In November 2019, I was able to communicate with my friend Ramy Kamel, a prominent Coptic activist and blogger, for the last time before his arrest and pre-trial detention that would exceed two years. Prior to his arrest, he had been summoned by National Security officers who assaulted, threatened, and intimidated him over his Facebook posts. At the time, Kamel wrote a couple of posts claiming that a series of fires that scorched churches between October and November 2019 were not coincidental, criticizing security for its lack of sufficient protection for churches. He was told to remove his posts and stop his criticism of authorities, or else he would suffer consequences. Kamel, however, continued to write on sectarian violence and discrimination against Christians, without tempering his criticism. A few weeks later, National Security officers arrested Kamel and accused him of being a terrorist. According to his lawyer, Kamel was charged with a list of trumped-up charges, including “disturbing the public peace through the misuse of social media,” “spreading false news,” and “joining and financing a terrorist group.” He was finally released last week after spending over two years in solitary confinement.
Shortly after Kamel’s detention, security officers at Cairo International Airport arrested human rights defender Patrick George Zaki in February 2020. He was taken into custody, interrogated for hours, and reportedly subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Zaki was kept in pre-trial detention pending investigations into charges including “disseminating false news.” Before his recent release pending trial, he was referred the Emergency State Security Court on the charge of “spreading false news at home and abroad” in connection with an article he published in 2019 addressing discrimination against Christians in Egypt. His trial is currently ongoing.
In 2016, I was also arrested, assaulted, and thrown in jail just for my work unveiling discrimination and reporting on violence against minorities in Egypt.
Egypt’s current regime has touted and celebrated its inclusion, protection, and recognition of its largest minority—the Copts. So why does it also target Coptic individuals who speak up for Coptic rights?
Reflecting on the context of pre-World War II Germany, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman examined social engineering meant to bring about a social order that conforms to the design of a “perfect society.” His work suggests that a totalitarian state acts like a designer seeking to remake society and force it to conform to a new design, making changes to the status quo over time. These designers are like gardeners seeking to landscape the “perfect garden,” bringing their creations into existence. To the proverbial gardener, anything that does not conform is deemed “weeds” that spoil their design,—ugliness in the midst of beauty that should be uprooted.
Since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi ascended to power, he has consistently projected his narrative around the 2011 uprising and Egyptians’ demands of change while actively suppressing dissenting narratives. His narrative is based on an alleged conspiracy theory against the “state” and its institutions, in which he is the hero who has led the country to safety. Besides the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and others, the Egyptian regime has shown an unwavering determination to close both physical and legal spaces that allow for the rights to protest and organize—whether those attempts seek to maintain existing or establish new social movements or hold authorities to account. This narrative is disseminated and bolstered by both state and private media, the latter of which bears strong ties to the regime, while Egypt continues detaining and charging journalists at an alarming rate and cracking down on independent voices. In the eyes of the regime, calls for change, demands of justice, and respect for human rights represent a significant risk to the stability of the state, the security of its institutions, and those tied to it. Sisi’s vision for a “perfect Egypt” is one free of criticism of authority; people listen only to him—the hero who saved the country, the “gardener” who created the perfect design for a beautiful garden.
To implement this vision according to Bauman’s analogy, the gardener must eliminate “weeds” that blemish an otherwise perfect design, or in his words, the “clan of evil” who are trying to destabilize the “state” or hinder its progress. Activists, human rights defenders, critics, and independent voices represent a portion of the “weeds” that the authorities have aimed to remove from their garden. Since 2014, the regime has employed the media, security apparatus, and the justice system to defame, stifle, and silence critics, putting many of them behind bars for years.
These practices come after policies that also marginalized Egyptian minorities. Under former President Mohamed Morsi, hardline Islamists were given a bigger space in politics, media, and society, and they were able reinforced their influence in politics and public sphere. This elevated levels of hate speech and fueled extreme ideology, as well as sectarian sentiments and violence against Christians. In April 2013, the main Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church, was sieged by mobs.
An important part of El-Sisi’s heroic tale around saving the country has relied on saving the Coptic community from the Islamists. He invited Pope Tawadros II to attend his July 3 speech, presented him as a part the post-Brotherhood Egypt to further promote his tale, and gain support at a time he desperately needed legitimacy for the takeover. A good relationship between El-Sisi and the Pope was established, fostered by exchanges of support.
For the state, any voice that could possibly undermine, question, or criticize this perfect tale represent “weeds” that need to be uprooted. On the other hand, Coptic activists and independent voices within the Coptic community have been highlighting longstanding issues of structural discrimination and violence against Christians since 2011. However, this does not fit into the narrative and accordingly, is not welcome. Coptic activists who have dared to continue voicing these issues have ended up paying a heavy price.
This analysis is part of a project on Egypt’s religious minorities made possible thanks to the generous support of the European Commission and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.
Mina Thabet is a UK- based writer, human rights defender, researcher, and expert on minorities issues in Egypt.