For six weeks, Egypt has been sitting on top of a sectarian volcano. Protesters, men and women, have been exiting mosques following prayers almost every single Friday since the beginning of September to demand the “release” of Camillia Shehata, a Coptic priest’s wife who they believe has converted to Islam and is now incarcerated by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The demonstrators hold aloft pictures of a woman, said to be Camillia, wearing a niqab (full face veil). They raise slogans against the head of al-Azhar, the world’s oldest Sunni mosque-university and Egypt’s premier Islamic institution, for his quiet about the case. Most significantly, they openly accuse Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of the Coptic flock, of keeping Muslim women in Christian custody against their will and accordingly demand that he be removed as head of the Church.

Given the great sensitivity of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt, it is remarkable that the authorities have allowed the protests to build and to spread. On September 3, demonstrations took place near the giant al-Fath mosque in downtown Cairo. The ensuing week, after the ‘Id al-Fitr prayers that mark the close of Ramadan, protests occurred at the ‘Amr Ibn al-‘As mosque in Old Cairo, calling upon President Husni Mubarak to “recover” Camillia from Church custody. On September 24, thousands joined a gathering outside the al-Qa’id Ibrahim mosque in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria to reiterate the plea for presidential intervention. On October 1, thousands more, including members of the Islamist-led lawyers’ syndicate and numerous cadres of the salafi movement, took to the streets around al-Fath. The next week, an estimated 2,000 people demonstrated in Alexandria repeating the chants about Camillia and denouncing Pope Shenouda and other Church hierarchs.

There have also been sporadic demonstrations by Copts, including a handful in the diaspora, as Egyptian Christians living in the United States and Great Britain protest the anti-Church rallies taking place in their home country. Coptic protesters in Egypt usually assemble at the Coptic Patriarchate in the central Cairo district of al-‘Abbasiyya, where Pope Shenouda resides. In this crisis, however, he has strictly prohibited any such actions on the premises.

Sectarian ill will surfaces periodically in Egypt, and has been on the rise in recent decades as the country’s Coptic Christians — 10 percent of the population (estimates vary) — chafe at the growing religious conservatism of the Muslim majority and the seeming acquiescence of the state in an “Islamization” of society. A pattern of simmering distrust boiling over into occasional violence emerged under the rule of President Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s. In the most dangerous incident of 2010, three Muslim men carried out a drive-by shooting of six Copts (and one Muslim guard) outside a church in the Upper Egyptian town of Nag‘ Hammadi in January. The men are currently on trial. But in the intervening months the tensions have reached a new intensity, with highly influential local religious figures trading the sort of insults and inflammatory accusations that normally remain at the level of the general public. Intellectuals and renowned public figures have also become embroiled in the disputes, often taking clear sides in assigning blame to either the Church or the state.

Pontiff and Public

If there is no doubt that sectarianism in Egypt has escalated in the spring and summer of 2010, the question is why. The first reason is bound up with the perennially touchy topic of the prerogatives of the state and the Church in treating Copts as both citizens and members of a religious community. Many of these issues have to do with gender relations.

On May 29, the Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the Coptic Church was obliged to allow two divorced Coptic men, Hani Wasfi and Magdi William, to remarry. The men had been granted civil divorces but, in accordance with Church regulations, were prohibited from wedding again. Pope Shenouda held a press conference and insisted that the Church is entitled to abide by biblical teachings that outlaw divorce, regardless of what the state says. Hundreds of Copts protested on the premises of the al-‘Abbasiyya cathedral against the court decision. The pope appealed to the president and shortly thereafter, the Supreme Constitutional Court overruled the verdict, closing the case, but not the file.

Popular reactions were divided. On the one hand, there were those who attacked the pope for his contempt for the rule of law. They argued that the refusal to accept civil divorce is only one indication of the Church’s unchecked powers as a state within a state. Advocates of this stance were Islamists, human rights activists and a few Copts known for their pro-government stance. On the other hand, there were those who maintained that the lower court’s ruling was an affront to the principle of respect for the autonomy of each religious group in mediating personal status matters — marriage, divorce, child custody — in accordance with its own religious precepts. Supporters of this position were other Islamists, who spoke of the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim jurisprudence, and Coptic advocacy groups in the diaspora.

Pope Shenouda may have emerged triumphant in the eyes of his followers after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled in his favor, but public opinion was split, with many wondering about the proper limits of the papal sphere of influence. The crisis also revealed the extent to which all parties were deploying a human rights discourse to advance non-democratic ends. Islamists, intellectuals and high-profile, pro-government Copts who had long minimized or even denied religious discrimination against Copts by state and society were suddenly eager to defend the rights of Copts against the Church. The Church, which had conventionally resisted the Islamization of politics, was suddenly making reference to the rights of non-Muslims under Islamic law. Women’s rights organizations, which had never defended the rights of non-Muslim women in Muslim family law (despite the serious compromises of gender equity therein [1]), were suddenly all excited about saving Coptic women from the patriarchal Coptic leadership.


