The Coptic Church’s recent involvement in politics in Egypt has harmed both the Church and the country’s Christian community.
For decades, the Church was close to the regime and served as the sole political voice of Egypt’s Coptic community, the country’s largest religious minority. But with the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, that voice became fragmented, as Copts started to get involved in politics on their own.
In the tumultuous period that followed the election of Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012, the Church’s leaders also became more active in politics. Most significantly, the Church’s patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, endorsed the July 2013 military intervention against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood–backed regime. Since then, the Brotherhood and its supporters have seen the Copts as part of what they say was a conspiracy against Morsi, and pro-Morsi protesters, angry at the Church’s backing of the military takeover, have attacked Coptic churches and property.
With the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in June 2014, the Church has attempted to reestablish itself as the monolithic voice of Egypt’s Coptic community. But that role, too, carries risks. Rather than trying to unify Egypt’s Christians under its leadership, the Church should withdraw from the political sphere and allow Copts to defend their interests themselves by joining political parties and movements. The Church should focus on being an institution of civil society that defends universal ideals such as human rights and social justice, and on supporting developmental projects for both Muslims and Christians.
The Church’s Changing Role
The Coptic Church has two main interests in the political sphere: first, maintaining its institutional independence vis-à-vis state institutions; and second, monopolizing the right to speak in the name of the Coptic community. The Mubarak regime protected both for the Church leadership. Under Mubarak, the Church was treated as the only representative of Egypt’s Copts. The regime also protected the Church’s financial independence, and permitted the Church to ignore court rulings concerning Copts’ personal affairs that were not supported by the Church leadership.
For example, in June 2010, the Church’s then leader, Pope Shenouda III, refused to apply a Supreme Administrative Court ruling that the Church should permit remarriage for Copts who had been granted a divorce by the judiciary. The Church declared that it respected the law, but could not accept rulings that went against the Bible’s teachings.
The Church also refused a demand that state institutions be allowed to oversee its budget and activities. Tariq al-Bishri, a former judge, called in his writings for state supervision of the Church’s budget, arguing that as a public institution, the Church should be monitored by the state. However the Church objected, and the Mubarak regime ignored those demands.
Moreover, the Mubarak regime treated Pope Shenouda III as the only representative of the Coptic community. In return, the Church secured Coptic support for the Mubarak regime and its policies through its public statements in the media. The Church also put pressure on Copts living outside Egypt not to demonstrate against Mubarak, mainly during his visits to the United States.
However, the Church began to lose control over some Coptic youth in the last few years of Mubarak’s rule. Continuing discrimination against Copts, which was sometimes carried out by state institutions themselves, led some young Copts to believe that the Mubarak regime was the cause of their problems; some of them asked the Church to stop supporting it. The rise of new political movements opposing the Mubarak regime such as the April 6 Movement, Youth for Justice and Freedom, and the Egyptian Movement for Change, known by its slogan, Kifaya, or Enough, offered some of the Coptic youth a new framework in which to defend their rights outside of the Church.
Though they first became involved in political activism to defend Coptic rights, their interaction with other political groups led them to expand their views. Some young Copts concluded that Christians would only get equal rights within a democratic regime based on the principle of citizenship for all Egyptians.
Amid calls to demonstrate against the Mubarak regime on January 25, 2011, the Coptic Church asked its followers not to participate in the protests. However, part of the Coptic youth refused to obey and joined other protesters. After Mubarak stepped down in February, the Church issued a statement saluting both the Egyptian youth for leading the revolution and the military for protecting the country.
After Mubarak fell, Egypt’s political sphere became more open, forcing the Church to change its strategies in order to secure its interests. Not only did the youth remain politically active, but many Christian figures established or joined political parties: Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris started the Free Egyptians Party, and Christian intellectuals such as Emad Gad and Hanna Greiss were among the founders of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. The Church and this new Christian political elite found it mutually beneficial to cooperate: the Church needed the Christian politicians to voice its demands in the changed political sphere; the Christian politicians, in turn, sought to coordinate with the Church in order to secure Coptic votes during elections.
Beyond the political elite, a segment of the Coptic youth who had taken part in the uprising against the Mubarak regime decided to establish a youth movement to defend Copts’ rights, called the Maspero Youth Union (after the Maspero area of Cairo, where Coptic youth organized sit-ins to protest against discrimination based on religion). Unlike Coptic politicians, the movement rejected the Church’s status as the sole political representative of the Coptic community. It denounced informal meetings that some bishops held with officials of state institutions during Mubarak’s time and during the transitional period. Those sessions, according to members of the movement, were often intended merely to appease tensions between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities, without addressing the real causes behind them.
The Church viewed the Maspero youth movement and its aims with skepticism. The presence of two priests within the movement also provoked certain bishops, who saw the group as a rival to their authority and tried to contain its activities.
The Church and the Muslim Brotherhood
In November 2012, five months after Morsi was elected president of Egypt, Pope Tawadros II succeeded Pope Shenouda III as the leader of Egypt’s Orthodox Christian community. Pope Tawadros began with a discourse that was different from his predecessor’s, insisting that the Church should not interfere in politics, and should focus on its religious and developmental activities instead.
However, it proved hard for the new pope to convince his bishops—many of whom had previously engaged in political negotiations—to change their strategies. Moreover, the highly polarized political environment between the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition under Morsi led the Church to play an increasing political role.
At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to deal with Copts’ concerns about religious freedom and their marginalization in state institutions. While Morsi appointed Samir Morcos, a prominent Christian figure, as his assistant for democratic transition, after a few months Morcos resigned when he discovered that he had not been included in the decisionmaking process—and to protest the Muslim Brotherhood’s autocratic practices in power.
