What Egypt under Sissi is really like for Coptic Christians
Last month in Minya, Egypt, a 70-year-old Christian woman was beaten and dragged through the streets naked by a mob because her son was suspected of having an affair with a Muslim woman. Horrors like these have renewed fears of religious discord in Egypt. President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi and his government regularly describe Egypt as unified and have worked hard—publicly—to reduce Muslim-Christian tension. But the Minya event has once again demonstrated the relative impunity of the Egyptian police, who failed to respond to earlier warnings of a violent, religiously-motivated attack and took hours to appear on the scene.
The status of Coptic Christians in Egypt has for the most part remained unchanged since Anwar Sadat came to power in 1970. Today, there is little Christian representation in government, and sectarian violence is all but commonplace. But many have suggested that President Sissi is more respectful of minority rights than his predecessors, and many Christians supported Sissi's rise to power.
Rights on paper versus rights on the street
For Egypt's minorities, there is a large gap between de jure and de facto rights—what exists under the law versus what exists in practice. On paper, Egyptians enjoy "absolute" freedom of religion guaranteed by the 2014 constitution. But, the constitution also decrees Islam to be the state religion, and conversion to any religion other than Islam is prohibited. Blasphemy is also punishable with harsh penalties and several high-profile blasphemy cases have been prosecuted under the Sissi government.
In practice, President Sissi has based his legitimacy, in part, on the idea of Egyptian unity. For example, he regularly states in public speeches: "we are all Egyptians." But while Egyptians experienced real unity during the early days of the Egyptian revolution, the past five years have seen even worse sectarian discord than prior to the revolution.
President Sissi has been outwardly supportive of Egyptian Copts. This is something that wins him praise from international bodies and the media. One of the most poignant examples of this support is his attendance for the past two years at a Christmas Eve Mass. He is first Egyptian president to attend such an event. But at last year's mass, he made telling remarks in his address to the congregation: "It is important that the whole world watch us, the Egyptians…You noticed that I am not using another word than Egyptians…we are the Egyptians."
You can read his remarks two ways. On the positive side, his insistence that Copts, Muslims, and other Egyptians are all one sends a loud and clear message to Egypt's minorities that he will not tolerate discrimination—and that Egyptian nationalism and unity supersedes religious differences.
[D]espite de jure protections, Sissi himself fails to acknowledge the de facto discrimination against Copts.
But, his insistence on inclusion also has negative implications. First, despite de jure protections, Sissi himself fails to acknowledge the de facto discrimination against Copts. This is most evident in the disproportionately low level of Christian representation in government, particularly within the influential security establishment.
Egypt's current parliament, which has been lauded for its "unprecedented" representation of minorities, has just 36 Christians out of 596 total members, an improvement over the past few parliaments, but still disproportionately low. Additionally, two thirds of the Christian parliamentarians (24) were elected due to Egypt's first religiously-based quota system. On balance, an improvement in numbers of Christians in parliament is a good thing, but there is still a long way to go to reach real representation in numbers and power.
The second problem with Sissi's rhetoric is that by refusing to acknowledge the differences between Christians and Muslims, he does not see Copts as a minority in need of protection and is therefore not willing to extend the necessary measures to proactively protect against or respond to attacks.
Third, this attitude has also impeded the ability of scholars and policymakers to collect data related to Egyptian demographics—for example, Egyptian authorities prevent surveyors from asking a participant's religion when doing research. This harms our collective understanding of the size and make-up of Egypt's minority communities.
Most troubling, the Sissi government has done little to end anti-Coptic violence. In addition to last month's attack in Minya, those who were involved in the October 2011 Maspero massacre, when 27 were killed and 31 jailed for protesting the SCAF's complicity with violence against Christians, have yet to be brought to justice. And little progress has been made on the reconstruction of churches that were damaged in the wave of sectarian attacks in 2013, despite government promises to do so.
A pessimistic outlook
Two trends in Egypt spell trouble for Christians and other minorities. The first is a clear and explicit crackdown on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The past few months have witnessed a dramatic expansion of regime targets to include anyone perceived to be regime critic. Shortly after the removal of Mohamed Morsi from power, the government started cracking down on members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies or affiliates. Next, they set their sights on human rights NGOs and Egyptian journalists that publicly criticized the regime. Third, organizations that receive foreign funding as well as foreign journalists were arrested and prevented from doing their jobs. Now, the Sissi government is targeting pretty much all of civil society, including some development organizations with no clear political aims.
The second trend is a dangerous escalation of the level of attack. This began with shuttering of NGOs or sanctioning activists or journalists and quickly escalated to forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings—things that were rare, if not absent under Mubarak.
[T]here is a sense that the Sissi regime is operating without any map or compass. There are no clear redlines and anyone or anything can be a target at any time.
These trends are worrying on multiple levels. First, for society as whole, there is a sense that the Sissi regime is operating without any map or compass. There are no clear redlines and anyone or anything can be a target at any time. Second, this is problematic for minority rights groups who have traditionally enjoyed a sort of "protected" status. These groups are protected by deep connections, both financial and rhetorical, to large and powerful international organizations and diasporas that have, in the past, afforded them the ability circumvent official channels rather than trying to cooperate with the regime. That protection appears to have lost its influence. Third, these trends are damaging to Egypt. This crackdown has led to tremendous self-censorship—both by journalists and activists. We are also seeing higher levels of emigration and brain drain than ever before. And Egypt is seeing its reputation increasingly tarnished within the international community.
A brighter future?
While I am generally pessimistic, there are a few signs of hope. President Sissi's public statements, while they may be hollow, mean something in that they make it easier for civil society and advocacy organizations to hold the Egyptian government accountable to protect religious freedom. Additionally, 2015 saw a slight decline in the number of religiously motivated attacks, which is clearly a good thing. But, this latest attack in Minya shows that the severity of attacks has not decreased and Egypt still faces a clear problem of religiously motivated violence that it would be wise to address rather than ignore.
Note: This post is adapted from a speech delivered at the Coptic Solidarity conference on June 9, 2016.
- Sarah Yerkes
Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy
Sarah Yerkes is a visiting fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs fellow. She is a former member of the State Department's policy planning staff, where she focused on North Africa. Previously, she was a foreign affairs officer in the State's Department's Office of Israel and Palestinian Affairs. Yerkes also served as a geopolitical research analyst for the U.S. military's Joint Staff Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J5) at the Pentagon, advising the Joint Staff leadership on foreign policy and national security issues.