By George Gurguis – President, Coptic Solidarity
Opinions expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Coptic Solidarity’s governing committee.
The reaction of the Egyptian media and government to the newly introduced House Resolution, H. RES. 673 spanned a wide range from the hysterical to the farcical with everything in between including denials, distortions, false accusations, perverse reasoning, confounding of issues and paranoia. The reaction reflects a defensive and recalcitrant attitude driven by lack of awareness or intentional falsification on behalf of the Egyptian government and its mouthpiece, the media, and the Parliament, of the dire situation of the Coptic minority and even of the country at large.
Coptic Solidarity was approached by US legislators to provide information for a proposed House resolution that would bring attention to the ongoing systemic persecution of the Copts and would urge Egypt’s government to rectify the situation. The indisputable reality is that Copts have been suffering rising persecution at the hands of their Islamist fanatic Egyptian neighbors since Sadat’s era who promoted Salafi Islamism, created al-Gamaa al-Islamia, and supported the Muslim brotherhood (MBs) with their agenda of creating an Islamic theocracy, an agenda which was rejected by the majority of the Egyptian society in their second uprising of June 2013. Persecution of the Copts continued during Mubarak’s era, the one-year rule of the MBs, and, despite hopes to the contrary, worsened during the past 3 years of President el-Sisi’s rule. Coptic Solidarity did not invent these facts. Several NGOs, including Open Doors and International Christian Concern have placed Egypt, together with several Arab Muslim majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Sudan, Syria, and Iraq, among the worst violators of religious freedom and treatment of their Christian minorities. Egypt was also placed on The US Commission for International Religious Freedom’s recommended Countries of Particular Concern list for 6 consecutive years (it was dropped in the last report for purely technical reasons). Independent news outlets have been reporting the attacks on churches by Muslim fanatics, the closure of churches by government officials, attacks on Copts and their property by their fanatic Muslim neighbors, forced evacuation of Coptic families out of their ancestors’ villages, and kidnapping and forced conversion of women Coptic minors with the collusion of the police and support by al-Alzahr. The summer of 2016 witnessed a rise in attacks on individual Copts and churches that prompted Bishop Makarios of Minya to state that hardly 3 days pass without hearing about an attack on Copts. We witnessed an Islamist cutting the throat of a Coptic Christian shop owner on security cameras. Moderate prominent Muslim figures including Abul Ghar and Abdul Moneim Riad have written about this level of impunity and the government’s lack of political will to confront this worsening situation and protect its Coptic citizens, and political observers have described the government’s denial in the face of this reality as a form of impunity in itself.
Thus, the indisputable fact remains that Copts have been suffering serious discrimination and attacks and facts presented in both the recently introduced resolution and Coptic Solidarity’s the testimony before TLHRC congressional hearing are true. Coptic Solidarity did not concoct this reality. For the Egyptian media, both state-owned and independent to react with hysteria, name calling, denigration (Coptic Solidarity’s activists were described as “kids”, and two Egyptian MPs accused US members of Congress and President Trump of being mentally ill beyond treatment), denials, and false accusations does not change this fact but exposes for whom the media is working. The hysterical reaction implies that Coptic Solidarity’s testimony before the TLCHR and the H. RES 673 touched a raw nerve and exposed unpleasant facts that both the Egyptian media and government would rather ignore and not see. They count on the lack of available independent news sources and on spreading misinformation to deceive the common Egyptian, a tactic all dictators utilize to manipulate the masses. The Egyptian media found is easier to slander Coptic Solidarity’s integrity, accusing it of being bought by “forces of terrorism, evil, and darkness” that seek to destroy Egypt. It did not hesitate to make ludicrous accusations that Coptic Solidarity is funded by Qatar and other forces that seek to fracture Egypt as they did in Iraq. Thus, Coptic Solidarity was lumped in the same category with the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist organizations supported by Qatar! As a matter of fact, it is the Egyptian government, the deep state, and media who are betraying Egypt by denying serious problems, that unless rectified will drag Egypt into chaos. As stated in its Congressional testimony before TLHRC on Dec. 6, 2017, Coptic solidarity supports Egypt’s stability and its fight against terrorism, but the media intentionally and conveniently ignored this portion of the testimony (I seriously doubt if they even read it). Both paranoia and cynicism were reflected in statements that the US Congress does not care about the Copts, so it must be using them as a cause for intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs and aims to break Egypt’s national unity. To Egyptian media, politicians, and analysts it is unbelievable that anyone should care about the Copts. This is similar to the TV commentator who thought it understandable to attack churches but it was unbelievable to her for Muslim fanatics to attack a Sufi Muslim mosque.
