Since the unexpectedly strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in late 2005—and other rough seas that President Bush’s policies encountered in Iraq and Palestine—the administration has pulled in its horns on the promotion of democracy in the Middle East. Tactical retreats are not tantamount to an abandonment of policy, but apparently no one has told this to the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frances Ricciardone. In recent public comments Ricciardone has gone out of his way to excuse and cover up some of the most serious violations of democracy and human rights in Egypt.
In a television interview (the transcript of which is posted on the embassy’s website), the ambassador was asked about the circumstances of the Coptic Christians who constitute an estimated 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Here is the relevant exchange:
Interviewer: Do [Copts] have a problem? Are they a minority who suffers discrimination?
Ambassador: Even in the U.S., minorities may feel that they are discriminated against. This happens in every country of the world. What is important is that there should be legal protection for all minorities. This is found in Egypt. You even have what is more powerful than law, and by that I mean strong traditions, and the Egyptian spirit of tolerance and brotherhood.
Interviewer: Then you see no problem or discrimination against Copts in Egypt? And when you write reports as an American ambassador to the American administration, upon which the Congress or others make decisions, you don’t write that there is discrimination or bias against the Copts in Egypt?
Ambassador: Naturally, here in Egypt as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech, so it is possible for anyone to complain about any personal or social problem. If there is a problem, there are legal ways to deal with it, whether here or in the U.S.
Interviewer: But you don’t see that there is a Coptic problem or discrimination in Egypt?
Ambassador: Of course, I have not seen that personally, as I am not a Coptic Egyptian citizen.
Interviewer: If the American administration asked you one day, “We are writing a religious-freedom report in Egypt, and we need to know the position of the Copts in Egypt. Are they discriminated against or not?” How would you answer them? What would your report be here from the embassy in Egypt?
Ambassador: I will say that it is normal to have social issues, as with any place in the world. But I do not think that there is organized discrimination by the Egyptian state. There might be individual discrimination, or people who lack good manners, and as a result, complaints are voiced. This happens everywhere, even in the U.S. Egypt is no exception. This is something we must all stand against.
Here are a few items about the status of Copts that have no analogue in the U.S., items that Ricciardone seems to have overlooked:
• The Egyptian constitution specifies that Islamic law is “the main source” of Egyptian law.
• Copts do not have the right to build churches. They must get approval from the president of the country or from a regional governor. Such approval is not routinely granted. In one town, Asyut, the Christians have been waiting since 1935. There are also constraints on the height and location of churches vis à vis nearby mosques. The requirement for high government approval applies not only to building new churches but also to renovating or even repairing existing ones. Needless to say, there are no comparable constraints on mosque building or repair.
• Compulsory military service in Egypt is for three years—unless you can recite the Qur’an by heart, in which case it is reduced to one year.
• Al Azhar University is funded by the state, including the taxes of Christians. Although it is best known as a center of Sunni scholarship, you can also study medicine or history or other subjects there—but only if you are a Muslim. Non-Muslims are not admitted.
• Muslim clergy—like other employees in Egypt—receive social insurance from the state; Christian clergy do not.
Bad “manners,” indeed. Ricciardone’s whitewash of all this is bad enough, but his comment that “here in Egypt, as in the U.S., there is freedom of speech” adds insult to injury, coming just when the Egyptian government has begun imprisoning bloggers. One of them, Abdel Kareem Suleiman, was given three years* for insulting Islam. What is the penalty for insulting Christianity?
*Suleiman’s sentence length was originally misstated.