CAIRO, EGYPT – For the vast majority of the eight to ten million Christians in Egypt, it can seem almost absurd to be asked whether the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army chief who came to power here two years ago, represents a positive development in their lives.
El-Sisi, after all, is the man who deposed a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in July 2013 perceived as a threat here to Christians, who have long complained of discrimination and persecution.
The president’s move was publicly blessed by Pope Tawadros, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt’s largest Christian denomination, and one certainly understands why. Last year, a Copt was executed by Islamic fundamentalists in the Sinai region who left a sign bearing a chilling final insult on their victim’s body: “Let Tawadros help you now!”
In January, el-Sisi returned the favor by making a surprise visit to Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark for the Orthodox Christmas Mass, a first in Egyptian history, and vowed to treat the country’s Christians as full citizens.
“Let no one say, ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’” he said that day.
“It’s not right to call each other anything but ‘Egyptians.’ We must only be Egyptians,” el-Sisi insisted.
For many others, Egypt’s new leader can seem a decidedly mixed bag, especially in terms of his commitment to human rights and democracy.
“The Sisi government is acting as though to restore stability, Egypt needs a dose of repression the likes of which it hasn’t seen for decades, but its treatment is killing the patient,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch, in early June.
Among Christians, however, things look very different.
The Rev. Rafic Greiche, a Greek Melkite priest who serves as spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, said he believes el-Sisi would probably draw at least 85 percent of the Christian support in an open vote.
“If you ask a normal Christian in the street, it’s complete love,” Grieche said. “They say he’s the savior of Egypt.”
Yet there are a handful of Christians in Egypt, especially those whose profession is to mind the gap between promise and reality on human rights, who are not convinced.
“It’s all fake,” said Mina Thabet, referring to el-Sisi’s image as a defender of Christians. Thabet is a human rights observer with a Cairo-based NGO called the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
“We still face discrimination, violence, and hate speech,” said Thabet, himself a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“It’s the same as under Mubarak, because it’s the same regime,” he said.
Thabet knows he faces an uphill climb in making that case among his fellow Christians, for many of whom it’s axiomatic that el-Sisi is the best thing that’s happened in a long time.
Perhaps the clearest measure of how the winds have shifted is that today, the most aggrieved minority group in the country is no longer Christians but the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamic movement that was in power from 2012 to 2013, yet whose members now complain of routine arrest, torture, and even extra-judicial execution by the military and the police.
They point to the August 2013 “Rabaa massacre,” referring to a square in the Nasr City section of Cairo where an estimated 850-1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed for protesting Morsi’s ouster. Human Rights Watch termed the carnage “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
To date, no member of the security forces has been prosecuted for those deaths, despite most observers believing the Muslim Brotherhood still has support ranging from 20 to 25 percent of the population. Under the logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, el-Sisi’s crackdown has convinced many Christians he’s on their side, even when they have little reason to trust the state.
Nabil Soliman, for instance, is a 52-year-old Christian from Upper Egypt who was driven from his village in 2013 after his home was burned to the ground by Muslim radicals, who lost his job and all his property, and who survives today in a run-down apartment in one of Cairo’s poorest districts.
Through it all, he says he’s had no support from the police or the government. Yet asked for his feelings about Egypt’s new leadership, he doesn’t hesitate.
“Sisi is doing his best,” Soliman told Crux. “He’s trying to make the situation better.”
Ishak Ibrahim, a human rights researcher with another Cairo-based NGO called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and also a Coptic Christian, conceded that many Christians feel that way, but said it’s a serious mistake.
“In my opinion, under Sisi it’ll be like it was under Mubarak or Morsi, and nothing is going to improve,” Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim ticked off a series of forms of discrimination affecting Christians, including forced displacement, harassment under the country’s anti-blasphemy laws, kidnappings and physical assaults. In virtually every category, he said, the number of incidents today is going up rather than down.
The Rev. Botros Roshdy, a Coptic priest who ministers among the Zabbaleen, Cairo’s legendary garbage collectors who are overwhelmingly Christian, and who have complained for decades of neglect and harassment by the state, said that things are “ten times worse” now than under former strongman Hosni Mubarak just a few years ago.
“We thought the police would start a new era with the people,” Roshdy said, “but it hasn’t happened.”
Asked point-blank whether he believes el-Sisi to be more committed to the rights of Christians than either Morsi or Mubarak, Thabet’s blunt answers were “no” and “no.”
Both Ibrahim and Thabet say that a new national constitution adopted under el-Sisi last year is an improvement, including guarantees of religious freedom. Both, however, also say that those provisions are often just words on paper.
“Our practices on building a church, for example, have nothing to do with the constitution. They go back to the seventh century and a document from the Islamic ruler at the time, Amr ibn al-`As, forbidding construction of churches in Muslim lands.
“It’s still applied, not in the law but in the community,” Thabet said.
That’s not the only area where principles and experience diverge, he said.
“We also have a problem with people who get away with assaults on Christians and minorities in general,” Thabet said. “The inciters or perpetrators are never held accountable … No one is detained or jailed. That’s been true for a long time, even before Mubarak, and it’s just as true now.”
On the ground, experts such as Thabet and Ibrahim say, little has changed.
Recently, for instance, a fracas erupted in the Upper Egyptian village of Kafr Darwish when a former resident now living in Jordan “liked” a Facebook page critical of Islam. Locals took out their irritation on his relatives, leading to the forced evacuation of five Christian families, a total of 18 people.
Rather than punishing the attackers, local authorities turned the matter over to a traditional “reconciliation meeting” with elders and parties from both sides – a process, Christians claim, in which the deck is always stacked in favor of Muslims.
Far from being able to count on el-Sisi’s support in such situations, some Christians believe their community’s perceived backing for the new government puts them at greater risk.
“Islamists are retaliating at Copts for their support of Sisi,” said activist Kamal Zakher.
“The president should personally interfere … to make sure that the police don’t stand watching while Copts are attacked, like they did this time,” he told Al Arabiya News.
Thabet said none of this probably should be surprising, given that “Egyptian history from the beginning has been full of sectarian violence against religious minorities.”
Yet under Egypt’s early 19th century ruler Muhammad Ali, who founded a dynasty that would rule until 1952, Thabet said Christians experienced something of a golden age.
“He began to consider Christians as full citizens,” Thabet said. “He stopped the dhimmi system,” referring to Islamic laws governing the status of non-Muslim subjects, “and in general our living conditions began to get better.”
A 1923 constitution drafted during that period, Thabet said, included the participation of both Christians and Jews and was seen as a model for an enlightened Middle Eastern society.
Having achieved something approaching religious freedom and equality a century ago, Thabet said, the time “may not be too far away” when it’s possible for Egypt to get there anew.
“If we did it once,” he said, “we can do it again.”
The question is whether it can be done under el-Sisi, and on that score Egypt’s Christians seem suspended between the will to believe and the weight of history.