Americans can be sentimental toward Egypt. It was Tunisia that birthed the popular movements to overthrow entrenched and autocratic leadership in the region, but the label of ‘Arab Spring’ did not take hold until Tahrir Square captured the attention of Main Street. Though part of the alien Arab and Islamic worlds, Egypt’s ancient civilization and Biblical references create a sympathy from which hope pours out for the region. Americans love mummies, while Christians cite from Isaiah: Blessed be Egypt, my people.
But foreign policy demands more than sentiment. In the evolving determination of American interests, is Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a repackaged pharaoh, or a miracle of God’s favor? Many analysts have cited human rights violations; many others the dangers of Islamism and regional terror. Perhaps the tension between these two is best witnessed in the proposal of Senator Lindsey Graham to appropriate billions of dollars in emergency funds to Egypt and the region. Once he stood as a fierce critic of the ‘coup’ that brought Sisi to power. Now he calls him the right man at the right time.
The details of the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and their contribution to the realities of terrorism are debated fervently. So also the movement against certain liberal activists and foreign-funded NGOs dedicated to an open civil society. The realistic determination of policy must listen to all sides, but a hardheaded contribution to this debate should also take into consideration a nod toward possible sentimentality. What do Egypt’s Christians think?
This will not mean their opinion is correct. Egypt’s Copts are as liable as American Christians to be swayed by the vagaries of conventional wisdom. But while the American should listen in alignment to national interests in securing religious freedom and minority rights, the Christian has a further connection to brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Far from disqualifying the conversation, that commitment demands both steady solidarity and faithful admonition. They, of course, have equal right to chasten America in turn.
And they do. The perspectives of the following Coptic figures represent two trends on the lynchpin of the Egyptian-American relationship: $1.3 billion in military aid.
Magdy Samaan is a journalist with the UK newspaper The Telegraph and was an active participant in both the original revolutionary movement against President Mubarak and the subsequent mobilization to force early elections on President Morsi. He wishes the United States would cut this aid entirely.
Emad Gad is a member of parliament with the post-revolution Free Egyptians Party and the deputy director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. He also identifies with both popular uprisings, but desires the United States to support more earnestly the developing Egyptian democracy.
If this support was only on behalf of a traditional dictator to guarantee US interests, it could be understandable, argues Samaan. But in jailing opponents and killing protesters, Sisi’s regime has crossed a line and become criminal. A semi-democratic façade cannot disguise that, in exchange for cooperation on terrorism, all the US receives is a failing state that engenders the very religious extremism it declares to be fighting.
Gad, however, puts forward Sisi’s essential role in the international struggle against Muslim Brotherhood violence and jihadi terrorism. He recognizes the need to improve in human rights, criticizes the protest law that has jailed many, and desires a vibrant civil society. But much of the furor in these areas is unfounded, he believes. There is space in the press to criticize the government, while activists and NGOs must operate within the law, even if it is flawed.
Egypt is not yet a full democracy in the Western sense, Gad finds, for it fails to separate between religion and state. Arab-Islamic culture does not promote either gender or religious equality, and Copts still suffer the inherited discriminatory practices of previous regimes. But Sisi calls for a new religious discourse, rebuilds the churches destroyed by Islamist retribution, and honors Christians through his unprecedented presence at Christmas mass—twice.
Gad emphasizes that political awareness is maturing as the parliament has no hegemonic party, while Islamists have been defeated yet still maintain a small representation. He hopes that improving political and economic relations with the Unites States will cement and further the gains being made, especially after a disastrous period of Brotherhood rule.
Samaan agrees the Brotherhood was a disaster, but says the human rights situation, even under Morsi, was better than it is now. And though oppositional, the Brotherhood and the military make good bedfellows. The former grew in strength since the onset of military rule in 1952, and as long as there is an Islamic boogeyman the army can offer refuge. In failing to declare Morsi’s removal a coup, he said, the United States robbed Egypt of a great opportunity to break the polarity. The people were in the process of rejecting the Brotherhood, but a compromise could have kept civilian leadership.
The consequence is that continued military tutelage is steadily deteriorating stability, but given the weakness of the regime, America again has an opening to drive real change. Egypt needs Western legitimacy, he stated, without which it cannot survive. If aid is cut, Egypt would be isolated, and democratic forces could apply pressure domestically. If the US demands a return to the barracks and a civilian president in the next elections, it would be a great gain.
But Gad thinks it would backfire. If aid is cut, the United States would lose all leverage. Right now Egypt pays attention to US and European Union criticism, even as it fights it. With no relationship it would not care. Egypt would seek support elsewhere from Russia and Saudi Arabia, nations which show noninterest at best in the development of democracy and the promotion of human rights.
Samaan finds this to be a false argument, as nations lacking international respect cannot grant the legitimacy needed. But should either the maintenance or withdrawal of military aid result in Egypt’s failure, both he and Gad agree it would not become like Syria. The people are too homogenous, there are mechanisms for social peace, and the army will always step in.
But in their differing visions of the future, neither Samaan nor Gad can offer unquestioned optimism. Samaan admits Egypt does not have strong political alternatives, and can neither describe the best path forward nor predict what will happen. The people have learned lessons from their revolutionary experience, he said confidently. But his hope resembles somewhat that which issued from Tahrir Square, where the lack of clear and unified vision contributed significantly to the five chaotic years that followed.
Gad, meanwhile, also sees no alternative to Sisi and predicts the people will again choose him in the 2018 elections. While he lauds the constitution for limiting the executive to two terms of four years and believes political parties and civil society are strengthening, he anticipates the next president will likely have a military background as well. Democracy is developing, and he asks for support. But it may be twenty years until a true civilian president is possible.
These Christian opinions are representative of greater Egyptian revolutionary and reformist trends—quite in line with fellow Muslims of similar persuasion. The arguments are practical with no undue spiritual sentimentalizing, but the great majority of Copts would agree with Gad that they are currently living in a golden age. Samaan says they either ignore the violations or are ignorant of them.
American foreign policy must weigh military aid in terms of our own interests, but the interests of others also inform the Christian contribution. Given these Coptic assessments, let conscientious analysis guide primary posture: Steady solidarity, or faithful admonition?
Jayson Casper is a journalist based in Cairo, published in Christianity Today, Lapido Media, and the Atlantic Council, among others. He writes regularly about Egyptian politics, religion, and culture at www.asenseofbelonging.org, and tweets at @jnjcasper.
Photo Credit: By U.S. State Department via Flickr. Egypt’s then-Minister of Defense General Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi (who became President of Egypt in June 2014) bids farewell to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting in Cairo, Egypt, on November 3, 2013.