Amid Turmoil, Armenians of Egypt on the Sidelines

by Nanore Barsoumian

( – As violence peaked in Egypt in recent weeks, and rumors spread about an attack on an Armenian church, the Armenian Weekly contacted members of the Egyptian Armenian community for their interpretation of the events unfolding in the country.

For the most part, the community had resented President Mohamed Morsi’s policies—concerned that religious polarization was being encouraged in the country, with Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their Islamist allies on one side, and moderate Muslims, Christians, and liberals on the other. So when tens of millions of Egyptians flooded the streets calling for an end to Morsi’s rule, many Armenians supported the demands of the protesters, some even joined the crowds.

A stained glass window in a Coptic Church in Cairo (Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

A stained glass window in a Coptic Church in Cairo
(Photo by Nanore Barsoumian)

In recent days, Armenians stood on the sidelines, witnessing the burning of—mostly Coptic—churches. Armenians still felt safe and, as our sources confirmed, they did not believe their lives or institutions were threatened or targeted, despite a recent incident in Cairo that endangered an Armenian church, and perhaps even lives.

“While police were dispersing the violent crowd at [Cairo’s] Ramses Square, some of the protesters hurled stones at the [St. Krikor Lousavorich] Church. As a result, the stained glass at the front of the church was affected minimally. Then, someone threw a Molotov cocktail. The bomb fell in the courtyard of the church, without any casualties or harm to the church,” a community leader* in Cairo told the Weekly.

“The Muslim Brotherhood knows very well what they are aiming at. They could have burnt the church earlier while marching to Ramses square. The incident happened later on, when they were dispersing. It wouldn’t be wise to exaggerate incidents we were not the targets of. Their targets are the Copts because they believe they were mainly responsible for toppling Morsi,” added the source.

An oral surgeon from Alexandria—Egypt’s second largest city that was once home to a vibrant Armenian community— assured that members of his community were safe. “Some people are being killed, a lot of churches are being burnt, but we, Armenians, are ok,” he said.

Armenians are remaining cautious, staying indoors whenever there is a threat of violence on the streets. An Egyptian-Armenian student said his family felt safe, since men in his neighborhood stood guard when mobs approached, despite that hours before the Armenian Weekly contacted him  a protest by Morsi supporters outside his apartment building concluded with gunshots in the air.

Churches ablaze

On August 14, Morsi supporters targeted Copts and Coptic institutions in the country, setting ablaze at least 50 churches, schools, and businesses, according to the Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper. They included one of the oldest churches in Egypt, the Virgin Mary Church in Minya that dates back to the fourth century, as well as Greek, Baptist, Catholic, and Evangelical churches. The perpetrators threw Molotov cocktails and firebombs at these establishments.

On Aug. 21, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the attacks, and the authorities’ failure to protect minorities. HRW compiled a list of 42 churches that had been attacked, and noted the shooting death of two Copts, and the murder of one Muslim and one Copt—coworkers that had hid in the bathroom of an establishment as a mob set it on fire. Meanwhile in the city of Minya, residents reported that Coptic-owned stores had been marked with a black “X” before being attacked.

HRW also condemned the attacks on police officers and stations. Since Aug. 14, 100 police officers have been reportedly killed. HRW also noted two instances where policemen were executed—13 in one case and 15 mutilated in another.

However, the organization also criticized the failure of authorities to protect minorities. “For weeks, everyone could see these attacks coming, with Muslim Brotherhood members accusing Coptic Christians of a role in Mohammad Morsi’s ouster, but the authorities did little or nothing to prevent them,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Now dozens of churches are smoldering ruins, and Christians throughout the country are hiding in their homes, afraid for their very lives.”

