“Egypt’s always potentially explosive religious fault line between its Muslim majority and its large Coptic Orthodox Christian minority feels more ominous here than elsewhere.
“This used to be the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, but it has been slowly fading for more than 20 years,” said businessman and blogger Mohammad Hanou. “It has become poorer and more conservative. The conservatives are not only Muslims. There are conservative Copts, too. But their differences need a trigger — an event.
“One of those flashpoints occurred at a midnight mass marking the beginning of 2011 when a homemade bomb exploded at the front of the al-Qiddissin Saints Church. Twenty-three worshippers died and nearly 100 were injured.
That act of violence was followed by a sporadic acts on churches across the country. It is one of the reasons why Copts fret about the potential electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood and their more extreme allies, the Salafis, whose Saudi-like puritanical ideas about Islam are popular in Alexandria’s slums.
“Many Muslims are tolerant and feel free to elect Christian parliamentarians,” said Hany Mikhail Botros, a prominent Copt businessman who was only five metres away from the blast and lost his future daughter-in-law and many close friends in the attack.
Proof of this tolerance, he said, was that many Muslims personally contacted him to express their sorrow after the New Year’s bombing.
“I can even say that some Muslims fight more for our rights than we do ourselves,” Botros said as he looked up at a wall in the church with photographs of those who died in the bombing.
There was, however, inevitably, a “but” coming as Botros continued his reflections.
“But such turmoil has always existed under the surface here. Kids in some primary schools are actually taught to hate Christians. After this year’s revolution such sentiments began to come out more.”
Alexandria was once the largest Jewish city in the world, but only a handful of Jews live here today. Whether a similar fate may befall the Copts is a subject that is not much discussed in public but it is at the back of many minds.
“Do we have a Plan B? No,” Botros said. “We could live overseas and I have the chance to do that, but I do not see that as a solution. I really love this country and I am not only making a speech.”
Religion is such an emotive topic that there has never been a reliable census of how many Muslims and Christians there are in Egypt. Copts claim they number about 15 million and make up about 20 per cent of the population. Many Muslims reckon that the true percentage of Copts is only eight or 10 per cent.