The illusion of American support for Copts in Egypt

Said Shehata , Monday 23 Jul 2012

In international affairs, interests not ethics are paramount. So Egypt's Copts should know they can only attain equal citizenship in their country by their own efforts, not US support

Many people are deceived by seeming American support for Copts in Egypt, and minorities generally. It was good to see some church leaders in Egypt refusing to meet Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, on her recent visit to Egypt.

This action might be explained by their hope to avoid damaging their reputations by being seen as accepting international interference in Egyptian affairs. It also reflects Copts’ anger at American support for Islamists over other forces in Egypt.

This incident reminds me of when I presented an academic paper on the political culture of Copts. I came under fierce attack from some audiences when I mentioned problems faced by Copts. One of the comments made was that the US is a Christian country and it controls Egypt, so there should not be any problems for Copts. Other Copts count on the US to back their "fellow Christians."

It is a myth to think that the US supports Copts, because it follows its own interests rather than a religious agenda. In addition, there is nothing called the "Christian nation" as there is for Muslims who believe in the "Islamic nation."

In the past, the US used the Coptic issue to put pressure on the Mubarak regime regarding the Palestinian problem and Egypt's borders with Gaza, and other American interests in the Middle East. At the same time, former Pope Shenouda III was reluctant to talk about Copts’ sufferings with the Americans and was keen to solve problems through negotiations with the authorities in Egypt. He believed that Copts could resolve their concerns without international intervention.

Clinton said in her recent visit "We support democracy, but democracy has to be more than just elections. It has to mean that the majority will be protecting the rights of minorities." President Obama in his famous speech at Cairo University mentioned the importance of protecting minorities and referred in particular to Copts. Those statements seem to be on the side of Copts. They are political soundbites motivated by American interests in Egypt and the Middle East.

The reactions of Copts to Clinton’s visit was a mix of boycotting and demonstrations. It is reasonable for Naguib Sawiris and other Coptic leaders not to meet Clinton. Some protesters expressed their frustration that the US is taking the side of Islamists over Christians. But those leaders and protesters should know that the US supports whoever is in power. Politics and ideology have different routes. The US does not believe that religion and politics would lead to democracy. However, if Islamists will serve American interests, the US will support them. When dictators followed American instructions, the US closed its eyes to their anti- democratic practices and Mubarak is a clear case to illustrate this point.

Copts should use internal mechanisms to secure their rights as equal citizens in Egypt after the January 25 Revolution. They should not fall in the trap of Western and American support for their cause. If they fail internally to attain their rights, they can use all peaceful means, such as international and regional organisations and treaties, to achieve their goals. Using international conventions on human rights and minorities, and NGOs, are not equal to foreign intervention.

In some other countries minorities secured their rights via the international community. However, in the Egyptian case, it would be better using internal mechanisms — dialogue, lobbying and the judiciary — to make things right. In addition, it would be more sensitive and effective to use international NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, since they have a human rights agenda rather than a political one.

Finally, in the literature of international relations, interests rather than ethics prevail. So Copts should not count on the US but on their efforts to use all peaceful means to achieve their equal status as Egyptian citizens.

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