A civil Coptic movement struggles in a polarized Egypt

On the evening of March 5, 2011, then 19-year-old Tony Sabry was sheltered beneath a blanket as he participated in a sit-in for the first time in his life in front of the Maspero State Television building. Thousands of other Coptic Christians stood next to him as they protested the burning of a church by Salafis days earlier in the neighborhood of Atfeeh, Helwan. It was then, less than a month following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, that the Maspero Youth Union (MYU) was born.

Formed as a civil movement to fight for Coptic rights away from the authority of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the union grew to hundreds of members across nine governorates. The union rejected the passive role of the Coptic community before the revolution with the Coptic Pope as their sole representative.  But after the military ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood following mass protests last summer, an increasingly repressive political climate has fragmented the union — along with other youth movements — and forced them to reconsider their strategies for expressing opposition. 

Civil Coptic dissent reached an all-time high following the Maspero massacre on October 9, 2011, during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which left 28 – mostly Coptic – protesters dead, many of them crushed by armored personnel carriers.

This followed protests against the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt, allegedly built without the appropriate license. In an unprecedented act of mass defiance, during funeral processions at the Abbasseya Cathedral the following day, Pope Shenouda III’s speech in praise of the authorities was drowned out by chants calling for the fall of the military regime.

While anger within the Coptic community reached unprecedented levels, the massacre fractured the Coptic movement and the Maspero Youth Union. Up to 30 groups were formed including the Coalition for Egypt’s Copts, the Martyr’s Blood Movement, the October 9 Movement, Families of the Maspero Martyrs Union and the non-Coptic Mina Daniel Movement, named after Daniel, a revolutionary figure killed at Maspero who became a symbol of non-sectarianism.

Meanwhile, throughout the near year of military rule before Morsi’s presidency, the government sought to appease the Coptic community, relying on the perceived authority of the Coptic church, with the staging of a military funeral in honor of Pope Shenouda III in March 2012, for instance.   

Coptic activism rose once more following the election of Morsi in June 2012. Ishaq Ibrahim, officer for freedom of religion and belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says that cases of blasphemy against Christians rose during Morsi’s year in power. Several MYU members participated in the Tamarod petition movement that helped oust the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate from the presidency.

In recent months, however, Coptic Christians have found themselves facing violence from supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and lack of protection from the military-backed government authorities.

In the immediate aftermath of the dispersal of the Rabea el-Adaweya sit-in calling for Morsi’s reinstatement on August 14 last year, 47 churches were attacked or burned, along with thousands of homes and private businesses. Both leaders and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have publicly blamed Christians for the military-backed ouster of Morsi on July 3. Kidnappings of Copts have also increased. 

Authorities have failed to protect Christians or reconstruct their damaged property; only the Al-Amir Tadros Church in Minya city in Upper Egypt has been partially reconstructed by the government.  Article 235 in the Constitution passed in January vaguely stipulates that, in its first legislative term, the House of Representatives “shall issue a law to regulating the building and renovation of churches, ensuring that Christians have the freedom to practice their religious rituals.” Christians have long complained of the bureaucratic hurdles entailed in renovating churches. 

Many Copts — including some members of the Union — have called for a halt to street politics, opting to support the military as the lesser of two evils, a stance widely condemned by other Coptic revolutionaries.

“So long as sectarian violence and rhetoric continue, civil Coptic movements will suffer,” says Paul Sedra, associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University. “Like all Coptic movements and organizations, the Maspero Youth Union has had to acknowledge that public opinion among Copts strongly favors military rule.”

“This trend has put all those Copts who supported the January 25 revolution in a precarious position. It is extraordinarily difficult in today’s Egypt to oppose military rule and not be seen as sympathetic to the Brotherhood,” he adds. 

Despite the retaliation and violence committed by Islamist extremists, however, several members of the union decried the killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Rabea. They defied a number of the union’s official positions, which include not participating in protests, supporting the constitutional referendum and voting in presidential elections.

Mina Thabet, one of the union’s co-founders, notes that the range of political opinions within the MYU covers a wide spectrum including leftists, anarchists and conservatives, and even those with no political interests. While diversity of opinion in the union is not new, previously most members were more critical of the violations of the ruling government. With an increasingly repressive environment, civil Coptic activists have been more careful in expressing their dissent. The result is that internal decision-making has left many feeling frustrated.

