By Dr. George Gurguis, MD – President, Coptic Solidarity –
The decent into chaos that Egypt was heading for under the Muslim Brotherhood rule and President Morsi was averted by General el-Sisi. Hopes in fighting corruption, political reform and cessation of persecution of the Coptic minority however, were soon to crash. Sisi’s rhetoric appeared inconsistent and lacked the power of enforcement. Despite hopes in political reform, under Sisi Egypt witnessed a severe crackdown on dissenting voices and civil society institutions. Sisi’s calls for reforming fundamentalist Islamic discourse were simultaneously accompanied by permitting the equally fundamentalist teachings of the Salafis. His visits to the seat of the Coptic Patriarch on Orthodox Christmas eve were simultaneously accompanied by escalation in the pace of attacks on Copts, which reached new highs, and the lack of state protection from attacks on their persons, property or churches. Egypt’s stability is now at stake, with a weak economy and rising threat of Islamic terrorism. And, Egypt’s Copts are facing a new level of terrorist attacks. Egypt’s stability is vital to the region, and Copts are the largest remaining Christian minority left in the Middle East. The US has strong interest in combating the threat of Islamic terrorism and ensuring the stability of the region. Defeating terrorism does not merely lie in the military field but defeating underlying fundamentalist ideologies and in preserving and promoting ethnic and religious pluralism in the region. With its prestige as a superpower and moral authority the US stands to play a vital role.
Copts, at this time, are facing an existential threat, as they are caught between terrorist attacks, lack of protection by the government and inattention of the international community to their blight. Copts have endured an unprecedented rise in the level of violence over the past three years, higher than that seen during Mubarak’s era or even the Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year rule. Contrary to the Egyptian government’s assertions that this violence is perpetrated by foreign forces, we maintain that this violence is homegrown, perpetrated against the Copts by their fellow fanatic Egyptian Muslim neighbors who live next door to their victims and not by foreign terrorists, as the Egyptian government would like us to believe. Moreover, the violence has morphed lately into large scale attacks such as seen in the attacks on St. Peter’s church in Dec. 2016, the twin attack on Palm Sunday in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria in April 2017, and the recent bus attack on Coptic pilgrims to the monastery of St. Samuel the confessors in southern Egypt, in addition to the mass evacuation of all Coptic families from the city of el-Arish in Northern Sinai after a series of murders targeting them in March 2017.
This rise in violence coincides, on the one hand, with a new US administration, which has vowed to eradicate Islamic terrorism, making it one of its highest priorities. On the other hand, the government in Egypt is anxious to turn a new page in its relationship with the new US administration to solicit its political, financial and military support. The urgent question here becomes: will the US government in its eagerness to defeat Islamic terrorism and to solicit Egypt’s cooperation in the process turn a blind eye to human rights and religious freedom abuses perpetrated by the Egyptian government in return for its collaboration in combating terrorism? Or will it exercise its influence by upholding American values and moral authority to effect lasting meaningful democratic changes in Egypt, changes that are absolutely necessary for defeating Islamist ideologies and for stability in the region.
In an attempt to answer this question the following points should be taken into consideration:
- The modern wave of violence against the Copts is not a new phenomenon that developed as part of the more recent phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, but one that started four decades ago. While both may share common methods and ultimate goals, each has its own separate origins. Attacks on Copts, their persons, property and their churches began with the Islamization process that started with Egypt’s president Sadat, curiously a Noble Peace laureate, who unleashed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to enlist their support in his struggle for power against various opposition factions left over from Nasser’s era. Sadat did not hesitate to call himself a “Muslim president of a Muslim nation”, intentionally excluding the rest of the Egyptians. Furthermore, Sadat’s collaboration with king Faysal of Saudi Arabia opened the door for importing Wahabi Islamic extremist ideology into Egypt. It was around that time that state-sponsored media started broadcasting hate speech by Muslim sheiks, like sheik Metwalli el-Sharawi and others, attacking and denigrating Christians and their beliefs while declaring their monopoly on what they believed constitutes the true faith. Now, forty years later, in addition to Muslim Brotherhood ideology having become widespread, we have the Salafis with their extremist ideology that breed hatred of the “Other” and justify violence if not making it a religious duty, even against moderate Muslims, not just against people of other faiths. This history supports our conviction that persecution of the Copts is an endogenous homegrown phenomenon, which antedated the current wave of worldwide Islamic terrorism.
