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Coptic Church in Era of Military Coup Sect or Citizenship

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Success of Sisi’s coup against President Mohamed Morsi was the apogee of hopes of leaders of the Coptic Church at that time. In fact, the church did not attempt to hide or even rationalize such feelings, as various church leaders reiterated statements expressing this content from different angles.

For example, Pope Tawadros II in December 2014 said that he “supports the release of Hosni Mubarak after spending four years in prison, because of his age and due to the good things that he did during his tenure.” Meanwhile, the Pope attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that “it presented a distorted image that it had been inevitable to remove it quickly,” adding that “it brought all our people, Muslims and Christians, to a consensus on rejection of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi and getting rid of him.” He also considered that Morsi’s administration “was not in any way worthy of Egypt’s civilization and history, even though he was ruling in the name of religion”[1], as he put it.

This statement by Pope Tawadros II carries two clear meanings: first, Tawadros’s praise of Mubarak’s tenure; and second, his satisfaction of getting rid of President Morsi’s rule or the rule of the Brotherhood, as he calls it. Therefore, we can imagine how much support Sisi has got from the Church to pass his coup, whether in mobilization for the June 30 demonstrations, or the mandate for fighting the “potential terrorism”, as Sisi said, or the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, as everyone understood.

The scene of the 3 July coup d’état in which Pope Tawadros II participated, was not normal or easy, even if the Sheikh of Al-Azhar appeared next to him. Despite the status of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, he is ultimately a State employee, where his entire institution is subject to the government supervision; but the church has always remained financially, administratively, and sometimes judicially independent from the State.

Consequently, participation of Pope Tawadros II in the July 3 scene was not a position of submission, as might be understood from the situation of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, albeit even morally unacceptable, but the Pope’s attendance was expressive of partnership for establishing a new stage in the Church’s relationship with the State and society. Therefore, in the wake of the 3 July coup, the Church’s political presence in the Egyptian scene has become strong, and active; and has even surpassed all limits. Therefore, we can confirm that the “Church Party” has become the strongest political party in Egypt. In fact, talking about the “Church Party” might be viewed by many as underestimation of the Church’s real political role, given the fact that the Coptic Church has branches in 65 countries across the world, and Pope Tawadros II had paid more than 32 visits to various countries all over the world[2] by late 2019, with the aim of supporting the Sisi regime in the West, in addition to the religious goals of these visits[3].

Thus, we can conclude that the Church’s political role surpassed the performance of a major political party in its relationship with the State and society in Egypt to reach the stage of a “lobby” or pressure groups, similar to the well-known pressure groups in the United States. Nevertheless, it has also surpassed these groups in terms of parity in dealing with the State and its influence on the government.

Reinforcing pillars of the military regime

The Church mobilized all its strength to back Sisi and used all its potentials in order to stabilize the pillars of the new military regime which came in the aftermath of the July 3 coup d’etat that several countries joined forces to pass, in rejection of the Egyptian Revolution and its gains[4].

After the arrest of President Morsi, the suspension of the Constitution and the freezing of the elected Shura Council, the number of protesters in the Rabaa and Al-Nahda squares was constantly increasing. Meanwhile, the media incitement  against the two sit-ins through demonization of protesters started to escalate with the aim of dispersing them. The media campaigns at the time intentionally worked to dwarf the whole scene through promoting that it was a ‘Brotherhood-regime’ conflict, not a conflict between ‘the people and the regime’, as it really was. The pro-Sisi media men as well as some officials also promoted that all protesters in the Rabaa and Al-Nahda squares were Brotherhood members, and that all of them were “savage terrorists”, as they used to put it.

The Church, the main partner of the 3 July coup d’etat, did not hesitate to support the actions of Sisi or the new military regime. For example, Pope Tawadros II posted a tweet on his official Twitter account thanking the army and police forces on July 27, 2013, the same day when the army and police forces committed the Manassa Memorial massacre, killing more than a hundred protesters. Although Tawadros did not explicitly mention the Manassa events, but everyone understood what the pope thanked the army and police for!![5]

Church leaders also participated in the mobilization for the “popular” mandate that Sisi requested to carry out dispersal of the Rabaa and al-Nahda sit-ins under the name of eliminating the “potential terrorism”, where Priest Sergius, the deputy of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, said “The Church welcomes the Sisi’s call that came on time to end the terrorism that threatens Egypt’s future.”[6]

This attitude towards Sisi’s mandate to disperse the two sit-ins was shared by the three churches (Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican) in Egypt, but we only focus on the Orthodox Church here because it represents the predominant current among Christians in Egypt and the Arab East, taking into mind that the two other churches follow it in most political positions.

