The Declining Situation of the Copts in Egypt / Adel Guindy

This article addresses sectarian violence and discrimination against Egypt's Coptic minority, including the January 2010 attacks in Nag Hammadi as well as other incidents during the previous years. It also points to the government's failure to acknowledge the situation and take action or responsibility. It argues that rather than protecting its citizens, the regime's first and foremost priority has been its own survival. In order to appease Islamist groups (its main contenders), the government has thus encouraged an Islamization of Egyptian society, which in turn has resulted in further discrimination against the Coptic minority.


On January 6, 2010, at 11:30 p.m., gunshots were heard in Nag Hammadi, Egypt (a town situated 80 kilometers, or 50 miles, north of Luxor). The shooting was aimed at a group of Copts leaving church following the midnight Christmas Mass (which the Coptic Church celebrated on January 7, 2010, in accordance with the old Julian and Coptic calendars). Seven people were murdered, including a Muslim who happened to be in the vicinity. In addition, nine Copts were injured, one later succumbing to his wounds at the hospital. The victims were all 17 to 29 years old.

Had it not been for the bishop’s decision to begin mass earlier than usual and to finish well before the traditional hour of midnight, the number of victims could have been substantially higher. The bishop decided to hold mass early due to threats he had received in the days before Christmas regarding “a special Christmas gift.” Though the State Security had been informed of these threats, no action was taken.

The following morning, Christmas Day, Copts gathered in front of the town’s hospital where the dead and wounded had been taken. Corpses were lying on the ground and the wounded were not being treated. The hospital and security personnel would not release bodies to be buried, and relatives complained of rude and provocative treatment by them. As the crowd soon grew to 2,000 people, the authorities decided to prevent the families from carrying on with the funeral procession at the nearby church and used tear gas, clubs, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd (wounding seven people), which began shouting anti-government slogans and throwing stones at the security forces and at the hospital facade. Once permitted to resume the funeral procession, Muslim onlookers began throwing stones at them.

During the period of the funerals until January 9, 2010, Copts and Coptic property in Nag Hammadi and the neighboring villages of Bahgura and Tarkas were targeted by Muslims in a wave of attacks. An estimated 3,000 Muslims reportedly broke into, looted, and set fire to Coptic-owned shops. Mobs also tried to force their way into Coptic homes to attack residents. In some instances, Muslims initiated vandalism of their Coptic neighbors’ property, though there were a few cases in which Muslims attempted to help their Coptic neighbors. Official statements, however, made sure to emphasize that “there were 28 Christians” among the 42 people arrested.[2]

Throughout these events, the security forces were only present around police stations and on roads into and out of town, not interfering with the mobs. Moreover, fire trucks arrived hours late--as they were busy dispersing Copts gathering around the bishopric building. As with similar past incidents in which security forces failed to prevent initial attacks (despite the warnings) and to protect the Copts against looting, vandalism, and arson, they reverted to haphazard arrests on “both sides,” tortured and humiliated prisoners, and severely restricted freedom of the press and civil society representatives. As of mid April 2010, those still under arrest for “rioting” (16 Muslims and 13 Copts) were released without charges.[3]

