Ashraf Ramelah discusses Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi’s recent appointment of two Coptic governors, his possible motives for doing so, and how the appointments fit into the larger picture of Islamic politics in Egypt.
Egypt: President appoints two Christian governors, defying Islamic Sharia
by Ashraf Ramelah
In Egypt, the president appoints the governors of the country’s provinces. This practice began with President Nasser after the end of the kings’ era. Last month President Al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors to two principally Christian provinces — the highest concentration of Christians in all of rural Egypt — located in Upper Egypt and West Egypt. This is monumental in a country where Islamic sectarianism dictates politics.
When Al-Sisi took office in 2013 for a four-year term, he immediately appointed new governors, all Muslim, for each of the 27 provinces, as did his predecessors — Mubarak, Sadat, and Nasser. Now in the beginning of his second term, Al-Sisi replaced two of his original governors at the end of their six-year terms with two Christians — the first time in modern history that some all-Christian towns would have a Christian administration. However, there was one earlier unsuccessful attempt at this by Egypt’s military interim government (SCAF) in 2012 after Mubarak was ousted.
This has inspired an outpouring of positive enthusiasm from Egypt’s Coptic community bringing hope and optimism where disappointment and anger was mounting against the Al-Sisi government by many. It remains to be seen as of yet if any opposition will come from the Muslim community and if their terror elements will respond with violence.
Egyptian Copts in the diaspora are also pleased with the president’s appointments. Social media commentary and op-eds indicate the feeling that Al-Sisi is taking Egypt in the right direction. There is talk about equal rights, equal opportunity and progress toward liberal democracy and leaving Sharia principles in the dust. Al-Sisi’s appointments are in striking contrast to the status quo of the erosion of rights and common decency toward the lives of Copts in Egypt in recent decades.
Before Nasser’s time, such appointments or elections were not extraordinary news but a regular matter. Prior to the coup of 1952, Copts were involved in Egyptian political life after Mohammed Ali detached the country from Turkey (at the fall of the Ottoman Empire). The Decree of Equality between citizens allowed Copts to be governors of provinces, and it was commonplace for Copts to serve as provincial governors. Under King Fouad I, Wissa Wasef, a Copt, became the president of the Egyptian Parliament twice (03/1928-07/1928 & 01/1930-10/1930).
With Al-Sisi’s recent appointments, it looks as if the president has a high regard for the pre-Nasser era. However, when all of the current governmental actions or inactions are taken into account an accurate and truer picture comes to light. Does this picture show improvement for human rights and liberty inclusive of the Coptic minority community, or are things getting worse?
Some Egyptians say there is now a new democratic president who is enforcing the law and standing against religious discrimination. They will emphasize the president’s visiting the Coptic Orthodox Church on Christmas and building a Coptic Cathedral in the new administrative city of Cairo! He pressured the parliament to issue a fairer law regulating church construction. Meanwhile, has it occurred to any of the enamored why church construction is singled out for draconian enforcement while most of the country is allowed to navigate illegally?
The act of appointing two Christian governors has a basis in Article 9 and Article 14 of Egypt’s current (2014) constitution. However, Copts are astonished when credence is given to the anti-discrimination constitutional precepts. Article 9 states that “The state is committed to achieving equality of opportunity among all citizens, without discrimination.” Article 14 says that “Public functions are the right of citizens on the basis of competence, without favoritism or mediation, and its assignment is to serve the people …” In essence; Al-Sisi is being thanked today by his constituency for his surprising regard for the liberal articles of the constitution in spite of Article 2 (Sharia).
It was certainly extraordinary for the president to appoint two Christian Coptic governors to these particular regions when you consider his record: a long span of unchecked violence against Copts, Coptic-victim persecution through archaic “arbitration” courts, forced evacuation from homes and villages of Coptic victims of brutality, and murders of Christians uninvestigated and unprosecuted.
Under Al-Sisi’s watchful silence the prejudicial permit requirements remain in place against church construction, oppressive use of permits target Christians who pray inside their own homes, unenforced laws regarding regulated and permitted city and town services while selectively exacting on trivial matters within the Christian community, Orthodox churches destroyed by terror elements inside the state without government aid to rebuild, local police cooperation with sectarian terrorists inside villages against Coptic residents, and many churches that have been forced to shut down and remain uninhabitable.
Considering all of this, let’s explore the potentially darker motives for the latest Christian appointments — those that suit the Al-Sisi government through exploitation of an eager and naive Christian minority certain to favor Al-Sisi for it and gush over his “advancements.” Al-Sisi favors himself by turning Copts away from their focus upon the urgencies boiling in Al Minya (stated above) and tempering the potential for growing anger toward the president. If Muslim violence should ensue over the loss of two Muslim governors and the newly-installed Christian governors, Al-Sisi may end up withdrawing his appointments to please the Islamist deep state in a win-win situation for his administration.
Nominating Coptic Christians along with planned Islamist protests would offer Al-Sisi the chance to dismiss the Coptic governors he just appointed for the sake of “peace”. Actually, he could either withdraw the appointees or stand firm with them to prove his power over terror elements, mainly to the West. Of course, if no Islamist protests are pre-planned by the government but a spontaneous one erupts — after all, Islamic law mandates that a non-Muslim will not have authority over a Muslim — the outcome either way benefits Al-Sisi’s image. His government is then separated from the terror elements that are continually permitted to get away with murder.
This is nothing new. In 2012 after the ouster of Mubarak, the military interim government (SCAF) chose Imad Shehata, a Copt, for governor of Qena Province. Egyptian Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood held noisy demonstrations against Shehata, cutting off the train line that runs through the province and threatening to kill the designated governor if he accepted the nomination. The SCAF surrendered to Islamist demands.
Why did SCAF choose to appoint a Christian governor at that moment? While aligning with the Muslim Brotherhood (a terror group), SCAF proved it would stop at nothing including cold-blooded murder of peaceful Mespero (Christian) protesters. SCAF then demonstrated by the Shehata appointment that it favored Copts after all and separated itself from the terror groups targeting Copts.
Bringing these facts to light and reflecting on the deeper issues is the only way to begin to understand the true nature of the difficulties in Egypt. It is especially apparent that no solutions are emerging from the political elite, who accomplish very little while manipulating the people to maintain the status quo or incite a worse situation.
Dr. Ashraf Ramelah is founder and president of Voice of the Copts, a human rights organization, and a board member of Stop Islamization of Nations (SION). For his previous articles, see the Ashraf Ramelah Archives.