Seeing the Egyptian protests on American media may lead you to believe that this is an Iranian-style revolution, with a probable result being an Islamic regime. However, when you look at the details of what is happening on the ground, this is an interfaith movement.
Since 2006, I have been frequenting Egypt, spending a month or more at a time staying and working with locals in Cairo and Alexandria. It was in Egypt when I got inspired to found World Faith, and it's become a second home for me.
Broken messages from my Egyptian friends spiked an unparalleled mix of awe, fear and excitement. While a popular revolution was only a matter of time, the somewhat minute ignition was surprising to say the least. As we'd say, if Egypt was full of Iranians, they would have revolted 10 years ago.
But it's not, and as my friend Haroon Moghul outlined, it is not Iran nor an Islamic movement. Whether the restrictions put on Christians for interfaith marriages or conversion, or the government's strong crackdown on devout Muslims are an attempt to punish the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood), religion has oftentimes stood as a tool of division in Egypt.
Many assume that the Ikhwan would become the dominant player in the protests, they were slow to formally join, recognizing that their explicit support would damage the movement. They even went so far as to release a statement Saturday explicitly stating that they have no desire to lead an interim government, but would rather participate in a multiparty democratic political system. Nobel Peace Prize Winner Mohammed el-Baradei has become the inpromptu voice of the people, who stated that Egypt needs a new government "based on freedom, democracy and social justice."
The protests have demonstrated explicit interfaith components. It was only a few weeks ago that Egyptian Muslims attended Christmas mass with their Christian neighbors and friends as human shields after the deadly attack on a Coptic church. Mohamed El-Sawy, whose cultural center has hosted World Faith Cairo events, said of faith relations in Egypt, "We either live together or we die together." Returning the favor, Christians stood guard at mosques across Egypt while their Muslim friends finished their Friday prayers before the day's protests. When a few demonstrators began chanting "Allahu Akbar," others convinced them to join together: "Muslim, Christian, we're all Egyptian!"
When the police and military withdrew from the streets, many feared that communal violence would fill the void caused by the chaos. This is not far-fetched when you look at the results of the Lebanese Civil War and post-Saddam Iraq. When looters, seemingly armed and sent out by the government, attacked museums, churches, mosques and businesses, demonstrators circled the buildings, taking shifts guarding the buildings and neighborhoods. These are all amazing examples of interfaith collaboration in the face of chaos.
While Egyptians are expressing the universal human right of free assembly, they are faced with rough repression. More than 100 have died, and thousands injured. The insincere and limited elections, brutal repression and widespread incompetence in providing economic opportunity by the government has incensed young Egyptians.
This should be troubling for Americans, as our significant financial and military support is incongruous to our foreign policy of supporting democratic ideals. A relic of the Camp David Accords, the support continues because many American foreign policymakers believe a democratic Egypt would not maintain peace with Israel. While regional peace is and should be a high policy goal, it should not come at the cost of the freedom of 82 million Egyptians.
In the face of the protests, American leaders have dithered, deflected or defended the Egyptian regime and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was like watching a game to see how many Democrats could defend a dictator in a 24-hour period. If the protesters are modern-day revolutionaries, in face of these young Jeffersons and Washingtons we are siding with the king of England. This puts us on the wrong side of history, and it will have a deep impact on the relations between the United States and the future democratic Egypt.
Interfaith movements across the world often find inspiration in American religious leaders. This is a core value of the American people, and of our foreign policy. Solidifying both the interfaith aspect to the Egyptian protests, and the American impact on it, when an Al Jazeera reporter asked how an Egyptian would respond if President Mubarak stepped down, he echoed the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, singing "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!"
This piece was originally posted on the Washington Post "Faith Divide."
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