In News & Reports

By the end of January, Ayman joined the demonstrations with work colleagues. “I would fight with him,” Enas said. “I was scared. I didn’t want him to go, but he insisted.”
Ayman was visibly proud when he talked about his defense of the revolution against Hosni Mubarak’s henchmen. “I was helping to take care of the prison in the square, to hold all the thugs,” he said. And then, the unthinkable happened: during sunset prayers on Feb. 11, a defamed and disgraced Mubarak stepped down, and like many Egyptians, Ayman and his family celebrated. The streets of Cairo were buzzing with songs and music. “It was a happy day,” Enas said.
Over the next several weeks, Ayman and Enas took to voraciously consuming newspapers — neither had followed the news much previously — rehashing the paper’s most alarming details to each other: the police were in disarray, jailbreaks were abundant, hospitals were being robbed. Above all, they lingered over stories of churches and their parishioners under threat from radical Salafists who, they heard, described churches as mafias harboring weapons and sinners. Other Salafists, so the rumors went, were calling for acid to be thrown in the faces of unveiled women. (Salafist leaders later denied this.) But many Copts worried that the democratic ideals that triumphed in Tahrir Square would be lost and Egypt might turn into an Islamic republic like Iran. “We never even heard the word ‘Salafist’ before the revolution,” Ayman told me.
By March, Ayman’s fears had grown, and he began to reach out to Egyptian friends who live in America, asking them about their lives there. Never before had Ayman thought seriously about “leaving our country,” he said, but now he was asking friends how they had managed to emigrate and how he might go about moving his family out of Egypt if he needed to.
Ayman and his family, who are among Egypt’s 10 million Christians, most of whom are Copts, live in Shobra, a traffic-clogged, densely packed district squeezed between the edge of downtown Cairo and the Nile. Though many upwardly mobile Copts left Shobra over the years as the area grew more working class, it remains one of the most concentrated Christian communities in Egypt. Ayman and Enas grew up here. Their church is 400 yards from their house, and the girls’ school is not much farther.
Copts — which comes from the Greek word for Egyptians — are one of the oldest and largest Christian communities in the Middle East. Christianity was the country’s majority religion until after the advent of Islam in the 7th century, when millions converted. Throughout their history, the Copts have been subject to mixed fortunes, alternately marginalized, discriminated against or simply left alone. During Mubarak’s three-decade tenure, a relative calm prevailed, though routine prejudice against Copts persisted in universities, the police force and government offices. Tales of the kidnapping and forced conversion to Islam of Coptic girls have become part of community folklore. Though these accounts are often difficult to confirm, they reflect a palpable paranoia. There have been violent incidents of sectarian strife too. On New Year’s Eve, a church bombing during midnight Mass in Alexandria left 21 dead.
Anxiety among Egypt’s Copts has only grown since the revolution. Enas more than once told the story of a group of villagers who attacked a Coptic landlord in Upper Egypt in March who they suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with one of his female Muslim tenants. “They cut his ear off!” she would say, her hand moving swiftly across her neck and ear. Meanwhile, abuses began to hit closer to home. Enas’s mother, Samira, who is 77, and her aunt, who is 75, shared an apartment and were routinely harassed by a neighbor, an older Muslim man. One day when the grandchildren were visiting, the neighbor became particularly vicious. “He let his dog loose on the children and called us heathens,” Samira told me, her eyes tearing up. “He had always been abusive, but after the revolution, he had more freedom to exercise it.” Shortly after the incident, Samira and her sister moved in with the family; the two elderly women now share a tiny bedroom with Enas’s three daughters.
During the spring, the family stocked up on food and other supplies, and whenever Ayman traveled abroad, the family would stay indoors; the girls didn’t go to school. It didn’t help that their local police station, looted during the revolution, had not reopened (although “the police do nothing for the Copts” is a common refrain). “We don’t feel safe without Ayman,” Enas said on one of my first visits to the family. She walked to the front door and pulled out a six-foot wooden staff from behind some cabinets. “For protection,” she said, laughing nervously. Ayman, who was sitting nearby, went to the other room and came back with a handgun he recently purchased. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It shoots blanks.”
The middle class and the educated intelligentsia have been leaving Egypt and the Middle East for decades — for America, Britain, Australia — seeking the stuff of a better life: higher-quality education, rosier business prospects, cleaner air and nicer parks. The U.S. green-card lottery is a frequent topic of discussion and intrigue, and in some neighborhoods, a person who manages to leave is referred to as a khawagga, or foreigner. And yet the revolution of Jan. 25, which was supposed to make Egypt a more hospitable place to live, may motivate more families to leave than ever before. If post-Mubarak Egypt inspires fear in people like Ayman, it may be pushing away the very people it needs most to build its new democracy.
