Egypt’s Coptic Christians: Between the hammer of an authoritarian regime and the anvil of terrorism

Over the last couple of years, Egypt has witnessed a rise in terrorist attacks against its minority Coptic Christian population, including bombings of major churches in Cairo, Tanta and Alexandria, in addition to mass shootings and other violent incidents that have left dozens dead and hundreds injured.

With the Islamic State declaring responsibility for most of these attacks, many have jumped to the conclusion that the violence is a result of the Coptic Orthodox Church’s support for the military in ousting President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. This would not, however, explain attacks that took place before Morsi’s ouster. In fact, since the rise of militant fundamentalist Islamic groups in Egypt in the 1970s, Copts have been one of the main targets for jihadi groups. Unfortunately, attacks on Egypt’s Copts will continue to take place until the real causes are addressed and current approaches to tackling the issue are revised.

State failures

One obvious reason behind the continuous attacks on Copts is the failure of Egyptian security forces to address the problem. The issue of security is not just one of poor protection and lack of adequate security measures around Coptic establishments, but rather lies in how the regime perceives the crime of sectarian violence and terrorism. Because of its pure military background, the Egyptian regime deals with all terrorist groups as one enemy, one entity, as though this enemy is another state.

Rather than treating each terror attack as a crime and its site as a crime scene, the government acts as if the attack is a strike by the enemy’s military forces. The regime’s international responses in the aftermath of attacks also underscores its treatment of terrorists as though it is in a conventional war with another state. Retaliatory acts carried out by Egypt’s Armed Forces — such as the airstrikes on Derna in Libya, that took place right after the shooting of Copts in Minya in May 2017 — demonstrate a lack of understanding regarding the threat Egypt is facing. Dealing with disparate terrorist groups as one entity is a mistake; these groups do not share a hierarchy. The idea of retaliation is also ineffective — unlike with a conventional army, the ability of terrorists in Egypt to strike again is not significantly hindered by an attack on a camp in Libya.

And instead of properly investigating an act of terror to determine who committed the crime, the state takes measures that completely obstruct the investigation process. After a bombing, for example, the regime reacts quickly to absorb public anger and maintain public morale by promising to repair and rebuild any damaged building as soon as possible — even if will erase any clues that might lead to the actual perpetrators.

The government’s failure to apply the law when dealing with terrorists is another reason Egypt is fertile soil for terrorism. By viewing terrorism as an act of war, rather than a crime, the state fails to follow legal procedures that should be applied to all kinds of criminals, including terrorists. This approach creates a lawless state. Instead of identifying and trying the actual perpetrator, the state all too often engages in collective punishment or the punishment of whoever it already has in custody.

This lawless approach is also manifested in the longstanding practice of turning to “informal reconciliation sessions” instead of applying civil or criminal laws. Whenever there is a conflict that is sectarian in nature, especially in remote villages, the state resorts to village elders or religious leaders to resolve it, ignoring the relevant laws. These councils also frequently expel the Christians involved in the incident (and their family) from the village to end further tensions. This cultivates the fundamentalism that leads to crimes of terrorism, as a culture of impunity becomes dominant.

There is also the issue of how the regime deals with Copts themselves, who have always been discriminated against by consecutive regimes as second-class citizens. Even under the regime of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who has claimed that he is in favor of Copts’ rights and has attended Christmas celebrations at the main cathedral in Cairo every year, Copts’ living conditions have remained the same: They are underrepresented in important fields, including the judiciary, local and national government, high-ranking military office, police and law enforcement and diplomatic positions. They are excluded from the intelligence service and the presidential staff on security grounds, and there are no Coptic university deans or presidents, or head teachers of state schools. Copts are rarely appointed as mayors, even in villages where Christians make up the majority of the population. A similar situation pertains to education, where Copts face discrimination when enrolling in certain schools and institutions. The educational curriculum itself excludes Coptic history and culture, and Christian students in state schools are forced to memorize Quranic verses and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as part of their Arabic studies.

Challenges within the Coptic community

While many believe that Copts are under attack because of their political position in supporting the current regime, this should not be held against them, as they have the right to support any regime as long as they do it legally through fair elections. However, the issue lies in the reaction of Copts after every attack they are subjected to. Many Copts accept death — of themselves, their family members, or their coreligionists — as martyrdom. The early history of the Coptic Orthodox Church is one of persecution under successive Roman emperors, with the church calendar counting years from Diocletian’s persecutions. Like other branches of Christianity, Copts believe that those who died for being Christians will be rewarded in the afterlife by reuniting with Christ in heaven.

The acceptance of martyrdom discourages many Copts from demanding justice or legitimate trials for perpetrators. Many believe they will be judged in the afterlife, and that because victims of attacks are in a “better place,” there is no need to defend their rights. In some cases, families of the victims have rejoiced in the death of their loved ones in the name of Christ and received mourners in funerals with peaceful smiles and white clothes, making statements in which they forgive the perpetrators, following the model of Jesus. Under a regime that does not believe in laws and rights, and with families of victims abandoning the claims for their rights, cases of terrorism killings are left open, justice is lost and perpetrators are left free and ready to commit the next crime.

On the other end of the spectrum, some Copts will seek revenge for violence committed against them, and because they do not have the means to exact it, they demand that the state take revenge for them. The state does so by carrying out random airstrikes and arbitrary arrests and issuing mass death sentences, to calm the outrage without having to resort to real investigations or proper law enforcement.      

The Coptic Orthodox Church has struck an unwritten deal with the regime, whereby it supports the state in exchange for governmental protection from Islamists. Despite the regime’s promises of security, it has become obvious that it is failing to fulfill them. The church’s failure to stand for its members’ legal rights and its acceptance of a regime that continues to break even the shallowest promises has allowed terrorism to spread further.

Ending a cycle of violence

The solution for the continuous attacks on Copts by terrorist groups lies in upholding justice and civil rights. The state has the responsibility to carry out thorough criminal investigations, after which the actual perpetrators of sectarian crimes should be brought to justice through fair trials. In failing to enforce the law, the state is creating an ideal atmosphere for crime and terrorism to flourish.

Copts will also continue to face all kinds of persecution from state and non-state actors as long as the basic tenets of citizenship are not applied. Copts should be treated equally on all levels and enjoy their full legal and civil rights.

For citizenship to be of any practical consequence and value, its implementation must go beyond mere codification in state legislation or awareness-raising at the level of state officials. Civil rights must be accepted, if not embraced, by the individuals whom they are meant to benefit. Human rights education in a country such as Egypt, where over a quarter of its population of 100 million is illiterate, is inevitably dependent on a state-run curricula and awareness campaigns. When the state fails in its duty to uphold principles of human rights and itself violates or even fails to acknowledge them, these principles simply will not feature in the lexicon of many citizens.

The Coptic Orthodox Church has a responsibility alongside the state. If the church has decided to play a role in politics, then this role has to be built on a deep understanding of the concepts of citizenship, equality and human rights. The church should refrain from appeasing the regime in any way that might hamper the implementation of civil rights as stipulated by law.

Upholding justice and civil rights is the only way to escape the bloody cycle of terrorism. Failing to do so will lead to more violence, not only against Copts, but against all citizens of Egypt.

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