Two days after the rioting, three people turned themselves in to the police. Following preliminary investigations, the trial began on February 13, 2010, but was delayed on three separate occasions, the last time until May 16. The three defendants pleaded not guilty, and Hamam Kamuni, presumably the main perpetrator, told the court: “How could someone who commits such a crime voluntarily surrender to the police?”[4] Kamuni is said to have often worked as a bodyguard for important people in the area, including government officials[5] and members of parliament.[6] The exact motives of the perpetrators, and who was behind them, are still far from clear. Nonetheless, just hours after the attacks, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement that “all indications relate the crime to the consequences of the rape of a Muslim girl in one of the villages of the governorate, for which a young Coptic man is accused,”[7] despite the fact that the alleged rape occurred six weeks prior and in an unrelated town. The statement was in reference to accusations by a Muslim family in Farshut (Qina Governorate) on November 18, 2009, that a 21-year-old Coptic man had raped their 12-year-old daughter. Following his arrest, the man denied the accusation. The following day, riots broke out in which Muslims demanded the alleged rapist be handed over to them for punishment. Thousands of Muslims attacked, looted, and set fire to numerous Coptic-owned shops. Security forces kept a very low profile until the following evening. Dozens of rioters were arrested, but most were promptly released. Attacks also spread to a nearby village (Abu Shusha). The forensic report regarding the victim (dated November 21, 2009)[8] is rather vague and inconclusive, lacking detailed investigative measures such as DNA analysis. The case, however, was transferred to the court (the same court that handled the Nag Hammadi case) and the trial opened on February 17, 2010 only to be postponed, on three separate occasions, to May 15. All of the defense’s requests were subsequently denied.[9]

Government officials from the governor to key ministers as well as the state-owned media came to repeat the linkage the police report initially made between the Nag Hammadi and Farshut incidents, despite the fact that the report was issued before the suspects in the former case were identified, let alone arrested. Foreign news dispatches and commentaries also perpetuated the idea that the two incidents were linked, as they mostly quoted the official sources. The speaker of the National Assembly further made a false claim on BBC-Arabic TV[10] that the girl “had died because of the rape.” Even the prosecutor’s decision on January 16, 2010, to refer the perpetrators of the Nag Hammadi attacks to a criminal court described them as a group of “lawless persons, honoring no values, who [committed the crime] because they had heard about the rape of a Muslim girl in a nearby district...”[11]

The government officially insists that the attacks were not acts of “sectarian violence” against Copts but simply an ordinary criminal act (if anything, motivated by the Copts’ own “crimes”). Furthermore, officials have insisted that the only threat to Egypt’s “national unity” comes from “external pressures and foreign intervention” in the country’s “internal affairs.”[12] “External pressures” here in particular refers to demonstrations by Coptic emigrants condemning violence in Egypt and the lack of action by its leadership.

Indeed, President Husni Mubarak, who remained conspicuously silent after the attacks, finally acknowledged them in a speech[13] at the Police Day celebration 18 days later. He warned that he would be firm with whomever, from “either side,”’ endangered the “national unity.” He blamed the lack of enlightened religious narration by both the Islamic religious institution of al-Azhar and the Coptic Church. He also called upon intellectuals and writers to take action, never saying a word as to his own responsibilities and that of the rest of the political leadership.


When issues of violence against the Copts have reached foreign journalists, NGOs, and politicians, the government has often been quick to issue statements acknowledging the existence of violence but has downplayed it by stressing that the number of victims is relatively small when compared with the thousands who perish elsewhere, for example, in Nigeria’s sectarian clashes or in Sudan.

Nonetheless, violence against Egypt’s Coptic minority is only one of facet of systematic discrimination it faces. The situation of the Copts has even been described by some as one of “daily martyrdom.”[14] In the words of Sameh Salah, whose brother was killed in the Nag Hammadi attacks, “We all envy those martyrs. They escaped the humiliation that we endure[....] the Lord saved him from the miserable treatment and loathing the rest of us get.”[15] There is no indication that Egypt’s political leadership has come to realize the need to address the “Coptic issue.” While the government makes great efforts to present to the outside world an optimistic picture of the Copts’ situation, it does little to address the reality.

