Saviour or dictator: Copts in Sisi's Egypt trapped by a strongman's balancing act
"God saw fit for us to live in difficult circumstances... But as long as we're together... no one can do anything to us," he said, addressing the crowd in a now ritual gesture of solidarity on the occasion of Christmas Eve on January 6.
Inaugurated a year earlier in Egypt's new administrative capital, and thought to be the largest in the Middle East, the cathedral exemplifies the carefully crafted state narrative of Sisi as the saviour of Coptic Christians.
During his rise to power he promised to protect the community and serve as a bulwark against terrorism in the region.
On the ground, however, the gap between rhetoric and reality is vast.
Endemic sectarian attacks have continued unabated under his rule, while institutional discrimination remains entrenched.
Furthermore, Egypt's military has failed to contain Islamic militancy, with a series of devastating attacks targeting Coptic Christians.
Amid a wider crackdown on civil society, which intensified following a renewal of anti-government protests in September 2019, any leniency towards Coptic activism has also now lapsed, with prominent critics of anti-Christian violence detained by the regime in recent months.
|Trapped between the state and society, Coptic Christians have protection from neither
Trapped between the state and society, Coptic Christians have protection from neither.
Support for the Egyptian regime and the president's self-proclaimed allyship have led to bitter resentment among large swathes of Egyptians.
But Sisi's protection has left them more vulnerable than ever.
"The government's narrative is centred around the theory that the current regime is the saviour and protector of minorities from the evil powers of the Muslim Brothers and other terrorist groups," Mina Thabet, a Coptic rights activists told The New Arab.
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"Reality tells a different story".
Sisi the saviour
Despite purging all political opposition and stifling virtually every avenue of free expression, Sisi has publicly promoted an image of unifying Egypt, and the Coptic minority has been a buttress for both domestic and international legitimacy.
In 2015, Sisi became the first Egyptian leader to attend a Coptic Christmas mass, and arguably, the fortunes of the long-oppressed Christian minority have improved somewhat since 2013.
Following the Rabaa massacre of August that year, when security forces killed at least 900 supporters of Mohamed Morsi, angry mobs burned and looted scores of Coptic churches in revenge, accusing Christians of conspiring to overthrow the ousted Muslim Brotherhood-aligned president.
The Coptic leadership, for reasons of both necessity and survival, was a key backer of the Sisi regime, fearing an Islamist government would further persecute the vulnerable minority.
|Despite purging all political opposition and stifling every avenue of free expression, Sisi has publicly promoted an image of unifying Egypt and protecting the Coptic minority
While the church has long had a symbiotic relationship with the Egyptian state – Pope Tawadros II has discouraged his followers from criticising the president – there is growing discontent among ordinary Coptic Christians.
Many feel the church is too deferential and unwilling to articulate their deep-rooted grievances, and even within clerical ranks there are dissenting voices.
Outspoken Coptic activists have so far not been exposed to the excesses of forced disappearances and arrests under Sisi because of the authoritarian leader's need to maintain his image as the community's protector.
But in recent months as Egypt moved to quash the most significant wave of anti-government protests since the 2011 revolution, the regime's patience seems to have run out.
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In November 2019, Egyptian plain clothes officers raided the Cairo home of prominent Coptic activist Ramy Kamel.
He was questioned and allegedly tortured before prosecutors accused him of joining a "terror" group, broadcasting false information, and receiving foreign funding.
He is still being held in jail, subject to a pattern of 15-day sentences being renewed on repeat. Several other Coptic activists have also reportedly been detained since protests in September.
Kamel was a leading member of the Maspero Youth Union, a human rights group that emerged following the massacre of 27 Coptic Christians in October 2011 as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) attacked a peaceful protest condemning attacks on churches.
At the time of his arrest several activists noted that Kamel had been sharing footage of sectarian violence in southern Egypt on social media, eliciting a warning from authorities.
He had also been extremely critical of the Egyptian regime's response to violence against Christians.
Kamel was told that if he wants to be released he must stop writing about violations of freedom of religion or belief in Egypt.
|The Coptic leadership, through both necessity and survival, was a key backer of the Sisi regime, fearing an Islamist government would further persecute the vulnerable minority
"Ramy's case is very illustrative that the regime is only able to accept or make alliances with Coptic religious figures that are completely in alliance with the state's propaganda policies," a regional researcher at Amnesty International told The New Arab.
"But once you start to criticise, you will be subjected to any form of repression".
A history of violence
Before his detention, Ramy Kamel had been raising awareness about a spate of arson attacks on churches in Upper Egypt in October which had partially, or completely, destroyed Coptic places of worship.
He had reportedly accused Egyptian state security forces of complicity in the attacks.
Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 100 million people, have long faced entrenched institutional discrimination and sectarian violence under successive authoritarian rulers.
The Middle East's largest Christian community is also excluded from Egypt's intelligence services and state security forces, and their percentage in the army and police is capped at one percent.
Over the past two years the Christian minority has been targeted by a series of bloody attacks, most claimed by the Islamic State militant group.
Suicide bombers struck a Coptic cathedral in 2016 during Sunday mass, killing 25 people, many of whom were women and children. A year later, deadly twin suicide bombings hit two churches on Palm Sunday, killing 45.
In Sinai, the majority of Copts have been displaced following a series of brazen IS attacks.
|Over the past two years the Christian minority has been targeted by a series of bloody attacks [Getty]
While large-scale terror attacks garner international coverage, the central battle ground for Egypt's besieged Coptic community is in Minya, Upper Egypt, which has the highest concentration of Christians outside of Cairo at around 40 percent.
