For Christians in Egypt 2013 has been another momentous year, with the overthrow of its second president in as many years; the removal from power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the suspension of the constitution which they imposed on Egypt as recently as December 2012. It shortcomings were blatantly obvious and, thanks to the popular uprising and the support of the Armed Forces, it was to last no more than six months. As Egypt underwent its second revolution, Christians – who had suffered a steep increase in sectarian violence – became the focus for the frustration and hatred of the Brotherhood in an unprecedented outburst of terror and destruction, unknown since the Mamluk persecutions of the eighteenth century.
Revolutions are destabilising events and come in many shapes and sizes. The Egyptian revolution of 1952 was a military coup by the Free Officer Movement, which established the military regime which was to hold power for the next 59 years. It lacked democratic legitimacy and was both corrupt and venal. The 2011 Revolution, however, was a popular uprising, more in keeping with the spirit of the 1919 Egyptian revolution in its embracing all sections of Egyptian society in a patriotic movement to restore freedom and justice. It is worth noting that initially the Muslim Brotherhood declined to support this uprising, but once it saw the rapid success of this momentum for change, it offered its support.
Much has been made of the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, but it is important to recognise that democracy is more than periodic recourse to the ballot box. Having achieved a narrow victory over his main rival on a turnout of just over half of the electorate, the new president might have endeavoured to use his position as a means of unifying and reconciling a fractured society. In his inauguration oath he swore to “respect the constitution and law, to take care of the people’s interests, a complete care.” Later, in an emotional speech in Tahrir Square he announced, “I came to you as I believe that you are the source of authority and legitimacy which is above all. There is no place for someone, an institution or for an authority to be above this. The people are the source of all authority, judge and decide, convene and insulate … There is no authority that is above this.”
Although he resigned as Chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party as he had promised during his election campaign, which gave him the opportunity to serve as president of all Egyptians, his concerns and sympathies proved to be narrow and sectarian. Sadly, it soon became clear that the electorate had actually installed the Muslim Brotherhood in office and that the real power lay with its Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, whilst Mohamed Morsi was merely the holder of the presidential portfolio.
During the first year of his presidency the democratic aspirations of the revolution were steadily undermined, culminating in his assumption of unlimited legislative powers without judicial oversight or review of his acts. After the Supreme Constitutional Court’s dismissal of the People’s Assembly for electoral irregularities, only the consultative Shura Council remained of a bi-cameral legislature, yet new legislation was still enacted, including the propagation of a new Egyptian Constitution. Having repeatedly clashed with the judiciary, attempts were made to intimidate the judges and to remove many of them through enforced retirement.
It was as a result of the steadily-growing domination of the Muslim Brotherhood in all areas of the state and society and the encouragement of their narrow vision and divisive social policies, that the popular uprising against Morsi ensued. It expressed the fears of the great majority of Egyptians that their aspirations for a free and just society, inclusive of all, was in danger of being lost for ever. It should be recalled that the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party rose to power through democratic election, after which they consolidated their grasp on the state and cynically discarded the democratic process.
The role of the church
Since the Egyptian revolution of 2011 the religious leaders in Egypt, both Christian and Muslim, have consistently called for justice and reconciliation and both the Grand Sheikh of Al Azhar (Mohamed Ahmed El-Tayeb) and the Coptic Orthodox Church (under the late Pope Shenouda III; Metropolitan Bakhomios as locum tenens and Pope Tawadros II) have worked together to encourage national unity. Following the removal of President Morsi, Pope Tawadros appeared alongside the Sheikh of El-Azhar at the inauguration of the new interim president. Having eschewed political involvement since the beginning of his papacy, he made it clear that he was there to support “honourable people whose sole aim is the interest of Egypt and Egyptians, excluding no one, marginalising no one and excepting no one.”
Western governments were quick to condemn the violence and loss of life and have called for dialogue. William Hague condemned “the use of force in clearing protests” and called on the security forces “to act with restraint.” As supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are also armed and have been responsible for murdering soldiers in Sinai and armed attacks on police stations, restraint is required from all sides. Invitations to dialogue by Al-Azhar have been completely rebuffed by the Brotherhood, as have invitations by the interim President to reconciliation meetings.
Western media bias
It is disconcerting to note the clear bias of much of the Western media in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood. The use of emotive words, such as ‘coup’, ‘massacre’ and ‘legitimacy’, with the failure to report widespread violent attacks on churches, police stations, government offices and neutral cultural institutions, such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, lacks the impartiality one might expect from independence sources, such as CNN and the BBC; as does identifying all snipers as belonging to the army, when live news broadcasts clearly showed armed rebels firing guns. Despite its denial of bias, the Qatar-backed channel Al Jazeera depicts the Muslim Brotherhood in a sympathetic light and, according to one of the 22 staff who recently resigned in protest, “the management in Doha provokes sedition among the Egyptian people and has an agenda against Egypt and other Arab countries.” The Irish media, the Irish Times and the Sun in particular, recently relayed reports from the children of Hussein Halawa, the Imam at Dublin’s largest and most controversial mosque in Clonskeagh, who just happened to be inside the Al-Fateh mosque when it was cleared by the security forces. Headlines such as “Irish family held in Egypt jail hell. Holiday nightmare as relatives fear they’re tortured” hardly suggest impartiality.
