With Egypt experiencing its second major transition in two years, there is both great concern and real opportunity for religious freedom in the country. During President Morsi's year-long tenure, sectarian attacks proliferated, even as encouraging signs of solidarity became increasingly common. Widespread anxiety at the increasing Brotherhoodisation of key institutions, growing discontent at continuing crackdowns on civil society and deep disillusionment with a severe economic slump led to vast public protests from 30 June 2013 onwards. These resulted in the ousting of President Morsi by the military and the creation of an interim government. The period since Morsi's removal has been marred by an excessive crackdown on his supporters and escalating sectarian violence. Extremist groups have attacked Christian communities, holding them primarily responsible for Morsi's downfall.

Freedom of religion or belief

While a degree of freedom of religion or belief was provided for in successive constitutions, violations of this right are widespread, and stem from both state and non-state actors. Longstanding issues include the lack of a unified law to govern the construction and repair of places of worship and national identity cards that continue to state religious affiliation, occasioning difficulties for converts from Islam and members of religious minorities. 

Former President Morsi ran for office on the promise of being a president for all Egyptians, even pledging to appoint a Copt as Vice-President. These promises went unfulfilled. Hate speech and attacks on Christians, Shi'as, and atheists continued under Muslim Brotherhood rule, with blasphemy laws often used against Christians, atheists and others despite a lack of coherent evidence. A number Christian women and girls have been kidnapped and forcibly married and converted to Islam. Unprovoked physical assaults on public transport have been reported, and Christian girls have suffered discrimination in schools.  

Threats to religious diversity

The majority of Egyptians follow Sunni Islam, though there is a small number of Shi'a, Ismaili and Sufi Muslims. Estimates of the Christian population vary from ten to twelve percent of the overall population, with the majority belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.  The Muslim Brotherhood sought to impose a strict Sunni interpretation of shari’a (Islamic) law, as evidenced by the now-defunct 2012 constitution, which named Al-Azhar, the highest authority of Sunni Islam, as the source of authoritative interpretation of shari’a law.  Moreover, the constitution only guaranteed religious rights for followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, neglecting Baha’is and other religious minorities. 

Increase in sectarian attacks

Attacks on Coptic-owned churches and homes continue to occur, particularly in parts of Upper Egypt. 

In April 2013, a direct and sustained attack on St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, targeting the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the home of the pope, shocked the international community. The attack took place as Copts left the cathedral after a funeral for four men who died during attacks on Christians in a suburb ten miles north of Cairo, and continued without intervention for several hours. Despite evidence to the contrary, the mourners were blamed for starting the violence, and on arrival, police fired tear gas into the cathedral grounds, where many Copts were taking shelter.

The number of attacks on Coptic churches, homes and businesses surged dramatically following the removal of the president and the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins. Sectarian violence has been accompanied by continuing calls by Brotherhood-affiliated religious and political leaders for attacks on the Christian community, which they accuse of a key role in engineering Morsi’s fall.  In a particularly disturbing case, on 16 September 2013, the security forces regained control of the town of Delga in Minya province, which had been in the hands of pro-Morsi Islamists since mid-August 2013.  During that time Delga’s Coptic community had been subjected to a reign of terror, violence and extortion, and was reportedly forced to pay Jizya, a head tax levied by early Islamic rulers on non-Muslim subjects with dhimmi or ‘protected status’, as a mark of submission.

Sectarian attacks have also occurred in the Sinai region, which continues to experience instability and a lack of governance. In July, Father Mina Cheroubim was shot dead in northern Sinai by two masked men. Another Copt, 60-year-old Majdi Lamai Habashi was kidnapped on the same day, and his body was found five days later close the border with Gaza with his throat slit.  On 1 September, Hani Samir Kamel, 37, was shot dead in El-Arish. 

As attacks on security forces and police mounted in the wake of Morsi’s removal, the Egyptian authorities eventually launched a large-scale crackdown on Islamist militants in the area.

