The June 30th protest against Morsi’s increasingly totalitarian leadership, economic failures and social instability was followed by a violent backlash against Egypt’s minorities, most notably its ancient Coptic Christian community (10% of the population). In the days following Morsi’s ousting, mobs attacked the village of Nagaa Hassan, burning dozens of homes, vandalizing businesses and stabbing to death least four people. As the political crisis drags on, Egypt’s most vulnerable minority has rapidly become the scapegoat of Islamist, pro-Morsi anger. The ransacking, arson and murder has quickly escalated leaving to date close to 50 churches burned along with dozens of homes and businesses. The actual death toll in the Coptic community is unknown because much of the violence is in rural areas and is difficult to determine.
The recent outbreak of violence was triggered by Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current leader of Al-Qaeda in Egypt) who publicly blamed the Copts for plotting Morsi’s removal and “creating a Coptic State in southern Egypt.” The fact that these episodes occurred in multiple places at the same time suggests direction and organized intent. In 1938 Nazi Germany, “Kristallnacht” first appeared to be a spontaneous demonstration, but was in fact a premeditated and organized plan to intimidate and threaten its Jewish minority. And in Ottoman Turkey the official announcement of the deportations of the Armenians was the signal for the destruction of that people. Similarly, the current spike in violent attacks against the Coptic minority was preceded by an increasing climate of organized intimidation and persecution.
State sanctioned persecution of Copts is nothing new. Under Mubarak’s regime not only was violence and discrimination against this community ignored, but in the last two decades, Copts have been systematically excluded from positions as cabinet ministers, army officers, police officials, governors, bankers, parliamentary representatives and university professors. But the persecution against Egypt’s non-Muslims became markedly worse under Morsi’s leadership, culminating on April 7 this year when St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral was attacked with rocks, machetes, and guns. Video footage clearly shows Egyptian police officers called to the scene taking part in the attack that killed two and injured 84.
In a recent meeting with the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson shockingly requested that the Copts not participate in the demonstrations against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood – in short, to acquiesce to the persecution. Patterson’s position contrasts sharply from Henry Moganthau, the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who after witnessing massacres of the Armenians, officially informed the US government and called for intervention. He ensured continual and prominent coverage of the atrocities in the American press, and worked to raise money for the persecuted minority. Just suppose that Anne Patterson had been the US Ambassador to Turkey in 1915. Would she have told the Armenians to accept their fate? Would she have been yet another complicit bystander of the Armenian Genocide?
Scholars, researchers and advocates have reiterated for decades that the enduring lesson of the Holocaust and other genocides is that they were and are predictable, and therefore must be prevented. Hate crimes never occur in a vacuum, and campaigns of officially sanctioned incitement to hate are early warning signs of worse to come. It is this propagation of hatred and the deliberate demonizing of another group based on differences of race, ethnicity, religion, sex or political affiliation that paves the way for the vandalism, violence, and murder that follows.
Despite the US’s silence on the Morsi administration’s failure to uphold democratic values and the rapid deterioration of human rights in Egypt, all diplomats, including Patterson, should take a cue from Morgenthau and act to protect the basic right to life over maintaining neutrality and their administration’s political agendas.
Yes, the death toll from the use of force by the Egyptian military against his supporters is appalling. However this does not justify the US policy of indifference towards the plight of the Coptic community. The US government and the international community need to stand up now for the basic human rights for the Copts as well as for millions of others who are demanding a more democratic Egypt.
This is the time to provide international support with concrete, practical measures to protect this minority.