- The prevalence of extremist Islamist teachings in Egypt coincided with decline in education, and in the culture as a whole. Egypt used to be the intellectual leader of the so-called Arab world. Egypt’s interaction with Europe starting in the late eighteenth century helped it with its own experiment with modernization and democracy. As the saying went “books were written in Egypt and printed in Lebanon”. Now we see a closed intellectually impoverished culture, turned inwardly on itself, one that lacks introspection but inclined to blame the outside world for its own deficiencies, one where paranoia and conspiracy theories find a fertile ground to the advantage of regional dictators, demagogues and religious manipulators. Fanaticism and extremist teachings are indicative of a closed mindset that is intolerable of other points of view or debate, as evidenced by the popularity of applying Sharia law, and one that uses blasphemy laws, or “derision of religion” laws as they are known in Egypt, to silence any dissenting voice.
- This is the origin and the evolution of current culture of hate and bigotry that has now thoroughly invaded every aspect of life in Egypt. Until the early 1960 ties extremist Islamic ideologies appeared foreign to the majority of the Egyptian society. The Muslim Brotherhood, which started in 1928 with their violent Islamist ideology, represented a relatively small current that developed in opposition to secularist democratic trend that prevailed in the Egyptian society during the first half of the twentieth century. The Egyptian society was proud of its heritage but open to Western culture. Egypt had its experiment with democracy. It also had an impressive cadre of thinkers, writers, academicians, universities, developed arts, its own opera house, film and media. We now have a generation or two that has grown up in this closed culture and can’t afford to have different outlook, let alone having the means to achieve that. This closed-minded culture of hate and bigotry has forced the Coptic minority to withdraw from the public space to an ever-shrinking space leaving them only with their families, homes and churches, and leading to their withdrawal and marginalization from the society as a whole.
- Extremist ideologies of the Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood have also invaded every Islamic institution, including most importantly, al-Azhar, the oldest Sunni Islamic university, with its authority in Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Azhar has resisted calls for reform by president el-Sisi. Here, the question begs itself, is president el-Sisi’s call on al-Azhar to reform its teaching sincere or is it for public consumption? If he were sincere, why then has he given a free reign to Salafi ideologies in the pubic space, which are no less extreme than those of the Wahabis or the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Furthermore, if president el-Sisi is sincere in his call for reforming Islamic teachings, to forgo violence and killing in the name of God, why has he not allowed other voices of moderate Muslims, secularists and people of other faiths into the public space to balance the uncontested extremist Salafi ideologies? If he were sincere, one would think they would be his best allies in combating such militant ideologies and effecting positive changes in the society that stand to pave the way towards a secular, open civil society with full functioning democratic institutions and a thriving economy.
- To the contrary, what we see in the area of civil society could be summed up in what has been described as a “scorched earth” policy. Civil society institutions, women rights organizations, NGOs (both national and foreign) have been shut down or their activities severely curtailed. Journalists, thinkers or dissenters have been silenced or imprisoned. The use or rather abuse of the police, internal security and General Intelligence Service (Mukhabarat) to squelch any dissenting voice is unsurpassed and has not been seen in Egypt’s history as a republic since its beginning in 1952.
- The primary function or raison d’être of any government is protecting its citizens both from foreign or domestic attacks. When it comes to the Copts, the current government in Egypt has miserably failed to protect them. The summer of 2016 witnessed a surge in attacks against the Copts, which prompted Bishop Makarios of Menya governorate to state that hardly 3 or 4 days pass without hearing about an attack on the Copts. We see a Copt being slaughtered while sitting in front of his store on security cameras, a Coptic husband and wife slain in their bedroom, and a Coptic woman kidnapped from her family’s home at night after the men in the house are tricked to leave their home to attend to a trumped-up emergency in their agricultural field. The police are clearly complicit in the process and dismiss these incidents as sectarian violence not worthy of investigation. Suspects or perpetrators are let go, leading to a culture of impunity. Now, how could anyone reconcile this picture with that of president El-Sisi’s visits to the Coptic Cathedral on Orthodox Christmas eve? How sincere are these visits, or are they for public relations? Why are governors, the security or the police not instructed to give highest priority to these hate crimes to be investigated and suspects tried to the fullest extent of the law? And why is hate speech permitted during the Friday noon prayers in mosques across Egypt? Attacks on Copts, their property or churches by agitated mobs leaving mosques after Friday prayers are not an infrequent occurrence. Or have members of the police or security themselves been thoroughly brainwashed that they have become incapable of seeing anything wrong with these hate crimes? Finally, the abuse of the so-called “reconciliation sessions” makes a mockery of both the notion of reconciliation and justice as it deprives Coptic victims of violence of their right to pursue their attackers in court.
