Sectarianism and the Copts in revolutionary Egypt


The new pope, Pope Tawadros, realizes that his base has awakened and that he needs to establish his rule. Both the church and its Pope will be much more active and demanding in Egyptian politics. 

Ali Gokpinar
30 June 2013

Egypt is on the brink. Mohamed Morsi promised to be the president of all of the Egyptians in the post-Mubarak Egypt. Yet, sectarianism has increasingly shown its violent face with attacks on Copts and most recently with the horrible killings of four Shiites in Zawyat Abu Musalam, Giza. Many journalistic reports and some quasi-academic articles have blamed the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, who now have a majority in the Egyptian Parliament, for the rise of sectarianism. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi should not be solely held responsible for sectarian violence (even if they haven't helped matters), as the Egyptian state (especially security forces) are not under the control of Morsi and Coptic mobilization has crystallized.

The Egyptian state was operating through capillary vessels before Mubarak was toppled and it has become more dysfunctional since then. Despite the entente between Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi and the SCAF, the state has been rapidly disappearing and rendered paralyzed as revolutionary groups have been reluctant to negotiate and posed irreconcilable demands.

Little has been done, however, to improve the state of the minorities in Egypt and recent attacks on Shiites reveal that it is not the Muslim Brotherhood but the state itself that is deeply sectarian. The Egyptian state has long been in denial about this: the entente between Mubarak’s regime and the Coptic Orthodox Church only covering up much of the sectarian politics. Yet, the true colours of the Egyptian state have been evident for all to observe at least since 2005, as cracks between Mubarak and the late Pope Shenouda III surfaced. These sectarian incidents were either negotiated between the regime and the church or parties to the conflict were forced to use local reconciliation mechanisms to avoid the implementation of the rule of law.  The Egyptian state was reluctant to investigate such cases because security forces (who are supposed to investigate such cases) were involved. No one mentioned the rule of law.

In 2012, the interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf established an Early Warning and Prevention Council, albeit without a budget and understaffed. Yet, the Council followed sectarian incidents closely and attempted to map fragile neighbourhoods in Cairo and Upper Egypt. Council members were able to receive early warning about potential sectarian incidents and alert the police. Yet, the police either did not consider such warnings worthy of their attention or were themselves involved in such incidents. Because of financial constraints, the Council was not able to function for more than two months. But they did draft a report on behalf of ex-Prime Minister Sharaf, informing him of the involvement of the security forces in kindling sectarianism. The state of Egypt took no step to deal with this state-sponsored sectarianism.

On the other hand, while respect for the police has plummeted since it became the Mubarak regime’s primary tool of repression, in the transition period thugs and mobs have replaced the police and established their own rule, creating a black market for small arms. These were the people who attacked the Coptic Orthodox Church’s headquarters in Cairo. Reports suggest that the security forces were also involved or at least did not prevent the attack, although they were present in front of the Cathedral. Although Morsi criticized these thugs and declared he will go after these groups, he missed an excellent opportunity to start reforming the security services by not taking concrete actions at this point. If he did start to reform the security sector, this would not only ease relations between Morsi and the opposition, but also prevent the further alienation of the Copts. 

Of course President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have contributed to spreading sectarianism in Egypt through their incompetence in governing the country, especially their economic incopompetence. The current Egyptian constitution maintains the neo-millet system that belonged to previous authoritarian regimes and the Morsi administration has failed to give enough voice to Copts themselves in the challenge of building a new Egypt.

There have ben times when the Muslim Brothers was keen enough to be partners with famous Coptic figures. For instance, in March 2012 I was interviewing an influential Copt, who worked closely with the church and currently runs a development organization in Cairo, as part of my field research. That morning news came out about the invitation to the Shura Council members to discuss the new Constitution and the state of Egypt. Among those invited, there was an influential Coptic figure whose family has been highly regarded throughout modern Egypt and who served as a minister under Mubarak. My interviewee called this ex-Minister and convinced her that she should not be on this council because the Muslim Brotherhood had invited her simply to maintain their own political façade. A couple of hours later this influential Coptic politician resigned from the Council, not only revealing the distrust between the Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the reluctance of the Copts to engage and negotiate with rising political forces.  But how can Copts and Muslims coexist if they do not negotiate, but instead take to the streets?

President Morsi further proved his incompetence with scandals like the Constitutional Declaration which gave the President legislative, executive, constitutional and judicial power. Morsi was forced to withdraw this decree, but one of the important consequences of this undemocratic move was the resignation of Samir Morcos, the Coptic consultant to Morsi. As a respected Coptic intellectual Mr. Morcos could have been a bridge between the Coptic community and the Islamists, facilitating the move from a political regime based on tolerance to one of genuine coexistence.

Without examining the political dynamics within the Coptic community it is difficult to fully understand the prospects for inter-communal relations in Egypt. Coptic historian Paul Sedra predicted the rise of Coptic activism in an article in 1999. This has become a fullscale mobilization since 2005 as part of a Kefaya movement which is avowedly Egyptian first and foremost before it is religious. This movement laid the basis for a particular community-based mobilization which emerged after the Revolution with the formation of Coptic youth movements that now have branches in almost every city where Copts live. Such groups did not hesitate to challenge the Pope Shenouda on non-religious grounds, protesting against his entente with the state. The Maspero massacre also provided the occasion for the politicization of Coptic youth, who then actively demanded that the SCAF implement rule of the law.  The formation of the Maspero Youth Union is important because they have challenged both the church and the state and become a voice for young Copts who have a different understanding of the world from the previous two generations.

The change in the church leadership of the Copts provides further significant insight into Egyptian politics. Pope Shenouda had an understanding with Mubarak, having developed a personal relationship as two power-brokers for over 35 years. Although Pope Shenouda was against Coptic participation in protests in the wake of the Revolution, the church mainly supported the military establishment – ironic when you consider that the SCAF ordered the mass killings of the Copts in Maspero. But the church was always fully convinced that the state apparatus was in the hands of the SCAF generals.

The new pope, Pope Tawadros, has been politically much more outspoken and active than his predecessor. Pope Tawadros is smart enough to understand that feloul politics (those of the former regime) will no longer be tolerated in Egypt. He realizes that his base has awakened and that he needs to establish his rule over and against the heritage of the charismatic late Pope Shenouda. Both the church and its Pope will be much more active and demanding in Egyptian politics.

Theorizing sectarianism in Iraq after the US occupation, Fanar Haddad argues that sectarianism could be banal, passive and assertive and it ebbs and flows rather than being constant.Using this vocabulary, it seems as if sectarianism in Egypt is transforming itself from banal sectarianism to assertive sectarianism. We might see the ebb approaching the coast soon, especially if the June 30 demonstrations turn violent.

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