The Shaky Pact between the Copts and the Egyptian State 

By Georges Fahmi

The recent attack on the Coptic Church in Cairo has produced different reactions among the Coptic community. While the Coptic Church has insisted on its full support for the regime, a number of Coptic youth protested in front of the Coptic cathedral chanting anti-regimes slogans and blaming it for failing to protect the church. Between these two reactions, the majority of the Coptic community seems uneasy with both attitudes. They refuse to oppose the regime, knowing it might lead to a worsening of their situation, like in the case of the Christians in Syria and Iraq. But they are also uncomfortable with the Church’s unconditional support for the regime.

These different reactions go beyond the tragic attack of last week and reflect a deeper disagreement over the rules that govern the relation between the state and the Copts under the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

There are two competing visions on how to manage the relation between the Copts and the state. The first is adopted by the Christian youth activists and some Coptic intellectuals, and argues that the relation between Copts and state institutions should be based on the principle of citizenship, in which Copts possess the same rights and duties as other Egyptians. The second vision is supported by the Church, which prefers to act as the representative of the Coptic community before state institutions, and often tries to solve Coptic problems through informal talks with state officials. This latter vision was the one in place under the rule of Mubarak. The uprising of 25 January 2011 offered an opportunity for the Copts to claim their rights as Egyptian citizens rather than as a religious minority. Nonetheless, the events that followed the ouster of Mubarak, particularly the political rise of the Islamic forces to control both the legislative and the executive powers, have led the majority of the Copts to lose faith in democracy as a channel to obtain their rights.

After the military intervention against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, many Copts accepted a return to the old pact that managed their relation with the Egyptian state in which they relinquish their citizenship rights in exchange for state protection as a religious minority. Under this deal, the regime treats the Church as the sole representative of the Coptic community. In exchange, the Church provides to the regime the political support of the Copts in Egypt and the Coptic diaspora, mainly in the USA.

Over the past three years, attacks against the Copts have never stopped. The regime has responded firmly in some cases, as with the airstrike against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Libya after the beheading of 21 Copts. However, in other cases, the Copts have felt that the state response was slow and inefficient, as is the case with last week’s attack, which took place only few meters away from the Coptic Cathedral. Both the regime and the Church would like to protect their cooperation pact. Fearing chaos, a large part of the Coptic community also has interest in maintaining it.

However; many factors have changed since 2011. On the one hand, Sisi is dealing with much weaker state institutions than under Mubarak, including the security sector. He himself recently called it a pseudo-state. On the other hand, the Church leadership has less control over the Copts, unlike the case under the previous Pope Shenouda III who benefitted from his historical charisma. With weak state institutions, which have in many cases been unable to protect the Copts, and a less charismatic Church leadership that is unable to control the anger of its followers, the pact between the regime and the Church is unlikely to resist for long. This might open a new window of opportunity for Coptic actors, such as youth movements and Coptic intellectuals, to renegotiate the relation between the Copts and the State.