Many noteworthy events have occurred in Egypt society since the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century – many of which we can now analyse and ponder as we determine where we stand as a society and what progress we've made. Most remarkable of these events are the ones which surround the terrorist attack that occurred just minutes after midnight on the last day of 2010, in front of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria.
The point here is not to contemplate the morbid scene that was the terrorist attack – symbol of regression and a pitfall we never imagined Egypt would encounter. There are many sinister aspects to this attack which killed and injured dozens of victims. Egyptians were overwhelmed with emotions of shock and sorrow, and fear for their country, children and the future. Many at first said that this was an attack from 'abroad,' pointing to the Mossad or Al-Qaeda, or any foreign entity that would prove that the perpetrators were not local. Some even suggested no Egyptian was involved in the crime, at all. And even if this complete absolution of responsibility comes at the expense of Egypt's future security, why not?
Of the various events currently unfolding, we ought to look at the demonstrations by Coptic youth, who have been marching through Egypt's cities and streets, denouncing the attack. They have raised angry banners and chanted angry slogans, at times sectarian and at times crossing lines which, at least in the past, those who are prudent had avoided. Their protests were a watershed in the sense that a timid group of young people stood up to object to what they consider to be discrimination and disregard of their demands. They first chose to demonstrate in churches, where they delivered messages to the Church, so that it could, in turn, convey their demands to the state, towards which they feel alienation and fear.
With the passage of time, this phenomenon developed into Coptic youth demonstration outside and in front of churches, where they still felt protected, knowing that security forces were not likely to initiate a confrontation in such locales.
But the 2010 Christmas Eve attack in Naga Hammadi was a turning point for these demonstrators; after the attack that left eight Copts dead, the distance between the protests and the confines of the church widened, as the youth marched to the State Council building, the People's Assembly, the Press Syndicate and downtown's Tahrir square. A second turning point came in the wake of the Umraniya events in November 2010, in which protests against the authority's decision to halt the construction of a church turned violent turned into altercations with security forces, the closure of the Ring Road (main traffic artery), and vandalising of government headquarters. This was the first time in modern Egyptian history that Coptic youth participated in violent protests against state buildings and institutions.
A third crucial turning point was the New Year's Eve attack in Alexandria – a landmark event in terms of its heinous nature and brutality. It led to a remarkably different response by Coptic youth, who immediately went out to battle with security forces. At the funeral of one of the Alexandria victims, the angry youth interrupted the state representative when he thanked the president, demanding that the president's representative leave the ceremony. These sentiments continued to spiral until they turned into general demonstrations in which thousands of angry youth participated, marching to the headquarters of the foreign ministry and the state-owned television building.
The question here is why did young Copts react in such a way and what do they want?
First, it is worth noting that the majority of the leaders and protesters at these events are young people under the age of 30. Thus, they are a generation that was born in the mid-1070s and did not live through the 'Egyptian' experience of the previous era: They grew up in an atmosphere where, under the orders of President Sadat, the public realm became increasingly religious. Their names, derived from Coptic, Pharaonic or Western origins, are a reflection of this shift. They are a generation that does not feel protected by its homeland, especially as state institutions withdraw from the public sphere and leave room for the Church to step in and provide protection. They grew up within the walls of the Church, where they learned their first lessons and where they came to realise that the Church was their representative and sole negotiator before the state.
As Islamisation policies continued, sectarian discrimination became increasingly blatant and sectarian-motivated attacks went without legal reprimand. The youth began to mobilise, first inside the Church in an attempt to pressure its leaders to fight for their rights, and, eventually, beyond the walls of the Church, as they came to believe that the former formula had failed them. They took to the streets to protest against a state that applied discriminatory and unjust laws, a state in which they were systemically and systematically treated as second rate citizens. But they also marched against their Church, which, they believe, can no longer to protect them in this 'sectarian' state.
Accordingly, recent demonstrations by Coptic youth have been against both the state and the Church, which is why both reacted to it in a similar manner. Both state and Church fear the consequences; the state is concerned about how it will deal with a generation that no longer limits its activism to within the Church, while the Church is worried it is losing its role as that generation's political representative before the state. These demonstrations destroyed the formula of Church and state which dates back to the 1970s.
Hence, I believe, the demonstrations of Coptic youth have many positive aspects: They went outside the Church and into society, to demand their rights from the state. This generation no longer accepts the long-established formula, and we must support them in this, indeed, encourage them, because within this lays the beginning of the civil state – that which curtails religious institutions and formulates the demands for reform, change and development. What is needed now is to nurture this experiment and to find common grounds among the members of this generation beyond their religion, so that the country may obtain true nationalism.