For Egypt’s Copts, the military’s removal of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power was nothing short of a miracle. After two and a half years in which Islamists dominated every electoral contest they faced, there was little if any hope on the horizon. Since the 25th of January revolution, Coptic despair manifested itself in an unprecedented wave of emigration from Egypt, which intensified during the Brotherhood’s year in power. Following the massive demonstrations against the Brotherhood’s rule and the military coup of July 3rd 2013, Copts were in a frenzied mood celebrating their deliverance; a deliverance that would prove short lived, however.
The Copts represent the Middle East’s largest Christian population, and were once one of the pillars of early Christianity, with some of its early saints framing what it meant to be Christian. However, centuries of persecution and struggles for survival have left Copts a small minority in their homeland. Modernity brought new challenges to the community, though it removed the legal second-class status in which Copts lived in the Middle Ages. In recent years Copts have come under increasing pressure due to the discriminatory policies of successive governments, as well as violent attacks by their fellow citizens.
During President Morsi’s rule, previous patterns of religious discrimination were reinforced and more alarming ones emerged. At the national level, Coptic representation in decision making bodies – from the Cabinet to the upper echelons of the bureaucracy – dwindled to the point of non-existence. Islamists dominated the drafting of the constitution and its articles were a clear setback to religious freedom and equality. Prominent Islamist leaders painted Copts as responsible for Egypt’s ills and disasters, creating an incubating environment for violence. On a local level, violent attacks on Copts increased and in April 2013 they even reached the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo – the residence of the Pope. In the absence of the rule of law, forced evictions were imposed by local ‘reconciliation’ sessions. Blasphemy charges brought against Copts accused of insulting Islam were often accompanied by violent attacks on Copts in the area.
The hopes that Copts placed in Egypt’s military coup did not last. While the coup enjoyed widespread support among Egypt’s political class, state institutions, official religious establishments and the population at large, the support of Pope Tawadros II and Copts was singled out by Islamists. Christians were warned by various Islamist preachers of the heavy price in blood that they would pay for their action. Churches became favourite targets for pro-Brotherhood demonstrations with insulting slogans written on the walls. More seriously, Copts, their churches, and their property, especially in villages and cities in Egypt’s south (an Islamist stronghold) became targets for violent attacks. The culmination of this came on 14 August 2013. As news spread of the army’s massacre of Brotherhood supporters in two Cairo squares, angry mobs attacked, looted, and burned churches and Christian-owned businesses around the country. The level of destruction was colossal: in the single largest attack on Christian targets in Egypt since the 14th century, more than 50 churches were attacked.
Faced with this threat, Copts and their Church have clung to the military as their saviour. Copts overwhelmingly supported Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in his bid for the presidency with Pope Tawadros publically endorsing him. Copts hope that his government will offer them protection from those who wish them harm and that the new order will provide real equality for all Egyptians. The new constitution passed by referendum in January 2014 removed most of the problematic language of its Islamist predecessor, though it retained Shari’a as the main source of legislation. The Church has also enjoyed a good relationship with the government and the military in the new order. This has encouraged Copts to believe that a new page has been opened in the history of their relations with their fellow citizens and that sectarian problems will subside as Egyptians unite in fighting terrorism and charting a new path for their country.
However, such hopes seem likely to be misplaced. The new government has not given any indication that it will address the root causes of the persecution of Copts. While some Islamist groups play a critical role in some of the attacks on Copts, in recent years the growing willingness of ordinary citizens to participate in attacks on their Christian neighbours is an alarming phenomenon. The free rein given to the police in their fight against Islamists has meant a return to previous patterns of police practices against Copts. The Egyptian police and legal system have failed to offer Copts any protection, or punishment for their attackers. Resolution has been left to local “reconciliation” sessions, which entrench a culture of immunity for attackers. Kidnappings of Copts in southern governorates have rocketed in recent months in the absence of any police action to protect them. While the military regime has been keen to use the church attacks in its propaganda for Western audiences, it has shown no interest in offering serious protection.
One telling example was the attack in a village near Luxor on the 4th and 5th of July 2013. Some Copts took refuge from an angry mob in a house. When the police arrived, they negotiated an agreement whereby the women and children were taken away and the men left to their fate. Four men were butchered as soon as the police left. In the aftermath of the attack, Luxor’s Director of Security, Major Khalid Hassan informed Human Rights Watch that he found nothing wrong with the police’s conduct. “There was no reason for the police to take any special measures, it’s not [the police’s] job to stop killings, we just investigate afterward.”
Unfortunately such attacks are not a new occurrence, nor are they likely to be the last that will take place. No matter who the ruler of Egypt may be or what its constitution says, unless the Egyptian government takes serious steps to address the root causes of the sectarian problem and prevents attacks on Copts, they will continue to suffer from increasing discrimination and persecution.