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July 05th 2011 print

Peter Day

A brave man in Sydney

Next Saturday presents a rare opportunity in Sydney to hear first-hand from a Cairo human rights activist about the political outlook for Egypt in the lead-up to Egypt’s first elections since the fall of Mubarak.


Brave Cairo activist to speak in Sydney at fateful moment for ‘Arab Spring’


Next Saturday (July 9) presents a rare opportunity in Sydney to hear first-hand from a Cairo human rights activist about the political outlook for Egypt in the lead-up to Egypt’s first elections since the fall of Mubarak.

It is widely expected that the Muslim Brotherhood, in alliance with other Islamist groups, will emerge as the most powerful organisation in the parliament to be elected in September. 

Father Metias Nasr, a Coptic priest who has been leading recent street protests in defence of minority rights in Egypt, and negotiating directly on behalf of protestors with the military council ruling Egypt, will be addressing a special Sydney conference on the challenges now facing the country’s eight million or so Coptic Christians.

Fr Metias (as he prefers to be called) is frequently mentioned in the Cairo media for his leading role in demonstrations and sit-ins involving thousands of people, including Muslims as well as Copts. The protests he has led have been aimed at pressuring the Egyptian government to take action against the epidemic of anti-Coptic violence that has broken out across the country since the fall of Mubarak.

The quietly spoken but determined Fr Metias has also been attracting international attention. The current (July) issue of the New York Review of Books carries an update on the current balance of political forces in Egypt by writer Yasmine El-Rashidi, aptly titled ‘Egypt: the victorious Islamists’. Speaking of his demands on the government Fr Metias tells El-Rashidi:

We want protection. We want the dozens of churches that the government has closed to be reopened. The people who are causing this trouble… must be held accountable.

El-Rashidi’s piece is far more perceptive than most other reporting on Egypt these days. Even so, Fr Metias’ role is of greater significance than her brief reference to him here might suggest. His influence among Copts – especially among the young – is far-reaching and well-established. Since long before the January 25 movement and the fall of Mubarak, he has been a thorn in the side of the Egyptian Islamists and their powerful allies within the security services and other government bureaucracies.

I visited Father Metias in his Cairo flat in the first week of January – a little over a month before the fall of Mubarak . At that time, Mubarak’s secret service – the so-called mukhabarat – had just brought formal charges against him for (among other things) endangering public security, publishing a newspaper without permission, ‘blasphemy’ and using inflammatory language. Any one of these charges had the potential to land him in prison for years.

It wasn’t hard to see why Fr Metias’s activities as a writer, cultural historian and publisher had aroused the ire of the authorities. When I asked him about his guiding philosophy, he expressed a principle that can get you into trouble just about anywhere these days: ‘I tell the truth,’ he said.

The mukhabarat (secret police) of Egypt then had him under 24 hour surveillance, including taps on his phones and electronic eavesdropping on his internet communications. A few days before my visit his flat was broken into: two laptops and some working papers were stolen. The fall of Mubarak just a few weeks later, and the resulting temporary disruption to mukhabarat operations, came as a timely reprieve indeed for Fr Metias. The mukhabarat’s charges against him, however, are still proceeding: so much for the ‘new Egypt’.

Father Metias’s day-job is serving a community of Cairo’s garbage collectors (known as the zabaleen). With a background as a professional architect, he has also helps build schools and health clinics that are used not only by members of his Coptic congregation but also by their Muslim neighbours.

Meanwhile his newspaper, El Katiba, has been teaching young Copts to take pride in a pre-Islamic Coptic heritage that goes back to the first century of Christianity, and beyond that to the time of the Pharaohs. This type of cultural confidence-building among the Coptic young is regarded with the deepest suspicion in Egypt’s heavily Islamist educational establishment, which has systematically removed centuries of pre-Islamic Coptic history from the Egyptian syllabus.

The willingness in recent times of young Copts to stand up for their basic rights owes not a little to Father Metias, his writings and his brave example. Some observers count this revival of Coptic pride as among the more significant indicators of the wider social unrest that eventually brought down Mubarak.

But if assertiveness in defence of basic rights has earned Fr Metias the enmity of the Islamists within the Egyptian ‘deep state’, it has not always endeared him to the Coptic hierarchy either. It is hardly surprising that some of the Coptic clergy find themselves more comfortable in the submissive dhimmi role that for centuries was ingrained into the Coptic mindset, as the price of survival in a hostile environment. But Fr Metias has succeeded in keeping the Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenouda, more or less on-side: ‘Pope Shenouda doesn’t encourage me,’ Fr Metias told me, ‘but neither does he oppose me. That’s good enough for me’.

What now for Egyptian politics generally? In her New York Review of Books article, El-Rashidi confirms that the most significant power nexus to emerge in Egypt post-Mubarak is a de facto alliance between the military government and the Muslim Brotherhood (the same alliance I reported in the May issue of Quadrant). This suggests a bleak future not only for the Copts, but for all the increasingly beleaguered forces of secular liberalism in Egypt.

It’s not only the future that’s bleak: as the Los Angeles Times reports this week, since the fall of Mubarak, literally thousands of liberal activists have been packed off to lengthy prison spells after closed military trials with no system of appeals. Hardly less shocking is the continuing failure of the western media (with some notable exceptions, such as the Los Angeles Times itself) to report in any remotely adequate way this savage, well-documented repression.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian military regime continues to take a highly respectful if not deferential attitude toward the Muslim Brotherhood and the other Islamist groups allied with it, and especially toward the Brotherhood’s preferences in electoral laws and regulations. These are giving the Islamists the inside running in the forthcoming elections.

The Obama administration is chiming in supportively, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton formally announcing last week that the US would from now be holding official communications with the Brotherhood. Clinton made no mention of the thousands of young non-Islamist liberals who were hailed in January and February by the US for their courage in bringing down a tyrant, but who have now been flushed into the notorious Egyptian prison system, uncontactable by family, friends or lawyers.

As for the Copts, the organised eruptions of violence against them, and the attacks on their churches, homes and other property, all seem designed to subdue this large sub-population to a condition of medieval oppression, helplessness and humiliation, or even to cleanse Egypt altogether of its ancient presence.

The Copts clearly face some excruciating choices. How can they best respond to the looming Islamist threat? Is there anything that the outside world can do to help? These will be among the issues to be explored on Saturday at the Sydney conference.

Conference details:

The Sydney Coptic Conference will be held on Saturday, July 9, from 1pm to 5 pm at St Mary & St Merkorious Coptic Orthodox Church, 2 Cavill Avenue, Rhodes.

Father Metias will speak as the guest of honour. Other speakers from Australia and the US. will also be presenting. All proceedings will be in English.

Further information may be obtained from the Australian Coptic Movement at aucopticmovement@gmail.