A sharp freezing wind tugs at the coats and hats of Egyptians braving Cairo’s streets as the country celebrates the Orthodox Coptic Christmas.
Leaves blown from massive ficus trees cover Ismail Mahmoud Street in upscale Zamalek. The grey sky filled with fine desert dust settles on this city of 18 million. Food shops are open, their shelves stocked with fresh dates, strawberries and spicy kumquat. Patisseries are doing brisk business on the last of a string of holidays that began with the western Christmas, the global new year, last weekend’s Mawlid al-Nabi (birthday of the Prophet Muhammad), and Epiphany.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi surprised the congregation of thousands when he turned up at the Coptic Christmas Eve service in Cairo’s St Mark’s cathedral. Standing beside Pope Tawadros II, Sisi gave a short speech calling for peace and tolerance.
“Let no one ask what kind of Egyptian you are. It is not right to call each other anything but Egyptians. We must be Egyptians only.” He wished the congregation and all Egyptians a happy new year. Copts, the largest Christian community in Egypt and the region, comprise about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 83 million population.
The president’s words were greeted with a burst of applause and were welcomed by Copts across the country. He was the first Egyptian president to attend their Christmas Eve mass although previous heads of state, all Muslims, have visited the church.
The Coptic pope supported the July 2013 ousting of former president
of the Muslim Brotherhood, and stood side by side with Sisi on the dais when the roadmap for Egypt’s political transition was announced. Tawadros II, however, has been criticised for failing to press the authorities to honour their promise to rebuild Coptic churches that have been attacked, pillaged and burned by pro-Morsi elements following his ousting and to urge the government to abrogate the law requiring church construction permits from provincial governors.
Many Copts regard Sisi as the figure who prevented Egypt from falling under the domination of the Brotherhood, seen by them as anti-Christian, and are grateful for the police protection now provided for churches.
On Tuesday, two policemen guarding a Coptic church in Minya were shot dead and on New Year’s Day 2011, 23 people were killed at a Coptic church in Alexandria. The secular Free Egyptian Party, founded by Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris, fully backs Sisi and his evolving political and economic agenda.