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Coptic Youth Asserts Leadership

June 14, 2011

Recognizing the new proposed law on building places of worship as an important first step in creating Christian-Muslim equity in Egypt, the Maspero Youth Union suspended their sit-in outside the Maspero building and gave the Egyptian interim government until July 8 to make progress on their demands, or declared that they will return to protesting outside the Maspero Building, which houses Egyptian state media, with thousands of fellow Copts and their Muslim supporters.

What is the Maspero Youth Union that the Egyptian government should be mindful of them?

As-Safha Ar-Rasmiyah Iltihad Shabab Maspero (Union of Maspero Youth or Maspero Youth Union) is a loose organization of young Coptic activists who helped organize, and put themselves forward as spokespersons for, the Coptic rallies outside the building that houses Egyptian state media in Cairo March through June protesting sectarian violence and demanding that the government do more to protect and ensure equality for its large Coptic minority. Rami Kamel, Ibram Louis and Antoine Adel are most frequently quoted in media reports as its founders and leaders.

One of the things social media has done is created an opportunity for political organizations to define themselves and be recognized. An organization establishes a Facebook page, for example, and sends announcements about it through Twitter and e-mail. The “authenticity” of the site is immediately quantifiable: does it have hundreds of members? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? The Arabic Facebook page for the Maspero Youth Union has more than 26,000 members (there is also an English Facebook page but it has fewer than 100 participants). A parallel organization, the Maspero Reform Movement (Harkah Islah Maspero) has fewer than 1000 members on its Facebook page, and receives correspondingly much less coverage.

Once a political organization has established its authenticity, media outlets add the Facebook site to their list of places to get news and look for political statements. In turn, these institutions anchor the credibility of the organization by referring to them, quoting their leaders and describing their activities. Recognition is variable depending on the political ideologies of the various news media. A report in the June 10 issue of Al-Ahram gives the first notice I can find in state media of the Union of Maspero Youth, although private newspapers like Al-Masry Al-Youm have been writing about them at least since early February.

The emergence of this group marks a significant challenge to the authority of the Coptic Church, which actively campaigned against Coptic participation in the protests at Tahrir Square and now is actively campaigning against continuing protests outside the Maspero Building.

The Church does not stand behind the protesters. On May 10, Bishop Moussa, the Coptic Bishop “for youth” called for an end to the protests both on the grounds that the Coptic protesters might become victims of violence, and out of concern that such activities–both the protesting and the violence–would play into the hands of the enemies of the Copts and the revolution. Five days later he went public again, along with the Coptic Pope’s secretary Youannes, to discount rumors that Pope Shenouda had withdrawn his official call for protesters to end the protests in front of the Maspero building.

The problem for many Copts is that the Church’s expressions of faith in the revolution and assurances that the new government of Essam Sharaf is working hard for the protection of Coptic Egyptians echoes almost identical statements made for decades in support of the previous regime.

In an article in the June edition of Oasis, the Catholic journal on Christian-Muslim relations, Father Rafiq Greiche head of the Press Office of the Catholic Church of Egypt, wrote:

The Church, particularly the Orthodox Church, must, however, discover its own essence and reserve a more active role for the laity, allowing them more freedom to express themselves and their will, and to play, as everyone else, a social and political role in society, and not just inside church walls. After having lived marginally or, to be more precise, after having marginalized themselves, Christians must adhere to parties (particularly to the liberal ones), and take on the place that belongs to them in the Country, by participating in the next elections and forming an opinion on the current situation in Egypt.

Father Greiche’s prescription clearly reflect the push by Coptic youth to assume greater leadership roles, not so much in the Church itself, but in the determining the palce of the Christian communities in the new Egyptian order.

While there is considerable ongoing debate about what the challenges to authority by Muslim Brotherhood youth mean for the future of that organization, I’ve seen little substantive discussion on the Coptic youth movement in defiance of Church authorities who seem to be, not unnaturally, flummoxed by the sudden rapid changes taking place in Egypt. Hopefully, such studies will be forthcoming soon.

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