By April, with frenzied discussion about rising Salafism in the newspapers, on talk shows and in living rooms across the country, Ayman and Enas began openly talking about moving to the United States. “I know many people there,” Ayman told me, pulling out a stack of business cards. They bore names of cities and neighborhoods with Egyptian populations: Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, Arlington, Va., Jersey City. One of his friends, he said, runs a supermarket, and another buys and sells cars. Ayman was planning to claim asylum on the grounds that Egypt had become unsafe for Copts. Though he had heard that lawyers could sell him a story — for $4,000 — he was not interested. “I won’t lie,” he said. “And I haven’t made up my mind 100 percent. After 43 years, leaving everything I have built, it’s not easy. I would be starting from the beginning.”
Leaving Egypt would mean relinquishing multiple comforts: a close-knit family; long, lazy evenings at the coffee shop, smoking a water pipe; a solid career; not to mention the difficulty of negotiating life in another language. What if Ayman had trouble finding work? What if work was all he did? It would be hard on Enas too. Though naturally sociable, she didn’t have close friends in America as Ayman did — nor did she speak English. She spent a good deal of time worrying about leaving behind her elderly mother, whom she called her “best friend.” The idea of America fluctuated for them between seeming like a land of bounty and a harsh, foreign place.
“It could be heaven or it could be hell,” Enas told me one day as we talked through the questions running through her head. “We will be walking into the unknown.”
Some weeks later, I met Ayman and Enas in one of their favorite coffee shops, the popular Goal Café in the Nile-side neighborhood of Zamalek. Zamalek’s regal villas and elitist cachet was a far cry from Shobra’s meandering, litter-strewn streets, and Ayman’s income allowed him to treat himself and Enas to frequent trips there. Enas dressed up for the occasion in a shimmering top and superfluous rouge — she looked as if she were having her yearbook photo taken — and Ayman donned the standard uniform of the upwardly mobile Egyptian man: starched polo shirt, jeans and abundant hair gel.
As we sat down for a water pipe, the two boasted about Joly, their oldest daughter, who gets top marks in her class. “They will never let a Coptic girl be known as the top student,” Ayman said. “She can only be No. 2.”
Speaking loudly over the blare of dueling TVs, Enas jumped in — she seemed unusually in her element in the trendy coffee shop. “There are obstacles all around,” she said. “We have to get permission to build churches!”
Our conversation shifted, as it often did, to what they envisioned their life in the United States would be like if they moved. Enas remarked that she would be able to wear whatever she wanted. As fringe Salafists continued to rail against “immodest” women — links to threatening YouTube sermons were widely disseminated among Copts — Enas stopped wearing short sleeves and had taken to tucking her cross inside her blouse. She had also stopped going to her hairdresser and even to the City­stars Mall, Cairo’s most popular shopping destination. After the revolution, stickers were plastered on the mall’s doors warning against gratuitous skin exposure.
And yet, however free America might be, moving could mean giving up a certain kind of life they had grown attached to, especially on their forays into Zamalek. The neighborhood was a fitting emblem of their aspirations. Enas turned to me and said, “He may have to work at a gas station or a supermarket.”
“It may be hard,” Ayman agreed, adding, “but maybe everything is cheaper. In America, there is buy one, get one free.”
One day in the spring, I visited Ayman and his family at home. His niece Hala, a recent graduate of the faculty of languages at Ain Shams University, was there, too. Hala speaks English and German. She told me that she would like to work in human resources — though her reverential tone indicated that she might not really know what that entails. There were only 10 Christians in her department, and even before the revolution, she said, Muslim students aggressively proselytized around her and the other Christian students. She said she loves theater — among her favorite plays are “Hamlet,” “The Merchant of Venice” and “Romeo and Juliet” — and the last production she acted in (at her church) was about the experiences of four Egyptians who want to emigrate. She played two of the characters.
“The message of the play is that it is better to stay in your country,” she said. I asked if she agreed. “Of course,” she said. I asked if Copts were better off before the revolution. Hala nodded, saying, “There was more safety.” But she quickly added, as if her university education required her to, “Still, we chose the revolution.”
Enas’s mother, a petite woman who smiles a lot but is mostly silent, pointed to the girls and announced, “They want to leave.” I asked Joly, who is 12, why she wanted to go to America. “Better schools,” she said dutifully. “And more Nickelodeon.” When I asked if she would miss her friends, she said, “We can talk on the phone.” Jomana piped up with a better solution: “Facebook.”
