Beneath a full moon, a crown of Coptic Christians gather outside Alexandria's library to protest at the previous night's violence. Egypt has had its Black Sunday - 26 dead in Cairo following confrontations between Christians, Muslims and the military. There was fighting too, in Alexandria, the heart of Coptic Christianity.
The bloodshed occurred just over a week after the burning of a Coptic Christian church in southern Egypt. Christians and some Muslims had gathered together in a peaceful protest demanding equality and protection of Coptic places of worship.On the evening of the violence
I had been due to meet Ahmed at Sidi Girbir station, but he had called to say, "Don't come. It's dangerous here." In the background I could hear shouting and sirens. He hung up. I walked home past people gathering to watch their Revolution unravel on the television.
The next day Ahmed tells me how he attended what started out as a peaceful rally outside Sidi Girbir station. “There were mainly Christians, but plenty of Muslims in support.’ he says. ‘Some young boys suddenly started throwing stones and it turned ugly. Afterwards I went to my sisters. I didn’t feel well. I woke up in the morning and saw what had happened in Cairo. I’ve been feeling bad all day.”
He is unusually subdued and doesn’t want to go to the library to photograph the demonstration, even though it just across the road. “I feel ashamed. I don’t know what to say to the Christians. We tried to protect them, but failed. This is very bad for Egypt.’
His phone rings and he is suddenly animated. “Lets go to the demonstration” he says, snapping the moon. When we reach the library the Christians have gone. Ahmed makes a call. “My friend is coming. I met him last night at the demonstration. He’s a Christian.”
Imeen meets us at the petrol station. He drifts out of the shadows clutching a mobile. After greeting him, Ahmed turns to me and says, “I don’t trust him. Do you? He says his brother was killed in Cairo last night.”
For someone who has just lost a brother, Imeen is unnaturally nonchalant. And why is he in Alexandria? Ahmed might be right. ‘He’s from Upper Egypt, they always say prayers immediately after a death, but he says they haven’t done this yet for his brother. If they don’t pray it means they are waiting until they have revenge.’
According to Imeen’s sources, the demonstration has moved to a church in Mencheya district. “They are going to fast in protest,’ Ahmed says. We spend an hour looking for the church. Imeen evaporates into a side street. Ahmed walks ahead, mobile pressed to his ear with one hand and combing his hair with the other.
“I’m going to the Cap d’Or for a drink,” I insist, desperate to escape the traffic, noise, and dust. We step into another world – French boudoir almost – full of memorabilia from Alexandria’s own Belle Epoque. A large man stands at the bar with a bling crucifix. Ahmed calls him over. Francis is a Catholic. “It’s a conspiracy,” he says. ‘The military want to cause trouble before the elections. They want an excuse to delay them and keep the Emergency Laws in place so they can control us. This is not about Christians and Muslims. We live very well together. But now, now it is dangerous. “
He says he has heard that bodies were being thrown into the Nile by the police . Ahmed looks as though he will burst into tears.
When we leave, we pass Francis sitting alone in his shop. He makes and sells school uniforms and is surrounded by shelves of gingham blouses, white shirts, and maroon cardigans. He waves at us, and I suddenly want to rush over and cover his crucifix. It makes him look vulnerable.
Ahmed’s phone rings and we are off again. “I am meeting a friend. We meet up nearly every day for discussions, but in secret places. You never know who’s around.”
We wade through rubbish (Alexandria’s dustmen are on strike) and into a small haven of grass and palms away from the city centre. Couples and groups of women cluster in the darkness. Ahmed walks around waving his arms and calling out to his friend. We head towards the sound of someone whistling. Abdul is sitting on a bench with a glass of tea, smoking a cigarette. He is tall, and his eyes are red rimmed and anxious. He is probably in his late twenties. He invites me to sit on the bench as if I am a guest in his home.
Abdul worked as a business development consultant until the Revolution. “I had my own office. It was a good job. But after the revolution the business went bust. Now I work for the Revolution. For freedom, bread and justice. I’m not in any party, but I support the liberals.”
He wasn’t interested in politics until 25th January. ‘Now, it’s my life.’
I am beginning to understand that for many Egyptians, the Revolution has birthed an inner revolution.
“You know Pink Floyd’s The Wall? That’s where we are now,” Abdul says, and together we sing an offkey rendering of, ‘We don’t need no education…teacher, leave the kids alone.’
A tea lady collects Abdul’s glass. Ahmed orders more tea. ‘Her son has just been jailed for five years by the military. He’s 21.” Arabic pours from the tea lady as she tells Ahmed that her son was charged with trying to burn down a police station. (All the police stations in Alexandria were burnt down during the revolution.)
“His friends got away, and he was caught. But he swears he is innocent,” she says.
“He’s a civilian. He shouldn’t have been tried in a military court,” Abdul says, and mutters ‘Dogs of war’ under his breath. He does this often .
We sip our tea staring up at the moon. “Israel’s Massod and the military are behind this together,” Abdul says. Ahmed nods his head vigorously. “No one cares about the poor people and how they are suffering. But we won’t allow them to take the Revolution from us. Never.”
We sit in silence for a long time until Abdul whispers into the night.
'Dogs of war.'