On the same day that Congress announced the launching of the new “Egypt Human Rights Caucus,” the embassy of Egypt responded by distributing a fact sheet entitled “Religious Freedom and Diversity in Egypt.” The fact sheet highlights the accomplishments of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi as it relates to Egypt’s religious minorities. It touts a utopian view of the current conditions in Egypt that are anything but. While Sisi has made some improvements in this area, stating that Egypt has achieved some advanced level of religious freedom or pluralism is fantastical and premature.
The report itself is a product of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, a major lobbying firm that has brought on former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce as well as a former chief-of-staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It indicates that Egypt is spending major dollars in anticipation of increased scrutiny from the Biden administration. In truth, Egypt is aware that this administration may take the word of advocates on the Hill and condition US economic aid to Egypt. The factsheet was also shared two weeks after In Defense of Christians hosted a policy briefing entitled “Egypt Must Confront Christian Persecution,” which featured remarks from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Rep. French Hill (R-AR), who has introduced House Resolution 117 – Supporting Coptic Christians in Egypt.
Whatever Egypt’s true intent in distributing this piece of religious freedom propaganda, the misinformation regarding the conditions of its religious minorities is dangerous.
Coptic Christians, 7 to 15 percent of Egypt’s 100 million population, continue to be treated as second-class citizens and are discriminated against by both the Egyptian government and their fellow citizens. For example, they remain unable to serve in high-ranking positions in the Egyptian security apparatus, cannot be president, experience severe discrimination in the employment market, and endure draconian laws that restrict the building of churches—sometimes leaving congregants to worship in the streets.
Moreover, Copts are regularly subjected to violent attacks on their communities, churches, and businesses while those who attack them avoid prosecution altogether thanks to traditional “reconciliation sessions”—a denial of the right to access justice. These sessions are village mediations in which verdicts are found in favor of the perpetrators of violence and victims must consequently “forgive” their aggressors or flee their village. A prime example is the case of a 72-year old Coptic woman, Souad Thabet. In 2016, Thabet was taken from her home, stripped naked, and dragged through the streets of the village of Al Karm in Minya Province, Egypt. The attack was said to be provoked by a rumor that her son was involved in a relationship with a Muslim woman. In December 2020, the courts acquitted three men involved in this violent attack.
Unfortunately, Copts are not the only group regularly denied justice, as Egypt has increasingly targeted peaceful human rights advocates and journalists in 2020.
For instance, Ramy Kamel, a Coptic Christian human rights researcher, has officially been imprisoned for over a year on trumped-up charges of terrorism merely because he researchs persecution and advocates for the rights of Copts. Senators Chris Coons (D-DE) and Thom Tillis (R-NC), bipartisan co-chairs of the Senate Human Rights Caucus, have written to the Egyptian embassy to call for Kamel’s release.
As Kamel was marking his one-year anniversary in prison, Egyptian authorities cracked down on the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, arresting three of its staff members in a week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself weighed in with his concern that “peacefully advocating for human rights” is not a crime.
It seems that circumstances in Egypt are far from utopic for a variety of actors both religious and non-religious.
For this reason, the House of Representatives should pass House Resolution 117. If the Egypt Human Rights Caucus can become a bipartisan body that truly addresses all human rights abuses in Egypt, this will greatly strengthen the efforts of Congress to push Egypt to improve.
President Joe Biden has pledged there will be “no more blank checks” for Sisi and should pressure Egypt to cease with its crackdown on activists and journalists. Furthermore, President Biden should leverage the more than $1.5 billion the US gives Egypt in defense assistance to incentivize human rights improvement.
Sisi deserves credit for recognizing that Egypt needs to become a more tolerant society, and the fact sheet shows improvements he has ushered in for the Coptic community. However, there is no need to imprison civil society advocates and stamp out all voices of opposition. Furthermore, it does not reflect well on his government to hire a lobbying firm to sugarcoat human rights violations and paint a false picture of a religious harmony that does not yet exist.