The fate of 20 Egyptian Copts, who were kidnapped by masked men in two separate incidents in the Libyan city of Sirte, remains unclear. In the first kidnapping, which took place on December 31, 2014, militants forcefully stopped a microbus transporting Egyptians and kidnapped seven Christians at gunpoint. Four days later, on January 3, 2015, a group of masked militants raided an apartment building that is home to both Muslim and Christian Egyptians. The militants, who had a list of the Christian residents’ names, kidnapped 13 Copts and then left without harming any of the Muslims inside.
Initially, no group officially addressed the motives or claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. However, on January 12, 2015, an affiliate of the Islamic State in Libya released a statement on a website claiming: “Islamic State soldiers have captured 21 Christian Crusaders from various regions of the State of Tripoli,” and shared pictures of the kidnapped Copts, while issuing no demands. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs verified the authenticity of the statement. The Ministry commented that it continues to communicate with officials and tribal sheikhs in Libya to free the victims and bring them back to Egypt.
Images published online by ISIL purporting to be of Coptic christian hostages
These developments suggest that Christians in various other regions of Libya could also be in danger. This new situation requires the Egyptian government to move fast to protect Egyptians in Libya, especially Egyptian Copts, and ensure their safe return to their home country. However, successive Egyptian governments, including the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and the current regime, have been slow to act to end attacks on Copts in Libya.
These incidents are not the first religiously motivated attacks targeting Egyptian Christians in Libya since the beginning of the Libyan uprising and the overthrow of former President Muammar al-Qaddafi. Numerous attacks have had clear religious motives. Some of the most noteworthy attacks include: the bombing of Saint Mary Church in Misrata in December 2012, which killed two Copts and injured several others, and the explosion at Saint Markus Church in Benghazi in March 2013. In that same month, Libya’s Preventive Security Forces tortured to death an Egyptian Copt, Ezzat al-Hakim, for his missionary work. Additionally, in early March 2013, 55 Egyptians were captured and although 35 were returned to Egypt two weeks later, the rest remained in Libya. Four, who were accused of proselytizing, remain in capture. The Coptic priest Father Isaac Paul was also beaten, shaved, and humiliated before returning to Egypt.
In 2014, a total of 14 Egyptian Copts were killed in Libya. On February 23, 2014, after militants raided a building where Christians resided with a group of Egyptian Muslims in Benghazi, 7 Copts from Sohag governorate were kidnapped and gunned down near one of the city’s beaches. In March, two Egyptian Coptic vegetable sellers from Samalout—Salama Fawzi and Gad Abdeul al-Maseh—were shot and killed by gunmen in the town of Beni Ghazi and in the city of Benghazi, respectively.
On August 25, militants also kidnapped four Egyptians from Assiout on their way back to Egypt from Tripoli. The gunmen forcefully stopped the car transporting the victims, took them hostage and let the rest go. There is still no information on their whereabouts to this day. On September 18, militants in Benghazi gunned down another Egyptian Copt named Ishak Sha’aban, from the Minya governorate town of Samalout. Paul Samir, an Egyptian Copt from the village of Deir Gabal al-Tair in Minya governorate, was killed on his way back to Egypt from Benghazi where he worked.
Militants also stormed the house of Coptic physician Magdy Tawfiq on December 23, 2014 in the city of Sirte in Libya. Assailants killed the physician and his wife, and kidnapped their oldest daughter, whose body was found in a nearby area a few days later.
Why do they go?
With every attack, responsibility is usually placed on the victims themselves. A recurring question is: why would Christian citizens travel to Libya, knowing full well that they are being targeted? An elderly mother of one of the kidnapped victims explained simply: “out of need,” a reference to poverty.
A brother of one of the kidnapped victims also emphasized Egypt’s poor economic conditions as a reason to seek employment in Libya, stating: “while in both Egypt and Libya, we do not have decent lives and face humiliation, here [in Libya] we earn an income.” The 20 kidnapped Copts come from villages in central Samalut in northern Minya, where they suffer from high poverty rates and a lack of job opportunities—a situation exacerbated by the absence of development projects and low quality of public services.
With the exception of the physician from Gharbeyya, who was killed with his family, the rest of the targeted Copts come from Upper Egypt, predominantly Minya, Assiout, and Sohag, which are among the least developed and poorest governorates in Egypt. Based on their poverty rates, education levels, and the availability of health care services, the Egypt Human Development Report 2010 ranked Minya, Assiout, and Sohag as 21st, 20th and 19th of 27 governates, respectively.