Hate speech

Prior to Morsi’s ousting, Islamist members of parliament, including senior Muslim Brotherhood members, participated in hate speech against the Shi'a community, with Salafi sheikhs making inflammatory comments in Morsi’s presence during a Syria Solidarity Conference in Cairo. The danger of such speech was illustrated in June 2013, when hundreds of Sunni Muslim men attacked Shi'a homes in Giza. Four Shi'a men were killed, including a prominent cleric, and their bodies were dragged through the streets while the attackers chanted.  The mob also torched homes and caused several injuries.  

Former President Morsi is known to have made derogatory comments regarding Jews, terming them 'the descendants of apes and pigs'.  Since his fall, mosque megaphones have been used to incite violence against the Christian community.


Sectarian violence has flourished in a climate of impunity engendered by inadequate or delayed responses on the part of the authorities.  Deep imbalances in the application of the law with regard to charges, arrests, and convictions for sectarian incidents result in a lack of consequences for perpetrators, contributing further to the emergence of impunity.  

Informal reconciliation meetings instituted in the aftermath of sectarian attacks have also played a part in the development of impunity. These meetings occur outside of civil law, consequently perpetrators are not formally convicted.  Victims are often placed under pressure to accept a decision that does not compensate them adequately, thereby depriving them of justice.

CSW’s work in Egypt

CSW has monitored developments in Egypt closely, highlighting chronic hindrances to freedom of religion and belief for minority religions, instances of intolerance, oppression, and religiously-motivated violence. Briefings and reports have been provided to officials in the UK, UN, and EU. CSW continues to raise these issues, and is calling for human rights in general and freedom of religion or belief in particular to remain priorities within the new constitution.  CSW continues to call for equality of citizenship, the equitable application of the law and effective prevention of sectarian attacks.  In 2011, CSW ran a timely year-long campaign bringing supporters and activists together to highlight religious freedom violations and underline the need to ensure equality citizenship for members of minority faiths. 

Timeline of key dates

11 February 2011: Mubarak steps down and is replaced by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)

9 October 2011: 26 unarmed demonstrators killed by the armed forces in what has been termed the Maspero Massacre, also known as ‘Egypt’s Bloody Sunday’

16-17 June 2012: Morsi wins presidential runoff with Ahmed Shafiq, taking office on 30 June

22 November 2012: Morsi unilaterally appropriates supreme power, making his decisions immune from judicial review, and sparking protests

30 November 2012: Following the withdrawal of liberals, Islamists in the constituent assembly rush to complete the draft of the constitution. Morsi sets a December date for a referendum.

4 December 2012: Over 100,000 protesters march on the presidential palace, demanding the cancellation of the referendum and a new constitution. Islamists subsequently attack anti-Morsi sit-in sparking fighting that leaves at least ten people dead.

15-22 December 2012: Constitution passed in the two-round referendum with a very low turnout.

25 January 2013: Many thousands protests against Morsi on the second anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolt against Mubarak

30 June 2013: Millions join public demonstrations initiated by the Tamarod group

1 July 2013 : Egyptian military gives Morsi and the Brotherhood 48 hours to address popular grievances 

3 July 2013: Head of the army, General Al-Sisi, announces Morsi’s removal, the suspension of the constitution  and the creation of an interim government (led by Adly Mansour) will carry things forward

August 2013: Pro-Morsi sit-ins are dispersed with excessive loss of life.  Christian homes and businesses and communities suffer violent, on-going attacks, while terrorist elements target the security forces in the Sinai

Fast facts

  • The majority of Egyptians (80%) profess Sunni Islam, while a significant proportion (10-12%) are Christian, and for the most part, from the  Coptic Orthodox Church
  • There are also Shia and Sufi Muslims, Baha’is, atheists, and other religious minorities. 
  • Official language: Arabic
  • Population: 80 million
  • Percentage of population who signed Tamarod petition: 26%.
  • Percentage of electorate that voted for Morsi: around 15%

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