Just under a month after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s visit to the United States, a global figure has decided to go the other way; Pope Francis is currently visiting Egypt, the nation with the Arab world’s largest population of Christians. Pope Francis is echoing much of the same global rhetoric that leaders across the world have felt the need (and for good reason) to echo in global months. He has expressed solidarity with Egyptian Christians and has condemned violence done in the name of religion. While this pedantic rhetoric is lofty it hints at two crucial policy challenges facing Egypt both of which are intrinsically connected.
Since the military coup in 2013 that deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt has seen an unprecedented crackdown on the enemies of the state. Opponents from Liberal to Islamist and every color in between have become targets of the crackdown. Egypt has become home to one of the world’s largest population of political prisoners. Secondly, Egypt has become home to one of the most violent insurgencies it has seen in years; this insurgency has been able to successfully target government infrastructure killing police officers, destroying Cairo’s historic Italian Consulate, assassinating Egypt’s prosecutor general outside of his home and most recently targeting some of Egypt’s most prominent churches.
This last trend has also been the most recent, various terrorist groups have been able to detonated bombs in some of Egypt’s most important churches, in separate attacks in the weeks leading up to Christmas and on Easter Sunday earlier this month. For such attacks to be diminished and the future of Egypt’s Christian population to be secured a comprehensive strategy will need to be adopted combining a crackdown on extremist groups with an end to the crackdown. The implications of this for the United States are simple. It cannot afford to adopt a policy agnostic to human rights and political concerns beyond the cold logic of fighting terrorism. While American military aid could go a long way to ensure that the Egyptian state fights effectively against what might well be a resilient insurgency in the Sinai, to fully bolster the state of the region’s Christians the causes of radicalism will need to be addressed. The recent release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker held as a political prisoner for three years, is a promising sign that the United States may not be adopting an apolitical strategy. Hijazi’s release, however, is just a start. Ensuring the release of strictly political prisoners, many of whom are young and vulnerable to radicalism, would deprive extremist groups in Egypt in what has emerged as a crucial recruiting mechanism. The banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has forced the group and its cadres underground where, disillusioned, they are easy targets for extremist groups looking to convince such individuals that coexistence within a parliamentary framework is possible.
Egypt’s dire economic circumstances also present its Christian community with an incentive to flee. In order to ameliorate such challenges, the Egyptian government has turned to the IMF, accepting a conditional loan. Such a provision is contingent on Egypt’s ultimate implementation of austerity measures. The implementation of these, involving a rolling back of a welfare state dating back to Nasser and (albeit inefficiently) providing daily bread to millions will be daunting. When Sadat attempted to cut the nation’s bread subsidy in 1977 deadly riots ensued. Earlier this year Sisi tried to implement a similar policy, once again protests followed. For Egypt’s beleaguered Christian community such economic instability will provide particularly challenging.
The United States should work with Egypt in order to ensure the effective implementation of IMF conditions while protecting the nation’s precarious minority groups. It can do so by more deliberately providing economic advising and support to one of its greatest allies in the region; doing so will prove at least as effective as military aid at protecting Christian Egyptians and the nation’s population in its entirety.
Regardless of the policy proposals and implications and strategic justifications and diplomatic machinations Egypt’s Christian population ought to be secured for its own sake. I remember visiting beautiful centuries old churches in Cairo a few months ago. Having driven through one of Egypt’s poorest communities, an overwhelmingly Christian one I arrived at an unremarkable gate; the guard, wary of outsiders in the face of the plight of Christians in Egypt only let me through after some persistent pleading. Finally behind that unmarked gate, we found one of the most stunning complexes I have ever seen, nearly a dozen ecclesiastical structures carved into a canyon; one of these was the Arab world’s largest churches. Embedded within one of the city’s densest neighborhoods was one of the most amazing sights imaginable, an immaculate oasis in a bustling metropolis of twenty million. Egypt’s Christian community ought to be preserved not for political expediency or diplomatic utility, it ought to be preserved because it is a community with a priceless heritage and culture tracing its roots back to antiquity. Doing so will require a combination of prudent policy, a deep reverence for cultural preservation and a lot of courage.