Washington Free Beacon, by Daniel Bassali, Aug. 11, 2015:
In the nearly five years of turmoil that have followed the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, no group in Egypt has suffered more than the 15 million Coptic Christians. Both a religious and ethnic minority, the Copts are descended from the native population of Egypt who lived and ruled there from the time of the pharaohs until the Roman conquest in 31 B.C. They are the largest Christian community in the Middle East today.
Copts have long been the target of discrimination and persecution in the majority-Arab nation. But this ancient people faced a terrifying new prospect in 2012: Muslim Brotherhood rule.
After Mubarak was ousted, the violence began almost immediately. Churches and schools were burned; peaceful protestors were massacred. When parliamentary elections were held nine months later, they were swept by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties. When Mohamed Morsi won the presidential election in May 2012, the party’s victory looked complete. The same year, Morsi gave himself unlimited powers and the party drafted a new constitution inspired by Sharia law.
Morsi benefitted from the organizational advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood. Backed by imams preaching the benefits of religious rule, the previously banned political party was able to defeat the fractured coalitions of the pro-West, liberal, and secular candidates.
“They used thugs to carry out political intimidation against Christians,” a former member of Egyptian Parliament told the Washington Free Beacon. Chants celebrating the Brotherhood victory echoed through the streets of Cairo. “Morsi won! Copts out!”
During Morsi’s rule, Christians were murdered and tortured by the hundreds. Attacks and abductions of Christian children spiked significantly. “Most Americans do not know how vicious and bloody the Muslim Brotherhood is,” Ahmed, a 24-year old secular Muslim, said. “They really can’t understand.”
Pope Tawadros II, Egypt’s Coptic Christian leader, criticized Morsi for negligence after six Christians were killed when police and armed civilians besieged Egypt’s largest cathedral. “We want actions, not words,” the Pope said.
Public accusations of blasphemy also became ubiquitous. A Facebook post interpreted as undermining Islam could bring a mob of fundamentalists with rocks and Molotov cocktails to the homes of Christians, surrounding them with families trapped inside. Sham trials with no legal representation would follow. Anti-Christian terrorism was not punished, but the wrong words often landed Copts in prison, forcing the church to make public apologies and families to leave their towns and villages.
Lydia, an activist who provides relief supplies to torn Christian communities in Upper Egypt, and who requested that only her first name be used to preserve her safety and that of her colleagues, witnessed the Muslim Brotherhood offer the very poorest Egyptians social services that bought their allegiance. “When you have no food or money, you will listen to anyone who gives you the resources your family desperately needs,” Lydia said. “They brainwash the illiterate with extremism so they hurt Christians.”
Still, Morsi’s authoritarian rule—rewriting the constitution, disbanding the Egyptian parliament, tossing potentially obstructive judges into jail—was not long lived. Barely a year after he assumed office, a reported 35 million citizens took to the streets to protest his rule, leading the Egyptian military, under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to remove him from power in July 2013.
Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.) told the Free Beacon that had al-Sisi not responded, the promise of Egyptian Democracy would have died. “What it seemed the Egyptian people wanted was more opportunity to be able have some sort of functioning democracy, elections, input into their own government,” Lankford said. “It was the immediate understanding as soon as the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, that was the last election Egypt would have.”
In 2014, al-Sisi was elected Egypt’s new president. He won a solid electoral victory, giving him control of the Egyptian government with the responsibilities of forming a new constitution, a new parliament, and a new judicial system. The Coptic Church fervently supported al-Sisi’s candidacy because the new president promised Copts equality in citizenship, security in their communities, and the ability to build places of worship.
The new Egyptian president challenged the leaders of the Islamic world to push a more moderate message. In December 2014, hundreds of Christian and Muslim theologians gathered at al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading mosque and religious university, participated in a conference to fight “jihad” and promote inclusion. Al-Sisi ambitiously called for a “religious revolution” in January 2015, saying that clerics bear responsibility for the growing extremism in the Middle East.
As president, al-Sisi took many symbolic steps to integrate the Coptic community with the majority Sunni population. In a surprise to most Egyptians, al-Sisi attended a mass at Saint Mark Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo on Christmas Eve, a first for any Egyptian president. Al-Sisi regularly invites Pope Tawadros II to appear beside him when he announces major policy rollouts or requests public dialogue from senior advisers.
Al-Sisi also appointed two Copts as members of his cabinet. Under the constitution, the president of Egypt has the power to select 10 members of parliament. Political observers believe he will select Copts to fill a majority of those appointed seats to offer a more representative parliament.
“Our lives haven’t changed much but one positive result of the revolution is the Egyptian people have politically woken up,” said Hala, a Mubarak-era government official who also wished to be identified by her first name only because she fears political retribution. “We no longer accept what we are told. Egyptians are at least aware of the government’s actions and they are more aware of the troubles Copts face.”
But while al-Sisi’s administration provides a welcome change of tone toward the Coptic community, the day-to-day lives of Copts remain little changed from the Mubarak days.
- Egypt’s Durable Misery by Eric Trager (foreignaffairs.com)