More ominous was the use of the phrase; Copts in the Diaspora, aqbat al-mahgar, a term coined by Sadat to accuse emigrant Copts of treason and of working as agents of foreign countries that harbor enmity towards Egypt. Sadat died shortly after the speech during which he coined this term at the hands of the Islamists whom he created, but the term continued to be used against the Copts by the dictators who followed him to the present day. The term cunningly puts Copts within Egypt on the defensive, portrays them as less patriotic, ready to betray their country and incites hatred towards the Copts by their fellow Muslims in Egypt. It also puts a wedge between Copts inside Egypt and their brethren Copts who live outside who still care deeply about their mother country. Furthermore, it puts the church leadership on the defensive, prompting the current church leadership to disown Coptic activists in the Diaspora, and go along with the government’s denial. We saw this happen in February 2017, when Egyptian church leaders gave letters to members of the US congressional delegation visiting Egypt which stated that Sisi has been the best president in Egypt’s history in his treatment of Copts. But, the manipulative use of this outworn phrase will neither detract Coptic activist outside Egypt, nor will it work on Copts within Egypt who are beginning to see through the manipulations.
Egyptian media and analysts working for the government also conflated numerous issues in their distortion campaign. Coptic Solidarity’s Congressional testimony before the TLHRC was hosted on the same day the US administration announced its decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. This coincidence was a high time for paranoia and a golden opportunity to confuse the regular Egyptian, to support more conspiracy theories and to implicate the Copts. The reality is that the preparations for the resolution and the testimony started months before the announcement was made. Furthermore, the decision was a fulfillment of President Trump’s election promise that was unrelated to either the testimony or the proposed resolution. These issues were further conflated with Egypt’s sponsored UN resolution regarding the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The Egyptian media saw in the TLHRC hearing as vindictive punishment directed towards Egypt despite the fact that the hearing was arranged months in advance and the decision to move the embassy and its timing came as a surprise to most in the US. With the UN resolution objecting against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, Egyptian analysts managed to also muster a Don Quixote reaction claiming victory over the US schemes against Egypt that seek to fracture it along with rest of the so-called Arab world having destroyed Iraq, created ISIS, and destroyed Syria. This is pure paranoia, typical of the Arab mind that refuses to take responsibility for its actions and is prone to put the blame on the outside world. It is a fantastic thinking to imagine a superpower seeking to destabilize a region as important as the Middle East and to create a crisis for itself and the world with which to deal. The reality is that, baring a brief lull following the withdrawal of the British and French colonial forces, the so-called Arab world, a self-serving fanciful creation of Arab dictators which they have used to promote their hegemonic ambitions, and the Islamic Middle East, has been in a state of war for five decades and its implosion has accelerated lately. Hostilities include Egypt’s war in Yemen, Lebanon’s civil war, Syria’s war in Lebanon, Libya’s war in Chad, Iraq’s war against Iran, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Syria’s civil war, terrorist forces which, using Islamic Sharia to declare Arab rulers apostates, declared war on them using scorched earth policy as ISIS used in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaida’s attacks within Saudi Arabia, and most recently Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and Houthi collusion with Iran against it. It is easy to blame “forces of evil and darkness,” foreign governments, Aqbat al-Mahgar, and Middle East Christians in general, rather than to look inside and be able to see the deceit and betrayal that is the hallmark of the relationship between the countries in that region of the world. Egypt does not stand a chance to develop and join the modern world unless it extracts itself from this locus of deceit and self-destructiveness which is how the so-called Arab works, and take steps to effect radical changes to its internal culture that has prevailed in the country for the past few decades.
