By Paul Gadalla
Rai Insights Contributor
Beirut: Copts should think twice about supporting Egypt’s new supposed strong man, Abdel Fatah El Sisi. Though many view him as their protector against Islamists in the country, they remain victims of state discrimination and vulnerable to sectarian attacks in southern Egypt.
Such attacks aren’t a new phenomenon. Church-state relations in the last century have been rocky at best. During Egypt’s experiment with liberalism under the monarchy, Copts played a huge rule in nationalist parties by opposing Britain’s presence in the country.
With the coming of Nasser’s pan-Arab revolution, the old aristocracy — which included many Copts — was deposed and democracy stifled. The ensuing dictator, Anwar Al- Sadat, took Church-state relations to the next level. To counter Nasser’s Arab socialism, Sadat relied on religion to appeal to the masses and sought to co-opt both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Coptic Church. And as Sadat cut Nasser’s public spending and social programs, the Coptic Church and the Muslim Brotherhood stepped in to assist Egypt’s poorer masses.
With increasing religiousity and the receding of the state, it was only inevitable that sectarian tensions would soon boil over. Since the late 1970’s Copts have often been the target of armed Islamist groups while dictators exploited their vulnerability in order to garner support.
Church–state relations have since became a carrot and stick game. Churches can only be built in Egypt with state permission. If the Coptic Church doesn’t comply, it can often face government wrath or not be able to build more churches. And in the case of sectarian attacks, the government would often arrest people on both sides or merely turn the other cheek. Feeling the pressure between Islamists and the state, many Copts simply immigrated or grew closer to their Church, sharpening sectarian identity in Egypt.
Although at times there would be explosions of Coptic anger, many Copts believed it would be better to support a more secular dictator than Islamist parties who in the past had targeted them.
That dynamic hasn’t changed today under Sisi. First and foremost Sisi has proven to be both an unpopular and extremely brutal dictator. He now holds the record for orchestrating the biggest massacre in modern Egypt when he cleared the Rabaa Square of Muslim Brotherhood supporters which claimed the lives of nearly one thousand people. The Muslim Brotherhood has historically been a major political party in Egypt and won %43 of the vote in Egypt.
By Copts supporting a dictator that deposed a democratically elected president means they have sent a message that they ignore election results and will support a dictator at any cost. It has also placed them in a dangerous security situation.
During Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, many Copts protested the regime despite Church calls to refrain. Young Copts, like millions of their fellow citizens, wanted a democratic Egypt where they would enjoy equality and a chance to elect leaders outside of the traditional leadership of the Church. Many others, including the Church leadership, feared that Islamist groups would win in elections and further discrimination against Copts. Indeed Church relations did not improve under democratically elected President Morsi and little had been done to address Coptic concerns.
When Morsi was deposed Brotherhood supporters ransacked and burned churches and Christian-owned property with the police and army not intervening to stop them. Even after Sisi strengthened his grip on power, the security situation has not improved. A militant managed to spray bullets into a Coptic wedding and most recently sectarian clashes once again led to the destruction of Christian property and the killing of a priest.
Authorities also continue to deal with sectarian incidents by way of traditional reconciliation councils, which usually result in the victim – often Christians – being evicted from their neighbourhood or village. Clearly, the undercurrents of the discrimination facing Copts remain the same even if there have been less attacks now than in the last few years.
There is also the fear that if Sisi is overthrown what type of retribution will take place against the Church for its role in supporting him?
And while President Sisi isn’t a trusted alternative, we must start asking ourselves the daring questions that many have avoided. Why did religious minorities, primarily Christians, support or at least fare better under the many Arab nationalist dictators in the region?
Although by no means did they enjoy full equality, Christians felt that nationalist or leftist movements would give them more security and a more equal footing in the economy and society. If this trend is to be reversed, Islamist movements and new regimes in the region must start to make genuine overtures to minorities. This can only be done by through a rights based approach, which means adopting legal reforms that empower all citizens while protecting minorities, unlike the case in Egypt.
*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon