Are Copts at risk because of their Sisi support?

Are Copts at risk because of their Sisi support?
Comment: Egypt's Christians have paid a high price for their unrelenting support of the president, becoming a target of extremist groups.
8 min read
14 Mar, 2017
Pope Tawadros has long been supportive of President Sisi [AFP]

After the murder of seven Copts in February, and the release of a video from the Islamic State group's Egypt franchise threatening new attacks against Christians, more than 150 Christian families fled North Sinai, leaving only a handful of Christians behind.

This came just two months after an attack against a Cairo church killed 28 Copts and wounded more than 50.

Traumatised Copts are starting to question whether support for President Sisi is making them less safe. This is a crisis of confidence, not only in the regime, but in their own church leaders as well.   

Three years ago, things looked rather different. After a few turbulent years following the uprising against Mubarak, Hany, a young engineer from Alexandria was one of many Copts who looked forward to the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president in May 2014:

“Bad things happened under Morsi. Our people didn't feel safe. They could be attacked by Muslim terrorists any time. But now, now things will be good. Sisi is a wonderful man! He has already saved us from the Brotherhood. He will bring stability, he will bring back jobs, and he will bring back security for us Christians

After leading the removal of President Morsi in the summer of 2013, then Defence Minister Sisi was viewed as a national saviour. Egyptian Copts overwhelmingly supported his rise to become Egypt's new strongman.

Correspondingly, the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, offered its unstinting loyalty to the president. Based on early statements, Coptic hopes for the new president were sky high. They were hoping for a new beginning under Sisi's rule, for an end to religious discrimination, for equal treatment within the Egyptian legal system, and for protection from sectarian violence.

In each area they have been let down.

Religious discrimination

Under an Ottoman-era law, to which new restrictions were added in 1934, it has been near-impossible to build new churches or repair old ones without breaking the law. With a fast-growing population, Egyptian Copts have been forced to build churches illegally at the risk of having them demolished or vandalised.

By contrast, the building of mosques is easily permitted, and often financed by the state. For decades, Egypt's Christians have waited for a new church law that would make it easier to build and repair churches with government permission.

In August 2016, a new church law was passed by the Egyptian parliament after secret negotiations between government and church officials and other stakeholders. But those who hoped for an easier path to get church permits were bitterly disappointed.

For Coptic Church leaders, who had expected some payback for their loyalty to the president, the new church law was a painful blow

Under the new law, new church permits must be obtained from provisional governors, usually retired military officers who hold little regard for Coptic concerns, and who will most likely oppose the building of churches, citing "security concerns". This is especially the case in Upper Egypt, where Christian-Muslim relations are particularly tense.

The price Copts have had to pay for their support of Sisi
can be counted in coffins. This funeral was held
the day after the bombing in December [AFP]

For Coptic Church leaders, who had expected some payback for their loyalty to the president, the new church law was a painful blow.

Most importantly, it reflects a political reality in which the Egyptian government seeks to appease Muslim hardliners, even if this means brushing aside long-held and deep-seated concerns within Egypt's Coptic community. The same priorities seem to inform the government's handling of other challenges facing the Coptic community.

The use of customary reconciliation

Due to widespread social tensions between Christians and Islamist hardliners, especially in Upper Egypt, small conflicts involving people of different faiths often escalate and take on a sectarian character. A small-scale business dispute; an argument over a parking-lot; rumours that a private house is used as a place of worship, and most seriously; suspicions of an illicit affair between a man and a woman of different faith can escalate into violent confrontations, often ending up with one or more getting killed.

As a general rule, Egyptian authorities refuse to refer such disputes to the court system, instead pressuring the parties to work out their differences through "customary reconciliation".

Read more: Copts flee North Sinai desperate for sanctuary 

Several studies have shown that with the use of customary reconciliation, Muslim perpetrators get off the hook, while the Coptic party end up on the losing side, often forcibly evicted from their land as a way of "resolving" a conflict. In some cases, entire family clans are evicted from their villages with no compensation for the loss of property.

In a well-known case from the village of Beni Suef, a Coptic teenager posted anti-Islamic slogans on his Facebook wall, triggering a conflict that ended with his family being evicted from their home village.

