MINYA, Egypt — The painted Jesus stares impassively from the wood-paneled wall as the room tenses at the sound of shouts and drumming rising from the street. Five days ago, coordinated mobs burned and ransacked churches and Christian businesses throughout Minya governorate in apparent retaliation for the bloody dispersal of Islamist sit-ins in Cairo. Now, those gathered in the offices of the local Coptic bishop, Makarios, fear that the cacophony outside could herald another attack.
Calm is restored when it emerges that the noise is a wedding procession winding its way through tight Minya streets behind a black car adorned in bouquets. The relief may be temporary, however. Egypt feels perched on the elbow of a tree limb, hesitating before picking its way down one of many possible branches, threatened always with the possibility that it may fall off. The sound outside the window could as easily be a wedding as it could be a vengeful mob.
In November 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood's political candidates here had ridden a wave of confidence. They were ascendant, 83 years after their founding and 57 years after being officially outlawed, with no obstacle apparent on their path to political power. Hossein Sultan, a top candidate in Minya, spoke at the time of the movement's internal polling predicting a 60-percent majority in the province during the approaching parliamentary elections. And he smoothly promised to respect the rights of the Coptic minority, despite their fears that the Brotherhood was manipulating and inflaming religious sentiment to rally its supporters.
Less than two years later, Sultan's movement is being driven back underground. Saad el-Katatni, chairman of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, a former speaker of parliament from Minya, is in prison, as is fallen President Mohamed Morsi.
In the city of Minya itself, called the Bride of the Nile, roads are packed with shoppers trying to beat the 7:00 p.m. curfew. On their way, they pass a Christian-owned pharmacy, a Christian orphanage, a Coptic church, primary and secondary schools run by Christians (which educated Muslim students as well) – all gutted and burned during Wednesday’s riots. Few cast a second glance. Graffiti cursing Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military leader who overthrew Morsi and who has promised to rebuild the churches, adorns the city's streets.
This is Minya's new landscape. Its residents, and those who joined the mobs, create it as they pass through.
"We were expecting this scenario," Makarios says, resuming his interview.
But did he really? Could the countrywide sectarian revenge, unprecedented in its breadth, have been expected? And if it was, what does that say about what Egypt has become?
The country will pick from one of many futures, none of them familiar, and pick again. The landscape has changed, not in a seismic shift as the January 25 uprising seemed to portend, but with a continuous skewing of the ordinary – killing after killing, election after election – until the ordinary became strange, new and frightening, without anyone quite realizing exactly how and when the new country arrived.