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Sisi at the UN: Desperation of church and state

The Coptic church’s blind support of Sisi, on display outside the UN, is a mistake that ignores Egypt’s recent past and sows the seeds of strife

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.

When desperation and falsification are the name of the game on such a visit, political loss and an even more panicked president result.  

The problem is doubly compounded when men of the cloth, a powerful entity in a nation like Egypt, hitch themselves to the state’s wagon. It is an approach favoured by the Egyptian pope and derided by thinkers and philosophers alike.

But this didn’t stop Pope Tawadros from declaring "’Egyptian dignity is represented by how Sisi is received", thereby politicising the church for the umpteenth time since the coup.

Where separation of church and state should be, there is only cynical king-making.

Domestic strife abroad         

Across the street from the UN, where Sisi gave an extraordinarily ordinary speech on 20 September, were two groups that most Egyptians would be embarrassed to call their own.

Coups and poisoned political spheres go hand in hand, like fava beans and bread

A 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 "there can be no return to dictatorship", the falsehood of this statement was made abundantly clear by having a listen to the mini-war outside the UN.

Coups and poisoned political spheres go hand in hand, like fava beans and bread. This poison was on display when the Sisifites and Islamists barked at one another.

Outside the UN in New York City this week (MEE/Amr Khalifa)
Strikingly, the American president, Barack Obama, captured Egyptian reality more accurately in his UN speech than his Egyptian counterpart. 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".

But you could add another grotesque element: the strife also spreads to Egyptians living abroad.

An antagonistically ultra-nationalist and politically muscular approach has been adopted by the Coptic church, particularly under the leadership of H H Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, in support of the Sisi regime since 3 July 2013, the day of the 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.

Pro-Sisi protesters outside of the UN in New York City this week (MEE/Amr Khalifa)
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 a palpable physical danger should he be identified as remotely associated with journalism. 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."

This gathering was of adults, if only on paper, uninterested in anything but their idiosyncratic views on Egypt.

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".

Reality bites

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.

Because of a lack of separation between church state, ‘reality’, as seen by the Church’s upper rungs, bears no resemblance to the everyday reality of the congregation

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?

What makes Tawadros so certain Sisi wont betray the church again?

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.

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist and analyst recently published in Ahram Online, Mada Masr, The New Arab, Muftah and Daily News Egypt. You can follow him on Twitter@cairo67unedited.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Egypt's Coptic Pope Tawadros II in 2015 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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