Most Egyptians from Upper Egypt work in state administrative jobs or as farmers. Jobs in agriculture, however, are usually seasonal and have low wages. As a result, many prefer to travel abroad to the Arabian Gulf states or to Libya for employment in construction or low-wage manual labor. Libya is often preferable because it does not require complicated travel arrangements or formal work contracts.
The harsh economic reality has pushed millions of Egyptians to travel abroad over the years to make a living in difficult conditions and within a sponsor system that brings to mind indentured servitude. Migrant workers suffer from severe rights abuses, including breached contracts, pay withholding, physical mistreatment, and abrupt termination of work contracts, among others. Both Egypt’s Ministry of Labor and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs have failed to defend the rights of its workers abroad. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular, has failed to provide reliable information to workers on work conditions abroad. The Ministry merely passes along complaints to the concerned authorities in the respective foreign countries.
The Broader Political Context
These attacks on Egyptian Copts cannot be divorced from broader political developments in both Egypt and Libya. In 2012, members of Libya’s Islamist Justice and Construction Party gained control of the General National Congress (GNC), a transitional body whose mandate was originally set to expire in February 2014. Attempting to further their own interests, these Islamists tried to extend the mandate to December 2014, but eventually lost the majority to a coalition of liberals and independent representatives in the June 2014 elections, which formed the internationally recognized House of Representatives (HoR).
Following the June elections, a faction of Islamists refused to accept defeat and revived the moribund GNC and appointed their own Tripoli-based government. The elected representatives were exiled to Tobruk, where they appointed a new prime minister. This bifurcation changed the dynamics of Libya’s conflict, pitting two coalitions against one another – on one side are General Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan National Army, and the representatives in Tobruk. On the other side are the Fajr Libya militants (Libya Dawn), a number of Islamist militia groups, and the GNC.
The Egyptian government supports the internationally recognized HoR in Tobruk, which controls swaths of eastern Libya. However, the city of Sirte, where the kidnappings of Christians occurred last month, is currently outside of the control of the HoR alliance.
The religiously motivated kidnapping of Copts started in 2012, and since then, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made a number of statements addressing the issue, but has not been able to solve the crisis. Egyptian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Badr Abdel El-Ati said Egypt is considering a ban on all travel to Libya by Egyptians. Additionally, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry said the Egyptian government is considering providing Coptic Egyptians living in Libya transport back to Egypt, similar to previous evacuations of Egyptian nationals living in Libya.
However, many of these statements do not seem to have been translated into action. The Ministry has not initiated its own investigations into the kidnappings or compensated victims’ families. Although it issued cautionary statements against traveling to Libya, the Ministry has not taken stronger measures to prohibit workers from traveling to dangerous zones. It is worth noting that the Copts who were kidnapped and attacked, along with tens of thousands of other Egyptians, were not there illegally – they obtained required entry visas and travelled legally.
Recently, the Egyptian government and security apparatus swiftly intervened to successfully free kidnapped Egyptian embassy personnel in Tripoli in January 2014, and truck drivers in October of that same year. However, the government has not been as quick or as effective on the kidnapping of Copts. In fact, Egyptian officials often seem indifferent to the incidents.
This indifference seemed to change somewhat with President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi’s decree to form a “crisis management unit” that includes several ministry and security officials. Although it has convened multiple times, members have not issued any information related to the progress or outcomes of their meetings. In a telephone interview, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Badr Abdel El-Ati told me that there had been no new developments on the issue, but confirmed that the Ministry has semi-verified information that the kidnapped victims are still alive, and stated that communications are ongoing with the Libyan government and tribal sheikhs to free the victims.
As time passes, the situation of Copts in Libya becomes even more worrisome. Not only is the situation concerning for the fate of the 20 kidnapped Copts, but it is also concerning for the thousands of other Copts who are still working in Libya, whose lives are in danger regardless of whether they decide to return to Egypt, where the roads are not safe, evident by the recent kidnappings, or remain in Libya, where they risk being targeted by extremists. For this reason, the situation urgently requires formal international engagement that brings together all those with close ties to Libya. If not, we may wake up to news that dozens more Egyptian Christians have been killed or kidnapped.
The Egyptian state must take responsibility for guaranteeing safety and security of its citizens abroad. The government benefits from workers’ remittances and their employment ties abroad; in return, the government should work on securing a safe passage for the return of workers living in dangerous conditions. The state should quickly compensate victims, particularly those who do not make enough to survive and are in need of aid. Moreover, the government, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular, must negotiate with countries that receive Egyptian workers to improve their work conditions, and put pressure on employers who harm them. The Ministry should also blacklist employers and countries that fail to meet basic standards to safeguard workers’ rights and maintain their safety.