Copts Under Mursi

Defiance in the Face of Denial

by Mariz Tadros
published in MER267

Throughout his 2012 presidential campaign, Muhammad Mursi was keen to emphasize that he would be a president for all Egyptians, not just supporters of the Society of Muslim Brothers, and that he believed in equal citizenship for all, irrespective of religious affiliation. The majority of Egypt’s Coptic Christians were nonetheless suspicious of the Muslim Brother candidate, and in the first round many voted for one of the other main contenders, Ahmad Shafiq or Hamdin Sabbahi. Almost a year into Mursi’s presidency, it is clear that the Coptic minority -- roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s population -- did not overestimate either the threat to their rights or the strain on social cohesion that would attend a Mursi victory.

Sectarian violence has increased in both frequency and intensity. The record is incomplete, for many cases go unreported. But data from Egyptian press reports show that the number of sectarian attacks rose from 45 in 2010 to 70 in 2011, the year of the revolution that toppled Husni Mubarak, to 112 in 2012. It happens more often that tiffs over mundane matters blow up into violent and overtly sectarian confrontations. Most such instances involve assaults by Muslims upon Christians. And the disputes are fiercer and prolonged. The most dramatic example is the April 7 attack on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in the ‘Abbasiyya district of Cairo -- dramatic because the cathedral is the papal seat, a place which had previously been sacrosanct.

There have long been incidents over Christian places of worship, with hardline Islamists objecting to the construction, renovation or extension of churches. Since 2011, however, this phenomenon has taken a turn for the worse, as already existing church structures are annexed or occupied. A case in point occurred on January 19, 2012, when salafis staged an occupation of a church building in the northern Cairene suburb of Shubra al-Khayma on the false pretext that it had no state permit. The salafis installed a plaque announcing that the church had been converted to a mosque. The bishop showed the permit to the occupiers, and security forces cleared them from the premises. 

And new forms of sectarian discrimination have emerged. One of the most notable is the imposition of levies on Copts, mostly by criminal gangs looking for easy money. Their targeting of Copts is akin to that by self-styled local “authorities” who say they are collecting jizya, the poll tax extracted from non-Muslims until the mid-nineteenth century. Another form of injustice is the prosecution of Copts on allegations of contempt for Egypt’s majority religion. On May 21, a Coptic teacher in the southern province of Luxor, Demiana ‘Ubayd ‘Abd al-Nour, was put on trial on charges of insulting Islam. Her school’s headmaster and ten of her students testified in court that she did no such thing, but at press time the case is still pending on the strength of three other children’s accusations. There was a heavy Islamist presence in the courtroom, with one complainant’s father emerging to threaten that “a thousand people will die” if the teacher is not punished by law. [1]

The Muslim Brothers are quick to say that sectarianism is the manufacture of Mubarak’s regime and will take some time to uproot. Indeed, ethnic and religious divisions often come to the surface in the wake of the removal of dictators who dealt with them by ignoring or trying to suppress them. Transitions from authoritarian rule often bring a sense of social chaos as well, with women and minorities particularly vulnerable to attack amidst the breakdown of law and order. Undoubtedly, Christian and Muslim Egyptians alike are suffering the effects of lax security, with robberies, break-ins, kidnappings for ransom and sexual assaults of women particularly pressing problems.

But to reduce today’s sectarian tensions to the legacy of the old regime is erroneous. In focus groups across Egypt, Copts express the same grievance: Islamist factions are openly reprimanding them for having voted against Mursi and are bent on revenge. Such reproach seems to be not only a popular discourse but an official one as well. Emad Gad, deputy head of both the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and the al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, recounts that a presidential delegation visiting the papal residence following the assault on the cathedral asked, “No offense, but why do you hate President Mursi?” [2] There is also a strong perception among Copts interviewed that Islamists now act as if they enjoy absolute power in government and society and are accountable to no one. While the weight of the Muslim Brothers had always been known, the scope of the salafis’ support came as an unpleasant surprise.

The counterargument is that the Muslim Brothers and their Freedom and Justice Party are simply bad at governance, not entirely surprising for a quasi-underground opposition movement with no vision or experience of state power abruptly taking the reins. Incompetence, rather than a predisposition to discrimination, explains the Brothers’ inability to ensure public safety, including for Copts.

The problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the increasingly bold targeting of Copts, including ransoms in Upper Egypt and the singling-out of Coptic girls and women for verbal abuse referencing infidels who expose their flesh. Perhaps no episode has exposed the discriminatory policies of the new regime in managing violence against Christians more than the events of April 7 and their aftermath.

