Forays by the Coptic Church into Politics Spell Trouble for its Subjects

My latest for The Atlantic Council‘s EgyptSource blog: Forays by the Coptic Church into Politics Spell Trouble for its Subjects

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Tomorrow’s Egypt…

After former Egyptian president Hosny Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, due to mass protests that started on January 25th, Egypt was at the most united it had been in a very long time. Photos of Christians protecting Muslims during prayers in Tahrir were inspiring the world, as were photos of Muslims protecting churches from attacks during the 18-day protests. The rich and the poor knew that their fate was linked and they had to work together. Liberals and Islamists seemingly sought one democratic country where they could settle their battles in the political arena rather than in street fights. Civilians and the army were hand in hand, working towards building a democratic Egypt and returning the military to its role outside civilian and political life. That unity had come from a sense of achievement and a sense of purpose. Egypt had removed a dictator who had ruled the country for thirty years and was now on the road to becoming a full-fledged democracy.

Fast-forward to today, a few weeks after former president Mohamed Morsi’s repeated failure to run a democratic, inclusive transition led to mass demands of his ouster, Egypt stands at a critical point. Over the past couple of days, over forty churches, monasteries, and Christian-affiliated schools and businesses were attacked, many of them burned down. The motive, according to a Facebook post by one branch of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party? Because “the Pope participated in removing the country’s first elected Islamic president and… supports armed groups to wreak havoc.” The post goes on to exclaim about people asking why churches are being burned, saying that, while attacking houses of worship is a crime, “the church waging a war on Islam and Muslims is a bigger crime.” Attacks were not limited to the property of Christians, however. Numerous police stations and government buildings were attacked. One police station had its personnel stripped of their clothes and sulfuric acid spilled on their bodies before they were killed [graphic]. The violence even reached the burning of the Raba’a al-‘Adaweya Mosque in Cairo, close to the scene of a six-week-long pro-Morsi sit-in dispersed by police forces Wednesday. While investigations have not yet confirmed who the perpetrators were, eyewitness reports by priests, nuns, and laymen at the Christian buildings and numerous civilians around the various places that were attacked seem to agree that these attacks were carried out by pro-Morsi crowds.

In response to these attacks, the Muslim Brotherhood (in the form of both its leadership and members) has taken a number of stands. These range from claiming that churches are being burned by the police in coordination with the priests for political gain, to an official statement that “anger at the dispersal has gotten out of control,” basically absolving the leadership of wrongdoing and blaming the people who believed in them. It is worth pointing out that there has been strong and pointed sectarian language by Brotherhood leaders that targeted Christians. Muslim Brotherhood leaders previously claimed that churches are stocked with weapons; sometimes even live lions, that were there in preparation to attack Islamists. However, in contrast, a Brotherhood spokesman claimed Thursday on television that only 20% of the pro-Morsi sit-ins were formed of Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters, while the rest included Christians and Muslims who wanted the return of Morsi to power, even though they “hated the Brotherhood.” What the Brotherhood fails to mention, however, is that the one photo of a sign that read “Christians for Morsi” taken at one of the sit-ins was soon followed by the one below*, in which the Cross and the word “Christians” were magically crossed out once the media was done filming. Muslim Brotherhood leaders, while reacting to the attacks on churches, have not made comment on the aggressive sectarian language used on the stage in Raba’a, and elsewhere, against Christians and the Coptic Orthodox Pope.

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Christians for Morsi… or not

Despite their efforts to incite hatred against Egypt’s Christians, the one group the Muslim Brotherhood managed to get Egyptians to hate the most was themselves. Instead of helping the attackers, average Muslims were protecting churches. Reports of of torture, violence, death, and more atrocities at the pro-Morsi sit-ins that have been surfacing for the past few weeks have taken Egyptians by storm. A video of men and women saying they were enjoying the sit-in and its free food (with meat), one of them even going so far as to joke that she hoped Morsi would not return so they would not have to go home, left Egyptians with no doubt that the sit-in was anything but political. Statements from the stage  saying that “anyone who tells you to leave is a traitor and should be apprehended and handed to sit-in security” showed that, among the many that were there voluntarily, there were probably many others too scared to leave. Add to that weapons found by the Ministry of Interior and unknown dead bodies buried among the sit-in, and you get a very different image from that of a peaceful sit-in by people with legitimate political demands.