The moral panic came to a head with the case of Camillia Shehata, 27, known in the media and on protesters’ placards simply as “Camillia.” It all began at the end of July, when she was reported missing by her husband, the priest of an Upper Egyptian parish. Hundreds of Copts demonstrated amidst suspicions that she had been abducted and forcibly converted to Islam. Shortly afterward, the state security investigations apparatus revealed that Camillia was in Cairo and was not being held hostage. The police placed her in the custody of her husband and father, in keeping with deeply patriarchal (and bicommunal) norms of treating women as minors in need of guardianship. Her family said she was residing at an undisclosed location belonging to the Coptic Church. On the street, however, the story became that she had been “handed over” to the Church. Rumor had it that Camillia had willingly converted to Islam and taken up the niqab; now she was being punished. Mosques packed for prayers at the end of Ramadan became rally sites where banners were lifted for “freeing sister Camillia” and taking disciplinary action against Pope Shenouda. The Arab Network for Human Rights Information held a press conference on missing persons at which it called upon the Coptic leadership to allow Camillia to speak freely to the “outside world.” Women’s rights figures stood up to demand the emancipation of Camillia from an oppressive Church.

Camillia then appeared in a video clip posted on YouTube. She confirmed state security’s tale that she had left her home of her own volition and had not been abducted. She continued that she was not being held against her will by the Church, but was in seclusion to escape the media and its intrusion into her personal life. According to interviews with family members, she had left home because of a protracted marital dispute, a situation to which her husband, the priest, later admitted. The prominent Islamist thinker Salim al-‘Awa stated on the air that Camillia had not converted to Islam and had been “handed over” to her family.

But the matter was far from over. State security said the video was authentic, but doubtful protesters claimed that the woman on screen was not Camillia, but a lookalike. Muslim women dressed in the niqab entered the streets in dozens to demand that “sister Camillia” be allowed to practice her religion, Islam. In the meantime, there were reports that a women’s rights organization, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Aid, intends to file a lawsuit against the Church to compel disclosure of Camillia’s whereabouts. [2] In a September 15 interview with the widely read newspaper al-Misri al-Yawm, Bishop Bishoy, second to Pope Shenouda in the Coptic clerical hierarchy, added fuel to the fire. He was asked if monasteries and other Church properties should come under the management of the state, as many of the protesters want. The bishop replied, with considerable annoyance, “That’s incredible! The people who demand such things are forgetting that the Copts are the original inhabitants of Egypt. We are interacting lovingly with guests who descended upon us.” [3] A few lines earlier, Bishoy had referred to the jizya — the poll tax formerly imposed upon non-Muslims, which the Copts paid until 1856 — so he left no doubt that the “guests” were Egypt’s seventh-century Arab conquerors and their Muslim descendants.

On the same day, an enraged Salim al-‘Awa took to Al Jazeera’s airwaves to excoriate Bishoy’s remarks. He emphasized that, in the case of Camillia, an authoritarian regime is allied with a Church that is refusing to comply with the constitution, the rule of law and the sovereignty of the Egyptian state. He then accused the diocese of Port Said of importing weapons from Israel by sea, presumably in preparation for armed action against Muslims. It was the first time, he concluded, that there was an organized separatist plan for the establishment of a Coptic state. This incendiary allegation, emanating from a figure of such political weight, was enough to spark sectarian attacks across the country, as demonstrators outside mosques exclaimed, “We are not guests!” The police, meanwhile, leaked to the press that the Port Said shipment in question was from China, not Israel, and that it contained toys, not weaponry. [4]

Lost Honor of Lost Women

The hubbub over Camillia is a clear case of how sectarian sentiment can be fomented and directed by individuals sharing notions of imagined communities, as famously conceived by Benedict Anderson. There will never be a shortage of women to serve as pawns in the struggles to preserve religious communities perceived to be under threat.