Dual Discourse

On that day, for the first time ever, the cathedral was attacked by men throwing stones in the presence of riot police, who were captured on live television firing tear gas canisters into the building, effectively besieging it. Pope Tawadros II was not inside, but hundreds of mourners were. They had gathered for the collective funeral of those killed in sectarian violence in the village of al-Khusous in the Giza province days earlier. A protest against President Mursi was planned for after the funeral, and a group of demonstrators was indeed about to exit the cathedral doors shouting anti-Muslim Brother slogans. While the identity of the stone throwers is not certain, it is believed that they were thugs, perhaps hired for the occasion by parties unknown. The mourners retreated inside the cathedral, and the ensuing, televised melee left two dead and nearly a hundred injured, including a number of police. Four hours into fighting, masked men with high-powered rifles were observed on top of a small building at the entrance to the cathedral shooting back at the security men and other besiegers. Were they also paid thugs or were they Copts who decided that something had to be done to defend the cathedral and the people choking on tear gas inside? To this day, there is no answer to this question. As for the precipitating incident, the narrative preferred by the Islamists is that the police were attacked by Copts who had gone to the funeral armed for battle. As Freedom and Justice Party MP ‘Abd al-Rahman Mitwalli put it, “He [a Coptic youth] is praying with a machine gun.” [3] Yet this storyline was challenged by footage that showed mourners, many of them women in black grieving for loved ones. Mitwalli’s statement was highly reminiscent of the statement made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on October 9, 2011, when the army crushed protesters under the treads of armored personnel carriers at a rally outside the Maspero state broadcasting facility. That rally had concerned impunity for church burnings. In both instances, the reference to armed Copts was intended to provoke public sentiment that Muslims are under threat from the religious other.

Following the events, President Mursi said, “I consider any attack on the cathedral an attack on myself,” but then did not go to the cathedral to offer condolences to the pope, sending a delegation of advisers in his stead. Analysts contrasted this behavior with his speedy personal visit to young men who had suffered food poisoning at al-Azhar University the same week. There were no deaths in the food poisoning case.

Relations between church leadership and state deteriorated rapidly. In the very same hour that the presidential delegation was at the cathedral, presidential adviser ‘Isam al-Haddad disseminated a statement in English explaining the cathedral events in a different way: “On Sunday, April 7, events further escalated during the funeral procession of the Christian Egyptians killed when angry mourners vandalized cars lined up on Ramses Street. This led to stone throwing and [the setting off] of firecrackers by people in the neighborhood of the cathedral. The situation further escalated with [live ammunition] and pellets being fired, according to the neighborhood’s security official.” The statement added: “Camera lenses also captured individuals carrying live weapons, Molotov cocktails and rocks to the roof of the cathedral, as well as inside and outside of it, which prompted police to intervene and disperse the clashes with tear gas. The individuals seen to be firing firearms have been vehemently disavowed by the mourners. Investigations are still being conducted to reveal the identity of those involved in this incident.” [4] It is evident from this statement that the government holds Copts responsible for instigating the April 7 violence by vandalizing cars. The statement does not identify the men on the roof as Copts, but suggests that they were, further making it seem that there was an exchange of fire between actors inside and outside the cathedral walls, with a neutral security force trying to tamp it down. As the statement came from the presidential palace, some wondered if there was any point to the general prosecutor’s investigation -- the finger of blame had already been pointed from the highest office of the state.

The dual discourse espoused by the Muslim Brothers, one set of talking points for the papal seat and another for international media consumption, seems to have been a tipping point for Pope Tawadros II, who abandoned his measured pleas for an inquiry into the assault and launched an open accusation of state negligence. [5] In a telephone call to ON TV, the pontiff said that Mursi had “promised to do everything to protect the cathedral, but in reality we don’t see this.” When asked why, Tawadros said he believed “it comes under the category of negligence and poor assessment of events.” “This flagrant assault on a national symbol -- the Egyptian church has never been subjected to this in 2,000 years,” he continued. It was not the first time that the pope had criticized the powers that be, but these words were certainly the most scathing to pass his lips so far.

Protest and Unruly Applause

While some civil society activists applauded the pope for taking a brave stand, others argued that he did not go far enough. These critics said the state had allowed the assault on the cathedral in large part to get back at Coptic protesters who had chanted anti-Muslim Brother slogans and, a week earlier, had joined rallies in defense of al-Azhar, the venerable mosque-university which had declined to approve the Brother-supported law on sukouk or “Islamic” bonds. Rumor spread at the time that the government intended to replace the sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib, with someone from among the Brothers’ ranks or another sympathizer.

Two years and counting since the January 25 revolution, protest continues as strong as ever across the country. It was sustained throughout the period of direct SCAF rule, from February 2011 through July 2012, and now flourishes in the Mursi era. Egyptians from all walks of life are expressing their dissent with sit-ins, marches and strikes. Copts have been active in street politics as well, in regard to both national issues and communal grievances. In 2012, there were 15 reported protests pertaining to the cases of individual Copts or matters of religious discrimination -- following on 17 such events the previous year -- though the protesters’ demands have been met only very rarely. The participants are organized Coptic movements, as well as ordinary citizens, Christian and sometimes Muslim. Crucially, the protests are happening at public sites rather than inside church walls, as was most often the case prior to the revolution. Five of the 2012 protests were organized to press the security forces to be more proactive in investigating the disappearances of Coptic girls who are believed to have been kidnapped for religious reasons, namely their conversion to Islam and marriage to Muslim men. Three were organized to protest the enforcement of levies and the resort to kidnapping to extort them.