“Daily Martyrdom”

While attacks like that in Nag Hammadi are not daily occurrences, the number of incidents is on the rise. Following are some representative examples of discrimination and, in some cases, violence, that have occurred since the beginning of 2009.[16]

On February 19, 2009, eight Copts were killed when two walls of a demolished church collapsed in Maragha (Sohag Governorate). In 1979, the Habitat Department reported the presence of numerous cracks in the century-old mud-brick church. Between 1986 and 2006, further inspections confirmed the dangerous condition of the building, and the local bishop repeatedly pleaded with the authorities to issue a permit to rebuild. In November 2008, the local State Security officer finally inspected the building and was so alarmed by the state it was in that he asked for the engineering drawings of the replacement building to be submitted urgently so that the necessary permits from the authorities in Cairo could be obtained. As one wall collapsed in January 2009, State Security told the priest to begin demolition and to prepare for rebuilding. However, after the demolition was almost completed, he was ordered by the State Security not to hold off rebuilding until the permit from Cairo was issued. State Security even refused to allow temporary scaffolding of the crumbling walls.[17] The next month the walls collapsed, resulting in the eight deaths.

In another incident, on June 30, 2009, the Administrative Court rejected a lawsuit (no. 4475/58) filed by Girgis Malak Wasif, a Copt, contesting the state changing his religion to Islam after his Christian father had converted when he was seven years old. The plaintiff argued that, having reached the age of legal maturity, he had the right to choose his religion. The court explained its rejection by noting that “the principles and judgments of Islam, as the religion embraced by a majority of Egyptians… determine the right of the non-Muslim to embrace the revealed religion of his choice, and these same judgments prohibit a person who has entered Islam from leaving it, given that it is the seal of the revealed religions.” The court stated that public order “is pained by harm to the official national religion, which has taken up a permanent place in the hearts of the majority of the Egyptian people, represented by the evil of rebelling against its judgments and the criminality of apostasy.” The court added that “the Muslim who has freely embraced Islam… cannot forsake it.” The ruling stated that conversion was only permissible if it followed a certain order “sanctioned by the Almighty God: He who believes in Judaism is called on to embrace Christianity, and he who believes in Christianity is called on to embrace Islam, the seal of all religions. In all these cases, the opposite is incorrect, as evidenced by God’s ordering of the revelation of His religions, and in accordance with public order and morals in Egypt.”[18]

On July 17, 2009, after the Friday Muslim prayer, some alleged 2,000 Muslims from the village of al-Fuqai (Beni Su’if Governorate), attacked a building belonging to the Christian Love Association and several homes inhabited by Copts after rumors spread that they intended to turn it into a church. The attackers chanted anti-Christian slogans and demonstrated against the presence of a church in the village. They began throwing stones, breaking into and vandalizing some of the homes. Security forces arrived later but did not arrest any of those involved. No police report or complaint was filed with the prosecutor. Security forces shut down the association’s building and prevented Coptic villagers from praying there.

That same month, on July 28, 2009, a Coptic man was ordered by State Security to stop working on a wood warehouse he was building in the village of Reida (Minya Governorate), because they believed he intended to turn it into an Evangelical church. The directive came four days after attacks on Christians in a nearby village by Muslims opposed to the establishment of an Evangelical church in that village. The State Security demolished the sections of the warehouse that had been built.

Two days later, on July 30, 2009, a Coptic woman was arrested by the police in Mansura (Dakahliyya Governorate) while applying for birth certificates for her two children, on charges of using falsified official documents that listed her as a Christian married to a Christian man. The police charged her with forgery, as her father had converted to Islam when she was 12 years old and had changed her name and religion to Islam. At the age of 18, she had married a Christian using her Christian name and religious affiliation, and the couple had two children. In January 2006, she had filed a lawsuit with the Administrative Court in Cairo, asking to compel the Civil Status Authority to issue her a national identity card containing her actual religious affiliation and her birth name. The court had suspended the case on March 4, 2009, pending a decision from the Supreme Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of changing one’s religion on official documents in light of the limitation presented by Shari’a (Muslim law), which is considered the main source of legislation in Egypt.[19]

On September 17, 2009, a 65-year-old Coptic man in al-Bagur (Manufiyya Governorate) was stabbed to death by a Muslim in front of his shop. The perpetrator then moved on to the village of Bahnay, four kilometers away, where he stabbed a 40-year-old Coptic man in his shop after crying out, “You infidel, you Nazarene.” No previous disputes are known to have existed between the victims and the attacker. When a relative went to the police station to report the assault, he was told that he had no right to file a police report since he was not injured. Meanwhile, the perpetrator went to the neighboring village of Miyyit Afif, where he stabbed yet another Copt, aged 30, in front of his smith shop. The attacker was arrested the following day and was charged with premeditated murder and attempted murder, though what happened in the case since then is not known. Dozens of people who took part in the al-Bagur victim’s funeral procession held signs calling for a fair trial, for an end to attacks on Copts, and for Mubarak’s protection in light of the State Security’s failure to protect Copts.

