Christians caught in Egypt’s tightening political vise

Tomorrow morning, as the House Foreign Affairs Committee holds its “Next Steps on Egypt Policy” hearing, committee members should examine the ongoing violence against religious minorities in Egypt and the urgent need for a new human rights based approach to U.S. policy there.

Discrimination, anti-Christian incitement from the media and public figures and periodic incidents of sometimes fatal sectarian violence have long been features of Egyptian life. But the political polarization of the past few months, after the forced removal of the elected president Mohamed Morsi, has escalated the violence and the level of threat.  The violent break up of two large pro-Morsi protest camps on August 14, in which hundreds of people were killed, sparked reprisal attacks against Christian targets by supporters of the deposed president.  Within a few days of the dispersal of the pro-Morsi protesters more than thirty churches were destroyed, and scores of Christian homes and businesses were attacked.  Muslim extremists even took control of some towns and terrorized the Christian inhabitants for weeks until the security forces finally intervened to reassert control.

ADVERTISEMENT
The spike in attacks on Christians by disaffected Morsi supporters had settled down in recent weeks, but the recent shootings at the al-Waraq Church of the Virgin Mary – an event that left four dead and others injured as a gunman opened fire on a wedding ceremony – demonstrated again that the threat of violence against Egypt’s largest religious minority has not receded, and will not until the broader political crisis into which Egypt has slipped is resolved.

It is the great misfortune of the Copts that they are pawns in a highly destructive zero-sum political game between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed national security state – a conflict that is emphatically not of their own making, but which threatens the security of their community.

Supporters of Morsi have openly blamed the Copts for the removal of their president. At the same time, the military-backed government and its supporters seem more interested in pointing to the anti-Christian violence as evidence of the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood than in taking effective measures to protect Christians and their places of worship, homes and businesses from attack.

After the recent church shooting some Christian rights groups, notably the Maspero Youth Coalition, blamed the military-backed government for failing to adequately protect Christians from attack.  It is worth recalling that the Maspero coalition takes its name from the Maspero massacre of October 9, 2011 when the military killed 28 Christians and injured many more involved in a protest against the destruction of a church.  This incident of mass killing took place when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were in power.  Egyptian Christians, especially Christian youth, have no special affinity for military rule and can be expected to be no more tolerant of repression or of the military’s failure to restore order and improve public security than any other part of Egyptian society.

Supporters of the military-backed interim government seem anxious to turn the clock back to 2006, when the Bush administration, deeply mired in the quicksands of Iraq, lost some of its zeal for promoting political reform in Egypt and the Mubarak regime was able to settle back comfortably into its narrative that it was a bastion of stability and moderation, holding back the tide of extremism.  That narrative began to fray as social unrest escalated, culminating in the mass protests that brought down Mubarak in February 2011.  Why these supporters should think that a return to military backed authoritarianism offers any remedy to Egypt’s deep seated problems is a mystery.

To address the crisis of insecurity now starkly confronting Egypt’s Christians will require political reconciliation, including permitting some, non-violent, supporters of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political process. Disenfranchising the section of the Egyptian electorate that wishes to vote for an Islamist candidate is not a recipe for stability or inclusiveness.  Without these, Egypt’s Christians will continue to bear the brunt of sectarian violence.

The United States has a responsibility to ensure that its policy towards Egypt addresses the fundamental human rights issues at the heart of sectarian violence there. Tomorrow’s hearing is an opportunity for the House Foreign Affairs Committee to get a better understanding of the challenges that lie ahead and what steps the United States should take to protect the rights and safety of all Egyptians as their nation continues its transition toward a full and representative democracy.

Hicks is Human Rights First’s International Policy Advisor and a member of the Working Group on Egypt.