Unlike Gypsies, Jews, Nubians, Bedouins, Shi'a or Baha'is in Egypt, Copts are not a small minority of citizens that live in a particular part of the country or use a different dialect. Copts represent, according to unofficial estimations, 10-15% of the total population in Egypt. The real number of Copts is known but treated as a military secret and is not disclosed. Before the revolution of 25 January, the Mubarak regime was hesitant to disclose the exact number of Copts because of ongoing demands for systematic representation in the Parliament, high rank military and police positions or even building new Coptic churches. Also, after the revolution, the likelihood of such disclosure is still low especially after the sudden escalation of hard-line Islamist groups (parts of the Muslim Brotherhood and newly emerged groups of Orthodox Muslims who were oppressed under the Mubarak regime) on the surface of Egyptian political life.
Despite the allegations from activists outside Egypt that Copts are being persecuted and even subject to violence, the fact is that Copts are not facing such danger or are expected to be in such hazardous confrontation. Egyptian and international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) speak of ‘Widespread discrimination of Copts in Egypt’ in many fields. Such discrimination is not institutionalized and no clear legal provisions that would imply discrimination against Copts can be identified. Article 40 of the Egyptian Constitution stipulates that: ‘All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed’. However, on the ground of reality, there are many ways in which Copts are discriminated against despite official rhetoric that Muslims and Copts are Egyptians and treated alike. They remain underrepresented in positions such as intelligence services, top military ranks, school principals, presidential staff or even university deans. Before the revolution of 25 January, there seemed to be an unspoken rule of having one Christian governor and two ministers (one of which was a Minister without portfolio). In April 2011, demonstrations erupted as a new Christian governor was appointed in one of the provinces succeeding a Christian ex-governor. The demonstrations, in the course of which the local railway roads were destroyed, were headed by hard-line Islamists and led to suspending the assignment of the Christian governor (US Today reported).
The fear is that such margin of symbolic representation in the Egyptian public life for Copts is now shrinking after the emergence of hard-line Islamists who have the opportunity to demonstrate and express their views freely. These groups are promoting their understanding of the Saudi Arabian example of an Islamic State and refuse any kind of equality between Muslims and others. These fundamentalists are stating clearly that non-Muslims should have no right to be in the public life and even should not have the right to be conscripted in the army and would have to pay for protection by the majority. Such appalling claims had never been made that openly. Some consider this a side effect of sudden democratization in a country that was deprived of democracy under the Mubarak regime which had led to such radicalization.
The new Egyptian cabinet is not yet doing enough to tackle such crucial issues, let alone Egyptian civil society which are only addressing the problem in press releases after an incident. There is a need for a proper application of the national and international instruments that assure the right to equality and the new regime in Egypt is urged to sign and ratify the First optional Protocol of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which also grants the right to submit individual communications related to the application of the Covenant. So far the ICCPR has been signed by 113 states.
It is ironic that despite one of the three slogans of the Egyptian revolution was ‘Equality’, more demands by hard-line Islamists to segregate Copts are coming to surface and more escalation may, consequently, occur.