Next, we have the response of Copts within Egypt and Coptic MPs, who are essentially mere government appointees. Their reactions ranged from belittling and condescending remarks about “Coptic Solidarity’s kids,” to invoking naïve simplistic patriotism and sentimental reminisces of the Orthodox priest, Fr. Sergious, who reportedly said if England were to occupy Egypt to protect the Copts, may the Copts die so Egypt’s Muslims live free! Or of Pope Shenouda III’s meeting with President Carter slyly implying that when President Carter was inquiring about the status of the Copts in Egypt, he was obliquely seeking a reason for “foreign intervention to protect the Copts,” recalling similar stories from colonial times when foreign powers connived to use “protection of the Copts” as a reason for intervention or occupying Egypt. And now they imply it is America’s turn. Besides the fact that neither Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, nor the British occupation happened to protect the Copts, such reasoning is ancient, outdated, and unbefitting of modern international relations. But, it would seem that these memories have lived in ancient minds to be used by some Copts who have to lived with Islamist paranoia and feel they must go to extremes to prove their loyalty and patriotism. Margret Azer, a Coptic MP, curried favor with Sisi’s administration saying that terrorism does not differentiate between Copts and Muslims, and accused the US administration of vindictiveness towards Egypt because of Egypt’s opposition to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. Other Coptic MPs felt the need to declare their categorical rejection of the resolution on the premise that it represents interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. Such reasoning ignores international Human Rights charters and UN special protections accorded to minorities. Finally, Pope Tawadros found it reasonable to say “we draw strength only from two, God and our Muslim brethren in Egypt,” his very persecutors. Collectively, the Copts’ reaction can only be explained as a product of a dhimmi mindset that has come to accept the superiority of the Muslim majority and its second-class status. It is also typical of abuser-abused dynamics where the abused is the first to come to the defense of the abuser.
There is no doubt that the boot of Sisi’s dictatorial regime and various State Intelligence organizations is on the neck of the church leadership and equally on the neck of the Copts. It is known that Egypt’s intelligence services have penetrated the Church leadership since Mubarak’s time, and has its collaborators within the church’s leadership. Some church leaders are silenced by their own colleagues if they dare speak out against the attacks on their flock. Lay observers have noted that the common Copt’s interests are sacrificed by the church leadership in their attempts to coexist with the government. Although the Coptic Church leadership has abandoned its prophetic role of speaking truth to power, defending the oppressed, the poor, the orphan and the widow, one cannot blame them, for they are doing what they can to survive in the face of horrendous threats and oppression. The church sees itself caught between Sisi’s dictatorial rule which has failed to protect the Copts, and the alternative, namely the return of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood or worse, an ISIS-incited conflagration against Egypt’s Copts as a whole, whom ISIS called “its favorite prey.”
The media’s hysterical reaction aside, we should not downplay the role of Egypt’s intelligence and their hired US-based public relations firms to lobby US legislators. In addition, a plan was recommended by Egypt’s director of State Information Service in his meeting with the Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee. He expressed his worry about the US withholding its aid to Egypt and advised that the newly introduced resolution was “based on incorrect or misguided information” and that allegations of discrimination against the Copts are unfounded.” In other words, he is recommending that the Egyptian Parliament launch a misinformation and denial campaign targeting US legislators and the US administration. He also recommended a delegation of Coptic MPs visit the US Congress and establish a dialogue with the US administration. What could be more manipulative or conniving than dispatching representatives of the victims themselves to deny persecution?
