Since the removal of President Morsi from office in July, Egypt’s vulnerable Christian minority has been caught in the middle of a highly destructive zero-sum political showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military-backed government.
While violence against Christians is nothing new in Egypt, the polarization of the past several months has taken it to unprecedented levels.
Many Christians have been killed. More than a hundred churches, homes, and businesses have been attacked. Perpetrators have not been brought to justice.
The violent sectarianism is one of the most alarming aspects of Egypt’s political crisis. If left to fester, this crisis could not only lead to even worse persecution of religious minorities but destabilize Egypt and the entire region.
Such an outcome would be profoundly harmful to the interests of the United States and our allies. The U.S. government needs a brand new policy, one that puts Egypt’s commitment to human rights and democratization at its core.
The Muslim Brotherhood bears considerable blame for fueling a climate of anti-Christian intolerance.
Following Morsi’s overthrow, his supporters blamed the Copts, claiming that their hostility to Islam and to the idea of a Muslim Egypt had led them to conspire with the military and hostile foreign powers, like Israel and the United States.
At the same time, the current government seems more interested in using anti-Christian violence to depict the Muslim Brotherhood as extreme than in preventing it. This tactic of pointing to the violent excesses of Islamic extremists to resist reforms is reminiscent of the Mubarak era.
Egypt has been down this dead-end road before, and there is no reason to believe that today’s repressive security state will be any more successful in creating stability than previous iterations.
The current government and security apparatus are largely made up of the same people who have held power in Egypt for decades. They are unlikely to change by choice.
There needs to be progress towards a political solution in Egypt, one that includes movement towards political reconciliation as a first step.
Indeed, if the Coptic Christian minority and other vulnerable populations such as Bahai’s and Shia Muslims are to be protected, political reconciliation—including permitting some supporters of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political process—is imperative.
Credible Islamist leaders need to condemn violence, and there is little incentive to do so when thousands are in jail, frozen out of the political process and indiscriminately labeled as extremists and terrorists, as the official media in Egypt now appears determined to do.
The United States should not ask Egyptians to accommodate Islamists who espouse violence or hatred, but neither is it in U.S. interests for the large part of the Egyptian electorate that wishes to support an Islamist political party to be disenfranchised.
The Obama administration should publicly promote political reconciliation and intensify its efforts to cultivate it.
The United States should push for adherence to human rights standards by working with its donor partners to establish sizeable, sustained economic incentives, including IMF loans, which should be conditioned on human rights reforms. Likewise, the Obama administration is right to set human rights conditions on full resumption of aid to Egypt.
The State Department and USAID should increase its efforts —bilaterally and/or multilaterally—to fund independent civil society organizations that have the capacity to monitor government institutions and to expose official wrongdoing, as well as promote religious tolerance.
Finally, the U.S. embassy in Cairo needs to work with embassies from like-minded countries to show consistent support for civil society, and to explain to the Egyptian public why it is supporting universal values—not as some conspiracy to undermine Egypt’s sovereignty and harm Egypt’s interests, but as part of a global commitment to universal human rights.
Persecution of religious minorities is not only horrific in its own right but also predictive of wider upheaval.
In the alarming spike of violence against Christians, the U.S. government should discern a grave threat both to Egypt and its own interests.
Tad Stahnke is Director of Policy and Programs for Human Rights First.