Sisi and Egypt's Christians: A passing crisis or the end of an alliance?

Over the past few months, a number of attacks have occurred against Coptic homes and churches in various provinces of Egypt, from Alexandria in the north to Luxor in the south.

EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II (photo credit: REUTERS)
EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks next to Coptic Pope Tawadros II
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The relationship between the Copts and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi is one of necessity.
Beginning on July 3, 2013, this relationship crystallized when Coptic Pope Tawadros II appeared in the front row as Sisi delivered a speech announcing the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. The Copts, at the time, saw Morsi as a direct threat to their existence, especially after sectarian incidents against them escalated during the year the Muslim Brotherhood was in power.
This included the assault on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassia in central Cairo, the Coptic papal seat, during a Coptic funeral for four people killed in previous attacks in a Cairo suburb.
The Copts wagered a great deal on Sisi’s ability to improve their situation during his reign, hoping that he would remove the many obstacles that paved the way for the eruption of sectarian violence under Morsi. Some of their more pressing concerns included the construction, restoration and maintenance of churches, forced displacement, the abduction of minors, and ending discrimination against Copts in obtaining rights related to work and promotions in government and public positions. There was hope that Sisi would anchor the principles of citizenship within the rule of law during his time in power.
Indeed this is effectively what pushed Tawadros II to call on Copts to support Sisi at home and abroad by every means possible.
But with every passing day, their faith in Sisi faded.
They have now come to recognize that he is not the man they had longed for, and the things they hoped he’d achieve seem more and more unlikely.
Over the past few months, a number of attacks have occurred against Coptic homes and churches in various provinces of Egypt, from Alexandria in the north to Luxor in the south. However, the Minya province, 250 kilometers south of Cairo, has borne the brunt of these attacks. A large number of Coptic houses were burned due to rumors they had been converted into churches in the villages of Kom al-Lufi, Saft al-Kharsa, Tahna al-Jabal and Abu Yaqub. In an unprecedented shift in the form of these attacks, a 70-year-old Coptic woman in the Minyan village of al-Karam was completely stripped of her clothes and dragged through the village streets after her house was burned and her possessions looted; there had been rumors of a romantic relationship between her son and a Muslim girl, something the latter denied categorically.
In light of the continuing dismissal of these problems and the pressure to resolve them outside of the law, Copts both domestic and abroad have moved toward public escalation in reaction to the state’s discriminatory policies. Domestically, after the parliament speaker opposed a request to discuss these incidents publicly, Emad Gad, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center and a Coptic member of parliament, came out and said, “The Copts are being subjected to hellish schemes that aim to humiliate and subjugate them under the supervision of state agencies and institutions.” He added in a statement published on his Facebook page that he and other lawmakers had failed to discuss “abuses” against Copts and said he was searching for a solution, “apart from betting on state institutions which continue to plot the abuse of Copts.”
Meanwhile, Copts in the United States began a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, DC, to highlight the suffering of their counterparts in Egypt. Friar Marcos Aziz – previously the patron of the Hanging Church in Cairo – recorded a widely disseminated video addressing Sisi, saying, “Enough is enough, we elected you and supported you.” Aziz continued, saying that “Sisi is the worst president we’ve been deceived by, after we stood beside him.”
Amid the various statements from different parties, and as a reaction to the successive escalations and developments, Sisi spoke briefly on July 21 during the graduation ceremony at the Military Academy, saying, “We’re [comprised of] 90 million people. If every day we see an incident or even a number of incidents, and we react to them irrationally, this won’t be in the interests of the nation.”
Pope Tawadros II responded to these statements after meeting with the parliament’s religious affairs committee at his residence in the cathedral on July 25. He maintained that, so far, the church has controlled the anger of Copts living in Egypt and abroad against the regime, but it may not hold up long in the face of the “systematic attacks against them.”
Here is a major question which has presented itself amid the ongoing Coptic mobilization and polarization: do the Copts see an alternative to Sisi? At the moment, it seems like the answer is no.
Although the Copts feel frustrated and betrayed by Sisi’s policies toward them, Khairy Girgis, one of the organizers of the Coptic demonstrations in front of the White House, believes that a figure able to win the trust of the Copts hasn’t appeared just yet. Girgis adds that the coming stage between the Copts and Sisi will see more push and pull, because Sisi will try all available routes to bring back Coptic support.
This is especially true given that he is aware his popularity has eroded among other groups who had once supported him. But there is a state of mistrust that will make this task difficult, or even impossible.
Girgis called on church leaders to desist from intervention in politics, since this allows the regime to pull the church into the political game – a game that the church has very little experience playing.
Sherif Mansour, head of a Coptic organization in Canada, believes that the trust between the Copts and Sisi has long been broken and it will be difficult to return to the way things were before. On whether Copts see any alternative to Sisi, Mansour said: “Many alternatives may be available, however it is important that they are from outside the military institution, or else no change will be achieved.”
Mansour continued that an alternative may not be on the immediate horizon but will inevitably come, because the Copts are not the only ones feeling dissatisfied.
Many groups who believe in the idea of a civilian state have joined the Copts in support, as all of them believe that nothing has changed since the days of Mubarak.
Isaq Ibrahim from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights believes that the mounting Coptic fury against the state is very noticeable. Still, some still celebrate Sisi as the savior from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nonetheless, the government’s ongoing refusal to address economic and social issues may motivate the Copts to vent their anger at Sisi personally.
Ultimately, despite the fact that the Copts did not choose Sisi but had him imposed on them by circumstances, just as he was imposed on all of Egypt, the huge support they gave Sisi resulted from their fear that Egypt was falling into a state of instability that would seriously threaten the Copts’ existence in Egypt. However, it is clear that Sisi did not understand this. Instead, he failed to dispel the fears of the Copts and is now on the verge of losing an original pillar of support.
The author is an Egyptian writer and analyst of Middle East affairs, working on a master’s degree in political science from the University of Rome.
This item was originally published on the Fikra Forum.