Blessing the state: How Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church betrayed the Egyptian revolution, Part I: The Coptic Church
Part II: Al-Azhar
When Mubarak stood down in 2011, a mixture of anxiety, hope and expectation filled Egypt’s streets. Democracy, social justice and respect for all were in touching distance. The old regime had crumbled. Protestors who had taken to the streets during those late January days began to map out what the new Egypt would look like; on the table was the question of religion.
One community contemplating their new future were the Coptic Christians. Christianity in Egypt stretches as far back as the first century when the Apostle Mark visited Egypt, a country that is mentioned many times in the Bible. That was around 2,000 years ago. In recent history, the Egyptian church has become famous for cosying up to whichever military despot is in power, whilst positioning themselves as the sole voice for Copts in Egypt.
Over successive governments Copts have felt discriminated against by the state, for example authorities have enforced tight controls on building churches. It seems fitting, then, that Cairo’s famous Muqattam churches have been carved into the rock far from the centre of the city and you have to cross a rubbish dump to get to them. They are beautiful regardless.
Their current Patriarch is Pope Tawadros II, who was selected just over two years ago when a 6-year-old Egyptian reached his hand into a glass bowl containing the name of three Bishops in Egypt and plucked out his name. The selection process encapsulates much of Egypt’s politics: rigging with a sliver of fate.
Like the other protestors who joined the masses in Tahrir Square, Copts had diverse political aims and opinions, but many seemed to agree that weakening the church’s exclusive authority and increasing the political participation of individual Christians was paramount. For a while this seemed possible when the new pope pledged to turn towards spiritual matters and away from politics.
As we know today, it didn’t take long for those euphoric days in early 2011 to twist into despair. The protests scared away tourists and blocked the traffic and as a result businesses suffered and the economy plunged. Mubarak was out of the picture but the army was still very much a part of people’s lives, albeit an unwanted presence, but protestors who went to the streets to express this were attacked, killed and sexually assaulted.
The series of attacks didn’t stop everyone and in some cases inspired more demonstrations, but they were only going to get uglier. Just eight months after Mubarak stood down, protestors, largely Copts but also Muslims, marched to the state television building Maspero to demonstrate against the army’s indifference to the destruction of a church in Upper Egypt. When they reached the Hilton Hotel army tanks drove into the crowds, crushing people under their tyres, whilst soldiers on top fired at the people below.
Twenty-eight Egyptians and one soldier were killed that day and yet despite the overwhelming majority of casualties being civilians, state TV announced that Copts were killing soldiers and urged fellow Egyptians to arm themselves and go to the streets to protect the army, which they did.
Reflecting on the massacre three years later in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Tawadros said he did not know who was responsible: “We are seeking the truth but at a suitable time.” His words were an understatement, a huge dishonour to those who lost their lives outside Maspero, and inspired outrage. Tawadros went on to endorse the acquittal of Hosni Mubarak, a line of thinking which fitted in neatly with his predecessor Pope Shenouda III, who supported the former dictator and even called on Copts not to join the January 25 protests demanding his removal.
In July, Pope Tawadros expressed his support for the nationwide anti-government protests calling on Morsi to step down, tweeting: "It is wonderful to see the Egyptian people taking back their stolen revolution in a peaceful way." He described the 2013 coup as a “defining moment in the nation’s history”, was by Sisi’s side when he announced the military intervention, declared him a hero of the June revolution and insisted he had a duty to run for president.
That’s a long list of political actions for someone who was supposed to be turning away from politics.
Last year Sisi became the first Egyptian President to attend a Christmas mass where he stood side by side with Tawadros to declare: “Note that I never use any word other than Egyptians. Nobody should use any other term. We are Egyptians, nobody should ask: ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’” Pope Tawadros II and Sisi maintain a public image of peace, cooperation and love but this tranquillity only extends to the Christians and Muslims that agree with Sisi. Those who speak out publicly against him have been killed, imprisoned or are in exile.
In light of Sisi’s well-known crackdown on protests and his well-documented human rights abuses, the Pope’s support for the dictator has made him complicit in silencing Copts; it has also limited their ability to join organisations asking for change and take part in the political process. Put simply the Pope played a part in reversing all the gains made in the January 2011 revolution.
Once he had stamped out grassroots Coptic activism, the Pope was once again able to manoeuvre himself into being the sole voice of the Coptic community, without really representing their dreams and demands at all. Pope Tawadros’ privileged position, meanwhile, is safe. Or at least safer than it was when Egyptians were allowed to say what they really thought.
Published in Middle East Monitor