Copts in counter-revolutionary Egypt – the appeal of a new strongman

By: Anonymous 

“You see what happens in Libya! Is that how you want it here?”

Mina – a Copt and a human rights activist based in Cairo recall the comments he gets from family and friends when criticizing Egyptian authorities.

On Friday February 13th 2015, 21 Coptic workers from Egypt were beheaded by ISIS forces in Libya, after being held in captivity for five weeks. The Egyptian government responded by bombing against alleged ISIS targets inside Libya. According to some Coptic activists these events have further diminished any tolerance for political dissent within the Coptic community.

“You see what happens in Libya! Is that how you want it here?”

Since 2013, the Copts of Egypt have stood out as the most ardent supporters of Egypt’s new strongman, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Four years ago, thing looked rather different. The 2011 uprising against former President Mubarak was preceded by large protests all over Egypt, in which Copts protested against government discrimination and inadequate protection of their places of worship. The fall of Mubarak in February 2011 sparked hopes for genuine democratic reforms in Egypt, and Coptic activists who took part in the uprising hoped to see a revolution within their own community as well – a liberation from the dominance of a Coptic Orthodox Church and from their own subservience towards Egypt’s political establishment. Four years later, these hopes remain unfulfilled.

The Coptic community

As the largest Christian community in the Middle East, the Copts make up between 6 and 12 % of Egypts 85 million inhabitants. They trace their history in Egypt to the Pharaonic era, but their position within a modern nationalist project remains unsettled. Since the mid-1970s, their relations with the country’s Muslim majority have been characterized with fear and mutual mistrust, and there has been a gradual rise in violent attacks against Coptic Churches and homes, largely committed by radical Islamists. Under the rule of Mubarak, the church sought protection from such threats in exchange for loyalty towards the regime.

The Revolution and its aftermath

In a break with this arrangement, thousands of Copts took part in the national uprising against Hosni Mubarak in January-February 2011. While condemned by Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church, their participation was notices and widely praised among other protesters. This rebellion left many Copts with great hopes for the future, and with an experience of unity between Christians and Muslims who had come together to liberate themselves from religious leaders and from the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Throughout the spring of 2011, growing tensions between secular and Islamist forces, a spike in petty crime and a general state of lawlessness served to dampen this revolutionary euphoria. Egyptian Copts experienced a dramatic rise of violent attacks against themselves and against their churches. Most of these attacks where committed by Muslim mobs with sectarian grievances. However, the most serious attack took place on October 9, when a peaceful demonstration in Cairo was interrupted by the Egyptian military police. In a brutal attack, a group of Coptic protesters were shot and run over by armored military vehicles, leaving 28 Coptic protesters dead. This attack was seen as particularly shocking, since it was committed not by Islamic radicals, but by the Egyptian army.

This rebellion left many Copts with great hopes for the future, and with an experience of unity between Christians and Muslims who had come together to liberate themselves from religious leaders and from the authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak.

In early 2012 Copts were also rattled by the results of Egypt’s first parliamentary election after the fall of Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party got 38 % of the vote, while Salafi-party Hizb al-Nour got 28 %, leaving Islamist forces with a full majority of the seats in Parliament. Later, in May and June 2012 the first Presidential election was held. After a chaotic process involving five candidates and two voting rounds, the election was won by Mohammed Morsi, who represented the Freedom and Justice Party. Among the Christians of Egypt, this was widely regarded as the worst possible outcome.[1]

The Brotherhood in Power

President Morsi was sworn in on June 30th 2012, and Egyptian Copts soon felt that their worst fears about the President and the Brotherhood were validated. Within one year in power, the President had failed to engage constructively with non-Islamic forces and tried to push through a constitution viewed by many as heavily Islamic in its emphasis.

Within weeks of Morsi taking office, Copts experienced a distinct change in the language being used and the messages coming out of mosques in their neighborhoods, with a clear escalation of anti-Christian statements. At the same time there was a rise in sectarian violence and attacks against Coptic churches and properties all over Egypt. In general, Copts experienced that Morsi’s electoral victory and rise to the Presidency give Islamic radicals a ‘free pass’ on attacking Copts, without facing any interference from the state.

After one year in power, President Morsi had managed to alienate all non-Islamist forces and turn a majority of Egyptians against himself. After several weeks of massive protests, he was ousted by the Egyptian army on July 2nd, 2013. In the following weeks, Copts where targeted by angry mobs, widely identified as supporters of Morsi, who burned more than 70 churches, along with hundreds of Coptic homes all over Egypt. After six weeks, these attacks subsided, as the Egyptian army conducted a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and arrested most of their top leaders.[2]

Sisi – the Nation’s Savior

Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who instigated Morsi’s overthrow, has since been hailed as the nations savior by self-proclaimed liberals, leftists, old-Mubarak loyalists, and Copts who were grateful to see an end to Morsi’s rule.

Many Copts and secular Muslims describe the period around June 30th as very dramatic, often claiming that Egypt was on the brink of a civil war. As such, Defense Minister al-Sisi is seen as having saved the country from the abyss by removing Morsi from office and taking on the Brotherhood in a forceful manner. This perception is reflected in statements like “He saved us from becoming Syria” – hinting a where the country would have headed if Morsi had remained in office.

Many Copts and secular Muslims describe the period around June 30th as very dramatic, often claiming that Egypt was on the brink of a civil war.

In June 2014, Sisi was elected President by an electorate that was still grateful for Sisis crackdown on the Brotherhood, and more than willing to overlook infringements on civil liberties, and the brutal treatment of dissenting voices that took place during the interim period. Since his election, these developments have been further entrenched.