This policy leaves Egyptian Copts without any meaningful recourse within the Egyptian legal system, places them at risk of losing their property without compensation, and create impunity for many crimes committed against Copts.

This policy is a hangover from Mubarak, one to which Copts hoped to see an end under Sisi's rule. Instead, customary reconciliation is used even more frequently, and to deal with ever more serious crimes than before, allowing violent criminals to act with impunity. This marks another area in which Egyptian Authorities seek to appease religious hardliners, rather than defend the rights of Egyptian Copts.

Bishop Anba Makarios of El-Minya province has publically denounced the use of reconciliation sessions, and criticised the government for forcing them through. For the most part, however, the Coptic Orthodox Church has remained silent on the issue, as well as others of concern to lay Egyptian Copts, instead emphasising the importance of promoting national unity between Egyptian Copts and Muslims.

The Coptic community has paid a price for its support of Sisi.

While the 'political' violence against Copts ebbed out, communal violence - the kind of violence that is routinely addressed through reconciliation sessions - has grown more frequent and more severe

In 2013, they were held partly responsible for Morsi's fall. In the two months that followed, and especially after the Rabaa massacre of August 14, in which more than 800 Morsi-supporters were killed by government forces, close to 150 Coptic churches were torched or destroyed, Coptic homes were vandalised, and individual Copts were killed.

These attacks eventually abated, as Egyptian authorities clamped down on the Brotherhood with brutal force. The interim Egyptian government managed to restore some control of the country - and the Egyptian army, under Sisi, provided visible security around prominent Coptic churches.

However, while the "political" violence against Copts ebbed out, communal violence - the kind of violence that is routinely addressed through reconciliation sessions - has grown more frequent and more severe. This has become a source of growing frustration within the Coptic community.

Increasing sectarian violence

In the face of government inaction on sectarian violence, and continued restrictions on the building of Coptic churches, people are losing faith in the church's strategy.

On September 19, 2016, a list of prominent Copts in Egypt issued a joint statement criticising Pope Tawadros II for his public praise of President Sisi ahead of his visit to the UN General Assembly in New York. The statement warned that the church's support of the Egyptian state could harm Coptic communities in Upper Egypt who suffer from sectarian violence and discrimination. 

One of the signatories, researcher Ishaq Ibrahim, argued "the Coptic church's support of Sisi will result in negative outcomes for Copts" and "Islamists will have the chance to target Copts and say that [Copts] support the regime".

The overall message was that continued support for President Sisi does not make Egyptian Copts more secure, it makes them more vulnerable to attacks from extremist forces, forces from which the regime is both unwilling and incapable of protecting them.

The bombing of Peter and Paul's Church in Cairo in December 2016 further validated this view, and fuelled widespread Coptic anger towards the government. The church bombing prompted accusation of inadequate protection from state security forces, who had allowed 12 kilograms of explosives to be smuggled into the Cathedral compound, also the site of the Pope's headquarters.

Swift efforts to hunt down and arrest the alleged men behind the attack did little to stem Coptic resentment.

Since then, Egyptian Copts have been the targets of new forms of attacks, with some being killed in their own homes, and others in public places at broad daylight. A wave of killings in the town of Arish was followed by the release of a video by the Islamic State group's local branch.

In the video, they claim responsibility for the Cairo church attack in December, and threaten to keep killing Christians throughout Egypt, to whom they refer as "infidels" who "empower the West against Muslims".

With Christians leaving North Sinai in large numbers, the government has received harsh criticism for its failure to protect them, but also for its pitiful efforts in helping them find food and shelter elsewhere. One sign of growing discontent among those who have fled Sinai and among Copts in other parts of the country is an unwillingness to accommodate a discourse of "national unity" peddled by both state and church officials in the wake of sectarian attacks.

While Egyptian authorities struggle to regain control of North Sinai, and to contain the threat posed by militants, Egyptian Copts are re-examining their own relationship with the regime, as well as the authority of their own pope.

If the Coptic Church is unwilling to reevaluate its own relationship with the regime, and find ways to communicate the concerns of its laity, more popular anger may be directed towards the church itself.

Bård Kårtveit is a researcher focused on nationalism, state-minority relations, identity and migration in the Middle East.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.