Sectarian violence has been unrelenting under Sisi's rule in the rural district, which is also an Islamist stronghold.
The Gama'a al-Islamiyya group, which carried out a five-year insurgency against the government in the 1990s culminating in the killing of 62 tourists in Luxor in 1997, once had a foothold there.
|While large-scale terror attacks garner international coverage, the central battle ground for Egypt's besieged Coptic community is in Minya, which has the highest concentration of Christians outside of Cairo
Between 2013 and 2018 over 160 incidents were recorded in Minya, ranging from attacks on businesses and churches, the kidnapping and forced religious conversion of Coptic women, and the murder of Copts.
In one widely publicised incident in 2016, a 70-year-old Christian woman, Souad Thabet, was stripped naked and paraded through her village by a mob of 300 men after a rumour spread her son was having an affair with a Muslim woman.
Sisi went on public TV to condemn the attack and promised justice, but authorities dropped the case against the perpetrators citing a lack of evidence and insisted the woman reconcile with local Muslims.
She has still not been able to return home due to threats by her Muslim neighbours.
Thabet's case highlights the routine lack of justice Coptic Christians face when confronted by sectarian violence.
With security forces rarely intervening to stop attacks, authorities also refuse to refer sectarian disputes to the court system, instead pressuring parties to use an informal justice system known as 'customary reconciliation'.
|Coptic Christians face a lack of justice when confronted by sectarian violence [Getty]
In this system, Coptic Christians are nearly always on the losing side. In some cases, entire families have been evicted from their land to resolve a dispute.
"There have been cases in the past where these reconciliation sessions legitimise displacement," Carl Soderbergh, head of Policy & Communications at Minority Rights Group International, told The New Arab.
"This lack of access to justice and a climate of impunity means that there are a category of rights abuses."
A policy from the Mubarak era, the practice is thought to be used more frequently now than ever before, allowing impunity for, and even encouraging, attacks on Coptic Christians.
|Copts, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's nearly 100 million people, have long faced entrenched institutional discrimination and sectarian violence under successive authoritarian rulers
The Coptic Church has failed to condemn the policy, remaining subservient to the state. But some members of the clergy, such as Bishop Anba Makarios of El-Minya province, have repeatedly boycotted reconciliation sessions and criticised the government for enforcing them.
Ramy Kamel had been critical about the informal justice mechanism before his arrest, and campaigned for the rights of Coptic Christians displaced by its rulings.
One area in which Coptic Christians had hoped to see progress under Sisi was a change to discriminatory laws governing the building of churches. They have, however, been left sorely disappointed.
Regulations on church construction dating back to a 1856 Ottoman decree give the president sole power to approve the building of new houses of worship.
It was updated in 1934 to specify conditions that must be met before authorisation can be granted, including obtaining the approval of the neighbouring Muslim community, and Sisi's government passed a highly anticipated new amendment in 2016.
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But the new law was strongly condemned by Human Rights Watch, who said it "maintains restrictions over the construction and renovation of churches and discriminates against the Christian minority in Egypt".
Four years later, final approvals have been issued for less than 200 churches out of more than 5,000 applications, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights says.
In the same period the state has closed 25 churches and prohibited Christian worship, in many cases based on the ruling of a 'customary reconciliation'.
"The regime failed to tackle issues of discrimination on many levels and there has been no substantial change in Christians' lives," Coptic activist Mina Thabet told The New Arab.
"They are still suffering from the same issues, but the thing is, they can't voice their concerns as they used to following the 2011 uprising."
Subjects, not citizens
While Coptic Christians face a unique form of persecution related to their historic marginalisation and minority status, their oppression takes place in a wider context of repression under Sisi.
On the same day Ramy Kamel was detained, Egyptian security forces arrested Shady Zalat, an editor for Mada Masr.
Twenty-four hours later the offices of the news site, widely described as the country's last independent news outlet, were also raided.
|While Coptic Christians face a unique form of persecution related to their historic marginalisation and minority status, their oppression takes place in a wider context of repression under Sisi
Since the 2013 coup, rights groups say Egyptian authorities have passed a series of draconian laws to normalise their escalating crackdown on the media, NGOs, trade unions and political parties.
"They also resorted to a range of repressive tactics against perceived opponents (particularly after the September 20 protests), including enforced disappearances, mass arrests, cruel detention conditions, torture and other ill-treatment and severe probation measures to silence any form of dissent," a regional researcher at Amnesty International told The New Arab.
Following several high-profile and deadly attacks on Coptic Christians in 2017 Sisi imposed a nationwide state of emergency, in part to preserve his image as protector of the community, granting exceptional state powers to monitor all forms of communication, including the press, impose curfews and refer civilians to State Security Emergency Court.
But critics say the emergency measures further justified the state's unchecked power and suppression of human rights, with little accountability.
"We see a real impact of the constraints on activism also having an effect on the Coptic community," Carl Soderbergh, head of Policy & Communications at Minority Rights Group International told The New Arab.
"What we are seeing now fits under a more generalised trend of silencing critics regardless of whether they are Copts or belong to other communities," he added.
The Christian minority has long organised itself though various media outlets, foundations and other organisations, but with virtually no space left in civil society to manoeuvre activists can no longer articulate Coptic grievances.
When they do, bypassing the church's monopoly over the community, they face the same fate as thousands of others languishing in Egypt's jails.
"We are seeing a pattern that a lot of this started taking place after September and the call for protests," Soderbergh says.
"In a sense, one gets the feeling that the Egyptian government has been looking at the Coptic community not as free citizens, but as subjects."
Charlie Hoyle is a journalist at The New Arab.