January 22, 2024 | Washington Examiner

After Israel-Hamas war, Egyptian Copts face ambiguous future

January 22, 2024 | Washington Examiner

After Israel-Hamas war, Egyptian Copts face ambiguous future

For almost a decade, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has wanted to curb religious extremism and enhance the status of Christians in his country. In the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7th attacks in Israel — and the response from radicalized Muslims throughout the Middle East and beyond — the fruits of Sisi’s work on behalf of Egyptian Christians are now threatened. 

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, says the old proverb. It’s still relevant today, and it explains the current religious harmony in Egypt between pro-government elites, outlawed Muslim Brotherhood peers in the diaspora, and Jihadi supporters in general: All glorify acts of terrorism by Hamas.

Immediately following the Oct. 7th massacre, state-funded Al-Azhar — the largest Sunni Muslim institution in Egypt — declared that it “proudly salutes the resistance” for its attacks against Israeli civilians. But this discourse contradicts ongoing efforts by Sisi over the past decade to curb religious extremism. This antagonization in Egyptian society fueled by pro-government institutions should alarm Washington; more work is needed to protect the future of the Christian minority in the most populous Arab state. (This is nothing new. Egypt is already on the State Department’s special watch list that focuses on governments tolerating severe religious persecution.)  

Christians make up roughly 10% of the 109 million people who live in Egypt. That makes Egypt’s Christian community the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Approximately 90% of Egypt’s Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, while others are affiliated with Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic faiths.  

A devout Muslim, Sisi made a concerted effort to demonstrate tolerance toward Copts after assuming office. Since 2015, unlike his predecessors, he has made it an annual tradition to visit the Eastern Orthodox Church during Christmas time. His messaging has focused on unity against the Muslim Brotherhood, protection from terrorism, and building more churches. A famous incident occurred in mid-December 2018 in a televised conference during the opening of a residential project built by the armed forces: The Egyptian strongman asked one of his military generals, “Where is the church, Emad?” The answer did not satisfy Sisi, so he gave an order to the minister of defense to build a church in every new city.

Coptic representation in the Parliament is higher than in previous eras; currently, Copts represent 6.2% — 37 seats from a total of 596 — of the Parliament elected in 2020. There are two main reasons for this. First, election laws mandate quotas for Copts, which obligate political parties to include Christian candidates in their candidate lists to fulfill government requirements. Second, aggressive regime campaigns against the usage of religious slogans intimidate radical segments of the society and prevent them from harassing their Christian countrymen.  

Let’s make no mistake, though. Sisi’s relations with the church have been transactional. Pope Tawadros II, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, explained in one of his sermons, “The president always support us, and our role is to support him.” Friendly relations between state and church encouraged the Coptic community in diaspora to support the regime during its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the church harnessed its capabilities to serve Cairo’s diplomacy. It utilized connections with the Ethiopian sister church to lobby for Cairo’s efforts with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue, and in 2015, it served as a normalization gesture to the Jewish state when Pope Tawadros II paid a historic visit to Jerusalem to attend the bishop’s funeral, becoming the first head of the Coptic church to visit Israel since 1967.

While mutual understandings exist between the regime and the church, morale and the conditions of the community itself aren’t satisfactory. Young Copts are frustrated over the dire socioeconomic conditions. Together with continuous violent incidents — mainly in upper Egypt, where the security apparatus merely implements the strategy of “pain killers” through customary sessions, which forces Muslims and Christians to sign reconciliation agreements after sectarian incidents — discontent grows. Additionally, Christians are still discouraged from certain careers, such as sports, and they are under-represented in many positions in politics, security, and media. Not surprisingly, this boosts the desire to emigrate. 

The Israel-Hamas war served as a lifeline for Cairo. Because of its influence over Gaza’s future, the war reestablished Egypt’s relevance in regional politics. But this should not distract Washington and its Western allies from continuing to push for the necessary reforms Cairo still needs to undertake in the area of human rights. The future of Egyptian Christians is an important issue, worthy of high-level discussions. While Sisi has been personally warm to Egyptian Christians, his government institutions have not been — and the current radicalization sweeping the country’s domestic scenery is likely to put their future safety in jeopardy.  

 Haisam Hassanein is an adjunct fellow at FDD, where he analyzes Arab-Israel relations.


Arab Politics Egypt Israel Israel at War