Coptic hopes and fears

For many Copts the worst is over, but there is little guarantee that the best is yet to come, writes Dina Ezzat


At a foul and taamiya restaurant at the heart of Heliopolis, Mariana and Mina sat on Friday evening for a last meal out together. They had just been to Good Friday prayers at the Mar Morcos Church, and they were eating and giving the clearly pregnant Mariana a little break before they embarked on their Easter shopping.

On Good Friday last year, Mariana and Mina also had their end of fasting meal at the same restaurant on Ibrahim Street. Last year, however, as Mina recalled, “things were very different. We were finalising our wedding preparations and were not sure what was going to happen, to us or to the country. Everything was so uncertain.”

Around that time last year, Egypt was in a state of political turmoil, with a political tug of war going on between the Muslim Brotherhood and the political opposition. Egypt’s Christians, Copts the majority, were right at the heart of this tug of war, not just because they were feeling insecure about their position in a state that seemed to be heading in an Islamist direction, but also because leading Brotherhood figures were accusing Christians and Coptic Pope Tawodros II of “attempting to topple Islamist rule”.

“We had both signed the Tamarod (Rebel) petition that was trying to get [former Islamist president Mohamed] Morsi to step down, but we were not sure how things were going to work out. We feared that at the end of the day he would not go and could even take revenge on us,” Mariana said.

Today, the clearly happily married and expecting couple are beyond this state of fear that they say was impossible to miss in almost any Christian family in Egypt. However, they remain apprehensive about the future, although also hopeful.

They are hopeful, as Mina explained, because the Islamists have been rejected by “the entire nation. Not just us, as Christians, but by all Egyptians, including some very pious Muslim men and women who like us felt that the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood was not designed to serve the interests of the country but to serve the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation.”

They are also hopeful because “the state is acting to make sure that the Brotherhood has no come back — not any time soon, and hopefully not in the future either,” Mina added.

Their ultimate reason for hope, Mina and Mariana said almost simultaneously, was the upcoming presidency of former chief of the army Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. “He is really a good man as he sided with the people on 30 June [in the uprising against former president Mohamed Morsi.] Had he not done so, things could have taken a totally different turn,” said Mariana.

She added that the fact that Al-Sisi is “from the army is also very reassuring, because it means he will not compromise in crushing the terrorists once and for all.” Like other Egyptian Copts doing their Easter shopping and attending church, Mina and Mariana were also hopeful that under the rule of Al-Sisi, the Copts will be able to worship freely and that their churches will be protected from any attacks.

The reason for their apprehension, however, as Mina put it, was that “we may not be allowed to move further and we may never really be treated as true citizens of this country. I have never felt that the state looks at me in the same way as it looks at a Muslim man, to be honest,” he said.

Now in his early 30s, Mina is an architect who works for his father, also an architect, in the latter’s private business. His work and life are not directly related to official bodies, but he claims to see discrimination in many things around him.

“It’s the same old story that we have been living with all our lives. If you are a Copt, you are bound to have complications every single time you do paper work at a government office. We cannot access certain jobs, and we are always looked at with suspicion and dealt with suspiciously by security bodies and even by some other people,” he said.

Mina and Mariana are not sure what it will take to change this situation and to go back to the way they hear from their grandparents that things were a few decades ago. They are not certain that things can be changed through the election of Al-Sisi, for whom both are determined to vote in the forthcoming presidential elections.

The Al-Sisi campaign: According to some Coptic activists who have voluntarily joined the ranks of the Al-Sisi campaign in several governorates, once the former chief of the army is president some things will change.

“He promised to attend to some of the grievances and to rectify some of the unfairness. He said that he, as the former head of military intelligence, was well aware of the injustice to which the Copts have been deliberately subjected to,” said Rimone, an activist from the Delta who preferred to be identified by his first name only.

Rimone said that he, along with a wider group of Copts, had been hosted for a two-hour meeting with Al-Sisi a few days ago and that “everything was said openly and clearly: we spoke our minds and we complained about what we have been suffering, not just before but also after the 25 January Revolution and even after 30 June.”

According to Rimone, Al-Sisi acknowledged that no proper investigation had been made of the assault on Coptic demonstrators on 9 October 2011, when over 20 demonstrators, including Mina Daniel, were killed by army vehicles in Cairo. Rimone said that the police had been reluctant about saving the churches and Christian properties that had been attacked after the 30 June demonstrations and after the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins on 14 August last year.

“He said that he was aware that things had not been done properly, particularly on these two fronts, and that as president he would be prepared to do what it took to bring justice to Egypt. I personally believe what he says. I have no reason, or let me say no choice, but to give him the benefit of the doubt in what he says,” Rimone argued.

