Now Bishoy St. Anthony follows a daily routine nearly as ascetic and unvaried as that of his fourth-century predecessors: The monks wake before dawn; recite the Psalms, sing hymns and celebrate the liturgy until 10; take a short nap; then eat a simple meal at 1. After the meal, they cultivate beans, corn and other crops on the monastery’s farms and perform other tasks until 5, when they pray before taking a meditative walk alone in the desert at sunset. In the evening, they return to their cells for a second meal of yogurt, jam and crackers, read the Bible and wash their clothes. (During the fasting periods that precede both Christmas and Easter, the monks eat one meal a day; meat and fish are stricken from their diet.) “There is no time for anything here, only church,” he said.
Yet Bishoy St. Anthony acknowledged that not all of the monks here dwell in complete isolation. Because of his language skills, he has been entrusted with the role of liaison with foreign tourists, and like the monks who purchase fertilizer and pesticides for the monastery’s agricultural operations, he carries a cellphone, which brings him news from the outside world. I asked how the monks had reacted to Mubarak’s downfall. “Of course, we have an opinion,” he said, but declined to say more.
Back in Cairo, one stifling hot afternoon I snaked past a dust-shrouded landscape of tenements and minarets to a district called Nasr (Victory) City. The quarter was partly designed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who, with other junior military officers, overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and ushered in 60 years of autocratic rule. The trial of 24 men involved in the mayhem in Cairo this past May was about to start in Cairo’s Emergency Court, a holdover of the Mubarak years. The men, mostly Salafists, were being tried under emergency laws enacted after the Sadat assassination that have yet to be repealed.
Christians had welcomed the swift justice following the May attacks; the Salafists were outraged. Several hundred ultraconservative Islamists gathered in the asphalt plaza in front of the courthouse to protest the trial. Police barricades lined the street, and hundreds of black-uniformed security police—Darth Vader look-alikes wearing visors and carrying shields and batons, deployed during the Mubarak years to put down pro-democracy protests—stood by in tight formation. Protesters brandished posters of the most prominent defendant, Mohammed Fadel Hamed, a Salafist leader in Cairo who “gets involved in conversion issues,” as one protester put it to me. Hamed had allegedly incited his Salafist brethren by spreading a rumor that the would-be Islamic convert, Abeer Fakhri, was being held against her will inside Cairo’s Church of St. Mina.
Members of the crowd shook their fists and chanted anti-government and anti-Christian slogans:
“This is not a sectarian problem, it is a humanitarian case.”
“A Coptic nation will never come.”
“State security is sleeping about what is going on in the churches.”
An Egyptian journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, watched the scene with some surprise. “Now Salafists have the freedom to gather, while before state security would have squashed them,” she told me.
Three days later, at a packed political conference at Al- Azhar University in Cairo, I met Abdel Moneim Al-Shahat, the burly, bearded head of the Salafist movement in Alexandria. The sect had started a political party, Al Nour, and was calling for an Islamic state. Yet Al-Shahat insisted that Salafists believe in a pluralistic society. “Salafists protected churches in Alexandria and elsewhere during the revolution,” he said, insisting that the May church burnings were instigated by “Christians who felt that they were losing power [under the new regime].” He did not elaborate.