There were a few calls urging the Egyptian Parliament to “hurry” and issue a law criminalizing discrimination “to improve Egypt’s image.” Recently, a Copt was appointed Dean of the Cairo University Faculty of Dentistry for the first time in 109 years. Additionally, permits were issued to renovate 21 Evangelical churches in Minya governorate specifically aiming to appease the Evangelicals, while falsely claiming they were for new churches. There have also been calls to rapidly issue permits or grandfather in already existing churches that have no permit. Whether such calls are disingenuous and for cosmetic purposes only, or reflect beginnings of genuine changes remains to be seen.
In the final analysis, both the newly introduced resolution by US legislators and Coptic Solidarity’s testimony before TLHRC are motivated by sincere interest in improving the situation of the Copts and nudging the Egyptian society and government to move in the right direction A society is judged by the way it treats its minority. It has been noted that lawlessness in some areas in Egypt where attacks against the Copts go unpunished and where the police do not apply the law, taking matters into their hands releasing attackers, closing churches for no reason but to appease Muslim fanatics, charging Copts gathering to pray with “praying without a permit” are the real threats to the Egyptian society and the state, not those who are trying to help Egypt’s government move in the right direction, enforce the law, prevent the society from breaking down, and Egypt from becoming a failed state. President Sisi needs some pressure to encourage him to move in the right direction. US aid to Egypt is not an entitlement. Human rights are an integral part of US international diplomacy, and US aid to Egypt should be made conditional on making progress in minorities’ civil rights and religious freedom.
Coptic Solidarity is aware of the tremendous pressure on US legislators by the Egyptian lobby which aims to compromise H. RES 673 either by gutting it of its content or completely halting its passage. For the Egyptian lobby, as evidenced by the reaction in the Egyptian media, it is a zero- sum game. If US legislators bow to Egypt’s pressure, they stand the risk of reinforcing Egypt’s denial of the ongoing persecution of the Copts. It would embolden them and persecution is likely to worsen. Furthermore, it will provide precedence, compromise similar future efforts to encourage Egypt to make reforms, and confirm the Egyptian media’s false accusations, which have already been voicing that US legislators do not care about religious freedom or the Copts but are using them to interfere in Egypt’s affairs.
Below we have provided links to statements, interviews, analyses, and TV programs which represent the reaction of the Egyptian media to the recently introduced H.RES. 673 and Coptic Solidarity’s testimony before the TLHRC. They are in the Arabic language. We understand the language barrier is an impeding factor, however due to lack of resources, we are unable to translate all of them. Coptic Solidarity has translated a representative sampling of the reports and posted an article regarding the media reaction on our site. To our knowledge, some of the articles, interviews, and analyses below are in the process of being translated by MEMRI.
http://www.sabahelkher.com/news/ قﻕاﺍنﻥوﻭنﻥ-فﻑىﻯ-اﺍلﻝسﺱرﺭ-كﻙلﻝمﻡةﺓ-اﺍلﻝقﻕدﺩسﺱ/ 14908 -« اﺍلﻝأﺃقﻕبﺏاﺍطﻁ-اﺍلﻝكﻙوﻭنﻥجﺝرﺭسﺱ†»
http://parlmany.youm7.com/News/7/ -اﺍلﻝكﻙوﻭنﻥجﺝرﺭسﺱ-يﻱزﺯوﻭرﺭ-قﻕبﺏطﻁىﻯ-بﺏرﺭلﻝمﻡاﺍنﻥىﻯ-وﻭفﻑدﺩ/ 209303
http://parlmany.youm7.com/News/7/ اﺍلﻝأﺃمﻡرﺭيﻱكﻙىﻯ-اﺍلﻝكﻙوﻭنﻥجﺝرﺭسﺱ-يﻱزﺯوﻭرﺭ-قﻕبﺏطﻁىﻯ-بﺏرﺭلﻝمﻡاﺍنﻥىﻯ-وﻭفﻑدﺩ/ 209303
Photo credit: OSCE/Arshak Khudaverdyan