Almost every actor of political significance — human rights advocates, intellectuals, writers, political figures — has had something to say about Camillia. Interestingly, and to their credit, the Muslim Brothers have not. While leading Brothers, such as Ibrahim al-Za‘farani, a former candidate for Parliament in Alexandria, have been seen at demonstrations demanding Camillia’s “release,” the organization itself has kept mum. The Brothers’ abstention notwithstanding, there has been a strong sense among many Muslims that a recalcitrant Coptic leadership is willfully provoking the Muslim majority. Copts, on the other hand, have perceived a predetermined agenda to portray Camillia as a Muslim, irrespective of the measures taken to show her free agency. They have been alarmed, as well, that many demonstrations have moved on from the specific matter of Camillia to shout another message: Down with Pope Shenouda. Given that protests in Egypt occur at the sufferance of state security, why the police have not cracked down on these particular rallies is a burning question.

Islamists and several “progressive” elements of civil society blame a defiant Church leadership for the recrudescence of hard feelings between Muslims and Christians. This narrative, while popular, is disconnected from history. If the Church was in fact detaining Camillia against her will, it would certainly be in flagrant violation of basic human rights.

In Egypt, however, there is no freedom of religion in the first place. Egyptian citizens who are not Sunni Muslims do not enjoy equal rights to practice their religion freely. [5] In the Camillia saga, it is important to remember that while the majority of Sunni Muslims are subject to severe restrictions, and possible persecution, if they wish to convert to Christianity, Christians are permitted to embrace Islam as a matter of course. The imbalance in the right to freedom of religion was further accentuated with the abolition by state security of the “reconciliation committees” in 2003. These committees allowed the Church or Coptic families to verify whether members who wished to convert were doing so of their own free will. This move has only intensified the conviction of Copts that they must rely on the Church’s bargaining power, rather than citizenship rights, to negotiate with the state. It is evident, however, that Pope Shenouda has lost his credibility among the wider Egyptian polity, which may leave room for Copts to work on internal reform, including the ouster of Bishop Bishoy. Within the Church, there is a nascent resistance movement against what is perceived to be Bishoy’s lack of accountability. Yet the politics of the Church cannot explain the tenor of the current crisis.

It is a truism of study of patriarchal societies that concepts of honor are tied to women. The Coptic demonstrations in Upper Egypt upon the “disappearance” of Camillia were driven by a sense of having lost a priest’s wife to a predatory Muslim majority. The phenomenon of abduction is thoroughly gendered in Egypt, since it is always a woman, and never a man, who is thought to have been abducted for the purposes of conversion. When rallies took place in every corner of Egypt later, they were driven by a desire to emancipate the Camillia who had ostensibly donned the niqab from the clutches of the church. The gatherings were about defending the honor of Muslims in claiming what is rightfully theirs — a sister in Islam. At no time in memory has such a large number of women wearing the niqab engaged, week after week, in collective protest.

Certainly, there have been fierce sectarian clashes over land, places of worship and the commentary of religious leaders, but none have so fired the imagination of both Muslims and Christians like cases involving women in this intensely patriarchal society. At the same time, some women’s rights activists have taken a partisan side, assuming that Camillia is being held against her will, which suggests that they, too, have fallen into the trap of objectifying the woman under scrutiny. Tellingly, none of the women’s rights activists who spoke out had any constituency of Coptic women behind them. The stand of these women side by side with staunchly anti-feminist Islamists demanding Camillia’s “release” shows that the crisis of inter-communal relations is underpinned by more than the politics of gender.

In late September, the Egyptian press reported that the aforementioned Bishop Bishoy had circulated a draft lecture in which he contested the authenticity of a Qur’anic injunction. The text suggested that a few verses implicitly critical of Christians were not revealed to the prophet Muhammad, as Muslims believe, but were added to Islam’s holy book at a later date. The reaction of Egypt’s Muslim majority was immediate. There were more angry protests outside mosques in Cairo and Alexandria, and an official of al-Azhar declared that he was “shocked.” Appearing on national television, Pope Shenouda said, “I am very sorry that the feelings of our Muslim brethren have been hurt. We are ready to make amends in any way.”

With sectarian tensions running high, President Mubarak convened a select group of intellectuals on September 30 to discuss how to restore calm. The next day, however, there were more demonstrations following the Friday prayers, with hundreds of Muslims denouncing Pope Shenouda for instigating inter-communal discord.

Muslims, including important Islamist writers, have slammed Pope Shenouda for not distancing himself more quickly from Bishop Bishoy’s written lecture. Asked by his national television interviewer why he had allowed days to lapse before speaking out, the pontiff said he had not foreseen the extent of the furor. He stressed his personal friendship with top al-Azhar sheikhs, with whom he regularly confers on matters of mutual concern, but never on “differences in religious belief.” “These matters aren’t just red lines,” the pope said. “They are deep red lines.” Many Copts heard these comments as an unwarranted apology for what Bishop Bishoy said, and the pope seemed to backtrack in a later interview with the Arab Christian satellite channel al-Hayat, insisting that he did not apologize, but merely expressed sorrow for the injury to Muslim sensibilities.