On October 8, 2009, several Copts from the village of Abu Shusha (Qina Governorate) demonstrated at the Patriarchate grounds in Cairo, asking Pope Shenouda III to intervene with the authorities regarding their closed church--the only one in the area--which had 5,000 members. The church had been destroyed in a fire in October 2005, but after years of attempts to receive a permit to rebuild or even repair the building, none had yet been granted.

On October 20, 2009, Faruk Henry, a 61-year-old Coptic man, was shot dead in Dayrut (Assyut Governorate) because his son had been accused of having a relationship with a Muslim girl. The four killers were arrested, but on October 24, after the prosecutor ordered their cautionary investigative imprisonment for two weeks, some 2,000 Muslims rioted, breaking, burning, and looting dozens of shops, pharmacies, offices, and other Coptic property, as well as two churches (Orthodox and Evangelical) and a charity clinic run by the Catholic Church. The security forces were slow to intervene, waiting several hours after the attacks began. The next day, 30 people were arrested. Four were tried by the Criminal Court of Assyut on accusation of the killing but, on Feb. 22, 2010, the court discharged them for lack of evidence.[20]

On October 27, 2009, Muslims in the village of Badrman (the Minya Governate) protested against the renovation of the bell tower of the village’s church, for which a special permit had been given, and looted and perpetrated personal attacks against Copts. Twenty-two Muslims were arrested, but were all released four days later, after a “conciliation session” arranged by the authorities on October 29. In such sessions, Copts are often pressured into renouncing their complaints for the sake of “maintaining peace,” and perpetrators get away with their crimes.

Also on October 27, 2009, police forces arrested a 48-year-old Coptic teacher, in Salamut (Minya Governorate) for performing prayer in his house without prior authorization. The incident for which he was arrested was a memorial service performed by a priest and attended by family members. It was held in the home, as the Copts in the village had not been granted a permit to build a church.

On October 28, 2009, a tailor shop in Esna (Luxor Governorate) was set on fire because the Coptic owner had asked the Muslim owner of a neighboring shop who was loudly playing the Koran on his speakers all day long, to lower the volume. A “conciliation session” was organized, and the complaint was dropped.

Permits to Pray

In Egypt, building a new church requires a presidential decree in every case, a complicated and slow process. Moreover, the State Security often imposes its authority, making the process difficult even after obtaining a presidential decree. In addition, there are many throughout the country who take on a self-proclaimed sacred duty to ensure that no non-Muslim prays anywhere without “proper” authorization. Rather than resolving the problem, the government has gone to extremes to deny it, especially when addressing foreigners.

On July 18, 2008, the office of Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmad Abul Gheit, sent a ten-page facsimile regarding the situation of the Copts in Egypt to his counterpart in a certain country in Central Europe.[21] The faxed letter was a response to queries following serious complaints by that country’s citizens of Egyptian origin. Regarding “church building,” the Egyptian government’s letter stated:

It is worth mentioning that the total number of churches in Egypt is 2,524 churches, 1,319 of which are Copt Orthodox, and the total number of monasteries in Egypt is 196, 84 of which are Copt Orthodox. The following tables show that the building and maintenance of churches in Egypt has not stopped in Egypt [sic] and that these churches are distributed throughout the country.

