The world's eyes are on Egypt. Mine are, too—even before the regime change from Hosni Mubarak, there was discrimination and sometimes violence against the minority Coptic Christian population.
In July, however, I gained a new incentive for keeping a close eye on unfolding events: my niece moved to Cairo. She moved not for journalism, nor for Mennonite conflict resolution. She relocated for love. Her fiancé is an Egyptian Eastern Catholic, a minority among minorities. Through her, I'm getting stark reminders that amidst all of the chaos, most Egyptians are just trying to live their workaday lives.
News reports try to simplify everything down to sound bites:
- The demonstrations in Tahrir Square were successful in ousting Mubarak and moving to democratic elections.
- The Muslim Brotherhood won that election and Mohamed Morsi took office as president.
- The terms of the election required that a new constitution be negotiated and, once ratified, there be new elections.
- Instead, Morsi developed a pro-Islamic constitution that gave him more power and refused to go to subsequent elections.
- Anti-Morsi demonstrations led to the military ousting Morsi.
- The Muslim Brotherhood responded with demonstrations.
- The military crushed the demonstrations with violence leading to 1000 dead.
- The Muslim Brotherhood retaliated against Coptic churches and by marching through the streets of Cairo.
The Western media has also focused on responses to unfolding events, particularly from President Obama.
- As the U.S. gives billions in aid to Egypt and supports its military, it has tried to quell the violence.
- Given that the military's use of tanks and weapons has resulted in civilian deaths, the West condemned this approach.
- Both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have seemed more inclined to escalate the conflict rather than attempt negotiation.
- Saudi Arabia has recently weighed in arguing that this is an Arab issue and the U.S. should stay out.
While international discourse tends to focus on the extreme players in this combat, there is a wide swath of moderates in Egypt, who want a modern state with tolerance for minorities. They are the ones who started the Tahrir Square protests. They want democracy and freedom. But after years of Mubarak military dictatorship, there were no organized political parties. This left an opening for the only group that was organized, the Muslim Brotherhood. And there is a certain sector of the population that supports Egypt being an Islamic state.
The lives of millions of these moderates are at risk. Scores of churches have been destroyed, minorities are being oppressed, and with modern weaponry and instant internet communication the stakes are only rising. Syria's simultaneous turbulence only adds further fuel.
But again, as the international community wrestles with these global-scale issues, Egyptians themselves are the key to their own future. Behind what's splashed in the world's media, millions of people in Cairo and throughout Egypt are trying to go to work, raise their families, and buy food.
Neighbourhoods have banded together to barricade their streets, to prevent Muslim Brotherhood supporters from marching through. Some have thrown rocks and bottles at marching protesters. And moderate Muslims joined hands to support Christians and protect their churches.
It is a nation with a high level of education and resources to find a way forward. The protests and violence are indicative of competing models of institutional reform. But the institutions created must meet the unique needs of Egypt and have the buy-in of Egyptians.
Democratic reform cannot be imposed on my niece's fiancé, nor can institutions that have worked in England or the U.S. be grafted into his context. But as with South Africa, Egypt's democratic movement can yet benefit from the support of nations with successful democracies.