Egypt's Copts gather in April 2013. Demotix/Tahsin Bakr. All rights reserved.One can’t argue against the fact that the year under Islamist rule was one of the worst years in recent history for the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Many Copts view former Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, as their saviour from fundamentalist rule. During the months after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi there was an unprecedented number of attacks on Coptic churches and Christian institutions throughout the country. This sparked renewed fears among a Coptic community who had already been suffering from discrimination for years.
Prior to the current presidential elections, the Coptic Church officially announced that it would not support any candidate and instead would encourage Copts to read the electoral programmes of both Sabbahi and Sisi, urging them to vote.
But what does Sisi offer the Middle East’s largest minority? In a recent interview, Sisi disclosed some views about Copts. He was questioned on many topics including the Hamayouni Decree, which is a law enacted under Ottoman rule that regulates church construction and maintenance and is notorious for the obstacles it put in place. Asked whether he thought it should be replaced by a unified law for places of worship, and also about discrimination against Copts in government institutions including the military, SIsi looked surprised at the questions. He reserved his comments to the role of Copts in the military, denying that there was any discrimination. The anchors tried to expand on their question, detailing misrepresentation of Copts inside the army especially with regards to their promotion to higher ranks. But Sisi still avoided answering the question and told them to check the lists of those who join the army. So, according to Sisi, there’s no discrimination against Copts in the military.
This, of course, is not true. There’s not a single Coptic Christian officer in the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the top military body, and you can barely find any Christian officer at the rank of 'Major General' (eighth rank in the Egyptian military) or any higher rank. Even low-rank Christian officers or soldiers can’t join sensitive branches inside the army, like intelligence.
Elsewhere in the interview, he praised the Coptic community saying that they played a “patriotic role after June 30”, yet whereas every unit inside the army has a mosque where Muslims can practice, Christian soldiers may spend up to three or four weeks inside their units with no chapels. Copts face discrimination in other state institutions too, such as the ministry of interior; top governmental ranks such as governors and ministers; as well as university presidents.
Sisi, pushed under questioning, finally said: “we will try to offer a comfortable climate for everyone in Egypt”, which is a vague statement that promises nearly nothing.
When asked about the ultraconservative Salafi Al-Nour party, who announced their support for him in the elections, Sisi described them as “national patriots” and “aware of the threats that surround the country”. The Salafis are known for having very controversial views about Copts and minorities in general. For example, they oppose Copts' right to run for presidency or to holding senior posts in the state. Their clerics also prohibit their followers from greeting Christians on Christmas or at Easter because it is “haram.” They have strongly supported the forced displacement of Christians after sectarian tensions in many regions across the country (Alexandria and Shurba Al-Kheima, for example). Sisi, however, has nothing but praise.
In another interview, Sisi addressed the position of the state towards religion. Regarding the religion of the state, he said: “The president of the state is responsible for everything in the state, including its religion”, which is Islam according to the first article of the constitution. “I’m responsible for the values, principles, ethics and religion” he continued. More like the speech one might expect from a caliph rather than a president of a republic, if these views are implemented they are likely to raise further fears in Coptic Christian breasts.
The attempt seems to be under way to portray Sisi as no less pious and devout than the Islamists. This coincides with a vast crackdown campaign on atheists and homosexuals by the government. The head of the Alexandria police department said that he was forming a special squad for the purpose of arresting atheists who 'promote their ideas': “We will identify them and legalize the procedures of arresting them”. At the same time, gays and transgenders are being arrested and sentenced to prison. This is very likely to continue under Sisi’s rule.
If anything, history shows that this type of a strategy to confront Islamists will not end well for the Coptic minority. Former president Anwar El Sadat also tried to quell the Islamist critique by trying to prove that the regime was no less devout than them. He introduced article two into the constitution, which states that “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation”. He is well remembered for saying that he was, “a Muslim president for an Islamic country” and that Egypt was, “a country of faith and science”. By the end of Sadat’s tenure, he had ordered the late Pope Shenouda to be banished to a monastery, and jailed a number of bishops and priests.
Although the majority of Copts are perceived as supporters of Sisi and many do see him as a saviour from the Islamists, time may reveal that Sisi is not striving for their aspirations of equality or their attainment of full rights as first degree citizens. At some point, those he fails might well be expected to jump off the bandwagon and join the revolutionary arena along with their fellow Copts who already see through this.