Amr Khalifa writes
For most world leaders, a visit to the UN general assembly is a political formality. But for an Egyptian head of state hemorrhaging support, it was life or death.
This is doubly compounded when the Coptic Church, a powerful entity in Egypt, hitches itself to the state’s wagon. An approach derided by almost everyone didn’t stop Pope Tawadros from declaring “’Egyptian dignity is represented by how Sisi is received“, thus politicising the church for the umpteenth time since the coup.
Domestic strife abroad
Across the street from the UN, where Sisi gave an extraordinarily ordinary speech on 20 September, two groups of Egyptians confronted each other. The pro-Sisi crowd was sprinkled with healthy doses of Egyptian Copts, while the opposing Islamist camp was a sea of yellow flooded with Rabaa signs.
Dynamics of the day: greatly reduced numbers all around but an inversely proportional increase in venom. Only one day after Sisi told renowned American journalist Charlie Rose on his PBS show that “there can be no return to dictatorship“, the madness of the statement was reflected in the insanity of mini-war outside the UN, with Sisifites and Islamists barking at one another.
Appropriately, and with equal irony Obama, droned on in his UN speech: once strongmen take over via the military, said Obama, there are only two paths: “permanent crackdown which causes strife at home or scapegoating enemies abroad, which can lead to war”. Furthermore, in the case at hand, the strife spreads to Egyptians living abroad.
Under the leadership of H H Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the Coptic Church has supported the Sisi régime ever since the 3 July 2013 coup d’état.
The pope’s decision to commit his all, including financial backing for buses to ship Egyptian Christians from local New York and New Jersey churches to the UN, only helped to inject more venom into protests that can best be labeled as a “rent-a -protestor” fiasco.
Further complicating the scenario was the decision by the evangelical church to join the melee.
The mini-war outside the UN
So confrontational and nearly violent were the previous skirmishes between the Sisifites and Islamists in New York City that the police saw fit to separate them by placing two other, cordoned, smaller demonstrations between them.
This did little to quash the ugliness. With faith the engine, religion becomes the match to politics’ gasoline. Each brainwashed side, however, left the politesse of their respective faiths behind at home.
“Sisi is their uncle and he makes their blood boil,” chanted the Sisi camp in rhyme in Arabic. Those brandishing the internationally known four-finger Rabaa salute instead used a middle -finger salute while shouting “Masr (Egypt), El Sisi 3ar (is a pimp)”.
Just for fun, a very agitated Sisi fan raised his shoe in the direction of the Islamists, a very insulting gesture in the Arab world.
So charged was the atmosphere, this writer felt the palpable danger that he should be identified as a journalist. Organisers – clearly aware of the threat of violence – had in excess of a dozen mammoth-sized bodyguards sprinkled throughout a pro-Sisi crowd of no more than 150. This did not temper the barrage of insults from both sides.
“The Brotherhood is terrorism,” volleyed the mostly Christian, pro-president group while the other side, numbering approximately half its counterpart, retorted, “Bye bye, bye bye, you sons of a wh*re.” These were supposedly adults, uninterested in anything but expressing their bigoted views. Sisi “is the president we chose and love” said the pro camp but, a pebble’s toss away, he was a man “who does not represent” the anti camp, guilty of grave human rights violations and crimes rising to the level of “high treason”.
The regime and the upper ranks of the church inhabit an alternative universe. In that world, the Egyptian autocrat insists that Egypt is a friendly home for 5 million refugees but, per the UNHCR, the figure is only a quarter million.
In this universe, Egyptian Christendom “is on the runway, on course [for]…a fantastic beginning”, according to a senior church official visiting New York as part of the Sisi visit.
Mind you, two weeks ago, the New York Times wrote of Egyptian Christians at “breaking point” amid rising sectarian attacks in the volatile south, where a large concentration of Christians live and the mention of a church being built can result in bloody riots.
In fact, with the recent passing of a controversial “new Church law”, it is a situation replete with unfairness towards a systematically trampled upon minority. Authorities “are sending a message that Christians can be attacked with impunity,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
In reality, there is no “runway” for the betterment of Christian lives. There are only sectarian attacks that often result in the burning of Christian homes, kidnappings and forced migration of Christians. The new church law requires “church building be commensurate with the number Christians in the area” and gives governors vague veto rights with no recourse for appeal.
Because of a lack of separation between church and state, “reality”’, as seen by the Church’s upper rungs, bears no resemblance to the everyday reality of the congregation.
With anger rising among the church ranks, dissenting voices are not a majority yet are far from absent. A well-known and respected US-based church official, with over 100 books to his name, Father Morcos Aziz, recently called Sisi “the worst president” in an emotional video on YouTube. “We were deceived… in him I see treason,” blasted Aziz.
Shortly before the Sisi speech this week, 82 Copt activists also voiced their displeasure with church support for Sisi’s visit. “The Coptic church’s support of Sisi will result in negative outcomes for Copts,” said well-known activist and Coptic scholar Ishaq Ibrahim, one of the activists who signed a statement. Ordinary citizens, especially in the south, continue to suffer from “’discrimination and sectarian violence,” said their statement.
The marriage with no end?
So why does the church ignore increasingly disgruntled voices and put all its weight behind a regime that has made little, if any, structural changes to a minority under fire?
Political calculations are cynicism embodied. On 3 July 2013, while Sisi informed Egyptians of Morsi’s removal, sitting just to his left were the leaders of Al-Azhar and the Coptic church. Both leaders of the preeminent religious institutions of a nation that likes to describe itself as “religious” harnessed their political fortunes to Sisi’s horse.
So it goes, the Tawadros and Sisi marriage cannot end in divorce. Even as prospects for a successful Sisi presidency dim by the day, the Coptic patriarch holds Sisi’s hands stubbornly and publicly. In so doing, the Egyptian pope ignores the lessons of successful democracies. “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries,” once said James Madison, the fourth American president.
Even if Pope Tawadros is unfamiliar with Madison’s separation, his memory need only drift back to 2012 and the Muslim Brotherhood rule to understand the underlying logic behind it.
Millions of Egyptians rejected Morsi’s rule because of the intertwining of religious rhetoric with political rule. It is a major omission of historical memory to neglect that SCAF put their hands firmly in those of the Brotherhood. What makes Tawadros so certain Sisi won’t betray the church again?
Moreover, did the holy body’s patriarch forget that, until this day, the terrorist behind the Al-Qaddissin Church bombing, which occured days before the 2011 revolution, has yet to be caught? Accordingly, it seems rather mind numbing to many that church support for Sisi is cloaked in religious blessing.
Only days ago, a prominent church official, Bishop Beeman, dispatched by the pope to New Jersey to rally support for Sisi explained, “what I am doing here is patriotic work not politics”. Minutes later, his cohort Bishop Yoaanis, explained how buses, paid for by the church, would transport church goers to the UN. Actions, always, belie words.
In Egypt, instead of separation, we have desperation of church and state. Fail to understand the past and an entire nation will be doomed to emulate those UN protestors.
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