CHAPTER ONE (PART 2) EGYPT: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE ARAB SPRING

Philip C. Johnson, Ph.D.

If you didn’t get a chance to read the first part of Chapter One, click here. Otherwise, enjoy as the story continues!

…Speaking of regime change, I did get the opportunity to witness the Arab Spring up close and in person. 

On December 17, 2010, Tunisian officials arbitrarily confiscated the roadside fruit stand – and therefore the entire livelihood – of 26-year-old Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi. An hour later, he burned himself alive in front of the governor’s offices in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. With this one, desperate act, Bouazizi crystalized the common suffering of millions of Arabs living under authoritarian governments. This event was the catalyst for the Arab Spring – the revolutionary movement that spread across North Africa and the Middle East, starting in the winter of 2010. 

Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt

The topic of revolution was a hot one in Egypt. The common response to the idea of an Egyptian Revolution was, “better a thousand years of tyranny than one day of instability.” I had been told by many of my colleagues and students in Egypt that while there was massive discontent with the nearly 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak, the likelihood of a revolution was unlikely. There was hope for change, but little confidence that real action would be taken. And as they say in Victorian English, “hope” doth butter no parsnips. (Feel free to insert that into any random conversation.) Egyptians had a way of complaining, but not following through to the point of seeing changes. However, change would come and come quickly.

While sitting with some of my interns and senior associates on New Year’s Eve, as 2010 passed into 2011, we got word that there had been a terrorist attack on the al-Qiddissin Coptic Church in the coastal city of Alexandria. The reports said that at least 21 people had been killed and more than 70 were wounded while churchgoers had been attending Midnight Mass. 

al-Qiddissin Coptic Church – Alexandria, Egypt

I told two of my interns, Ragaie and Ousha, that I was going to take the train from Cairo and head to Alexandria to cover the story. Happily, they decided they would go with me. When we arrived, we found the entire area was cordoned off by police. Law enforcement were already embarrassed by their inability to prevent this horrific attack and were in no mood for an inquisitive journalist to poke around. But thanks to the indefatigable characteristics of Mr. Ragaie, who does not take “no” for an answer, we were able to get past the police and to the church. 

What we found was heartbreaking chaos. The building was charred from the bomb blast, broken glass was everywhere, and people were sitting in the church wailing uncontrollably for the loss of family and friends. It was uncomfortably fresh. Terrorism looks different in person.  

We spoke to a number of people who were inside the church. They told heart-rending stories of what had happened. One man told me of seeing a young, engaged couple walking hand in hand up the front steps when the explosion occurred. The force of the blast had knocked them to the ground. When the young man regained consciousness, he was still holding the hand of his fiancé. But only her hand. 

Egypt’s interior minister tried to frame the incident as the actions of a lone suicide bomber who died among the crowd. Few bought this narrative. Archbishop Arweis said that the security services wanted to blame a single suicide bomber rather than admit that the explosion was the result of a car bomb. It was more convenient for the regime if they could relegate the events to a lone attacker, as opposed to an organized attack on Christians. In truth, there had been many threats coming from al-Qaeda and very little security provided to the church on that New Year’s Eve. 

Egyptians inspect the site of a car bomb that targeted the New Year’s Eve worship service in Alexandria

From that moment on, it seemed as if Egypt were coming apart at the seams. Angry Christians clashed with police and security forces. In Cairo, Christians and Muslims demonstrated in opposition to the government. Other activists called for uprisings to protest poverty, unemployment and government corruption. By January 25th, young Egyptians had taken to the streets en masse to protest the entire state of their nation. Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo became the place for hundreds of thousands to gather to express their frustration. 

Main cathedral of Alexandria church after terror attack

The short version of what happened during this moment on history’s timeline is this: In the winter of 2011, the Arab Spring and subsequent Egyptian revolution forced President Hosni Mubarak to step down from nearly 30 years in power. The military took over. Elections were held in 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power and tried to rule Egypt by Shariah Law. People took to the streets again. In 2013, the military used the mass protests to justify a coup and to take power back from Islamist president, Mohammad Morsy. New elections were held in 2014 and Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the former director of military intelligence became president. Military dictator, protests, Islamist president, protests, military dictator. Full circle.  And there you have it. You can either read history or participate in it. I chose the latter. 

Protester gathering outside my hotel in Cairo

I went often to Tahrir Square and to other hot spots like the Presidential Palace to witness the protests. There were times when the atmosphere was that of a festival. There were other times when things were much darker, and violence would break out. Once, when I arrived via metro to Tahrir Square, the crowds leaving the trains were so large that I honestly thought I might not be able to get out of the metro station and would be crushed. It was also a time when I wished desperately that deodorant was more widely used in Egypt. Another time I was kicked out of the protests by those who believed that I was foreign intelligence and nothing but trouble, undoubtedly, there to subvert the righteous principles of the revolution. That’s what I get for looking like a foreigner. Or a spy. Or both. Or neither. Who knows? 

Revolutions are tricky things. The road ahead would be long, and Egypt would experience violence, repression and deadly protests over the coming years. In the end, Egypt would find themselves pretty much where they started but with more repression, more terrorist activity, more persecution towards Christians and debilitating inflation.

Another thing worth noting is the massive power ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is a banned Islamic political movement that had been waiting 80 years for the opportunity to seize political power in Egypt. Although they repeatedly said they would not seek political power, they did. And it cost many lives. Never believe a political ideology when it tells you that they are not seeking power. They always do, and they always will.

Mohamad Ragaie (Global Next Senior Associate), protecting his neighborhood during the violent nights of the Egyptian Revolution

One of the most light-filled stories I experienced in Egypt came about during one of my leadership training events. The class was scheduled to be a five-day event, filled with college students and young professionals. They were always a pleasure to work with – always excited about the information. 

On the third day of the course, one of the students approached me and asked if she could speak with me. This wasn’t uncommon at all – participants asked questions all the time. During one of the breaks, we stepped to the side of the classroom and she told me that she recently had been troubled by a dream. 

“What was the dream about,” I asked.

“I dreamed the same thing a couple of times. There was a man. He told me that Jesus was the only way to be right with God. It was so clear, and it shook me. In Islam, we say we believe in Jesus as a prophet, but in truth, we hate him. We certainly don’t believe that he is God. And so, this dream has really been itching my mind.”

“What do you think the dream means? What will you do with these thoughts?” I inquired.

“I need to know more,” she said. “I have heard you speak for the last two days and I know that you know this Jesus. I can see it in you. Can you tell me what to do? Can you explain this to me?”

I had heard reports for a number of years that Muslims, as well as others, were having these very explicit dreams. In these dreams they were being told that Jesus was the Messiah and the way to be right with God. And then they were seeking out Christians to understand more. 

Over the next couple of days, I emailed her information about the Gospel. And then I sat down with her and the Bible and shared with her the story of redemption and what God’s Word says about salvation. She listened, talked about the risks to her relationships, her son and her family that would have to be considered if she placed her trust in Christ. I left her with a copy of the Bible and prayed for her. 

I saw her several other times at events at which I spoke. However, we did not speak of our conversations ever again.  I just prayed that God would break through. And He did. Two years after our conversation she contacted me through social media and told me that she had placed her trust in Jesus and had become a Christian. She began her message to me with the words, “Hosannah, I have trusted Christ as my Savior!” It was beautiful and humbling. Redemption is always beautiful and being a small part of God’s plan in people’s lives is humbling. This story isn’t magical. It definitely isn’t a story about my abilities to influence others. It is a story of light in a broken world. It is a story of a sovereign God who is working personally in people’s lives around the world – no matter what else is happening.

Coming June 2021

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