Thabet, Sabry and other members defied the group’s decision to vote in favor of the constitutional draft in January, boycotting the referendum on the basis that it was illegitimate. Sabry also defied the group’s decision not to participate in street politics, and took part in the third anniversary protests of the January 25 revolution.

In contrast, Hany Ramses, a lawyer and member of the union who describes himself as having center-right political views, supported the union’s official line as he believes now is not the time for street politics.

“Protesting now is not only unsafe, but it will politically serve the interests of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says.

Internal disagreements extend also to presidential elections, which are set to take place on May 26-27 between the widely popular former commander-in-chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi.

Thabet and Sabry plan to boycott presidential elections, while Mariam Samir, in charge of researching media coverage of Coptic affairs in the union, remains undecided.

“Sisi was a savior when he intervened on July 3 as a military man,” she says, “but since then we are seeing an alarming rise in military fascism and we don’t know what his credentials are as president.”

The Maspero Youth Union officially declared that it would not participate in protests, including the third anniversaries of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, in which over 40 were killed and hundreds injured, and the Maspero massacre, due to fears that they would ultimately benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other Coptic groups such as the Families of the Maspero Martyrs Union, a group supporting the families of those killed at Maspero in October 2011, condemned the MYU. One member, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that their relationship with the MYU ended after they “abandoned us on the third anniversary of the massacre.”

Despite the challenges, Sabry and others with similar political viewpoints, insist on remaining in the MYU, believing that Coptic rights must be addressed.

“I might not agree with everyone in the MYU on everything,” Sabry says, “but I still believe that there is common ground and we must continue to fight for the rights of Copts and all other Egyptians.”

Nevertheless, despite internal disagreements on presidential elections and the constitutional referendum, the union has blamed security forces for a security vacuum and for failing to offer Christians protection.

On October 22, for example, the Union and other Coptic activists, in a statement on their Facebook page, called for Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim to step down following the killing of four Christians at a drive-by shooting at a church wedding in the neighborhood of Warraq in Imbaba.

The work of the Maspero Youth Union includes advocating for civil rights. Article 3 of the 2014 Constitution states that “the canonical principles of Egyptian Christians and Jews shall be the main source of legislation organizing their personal status, religious affairs and the selection of their spiritual leaders.” 

With an unreformed church, seen as highly conservative by those challenging the church’s authority, this means that civil rights, such as the right to divorce, remain out of reach. Copts are not allowed to divorce except in extreme cases such as adultery or domestic violence.

Pope Tawadros II said in an interview on Al-Tahrir channel on March 17 that in light of the current war on terror, it is not the time to discuss human rights considerations. Many activists, including Copts, condemned the statement. Some Coptic activists even suggested that the pope had forgotten fundamental Christian teachings. Many other prominent leaders, both Copts and non-Copts, have taken similar stances as the pope. 

These comments marked a clear departure from the pope’s previous statements, describing Morsi as increasingly dictatorial on live television. In a November 2012 Al-Arabiya interview shortly following his ascension to the position, he suggested that the church’s role was primarily spiritual not political.

“I agree with the pope’s critics that both Coptic citizenship rights and reform of church governance are issues that warrant attention,” says Sedra. “But it is hardly surprising that Tawadros has embraced a conservative approach so early in his tenure, and in the midst of so much social unrest in Egypt at large.”

Sedra also believes that church-state relations, like those of other religious bodies such as Al-Azhar, have returned to being similar to those that characterized the Mubarak era.

Nevertheless, Pope Tawadros also announced on May 4 that the church would not support any specific presidential candidate, a stance applauded by the MYU. 

A church-state alliance has developed since the rule of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Pope Kirollos VI cooperated with the president to marginalize the existing non-clerical secular landowning Coptic leadership. Likewise, Pope Shenouda III restored his relationship with the state in the Mubarak era, following a short-lived act of defiance against President Anwar Sadat, which left him under house arrest in 1981. 

“The relationship in the Mubarak era was one where the Coptic church would provide a list of conservative clerical figures for Parliament, while the government would declare protection or stability,” says EIPR’s Ibrahim. He also claims that several Coptic journalists or lawyers have been pressured into silence by state authorities.

Nevertheless, many of the members of the Union are not entirely hopeless, and see a silver lining. 

Thabet has hope for a civil Coptic movement despite it being pushed to the sidelines. “People are more aware and politically involved than before. We got rid of three consecutive governments in three years, we can do it again.”

Sabry agrees, “We have to change our strategies and win back the support of the people, because they are tired and they need alternatives.” 


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