Copts post-June 30: Can Sisi bank on continued Coptic support?
 
 
Courtesy: Roger Anis
 

Four years have passed since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on June 30, 2013, alongside Muslim Brotherhood rule. Since then, Egypt has faced important political transformations that have translated into economic and social change. On the fourth anniversary of this crucial point in the country’s political history, we give some focus to the different players who made June 30, 2013 possible, namely: the pro-democracy political forces, the Salafi political movement, the Coptic communities and their church and Al-Azhar. What did they want back then, and where are they today?

Describing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s first visit to the cathedral after he assumed the presidency to celebrate Coptic Christmas in January 2015, Bishop Bola of Tanta says, “Suddenly, as the angel appeared preaching the birth of Christ, we saw Christ appear in the cathedral.” Bishop Bola calls him a savior, likening the president to Christ.

The official position of the church in support of the regime has remained unchanged since June 30, 2013.

The notion that Christians were willing to make sacrifices for the June 30 regime was articulated by the church leadership early on when churches across the country were burned and attacked in the aftermath of the dispersion of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins calling for Morsi’s reinstatement. Commenting on the attacks, Pope Tawadros II said, “A homeland without churches is better than churches without a homeland,” before declaring that the burning of these churches was a sacrifice willingly offered by Copts for the sake of the nation’s freedom.

This support was reiterated once more when Tawadros refused to use the term “displacement” after dozens of Christian families fled their homes in Arish, North Sinai to Ismailia and other governorates earlier this year to escape targeted militant attacks that killed seven Copts by the end of February alone. At the time, the Pope declared that these events will not undermine national unity.

However, behind the church’s official position of support there is a Coptic community, the majority of whom supported Sisi and his regime out of fear of the Brotherhood’s rule. While some Copts may question this support, like many others who support Sisi they are struggling to see an alternative to the current regime.

Sectarian killings and fissures in Coptic support

There is a sector of Sisi supporters within the Coptic community who saw in his repeated visits to Cairo’s Abbasseya Cathedral  on Coptic Christmas a sufficient redress and acknowledgment of their existence. This was encouraged by the church leadership’s expressions of gratitude for the military’s restoration of the churches that were burned and attacked by Brotherhood sympathizers following the bloody dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins in the summer of 2013.

When Sisi visited the cathedral this year for Christmas, he was welcomed by chants of “We love you, oh President.” This came one month after the bombing of the St. Peter and St. Paul Church in Cairo’s Coptic cathedral complex, which killed 29 people, mostly women and children, and injured 31 others. This time Sisi did not enter after the start of the mass, as he usually does, but entered accompanied by the Pope at the start.

The military funeral that Sisi ordered for the victims of the St. Peter and St. Paul bombing worked to soothe Christian public opinion, as did Sisi’s announcement of the attacker’s identity during the funeral proceedings, giving an impression that steps were quickly being taken.

Courtesy: Roger Anis

The day before the funeral, however, dozens of Christians gathered in front of the church after the bombing chanting slogans demanding the dismissal of the interior minister. A young man addressing security forces chanted, “We are Copts and not terrorists.” Some protesters echoed his chant before others called on them to stop, in case it was interpreted as as being directed at the president.

It appears that those directly affected by the bombing, as with other sectarian attacks, are more likely to have critical opinions about the current regime.

Eyewitnesses of the St. Peter and St. Paul bombing made statements to Mada Masr at the time questioning how this amount of explosives could have reached the heart of the capital without the knowledge of security and intelligence authorities. This was before Sisi’s comments that an explosive belt had been used.

One of the deacons who served in the church on the day of the explosion is deeply unsatisfied with state efforts to protect churches. “He sent us security men who just sit by the gate, drinking tea and harassing women,” he says.

Hania Samir, one of the survivors of the 2017 Palm Sunday bombing in Tanta says she wrote at the time, “I used to think it is good to die a martyr, but the day the explosion happened in our church, I ran. It is easy to say, ‘It is alright to die,’ but when it actually happens, it is not true.”

The Tanta bombing, which took place on Palm Sunday, alongside another church bombing in Alexandria claimed the lives of 45 individuals and resulted in the injury of dozens.

Courtesy: Roger Anis

“And where is the president in the midst of what is happening to us,” she says, adding that she voted for Sisi primarily to save her community from what she calls the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Several Christians displaced from Arish, fearing threats from Islamic State-affiliated militants, rejected the church’s position and the pope’s statements supporting the state. “Where is the Sisi who we elected and supported?” says Mary, a member of one of the families displaced to Ismailia. “What is he doing about our lives and safety and security as he spoke about?” Another calls it “A shame for the pope to be speaking of national unity.”