“If he fails to live up to his promises, then we will decide what to do. But for now this is the path we have to take.”

This approach is not just that of activists who had a moment of hoping for the full retrieval of citizenship after the 25 January Revolution. It is also the attitude of those citizens who feared what they thought could be the impending rise of the Islamists.

Before and after the ascent of the Brotherhood to the presidency of Egypt, such people’s fears seemed to be confirmed by a series of faith-based attacks in which both the state and the Islamists seemed to be involved, either independently or jointly. Today, many have decided to pin their hopes on the state, which they feel is far more likely to serve their interests than the Islamists.

“The state deals with Christians, all Christians, with a certain degree of suspicion: we are denied jobs in strategic security bodies and we have difficulties if we want to build or repair churches. The state might not even defend us if we are attacked by the Islamists to avoid antagonising them, but it would not itself initiate any attacks,” commented Dalia Anwar, a 50-year-old member of the Egyptian Evangelical Church.

She added that “it is obvious that the state is counting on our fears to gain our support and votes, but this is the way things are — we have to opt for the lesser evil.”

According to Ayman Al-Sayyad, a commentator who served briefly as an advisor to ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi before resigning over a democracy-related dispute, the state has been allowing Christians to be intimidated by the Islamists, whose intellectual influence has gone way beyond the scope of the organised groups.

“It started with [late president Anwar] Sadat, who chose to empower the Islamist groups to defy the leftists influence and in the process allowed the groups, mostly led by extremist ideas, to get their way,” he said.

The attacks against the Copts at the hands of Islamists, with masked societal approval, began in 1977 in an incident whose perpetrators were never brought to justice. However, eventually the Islamists got too powerful for Sadat to control, and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by the 25 January Revolution, managed only to reduce the level of anti-Coptic sentiment.

“He too benefited from that card, and he played it very well to serve his political interests. He spoke about equal citizenship in the limited context of Copts-Muslims, but he never acted to make this promised equal citizenship a reality, not to the Copts and not to any other minority,” Al-Sayyad argued.

“Eventually, the Copts felt that it is to the Church that they subscribe maybe before than to the state, not because they don’t feel they belong to the country, but because they feel that the state does not deal with them as if they belong.”

Choices of the Church: At the same time, the Coptic Church also became used to this new reality, and it liked it a great deal, argues Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO.

When Pope Tawodros II was inaugurated in November 2013, he promised to keep the Church as a spiritual body alone. The promise was short lived, however, and he not only allowed politics to take a prominent place in the Coptic Church, but also worked with his counterparts in the Catholic and Evangelical Churches to increase the importance of politics.

“The pope is not necessarily the strongest man in the Church — not if he is new, that is. There are also other clergymen, especially Father Armia and Father Paula, who are also very influential and who are full partners in the decision-making process,” suggested a source inside the Coptic Church.

According to this source, “there are also external influences, including the threats that the Copts face, that guide decision-making in the Church. It has to be remembered that under the rule of Morsi the Cathedral in Cairo was attacked for the first time since it was built in the 1960s.”

This attack, the source argued, had come along with “determined pressure from some Coptic figures, mostly businessmen, for the Church to take part in the anti-Morsi momentum that was expanding both at the official and public levels in Egypt.” Pope Tawodros was hesitant about this at the beginning, but he finally had to bow to what, according to the same source, was the wish not just of the Copts but also of the state.

“It is an open secret that the Rebel Movement was started as a joint effort between Hamdeen Sabahi, the leader of the Popular Current, and some intelligence officers,” said the same source. The Black Bloc group that was particularly active in the anti-Morsi demonstrations that followed his controversial constitutional declaration was also orchestrated with the consent of the state, the Church and political opposition figures, he said.

“The common assumption is that Black Bloc was made up of Christians. This is not true, but there were lots of Christians there,” said Rami, a member of the group. According to Rami, Black Bloc activists were never involved in anti-Muslim Brotherhood attacks, however. “These were the doing of policemen — as part of the state’s defiance of the Muslim Brotherhood for which the Copts were blamed by the Brotherhood’s leaders who were always trying to avoid a direct confrontation with the police in the hope of having them on their side,” he said.

While the state and the Church seem to have come to an understanding, Copts on the ground continue to “suffer discrimination” of many sorts, said Ibrahim of the EIPR. During the interim phase that followed the ouster of Mubarak, for example, the then ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) bowed to the will of the Islamists who declined the appointment of a Copt as governor of the Upper Egypt governorate of Qena.

“This was a scandal,” commented Rimone, the Coptic activist.

