of the legal system. The Brotherhood is a large organization with multiple players and a variety of viewpoints.14 Younger members have demonstrated throughout the past two decades that they can work with different political parties and associations, including the Gahd and al-Tagammu.15

[16] While Egyptian Christians certainly are right to be concerned over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in any new government, most understand that they do have a role to play. Even Pope Shenouda, the Patriarch of Alexandria and Father of the Coptic Orthodox community, called for all opposition groups, including the Ikhwan, to be at any table for future negotiations.16 To exclude them would be at best disingenuous to the claim of democracy where they represent a significant perspective, and at worst provoke further national disturbance. The key is to capitalize on the positive good will currently available.

[17] Egyptian Christians and Muslims have always had their difficulties; from the ninth-century peasant rebellion in the delta, to the regular village clashes in Upper Egypt. These issues cannot be minimized.17 Nevertheless, a devout Egyptian nationalism has usually overcome such factious tensions and united them as children of the Nile. In November, 2010, al-Qaeda released a statement calling on Egyptian Muslims to attack the Copts. The subsequent New Year’s Day bombing of an Alexandria church brought Muslims to the streets in support of the Copts, surrounding the churches on Eastern Christmas eve to protect the worshipers. Egyptian Muslim leaders have denounced this statement by al-Qaeda. After the 1997 Luxor massacre undertaken by the Egyptian al-Gamiyyat al-Islamiyya, pressure from Egyptian Muslims and Christians brought the Islamist organization to its knees, forcing it to recant of its violent nature. And, of course, the most famous episode of inter-faith solidarity is the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against the British, where Christians and Muslims marched arm in arm. Thus, images of the Cross and Qur’an, of sheikh and priest, in Tahrir square are not surprising. The question is can the good will and trust be sustained throughout the pressures of creating a new power-sharing democracy?

Romans 13 or Micah 6?
[18] Throughout the Egyptian Youth Revolution, the religious leaders have all been quite conservative in their responses and supportive of the government. The Sheikh of al-Azhar, the primary Sunni Muslim authority for the Sunni Islamic world, encouraged Egyptians to go home and to listen to their elders. Pope Shenouda told the youth to cease and desist, calling the protests “against God’s will.”18 Holding to Romans 13, he told them that they should go home, pray and fast for the government to overcome the crisis.19 The leadership of the Association of Protestant Churches, heirs of nineteenth-century western Protestant missionaries, issued a declaration supporting both justice and civil order and calling for a prayer chain. These official responses have revealed huge cracks between the septuagenarian and octogenarian religious leaders of Mubarak’s generation, and the single largest demographic of Egypt, al-shabab. Many youth, Christian and Muslim alike, have been sorely disappointed in their religious leaders’ ability to speak directly to the social-political issues at hand, prompting some younger sheikhs and priests to step into the square.20

[19] Shenouda has not always been so soft-spoken about public issues. In 1981, he was exiled to the monastery of St. Bishoi because of his public criticism of President Sadat. However, Shenouda has always worked within the legal framework and relationships that he and his bishops have built with government ministers as compatriots of the same generation. In many ways, the January 25 Youth Revolution is not just an overthrow of the Mubarak regime, but an undermining of the status quo of social, religious and political authority.

[20] While all aspects of the Coptic Church (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) have been progressive in their roles to address social inequalities and inadequacies, a theology of national public engagement has never developed.21 This has been because the social and religious culture has always left public discourse up to the patriarch of the family, in this case the bishop or pope. Throughout the tenure of Shenouda, he and his bishops have become the mouthpiece for the Coptic community. There has never been a specific prophetic calling toward Micah 6 as a framework for Coptic engagement. One wonders how doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God might frame the church’s response to a new generation?22 In a culture that has prided itself upon conservative honor of the patriarchs, and with an aging leadership, the Egyptian church is on the verge of interesting times. The Coptic priests, students, and families demonstrating at Tahrir obviously will need guidance for social engagement. In the midst of this peaceful revolution, the Egyptians have demonstrated that both Muslims and Christians can work together peacefully for the greater good.

