Christmas in Cairo: Is There a Place for Non-Muslims and Liberals in the New Egypt?

This time last year Egypt was reeling from the shock of a huge explosion. Less than four weeks before the first protesters headed to Tahrir Square, a bomb went off on New Year's Eve in front of a church in the second-largest city of Alexandria killing more than 20 worshipers as they attended midnight mass. To date nobody has been prosecuted. This may not have been the Bouazizi-type spark that set off the Egyptian revolution, but for members of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority it was a clarion call. The attack came one week before Coptic Christmas which is held on January 7th in adherence with the Coptic calendar. It's a day celebrated by the millions of Copts who form 10% of the population according to government data, although a recent study by the Coptic News Agency puts the figure closer to 20%.

I remember being in Cairo days after the attack and was struck by the scenes on Christmas Eve last year. Churches were barricaded by metal barriers, armed police guarded Church corners and metal detectors screened worshippers as they entered. This Christmas I was back in Cairo and it appears as though both everything has changed and nothing has changed. Hosni Mubarak has stepped down and faces trial, the first post-revolution elections are complete, and a new Islamist-led parliament is taking shape. And yet, the country is run by generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF who served under Mubarak and have yet to transition to civilian rule, criticism of those in power is punishable by imprisonment or worse, violence is used against protestors and women and attacks against Copts continue.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes this Christmas was that the perceived threat of Islamism shared by liberals and Christians is now all the more real as the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood are poised to control parliament.

This makes secular parties, liberal groups, activists and Christians very nervous. They are concerned about religious intrusion in private life and restrictions on civil liberties. Already, there have been local media reports of a self-appointed "religious police" barging into places like ladies' hairdressers and ordering patrons to cease what they describe as un-Islamic practices like getting a blow dry. That incident didn't go down well with Egypt's well groomed women, who, according to reports, beat up the extremists and kicked them out of the beauty parlor.

Copts are also worried about their rights under Islamic Sharia law. And although the Muslim Brotherhood contend Sharia law is the best guarantor of Copts' rights, over the years, discrimination against Copts has continued.

This isn't just about discrimination when it comes to jobs or government posts. It's about laws preventing building churches or repairing them. It's about angry mobs storming churches and burning them down. It's about attacks against Christians going unpunished. It's about homes and businesses being looted and set on fire and families being driven from their villages. Which is why, many Copts think: if things are this bad now, won't they get worse with Islamists running the country?

It's no wonder then that, according to Coptic NGO, the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights, more than 100,000 Copts have left Egypt since March. Naguib Gabriel, head of the NGO, told me Coptic emigration since the revolution is specific in its nature. "It's different from past emigration when Christians left to get degrees or training abroad," he explained. "This has the mark of asylum from religious persecution." Just to be clear, nobody is suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood or the ultra-conservative Salafis are behind the attacks. The Brotherhood condemn violence against Copts and their political party even has some Christian members.

But to date, nobody has been held responsible for the Alexandria bombing, the death of Christian protestors in October or the many sectarian eruptions in villages up and down the Nile valley this past year.

There have been glimmers of hope. In Tahrir, protestors often hold up the crescent and the cross chanting "Muslim, Christian, one hand."

Copts and liberals alike are also worried about the effect of Islamist rule on tourism, the top foreign currency earner. The tourism minister warned against "irresponsible statements" by Islamists suggesting to ban alcohol, mixed beaches and bikinis in Egypt's popular resorts. For its part, the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, blames the media for creating a sense of fear and confirmed in a TV interview that tourism is a priority. They also say they want to safeguard the rights of all Egyptians.

Bikinis or burkas, Egyptians are lurching towards democracy and like it or not, the future of the country is being shaped in the context of a wave of Islamism sweeping across the region.

Many of the January 25th activists maintain that democracy is still a distant goal and point to recent events including the storming of democracy NGOs and brutality against female protestors as evidence that Egypt is far from democratic. So far SCAF's governing has been inconsistent: one minute praising the revolution and the next turning around and unleashing the full force of their troops on demonstrators. It has left people here in Egypt bewildered. Is SCAF changing course so often and so abruptly because it's not accustomed to governing or is it deliberately behaving erratically?

That's just one of many unanswered questions:

    If the revolution was fought for freedom, equality and justice, will all Egyptians -- Muslim and Christian alike -- get to enjoy that?If the Egyptian people voted in their millions for the Islamist parties, then don't those groups have the right to play a role in governing?Are minorities like Copts and liberals justified in fearing they don't have a place in the new Egypt?

This Christmas Eve, metal detectors were still at church gates and the army helped secure churches but the mood was less somber, you could even say it's festive. In the suburb of Heliopolis, Amr Hamzawy, newly elected liberal member of parliament, received a rock star's welcome at a church service.

But the all-star line up was at St Mark's cathedral where Coptic Pope Shenouda held midnight mass. Senior army generals, sheiks, Muslim Brotherhood leaders, presidential hopefuls and ministers past and present all attended the Pope's address, broadcast live on state TV.

Striking a hopeful note, the Pope reached out to Islamists, saying it was the first time in history representatives of all of Egypt's Islamist groups attended mass and called on them to work together with Copts. The Pope also appeared conciliatory towards the military and after his address a bevy of generals ascended the altar and embraced him.

The message this Christmas was clear: Muslim and Christian are one hand, as the chant goes. And as one priest put it: "We're all in the same boat. Sink or swim, we're in it together."