Questions were raised once more about the religious freedoms of Copts—Egypt’s largest Christian community—when the sentence for blasphemy of Demiana Abdelnour, a female Coptic teacher, was upheld earlier this month. An appeals court in Luxor sentenced her to six months in prison, overturning an earlier ruling that imposed a fine but no prison term.
She was originally accused and convicted during Mohamed Mursi’s presidency, a period that witnessed a surge of blasphemy cases. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), 63 individuals were tried for insulting Islam post-January 25 until September 2013. This was seen as a symptom of the rise of political Islam in the vacuum created by Mubarak’s ouster, and there were real fears that religious intolerance would increase.
Certainly it was not only Christians that felt pressure. In June 2013, four members of Egypt’s minority Shi'a population were killed by a mob—the attackers allegedly accused the victims of spreading Shi'a beliefs—and Sunni Muslims have also faced defamation charges. However, conversations with Copts at the time revealed that many no longer saw any alternative but to leave Egypt. Churches were reportedly emptying family by family as emigration increased.
Unease about the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic project spread beyond Egypt’s religious minority communities, contributing to the mass public support for Mursi’s ouster in July 2013. Nevertheless, it was Copts in particular who were targeted in the aftermath of the Islamist fall from power. They were accused of supporting now-President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and the army’s actions in deposing Mursi.
It is true that Sisi did receive widespread support among Copts, though both Coptic and Muslim Egyptians support the anti-terror and anti-Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric that continues to accompany the transition under Sisi. It is clear that Copts saw hope in these statements for their security and freedom.
However, Abdelnour’s prison sentence suggests that hope may not be realized, or at least not as quickly as expected. In another case, Daily News Egypt reported on June 24, 2014 that journalist Bishoy Armia, who is a convert to Christianity from Islam, was sentenced to five years in prison for inciting sectarian strife and “depicting Christians as suffering from sectarian oppression.” On the same day a criminal court in Luxor sentenced a 19-year-old Copt to six years in prison for defaming Islam after he was found guilty of posting photos that insulted Islam on his Facebook page.
These developments appear to be at odds with the current campaigns to control public statements of piety, such as the announcement made by the Ministry of Interior that it would enforce a law banning stickers on vehicles. This was to target the proliferation of a sticker reading, “Have you blessed the Prophet today?” In another sign that the government seeks to place controls on religion, the Ministry of Endowments has introduced strict guidelines for sermons given at Friday prayers.
But perhaps this is less about a vision for the limiting of religion in the public sphere than about the control of religious expression by the state. This explains the restrictions applied to expressing “too much” piety, while at the same time convictions for defaming Islam continue. Some Egyptian media sources are also reporting that the Ministry of Youth and Sports is preparing to launch a “campaign against atheism.”
As such these developments say less about Sisi’s religiosity or otherwise and more about his concern to avoid any potential source of social strife. This is perhaps understandable after the instability that has gripped Egypt since 2011. However, reestablishing the state as the guardian of moderate Islam suggests that Sisi could repeat the mistakes of former President Hosni Mubarak when it comes to civil rights and religious freedoms, by attempting to control or oppress the social, ideological, political and economic issues that underlie social strife, rather than addressing them. As the Arab Spring demonstrated, these issues cannot be controlled indefinitely.
Where does this leave Copts? A large proportion of Copts, and Egyptians in general, maintain their support for Sisi and particularly his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism. But this means expectations are also high that the situation of Egypt’s Christians will improve in terms of security and inclusion.
Sisi must realize that Copts expect the situation to improve, not only in comparison to post-2011 but also to the period before Mubarak’s fall. There were already clear signs of frustration among Christians well before January 25 at the state and church’s failure to deal with social and political tensions that often left them vulnerable and without recourse to justice. While these frustrations were superseded by the blowback from the Egyptian uprising, they have not been eliminated.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.