CAIRO (BP) — The sight inspired the world: Millions of Egyptians standing proudly in line at countless polling stations, determined to vote for their new president.
The two-day vote in May — to be followed by a runoff between the top contenders in late June — was the first time in their very long history that Egyptians have had the opportunity to choose a leader in free elections. The word “historic” has been devalued by overuse, but this event was historic. And it brought back, for a moment, the sense of hope and euphoria people felt in Egypt and beyond as the “Arab Spring” protest movement swept across the region in 2011.
In the Arab world, however, there’s the seen and the unseen — the roiling surface and what flows beneath.
Since early 2011, protests and full-scale revolts have brought down governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and shaken others in Yemen, Bahrain and beyond. Syria slides toward all-out civil war. But has real freedom arrived anywhere — even in the Arab societies that have experienced relatively peaceful transitions toward some form of democracy?
The two candidates who made it to the Egyptian election runoff were Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under former President Hosni Mubarak. That’s right, Mubarak, the personification of oppressive control whom the “Arab Spring” protesters risked so much to overthrow. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison June 2 for his role in approving violent measures to stop the demonstrations. More than 800 protesters died during the street battles in Cairo and other cities.
What happened to change and freedom? One candidate represents hard-line Islamists, who already dominate Egypt’s parliament. The other comes from the old order detested by so many Egyptians. Both promise to advance the aims of the revolution and respect the rights of religious minorities — particularly the nation’s original Christians, the Orthodox Copts, who comprise at least 10 percent of Egypt’s more than 82 million people. Whoever wins, however, the young idealists who sparked Egypt’s revolution would seem to be the losers.
“We expected something to be different,” says a 23-year-old Christian who participated in the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year that helped topple Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler for three decades. “But the army is still in control. It’s not fair. I love the revolution and I believe in the revolution, but the people who should protect it stole it.”
He sees three groups — the Muslim Brotherhood, the even more extreme Salafist Muslims and the holdovers from the old Mubarak regime — negotiating control, while the zealous but disorganized young revolutionaries look on from the sidelines.
A Muslim taxi driver who misses the fares he used to get from foreign tourists wishes Mubarak were still in charge. “There’s a lot of fear” about what the Islamists will do next, he says, taking a deep drag on his cigarette as he steers through Cairo’s chaotic traffic. “If I don’t want to pray [in the mosque], will they make me pray?”
A young Coptic Christian who practices law in Cairo takes a more analytical view: “I’m angry, but not because the revolution failed. What makes me unhappy is that people put too many dreams on this revolution.” Unrealistic dreams. Dreams that cannot be fulfilled without plenty of patience and struggle in an overwhelmingly poor nation where the first order of business is survival.
You can find a similar sense of disillusionment in much smaller Tunisia, which sits on the Mediterranean coast on the other side of Egypt’s western neighbor, Libya. This land of 11 million people birthed the first “Arab Spring” movement after a fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest official corruption.
The resulting demonstrations brought down the long dictatorship of Tunisian President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali and spread quickly to other Arab lands. But moderate Islamist parties won subsequent elections in Tunisia and now contend with secularists and Muslim hardliners over the shape of the new constitution.
What’s more, the new economic opportunities Tunisians expected “didn’t happen,” says one observer. The Islamists “have the perfect image of how things should be, but when it comes to the day-to-day work of handling taxes and fixing roads, they couldn’t care less.” Prices have gone up and job opportunities have gone down. Thousands of Tunisians have left the country looking for work. Disgruntled demonstrators talk about the need for a “second revolution.”
“I have a master’s degree in engineering, and I’m pumping gas,” one despairing service station attendant told a foreigner recently. “I want out. Can you help me?”
Yet these, too, are passing waves on the surface of the vast Arab ocean. Deeper, stronger currents of change are flowing.
“The amazing thing was to see Tunisians lose their fear,” says a Christian leader in Tunis, the capital city, where much of the 2011 “Jasmine Revolution” unfolded. “The groups marched past the end of our church on their way to demonstrate. There were lawyers, there were women, there were children. There were 100,000 on the Avenue Bourguiba, and whether they were shot at or tear-gassed, they came. Suddenly, overnight, you lost that fear and were able to say anything. I’m so proud of Tunisians. They did this without violence, without bombs.”
The new freedom to speak also applies to followers of Christ.
“Before, you were very careful what you said and to whom,” the leader recounts. “If you made a joke and the wrong person heard it, you could be in trouble. Nearly all of the Tunisian believers who are part of this fellowship had run-ins of some sort with the state apparatus. Now, believers are not being harassed by the state. This is unbelievable. It’s totally new that they’re not watching over their shoulder because the secret police are on to them or calling them in or beating them or whatever.”
Something else is new: People walk into this Christian leader’s church courtyard off the street and say things like, “Excuse me, I’m a Muslim. I really want to know what the Christian faith is about. I’ve never been in a church before. Can I look at your church?” Some of them have had dreams about Jesus, perhaps many years before. Many are young.
“They’re looking for spiritual reality,” he says.
Another Christian worker in Tunisia sees the new fearlessness among both seekers and believers. He senses an undercurrent among Muslims looking for God. He witnesses scenes he never imagined would happen in Tunisia: Believers openly reading their Bibles in public, talking about Jesus, passing around evangelistic DVDs.