The table in the letter listed the number of decrees granted for new churches each year from 1998 to 2007 as: 5, 10, 10, 12, 2, 8, 6, 9, 1, 2. However, another table within the government’s letter lists the number of existing churches and monasteries as 2,456, 264 fewer than mentioned elsewhere in the same letter (2,524 churches plus 196 monasteries, a total of 2,720). Yet according to the official 2007 government report of the Information and Decision-Support Center (IDSC),[22] there are only 1,878 churches in Egypt.

The number of monasteries reported in the government’s letter is also exaggerated. The active and semi-active Coptic Orthodox monasteries at best number 33,[23] not 84 as reported, and those of other denominations (essentially the small Catholic community) could not possibly make up 112. Similarly, the table cited in the letter shows the number of presidential decrees granted each year for churches. Yet Mufid Shihab, Egypt’s minister for parliamentary affairs, said the number of new churches built “over the past twenty-five years […] reach[ed] 500, of which 180 were built in the past two years alone.”[24] Egypt’s review report, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on February 18, 2010, stated that “over the period between 2005 and July 2009, a total of 138 decrees to build new churches have been issued.”[25] Shihab personally presented the report at Geneva and said the number of permits issued since 1982 was 527, of which 138 were granted between 2005 and July 2009.[26]

In fact, a detailed study by the author[27] of all presidential decrees issued over the 2005-2009 period shows their number to be 126, of which only 37 correspond to new church building permits (13 in 2005, 18 in 2006, 6 in 2007, and none in the following two years). These were spread between the various denominations: 22 for the Orthodox, 10 for the Evangelicals, and 5 for the Catholics. Further, 34 decrees were for menial repairs or refurbishments of existing churches,[28] and 55 decrees were issued to “regularize the situation of existing churches.” In the past, the policy of needing a presidential decree in order to build a church, based on the 1856 Ottoman Hamayuni Decree, was not always enforced. However, it has been rigorously applied since 1971.

Thus the figures Egypt provided to the UNHRC are inaccurate. There is also no way to verify the actual number of repair permits issued or implemented in practice, but the aforementioned February 2009 incident in which eight Copts died is indicative of what happens in reality. It is the State Security in Cairo that decides when permits for repairs are issued. Moreover, the reported figures for new-church permits are quite low considering demographic growth.

Copts are said to represent approximately 10 percent (approximately 9 million people) of Egypt’s population,[29] with 90 percent belonging to the Coptic (Orthodox) Church. If according to the government’s letter there are barely 1,400 Coptic churches, it can therefore be deduced that there is one church per 5,800 Orthodox Copts.[30] Copts thus often have to travel far distances outside of their towns for religious services (baptism, marriage, funerals, and regular mass).

There is thus a double standard regarding churches and mosques. Unlike churches, mosques require no building or repair permits. Such discriminatory policies are difficult to disguise, and the claim made in Egypt’s UNHRC report that the Coptic minority “fully enjoy[s] constitutionally guaranteed rights,” is incorrect. Such policies contradict international and human rights laws, but are rooted in the Shari’a dhimmitude rules, which declare that no new church can be built and restricting repairs. Upon his return to Cairo, Minister Shihab stated that Egypt “remains an Islamic country according to its constitution,” and would thus not accept certain UNHRC recommendations. He added that “nobody could force us to accept a recommendation on protecting the rights of minorities, as Egypt has no minorities--and had we accepted [such a recommendation] this would have constituted an admission that we discriminate against minorities.”[31]

Underrepresentation in Institutions of Higher Education

In Egypt, Copts are denied occupation of certain public positions (such as within the State Security and similar departments) and represent under 2 percent in other posts, including in the judiciary, the diplomatic corps, the army, the police, local governance, the media, and the universities.[32] For example, there no Copts in the top positions at Egyptian universities. There are 17 public universities owned and financed by the state in Egypt. Each has a president and three or four vice presidents. Out of a total of 71 people in these positions, there is not a single Copt. Out of the 274 faculties within these universities, only one has a Coptic dean. Of the 673 vice-deans, there is likewise only one Copt.[33]

