Trials and tribulations of the Copts in Sinai

Sunday 05/03/2017

The commotion created by Coptic families fleeing their homes in the Sinai town of El Arish lifted the veil on many political and security realities in Egypt. It showed that conditions in the country are complicated, espe­cially when the government’s lack of experience and wisdom in dealing with them is considered.

Egyptian Copts have long been a target for the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar groups because they rep­resent a weak link in the Egyptian political equation. For many years, Copts were the source of embarrass­ment for the government on both the national and international lev­els. The Copts found themselves, in one way or another, involved in the toughest crises in Egypt and were constantly used by outside parties to score points against the various governments.

The Egyptian government has been lax in addressing the plight of the Copts in the Sinai. Things were left to rot until the Copts fled their homes in El Arish for Ismailia, 115km north-east of Cairo, in late February following a series of kill­ings.

The government’s slow reaction suggested an uncertainty on its part on how to deal with the situation in Sinai. The Egyptian government had previously assured its citizens that it had regained full control of Sinai and that terrorist activities had become infrequent and no longer represented a threat to civilians.

The problem with the latest episode in the Coptic drama is that the scenes were typical and hard to forget. The sight of families trudging under the weight of their modest belongings immediately brought to mind images of refugees from other war zones in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya. The visual link quickly estab­lished Sinai as a war zone.

The unfortunate events have em­barrassed the government by mak­ing it look incapable of protecting its own citizenry and that was exactly ISIS’s objective when it threatened to target Copts in Egypt.

The Coptic Church is a major sup­porter of the current government but it was quite annoyed by the way the authorities treated the Christian refugees. Now, the Egyptian Copts are angry at both their church and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The church is under great pressure to adopt an uncompromis­ing attitude and Sisi is seen as hav­ing failed to keep his many promises regarding the Copts’ safety.

The reactions by many political forces in Egypt supporting the gov­ernment were perhaps unnecessar­ily exaggerated. They were quick to give material aid and accommoda­tions to the refugees from El Arish. They could instead have worked more on presenting a better picture of national unity. The aid could have been given before conditions in Sinai deteriorated to this degree.

The latest crisis will certainly have more serious political, eco­nomic and social repercussions. The timing of the crisis was most unfortunate. The regime has been going through a healing phase and regained good relations with a number of international powers. There were optimistic signs for tourism, especially in Sinai, and there was a societal agreement and determination to stand united in the face of extremist elements whose ideologies preach discrimi­nation against Christians.

Quite naturally, a large segment of the intellectual and educated elites among the Muslims and the Copts are feeling very frustrated with the turn of events. They real­ise that their bet on deepening and widening the sense of inclusive citizenship among all Egyptians comes with many risks.

The events in Sinai made it necessary to examine many aspects that had been taken for granted in the quest for national unity. They also exacerbated the feelings of dis­appointment at the government’s programme for bridging the con­ceptual and legislative gaps related to the notion of citizenship.

The government needs to take measures to reclaim its central role in Sinai. It must guarantee the safe return of the refugees to their homes there, which means elimi­nating the terrorist threat.

A new strategy for fighting ter­rorism in Sinai is needed. The old one of closing off Sinai is obviously not working. The government must also quickly move forward with its citizenship programme. It has be­come obvious that anyone planning on destabilising Egypt will use the Copts, the soft spot in the country’s social fabric.