Looking Back to Look Forward
[21] The U.S. administration is faced with a major problem in the Middle East. The status quo is over and the bowling balls are now swelling many feet. There is no question that Egypt’s new government and society will revisit the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Still, it is not necessarily the case that we should fear the rise of the Islamist bugbear. I remember in 1985 watching Jerry Fallwell try to convince American Christians that the problem with South Africa was not apartheid but the infiltration of communists who were subverting South African stability. Likewise, some would argue today that hidden behind the protests of Tahrir is an Iran waiting to be exploited by al-Qaeda. It is easy to cave in to fear that oversimplifies the complexities of Islamic viewpoints. We should remember that Iran despises al-Qaeda, which despises the Muslim Brotherhood, which despises the Ayatollahs. There is no grand Islamic imperial conspiracy here.

[22] If we have a need to continually look back to Iran as a warning for what just might take place in Egypt, it might be better for us to hearken back to 1953 rather than 1979. Instead of fearing another Iranian Revolution, we might want to remember just what it was that gave rise to that revolution. Stoked by anger in response to our creation of a regime that was known for its abusive power, Iranians remembered just who it was that put the Shah in power in the first place. It would seem that one of the lessons of 1979 is not to repeat 1953. Have we learned our lesson?

[23] Will we attempt to recreate the status quo ante and try to pick up the bowling balls, or will we finally wade into the messy waters of freedom and democracy that we have argued are inalienable rights? In the midst of these difficult foreign policy decisions, one thing is clear. Right now, we need to celebrate with the Egyptians who have done something we Americans have never been able to do: peacefully overthrow a regime without firing a gun.


1. United Nations Development Programme, 2002 Arab Human Development Report (New York: UNDP, 2002) 51 and 3, respectively. For all of the reports see

2. 2002 AHDR, 5.

3. 2009 AHDR, 6.

4. Nazih N. Ayubi, Overstating the Arab State (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008) 266–267.

5. 2010 EHDR, 2.

6. 2010 EHDR, 67.

7. Larbi Sadiki, “The ‘bin Laden’ of marginalization: The real terror eating away at the Arab world is socio-economic marginalization,” 14 January 2011. ( [accessed January 17, 2011]. See also Gilles Kepel, The Trail of Political Islam (London: Belknap Press, 2002) 60–69, in reference to the young, urban poor of Algeria, known as “hitistes,” those who hold up the wall by leaning against it all day.

8. For a helpful English language review of Qutb’s thought and impact see Adnan Musallam, From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the foundations of radical Islamism (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005).

9. Jordan is the only other Arab country with a formal peace treaty, which was signed in 1994.

10. Fred Halliday, Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000) 16.

11. Muslim and Coptic services make up 34% and 9% of all Voluntary Service Organizations, respectively. Peter E. Makari, Conflict & Cooperation: Christian-Muslim Relations in Contemporary Egypt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2007) 144.

12. Ragui Assaad and Malak Rouchdy, Poverty and Poverty Alleviation Strategies in Egypt (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999) 78–79. On Egyptian Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) see Diane Singerman, Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995) 246–255.

13. See also Makari, 151–159.

14. A very recent publication on the social issues and debates around the role of Copts in Egyptian Islamist thought can be found in Rachel M. Scott. The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

15. Mohammed Zaid, The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Succession Crisis (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010) 126–127.

16. “State TV: Pope Shenouda calls for an end to the protests,” al-masry al-youm (February 5, 2011) ( [accessed February 5, 2011]. The state broadcast of his statements can be found at [accessed February 5, 2011].

17. For a good review of the recent tensions and issues see Kees Hulsman, “Egypt’s Christians After Mubarak,” Christianity Today (February 11, 2011) ( [accessed February 11, 2011].

18. The term “pope” for the Patriarch of Alexandria is older than the reference to the Bishop of Rome. In the Middle East, when the adjective Pope is used, it is clear that this is a reference to the Coptic Patriarch. The quote is from Hulsman.

19. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:1–2).

20. Yusuf Ramiz, “Broad Christian Resentment Over Coptic Churches Warning Against Participation in Protests,” al-sharuq al-jadid (January 27, 2011) as cited by Arab-West Report ( [accessed February 12, 2011].

21. A very helpful analysis of the leadership Coptic Orthodox Church in the contemporary period is Sana Hasan, Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). Unfortunately, the title does not reflect the actual content of the book.

22. “‘With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6–8).

David Grafton

David D. Grafton is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Duncan Black Macdonald Center, Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, Hartford, Connecticut.