At the next level of leadership--department chairpersons--at the Universities of Cairo, Ain-Shams (Heliopolis), and Alexandria--which were all established before 1952--there are 12 to 15 Coptic chairpersons among the 479 department heads, only 2.5 to 3 percent of the total. There is not a single Copt among 283 chairpersons in the Universities of the Delta (Tanta, Mansura, and Zaqaziq) and of Helwan (south of Cairo). In Upper Egypt, where the Coptic community is concentrated and reaches over a quarter of the population in some governorates, there is one Copt among 421 department heads at the Universities of Minya, Assyut, Fayum, and South Valley.

Thus, at the 11 universities referred to above, there are 13-16 Copts among 1,183 chairpersons, representing only 1.5 percent of all chairpersons. The total number of Copts in leadership positions at all levels is 15-18 out of 1,921, well below 1 percent. These numbers do not include al-Azhar University, which has over 500,000 students in its 53 general faculties (excluding the Islamic theology faculties), where non-Muslims are not allowed to enroll. Furthermore, there was only one Copt out of 425 graduate students sent abroad in fall 2007 to study for a Ph.D.[34] These students usually return to teaching positions in the universities.

A previous study[35] on Assyut University found that whereas Copts represent between 20 and 29 percent of the students in various faculties, they account for less than 6 percent of the professors. Their ratio falls to 1.7 percent at the next level of staff (associate professors, lecturers, etc.), indicating a declining trend for the future. Though Copts emphasize the importance of education, they are not represented in university teaching and leadership posts. In fact, distinguished Coptic students systematically find themselves downgraded in order to prevent them from qualifying for teaching posts. Their complaints go unheeded, and it is usually difficult to argue each case. However, the overall statistics are evidence of their underrepresentation.[36] The exclusion of Copts from Egypt’s educated elite, a phenomenon which the government denies, also prevents them from entering high-level technocratic, ministerial, and government posts.


Under Anwar Sadat’s presidency (1970-1981), the Islamist groups were given free rein. Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981 by the Islamists, the period of Islamic Jihad’s armed conflict in Egypt came to an end. Yet by the 1990s, the second phase had begun, and jihadi groups resumed their attacks, including a long series of terrorist operations against the Copts, the government, and tourists. This phase ended with the November 1997 terrorist attack targeting tourists in Luxor.[37]

While there have been a few sporadic attacks since then, the third stage of jihadi violence has been aimed primarily against tourists (in Sinai and Cairo), with no significant violence from Islamist groups against Copts. The violence has rather come from individuals not belonging to or acting on behalf of a particular group. It is common in these cases that no specific perpetrators are named and the crimes thus become “public.” Thus the aggressors have rarely been brought to justice nor has any condemnation ever been issued. This is also the result of the security apparatus’ failure to handle and process criminal evidence appropriately.

The Islamization of Egyptian society from the bottom up, beginning in the 1970s and based on Article II of the Constitution,[38] has enabled this status quo. Yet parallel to the government’s attempts to suppress violent jihad in the country, state-sponsored Islamization has continued and intensified. This strategy employed by the regime has attempted both to satisfy and keep the Islamists in check by offering them a formula in which the state continues to rule from the top while the radical Islamists determine and supervise social norms.

Islamization has penetrated the media, education,[39] and the state infrastructure. For example, in the judiciary, judges often ignore existing civil laws and rule according to Shari’a (referring directly to Article II of the constitution).[40] Throughout the process, the regime has not taken action to halt Islamization or discrimination except in cases that have threatened its own stability. In other words, the regime’s priority is its own survival, especially as elections approach.[41] This is linked to two issues: the desire of the “Islamic street” and corruption.

