Pope Shenouda Death Highlights Why Egyptian Democracy Needs Work


UPDATE (3/18): Thousands of Coptic Christians have gathered to pay their respects to Pope Shenouda III, who died on Saturday at the age of 88. His funeral will be held on Tuesday. Shenouda serves as the 117th pope of Alexandria from November 1971. He tried to smooth sectarian tension during his tenure. 

THE BACKGROUND: What started out as a peaceful protest outside the Egyptian state television building by Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians over an attack that partially destroyed a church in the Aswan province turned into deadly clashes over the weekend. 

Once the smoke had cleared, 25 Christians lay dead and 220 injured. Protesters described a chaotic scene with mangled bodies that had been allegedly crushed by army vehicles.

Egypt has been trying to integrate a more democratic form of government following the expulsion of former President Hosni Mubarak, but the recent spate of anti-Christian attacks and the deadly clashes with the army shows that any steps toward democracy must begin with religious tolerance.

Since Mubarak has been ousted, Christians have been subject to a volley of attacks by Muslims who want to establish an Islamic government. The civilian transition initiative has staggered as the army has not fully provided a timetable for succession. Many see this as an attempt by the military to control the country even after they have relegated power to civilians. Mubarak had done a great job in curtailing the rise of Islamist groups. Mubarak’s demise has created a kind of free-for-all in which Salafists, those who call for the re-establishment of an Islamic government and society that is modeled after the first generation of Muslims, have tried to exert their influence in the new civilian government. Egypt must be careful in allowing such groups to command a portion of the political pie.

Prominent Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party leader MP Walid Jumblatt has called for an investigation into the clashes and has criticized the media for being too quick to label them as sectarian strife. The truth is, though, that Egypt must learn to protect its Christians, who make up 10% of the population, if there is to be any progress for Egypt as a space of religious tolerance and cultural and political freedoms. Angered by the volley of church attacks, one Christian protester shouted, “Why didn't they do this with the Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood when they organize protests? This is not my country anymore.”

Egyptian authorities recognize that peace among different sects is an indispensable part off a swift transition to power. In order to extinguish some of the anger, Egypt executed on Monday a man for killing 6 Christians in a drive-by shooting in 2010. Unfortunately, this won’t cure the current unrest. Christians want the most basic human needs guaranteed to all people living in a given society; justice, equality and freedom. The execution is nothing but an empty political maneuver to show that Christian equality is on the agenda.

Photo Credit: Marwa Ali