In early May, a rumor swept through the neighborhood of Imbaba, a poor area just across the Nile from Shobra, that members of the St. Mina church had kidnapped a female convert to Islam. Hundreds of Muslim residents surrounded the church, some chanting “Allah akbar,” “God is great,” and others wielding guns, clubs and swords. By night’s end, St. Mina and another nearby church had burned to the ground, and at least 12 were dead. Ayman’s worst fears were materializing. The day after the episode, he posted a video on his Facebook page of a long-bearded man calling for Muslims to attack churches.
In the weeks that followed, Coptic and Muslim protesters, Ayman among them, set up camp at the state television building, demanding that those who attacked the churches be punished. A few nights into the sit-in, I found Ayman huddled in the back of a coffee shop, taking a break from the restive crowd. It was close to midnight, and the riot police had formed an awkward ring around the area. Less than an hour before, a group of at least 200 people raided the mostly peaceful gathering and set seven cars and a tree on fire. Ayman, whose eyes were glazed over from fear or exhaustion or both, took the arm of the man next to him and announced: “He is a Muslim. I am a Christian. We never had to think about religion before!” Outside, someone fired a gun. “Sometimes I feel we don’t have a place here anymore,” he said.
The following day, something shifted. Ayman told me he would continue to join the protests after work, but he also said that he had saved $60,000 to put toward opening a gas station in America, “I think in Washington, D.C.” To make extra money for the move, he and a friend were thinking about exporting frozen strawberries to Europe. He said that once he was in the United States, he hoped to import cotton goods from Egypt. “I could find a relationship to a shop called K-Mart,” he said. Two days later, I received a text message from him that read: “I’m planning to move to U.S. first of Aug.” When I called him, he said he would be preparing an asylum case. “I am ready,” he said.
There have been times in the past months when tensions threatened to mar the fabric of historically cosmopolitan Egypt, as well as the glory of the telegenic revolution that had come to pass. Even Hosni Mubarak, with his paternalistic talk of having kept Egypt peaceful, was redeemed in some people’s eyes. (“For 30 years, he was our father,” one Coptic protester told me in April. “He kept us safe.”) In the end, if the Egyptian revolution fails, it will be in part because instability has inspired so many to leave. Local newsmagazines are already highlighting the number of Egyptians preparing emigration papers; the July 6 issue of Al Mussawar magazine announced that in the first five months after Jan. 25, 608 Egyptians successfully obtained other passports; double the number who obtained them during the same period in the previous year. That figure doesn’t include hundreds of others who are thought to have left some other way. Stories of people who relocated since the revolution — some of them wealthy Egyptians who bought their way out, others who used tourist visas to travel to Australia, Europe and America where they may file for asylum — are growing more common.
The State Department’s annual human rights report chronicles the plight of Copts in Egypt at length. In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended to Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, that Egypt — for the first time — be labeled a “country of particular concern.” In mid-August, Congress assigned a special envoy for minority affairs in the Middle East and Asia who would have Copts as part of his portfolio.
By the end of July, Ayman and Enas were still in Egypt. A new Egyptian law limited the withdrawal or transfer of large sums out of the country. Ayman’s bank would only allow him to transfer up to $10,000 a month, so he was scrambling to figure out how he could borrow money from friends abroad. He still planned to pursue an asylum case and told me that while Enas’s elderly mother and aunt would stay behind, his niece, Hala would join them. Then came July 29, when Ayman, along with thousands of others, participated in the Friday of Unity, a demonstration intended to gather secularists and Islamists alike in a peaceful, nonreligious show of support for a united Egypt. Instead, Tahrir Square was overrun with tens of thousands of Islamists — members of the Muslim Brotherhood along with more conservative Salafists. The revolutionary slogan “Hold your head up high, you’re Egyptian” was replaced by “Hold your head up high, you’re a Muslim.” Many called for Shariah, or Islamic law, some flew the Saudi flag and others refashioned the Egyptian flag — removing the eagle and replacing it with Islamic inscriptions. Ayman, who went down to the square early in the day with friends, found himself — like many secular and liberal activists — unwelcome. He left after an hour.
A week later, we spoke by phone. “It was like theater,” he said about the dramatic Islamist show of force. “I can’t stay here one more day, even if I love my country.” In the meantime, he told me, he had gotten a little further in his planning. He was figuring out how much money it might take to open a profitable gas station in the United States — “I think something like $350,000” — and was wondering aloud whether he could take out loans once he got to America and secured the necessary papers. “Maybe if we get U.S. citizenship, I can leave the kids and Enas there and come back to work for my country,” he said. “But right now, it’s time for me to go.”
Negar Azimi is senior editor of Bidoun, an arts and literary magazine about the Middle East and its diaspora, published in New York City. The New York Times Magazine (abridged)

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment