Community members outside a Coptic church in the Zabaleen community (Photo by Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images)
Analysis

Beyond Sectarian Violence: Socioeconomic Challenges for Copts in Egypt

As Coptic Christians held Christmas celebrations this past week, many also observed another more somber anniversary. On January 1, 2011, an explosion at Al-Qudiseen Church in Alexandria, Egypt killed 23 parishioners and injured nearly a hundred more. These violent attacks against Copts have continued with regularity throughout the subsequent decade—from incidents that drew international attention such as the Maspero Massacre in 2011 and the Palm Sunday church bombings in Tanta and Alexandria in 2017, to the lesser-known kidnappings and church arsons in Upper Egypt in 2013. 

Coverage of sectarian attacks dominate narratives about Copts in Egypt. Rarely are their everyday struggles or joys depicted in Western media coverage. Instead, images of mourning, bloodshed, and funeral processions are ubiquitous with depictions of Egypt’s Christian minority. Even when stories center on festivals and holidays, it is often in reference to heightened security or additional restrictions. As Anthony Shenouda has pointed out, Copts only become “a visible religious community when they are attacked.” 

While the freedom to worship without harm and the protection of Coptic life should be guarded, more common challenges Copts face on a daily basis in Egypt also deserve attention. The fixation on violent sectarianism obscures other forms of structural discrimination against Copts rooted in socioeconomic conditions and bolsters President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s justification in expanding the regime’s security and surveillance apparatus. Highlighting how economic and social conditions feature in prominent Coptic activists’ advocacy demonstrates how essential these considerations are in conjunction with their efforts to address sectarian violence and seek justice for Copts. 

Displacement, urban development, and housing rights 

Before his arrest on trumped-up charges in 2019, Coptic activist Ramy Kamel was working on several advocacy campaigns with a focus on monitoring violence against Copts as well as legal impediments to church building. He was scheduled to participate in the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues in Geneva before he was taken from his home by security forces on November 23, 2019. He was subjected to two years of pre-trial detention, including solitary confinement, before he was finally released on  January 8, 2022. While Kamel focused on sectarian issues, he also mobilized communal activism to consider human rights more broadly and in particular the housing rights of Copts facing intimidation and violence from militant groups or state-led investment projects. 

According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Kamel was “one of the most committed activists” in tracking state violations against Coptic displacement due to security concerns or urban development initiatives by ensuring residents received fair and timely compensation as well as secure housing. In September 2018, he met with UN Special Rapporteur Leilani Farha to discuss adequate housing for “Christian families displaced in the contexts of state counter-terrorism operations or investment projects (such al-Warraq Island), or who were forced to leave their homes after repeated assaults and threats from militant groups.”

Some of these recent displacements include Coptic flight from al-Arish following terror attacks in 2017, the ongoing re-location of Maspero Triangle residents with the intent to gentrify the neighborhood, and forced evictions on state land in Ramy Kamel’s own neighborhood of al-Warraq. Indeed, while the focus on Kamel’s advocacy emphasizes his work on sectarian issues in Egypt—his activism was also directed toward living conditions and the circumstances he and his neighbors faced as residents of al-Warraq—a Cairene neighborhood under speculation and development since the Mubarak era. 

Labor rights and socio-economic conditions

Other Coptic activists have also been detained or targeted for their participation in labor organizing, advocacy for the poor, and contesting employment practices. Just days before Kamel’s detention, union organizer Khalil Rizk was arrested by security forces in Cairo and accused of engaging in terrorist activities “after publishing pay hike demands by workers at a government-controlled pharmaceutical company.” One of the most prominent and beloved activists of the 2011 Revolution, Mina Daniel, raised awareness of impoverished living conditions and how it underscored common cause between Coptic Christians and their Muslim countrymen. After Daniel’s tragic death in the Maspero Massacre of October 2011, a close friend remarked, “people always think of Mina as a Christian martyr but that is not true. Mina was a martyr of the poor. It was the plight of the impoverished that concerned him the most.” 

Copts have been generally discouraged from pursuing certain careers and are under-represented in positions of leadership in politics, governance, and security. While many attribute the origins of job discrimination to the growing rift in Egyptian society under Sadat during the 1970s, some of the earliest public and national Coptic grievances included criticisms of hiring and appointment practices. Coptic lay leadership at the first Coptic Congress of 1911 held in Asyut discussed and outlined several civil demands from the state, including that merit and ability should dictate eligibility for government jobs instead of religious identity. 

While these instances of job discrimination did not originate in the 1970s, several shifts during the Sadat presidency including austerity measures, neoliberal policies, and a detente with Islamists created early reasons for Coptic migration to Canada and the United States. Similar claims are often cited today, as members of the Coptic laity share that—despite touted expanded protection of Copts and their places of worship since 2016—they continue to face obstacles in bettering their socio-economic conditions.

Coptic activist commitments outside explicitly “religious” issues, such as critiques of repressive state policies on civil society or organizing for better work conditions, are not as legible as those addressing sectarian issues. In fact, human rights—especially in the West—are not often discussed in tandem with sectarian issues even though Copts also face censorship, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on public dissent. This has obscured the different and diverse issues important to Copts reflected in their activism.

Socioeconomic issues resonate with Copts precisely because they affect everyday life—to have assurances that, in addition to attending church, they have a place to live, a job to support their family, and equitable access to the rights afforded to them as Egyptian citizens.

This analysis is part of a project on Egypts religious minorities made possible thanks to the generous support of the European Commission and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation.

 

Amy Fallas is a PhD student in history at the University of California, Santa Barbara and specializes in Modern Middle East History.