The resurrection of the fearful Copt

Dina Ezzat , Monday 13 Apr 2015

Four years after the January revolution that gave Egypt's Copts hope of full inclusion, the old equation, in which the Church directed Coptic affairs in return for allegiance to the regime, is back in place

Pope Tawadros
Pope Tawadros II leads Good Friday Mass prayers in Abbassiya's cathedral, Cairo, Egypt, Friday, April 10, 2015 (Photo: Coptic Orthodox Church Spokesperson official Facebook page)

Four years ago, Mariz, a Coptic woman in her 20s from Ain Shams, a lower middle class neighbourhood in Cairo, was walking happily on her way to the Coptic Cathedral in Abbassiya in East Cairo to celebrate Good Friday.

“It was a moment of joy and of hope," she remembers with nostalgia, as if describing events from decades back. "It was only a few weeks after the revolution [of 25 January] when we thought, during our days in Tahrir Square, that we were simply Egyptians and that the religion barrier had fallen once and for all.”

This year, on her way to the cathedral for Good Friday celebrations, Mariz said she no longer feels this same sentiment and is no longer expecting “the same crowds of Muslims to come and join us, or for politicians to come and offer their good wishes.”

For Mariz, the week of Easter is again solely Coptic, the solidarity that earlier united communities of different faiths having disappeared.

While at the heart of the Coptic faith, Jesus Christ's crucifixion, runs counter to the belief of Muslims, who make up an estimated 90 percent of Egypt's population, that Jesus rose to the heavens at the will of the Almighty ahead of his crucifixion.

Thus, when the state wished to appeal to the Copts when promoting the political succession of Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, it chose to make Christmas — 7 January — an official holiday, not Easter.

Mariz was not impressed with the “obvious political overture” from Mubarak in December 2010, and after the January 25 revolution it was no longer an issue whether Christmas or Easter were considered official holidays.

“As an Egyptian and as a Copt — and this is the way I see myself always — I felt that Easter 2011 was very different from Christmas [on 7 January]," one week before the first wave of the largest-ever anti-Mubarak protests hit the Egyptian regime.

“The spirit of 2011 and 2012 is gone now," Mariz said. "Sadly, it is over.”

She lamented the “unfortunate return of official 'recognition' and 'visits' of top state officials to the pope's office, or even to mass," rather than the spirit of true shared festivities seen earlier.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has never impressed Mariz, including his Christmas mass visit.

“People also used to be very happy when Gamal Mubarak appeared at the Christmas mass. But in fact what did this mean for us, either as Egyptians or as Copts? Really nothing.”

For Mariz, Copts are still confronted with the same problems they faced before the 25 January revolution.

“As Egyptians, we still suffer from a lack of services and lack of freedoms, and as Copts our faith is still being looked at with less respect. Worse still, we are seen collectively as blind followers of the president, who looks the other way when individuals are hurt and churches are attacked.”

“Tell me about existence”

Buying a selection of palms for her seven grandchildren on Palm Sunday in front of the Saint Marc's Church in the heart of the largely pro-Sisi Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, Souad, an elderly Egyptian lady, was not willing to debate the issue of rights.

“Tell me about existence," she said. "Tell me about my safety and the safety of my children and their children. There are no rights without existence, and yes, maybe El-Sisi has not granted us our rights as we had hoped. But at least he spared our existence, which was largely compromised under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood who were not even trying to conceal their hatred towards Christians.”

According to Fayza, a middle-aged woman from the less privileged Al-Zeitoun neighbourhood in East Cairo, “Had it not been for El-Sisi the Muslim Brotherhood would have still been ruling and they would have been killing us as the Islamic State group killed our children in Libya [in February]." 

“We hope he will do better for us, but even if he does not, at least we are freed of the fear of being killed," she said. "Even if, yes, our churches are still attacked and our rights are not being given to us.”

Ishak Ibrahim, head of the religious discrimination unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, explained that “Fear of the rule of the Islamists and the conviction that it was El-Sisi, rather than masses of Egyptians, who forced the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood is still very dominant in the minds of the majority of Christians, especially those living in rural areas in Upper Egypt.”

According to Ibrahim, it will take a long time and many social changes before Copts get over this phobia — which is partly the doing of state establishments that clearly wished to eliminate confidence in Muslim Brotherhood rule, but mostly the doing of the members of Islamist groups.

“Put yourself in the place of an elderly Coptic lady living in a poor village in Upper Egypt who is petrified to learn that Mohamed Morsi was elected president, with all the fearful images that the rise of an Islamist brings to her, and whose fear is augmented with the shouts of Islamists outside her house chanting: ‘Morsi won, Copts out!’,” Ibrahim argued.

In his everyday work to investigate and document accounts of religious discrimination, Ibrahim sees endless signs that, for Copts today, what counts is their “existence, not [their] rights.”

Only last week, in Al-Galaa, one of the poorer villages in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Minya, Ibrahim witnessed Copt residents throw away difficult-to-obtain permits to build a new church to replace a crumbling one, so as to avoid the anger of Muslim neighbours.

“There's a permit for a three-floor church to be built but, because of some Muslims protesting, they decide to agree to build only one floor and to have no bells and no cross on top of it,” he said.

Return of the fearful Copt

According to activist Mina Thabet, "It is impossible to deny that Copts have gone back to the fear they thought they could rid themselves of after 25 January.”

This return, Thabet argued, did not start with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood but before.

“It was during the post-Mubarak transition that churches were repeatedly attacked, essentially by Islamists who were either tolerated or even encouraged by some members of the security apparatus who wished to incite instability, and that fear started to return,” he said.

The carnage of about 30 young Coptic demonstrators on 9 October 2011 during a peaceful march to protest these attacks, and the “hateful incitement against Copts from state-run television on that day," reminded Copts that they should not have hoped that the revolution would turn them into first-class citizens, he said.