Attacks on Christians go largely unreported
During President Morsi’s term of office, attacks on Christians became more frequent. Since his removal they have increased alarmingly with over fifty churches attacked, damaged or destroyed in the three days following the Brotherhood’s call for a “Day of Rage.” Vicious denunciations of Christians – now opprobriously labelled “crusaders” – and unrestrained assaults on their property and churches show the true nature of those who support the Muslim Brotherhood. There have been instances of soldiers and Christians lynched by the mob, who then proceeded to desecrate their corpses in the most disgusting manner, in much the same way as Private Lee Rigby was treated by his murderers on the streets of Woolwich. In many instances local Muslim communities have joined Christians in protecting their places of worship, clearly demonstrating that this is not a battle between Christians and Muslims but is a struggle against terrorism and fanaticism. In a recent interview with His Grace Bishop Angaelos on Al-Jazeera, after it was noted that “some Christians have blamed Brotherhood supporter for the attacks”, he was asked if he had any evidence about “who is attacking your churches”. His observations that these attacks, which appeared to be orchestrated and synchronised, and coming on the tail of “certain events”, with the rhetoric, incitement and reported attacks on individual Christians, suggested “some sort of connection”, showed more balance and perception than his interviewer.
In an official statement, the Coptic Church said that whilst it holds in deep appreciation the honourable, friendly States who understood “the nature of the events in Egypt”; it strongly denounced the falsities and errors propagated in the western media. “We invite the media to objectively read the realities on the ground, and to refrain from offering an international or political shield to the bloodthirsty, terrorist groups and all who belong to them. These groups are attempting to spread ruin in our land. We call upon the local and international media to offer the real image of what happens in Egypt faithfully and truthfully.”
The statement went on to say that it strongly stood by the Egyptian police, armed forces, and all the institutions of the Egyptian people in the face of the armed violence and black terrorism from inside and outside Egypt. It denounced the “assaults against the State and the peaceful churches, and the terrorisation of Egyptians—Muslims and Copts—that goes against all religious, ethical and human values. We absolutely reject any attempts to drag Egypt into sectarian strife.”
“If the hands of evil come to Egypt to kill, burn, and ruin; the hand of the Lord is there to guard, strengthen, and rebuild. We put our faith in Divine support, and are confident that it will help Egypt along this critical period, and take her to a better tomorrow and to the bright future of peace, justice, and democracy which this noble Nile people deserve.”
The Committee of Fifty
The Provisional government delegated the task of amending the 2012 Constitution to a fifty member Committee representing all the main parties as well as other significant sections of society, including the Churches and Al Azhar. The Muslim Brotherhood refused to recognise its legitimacy, but the Salafist Al-Nour party have played an active role on the committee. With such diverse groups represented there has inevitably been a considerable amount of horse-trading in order to reach consensus over both the preamble and a number of contentious clauses.
His Grace Bishop Paula of Tanta is the official representative of the Orthodox Church along with representatives of the Catholic and Anglican churches and early on submitted a memorandum demanding the complete removal of “any interpretation of Sharia law from the Constitution in its entirety”, which he argued cogently rendered Christians as “infidels” and “second-class citizens.” The three representatives also came close to resigning over the removal of the words “civil” in the description of the Egyptian state, which was dropped without consultation. “This was unacceptable,” he added, “as was the explanation of the phrase, ‘principles of Sharia’ in Article 219 without getting back to us.” Both the Salafists and Al-Azhar threatened to withdraw if the word “civilian” is included, because they argue that it reflects secular and western values.
In a letter to the chairman, which was made public, Bishop Paula stated that, “Deep disillusionment” with the work of the committee “set in once I realised that a specific faction was being blatantly favoured over another faction whose members endured countless hardships for decades and especially after the 30 June Revolution, namely the Copts.”
It is said that Pope Tawadros II has refused demands by Christian activists for a 15% representation in parliament and public offices on the basis that any positive discrimination providing a quota for minorities merely fuels sectarianism, which he described as the easiest way to divide a country.
Patriotism is not enough
The draft Constitution is being completed as we go to press and it is expected that it will be submitted to the Egyptian electorate for their approval sometime in January. From the very outset the Church has shown itself to be moderate and anxious to fulfil its patriotic role as a local church anxious to remove all discrimination, and work for the good of all Egyptian people. Yet there remains a fear that the new Constitution will continue to favour the three “Abrahamic faiths”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam over other faiths and that the divisive article 2 declaring “that the religion of the state is Islam and Sharia (Islamic religious law) is the source of state legislation”, introduced by President Sadat in 1971, will survive as a concession to Islamicists.
For some observers, the involvement of the Church from the outset raises concerns that the interim government supports the importance of established religions as opposed to full equality, in which freedom of religion is available to Shia Muslims, Ahmadiyyah, Baha’i, atheists and agnostics. The continued use of religious identity cards reflects a double standard and supports discrimination throughout society based on it.
If the new Constitution fails to address these issues, then the principles of the Revolution will have been abandoned and the inauguration of a modern democratic state will be set back for yet another generation. Christians in Egypt are not seeking for preferential treatment or an advantage over others, but merely recognition of their natural part in the fabric of their homeland and a desire to share in shaping the future of what has always had the potential to be a great nation. They have proved themselves to be patriots, but if they accept anything less than an authentically constituted civil society, in which equality and freedom are available to all citizens, regardless of their beliefs, they will be doing a disservice to the nation they love. They should not allow themselves to be deflected from these principles by the spurious argument that a national consensus, in which these freedoms are side-lined, is for the nation’s good. Truth is the only choice. Patriotism is not enough.