“When Christ does a work in them, they literally don’t care” about the potential consequences of their boldness, he marvels. “They just go out and talk about Jesus to whoever they want. … They’re almost like, ‘Bring it on, we’re ready for it, because we know what we’ve found is the truth and [Tunisians] need the truth.'”
Did the revolution make all this possible?
“I don’t know how you could see it any other way,” the worker says. “God is in control of all of this. I’m not saying it’s all roses, but this is the climate we are in. A lot of the believers are beginning to realize now is the time. I had a believer tell me we have about a two-year window, and we’ve got to get as much done as we possibly can. He thinks [persecution] is going to come back and probably be worse than it was. That’s one guy’s opinion, but his idea is: Let’s take however much time God gives us, get out there and get it done. I think it is something that God is orchestrating for His own glory.”
The way to make the time count, he stresses, is to encourage believers, train them, give them the simple, reproducible tools they need — and get out of the way. That’s understandably hard for churches in the Arab world, which have long struggled with persecution and fear. Their coping mechanisms often include careful self-regulation of ministry activities.
What’s needed now, the worker says, is “more of a wildfire versus a controlled burn. I’m looking for no one to control this except the Spirit of God, because that’s the only hope we have. If you do a controlled burn, then the government also can control. The religious folks can come in and control. Where it’s out of control and God’s in control, nobody can stop that. … We’ve got to let it go. We’ve got to let God do what He’s going to do.”
Back in Egypt, by far the largest and most pivotal nation in the region, the stakes are even higher.
Christians, particularly Copts, have long suffered attacks by militant Islamists. In the chaotic and crime-ridden months after Mubarak fell in February 2011, fear pervaded churches. Some closed their doors for a time in the face of threats. People feared to go into the streets or to their jobs, much less attend worship. Many Christians, opting not to wait for what might happen if Islamists consolidate government control, left Egypt altogether.
“The sad thing is that those who can leave Egypt are those who have qualifications, those who have money, those who can get visas,” says an Egyptian Baptist leader. “This is a kind of evacuation from the church of the leadership positions.”
It’s sad, he added, because the believers left behind need encouragement to face the days ahead. It’s also sad because of the new opportunities that have arisen to stand for the Gospel in Egypt.
“Life has been uncertain,” says the leader, who admits he was caught off-guard by Mubarak’s downfall. “They say when nothing is certain everything is possible. That summarizes our feeling throughout the whole year, because we didn’t know what was going on. [But] as a church, we think this is the golden time for us. In this status of uncertainty, people lose faith in everything. That’s our time to present them real love and acceptance and tell them that the Bible teaches about a way to be certain about the future. That’s something we can do.”
It’s something evangelical churches are doing, such as a small Baptist congregation wedged into a poor, conservative Muslim district of Cairo packed with 1.5 million people. After weathering the storm of the first difficult months after the revolution, church members have begun to reach out to spiritual seekers and to serve their neighbors in practical ways, such as free medical clinics. They’re making new friends in the community.
“The members here spent 12 years afraid that anyone would know this is a church,” the pastor says. “Today, the Muslims are the ones who are happy that there is a church here. That is a transformation we didn’t expect. … Something really big is happening.”
A pastor in a different part of Cairo is leading similar ministries to aid needy people in his church’s community — and getting similarly positive responses.
“If the church closes, which is a possibility, we will meet in homes,” he vows. “A lot of Muslims are coming to Christ right now, so all the churches will have to decide [what to do if] that time comes. I’m not leaving, and I’m not afraid.”
IN THE CONVERSATION
That is the kind of commitment needed for the days ahead in the greater Arab world, where conditions for believers might get more difficult before they get better. The “evacuation” of traditional Arab Christian communities targeted by militant Islam is an ongoing reality, and continues a trend under way for many years. Islamic sharia law might be imposed in more places. But does that mean Christianity itself will disappear from the region? No.
“What is emerging is something quite different,” observes a Christian mission leader in the region. “It is not cultural Christianity. Those who emerge as followers of Christ in this part of the world [will be] a vibrant group of people the Spirit is drawing to Himself. It’s His mission. He’s still directing it.”
The primary object of His mission: millions of young Arabs searching for something more. Freedom, yes. Prosperity and decent jobs, yes. And something else they can’t quite define — but which they are determined to find. Many of them now feel free at last to seek and ask questions, and they will no longer accept being intimidated into silence.
The population of the Middle East has doubled in the last generation. In Egypt alone, a million more people are born every nine months, according to one estimate. Sixty percent of all Egyptians are under age 25. The total population of the Middle East and North Africa combined surpassed 430 million in 2007; it is expected to top 700 million by 2050. One in every three people in the region is between the ages of 10 and 24.
And young Arabs are connected. They have smart phones and iPads. They use social media. They absorb ideas from all directions. Whether governments fundamentally change or not, information has been democratized.
“We’re sitting on a tectonic plate that is shifting,” the mission leader says. “If expectations continue not to be met, we’ll see another [political] earthquake. But this is a really good time for anybody who wants to discuss ideas. The marketplace of ideas has changed radically.
“For the Gospel, we need to be in the conversation.”
Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board’s global correspondent.