Amendment of the 2012 Constitution

The Church firmly backed the pursuit of amending the suspended Revolution Constitution that had been approved in 2012 during the era of President Morsi, where the three churches had withdrawn from its Constituent Assembly, objecting to articles that allegedly gave Sharia (Islamic law) and Islamic jurisprudence authority in enacting laws.

Through the constitutional amendments committee formed in the wake of the military coup, articles that disturbed the church, being allegedly related to the Sharia authority, were all removed, which led Pope Tawadros II to publish an article in Al-Ahram, a government-owned newspaper, on January 12, 2014, titled “Say: ‘Yes’ to increase blessings’[7] urging citizens to vote with ‘Yes’ in the referendum on the 2014 Constitution.

Supporting Sisi for the presidency

The most important station in the Church’s support of Sisi was during the 2014 presidential elections, despite the fact that Sisi did not face a real competitor at the time, unlike the 2012 elections which were characterized by transparency and an unprecedented turnout in the history of Egyptian elections.

However, Sisi needed a “popular presence” to promote him in the media both at home and abroad, and grant him the legitimacy that he was seeking in the aftermath of his military coup against the Egyptian democratic experience, and with the aim of providing some credibility to the election results[8].

The key to this mobilization required for Sisi, was the Church and the Copts. Sisi had already lost many supporters after the massacre of dispersal of the two sit-ins and the early blocking of political life in Egypt.

In a press statement, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in March 2014 called on Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for the presidential elections, describing this step as a “national duty”, adding that, “Egyptians see him (Sisi) as a savior and the hero of the June 30 protests.”[9]

Despite the fact that he Church coordinated with the Egyptian sovereign bodies for mobilization in favor of Sisi in the presidential elections[10], however, the poor turnout frustrated the regime and prompted it to use its media arms to persuade people to participate, adding a third day for voting, while the voting hours were extended in the hope of encouraging more people to vote, but to no avail.[11]

Despite all this, the election result that was announced by the presidential election commission stated that Sisi won 96.9% of the vote, with 23.78 million votes, ten million more than the number of votes achieved by President Morsi in the 2012 elections!![12] Anyway, many observers believe that the elections were rigged and the declared results did not reflect the truth about what happened in the electoral process, especially the number of participants[13].

A number of experts believe that the church’s failure to mobilize its people to vote for Sisi was due to the Copts’ dissatisfaction with the two parties: first, they were not satisfied with Sisi, where violence against Copts did not stop during his reign, but rather increased, in addition to the economic deterioration that affected all Egyptian people, including Copts. Second, Copts were not satisfied with the leadership of their church that did not adopt a serious stance towards the State in holding perpetrators of violent incidents against them accountable, but rather tended to justify the security failure in these incidents.

Supporting Sisi overseas

From the early days of his rule, Sisi greatly suffered from lacking legitimacy amid difficulties in obtaining recognition of the new military regime; and then after his mock presidential elections, Sisi again suffered from lacking legitimacy as head of the Egyptian state, due to the questionable presidential elections, as mentioned above.

Since the preparations for the June 30 demonstrations through all the stations that followed, Pope Tawadros II and the Church behind him have supported the Sisi regime overseas, where the Pope used to “send letters to bishops and priests of the Coptic Orthodox Church in diaspora, asking them to communicate with the Western community and work to correct the image of the situation in the country, through confirming to the West that “what happened on 30 June was a popular revolution that erupted against the religious rule, which was supported by the armed forces, not a coup against democratic civil rule as the Brotherhood and their supporters abroad used to depict it,”[14] as he put it.

To understand the importance of the role played by the Pope, it suffices to mention that Pope Tawadros II himself was cited in one of the press reports, as saying that one of the foreign heads of state interrupted his leave to meet with him (Pope) and ask him about Egypt’s position on June 30, to be able to draw up his country’s policy on this issue accordingly.[15]

A dictatorship in the interest of the Church

It is known that Sisi terminated the vital partisan life that followed the January Revolution, even parties that had indirect support from the Church, such as the Free Egyptians Party, and even the National Salvation Front, that was the political front for passing the coup, where the regime blew all of them up from within, ignited conflicts among their ranks, and ultimately liquidated them politically.[16]

This complete blocking of political life made it easier for the church leadership to restore its old relationship with the regime, being the only representative of the Copts politically, religiously and socially; a role that had greatly declined in the wake of the January Revolution and the climate of freedoms that characterized that period.

In the absence of opposition parties and civil society organizations, the Coptic secularists no longer have room to express their demands and rights as Egyptian citizens, and thus the Copts once again lined up behind the church, and once again the church played the role of mediator between them and the State. Also, with respect to the church itself, the Pope has become the only link between Church and the regime; therefore, the role of Egyptian Copts in public life has been dwarfed and exclusively restricted to the role played by the Pope in that regard.

