In Egypt 25 January has historically been National ‘Police Day’, commemorating the day in 1952 when 50 policemen were killed and others were injured by the British for refusing to hand over their weapons to and evacuate Ismaïlia Police Station. However, owing to the events of 25 January 2011, the day is now known to many as the “Day of Rage”, when unprecedented anti-government protests broke out across the country. Three days later, on the “Friday of Anger” a huge demonstration convened in Tahrir Square in Cairo, with protesters demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. On 11 February, 18 days after the demonstrations began, the President stepped down 2011.
There were several reasons why millions of Egyptians took to the streets, often risking their lives by doing so. Their demands progressed from initial calls for an end to police brutality to include demands for the resignation of the Minister of Interior, for the restoration of a fair minimum wage and for an end to the emergency law among others. There was an added symbolism to the convergence on Tahrir Square. “Tahrir” is Arabic for “liberation” echoing the widespread desire to be freed from a president unchallenged in office for 30 years, from a regime rife with corruption, from police brutality and from overwhelming government control.
Revolution preceded by attack on Coptic Community
The 25 January Revolution was preceded by protests at the beginning of the year which were somewhat obscured by subsequent events.
In the early hours of 1 January 2011, a suicide bomber killed 21 Copts as they were leaving the Two Saints Church in Alexandria after attending midnight mass. In response, the Coptic community took to the streets in protest, calling for equal rights and adequate protection. Given the fact that Copts were conventionally viewed as passive and non-combative, these protests carried an added significance that lasted well into the Revolution, which was itself marked by a coming together of progressive elements from the countries religious communities and a desire for justice and equality before the law.
Ongoing attacks against Coptic Community
Six years later, and the Coptic community is mourning and protesting once again, following a suicide bombing that claimed the lives of 28 people who were attending Sunday mass at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in Cairo, adjoining the Coptic Cathedral of St Marks. The issues Copts were protesting against in January 2011 are still salient in January 2017. Often subjected to daily discrimination, many still feel like second class citizens in their own country, despite their community’s lengthy historic presence in the area. They feel they continue to bear the brunt of failed security measures, and even after such violent attacks as the one at the Church of St Peter and St Paul, they generally struggle to secure justice.
“There are continuing instances of sectarian violence taking place largely in Upper Egypt, where Coptic communities suffer mob attacks, generally following rumours or speculation about church construction, which requires official permission, or interfaith relationships, which remain controversial.”
There are continuing instances of sectarian violence taking place largely in Upper Egypt, where Coptic communities suffer mob attacks, generally following rumours or speculation about church construction, which requires official permission, or interfaith relationships, which remain controversial. In the aftermath of such attacks, they are obliged to submit to reconciliation meetings that bypass the judicial process and often mete out extra-judicial punishment to victims while perpetrators face no consequences. Even when such cases get to court, victims are often subject to the prejudices of a judicial system that does not proffer equality before the law.
For example, on 20 May 2016, a 70 year Coptic lady from Minya province was stripped and beaten in the streets after her son was wrongly accused of being in a relationship with a Muslim woman. Despite her case being raised by President Sisi himself, the prosecution recently dropped the case owing to a key witness recanting her testimony. The witness had been threatened with violence if she did not do so.
Attacks targeting the Coptic community largely take place because of inadequate protection. His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, has described the level of protection as “at best, carelessness and, at worst, criminal negligence in the reaction and lack of reaction of local security service officials”.
“Attacks targeting the Coptic community largely take place because of inadequate protection.”
President Sisi has been a vocal advocate of equal citizenship. In 2015 he became the first serving president to attend a Coptic Christmas mass, stating in his address to the congregation: “Let no one say ‘What kind of Egyptian are you?’ It is not right to call each other anything but ‘the Egyptians’. We must only be Egyptians.”
However, this alone cannot guarantee equality of citizenship to Christians or to any other religious minority. Even as Egypt tackles an unprecedented terror threat and strives for economic development, efforts must also be re-doubled to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian violence to the fullest extent of the law and to formulate reconciliation initiatives that will assist in reconciling the nation’s faith communities and facilitating the emergence of an egalitarian society characterised by justice and rule of law. Because at this moment, for many the “Tahrir” that seemed so imminent in 2011 now appears to be receding further away with every passing day.
By CSW’s Egypt Advocacy Officer