Within this environment, Christians went back to the Church seeking its protection and the new pope returned to the strategy of his predecessor, acting as the sole representative of Copts in the political sphere. Pope Tawadros II adopted a critical tone toward the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of marginalizing the Copts, and he went further, objecting to some of Morsi’s other policies, including his attempt to dismiss a number of judges.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the Church’s involvement in politics to mobilize support for its policies among some religiously conservative Muslims. During debate over the constitutional referendum of December 2012, the Brotherhood accused the Church of mobilizing nuns to vote against the draft. Claims that the opposition was mainly Coptic made it easier for the Brotherhood to persuade conservative Muslims to vote yes, primarily in Upper Egypt. The same strategy was adopted to discredit the call for protests against Morsi on June 30, 2013. Islamist voices close to the Muslim Brotherhood asked the Church not to jeopardize Christian lives, hinting that Christians would constitute the majority of protesters on that day in order to discourage Muslims from joining.
The Church did play a significant role in Morsi’s ouster. After the large-scale protests on June 30, the military invited representatives of the judiciary, youth movements, the political opposition, the Coptic Church, and al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading religious institution, on July 3 to discuss a solution to the political crisis. The participants, including Pope Tawadros II, agreed that Morsi should be removed and that early presidential elections should be held. Pope Tawadros II gave a speech supporting the military intervention and the new political process that was announced by Sisi, who was then minister of defense.
The Church also took part in the committee that was charged with drafting an amended version of the 2012 constitution that was adopted under Muslim Brotherhood rule. Moreover, Pope Tawadros II endorsed the new draft constitution, and wrote an article in the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper inviting Egyptians to approve it in a referendum scheduled for January 2014. He also encouraged Sisi to run for president, describing his candidacy as a national duty.
The strategies of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Church in this period have increased the level of religious polarization between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. The result has been a cycle of sectarian violence, with each side accusing the other of attacks on its followers.
The Muslim Brotherhood has accused the Church of being part of the conspiracy against former president Morsi. And in August 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website charged that the Church opened fire on Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Giza.
After the dispersal of the Muslim Brotherhood’s summer 2013 sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, Coptic churches and properties were attacked by angry protesters, and many Copts blamed the Brotherhood for the violence. According to Human Rights Watch, over less than ten days in August 2013, at least 42 churches were attacked, of which 37 were either burned down or damaged.
The Future of Church-State Relations
The Church’s support for the military’s 2013 intervention has given it a privileged position in the new regime, prompting the Church to try to revive the old pact it had with the Mubarak regime. And changes carried out by the state have helped the Church regain its position as the only representative of the Coptic community.
As the new political authority has tightened its control over the public sphere, youth movements, including the Maspero Youth Union, have lost their ability to mobilize. Coptic politicians have also lost their influence, as the new regime seems to see little role for parties; President Sisi has not held any meetings with political parties.
However, the Church’s former strategy brought with it many problems, and, in the current environment of political and societal polarization, a return to that approach could have harmful consequences on the Coptic community:
First, this approach, based on backdoor channels between the Church and the political authority, often failed to resolve Coptic grievances in the past. It also denied Copts their rights as Egyptian citizens, because the Church and the regime have often tried to reach compromises outside the framework of the law. These compromises have often been intended to contain religious tensions, but not to address their causes. The Church should withdraw from this type of negotiation and ask for the law to be applied to all problems involving Christians. If the government fully enforces the principles of citizenship and the rule of law, Copts would have a chance to claim their religious and political rights as Egyptian citizens, instead of waiting for the Church to negotiate with the political regime on their behalf.
Second, by encouraging Church members to depend on Coptic leaders to channel their political and social demands, this approach deepens Copts’ isolation and discourages them from joining political parties or movements. This hinders their interaction with other political forces and their integration into civil and political society, leaving Copts engaged only with activities organized by the Church. The Church should refrain from representing the Copts politically and, instead, allow lay Coptic actors to defend their interests in the political sphere. Even with the new restrictions on political and civil society in Egypt, Coptic actors should join other political parties and movements in their struggle for a democratic regime.
Third, the Church’s past strategy reinforces the perception that Copts are one homogenous actor. The Church has worked to unify the Coptic community’s voice within the political sphere in order to maximize the Copts’ influence in political debates. This leads to a situation in which Church decisions can put the lives and property of any individual Copt at risk, even if he or she did not actually participate in making a political choice. There is no need for the Copts to speak with one voice. In fact, it would be productive for Copts to take part in different groups and movements according to their own political preferences.
Pope Tawadros II celebrated his second anniversary as patriarch in November 2014, and it is essential that he now reconsider the Church’s role in the public sphere. The Coptic Church should transform itself from a state-oriented Church into a civil society–oriented one. This transformation can take place on two levels: that of discourse and that of activities.
In terms of discourse, the Church needs to differentiate between defending universal values in the public sphere and engagement in deals with the state or political parties. While the first is needed and would improve the Church’s public image among Egyptians, the latter could have drastic consequences because it makes the Church a part of the political regime. The ideals of human dignity, social justice, and human rights need to be integrated into Church discourse. Only by struggling for a political regime that respects these principles will the Copts, together with all Egyptians, receive their full social and political rights.
In terms of activities, the Church needs to expand its work—currently limited to charity directed to Christians in need—to include developmental projects that serve both Muslims and Christians. Such an approach will help bridge the gap between the two religious communities and decrease the level of religious polarization, particularly in Upper Egypt, where state institutions are weak and religious affiliations are predominant.
By revising its discourse and redefining its mission, the Coptic Church could play a positive role in Egypt’s transition, helping to ensure full rights for Copts within a democratic regime, and decreasing the level of religious polarization in the country.