AS most of Australia’s Christians look forward to celebrating Easter in peace and with family, Copts in Egypt, the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, are ushering in their Easter season with a mixture of anxiety and trepidation. With the recent loss of their patriarch, Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria, and Egypt’s political transition in turmoil and dominated by Islamist parties, Christians in Egypt are ever more under threat.
Last year’s revolution promised to usher in a new Egypt, but for Coptic Christians it is looking like an Egypt that doesn’t include them. One of the world’s oldest Christian communities, Egyptian Copts have always been a vital part of Egyptian society. But since the rise of Islamist forces in the 1970s, they have seen their standing within Egyptian society decline.
Copts faced what many other Egyptians faced under successive authoritarian military regimes since Gamal Abdel Nasser – unemployment, lack of opportunity, government repression – but they also faced the added burden of semi-sanctioned and growing discrimination that became pervasive across all sectors of Egyptian society and within many of its institutions.
While there are many successful Coptic professionals and many Coptic families with means, there was no denying there was, and is, a growing culture in Egypt that is decidedly hostile to Copts. Coptic students routinely face discrimination within Egypt’s universities, Coptic job applicants are often overlooked in favour of Muslim ones, and within state institutions Copts rarely rise to positions of authority, particularly in the ever important security services. Coptic businesses and places of worship are routinely attacked.
Egyptian society as a whole has become increasingly segregated with fewer Muslim and Coptic families retaining close relations or friendships.
During last year’s revolutionary protests, many Copts played an early and active role, even though the official church hierarchy did not join the calls for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster until it became inevitable. Along with most other Egyptians, Copts were dissatisfied with what Egypt had become and longed for a better society. However, there was a caveat to this sentiment. Though Copts suffered under Mubarak’s rule as much, if not more, than their Muslim compatriots, there was a general attitude among the community that the devil you knew was better than the devil you didn’t. Mubarak, some argued, at least kept Islamists in check, not allowing them to openly participate in politics, and security services aggressively pursued and jailed radical Islamists.
However, this ignored the fact the Mubarak regime played a clever sectarian game to remain in power. Despite the security services’ actions against radical Islamists, violent attacks against Copts did not decrease.
Mubarak also played a cat-and-mouse game with the growing population of Egyptian Salafists who often advocated that Copts be officially relegated to second-class citizens protected as dhimmi under Islamic law. So long as they did not agitate for the removal of the Mubarak regime, Salafists were free to proselytise and receive massive amounts of funding from Gulf countries.
While allowing radical Islamists room to permeate Egypt’s institutions, Mubarak also positioned himself as the only force who could secure the Copts. Never mind that the Mubarak regime ruthlessly clamped down on any viable secular political opposition.
It was this legacy that is the basis for the vulnerable position of Copts today. The longstanding manipulation of Egyptian society by successive authoritarian regimes to stay in power has divided Egyptian society and pushed Copts out of the mainstream.
After the revolution, it seems as if Mubarak’s prediction came true. The Muslim-Christian unity on display during the revolutionary protests, where Christian protesters would encircle and protect Muslims during prayer times, and vice versa, gave way to the Maspero massacre by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when the Egyptian military opened fire on peaceful Coptic protesters, killing 28, then exhorting Egyptian citizens on state television to come down and fight with the military to draw back the violent Coptic hordes.
Copts became even more apprehensive when Salafist parties, which were more openly hostile to Copts, won just as many seats as the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has repeatedly and publicly reassured that it will uphold the rights of Christian minorities in Egypt, there have been no such statements from Salafist parties. Instead of a more secular force to balance the Brotherhood, Egypt is being pulled towards more conservative Islamist positions.
The Maspero massacre was a turning point in the minds of many Copts. After it, applications for religious asylum rose in US, Australian and European embassies. Copts have been steadily emigrating from Egypt in large numbers during the past 15 to 20 years. After the revolution at least 100,000 Copts have fled Egypt. Often it is the educated, leading to a Coptic brain drain and removing an important segment of Copts who have the ability to represent the larger community.
In a further blow to the Coptic community, their much beloved patriarch and leader, Pope Shenouda III, died on March 17 this year. The outpouring of grief over his death from not only the Coptic community but throughout Egypt, and even among Islamists, was overwhelming and genuine. He was an exceedingly respected figure who navigated the difficult political waters, alternately challenging and working with the Mubarak regime to try to protect his flock.
With Pope Shenouda gone, and another patriarch not likely to be chosen until months from now, Copts have no leader and whoever is likely to emerge would not have his standing and experience. There are only seven Copts in parliament, five of whom were appointed by the military council. The secular or liberal parties that Copts are naturally drawn to also have inadequate representation.
Egypt’s political transition is in turmoil. Presidential elections are scheduled for May but it is unlikely a constitution will be drafted before that time, leaving presidential powers undefined. Of the eight presidential candidates, half are from Islamist parties. Aside from former Arab League head Amr Moussa, the other non-Islamist candidates stand little chance, the latest polling says.
Now that the Muslim Brotherhood has officially declared a candidate for presidential elections, after promising not to, the complete Islamist domination of Egyptian politics is almost assured. If no force emerges to balance the Islamist parties driving the transition, Copts will find no place for themselves in the new Egypt.
By LYDIA KHALIL.
Lydia Khalil is a non-resident fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.