In the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution and amid the ongoing turmoil, there are many losers. But Coptic Christians have been at particular risk and are being singled out as convenient scapegoats. The result? A frighteningly violent toll on this beleaguered minority. One that the international community must not ignore.
News reports are alarming. In one part of Egypt, mobs have set upon Christians with machetes, hacking them to death. In another, a rampaging mob set fire to over 30 homes and businesses. And in Minya, a mob has essentially driven the entire Christian community out and destroyed all of the property that was left behind.
Sectarian divisions have a long history in Egypt and, indeed, the Middle East generally. But these crimes are being driven by the ouster of Morsi.
Many Egyptians sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood believe that Copts are primarily responsible for the overthrow of the Morsi government. But while important representatives of the Christian community did support the coup and Copts were among the street protesters who helped bring down the government, this belief is not true. The protesters who brought down the Morsi government represented many sectors. Christians are being blamed primarily because their religious identity makes them an easy and identifiable target in Egyptian society.
It is important to note that it is not the Muslim Brotherhood itself that is calling for violence against Christians. In fact, under the Morsi government, though the number of blasphemy cases prosecuted against Christians increased, President Morsi also appointed Christians to government posts and took a relatively conciliatory tone toward the community.
It is the Salafist contingents who tend to have a much more hardline approach to the Christian community in the country, and many of the articles about recent violence perpetrated against Christians, identify Salalfists as leaders or participants.
The crux of the situation is that Egypt’s largest Salafist political party, the Nour Party, supported the recent coup and is now playing an important role in the transitional government. But this party power has come at a cost. Some more radical party members have resigned their posts, leaving the party in a weakened position viz-a-viz its base. And this likely will mean even more scapegoating of the Christian community, as sectarian hatred is used as a tool to coalesce the Salafists.
Over the next weeks and months, multiple players in Egypt will be vying to solidify their power. The army will presumably focus on establishing legitimacy for the interim government and quashing the Muslim Brotherhood. The Nour Party try to walk the fine balance between placating it’s base and influencing the critical decisions being taken for the future of the country. And the Muslim Brotherhood will struggle to keep its prospects alive. None will be positioned to control anti-Christian elements in the country, either by force or by persuasion. And some may actually stir anti-Christian sentiment for their own ends.
So while the conflict unfolding in Egypt is and undoubtedly will be terrifying for all Egyptians, the Christian community is facing a period of real danger. Until stability is restored to the country and the political dust from the coup has cleared, the situation is not likely to improve.
It is up to our leaders to stress to their counterparts in the Egyptian Army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Nour Party, that violence against Egyptian Christians must not become “collateral damage” to the nation’s current evolution. The U.S. still has a strong voice in Egypt, and we should use it to remind all centers of power that we are watching.