Unpacking Recent Violence against Egypt's Copts

27 Jun, 2017    ·   5309

Derek Verbakel traces the evolving trends in the attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the role of the interplay between state and societal forces in the phenomenon

On 26 May, the Islamic State (IS) murdered 29 Coptic Christians on a bus in Minya, the latest targeting of Egypt's largest minority community. Three church bombings since December, also claimed by IS, have killed over 70 Copts. The government of Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi casts itself as the protector of Egyptian Copts, and violence against them appears to result straightforwardly from the ideological-strategic imperatives of IS. Yet such a shallow narrative is inadequate to understand recent outbreaks of violence affecting the Coptic community. Rather, these episodes must be placed in the broader context of violence against Copts in Egypt. Implicated is not only the role of IS, but also that of the Egyptian state and society in producing socio-political conditions amenable to violence. 

Deadly attacks and less visible instances of violence against Copts have long occurred under successive authoritarian regimes in Egypt. An especially salient episode unfolded in October 2011, highlighting the imbricated roles of state and societal actors: 28 Copts were massacred for protesting government passivity toward assaults on churches by Muslim extremists. In discouraging broader civil disobedience, security services knew that targeting a marginalised group would provoke little public outcry. 

El-Sisi has also instrumentalised the Copts’ suffering in the context of escalating violence since mid-2013, itself linked to tightening ties between Coptic Orthodox Church leaders and the state. The July overthrow of Egypt's former President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was supported by Coptic Orthodox Church leaders but not all Copts. Still, many Morsi supporters viewed the wider Coptic community as complicit in the El-Sisi led coup. After military personnel killed nearly 1000 pro-Morsi demonstrators the subsequent month, several Copts were killed, and numerous churches and homes in Upper Egypt were destroyed by angry mobs. Prominent Muslim Brotherhood voices incited violence against Christians – an enduring phenomenon. El-Sisi then chastised foreign governments for their alleged apathy to the attacks while crudely characterising all Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathisers as sectarian terrorists. 

But despite further symbolic posturing, such as attending the Coptic Christmas mass since 2015, El-Sisi has presided over continuous discrimination against Copts through state institutions. This has mutually reinforced societal expressions of intolerance and bigotry, evident, for instance, in the Copts and their properties regularly being attacked by local vigilantes under the pretext of illegal construction or renovation of churches. A long-awaited new law on church construction was passed in August 2016, but its many loopholes risk worsening pre-existing restrictions on establishment of houses of worship for non-Muslims. Where localised violence occurs, government officials oversee customary reconciliation processes led by Muslim leaders unsympathetic to the situation facing Copts. Aggressors are shielded and Copts pressured to settle. 

A sense of impunity has also prevailed where due process is ostensibly followed. For instance, prosecutors recently failed to convict several men who stripped an elderly Coptic woman naked and paraded her in the street following a rumour that her son had a romantic relationship with a Muslim woman. Around the same time, four Coptic teenagers received a five-year prison sentence for blasphemy for recording a video ridiculing IS. When hate speech was then directed at their faith – also illegal under the Penal Code – double standards common in the application of the law were predictably ignored. Resulting widespread perceptions of Copts as lesser citizens with fewer rights lay the groundwork for those seeking to incite violence against them.

Such actors – the IS and likeminded groups – have grown stronger under el-Sisi's rule. Repression of the political opposition, such as through mass imprisonment of Muslim Brotherhood members and other Islamists, has fueled the very radicalisation it seeks to curb. As the prospects of establishing an Islamist system of governance in Egypt have faded, more groups and individuals who would have previously distanced themselves from such ideology appear to be increasingly viewing jihadi violence as politically necessary. 

Through the attacks since December, the IS has sought to present the state as illegitimate and unable to protect its citizens, particularly Copts, who the group wishes to eradicate from Egypt. However, Copts have quietly experienced growing internal displacement and emigration from Egypt since mid-2013. In recent years, many have justifiably condemned Church leaders for further politicising their identity through adopting political stances mirroring the regime’s. In February 2017, the IS vowed to escalate its campaign of deadly violence against Copts, several hundred families of whom fled north Sinai. Statements from the local Coptic Bishop resembled those of the government, downplaying the gravity of the situation. 

After two church bombings took place on 9 April, the Church referred to them as “exported to Egypt from abroad,” aimed at “striking our national unity.” El-Sisi added, “I won’t say those who fell are Christian or Muslim...I will say that they’re Egyptian.” However, such statements deny the unique experiences of violence and discrimination facing Copts and occlude the socio-political conditions in Egypt through which these come about. Similarly obfuscatory logic was exercised after the May attack: El-Sisi sought to demonstrate strength by striking supposed IS fighters in the Libyan's Derna city, who were in fact non-IS adversaries of his Libyan ally, Khalifa Haftar. 

Interplay between state and societal forces in Egypt have produced a political order subjugating Copts and setting the stage for further episodes of violence against them, particularly as flagging IS fortunes elsewhere may energise the group’s activities in Egypt. Regrettably, the current regime’s failure to pursue substantive policies mitigating patterns of violence offers little hope the plight of Egypt’s Copts will abate.