Minority Rights in the New Egypt

Article Summary
Copts played a key role in uniting opposition forces and defending their fellow demonstrators during the Egyptian Revolution. But in the wake of recent incidents of sectarian violence, the Copts are now calling for state and international protection. Many groups have competing notions of what this protection should entail; but the notion of equal citizenship under the law is being ignored, according to Bishoy Ramzi Riad.

The question of the Coptic [Christians] in Egypt is a thorny issue that has evolved significantly over the past year. [The subject came to prominence] prior to the January 25 revolution that toppled [Former President Hosni] Mubarak, with the bloody bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria [on January 1, 2011].

According to many experts, these bombings were the final straw that broke the back of the regime, as they were responsible for a surge in solidarity between many Egyptian social circles that all came together to denounce the sectarian incident. For years, Mubarak’s regime and its security apparatus failed to put an end to [violent incidents against the Copts]. [Throughout his rule] bombings were perpetual, and those responsible faced no deterrence or punishment.

However, the Egyptian People’s revolution dramatically transformed the situation of the Copts living in Egypt, as evidenced by the Coptic street demonstrations in which they demanded their rights for the first time in decades. They organized several demonstrations and peaceful sit-ins in front of the Egyptian Television Building in Maspiro, in the heart of Cairo, as a reaction to sectarian incidents that had taken place across Egypt. These demonstrations highlighted the Copts’ determination to [stand up] to the ruling authority in order to solve their problems. [By doing so], they freed themselves from the authority of the Church, that have been trying to resolve their issues for the past four decades with no results.

The Copts expressed [the need to free themselves from their Church by performing a sit-in]. [This sit-in became] an important model [for the demonstrations to come], and [the Copts’ refusal] to call off the sit-in became a turning point [in the revolution]. Many Muslim intellectuals and citizens also took part in these demonstrations and supported the Copts’ demands - judging [their grievances] as central to the demands embodied by the Egyptian Revolution. The presence of priests at the head of these demonstrations only minimally affected the situation. Their leadership role was not limited to the internal issues of the Church - they were also present in the street. Their [prominent] role did not result from their religious authority. On the contrary they were chosen [as leaders] by the Coptic population and not the Church, as was the trend in the past. They were chosen to lead the demonstrations and sit-ins because they were perceived as Coptic citizens with revolutionary feelings.

Given the events of the past year, the notion of the Copts’ need for “protection” has become a central issue. However, this concept has been manipulated based on various [political convictions and agendas]. [“Protection”] is sometimes spoken of in an abstract manner, while at times it takes on a meaning to mirror the ideologies and agendas of the ruling authority or different political parties.

Following the Church bombings, a group of young Muslims began an initiative, forming human shields to “protect” the Copts during their Christmas celebrations as a form of positive solidarity with their national partners. This tactic was also employed during the revolution when young Copts formed human shields to protect Muslims at anti-regime demonstrations from any attack by the security forces during the time of prayer. These actions illustrate the abstract nature of “protection”: This time, it mirrored the revolutionary innocence of the young rebels and the purity of their revolutionary goals, which embodied the concept of citizenship in its highest form.

After Mubarak’s fall and a series of sectarian incidents that followed, many Copts began to call for “international protection” of [the Coptic community] Egypt, holding large demonstration in front of the US embassy in Cairo. Such demands betray the honorable national history of the Copts, who fought hand in hand with their Muslim partners [in the last century] to achieve independence and expel the oppressive forces of colonialism.

The demands of certain Copts for international protection are not in the interest of the Coptic cause. Such demands can be considered a surrender of their [rights] as full Egyptian Citizens - which gives credence to the [position held by] certain other minorities. Additionally, were an authority to adopt such a stance it would open the door to flagrant discrimination against the Copts in the future. However, the concept of “protection” adopted by Military Council - the ruling authority in Egypt - is not so different from the definition employed by the former regime. The Military Council worked to appease the Church, and claimed that it was the guardian of the Copts in exchange for the support of its men during the current transitional period.

In recent years, this view convinced a large number of Egyptians that the Church is no longer a religious institution as it took on the role of sole legal guardian of the Copts. This in turn enabled the state to forgo its responsibilities to this group of Egyptians, deeming them the sole responsibility of the Church. Meanwhile, political Islamic currents asserted that respect of Coptic minority rights is the duty of every Muslim, especially because these rights are enshrined in the Sharia [Law]. Therefore, political Islam considered that the application of Sharia was the guarantor of the Copts’ “protection.” Additionally, they judged that the “protection” of Copts is responsibility that falls on Muslims as individuals - not as a responsibility of the state towards its citizens. In consequence, this concept of “protection” also strengthens the status of the Copts as a minority that does not enjoy the same rights as the rest of Egyptian citizens.

The principal dilemma is that all sides - including the Copts themselves - have formulated concepts of “protection” without reference to the notion of citizenship that would guarantee total equality of rights and duties between all citizens regardless of gender, creed, color or race. [This separation of the two concepts] threatens the unity, stability and cohesion of society. I believe that there is a pressing need to define protection not as an offering from one group to another, but as the responsibility of the Egyptian state and its nstitutions towards all Egyptians, and not a specific group of citizens.

Found in: sharia law, sharia, scaf, protection of minorities, mubarak, minority rights, egyptian revolution, egyptian constitution, democratic transition, copts, citizenship in egypt, citizenship, arab christians, arab, alexandria bombings, alexandria

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