On November 2, at least seven Egyptian Christians were shot dead and another 17 injured in an attack on a minibus leaving a baptism at the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor in the southern province of Minya. The Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, just as they had for a May 26, 2017 shooting that killed 28 Egyptian Christians at the exact same site. Graphic videos and images taken by monks and visitors to the monastery showing dead men, women, and children quickly went viral on Egyptian social media less than hour after the attack took place. However, both state-owned and private media remained quiet, keeping Egyptians in the dark for hours while the outlets waited for instructions on how to cover the event. While consistent with the state’s policy of using the media to support public morale, this incident could both erode trust in the state’s ability to provide security and even undermine Christians’ support for President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Since Sisi took office in June 2014, he has emphasized that the media’s role is to support the state, whether in its fight against terrorist organizations or its economic and development policies. In the wake of another attack on December 11, 2016 at the Botroseya Church in Cairo that killed 25 he also criticized the media for publishing photos of terror victims and their relatives’ grief, claiming that such practice gave terrorist groups a sense of victory.
This thinking is also reflected in Egyptian law. The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Law, for example, imposes hefty fines of between 200,000 and 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($11,000 to $28,000) on journalists whose reports about terrorist acts contradict official statements. This essentially requires the media to hold off reporting on such incidents until after either the ministry of interior or the ministry of defense releases an official statement, allowing the state to cover up certain attacks and control the narrative on others. “We received clear orders not to publish any information related to the attack, or even statements offering condolences except those circulated by the (state-owned) Middle East News Agency,” a senior editor at a private daily newspaper said.1 It has been customary practice for the presidency, General Intelligence, or the Interior Ministry to issue orders to newspapers and television channels on what to publish and not to publish. This includes not just terrorist attacks but other major stories such as the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey on October 2.2 The result has been deteriorating confidence in the local media, especially when nearly all newspapers and television stations—most of which are either owned by the state or by businessmen close to the state—report official statements only.
However, in the recent incident, officials’ main concern was that too much media coverage of the Minya attack would negatively affect coverage of the World Youth Forum that Sisi was scheduled to open the same day at the lavish Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. Sisi, who rarely holds news conferences, prefers to speak his mind through tightly organized conferences known in the local media as “youth conferences,” in which he meets with selected young men and women. Last year, the Egyptian presidency decided to expand the forum to include youth from all over the world, and more than 5,000 young men and women were invited to take part in the second annual three-day conference, with dozens of workshops discussing dialogue among civilizations, the role of social media, and creative proposals to overcome unemployment.
Eager for tourists to return to Egypt, the state has been promoting the World Youth Forum for weeks as an opportunity to prove to the world that security in Egypt has improved and the threat of terrorism nearly eliminated. The Minya attack was therefore embarrassing for Egypt’s security. So when local media finally started reporting on the Minya attack, pro-government analysts immediately claimed that terrorists aimed at spoiling Sharm El-Sheikh’s event. However, critics pointed out that the conference hardly received any international media coverage in previous years that would make it a prime target for terrorist groups. By contrast, the Islamic State has been regularly attacking Egypt’s Christians since late 2016, sending suicide bombers to heavily crowded churches in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in late 2016 and 2017.
As Egypt’s Christians were mourning the latest victims of terrorist violence, social media users wondered whether President Sisi would declare a state of mourning to honor the victims. However, the indifference of officials attending the conference in Sharm El-Sheikh added salt to injury. Rather than reporting on the attack, pro-government channels were busy covering the opening of the Sharm El-Sheikh conference. Newspapers were requested not to publish photos of grieving family members lest they spoil the official celebration of the Youth Forum.3 And throughout the three days of the conference, front-page headlines were devoted to Sisi’s statements warning of the dangerous effects of social media—likely a reference to the viral posts about the Minya attack—which he claimed creates “false impressions” that lead to revolt without appreciating the consequences, as seen in the Arab Spring.
However, what most infuriated the country’s Christian minority—and social media users critical of the Egyptian president—was the official statement the Ministry of Interior issued hours after the shooting. The statement mainly blamed the victims, claiming that the visitors “used a back road to reach the monastery, adding that the main road to the monastery had been closed per security instructions due to the danger present in the western part of the governorate, where the monastery is located, and the lack of communication networks in the vicinity.” Pan-Arab satellite television channels, such as BBC Arabic, France-24, Al-Jazeera, and the pro-Muslim Brotherhood channels based in Turkey aired bitter complaints by relatives of the dead victims of the Minya attack blaming security failure for the attack. They said that after the first massacre of 29 Christians in May 2017 visits to the Monastery of St Samuel resumed only a few days later, and that there was simply no security presence close to the monastery. And although the desert road leading to the secluded place was dark and unpaved, there was no such a thing as a “back road.”
The Ministry of Interior released a second statement the following day, claiming that security forces had managed to kill the 19 terrorists suspected of taking part in the attack, prompting widespread skepticism on social media that those killed were in fact responsible. Many wondered why, if security forces were so efficient in arresting the alleged perpetrators hours after the shooting, they had failed to prevent Friday’s attack in the first place.
This incident illustrates the deteriorating public confidence in the local media and in official claims that the state has successfully weakened terrorist groups. Perhaps more significantly in the longer term, it has reopened Christians’ grievances that the state does not do enough to protect them. Because the country’s Coptic Christian minority of nearly 10 million people were seen as key supporters of the Sisi regime, they have been particularly targeted by extremist groups such as the Islamic State. Sisi also maintains close relations with Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church, paying an annual visit to the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo to mark Christmas, unlike former presidents. He also issued orders to Egypt’s army to rebuild all the churches burned in the unrest following the army’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
However, the repeated terrorist attacks against Christians have led to pressure on the pope and leaders of the Coptic Church to tone down their repeated praise of Sisi. For example, the pope and his top aides were criticized for issuing orders to Copts living in the United States to sit in the front rows during the annual UN General Assembly meetings in New York so that they could greet Sisi. Even before the latest attack, and despite initial hopes that their fortunes would improve under Sisi, many of Egypt’s Christians have been increasingly complaining that no response has been made to their long-standing grievances regarding discrimination or the right to worship freely. When the archbishop of Minya, Anba Makarious, who led the funerals for the victims on November 3, started offering traditional words of gratitude to government and interior ministry officials who offered help after the attack, mourners angrily interrupted him, shouting, “No, No, No.”
While the majority of Egypt’s Christians were considered to be supporters of Sisi following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood more than five years ago, more Copts are now critical of the regime, saying that official gestures such as visiting the Cathedral during Christmas was not enough. The repeated terrorist attacks against Christians—together with sectarian clashes that sometimes take place in small villages in southern Egypt, especially when Copts try to build churches—has shaken the strong relationship between the two. Thus, if Sisi moves forward with potential, controversial amendments to the constitution, for example to allow him to run for a third term, the Coptic Church and Egypt’s Christians might not support that move.
Khaled Dawoud is the deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly, and adjunct professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Follow him on Twitter @KDawoud.
1. Interview with author, Cairo, November 3, 2018.