Increasing authoritarianism

In February 19, the Egyptian Cabinet approved an amendment to the Criminal Procedures Law, which will allow Judges to overlook witness testimonies in criminal courts.

On February 24th, President Sisi approved the ‘Terrorist Entity Act’, which defines as a terrorist entity any group “practicing or intending to advocate by any means to disturb public order or endanger the safety of the community and its interests or risk its security or harm national unity” – a definition broad enough to cover everything from al-Qaida to Amnesty International.

At the same time, political prisoners are tortured in jail, and well-known activists such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Yara Sallam have been imprisoned and sentenced to 3 years to life imprisonment, mainly for organizing public protests without obtaining permits to do so. These steps towards an increasingly authoritarian state are barely addressed in Egyptian mainstream media. Overall, there appears to be broad acceptance for these encroachments on civil and political rights, as long as the regime is capable of providing some security and stability for its citizens.

This is especially the case among Egyptian Copts. After three years of political turbulence and insecurity, many Copts are left with an urgent sense of the need for a strong state with a robust security apparatus, and a strong leader that can protect the country’s Christian communities. After the Revolution of June 30th, they feel that they have found this protection in the Egyptian army, and in the forceful leadership of President Sisi.

The Coptic Orthodox Church

These sentiments are also reflected in the position of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The late Pope Shenouda, who ruled the church for forty years, left behind a powerful organization with strong links to the old regime. As head of the church, Shenouda established an understanding with former president Mubarak. In exchange for his political loyalty, the Pope would be granted the power to dictate the personal status law pertaining to Copts, and be recognized as the sole representative of the Coptic community in relation to the state. This arrangement came under scrutiny following the 2011 uprising. In 2012, when Shenouda passed away, it was widely expected that the next Pope would limit his engagement in politics and open up for new Coptic voices from outside the Church. At his enthronement in November 2012, Pope Tawadros II declared that he would heed these expectations, and avoid getting himself entangled in Egyptian politics.

In exchange for his political loyalty, the Pope would be granted the power to dictate the personal status law pertaining to Copts, and be recognized as the sole representative of the Coptic community in relation to the state. 

However, at this point President Morsi had been in office for five months, and Egypt was entrenched in a bitter and destructive power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and their many opponents. Within the next seven months, the new Pope was under heavy pressure to take a clear stand in this power struggle, and in late June 2013 the Pope chose to openly support the removal of President Morsi. Since then, as head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Tawadros II has positioned himself as a loyal supporter of the new regime.

Pope Tawadros is widely praised within the Coptic community, and there appears to be broad support for his political stance, much to the despair of activists who hoped the church would withdraw from politics. Many Copts express quite clearly that they hope the new Pope will cultivate a working relationship with the President that resembles Pope Shenouda’s relationship with Hosni Mubarak.

Fear-fuelled loyalties

The recent rise of ISIS in neighbouring Libya, and most dramatically, the abduction and beheading of Egyptian Copts in Libya has left a strong impact on the Coptic community. The government’s decision to respond to this massacre by bombing alleged ISISt targets in Libya was warmly welcomed among Egyptian Copts. To some, these bombing raids represented a validation of their lives from the government that they could not take for granted.

Mina, the human rights activist mentioned earlier, confirm that events like the massacre of Copts in Libya serve to further strengthen Coptic support for the regime, and diminish any tolerance towards dissenting voices within their own community. Other Copts who dear to criticize the new regime has felt this squeeze for a long time. Fady, a Coptic journalist who publicly criticize the government in his own reporting, recall cases in which members of his own church have accuses him of ‘secretly working for the Brotherhood’ to undermine Sisi’s leadership.[3]Under these circumstances, taking on a critical voice comes at a high price within the Coptic community.

There are widespread fears that in the near future, the Muslim Brotherhood – now outlawed and exluded from electoral politics – will resort to violence at a greater scale, along with other militant groups operating in Sinai and in Egypts largest cities. At the same time, the Arab world is ridden with turmoil, with an ongoing civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and most recently in Libya. Under these circumstances, many Egyptians see a strong security state under Sisi’s command as the only thing that can protect them from the chaos, terror and sectarian extremism engulfing other countries in the region. As a non-Muslim minority, Egyptian Copts are particularly fearful of these threats. As long as these threats are experienced as real, they provide a powerful impetus for Copts to keep supporting President Sisi, and to overlook the increasingly authoritarian aspects of his rule.

[1] Among Egyptians it is also a popular assumption that Morsi’s electoral victory was the result of a large-scale election scam orchestrated by the Brotherhood. This assumption is not found among Copts only, but is widely expressed among Muslims as well.
[2] The regime’s struggle with the Brotherhood included an incident later referred to as the Rabaa massacre. On August 13 thousands of supporters of former President Morsi gathered in a tent camp on the square in front of the Rabaa Mosque in Cairo. The demonstrators refused to vacate the area and violent clashes broke out between the demonstrators and Egyptian police. On August 14, the Egyptian army launced a brutal attack on the camp. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 817 people were killed in what they characterized as a premeditated massacre and a crime against humanity (HRW 2014). Egyptian authorities have defended their way of dealing with these demonstrators, with broad public support from their own people. When Copts talk about the events of the last few years, the Rabaa massacre is either left out completely, or defended in brief terms. Nonetheless, the Rabaa massacre is probably the most heavily disputed and polarizing event in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. See Human Rights Watch (2014) All According to Plan. The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt Report. Human Rights Watch. New York, US: http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/egypt0814web_0.pdf
[3] Among those who oppose the Brotherhood, both Christians and Muslims, this has become a common accusation against people who reveal themselves as critical to Sisi’s regime.
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