Most Coptic Christians will tell you that anything is better than the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, the unequivocal support for current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi among Copts was no surprise. But now with the devastating curb of freedom of expression and the widespread crackdown on journalists and activists, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s support for the government’s post-June 30 Revolution policies may prove to be a grave miscalculation.
As the church is finding out, Copts, too, are not safe from the new government’s oppressive measures. Two weeks ago, a 23-year-old Coptic teacher was sentenced to prison for six months for insulting Islam. On June 23, a Christian convert reporter was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly reporting false information about discrimination against Copts. The following day, a 29-year-old Copt from Upper Egypt was given a five-year prison sentence for liking a Facebook page put up by a group of Christian converts — so much for the secular utopia we conjured in our imagination.
The Coptic push for a secular Egypt stemmed largely from the fear of Islamists. The failed Mohammed Morsi administration may have not taken direct action toward minority groups, but for many Copts their policies and statements suggested that it was only a matter of time before wide-scale, concrete laws were put into place. The empowerment of radical religious leaders and fundamentalist groups after Morsi’s election in June 2012 provoked fear among Egypt’s 10 million Copts, who felt more threatened than at any time in recent history.
The debilitating fears were well-justified: Marginalization of Copts from political life was expected to increase, sectarian clashes were already on the rise and hate speech grew rife at the time. Most of all, the unprecedented infiltration of religion into every aspect of political and public life caused the alienation of Copts on a scale unseen since the banishment of Pope Shenouda III by Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Then the June 30 Revolution happened and suddenly Copts were emancipated from the foreboding Islamist rule. For nearly all Copts I know, June 30 had a bigger significance than the Muslim Brotherhood detractors and liberals alike. It was a renewal of hope, a promise of a secular Egypt where political Islam will never have a say again. The then-Field Marshall Sisi was no mere military leader; he was the great savior.
A month and a half later, all hope was dashed to pieces. On Aug. 14, 2013, and for the next couple of days, approximately 1,000 people were killed in police raids on Brotherhood protesters. By then, Egypt’s former rulers were now framed as the No. 1 enemy of the nation, demonized by every media outlet in the country. The Coptic media, which has grown astronomically in popularity among middle-aged and elderly Christians over the past three years, jumped on the bandwagon, promoting the government discourse that was also embraced by state and independent media alike and distorting facts.
The Coptic Orthodox Church watched the bloodshed and did nothing. Never has the church at any stage condemned what happened in Rabia al-Adawiya, bemoaning instead the widespread church burning by Brotherhood supporters and refusing to acknowledge the gravity of what happened on Aug. 14. The burning of the churches, as horrific, despicable and absurd as it was, still did not substantiate the position of the church toward Rabia.
In his last days, Pope Shenouda III was heavily criticized for siding with the ruling Mubarak family, for supporting an administration responsible for all Coptic woes. His successor, Pope Tawadros II, suggested a change of direction when he took office in November 2012. He initially refrained from getting involved in politics, preferring to focus primarily on matters of the spirit. That proved to be short-lived.
In a TV interview broadcast prior to the presidential elections, the pope dismissed the discussion of human rights, asserting that the “Western reports” about said subjects were “inaccurate.” In various other statements, he stressed the importance of restoring security and advocated the "war on terror," disregarding the blatant and widely reported violations on political and human rights activists, journalists and the regime’s critics.
While not explicitly endorsing Sisi’s candidacy, the church’s patriarch expressed on more than one occasion that the former minister of defense was the right man to lead Egypt at such a precarious stage, while calling the Arab Spring “the Arab Winter” that was engineered by “malicious motives.” He openly encouraged the church’s followers to vote in favor of the last constitutional amendments in a video message released online in January.
On paper, the church’s official position was one of impartiality, but in reality, its unhidden stance was adopted and implemented on the ground locally and abroad. In the United States, Canada and Australia, several Coptic churches provided buses for their worshippers — some of whom have not been to Egypt for decades — to vote for both the constitutional amendments and presidential elections, implicitly indicating what and whom to vote for.
Coptic media followed suit, albeit in a more abrasive fashion. Support for the "yes" vote and Sisi was strongly propagated by TV channels such as CTV and El Karma, stressing that a "no" vote was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and constantly ridiculing Hamdeen Sabahi’s candidacy. The Muslim Brotherhood remained the biggest threat to Copts and only Sisi could eradicate it once and for all, the Coptic media bluntly stressed day after day, writing off any opinions deviating from this course.
The January 25 Revolution's narrative and the destructive role of the military is being modulated and rewritten from scratch. When asked in June about the deadly Maspero demonstrations where 25 Coptic protesters were killed in cold blood by the army, Bishop Pola said that “we should forget about what happened in the past for the sake of the nation,” acknowledging in another interview also in June that the church did mobilize its populace to vote for Sisi. “We’re not playing politics,” he said in the later interview, “we’re playing a patriotic role.”
A year after June 30, Egypt has returned to square one. According to Wiki Thawra, an initiative created by the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights (ECSER), more than 40,000 arrests have been made since Morsi’s overthrow, journalists have been prosecuted, artists have been censored, opposition voices have been violently silenced, dissented politicians have been witch-hunted, the Mubarak regime has successfully reassembled itself, institutional corruption has grown more rampant, the country has descended into further chaos and fear has become the prevailing sentiment of the day. Democracy seems like nothing but a pipe dream: elusive, distant and unattainable. The church has decided to support a candidate with no political program and unknown economic agenda, choosing to champion the same figures and system that oppressed us before.
But as the recent arrests and sentences of Copts shows, the Coptic Orthodox Church may soon realize that the civil liberties it chose to discard, the bloodshed it opted to ignore and the despotic establishment it continues to back will be the basis for the further suffering of its own people.