Amid a rise in violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt during the month of Ramadan in April 2022, Pope Tawadros II issued a public statement calling upon Egyptian officials to preserve inter-communal peace for all Egyptians. The usually diplomatic Pope referenced a series of high profile incidents targeting both the Coptic clergy and laity such as the shocking murder of Coptic priest Father Arsanios Wadeed on the Alexandrian corniche, reports of kidnapped Coptic women in Upper Egypt, and refusal of food service to Christians. Although Pope Tawadros offered a more robust critique than usual, his address was still characterized by a common appeal from state officials and religious leaders during periods of sectarian tension—that all Egyptians are equal and any suggestion of a national sectarian problem is an anti-patriotic scheme to divide the country.
Indeed, these incidents have renewed the popularity of calls for al-wihda al-wataniyya—a long standing discourse of “national unity” to address the threat of internal divisions based on religious affiliation. Egyptian state institutions and initiatives under President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi build upon this rhetoric to justify their securitization and surveillance strategies, including the rationale for agencies such as the Supreme Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism. Their messaging is disseminated through official statements from state and religious leaders, state sanctioned inter-religious events, and even visually through schools’ street murals or advertisements such as a recent one installed on the road from Cairo airport that reads “We breathe the fragrance of love in the beautiful homeland, we live by the mercy of the Qur’an and the grace of the Bible” over a photo of a church and mosque side by side.
While this discourse of equality between Muslim and Christians can be seen as part of a generative national dialogue, it rarely makes strides in moving beyond rhetoric nor does it lead to policies that change systemic discrimination for Christians or pervasive issues in interfaith relations. A recent study published by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) underscores this dynamic whereby discussion of improving relationships between Muslims and Christians alone does not guarantee civil rights or prevent discrimination.
The report gives seven areas in which the cause of religious freedom, broadly understood under the Egyptian constitution, could improve relations between Egyptian citizens across religious lines. They include freedom to embrace a different religion, the right to religious practice, the principle of no compulsion in religion, freedom from discrimination, the family’s right of choice in children’s education, legal recognition, and conscientious objection. All recommendations highlight the importance of engaging civil society itself, especially the collaborative potential of non-state organizations to work, collaborate, and engage with government institutions to inculcate a culture where freedom of religion and difference of belief are integral and practiced values of Egyptian life.
This comprehensive analysis is one of the most practical sources of local and informed pathways toward change that could challenge a rhetorical stalemate that has prevented improvements for decades. In fact, one could say that the discourse of equality has done more to inhibit, rather than advance, changes on these issues.
One of the central pitfalls of the national unity discourse is that it denies the existence of a sectarian problem to begin with. Such was the case in the early 20th century during the formation of the Egyptian nationalist movement when discussions of Christian belonging raged on the pages of the press, and among nationwide summits regarding the status of non-Muslim citizens. In an effort to be inclusive, both representatives of an emergent Egyptian political establishment and members of the Coptic Christian community argued that Copts were integral to the national fabric of the Egyptian nation and, as such, did not require special protections or quota-based representation in government to ensure equal treatment before the law. In subsequent decades, few legal parameters were put in place to prevent discrimination based on religion that would continue unabated into the contemporary period.
Part of the sectarian stigma stems from its regional baggage—accusations that it is inherently a destabilizing political phenomenon applicable only to places like Lebanon, Iraq, or Bahrain. Another aspect of its disavowal is related to its social implications, that it is somehow a moral failing on behalf of its citizens that harbor exclusionary views of those within the national community that do not share their religious views. Both of these perspectives can be equally addressed if, like the EIPR report suggests, discourse can move freely within civil society and among local analysts and experts that work with community-based organizations committed to ameliorating the interfaith issues that persist.
What has become clear over recent years is the multi-decade dismissal of demands for equality and socio-political inclusion for the over 10 million Christians and other non-dominant religious communities, which stifles progressive changes that would address legitimate grievances from these communities. Perhaps the way forward would be to begin admitting that Egypt does, in fact, have a sectarianism problem to address.
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.