Courting the Copts
The honeymoon between the Egyptian state and the Salafists is over. Their political clout has waned. Previously, they had been able to indirectly remain close to the reins of power, giving the impression that they enjoyed wide acceptance and allowing them to expand their presence on the public scene through mosques and religious circles but the state has resorted to a number of measures to stop their political march.
The exclusionary measures adopted by the Egyptian leadership against the Salafists seem similar to those used against the Muslim Brotherhood, in which the state succeeded rather well in clipping the Brotherhood’s wings economically, socially and politically.
By contrast, we are witnessing the beginning of a systematic charm operation towards the Copts. It started with the extreme kindness and friendliness shown them by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on holidays and by his anger every time Copts were targeted by violence. It is clear that the Egyptian regime is keen on preserving the voting favours of the Christian bloc, a large and united front, at a time when other blocs seem to be deserting it.
The special attention given by the state apparatus to the Copts is well-motivated. The Copts are — first and foremost — Egyptian citizens who have been feeling targeted and they need reassurances that their rights will be preserved. They also carry economic clout because a large number of Egyptian business people are of the Christian faith and hold important stakes in the economy. In times of economic crisis, these citizens deserve deference.
What the Egyptian regime fears most, however, is for the Coptic asset to turn into a liability as a consequence of the repeated attacks by Islamic extremists and terrorists on Christian citizens and their churches. It is imperative that the country’s president show serious concern about the situation lest things get out of hand with dire consequences both internally and internationally.
Locally, the security apparatus must at all times be on the alert for acts of provocation. Confrontations between Muslims and Copts could start with isolated incidents between individuals and quickly degenerate into riots.
The state must show extreme severity towards anyone who dares attack a Coptic citizen. It must also show serious intent in preserving those rights perceived by the Coptic minority as being taken away. It is for that specific purpose that the Egyptian government speeded up the adoption of the law on building churches. The government has thus given concrete proof of its good intentions.
The Egyptian regime is purposefully doting on Coptic citizens in the hope of limiting potential damage to Egypt on the international level. It cannot choose not do that as Egypt is facing other debilitating problems and definitely does not need further pressure from outside. The Egyptian authorities must fend off suggestions that the Copts in the country be placed under Christian custody because they are part of the world’s Christian community. Giving in to the Coptic community’s demands, even if some of them seem exaggerated, is one way of containing the situation.
There also might be hidden political objectives behind this attention. Rich Coptic citizens might fill social roles previously held by the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter could easily be sidelined. If the Coptic minority in Egypt internalises the encompassing concept of citizenship and breaks free from the restrictive sectarian interests, there will be a good chance for its members to become true actors in the Egyptian society. They must correctly place the official support shown to them within the context of their being Egyptian citizens and not as the result of pressure on the government.
Above all, Egyptian Copts must avoid falling into the trap of blackmailing the authorities, for this would give Islamic extremists the opportunity to weaken the government by accusing it of supporting Copts to the detriment of Muslims. In such a scenario, the government will have very limited choices for action.
Thus, the idea of using the Copts as social alternatives for the Muslim Brotherhood becomes potentially dangerous. It is best, therefore, to promote policies that place citizenship above every other consideration so that all Egyptians — Muslims and Christians — become an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.