Stop Victim-Blaming Egypt’s Copts

A victim of Mexican organized crime
At a memorial service for victims of the Nov. 2 attack on Egyptian Copts
Michael Akladios


CAIRO — Following last Friday's attack on two buses and a microbus in Egypt's Minya governorate, killing at least seven Coptic Christians and injuring 16 others, both domestic and international media have deployed subtle and not-so-subtle examples of "victim-blaming" in their coverage.

Egyptian media highlighted the poor condition of the road on which the attack took place and speculated about lack of security, which had been debated in the months preceding the attack. Member of Parliament and journalist Mostafa Bakry, on his show Haqa'eq wa Asrar (Facts and Secrets) on Sada al-Balad, praised the efforts of the Egyptian military and security forces, saying, "No one says that police presence is lacking — they are everywhere. But this group went on roads away from security checkpoints to reach the monastery. Terrorists came along mountain paths and waited for them."

International media largely situated the attack within a context of Coptic Christians' presumed wholescale support for Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's regime. Such narratives not only attempt to posit the attack as an isolated or exceptional incident, but also reduces Copts to homogenous supporters of a regime that provides them with "special protection," and yet perpetuates their continued exclusion, persecution and death.

Mourners after the Nov. 2 attack on a bus with Coptic Christians — Photo: Gehad Hamdy/DPA/ZUMA

On November 2, Islamist gunmen opened fire on a bus leaving the St. Samuel Coptic Orthodox Monastery in Upper Egypt's Minya governorate. The attack is similar to another one that took place in May 2017, when gunmen opened fire on buses transporting Coptic Christians to the same monastery for prayers and pilgrimage, killing 28 people.

A New York Times (NYT) article by Declan Walsh and Mohamed Ezz, written on the same day as the attack, is emblematic of coverage about Egypt's Copts by Western media. The language deployed by such articles suggests that all Coptic Christians support Sisi's regime, and hence are partially responsible for the atrocities committed against them.

Sectarian attitudes also have a long and deep history in the country.

This religious minority, numbering between 8 to 10% of Egypt's total population, are often painted as avid supporters of the regime. Despite government intransigence over discriminatory church-building laws — less than 1 percent of churches and religious buildings submitted for government approval in early 2017 have been accepted — Islamist groups use the erroneous claim that Copts support Sisi and the military regime in return for a degree of protection.

As the authors of the NYT piece highlight, Sisi has consistently said he "has put security concerns at the heart of his autocratic style of rule," which is pure rhetoric. Sectarian attitudes also have a long and deep history in the country and do not need "the Islamic State's campaign to sow sectarian divisions," as the writers state.

Nationalists, Islamists and church reform movements in the 19th century helped to lay the groundwork for an emergent national identity that increasingly drew distinctions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Western intervention, in the form of British occupation and later United States imperialism, further entrenched such movements and engendered a more nationalistic, ethnic-based character in the service of nation-building. Categories of "minority" and "majority" peoples emerged further from these attempts to define the modern nation-state and to delimit its boundaries.

As noted scholar and feminist theorist Saba Mahmood has argued, by the turn of the 20th century, the state and its attendant institutions had brought religious life under new forms of regulation, and ultimately exacerbated religious differences. Sectarian identity thus became "sutured" to religion by the state, and thus subjected "to a new grid of intelligibility," so that majoritarian religious prejudices in the state could not be easily separated or named.

After years of exclusion and outright discrimination under former presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat respectively, increased segregation was prevalent in places of worship, social gatherings and decisions about with whom to interact and do business. One's name, as much as the cross tattoo on their wrists, became a marker of difference.

After years of economic stagnation and state securitization under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the 2011 revolution sparked a short-lived period of hope. This faded with the Muslim Brotherhood's ascendency to power. Such developments have only deepened historical divides in the country, leading to almost constant sectarian attacks by Egypt's Islamic State affiliate and other homegrown militant movements since the 2013 military coup.

The regime's usual response to such attacks? A period of national mourning, platitudes of "we are all Egyptian," and then silence. When individual attackers are named and arrested, justice is short-lived. The state imposes traditional reconciliation with obligated church support, which often leads to little more than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrators.

What Egypt needs today is not a "benevolent" dictator touting the language of protection. We do not need more guns, more walls and more soldiers dying. Egypt needs a government willing to support and elevate those who are destitute, who have less access to resources, and therefore are most likely to support fundamentalist organizations. Education, social welfare, community outreach and a renewed emphasis on infrastructure are vital to developing a language of inclusion.

This is very much a story distinguished by Egyptian history. Yet Egypt is far from unique, and the Middle East is not inherently more dangerous, or more violent, than anywhere else. The killing of 11 Jewish worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27 serves as a stark reminder. The New York Times has been all-too-vocal in pronouncing that a gunman opened fire in a house of worship fueled by President Donald Trump's anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric. Yet while denouncing such hateful acts and the vitriol of their own president, US media continues to perpetuate false Egyptian state rhetoric and a centuries-long orientalist vision of the Middle East and its peoples.

Stop blaming the victim. These atrocities do not happen in a vacuum. To say otherwise is to insult the memory of the deceased.


Note: This article was co-published with Active History.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!