First, the “Islamic street” is growing stronger and is demanding greater Islamization, and the regime has met these demands in order to increase its own legitimacy, power, and domination. For example, during a meeting discussing the subject of pigs and the N1H1 flu, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif said, “Indeed it has long been a popular demand, Mr. President, to rid (Egypt) of swine altogether.”[42] The meeting concluded with an urgent presidential decision ordering the killing of around 1 million hogs. While the health issue was the rationale for doing so it seems hard to accept that this was the full explanation, since the danger was so small and no other country took measures anywhere near as extreme. The fact that this order would please the Islamists must have been a major part of the government's considerations. Indeed, despite criticism from the World Health Organization, the decision could not be discussed or revoked. Even Health Minister Hatim al-Gabaly later admitted on television that he hadn’t been involved in the decision, he had only heard about it after the fact “like everybody else.”[43]

The Muslim Brotherhood,[44] which influences and leads the “Islamic street” in Egypt, has a rather complex relationship with the regime. While studying and discussing the Islamists as a contender for government power, it should also be remembered that there are levels of cooperation between the two sides. Aware of the possibility, which is manifested periodically, of repression as well as their own relative weakness, the Islamists avoid pushing too hard or challenging the regime. At the same time, the regime tries to buy off the Islamists and preoccupy them by yielding them a large measure of power over setting social and cultural norms and by tolerating, if not encouraging, the oppression of Copts.

Second, corruption is no longer just rife but has become one of the pillars of the regime, with a powerful oligarchy firmly in place. This is linked to its inability to confront and solve the escalating societal, demographic, and developmental problems in a satisfactory manner. The 2009 Failed State Index compiled by Foreign Policy includes Egypt among the “In Danger” group of countries, only slightly better off than the “Critical” group. On a scale of 1 to 177, Egypt ranked forty-third, with Somalia ranking lowest, as the most failed state, and Norway (at 177) as the most stable.[45]

This situation has led to popular discontent among Egyptians. Yet instead of addressing the root of the problem and working to resolve it, state officials have often used the Coptic minority as a scapegoat. For example in an address to the International Labor Organization, Minister of Manpower Aisha Abd al-Hadi, stated, “Whereas Copts number only 10 percent of the population, they own 30 percent of the national economy.”[46] Despite the inaccuracy and lack of basis to such claims, they clearly do not promote and are even harmful to national unity.


The government’s handling of violence against Copts has shown its failure to protect its citizens and to uphold international and Egyptian civil law. Moreover, this violence represents only the tip of the iceberg of policies of discrimination and exclusion, which in turn feed into the cycle of violence. In a socially regressing Egypt, Copts have become symbolic victims. In addition, the regime’s strategy of cooperation with the Islamists could backfire. By allowing a greater measure of Islamization, it might be preparing the stage for much stronger Islamist challenges in future.

*Adel Guindy has authored many articles and political studies on Egypt and the Middle East. He is a senior editor of the Cairo weekly newspaper Watani and is co-founder of the NGO “Coptic Solidarity.” His third book, on religious discrimination in Egypt, is forthcoming.



[1] This section is based on a multitude of media reports, as well on an in-situ report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights,




[5] Prior to his retirement and becoming a businessman and politician, Kamuni was reported to have close relations with Lt. General Tala’at Raslan, a senior official in the Ministry of Interior. Refer to report by al-Shorouk daily, (news item published on January 13, 2010, available only through the archives in PDF). Other papers reported similar news. See al-Wafd (January 19, 2010) and al-Fagr (March 1 and 8, 2010)

[6], p. 12. Al-Ahram published three photos of the defendant meeting with the area’s parliamentary representative, who denied any reliance on Kamuni: The paper later on denied “rumors” regarding any relationship between the two men.

[7] The Ministry of Interior’s first statement, The link between the crime and the Muslim girl’s alleged rape was repeatedly referred to by officials (including, among many others, the minister of interior, the speaker of the parliament, and the local governor) and commentators.


[9] and

[10] After being criticized, he sent a correction claiming that he meant the “moral” death of the alleged rape victim.


