What does one make of the fact that al-Sisi's government discriminates against and persecutes Copts?
Most recently, a court sentenced 19 Muslim defendants to a one-year suspended sentence for attacking an unregistered church near Giza last December 22. Then, dozens of Muslim rioters had gathered outside the building; they eventually stormed it and "destroyed the church's contents and assaulted Christians inside."
Based on this sentencing (from a misdemeanor court no less), the defendants are not required to serve prison time unless they get into trouble again. On the other hand, a Coptic Christian defendant was fined 360,000 Egyptian pounds (equivalent to $20,383) for setting up the unlicensed church.
The court's logic is that, by using an unregistered building as a church, the entire incident is the Copt's fault—for aggrieving local Muslims. Meanwhile, the well-known fact is that getting a church permit in Egypt is as difficult as getting a mosque permit is easy...Havoc ensues when Copts merely try to renovate a church, while ten mosques are opened every week. In other words, if the government did not make it so difficult for Copts to congregate and worship, Copts would not need to resort to using private homes and unregistered buildings.
...Are we to believe he cannot do anything about his own civil servants (from local police and authorities to top department heads and courtroom judges) who persecute Copts right under his nose?
This is hardly the first such incident to reflect the Egyptian authorities' flagrant double standards. Muslim uprisings against Copts meeting in private homes or using unregistered buildings to worship are common occurrences. Local officials usually side with the rioters. Last summer, in the village of Kom al-Loufy in Minya, where some 1,600 Copts have for five years been trying to reopen their church, Muslims rampaged through the village, burning Christian homes to the ground, based on a rumor that Copts were using one of their homes as houses of worship.
After waiting 44 years, the Christians of Nag Shenouda were issued the necessary permits to build a church in 2015. According to a report, local Muslims rioted and burned down the temporary worship tent the Copts had established. When a Christian tried to hold a religious service in his home, another Muslim mob attacked it. Denied a place to worship, the Christians of Nag Shenouda celebrated Easter in the street.
Also, after waiting years, the Christians of Gala village finally received formal approval to begin restoring their dilapidated church (see pictures here). Soon thereafter, Muslims rioted, hurling stones at Christian homes, businesses and persons. Christian-owned wheat farms were destroyed and their potato crops uprooted. The usual Islamist slogans were shouted: "Islamic! Islamic!" and "There is no god but Allah!"
Another church under construction in Swada village, Minya, was attacked by a mob consisting of at least 400 Muslims (possibly incited by local officials, no less). After the attack, and although the church had obtained the necessary permits required for construction, it was closed by the same officials. Although comprising approximately 35% of Swada village, the 3,000 Coptic Christians there do not have a single church to serve them.
As in the most recent case from Giza, Muslim judges in all of the above incidences—and there are many more—gave Muslim vandals and rioters at most a "slap on the wrist," while forcing the victims to pay penalties and sometimes even serve jail time.
These cases are consistent with the findings of the World Watch List 2018, which ranked Egypt the 17th worst nation in the world to be Christian. It found that "officials at any level from local to national" are "strongly responsible" for the "oppression" of Egypt's Christians. "Government officials," the report adds, "also act as drivers of persecution through their failure to vindicate the rights of Christians and also through their discriminatory acts which violate the fundamental rights of Christians." While the authorities themselves are sometimes the persecutors—as when Muslim soldiers beat several Christian soldiers to death on account of their faith in July 2017—they more often function as enablers, allowing a culture of impunity to thrive.
All this again begs the question: It may be understandable that al-Sisi cannot eliminate terrorism since terrorists operate surreptitiously "in the shadows". But are we to believe he cannot do anything about his own civil servants (from local police and authorities to top department heads and courtroom judges) who persecute Copts right under his nose?
Raymond Ibrahim is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum.