No country for Copts

The White House on Tuesday welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for the second time in three years. This visit comes on the heels of contested constitutional amendments and legislative reforms that consolidate Sisi’s power and assure his authoritarian rule until possibly 2034.  Although the propping up of “trusted” strongmen as an American foreign policy strategy is not uncommon, Egypt — the third-highest recipient of U.S. foreign military aid — should be required to answer to the publicly proclaimed human rights priorities of the Trump administration, namely the protection of religious minorities in the Middle East.

With the rapid decline of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria from genocide, Egypt is the last battleground for Christians in the Middle East. As the largest Middle Eastern Christian minority population, Copts — an indigenous ethno-religious group whose members generally adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church — make up an estimated 6 to 10 percent of the Egyptian population. The exact population has never been released by the government. Despite their relatively high numbers, this population has been undermined by discriminatory laws and practices ingrained in Egyptian society over thousands of years of persecution.  

ADVERTISEMENT

To much fanfare in the West, Sisi has made grand gestures of solidarity with the Coptic community. Yet, according to the community, not much has changed on the ground. A prime example is the situation of Copts in the Governorate of Minya in Upper Egypt. This area, which boasts the highest concentration of Copts outside of Cairo, has been rife with violence. According to a database documenting sectarian incidents in the Middle East, more than 160 incidents have been reported in the Minya governorate alone between 2013 and 2018. These range from attacks on Coptic businesses to kidnappings for ransom to regular protests at Coptic churches that devolve into violent mob attacks.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of the Copts’ dilemma is the case of Suad Thabet, a 70-year-old grandmother in Minya who was stripped of her clothes and dragged through the streets by her Muslim neighbors. In May 2016, more than 40 armed men from her village raided her home, claiming to be seeking revenge based on a rumor that her son had been in a relationship with a married Muslim woman. At the time, her son, Ashraf Attiya, was married with children. The mob also beat Thabet’s 79-year-old husband and her daughter-in-law, and set Thabet’s home on fire.

The attack was not staged by state actors, but officials in the governorate allowed the attack to go unprosecuted and the perpetrators to exile Thabet’s family from the village. Almost three years after the incident, she and her family have refused to partake in customary reconciliation sessions and the case has not been adjudicated by the courts.

Notwithstanding the gravity of physical attacks on the Coptic population, such as in the case of Thabet, most Copts encounter regular impediments and violations of their constitutional rights to justice and to practice their faith. The latest iteration of Egypt’s constitution enshrines these two rights, but Copts in Minya and beyond have been subject to forced reconciliation sessions — a sidestep of the judicial system — and the closure of homes and churches merely for praying. In fact, for Copts the two rights are largely intertwined. Since the adoption of a 2016 law regulating the construction of churches, a number of churches have closed and, in some cases, Copts must pray in the streets because mobs violently protest the licensing and building of churches in their villages.  

In the event of an assault on an individual, a Coptic church, or Coptic-owned business, the lack of implementation of the rule of law has created an environment of impunity, emboldening the perpetrators. Sisi’s messaging of acceptance and equality needs to translate to the villages and elsewhere that Copts experience isolation and inequality.

Whether it be willful negligence or a lack of infrastructure that results in these failures, the United States, as a longtime strategic and military partner of Egypt, must widen its partnership strategy beyond counterterrorism and the Sinai and look inward towards the state. This will be the best indicator of sustainable security and stability in the region, which the United States seeks to assure.

Sara Salama is an international lawyer and human rights advocate. She advises on corporate governance, human rights law, anti-corruption and other compliance matters. She chairs the nonprofit media platform @CopticVoiceUS and heads the legal department at an international development organization that focuses on providing access to education for vulnerable communities in the Middle East.