Meanwhile many Coptic activists remind their interlocutors of the failure of the state and the armed forces to adequately honour those Coptic and other Christian officers and soldiers who took part in the wars with Israel.

The most obvious example is Baki Zaki Youssef, the officer who masterminded the use of water pumps to bring down the otherwise invincible Bar Lev Line on the Suez Canal during the October 1973 War.

On the socio-economic front, this discrimination amounts to isolating the Copts, making them cluster in streets and villages that are almost never frequented by Muslims. “We live in adjacent streets in Ain Shams [on the outskirts of Heliopolis], but the only place we meet is the market. Otherwise, we keep to ourselves, and they [the Muslims] keep to themselves,” said Samia, a Coptic woman in her 40s.

Samia said she was not concerned by this segregation, but she was alarmed that none of her Muslim neighbours had tried to keep Islamist demonstrators from walking through Coptic streets. “The police did not either, even though we were afraid of being attacked. However, they did not attack us: they just chanted slogans against the Copts and left,” she said.

Ibrahim added that anti-Coptic crimes, whether those similar to Samia’s account or the more disturbing accounts of individuals being kidnapped “especially in Upper Egypt” and being held to ransom, had not been something that the state had been willing to do much about. The Church had also not put pressure on the state to act, he said.

“It’s very much an open question how this could change once the new president is inaugurated, not just because he would be coming to office with considerable Christian support, but also because the new constitution gives prominence to the state’s commitment to end discrimination,” he said.

According to Ibrahim, a first test of the positions of the state will be the electoral law that is currently being drafted. “It will become clear whether or not the state will adopt a law that allows Copts to run and be elected to parliament, or whether it will pass a law that will make the representation of Copts in parliament subsidiary, as it was during the rule of Mubarak,” he argued.

For professor of political science Hassan Nafaa, the bottom line for what the state should do is “to make the law apply, equally and fully for all. It is very basic really: a state of law where equal citizenship is the rule is what the state should do,” Nafaa argued.

This would not be an easy choice for the state to make, he added. “For the authorities to opt for this choice, it would mean deciding to abandon a crucial tool of autocracy and making up their minds for democracy. This is no small matter, and we will have to see how it will be decided.”

It will not be an easy choice for the Church either, argued Ibrahim. “Once the Copts went out of the walls of the Cathedral, the clergy lost a great deal of their influence and power. They too might not be interested in seeing things changing,” he argued.

Mina, Shukrallah and Iskandar: According to Coptic activist Mina Thabet, one thing that could make both the state and the Church decide that the time has come for the rule of law to apply equally on all citizens would be for the liberal political forces to offer a serious alternative for citizens “like the Copts and other minorities” who may not be happy about the choices offered by the state.

“The candidature of Al-Sisi is one example,” but the other alternative is necessarily the Islamists at the moment, “which is not an alternative for us,” he said.

“We have to admit that throughout the past three years since Mubarak was removed, the liberal political forces have failed to join hands or to work in any cohesive way that could have given us a good civilian presidential candidate,” Thabet said. This is “one of many examples of the failure of the liberal political forces, whose only moment of achievement was when they faced up to Morsi, and there too they were supported by the state with the help of the Church,” he added.

Thabet is not unhopeful, however. He is convinced that while Egypt’s Christians will vote for Al-Sisi and will support the state, they will not give up on the hopes for equal citizenship that took them to Tahrir Square in January 2011 “against the advice of the Church and in the face of the state.”

Ibrahim, too, is convinced that this is what is happening. “Small steps, or maybe even baby steps, but some steps have nevertheless been taken,” he argued.

The elections of Mona Mina as secretary-general of the formerly Islamist-dominated Doctors Syndicate and of Hala Shukrallah as the leader of the Dostour Party are two examples that “indicate that things are changing, even if slowly,” Ibrahim said.

For Mariam Wagdi, a Catholic woman in her late 20s, another sign of change is the “impressive performance of Minister of the Environment Laila Iskandar, who stood up to try to ban the import of coal. She was very brave, and she did not fear that her faith would prompt any sensitivity,” Wagdi said.

What is impressive for Mahmoud, an employee at the Ministry of Environment, was “the fact that her positions were completely opposed to the interests of key Coptic business figures and to the position of Minister of Industry Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who is also a Copt. I was really impressed and I was proud of this lady,” he added.

One day, maybe not very far away, Ibrahim is hoping that things will be equal for all Christians as they were for Shukrallah upon her election as head of the Dostour Party. “Her faith was not an issue — it was not something that people, even her adversaries, talked about or paid attention to. She was chosen for what she has to offer and what she is capable of. Maybe one day this will be the norm,” he said.


Categories: Africa, Egypt

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