Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Crosses and Flags - Just One Challenge to Egypt's Unity

This post would have been different had I written it as planned last night. But this morning's news of several deaths in Cairo yesterday during protests adds a different chapter to the unfolding story of inter-religious conflict here. Yesterday, I was in Alexandria, a 3-hour train ride north of Cairo. On the way to a meeting with a young female activist I've been interviewing, I noticed a small demonstration on the steps of the stunning Alexandria Library that faces the equally stunning port. Kholoud tells me that the design of the scence is that knowledge flows directly from Alexandria University through the library to the sea, and on to the world (and vice versa).
It seemed that about 100 people there, in customary form (see upcoming post about the dynamics of demonstrations), which, even with the masses in Tahrir, typically includes a rather remarkable order and control. I lingered taking pics and videos, picking up enough of the boisterous chanting to know it was about Christian/Muslim harmony, inspired by a recent attack on a Christian church south of Cairo. That in turn, had been triggered by a bitter, family/tribal conflict that surrounded a relationship between a mixed-religion couple.

I went off to interview Aly, a male counterpart and friend of Kholoud - both 26. By the time I'd finished with Aly, the crowd down on the steps to the plaza had grown significantly, and a few hours later it had grown to 1,000 or so. Now more prominent even than before was the Christian presence, seen in the icons many were holding.

The largest cheers and applause came when a uniformed, senior army officer took the speaker's stage and both addressed the crowd and lead them in the chants.

The demonstration was fully peaceful, which is why the morning's news of the deaths in Cairo was ironic. This, because it was in Alexandria, just a few months ago that a suicide bomber detonated near a Christian church, killing over 20. It would seem that in Alexandria, of all places, the anger would be strongest - but I don't know nearly enough about the complexities of demonstrations and their timing or tenor to attempt to explain.

Suffice it for now to say that this is an unfolding story. It is not surprising that once the common enemy has been crippled (the regime, in this case), contests would devolve to the issues that divide socieites within. No doubt there are many challenges coming to Egypt's newfound freedom of expression and dissent.

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