When Morsi came into power, it was to rule an Egypt that had very high hopes for its first elected civilian president. His disregard for the importance of that position, the importance of the country he was presiding over, and the aspirations of its people all led to millions of people demanding his removal. Morsi received an Egypt that was embracing the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderate, altruistic, viable political choice and left an Egypt united on one thing, its distrust and perhaps even outright hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. Any love that was left between the majority of Egypt’s population and the Muslim Brotherhood was gradually lost due to the live feed of the Raba’a sit-in, only to disappear altogether after the violence of the past couple of days. It is a tragedy that so many of the people who supported Morsi died in the events of the past couple of days, and an even greater tragedy their deaths will not be mourned, any may even be celebrated, by many Egyptians. It is also a tragedy that these deaths were caused by the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who themselves were nowhere to be found while their followers were on the streets.

Tomorrow’s Egypt has the fear of violence still hanging over the cities and villages as Morsi supporters call for mass protests. Tomorrow’s Egypt, however, still resembles the one the world praised in 2011. People’s aspirations for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” still stand, and their hope for this country has not wavered, and hopefully never will.


*photo credit to @degner, July 26, 2013

Egypt Presidency Statement

Below is my  translation of the statement published by the Egyptian Presidency early Friday, August 16th, 2013, according to the text posted on the Sada el-Balad website: http://www.el-balad.com/585838#.Ug1enRaVjZs

The Egyptian Presidency has closely followed the words of US President Barack Obama concerning events in Egypt. While Cairo appreciates the American concern of the developing events in Egypt, it would like things to be put in their correct context and the real facts of the situation on the ground to be understood. Towards that end, the Presidency would like to confirm the following.

First: Egypt is facing terrorist acts targeting government buildings and vital facilities. These have included tens of churches, courthouses, and police stations, as well as many public facilities and private properties.

Second: Armed violence groups have aimed to kill individuals and have targeted the civil facets of the Egyptian state, including libraries, museums, public parks, and educational buildings.

Third: The Egyptian Presidency, while mourning the fall of Egyptian victims and working hard on achieving social security and peace, confirms its full responsibility for the protection of the nation and the lives of its people.

Fourth: The Presidency fears that statements that do not depend on the truth of matters may lead to strengthening the armed violent groups and encouraging them in their path against stability and democratic transition, standing in the way of achieving the roadmap we insist on achieving on time, from a constitution all the way to parliamentary and presidential elections.

Fifth: Egypt appreciates the faithful positions of the world’s nations, but absolutely confirms its full sovereignty and independent decision, as well as enabling the will of the people which was shown on the 25th of January, 2011, and the 30th of June, 2013, for a better future for a great country.

One or the Other?

Cairo crowds cheer the Army
Crowds in Cairo cheering Army copters on in run-up to removal of Morsi on July 3rd

Let me start by saying that, in an absolute choice between the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, I would unequivocally choose the Army. My choice would be based on one simple, basic, perhaps naïve reason.

Any national army has a vested interest in its country being prosperous, or at the very least safe. This is even more true for an army of conscripts such as the Egyptian army, where at least the lower ranks are made up of everyday Egyptian men from all walks of life. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, has shown on numerous occasions that Egypt as a nation was not its top priority, if it was even on the list at all. This was done by word (former MB Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef famously said “screw Egypt” and former president Mohamed Morsi was famous for addressing “his family and tribe” rather than the people of Egypt) and deed (among a vast list of both proven and alleged deeds against Egypt, laying out the Egyptian flag on the street at the MB sit-in to be stepped on is only an example of the group’s disdain for the country).

I think it’s important to say here that this opinion applies solely to the MB and other groups with non-Egyptian agendas, not to Islamist or religious political players at large. While I do not agree with the idea of religion-based politics, I’d still welcome any Islamist party that has the Egyptian interest at heart and not a regional or international, or even group-based, agenda.

Now that my choice of Army vs. MB has been made clear, the important question to ask is. Are these really our only two choices in Egypt at this point in time? And if so, why? Where are the other players that have been in the political arena for years, at least since January 25th? Where are the liberal forces that have time and time again seemed to align best with the hopes and aspirations of Egyptians for a better future? Do we really stand at a point where it is one or the other?

Let me end by saying that I have not decided on whether or not I’ll be joining today’s protests, called for by Defense Minister Abdelfattah el-Sisi to give the Army a mandate to fight the “potential violence and terrorism” threatening Egypt. My indecision is not based on a lack of trust of the Army, as is the case for many, or a lack of desire to fight violence and terrorism, as it may be seen by some. My indecision, however, is based on a lack of desire to choose the better of two evils and trying to find a third way out. I believe, though, that at the end of the day practical and realistic concerns will take over my idealism and I’ll be joining the throngs, but I’m hoping to be more sure of the decision then than I am now.