Copts and incidents of violence

It is remarkable that the violent incidents targeting churches and Copts increased after the military coup, which Human Rights Watch estimated at about 44 incidents[17] only in the aftermath of the massacre of the Rabaa and Al-Nahda sit-ins dispersal, where the church, along with the regime and its media, accused religious groups, including the Brotherhood, of responsibility for these events as response to the massacre, which was denied by the Muslim Brotherhood at the time that condemned the perpetrators of these incidents and held the State responsible for them.

We had confirmed in a previous part of this study that many researchers believe that the regime was behind most these violent incidents to achieve several goals[18], including:

– Securing that Copts remain seeking protection of the regime and the Church against the Egyptian society, thus keeping them away from the ongoing political conflict in Egypt.

– Inciting the Copts against Islamic groups, especially the Brotherhood, which gives the regime a great momentum abroad, and allows it to promote itself as the guardian of the State against these violent currents, thus ensuring continuation of external support.

– Dismantling the whole society: To maintain survival, authoritarian regimes usually rely on disjointed and feuding societies that will remain weak in the face of authorities.

Conclusion

1- The Church was able to restore its historical relationship with the Egyptian regime in the wake of the 3 July coup, based on monopolization of the political and religious representation of the Copts.

2- While the church boosted its power as one of the Egyptian State institutions, albeit actually independent, however, it weakened the Copts as Egyptian citizens with rights and duties, as the church strengthened its presence as a “sect” at the expense of the Copts’ “citizenship”.

3- The support provided by church leaders, headed by the Pope, to Al-Sisi, despite the brutal dictatorial pattern that he has adopted in dealing with his opponents and the massacres that he has committed – all this caused a structural religious defect in the church’s relationship with its people. The Pope who is hallowed by the Copts and supposed to represent their highest moral model, does not hesitate to support a bloody tyrant and defend his brutal crimes against his opponents and even against the Copts themselves, only to achieve temporary political gains.

4- The Copts or the Orthodox Church have not achieved equivalent gains with respect to the generous support they have provided to Sisi and his regime. As for the rise in the number of churches, legalization of their status, or increasing the political representation of Copts in the parliament or the government, are all considered partial and temporary gains. It would have been better for the church to be expressive of the conscience of the Egyptian society as a whole; and it should have given priority to demands of the oppressed and distressed people rather than fulfillment of the demands of the sect only; because societies always remain the true safety shield for its people, not the fragile authoritarian regimes.


Footnotes

[1] Pope Tawadros II ..  The Religious and Political Legacy in Egyptian Church, Al-Jazeera Net, 17 Feb. 2015, accessed 20 Aug. 2020, URL

[2] Before visiting France … 32 foreign trips for Pope Tawadros II within 6 years, Al-Watan newspaper, 20 September 2019, accessed 20 August 2020, URL

[3] Pope of Copts in Egypt .. 31 foreign visits in 5 years, Anadolu Agency, 9 October 2017, accessed 20 August 2020, URL

[4] Erdogan: I have documents proving Israel was behind the coup in Egypt, Al-Watan Egyptian newspaper, 20 August 2013, accessed 19 August 2020, URL

[5] Official Twitter account of Pope Tawadros II, 27 July 2013, accessed 20 August 2020, Link

[6] Churches welcome Sisi’s call to rally on Friday, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 24 July 2013,  accessed 19 August 2020, URL

[7] “Say ‘Yes’ for more blessings”, Pope Tawadros II, Al-Ahram, 12 January 2014, accessed 21 August 2020, URL.

[8] Muffled anger at the church crowd in favor of the vote for Sisi, The New Arab, 24 March 2018, accessed 22 August 2020, URL

[9] Pope Tawadros II: Sisi’s nomination is a national duty, Al-Jazeera Net, 24 March 2014, accessed 22 August 2020, URL.

[10] Muffled anger at the church crowd in favor of the vote for Sisi, The New Arab, Op. Cit.

[11] Sisi’s Egypt, Fanack News Website, 14 December 2015, accessed 23 August 2020, URL

[12] Ibid

[13] Muffled anger at the church crowd in favor of the vote for Sisi, The New Arab, Op. Cit. (The Democracy International organization, one of six international organizations that were allowed to monitor the election process, announced its withdrawal on the second day, and criticized the government’s neutrality, and the integrity and independence of the Presidential Election Commission.)

[14] The Coptic Church corrects the image in the West, Al-Watan, 3 September 2019, accessed 22 August 2020, URL

[15] Ibid

[16] The Crisis of Christian Political Representation in Egypt, George Fahmy, American University of Beirut, p. 28.

[17] Egypt: Resilient Resistance to Fierce Repression, Human Rights Watch, 14 January 2020, accessed 22 August 2020, URL

[18] Rabaa dispersal: between a fake history and a lost memory, Ida2at, 14 August 2016, accessed 20 August 2020, URL

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