Egyptians living in SA share their hopes and fears for a new era

2011-02-05 15:40

They are Egyptian Christians, or Copts.

Isaac Benjamin and Assad Attia sit in Erad Sheonda’s barber shop in Johannesburg trying to predict the future of their minority in a “new Egypt”.

They are trying hard not to make the Egyptian uprising into a Muslim-versus-Christian issue because currently there is a feeling of unity, and a common struggle for change and a better life among all Egyptians.

But the three friends have also seen a change in their country during the past decade. Coming to South Africa eight years ago was the result of a mixture of economic migration and a search for freedom – religious freedom. For them, in Egypt, the two go hand in hand.

With better the devil you know than the one you don’t in the back of their minds, their fear spirals to what will happen when Mubarak goes.

“We are going to be in danger. If we have a new election, I hope and pray that the Muslim Brotherhood does not take over. We will suffer more,” Attia is certain.

Sheonda echoes: “If the Muslims take over, it makes us very scared.”

Benjamin is a translator, but could not find employment in Egypt “because I’m a Christian”.

They all relate incidents back home where they were not helped in shops because they wore a cross around their necks, or how the Muslim greeting had replaced Arabic greetings and was becoming the norm.

Attia says some Muslims swear at them in prayers or talk of jihad. He quickly adds: “Not all Muslims are bad, but there are fanatic people.”

Benjamin says Egyptian Muslims “hate” them because Copts are the strongest form of Christianity, and they know the Koran well. “We are the only people who can face Muslims and have put them in their place for 2?000 years.”

Talking to the three men, it is difficult to steer clear of the religious ramifications of the uprising. They say Mubarak is “not a bad person; it is those around him”.

Sheonda: “Mubarak wants to stay in power ­until September out of respect for Egyptians to have a peaceful handover.”
Benjamin: “But power should not then go to his son.”

Attia: “Yes, we want to choose our next ­president.”

Benjamin: “We want democracy.”

If you were in Cairo now, where would you be?

Attia: “To be with those people, to say what I want is freedom. Thirty years is more than enough. We don’t want Mubarak’s family, his son or his best friend taking over.”

Even though there will “never be a Christian president in Egypt”, they want Egyptians to be given a chance to choose their own ruler.

Benjamin: “There is revolution now because now is enough. A government employee makes R300 to R400 a month, but living costs are ­R2 000.

There is no more middle class. You are either rich or poor.

“Everybody is talking about going to other countries. Where is the civilisation, where is the freedom? Everyone in Egypt is angry. People need something real. Why can’t we be like South Africa? The president serves his term and then he is gone.”

Attia: “All Arabic countries have had enough of sons taking over from their fathers.”

Benjamin: “Since 1955 we have had only three presidents.”

Even while witnessing the biggest uproar in their country in their lifetime, the three friends can easily unleash on you their distinctive Egyptian humour.

“You know, in Egypt our biggest health problem is heart pressure because Egyptians think about tomorrow too much.

“Not only what I’m going to eat tomorrow, but a million years from now!”

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