According to analysts, the attacks against Copts are at a scale that was never seen before. Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II has cancelled sermon for weeks in a row due to the looming threat of violence. In a public plea, Tawadros called on all Egyptians to refrain from violence, “I ask every Egyptian to preserve Egyptian blood and exercise self-restraint and stop any assault against anyone,” he was quoted by Al-Ahram as saying. Meanwhile, pro-Mosri protesters chanted slogans against Tawadros while attacking three churches, Coptic-owned businesses, two schools, and an orphanage in Minya city, reported HRW.

The violence directed at Copts is not an attack against Christians, but against the Egyptian nation, said our Armenian source in Cairo. And thus, Christians and moderate Muslims are united in their struggle against Islamist elements that are supported by the West, he added.

The response from the West—mainly the United States—seems to be an issue of concern for our Armenian sources. “Don’t listen to what the U.S. media is telling you about the Ikhwan [Brothers],” pleaded the student from Alexandria. “They’re not telling the truth. These people are terrorists. They are ready to kill anyone… they have burnt down and attacked churches all around Egypt, and still the U.S. and E.U. are protecting them. We, Armenians, are supporting the army and the police against Muslim Brotherhood terror,” he added.

The oral surgeon from Alexandria agreed, “Most of this trouble comes from the West backing the Muslim Brothers,” he said.

Morsi ‘became a dictator’

Over 30 million Egyptians flooded the streets demanding the resignation of Morsi on June 30. Protesters waved signs that read “Erhal ya Morsi” (Leave Morsi). Some local Armenians joined the protests, in solidarity with neighbors and friends and in fear of the future under Morsi.

The Rebel (also known as Tamarod) petition, which called for early presidential elections, reportedly garnered 22 million signatures that were authenticated through national ID numbers.

Protestors sought the army’s protection and support. On July 3, Morsi was deposed and power was entrusted with the Constitutional Court to run matters until a new government transitioned to power. Since then, around 900 people have been killed, including 100 police officers, and hundreds of Morsi supporters. Violence escalated when the army dispersed two pro-Mosri protests in Cairo that ended in bloodshed. In recent days, a number of Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested.

Our source in Cairo held that the protests and uprisings that led to Morsi’s removal from power were the result of a popular will, “a revolution against a fascist regime that harbored terrorists.” He also rejected the notion that Morsi’s removal amounted to a military coup.

In his view, the army—under the command of Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, simply backed the will of the majority of Egyptians—the estimated 30 million protesters that poured onto the streets of Egypt almost two months ago—just as it had done in January 2011, when protesters demanded the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak.

“Why didn’t anyone call [Mubarak’s ousting] a coup? We are talking about ten times that crowd.  The military helped [protesters] in that first uprising. Contrary to [reports by] the Western press, the military is the most stable element in the country,” he argued. “[Morsi’s government] was driving the country to hell.”

Those who called for the resignation of Morsi had much to blame on the new government— including intimidation and threats (even against elected officials), economic hardship, deteriorating security, political failures, and a drop in the standard of living. Morsi came to be viewed as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, an entity whose interests differed from those of the majority of Egyptians’, and whose agenda seemed cynical and dark, marked by greed for power and control.

“[Morsi] failed to provide Egyptians their basic needs. Instead of achieving what Egyptians had called for in the January 25 revolution—‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice and human dignity’— Morsi and the Muslim Brothers invested the past year in taking control, implanting their men everywhere,” said the source, “[Morsi] became a dictator.”

Among the main grievances of the protesters was Morsi’s move to issue a controversial constitutional declaration in Nov. 2012, concentrating more power in the hands of the President by exempting presidential decrees from judicial review.

In addition, religion seemed to increasingly be the order of the day. The new government made it legal for political parties to be formed based on religion. Religious television channels were established that allegedly aired programs that called for violence and attempted to polarize the country based on religion. The new government also allegedly prepared a list of journalists, activists, intellectuals, judges and politicians to be arrested.

