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New Regime, Old Problems

In late January 2014, Sisi received an endorsement from the scaf, Egypt’s highest military body, for a potential presidential run. Though the church did not directly address the possibility of Sisi’s candidacy, Pope Tawadros II gave his approval, sending Sisi a telegram congratulating him on receiving the military’s political support.46

Following the election of Sisi, the church tried to regain its role as the champion of the Coptic community. Yet, such efforts to act on the behalf of the Copts carry significant risks: not all Copts have embraced the church’s intent to fulfill its role in this capacity, particularly youth who wish to define and defend their interests as politically engaged Egyptian citizens.47 The church should focus instead on being an institution of civil society that defends universal ideals such as human rights and social justice, and on supporting developmental projects for both Muslims and Christians.48

In January 2015, President Al-Sisi surprised many Egyptians by making an unannounced visit to Cairo’s Abbasiya Cathedral, becoming the first Egyptian president to attend Christmas Mass. It was a televised event in which Al-Sisi urged Egyptians everywhere to remain united as “one hand” as the world, he noted, was watching Egypt.49 However, the newly restored relationship between the pope and the president was made readily apparent during Al-Sisi’s visit to Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, in which he reinforced his call for Egyptian unity. “What kind of Egyptian are you?” he asked those gathered in the crowd before him. “It is not right to call each other anything but ‘the Egyptians.’ We must only be Egyptians,” he concluded.50

The tone and nature of Al-Sisi’s speech reflects the state’s attempts to reestablish and reaffirm an Egyptian nationalism that was suppressed under Mubarak’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.51 Yet, although many Copts continue to support Al-Sisi and believe him to be their saviour from repressive Islamic rule, attacks against Copts nonetheless persisted even after Al-Sisi’s rise to power as president. As it stands, it seems that only time will tell whether or not he will truly support their struggle for full rights and equality as citizens.52

In an interview during his campaign for president, Al-Sisi revealed some interesting views he had about the future of Copts in Egypt. In the interview, he was questioned about key issues impacting the Copts,53 including discrimination in government institutions (i.e., the military and the judiciary) and the “Hamay- ouni Decree”54—a rather contentious law enacted under the Ottoman empire that has been challenged by those seeking a more unified law for the preservation and upkeep of places of worship. Al-Sisi avoided any concrete response that would have illuminated his position on these issues, choosing instead to vaguely praise the Copts for fulfilling “a patriotic role after June 30.” When pressed for a clearer answer, Al-Sisi merely stated that: “We will try to offer a comfortable climate for everyone in Egypt.”55

In another interview in which he was questioned about the place of religion in the state, Al-Sisi responded by addressing his own position towards this issue, rather than that of the state itself. According to Al-Sisi: “The president of the state is responsible for everything in the state, including religion, which is Islam according to the first article of the constitution. I’m responsible for the values, principles, ethics, and religion.”56

Indeed, if historical experience has shown anything regarding the relationship between religion and the state in Egypt, it is that strategies employed by its leaders to confront Islamists will very likely end poorly for the country’s Coptic minority. President Al-Sadat, in particular, tried to dispel Islamic critique through the introduction of Article 2 in the constitution, which states that the main source of legislation in Egypt is Islamic Sharia. Near the end of his tenure, Al- Sadat went so far as to order the banishment of Pope Shenouda III to a monastery and jailing a number of clergy. Yet, despite these efforts, Copts continued to face discrimination throughout Al-Sadat’s reign and beyond that through Mubarak’s regime and—as this chapter has argued—must still fight for their rights as full citizens under Al-Sisi.57

In all revolutionary situations there is uncertainty, and suspicion flourishes and promotes the idea that forceful actions related to terminologies and their political context are necessary. Accordingly, definitions and their reflections acquire new urgencies. The term Copt refers to different groups with different trends and orientations, and the term Islamist actually covers heterogeneous class origins that are rarely distinguished: not only are all “Islamists” not potential terrorists, they are not all businessmen or neoliberals, and their views on politics are not the same.

A historic perspective, shared by many watchers of the Egyptian political landscape, has led many to think that free elections are the main requisite for democracy, ignoring the important roles of political culture and institutions, which take time to develop on the complex path to democracy. G. O’Donnell suggests that one can distinguish between “political democratic freedoms,” which are provided by regular elections, and “basic liberal freedoms,” which encompass much more than voting on election day.58 Democracy requires a culture, a state of mind, and an organizational structure that at the moment simply do not exist in Egypt.

This does not mean that only a dictatorship can guarantee the rights of minorities, but the culture of the “tyranny of the majority,” highlighted by Alexis de

Tocqueville,59 has become enrooted in both the practices of Egyptians and the political system over the last four years, creating a kind of tyranny in which being in a “minority,” with all its levels, starts to seem unacceptable, and even presents a threat to the majority. As a result, the theory of electoral democracy is based on some hidden, convenient fictions:60 it reinforces state power, disempowers the grassroots, and does not work very well to present serious challenges to prevailing power systems in Egypt, which is why Egyptians may not be ready for democracy.61 Electoral methods may be one of the most exciting political developments in Egypt recently, but in entering electoral politics the country may have limited the potential for bringing about radical change.62 In fact, it ensured continuing reliance on the old system of politics as practiced under the Muslim Brotherhood in dealing with the rights of “minorities.”

