The continuing dramatic struggle for power and friction in Egypt continues between two groups: the Muslim Brotherhood and the supporters of Mohamed Morsi on one side, and the combination of forces, mainly secular but divided, opposed to radical Islam on the other.
Both Muslim extremists and the secular groups had, for differing reasons, celebrated the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. Morsi had been freely elected with 51 percent of the vote as president on June 24, 2012. A gulf now exists in Egypt between those insisting on a political system enshrining sharia law and those favoring a secular order without religious controls. The latter are hoping for a government that is more competent and less corrupt than the norm in Egypt. The fate of Christians in Egypt will be determined by the outcome of the struggle between the two sides.
Western liberals appear indifferent to the reality that Christians are the victims of persecution in Arab Middle East countries and live in a climate of hate. Little attention has been paid to the unfair and unequal treatment of the Christians of the Coptic Church in Egypt by successive regimes. The mainstream media in the United States and Europe have largely ignored the unprovoked attacks and violence against those Christians.
Present-day Copts, descendants of one of the oldest Christian communities and now the largest Christian community in the Middle East, account for about 10 percent of the Egyptian population. Since the army’s coup d’état in 1952, led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, which overthrew King Farouk and set up a republic, the Copts have been adversely affected in a number of ways. As relatively prosperous citizens, they were hit economically by Nasser’s nationalization policies. While there are no restrictions on Muslims to buildmosques, the necessary permits to construct churches are consistently delayed; minor repairs to churches can be undertaken only with official approval; and church land and properties were and are being confiscated. Conversions from Islam to Christianity are not officially recognized, and people who commit crimes against the Copts are rarely prosecuted.
Nasser’s successors , Sadat and Mubarak, were as hostile to Copts as was Nasser. Sadat kept the Coptic pope under house arrest for a number of years, and Mubarak prevented the building of new churches. The Coptic community from 1980 on was harassed in Upper Egypt by hate crimes, and by attacks on and burning of churches and monasteries. Individual Copts were subjected to physical assaults, causing many to flee their homes.
While assaults on the Copts have continued for decades, three recent ones are particularly notorious. One was the event in the town of Marsa Matrouh, where a mob of 3,000 Muslims attacked the Copts in 2010 and destroyed 18 homes, 23 shops, and 16 cars. A second was the incident on January 1, 2011, when a car bomb exploded outside a Coptic Church in Alexandria, killing more than 20 and injuring more than 80 people. It was particularly poignant because the bomb went off a few minutes after midnight as the Copts were leaving a New Year’s Eve church service.
A third event was the “Maspero massacre” in October 2011, when the army, using disproportionate force, killed at least 24 Christians. The army, riot police, and special forces using armored personnel carriers descended on Copts who were peacefully protesting the burning of a church in the town of Marinab.
Discrimination against the Copts increased after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, when it gained 37 percent of the vote, and the extreme Islamist party Nour won 24 percent in elections held in December 2011. The second International Coptic Conference held in Washington in February 2012 reported that the state of the Copts has continued to deteriorate after 2004, when the first Coptic Convention was held in Zurich. Greater Islamic control meant more burning of churches, more attacks on Copts, forced migration, and an assault on the Coptic Church in Cairo. Church land was usurped by Muslims, cemeteries were destroyed, and riots against the Copts occurred in Alexandria in 2005. Very few Copts were allowed to be candidates for national legislative elections. Though Boutros Boutros Ghali, a Copt, became Egyptian foreign minister and later Secretary-General of the United Nations, Copts in general have been sparsely represented in official positions and law enforcement.
Not only were Copts denied legal protection according to provisions of international law and treaties of human rights, but they also have been falsely accused of such actions as requesting foreign intervention on their behalf or demanding autonomy in Egypt. Though the Coptic Conferences called for the abrogation of all the laws and administrative regulations limiting freedom and human rights, no action has taken place. Nor has there been any legislation to prevent the marginalization of the Copts or the discrimination against them. For instance, Coptic females continue to be abducted, sexually exploited, and forced to convert to Islam and to marry Muslim men.
The Coptic Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, selected as head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in November 2012, has stated that Morsi had intended to Islamicize the political system, purposely ignoring the Copts and preventing free expression of religious groups other than Islam. Anyone critical of Islam or the Prophet was likely to be prosecuted for “blasphemy.” In his very useful book, Crucified Again: Exposing Islam’s New War on Christians, Raymond Ibrahim has outlined the considerable number of blasphemy laws aimed at Christians and the arrest and prosecution of Christians as a result of these laws. On these cases, judges have behaved not as impartial judges, but as demagogues exhorting a mob.
Not surprisingly, Copts were critical of the Morsi regime. Pope Tawadros appeared on the dais with General Abdel-Fattah Sissi, head of the armed forces, when on July 3, 2013 Sissi announced the removal from office of Morsi, though the head of the Azhar mosque was also present. The popedeclared that the Church was being used as a scapegoat in laying blame for the protests that in fact had resulted from domestic problems. A prominent Copt, the wealthy businessman and engineer Naguib Sawiris founded the Free Egyptians Party, a liberal and secular party, after Morsi took power in 2011. The anti-Morsi Tamarod (rebellion) movement, founded in April 2013, used the offices of the party when it engaged in the protests against Morsi. Sawiris himself returned to Egypt from his self-exile in London when the protests began.
But it remains doubtful that the ongoing changes in Egypt will end religious violence or weaken political Islam. In his book, Ibrahim contends that the hostility sharia engenders towards Christians has permeated the culture, mentality, and worldview of the average Muslim. Former president Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been detained, and anti-Islamist propaganda has been disseminated, but it is improbable that Egypt will in the foreseeable future move toward a free political democracy, in which dialogue replaces violence as a means of communication. More likely is the attempt of the Muslim Brotherhood to become the instrument of Islamic hegemony in the Middle East.