“Unfortunately, President Morsi was nothing but the Muslim Brothers’ representative in the presidential palace,” said the source. “They used religion to seek power and remain in power. They opposed all factions in Egypt: intellectuals, Christians, the Azhar institution, the opposition, and even the Salafists—the largest Islamist faction— who had been their ally,” he added.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by the Islamic scholar Hassan al-Banna. The organization is active in most Arab states. The Brotherhood, which has renounced violence, aims to lead society through the Koran. In recent weeks some in the organization had blamed Copts and “the church” for participating in Morsi’s ouster and threatened “reaction,” while others had urged their followers to refrain from attacking Copts or Coptic establishments, according to HRW.

U.S. reaction

Currently, the Obama administration is considering whether to cut military aid to Egypt, and has delayed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to the country. But Obama’s government has also refrained from calling Morsi’s ouster a coup.

“My sense … with Egypt is that the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does,” said Obama during an interview on CNN on Aug. 23. “But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals.”

Obama also said that there is “no doubt that we can’t return to business as usual, given what’s happened… There was a space right after Mr. Morsy was removed in which we did a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of diplomatic work to try to encourage the military to move in a path of reconciliation… They did not take that opportunity.”

However, there are those in Washington who espouse a different view. In early July, The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its ranking Democrat released a joint statement urging support for the Egyptian army. The statement by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) contended that Morsi’s government failed to pursue “real democracy.”

“The decision by the Egyptian military to take state authority out of the hands of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood government marks another sharp turning point in Egypt’s incomplete revolution. What the Brotherhood neglected to understand is that democracy means more than simply holding elections. Real democracy requires inclusiveness, compromise, respect for human and minority rights, and a commitment to the rule of law. Morsi and his inner circle did not embrace any of these principles and instead chose to consolidate power and rule by fiat. As a result the Egyptian people and their economy suffered greatly,” read the Royce/Engel statement, adding, “We encourage the military to exercise extreme caution moving forward and support sound democratic institutions through which the people and future governments can flourish.”

Egypt and the Armenian Genocide

Recent reports claimed Egyptian interim President Adly Mansoor announced on Twitter that Egypt would sign the “U.N. declaration on the Armenian Genocide.” The story went viral despite the fact that such a declaration does not exist. It is also unlikely that the Twitter account actually belongs to Mansoor.

However, as relations between Egypt and Turkey are deteriorating, with both countries withdrawing their ambassadors, Egyptians have been increasingly more vocal about the events that took place at the turn of the 20th century. Turkey’s staunch support for the Muslim Brothers—both the Justice and Development (AK) Party and the Brotherhood are two apples from the same tree (as is the case with the Syrian opposition, supported by the Brotherhood)—has given rise to anti-Erdogan sentiments among those who opposed Morsi. Most recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel for being behind Morsi’s ouster. And thus, Egyptian-Armenians do hold hope that the country might officially recognize the Genocide.

“Egypt has started a campaign against Turkey, systematically exposing the issue of the Armenian genocide among other topics. The media, intellectuals, and politicians are raising this issue on every occasion. Human rights organizations are asking the Egyptian government to recognize the Genocide… Everybody seems to be concerned about the Armenian Genocide, in every talk show someone is bound to talk about it,” said our Cairo source, adding, “Even the publicity going on about genocide is a victory in its own.”

Armenians in Egypt

Starting in the 11th century, Armenians have brought their contributions to Egyptian history, holding important positions including the role of vizier. Egypt’s first Prime Minister (1878) was an Armenian by the name of Nubar Pasha, who held that post three times during his career. At the turn of the 20th century, Egypt’s wealthy Armenian community helped organize and support the post-genocide communities in the area.

However, many Armenians emigrated after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 led by Muhammad Neguib (first President of Egypt) and Gamal Abdel Nasser (second President of Egypt). Once numbered at 50,000, today’s Egyptian-Armenian population is estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000.

Note: Due to safety concerns, we at The Armenian Weekly have refrained from identifying the names of our sources.

Nanore Barsoumian is the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly.