CAIRO, Egypt — It’s often difficult to know in real time when something historic is unfolding, but the last two days in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, in the company of Pope Francis, seemed to have at least the possibility of going down as one of those “big deal” moments.
April 28 cast a special spotlight on the relationship between the Vatican and Al-Azhar, the mosque and university complex here that’s sometimes dubbed the “Vatican” of the Sunni Muslim world, and it unfolded under the shadow of a major recent terrorist attack directed at Egypt’s Christian minority.
In many ways, we’ve seen this show before.
Just six years ago, on Jan. 1, 2011, bombs went off at a Coptic church in Alexandria, leaving 23 people dead. In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI denounced the atrocity in his Angelus address.
The pontiff said he had “learned with sorrow the news of the serious attack against the Coptic Christian community in Alexandria, Egypt. This cowardly act of death, such as planting bombs close to the homes of Christians in Iraq to force them to leave, offends God and all of humanity, who only yesterday prayed for peace and began a new year with hope.
“In the face of this strategy of violence that has targeted Christians, and has consequences for the whole population, I pray for the victims and family members, and encourage church communities to persevere in faith and in being witness to the nonviolence that comes from the Gospel,” Benedict said.
The situation is eerily similar to the run-up to Pope Francis’ April 28-29 visit to Egypt, which featured bombings at two Coptic churches in the Egyptian Delta and in Alexandria that killed 45. Once again, the pope, this time Francis, addressed the carnage.
“I also think of the victims of the attacks on Coptic churches, both last December and more recently in Tanta and Alexandria,” he said April 28 during remarks to political and civil leaders.
“To the members of their families, and to all of Egypt, I offer my heartfelt condolences and my prayers that the Lord will grant speedy healing to the injured.”
What’s markedly different, however, is the reaction from Egypt’s political and clerical leadership.
Back in 2011, the government denounced Benedict XVI’s comments as “unacceptable interference” and withdrew its ambassador from the Vatican for consultations. Al-Azhar joined the protest, announcing that it was suspending an annual dialogue with the Vatican and reconsidering other forms of collaboration because Benedict had “repeatedly addressed Islam negatively.”
Now, Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and effectively the country’s most important Islamic cleric, joined the applause for Pope Francis when he invoked the Coptic martyrs, and has been almost as forceful as the pontiff himself in denouncing religious violence.
The two men hugged enthusiastically that day, and, at one stage, Tayeb seemed visibly moved when Pope Francis referred to him as “my brother.” Tayeb even opened his own address by calling for everyone in the hall to stand for a moment of silence for victims of terrorism and consolation for their families.
What’s changed in six years?
For one thing, the political context in Egypt is different. In 2011, the government of then-President Hosni Mubarak was facing widespread protest, and eventually would be swept from power less than a month later. Some of Mubarak’s critics at the time even suggested he was actually behind the attack on the Alexandria church, in a desperate attempt to justify a widespread military crackdown that might blunt the protest movement.
In that context, the government wasn’t in the mood to brook any external criticism, including from the pope. This time, the administration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appears to be on more solid footing, enjoying fairly widespread support, and Sisi himself has flagged the struggle against terrorism and religious extremism as a defining national priority.
(The only person who took more pleasure in the trip than the pope may actually have been Sisi, who comes away with a strong papal endorsement of his anti-terrorism agenda and little that could be interpreted as criticism of his record on human rights and political dissent.)
Further, Pope Francis is not Pope Benedict, who, fairly or not, never quite escaped the legacy of a controversial 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, which inflamed Muslim sentiment by appearing to link the Prophet Muhammad with violence.
Pope Francis enjoys a vastly different profile in the Islamic world. His repeated insistence that Islam is a religion of peace, and that there’s no such thing as “Islamic terrorism” because such violence is incompatible with the tenets of the real faith, have helped him amass enormous social and political capital.
Plus, he also has a gift for the small touches that often speak volumes — for instance, he’s opened every speech in Egypt, including his homily for an April 29 Mass, with the phrase “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” the standard Arabic greeting meaning “peace be with you,” which Muslims hear as a sign of respect. (Several times, he drew applause simply for using the phrase.)
When Pope Francis arrived in Egypt, therefore, and called religious leaders to “unmask” pretexts for violence, and also pointed to the suffering of the Coptic church, his words came off as expressions of common cause.
Perhaps even more basically, however, one has the impression ordinary Egyptians are simply in a different place than they were six years ago.
Over and over, that’s what I heard from people in Cairo, and not just Christians, but the Muslim majority: They’re sick of terrorism, they say. They’re sick of fanatics and “crazies” hijacking the faith they cherish, they’re sick of sectarian battles and upheaval, and they don’t want in Egypt what they’ve watched play out in Syria, Iraq and other ISIS strongholds.
That mentality, by the way, helps explain the general support for Sisi, despite a worsening human rights record and a general reputation for authoritarianism. Seven years ago, the average Egyptian may have wanted freedom above all — today, they want both freedom and also the security to enjoy it, and may be more inclined to give up a little of the former for more of the latter.
Thus, when I asked people — teachers, street sweepers, waiters, cab drivers, the guy selling cigarettes down the street from the hotel where the media was lodged and so on — what they thought about what the pope had to say, the near-universal reaction was something along the lines of, “It’s about time!”
In a dash of realism, that line was usually followed by, “I hope the right people are listening.”
To put the point differently, many ordinary Egyptians, like people in other developing societies, have been inclined to see the enemy as the West, and to view leaders perceived as representatives of Western culture, such as a pope, with suspicion. Today, they seem more inclined to believe the real enemy is within, and more willing to embrace leadership wherever it comes from.
In the end, perhaps what Pope Francis’ brief outing to Egypt captured was the collision of one of the most important Muslim nations in the world ready to draw a line against fanaticism, and the single Christian leader in the world most capable of helping them pull it off.
From such collisions, earthquakes sometimes result — and many Egyptians here seem to be hoping it’s the kind of quake that changes their world.