When President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi turned up unexpectedly to greet Christian worshippers attending Orthodox Christmas Eve mass at Abbassiya Cathedral, the congregation erupted in cheers and applause.
Egyptian Christians and pro-government media lauded El-Sisi’s visit as “unprecedented,” saying he had broken with the traditions of the past. TV talk show hosts on Egyptian satellite channels claimed that El-Sisi was "the first Egyptian President to greet Christians in person at the Cathedral," reminding viewers that previous presidents had sent envoys to represent them at the annual Christmas Eve celebrations.
“Together we shall build our country. We are all Egyptians. Do not respond to those who ask Egyptian what?” an emotional Sisi told the large gathering of Christian faithful.
Analysts said the message was a call for unity. They also interpreted El-Sisi’s words as meaning that all Egyptians are equal in the eyes of the state and that “there is no discrimination against Coptic Christians.”
While El-Sisi’s initiative is laudable, his words do not reflect the reality in today’s Egypt. Idealistic rhetoric apart, religion does matter in deeply conservative Egyptian society. The majority of women in the predominantly Muslim society, wear a headscarf as an assertion of their Muslim identity. Meanwhile, Egyptians are required to specify their religion on their ID cards, despite repeated calls by rights activists to end the practice after the January 2011 uprising.
Egypt’s Christians have for decades faced discrimination. Seldom do Copts reach top positions at state institutions like universities, the police, the military and the judiciary. During the Mubarak era, it was necessary for Christians to obtain a presidential permit before building or restoring churches, unlike Muslims who could build mosques without the state’s approval. The 2012 Islamist constitution gave Christians—for the first time—the right to build churches without prior permission from the authorities. Now that that constitution has been annulled, Christians can only wait for the next parliament, hoping it will issue legislation allowing them to build and restore churches without a presidential decree.
A surge in attacks on churches and increased sectarian violence targeting Egypt’s minority Christian population since the January 2011 uprising has fueled Christians’ fears for their safety. The rise of Islamists to power after the mass protests that ousted president Hosni Mubarak prompted a mass exodus of Christians, with thousands of them fleeing the country to seek refuge in safer environments. The majority of Egypt’s Christians participated in the July 2013 mass protests that overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Meanwhile, there is massive support for President El-Sisi among Egypt’s Christians who see him as their “saviour” and the “Guardian of the Revolution.”
Pope Tawadros, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is himself a staunch supporter of the new regime. When president Morsi called the Pope, asking him to dissuade Christians from participating in anti-government protests, Tawadros maintained that Christians were free to exercise their political rights. He later supported the then-defence minister’s presidential bid, calling Sisi "a hero" and his nomination for the presidency "a patriotic act." Furthermore, the Pope has on several occasions spoken out against the Arab Spring, describing the uprisings that toppled the autocratic regimes in some of the Arab states as a ‘winter’ and a Western conspiracy to divide those countries.
In the conservative country where religion dictates practically every aspect of people’s lives, it is not surprising to find Christians seeking guidance from the church. Hence, most Egyptian Christians have adopted the Pope’s views, choosing to turn a blind eye to rights violations committed by the regime in the name of “national security.” Some Coptic Christians have also chosen to forget the killings of Christian protesters at the hands of the army and security forces outside the state television building at Maspero in October 2011. Twenty-three Christians were killed in the “Maspero Massacre” when security forces used excessive force to disperse Christian protesters demanding protection for their churches.
In the latest in a spate of terrorist attacks targeting police and military personnel in the country since the ouster of president Morsi in July 2013, two policemen guarding a church in Minya were shot and killed by unknown assailants on 6 January, a day before Orthodox Christmas. The attack served as a chilling reminder of the vulnerability of Egypt’s Christian community, prompting heightened security for churches nationwide. It also brought back painful memories of the suicide attack on the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on 31 December 2010 that claimed the lives of 23 Christians who had been attending midnight mass. Observers have said the attack fuelled anger against Mubarak, sparking the mass protests that led to his downfall.
Four years on, Coptic Christians are no safer than they were during the Mubarak era and sectarian violence remains an imminent threat in Egypt. While El-Sisi’s recent visit to the Cathedral and his good wishes for the New Year may have won him the hearts and minds of Egyptian Christians, he has yet to bring them the security and stability they have long been yearning.