Subsequent acts of violence, especially the unprecedented attack on Cairo's Coptic cathedral in April 2012 under Morsi's rule, determined the overwhelming Coptic position, “both among the masses and inside the Church,” that it is better to be protected by the state, even if some rights are compromised, than to try to defy it.

Activist and filmmaker Mavie Maher however argues that this is not the position of the younger Coptic generation, “or at least not the majority of Coptic youth, who know that only freedom will end long years of oppression and persecution against Copts – first as Egyptians whose socio-economic and political rights are compromised, and only then as Copts whose faith is being degraded.”

At the end of the day, however, Maher and Thabet agree that the rights of followers of the Coptic faith have been boiled down to their bare existence and symbolic gestures.

Nowadays, said Thabet, their rights have been reduced to “the president's visit to the cathedral, or the assignment of a couple of Copts to the cabinet."

“This has been the case ever since the first post-Mubarak presidential elections in 2012, when the Church told Copts to vote for Ahmed Shafiq [Mubarak’s last prime minister],” Maher said. "It was clear that the Church wanted to bring back the Mubarak state, which some top clergymen had been sad to lose as it had given them exceptional authority, beyond moral authority, over followers of the Church."

Yet, according to Maher, they were not necessarily successful in 2012 “when there was still hope in the rise of a different kind of society.”

But later, especially after Morsi's rule, this worked well for both sides: "the Church who did not like the fact that the Copts walked out of the church gates and decided that they were citizens, not just followers of the Church, and the state, especially the security sector, who were only too happy to put Copts back behind walls controlled by one person, the Coptic patriarch.”

The patriarch and the president

Thabet calls this "a return to the Mubarak parameters”, in which the state obtains the political positions it wants from the Copts, in return for supposedly protecting them from the hatred or wrath of the Islamists. There was no state protection for example, he explains, during the concurrent attacks on Copts in 17 governorates after the forced dispersal of the Brotherhood sit-ins in the summer of 2013 following Morsi's ouster.

According to Thabet, this is how the state secured large participation from the otherwise very scared Copts in the demonstrations of 30 June 2013. “If Copts hesitated, the state was sure to remind them [how things worked].”

During the first day of the 2014 presidential elections, Thabet said, a TV anchor known for her exceptionally close contact with the state criticised the Copts for not turning out in large numbers.

“She was on air screaming, 'Where are you Copts? Have you forgotten what El-Sisi did for you? Or do you want the Muslim Brotherhood to come back?'” he recalled.

According to Thabet, on that day the Church acted with great eagerness to secure an immediate increase in the turnout of Coptic voters.

“I am not suggesting that Copts did not want to vote for El-Sisi,” Maher said. "I am just saying that in 2014, the Church was again having a direct and immediate influence on Coptic actions in a way that did not happen in 2012."

According to Maher, this brought back memories of the Mubarak era in which Pope Shenouda would order followers of the Coptic faith to stay away from anti-Mubarak protests, “something that eventually did not work when it came to the January 25 revolution."

Georges Fahmy, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees the relation between El-Sisi and Pope Tawadros II as those between former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Pope Kyrolos.

“It is very close and very direct," he said. "It sets the grounds for the reduction of Copts to mere followers of the Church, and has established a three-way relationship between state, Church and Copts that is hard to escape.”

According to Thabet, this patriarch-president equation benefits both sides: “The Church gives the president the full support he wants, and in return that president gives the Church a free hand in directing the lives of Copts — as if they were just Copts and not Egyptian citizens.”

The state's decision to authorise the Church to work out “a highly controversial Personal Status Law is a very good example of this give-and-take,” said Thabet. “It is actually enshrined in the constitution upon the wish of the Church.”

Fahmy is not hopeful of any change in this equation "any time soon.”

“The Church, and I would dare say the patriarch himself, is under the influence of what we could call the ‘old-guard clergy’, who are very comfortable with being the sole representatives of the Coptic population," he said. "The expectations for reform inside the Church, that were announced on arrival of Pope Tawdros, have been shelved.”

Possible game changers

Political science professor Mai Moguib is of the opinion that what really needs to be changed is the perception of Copts as a minority, as opposed to citizens.

Agreeing on the existence of the persistence of the patriarch-president equation since the rule of Nasser, Moguib argues, however, that it was during the last years of the rule of Anwar El-Sadat that Egypt's Copts fully assumed the role of a minority, at the doing of Sadat and Pope Shenouda both.

Today, Moguib sees no initiative from any side to break this equation.

“When the president decides after the killing of close to 20 Egyptians, who happened to be Copts, at the hands of the Islamic State in Libya (in February) to go pay his condolences to the Pope at the cathedral, he is simply stating that those killed are the subjects of the Church, and not citizens of the state that he is heading,” he argued.

According to Fahmy, “Change would have to start outside the Church, maybe with the establishment of a truly representative Coptic political stratum that could find its way into parliament when legislative elections happen.”

According to Maher, it could also happen if the youth, who still have faith in change, manage to act more proactively to bring the attention of the wider Coptic community to grievances from "the state that claims to be protecting them when, in fact, it is only abusing them and prolonging their fear.”

Moguib agrees that a good start could be made from within Coptic youth groups, with the support of other Egyptian youth groups.

“It might take a while before this happens,” she however added, "because since Morsi's ouster, one cannot mark a clear difference in the positions taken by the Church and by groups of Coptic youth, although it is starting to happen."

Moguib insists that real change would have to be societal, in the large sense “that makes members of society, irrespective of faith or political creed, willing to perceive themselves, individually and collectively, as citizens in a state rather than as Muslims or Copts – on both sides.”

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