Others who survived explosions or whose family members were killed in sectarian attacks have resisted the persistent talk of sacrifices that Christians must make. This was evident at the funeral service for the victims of the massacre at the St. Samuel Monastery on May 26, after 29 people were killed by gunmen in the Al-Adwa desert. When Bishop Agathon, Bishop of Maghagha and Adwa, said, “We bid farewell to martyrs of the homeland,” the father of two brothers who were killed screamed out, “They are not martyrs of the homeland, they are martyrs of the church, Father,” angering the bishop who clashed verbally with the families of the victims.

“The role of the state is to protect citizens, not congratulate them on their martyrdom.”

Mina Lamei, in his 30s, who works in an automobile company, is critical of the rhetoric surrounding martyrdom and sacrifice. “OK, they burn churches, which we can restore. At the end of the day, these are stones,” he says. “But to talk about human beings in the same way, this is not acceptable. Martyrdom does not mean to be killed in cold blood. Where is the choice here? Maybe I do not want to be martyred.”

“The role of the state is to protect citizens, not congratulate them on their martyrdom,” he says. “Should only the Christians sacrifice so that the homeland can live? Or rather so that the regime may live.”

When Sisi announced airstrikes in Libya as a response to the May killings, the family members of some victims wondered about the relationship between Libya and those who carried out the attack on the Bishop Samuel road in Minya. Ashraf Isaac, brother of Lamei Isaac who was killed in that attack said, “The state wants to silence us. What were those strikes in Libya about, what does Libya have to do with us? These are huge interests that have nothing to do with Copts. Terrorism is here in Egypt, but they cannot talk about it, so they tell us we struck abroad in order to silence us.”

Sectarian attacks, Tiran and Sanafir, the state of the economy

Mada Masr spoke with a number of Christians who voted for Sisi, asking them if their support remains constant. While many are determined to re-elect him, those who have their doubts link them to armed attacks targeting the Christian community, but also the state of the economy and the handing over of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia. Reluctant to vote for Sisi again, they lament the vagueness of the situation and the difficulty of finding an alternative.

For some the economic crisis has no bearing on their support for Sisi. “What can the man do? This economic crisis is the heritage of long years,” says Matta Samaan. “And the Egyptian people are lazy by nature. And just like us he is a victim of terrorism. Who else on the scene, other than the military, is able to run the country in its present condition?”

“Until now Sisi has performed well. But honestly, the one thing that is upsetting me is this matter of Tiran and Sanafir.”

Irene Ayad, on the other hand, is concerned that Sisi is not dealing with the crisis competently. “Death is coming anyway, whether in an explosion, murder or natural death. But the living are the ones who are suffering,” she says. “With our salaries we are helping our children live. What shall we do when we only have our pensions? What will our children do? I wonder if Sisi still does not have a program.”

The lightning rod issue of Tiran and Sanafir and Egypt’s sovereignty has affected Christians as much as others. “Until now Sisi has performed well. But honestly, the one thing that is upsetting me is this matter of Tiran and Sanafir,” says Morcos Kamal, a retired engineer who served in the 1973 war. “He is a military man and knows the value of the sanctity of the land. This makes me think that Egypt is in danger because of those two islands and that is why he left them to Saudi Arabia. Otherwise, I would find it difficult to believe that a military man would do this.”

Bishoy Ezzat, 30, says he is opposed to anyone selling the country, whether they are the Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else. “Honestly, I don’t know what to say about what Sisi is doing. I am fully convinced that Morsi and the Brotherhood would have sold and destroyed the country and that Sisi, the military and the intelligence services saved the country from them,” he says. “But how come, after you turned the tables on them on June 30, you sell Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia? I am really reconsidering my support for him. But again, is there anybody else in the picture, who has a real chance?”

If the majority of Christians voted for Sisi in the belief that he would protect them, it is unsurprising to find that sectarian attacks are chipping away at this support.

Father Antonious is casting his vote for the constitution in Dalga village. He is one of the priests of the Virgin Mary and St. Abraam Monastery that was looted and burnt after the dispersal of the Rabea sit-in. - Courtesy: Roger Anis

Samia Wagdy, a housewife, says, “Sisi said he will fight terrorism, but terrorism is increasing and depriving us of our children. My children did not vote for Sisi and I am starting to think they were right. Honestly I did not think Sisi would be like this. But there was no alternative.”

She says that if Ahmed Shafiq, who ran against Morsi in 2012, ran again she would vote for him.

In the 2012 presidential elections, Shafiq won a majority of Coptic support. Marianne Bassem says she would also vote for him if he ran again. “In all honesty Sisi disappointed us. Granted, economically he took over when the country was collapsing. But in regards to terrorism, he actually is not doing anything. The interior minister has neither removed nor questioned regarding what is happening.”

Bassem left Egypt with her family after Morsi won the elections and applied for religious asylum in the US where she has been living since.  

“We as Christians voted for him,” she says. “But what can we do, there is no alternative unless Shafiq runs in the election.”

The names of those quoted in this report have been changed upon their request.

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla 

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Karoline Kamel