An Entente Gone Sour

The Egyptian regime is practiced at deflecting the public’s attention from grave political and economic crises with the religion card. One case in point is the vehement debate in 2006 over Culture Minister Farouq Husni’s negative public statements on veiling, at a time when the regime was busily designing fixes to the electoral system that had, much to their chagrin, sent 88 Muslim Brothers to Parliament the preceding year. At the current political moment, the regime again desperately needs a diversion. First, the growing dissent surrounding the transparency of the upcoming November parliamentary elections has put stress on the regime, while tarnishing its external image. Second, with official sources stating that the prices of vegetables and fruits (not to mention meat) have risen by 300 percent, the government is particularly wary of issues that can unite the population across various dividing lines. The independent-minded writer and regime critic Ibrahim ‘Isa brilliantly captured this dynamic in an article titled “Copts, Muslims and Meat.” [6] ‘Isa was fired on October 5 from his position as editor of al-Dustour newspaper after he insisted on publishing a short piece by the independent opposition figure and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei. It is no secret that the termination order came from al-Sayyid al-Badawi, who had purchased the paper the previous month and is the leader of the Wafd, a regime-friendly opposition party. The firing of Ibrahim ‘Isa, as well as other critical writers, may be seen as part of a clampdown on the press, which serves the same purpose for state security as the sectarian demonstrations, guaranteeing minimal attention to the parliamentary elections.

In addition, the entente long established between Pope Shenouda and state security has been crumbling. The unwritten accord, which characterized state-Church relations in the 1980s and 1990s, entailed the pontiff’s complacency toward sectarian incidents and open allegiance to the regime in return for state security’s preservation of his stature and elimination — or at least marginalization — of his internal opponents. [7] Since the Wafa’ Qustantin saga in 2003, however, the entente has been under great strain. Wafa’ Qustantin, also a priest’s wife, went to a police station to report her desire to convert to Islam. She appeared later before a state prosecutor to insist on remaining a Christian, but was moved to an unknown church, where she currently resides. Pope Shenouda lashed out against the state’s handling of the crisis, and the police, by handing over Qustantin to the Church, emerged as defeated in the eyes of public opinion, particularly in the eyes of Islamists. In the Camillia episode, state security is also perceived to be bowing to the Church. It is logical that state security would leave the pope to suffer the full force of the unruly popular reaction, in the form of sustained demonstrations and other open calls for his removal. State security has clearly emerged victorious in the interim, leaving Pope Shenouda with minimal room for maneuver, all the more so after Bishop Bishoy’s inflammatory statements.

Those who are most likely to suffer the full force of sectarianism in the short run are the Christian poor, the socially and politically marginalized Copts living in deprived communities. The animosity toward Bishoy is so acute and pervasive, and the allegation of weapons concealment in churches so explosive, that poor Copts are likely to be under more pressure than ever before to be apologetic and low-key. The slander matches between the likes of Bishoy and al-‘Awa can only complicate any efforts at social cohesion on the ground.

In the meantime, the space for advocates of a rights-based approach to citizenship, one that focuses on separation of religion and state, is getting narrower and narrower. On October 10, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights launched a “Reject Sectarianism” campaign, featuring a powerful online video of young Egyptians talking frankly about the issue. But those who genuinely believe in a rights-based framework have neither the power of numbers nor the clout afforded by allies in high places. Egyptian electoral politics, focused as it is on promising patronage to clients, offers little hope. A discourse of rights for all citizens, irrespective of religious affiliation, is simply not a vote getter. The sectarian crisis of 2010 has exposed the widening circle of actors involved in sowing inter-communal strife, but it has not introduced an honest process for addressing the roots of sectarianism, one that would include attention to the role of state security. The question is what it will take to make that process happen.


[1] Mariz Tadros, “The Non-Muslim Other: Gender and Contestations of Hierarchy of Rights,” Hawwa 7/2 (2009).
[2] Al-Misri al-Yawm, September 22, 2010.
[3] Al-Misri al-Yawm, September 15, 2010.
[4] See Ruz al-Yusuf, September 25, 2010; and al-Dustour, September 19, 2010.
[5] See the website of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights for updated analysis of freedom of religion and belief in Egypt:
[6] Ibrahim ‘Isa, “Copts, Muslims and Meat,” al-Dustour, September 27, 2010. [Arabic] [7] See Mariz Tadros, “Vicissitudes in the Coptic Church-State Entente in Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41/2 (2009).

How to cite this article:

Mariz Tadros "Behind Egypt’s Deep Red Lines," Middle East Report Online, October 14, 2010.

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