Hanging Church, Old Cairo, Egypt (Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA)

Ramy Kamel, Mada Masr, and Seeing Coptic Issues as Civil Liberties in Egypt

12/12/2019 . By Amy Fallas

On November 23 security forces arrested Ramy Kamel, a Coptic activist and founder of the Maspero Youth Union (MYU), from his home in Cairo, preventing him from accessing legal representation required by law. He had been working with lawyers, activists, and religious leaders to track and document sectarian incidents in Upper Egypt and has an outspoken and longstanding history of advocating for rights of Christians in Egypt, especially since the 2011 uprisings when the MYU was formed. At the time of writing, Kamel remains in pretrial detention and faces a number of potential charges, including terrorism-related ones; his case has not yet been referred to trial.

On the same day as Kamel’s detention, an editor of one of Egypt’s last independent media outlets was also detained. Mada Masr editor Shady Zalat was taken from his home in the middle of the night and the following day, police raided the outlet’s office, confiscating its equipment and detained three more staff members. After immediate and outspoken activists’ lobbying and influential diplomatic intervention, the publication’s staff (including Zalat), were later released.

While political detentions are unfortunately common as the Egyptian state utilizes a variety of tools to censor free speech, the detentions of Kamel and Zalat underscore how arenas usually disassociated from each other are imbricated under the same state repressions. Restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and the press are well-documented since Sisi took power in 2013, yet they are usually considered separate from sectarian and religious freedom issues in Egypt. Crushing political dissent, imprisoning journalists, and censoring the press are rarely discussed in relation to church building permits, discriminatory practices, and violence against Copts in Egypt. The arrest of a prominent Christian activist who works to document sectarian attacks alongside the targeting of an independent media outlet should challenge policy makers to consider issues of religious freedom in tandem with the protection of other civil liberties in Egypt.

Over the summer, a reputable source from an Egyptian human rights organization told me that outspoken Copts were not as vulnerable to forced disappearances or arrests as other political activists because of the need to preserve Sisi’s image as a protector of the country’s Christian minority. Indeed, the Egyptian state promotes a discourse of Egypt’s “unique” tradition of religious coexistence and has supported several initiatives to support Copts. Among these efforts includes legislation to re-vamp the process for church construction and renovation process, establishing the Supreme Committee to Combat Sectarian Violence, and opening of the largest cathedral in the Middle East in Egypt’s new administrative capital.

U.S. leaders and policymakers celebrated these measures without assessing whether or not these efforts actually improved conditions for Christians in Egypt. In response to the opening of the cathedral in January 2019, President Donald Trump interpreted the inauguration as Sisi’s effort to move “his country to a more inclusive future!” Yet analysts in Egypt and abroad pointed to how this gesture obscured the fact that the Church Construction Law passed in 2016 was slow to approve construction and renovation permits for thousands of churches across the country. In a previous article for TIMEP, researcher Ishak Ibrahim emphasized that possibly hundreds of villages in Upper Egypt are in need of places of worship far beyond the reaches of the new cathedral in the new administrative capital: “Bishop Macarios of Minya and Abu Qarqas, said that his diocese had about 150 villages and neighborhoods in need of a church or other religious building. Copts may need to travel to a nearby village with a church—though that church may not be large enough to hold them.”

Sisi has endeavored to show himself and the state as the protector of Copts in other ways, by using ISIS-affiliated terror attacks against Christians to implement questionable counter-terrorism strategies including retaliatory counter-terror operations, increased securitization of Coptic spaces, and expansion of exceptional measures that restrict constitutionally-guaranteed rights. In response to several highly visible and deadly attacks against Copts in 2017, the Egyptian government imposed a nationwide state of emergency. This state of emergency has been in effect since 2017 and grants the president exceptional powers including monitoring of all forms of communication and correspondence (including the press), imposing curfews, and referring civilians to State Security Emergency Court.

Critics consider these emergency and counter-terrorism measures a way that the state justifies its expansion of unchecked power and violations of civil liberties and human rights. In addition to the tangible ways in which this counter-terrorism strategy affects every day Egyptians, the lack of transparency of the military’s retaliatory attacks against alleged terrorists leaves the general public suspicious of campaigns conducted for these purposes. While there is a clear need to bring the perpetrators of church bombings to justice, the sanctioned and gratuitous use of the state’s disciplining power through the security sector leaves little room for due process or government accountability. Interrogating the outcomes of Sisi’s approach to Christian protection and how they limit other freedoms is key to uncovering how the authoritarian state detrimentally affects Egypt’s Christians in more than just religious terms and helps shed light on why activist Ramy Kamel is detained.

Kamel’s arrest represents a turning point in the regime’s leniency toward Christian activists. Now that the security state apparatus is censoring one from exposing its complicity in the deteriorating conditions for Christians, it is becoming harder for the state to substantiate its claim of supporting Coptic rights. Equally as important is the silence of the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church over Kamel’s detention.

Under Coptic Pope Tawadros II, the church has openly held a pro-Sisi position and discouraged Coptic participation in public protests and the kind of outspoken political activism advanced by Kamel. The church’s role, however, has come under criticism from Coptic youth in recent years. Several activists expressed their disagreement with the patriarch in 2014 when he said that human rights should not take priority over the state’s efforts to mitigate terror concerns.

Kamel himself advocates for other issues in addition to Coptic rights, including urban housing and investment projects in Cairo. His activism represents an impassioned and longstanding fight for citizenship rights and critique of Sisi’s authoritarian turn, earning the respect of many of his colleagues who are currently generating awareness of his arrest and calling for his release from prison.

Following the release of the nineteen Mada Masr staff members, Editor-in-Chief Lina Attalah wrote an editorial reflecting on the publication’s raison d’être: “When we started publishing in 2013, many thought of us as a media by and for the children of the 2011 revolution. We are indeed the children (and the makers) of 2011. But we are far more ambitious than that.” It was from the euphoria and promise of the 2011 uprisings that both Mada Masr and the Maspero Youth Union were born. While Christians in Egypt do face a unique set of issues related to their historically marginalized status in Egypt, considering the repressive policies of the Sisi regime in tandem with the limitations faced by Copts is important to addressing both issues. This kind of ambition is required to lend greater awareness to violations of all civil liberties and cultivate intersectional advocacy efforts in Egypt and abroad.