[12] On Channel 1, on public television, the interior minister said, “[…] there are those, from abroad or inside [Egypt] who want to damage the national weave. This occurs more frequently, and we see more and more people inside who say ‘we will try to get help from abroad, in order to come and save Egypt’s Copts.’ I believe that such calls are the [real] cause for inciting sectarian strife,”


[14] Michel Chafik, Le Figaro, January 12, 2010.

[15] EIPR report, p. 24

[16] Unless otherwise mentioned, as reported by EIPR,

[17] Watani, March 1, 2009, and

[18] Human Rights Watch reports: “Egyptian officials cite Article 2 of the Constitution, which stipulates that Islamic law is the principal source of legislation, to justify policies that conflict with the government's obligation to guarantee freedom of religion. Authorities have arrested persons who converted to Christianity, particularly those who publicly announced their conversion or appeared to be proselytizing, and routinely deny Muslim converts to Christianity any ability to reflect their conversion in vital identification documents. […] In such instances, the authorities typically charged those persons with violating Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which criminalizes any use of religion "to promote or advocate extremist ideologies... with a view toward stirring up sedition, disparaging or showing contempt for any divinely-revealed religion, or prejudicing national unity and social harmony.” See

[19] Egypt Constitution, Article II.

[20] Court case 17323, Dayrut (Assyut Governorate);

[21] A copy of the report was made available to the author and was used to write a rebuttal to expose its inaccuracies.

[22] The Information and Decision-Support Center, which reports to the prime minister’s cabinet.


[24] September 18, 2009 session,

[25], and page 9 of Egypt’s ‘National Report’:

[26] Minute ten of this recording: During his presentation, Shihab went out of his way to emphasize that Copts were not facing any problems.

[27] Issues of the Official Gazette were reviewed by the author for 2005-2007, while the quarterly reports by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR, an independent human rights organization) were used for the latter two years. See and other reports on same site. The results were published in al-Ahaly weekly, April 10, 2010,

[28] A presidential decree of December 2005 delegated to regional governors the authority to approve church repair and refurbishment work.

[29] In absence of a reliable figure, estimates vary from 6 to 15 percent. The Coptic (Orthodox) Church says its followers exceed 11 million people.

[30] On the other hand, Egypt boasts 120,000 mosques (and in addition, approximately 900,000 prayer halls), of which 104,000 mosques are run by the Ministry of (Islamic) Endowments (see al-Ahram, November 8, 2009). This amounts to one mosque per 640 Muslim citizens (or 75 if we include prayer halls).

[31] As quoted in the state-owned paper al-Gumhuriyya, February 25, 2010, ).


[33] Respectively, in the tiny Faculty of Archeology, Fayum University and the Faculty of Education, North Sinai branch of Suez University.

[34] Sameh Fawzi, Watani, July 26, 2007.

[35] Watani newspaper,

[36] Rifa’at al-Said, head of the opposition Tagamu party, quoted the author’s study and called the results “eye-poking,” see

[37] The attack claimed 61 lives, including 58 foreign tourists.

[38] It states that Islam is Egypt’s official religion, and principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation.

[39] The process of Islamicizing education began in the 1980s and one potentially dangerous result is the graduation of students who may consider violence against the “infidel” to be a religious duty. See Adel Guindy, “The Talibanization of Education in Egypt,” Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2 (June 2009),

[40] To highlight the state of mind of the judiciary: The State Council on February 15, 2010, voted 334 against (and 42 in favor) of appointing women to judiciary positions,

[41] While elections have not been free and fair, the partial elections for Shura (Consultative) Council are to take place in June 2010, those of the People’s Assembly in late 2010, and the presidential election in September 2011.

[42] Remark made on public state television live broadcast, April 30, 2009; it was heard by millions, but no record is available.

[43] Interview on Dream TV, Cairo, December 24, 2009,, minutes 4-5.

[44] The group has been officially banned since 1954, but has been present and active with little hindrance since Sadat’s reign tolerated them (and allied with them) in 1971. They currently hold 88 of 444 seats in the People’s Assembly.


[46] See:

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