Copts: Behind You Is the Junta, Before you the Islamists

On October 24, the Coptic Pope Shenouda III “met with” (according to al-Ahram and other newspapers) or was “summoned by” (according to sources close to him) Egypt’s ruling military council for an urgent meeting at the Ministry of Defense. The ailing patriarch, 88, whose fortieth anniversary in office was celebrated November 14, was told to come alone.

There, he was berated by the top three generals. After the meeting, the pope wouldn’t say much, but the declaration emphasized “putting Egypt’s interest above all,” an implication that Christians shouldn’t complain or respond with demonstrations to their treatment. Many Copts thought that he had been bullied by the junta.

But if the junta wants to quiet the situation, why doesn’t it address and try to resolve Coptic grievances?

Copts, who comprise 10 percent or more of Egypt’s population, have been subjected to systemic discrimination for years, often accompanied by sectarian attacks. Generally peaceful, and knowing that they were outnumbered by a wide margin and that resistance might bring greater suffering, the Copts’ pattern was to swallow their pain and humiliation, groan in private and take refuge in prayer, and depend on the church’s clergy to beg the authorities on their behalf.

An ugly massacre of Christians in the south of Egypt in January 2010, on the eve of the Coptic celebration of Christmas, seemed to be the last straw. In a major departure from past behavior, Copts began to protest directly to the government. This campaign culminated with the 2011 New Year’s Eve massacre, when 23 Copts were killed and scores injured in a big explosion outside a church in Alexandria. (Recent evidence suggests that the Mubarak regime’s security apparatus may have been behind it.) In response, tens of thousands took to the streets across the country.

Just three weeks later, the 2011 revolution erupted. Many Copts joined in the movement, with the idea of attaining basic civil rights. Mubarak’s fall in February was seen by many as virtually a divine response to the earlier massacres.

But hope soon faded. After a brief honeymoon, Copts faced increased violence, with over 30 serious attacks in the nine months since the February regime change, claiming 74 lives and hundreds injured. Just as it was under Mubarak, not one attacker of the Copts has been arrested. Indeed, the junta often openly sides with the rising Islamist extremist forces.