There has also been a rise in acts of defiance that do not quite fit the conventional definition of protest. On May 4, the night before Orthodox Easter, Pope Tawadros held mass in the ‘Abbasiyya cathedral. In the usual show of national unity, several government officials, judges, military officers and opposition party figures were in attendance. With its heavy security presence and displays of rigid hierarchy, the Easter eve mass is the last occasion where one would expect Coptic citizens to speak out against the government and the church.

In the first half of the prayers, the pope, as is conventional practice, read out a long list of thank-yous to officials who had conveyed Easter wishes to the Coptic citizenry. He began by saying he was pleased to relay the love and greetings of Muhammad Mursi, president of Egypt, who had phoned him in person to wish him and his flock a happy Easter and sent the housing minister to mass on his behalf. There was silence in the great hall.

The pope proceeded, passing on the best wishes of Hisham Qandil, the prime minister, who had sent the minister of higher education on his behalf. Again, there was complete quiet -- and again, when the pope thanked yet another Muslim Brother politician, the head of the upper house of Parliament.

“We would also like to thank the revered sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyib,” Tawadros continued, only to be interrupted by a deluge of applause from the congregation, joined by the military officers, opposition politicians and other luminaries. Nearly a minute passed before the pope was able to resume his statement.

What was striking about the unruly ovation was the political rather than sectarian undertones. When the pope acknowledged the presence of Nadya Zakhari among the distinguished guests, not a single person clapped. Zakhari, a Copt, serves as minister of scientific research. The cold response she received suggests that she is viewed as coopted, even if she holds a minor post. (Her predecessor, Denise Kamil, also a Copt, and who resigned from the government, received a few seconds of applause.) The second person to get a raucous reception at the Easter eve ceremony was ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the defense minister and a sitting member of the SCAF. It was a remarkable contrast with the scene in the cathedral during the Christmas Eve mass of January 2012, when the very mention of the SCAF stirred the congregants to shout, “Down, down with army rule!” Then, the critical mass of Coptic opinion was strongly anti-military, in the wake of the “Maspero massacre.” Today, much to the chagrin of youth revolutionary movements and non-Islamist opposition parties, some Copts (and many other Egyptians) believe that the only exit from the Brothers’ theo-authoritarian rule is a coup.

Unlike the various ministers in attendance, the mention of whose names fostered silence, the attendees from among the political opposition got hearty welcomes. Ahmad al-Zand, head of the Judges’ Club, received a round of applause second only to al-Tayyib’s. Al-Zand has entered into a pitched battle of words with the government, openly accusing the Muslim Brothers of encroaching on the autonomy of the judiciary and seeking to capture it for the executive branch. Third on the applause-o-meter was Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, popularly known as “the Tahrir preacher” for his leadership role in the January 25 revolution. The government suspended him from his post as imam of the ‘Umar Makram mosque close to Tahrir Square, on account of his critical remarks about President Mursi, but a Cairo court overruled the decision and he was reinstated. [6]

The loud cheers and silences were acts of double defiance for the congregation -- one set of barbs aimed at the Muslim Brothers and the president and the other at the papal institution itself. Over the winter, Pope Tawadros announced that he and the Holy Synod had decided that neither ululations nor applause would henceforth be permitted during church services, out of respect for the sacredness of the space. [7] The parishioners defied this edict in order to have a political voice.

It was not just the Copts at mass who clapped madly at the mention of Shahin and his like, but also many others not part of the government. Along with other signs, this incident confirms the emergence of a counter-coalition -- or at least a loose, informal entente -- encompassing very disparate forces that are bound together against a common enemy, Mursi and his government. An unruly entente had also emerged in the final months of Mubarak’s reign -- and, then as now, it was difficult to take its pulse or measure the extent of its influence. For the time being, such scenes as the Easter eve mass may be the platform for mobilization across sectarian divides. The question is: Will this counter-coalition be able to build a broader base, particularly in rural areas, faster than the flames of sectarian violence that spread each day?

Author’s Note: A longer version of this article will appear as an Institute for Development Studies working paper in July.

Endnotes

[1] Watani, May 21, 2013.
[2] Al-Mugaz, April 22, 2013.
[3] Egypt Independent, April 11, 2013.
[4] Egypt Independent, April 9, 2013.
[5] Agence France Presse, April 9, 2013.
[6] Al-Ahram Online, April 29, 2013.
[7] Al-Watan, November 25, 2012.

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