It is difficult to draw a line between state and religion in Egypt, but observing that difficulty does little to define the many ways that the state expresses, supports, pursues, contains, and defines religion, or the ways that religion informs, limits, guides, and infiltrates state authority. In postrevolutionary Egypt, the complexity of the relationship is growing, but even more notable is the fact that religion is providing a conduit for a decline in the distinction between state and society.

The church is no longer the political representative of Copts, and it did not speak out on their behalf against the state throughout the first year after the revolution, especially in the face of the new norms presented by the rise of political Islamist trends and the drafting of a new constitution, in addition to community pressures for more flexible rules on certain social issues, such as second marriages. But it is clear that the churches have learned to adapt to changing situations, and the overriding objective of the Coptic Church will continue to be to secure the survival and prosperity of its community according to security imperatives.

But the church’s support for the military’s 2013 intervention has given it a privileged position in the new regime, prompting it to try to revive the old pact it had with the Mubarak regime. And changes carried out by the state have helped the church regain its position as the only representative of the Coptic community. As the new political authority has tightened its control over the public sphere, youth movements, including the Maspero Youth Union, have lost their ability to mobilize. Coptic politicians have also lost their influence, as the new regime seems to see few roles for parties. However, the church’s former strategy brought with it many problems, and, in the current environment of political and societal polarization,63 a return to that approach could have harmful consequences for the Coptic community.

First, this approach, based on backdoor channels between the church and the political authority, often failed to resolve Coptic grievances in the past. It also denied Copts their rights as Egyptian citizens, because the church and the regime have often tried to reach compromises outside the framework of the law. These compromises have often been intended to contain religious tensions, but not to address their causes. The church should withdraw from this type of negotiation and ask for the law to be applied to all problems involving Christians. If the government fully enforced the principles of citizenship and the rule of law, Copts would have a chance to claim their religious and political rights as Egyptian citizens, instead of waiting for the church to negotiate with the political regime on their behalf.

Second, by encouraging church members to depend on Coptic leaders to channel their political and social demands, the Copts’ isolation is deepened and they are discouraged from joining political parties or movements. This hinders their interaction with other political forces and their integration into civil and political society, leaving them engaged only in activities organized by the church. The church should refrain from representing the Copts politically and instead allow lay Coptic actors to defend their interests in the political sphere. Even with the new restrictions on political and civil society in Egypt, Coptic actors should join other pol itical parties and movements in their struggle for a democratic regime.

Third, the church’s past strategy reinforces the perception that Copts are one homogeneous group. The church has worked to unify the Coptic community’s voice within the political sphere in order to maximize the Copts’ influence in political debates. This leads to a situation in which church decisions can put the lives and property of any individual Copt at risk, even if he or she did not actually participate in making a political choice. There is no need for the Copts to speak with one voice. In fact, it would be productive for them to take part in different groups and movements according to their own political preferences.64

In Egypt, the relationship between political and religious authorities looks neither like what it was before the revolution nor like what it should be in a modern secular state. The religious authorities now have returned to control a more influential social machinery.

Still, there is little evidence to suggest that Christians’ future would be protected under a military-led regime. The Maspero Massacre against Christians in October 2011 was an atrocity committed under the scaf’s watch. The same can be said of the families’ murder that occurred at Alexandria’s Two Saints Church on January 1, 2011, under the rule of Mubarak.

The future of Copts is related to the future of political actors who might make democratic life a daily reality. This would necessitate viable and energetic political institutions and organizations dedicated to the values of democracy. Beyond representing the legitimate aspirations of the various groups and sectors in society, these institutions would have to channel the expressions of these aspirations in an orderly political competition.

There are widespread fears that in the near future, the Muslim Brotherhood— now outlawed and excluded from electoral politics—will resort to violence on a greater scale, along with other militant groups operating in Sinai and in Egypt’s largest cities. At the same time, the Arab world is ridden with turmoil caused by an ongoing civil war in Syria and the rise of isis (the Islamic State) in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.65 Under these circumstances, many Egyptians see a strong security state under Sisi’s command as the only thing that can protect them from the chaos, terror, and sectarian extremism engulfing other countries in the region. As a non-Muslim minority, Egyptian Copts are particularly fearful of these threats. As long as they are believed to be real, these threats provide a powerful impetus for Copts to keep supporting Sisi despite any nondemocratic practices.

Egypt remains in a state of flux, but a return to law and order will give the people a chance to gain some normalcy in their lives. At the least, the election of Sisi shows that Egyptians are momentarily weary of fighting and violence, and that bodes a little better—just a little—for the religious minorities in the country. If the current cohort of leaders—officers and civilians—wishes to protect and include all Egyptians, it will need to enact the legal and security reforms that Sadat, Mubarak, Mohamed Tantawi, and Morsi failed to undertake. Such efforts could help rebuild a national sense of “Egyptian-ness” that has waned under secular and Islamist rulers alike.

 
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