- In the past 7 months, violence against the Copts has morphed into large-scale attacks with scores of victims killed in each attack. We also witnessed the collective evacuation of all Copts from Northern Sinai, which mounts to ethnic cleansing (similar incidents on smaller scale have been ongoing for years and include collective evacuation of Coptic families from villages in which their ancestors have lived for centuries if not millennia). In a police state such as Egypt, where every person’s steps are monitored, why aren’t investigations conducted openly and pursued to their conclusion; and why aren’t perpetrators prosecuted? Why are advance warnings ignored? And if the state is unable to conduct a competent objective investigation, why haven’t neutral international investigative bodies been invited to help? Simply claiming that this violence is perpetrated by foreign terrorists does not absolve the government from its ultimate responsibilities, but reflects failure of the state to protect its citizens. Or, are Copts second-class citizens not really worthy of protection? Lastly, one wonders if these attacks are not allowed to happen to show the Copts how much worse things could get if extremist Islamists are unleashed on them to subdue them thoroughly and suppress their political voice.
- One must admit that president el-Sisi’s visits to the Coptic Cathedral have split the Coptic community between those who are politically gullible thinking he is sincere and those susceptible to wishful thinking on the one hand, and those who see through the façade of public relations and see him as no different from previous dictators who ruled Egypt.This perhaps might explain why we find leaders of the Orthodox and Evangelical Churches in Egypt issuing statements to foreign delegations that Copts’ conditions have really improved against all objective evidence indicating otherwise. And do we expect them to say something different? Or are they only left to choose between the worse and the worst? Are the church leaders under pressure, or frankly under threats, to say that conditions have improved? Churches have been co-opted before by dictators in the past regardless of their persuasions; Islamists, Nazis, fascists, or communists. We need only to look to modern history of the Catholic or Orthodox churches under communist rule in Poland, Soviet Russia or Eastern Europe for an example.
- We conclude that the Egyptian government has not shown genuine intention or taken concrete steps to confront Islamist ideologies or institute a civil society that protects human rights and freedom of conscience including freedom of religion for all Egyptian citizens, or protect all its minorities including the Copts. What we are witnessing is a regime, which is adept at using public relations to specifically target US decision makers to gain their endorsement and to meet its insatiable need for military supplies and financial support while making every effort to evade any pressure to initiate genuine political reforms in return (it is a public record that Egypt’s oppressive General Intelligence Service (GIS or Mukhabarat) has hired US based public relations firms, The Glover Park Group, Cassidy& Associates and Weber Shandwick – the latter withdrew most recently from its contract with Egypt – both of which report directly to General Nasser Fahmy of Egypt’s GIS).
- Egypt’s stability is vital to the region, and Egypt stands to play an essential role in combating terrorism. However, Egypt’s stability will not be attained through winning the war on terrorism in the military arena only without changing the culture of extremist Islamic ideology, hate and bigotry that has pervaded the Egyptian society, and without laying a solid basis for a civil society. The status of minorities reflects the health of a society. Changing official public discourse, encouraging secularist voices in the public space, and changing education should be the Egyptian regime’s highest priority as first steps towards civil society, development and prosperity for its citizens. The lesson since 1952 has demonstrated that oppression and totalitarian ideologies, Islamic or non-Islamic, have stifled Egypt’s most precious resource, its citizens. The ultimate field of winning the war on terrorism is not in the military arena, but is in combating extremist ideologies that produce oppression, bigotry, hate and violence.
- Dictators do not adopt political reforms of their own accord. Supporting dictatorships may work for the short term but do not guarantee stability in the long run and we will find ourselves facing another crisis in the future. US policy makers should be sober in formulating their new policies towards Egypt. The recent Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act makes religious freedom an integral part of US international policy. The Egyptian government will have won if it achieves its goal of obtaining US military and financial support without having to deliver on defeating Islamic extremist ideologies and without instituting political reforms within its borders. At the same time, the US will have failed both its political goals and moral leadership in the world. This should not be a zero sum game. The US is in a unique position to exert pressure on Egypt’s government to effect the needed reforms. Civil society, human rights, freedom of conscience, including freedom of religion, are principles upheld by the International Human Rights Treaties to which Egypt is a signatory.
US policy advisors, the new Administration and the Congress should make civil society, religious freedom, and minorities’ rights an essential topic in every discussion or negotiation with the Egyptian government. Furthermore, US military or financial support should be conditional on Egypt showing progress in the area of civil society and religious freedom. It is in the interest of the US, Egypt, and the world community to encourage Egypt’s political leadership to effect concrete reforms given Egypt’s sensitive position in the region.
Dr. George Gurguis is president of Coptic Solidarity.
A summary of this article was presented as opening remarks of Coptic Solidarity 8th Annual Conference, on June 15, 2017