A burnt-out church in Egypt in 2013
One never ceases to be astonished by the huge discrepancy between one assessment of the number of Copts in Egypt and another: the figures range from 5.7 percent of the overall population (and therefore a little less than 5 million people), according to the official census taken in 1996, to the 15 percent or even 20 percent sometimes claimed by ecclesial sources. (1)
The uncertainty about the actual number of Egyptian Christians adds to the malaise that the debate about national identity fuels amongst them. An overestimate of the Coptic population often goes hand in hand with a sort of ethno-nationalism that rejects the “Arabness” of the Egyptian Christians, the latter being considered more authentically “Egyptian” than the country’s Muslims. In reality, the issue of the Coptic population’s weight would be less thorny if citizenship were defined in terms of rights and duties.
In this extremely delicate moment of political and social transition while the debate about Egypt’s identity is raging, however, the question of numbers becomes vital. In any case, the Copts are unquestionably the most substantial Christian community in the Arab world today. Less hit by the emigration phenomenon (2) than the other Christians in the Near East (at least until recently), the Copts constitute Christianity’s most vital force and a presence that is decisive for its survival in the region that saw its birth.
Islamic identity and Coptic sub-citizenship
From the beginning of the 1970s onwards, Islamist rhetoric has taken advantage of the persisting poverty and inequalities in Egypt (aggravated by a predatory and dictatorial regime) to denounce the failure of imported models and call for an integral application of Islam’s principles as the only road to national salvation. Islamist action has become manifest, in particular, in repeated acts of violence against the Copts.
Having adopted an ambiguous policy that oscillated between veiled complicity and head-on coercion, the post-Nasser regime failed to suppress the rise of political Islam. At a practical level, it fostered a rampant Islamicization of the law, education, the media and many other contexts of society and, in addition, played on inter-community tensions in order to legitimize its own authoritarian practices. It sought to reinforce its own legitimacy by emphasizing, more or less radically, the “national” Islamic identity and reducing the Copts to a profoundly interiorized sub-citizenship, an insidious reincarnation of the dhimma ie, the inferior and discriminatory status imposed by Qur’anic law on the Peoples of the Book, until its abolition in the mid-19th Century. As Laure Guirguis has demonstrated most convincingly, the regime thus played the part of the sorcerer’s apprentice: on the pretext of cementing national unity, it actually presided over a genuine fragmentation of the country’s social fabric.
At the same time, the pontificate of Shenouda III (Coptic Pope from 1971 to 2012) distinguished itself for its exaggerated ecclesial control over the Coptic community as a whole. Excluded from a normal exercise of citizens’ rights and duties, the Copts found themselves confined within the safe but also inhibiting environment of the Church, which had become almost their only identity reference and so much so that the regime (in keeping with its strategy of segmentalization), considered the latter to be its only interlocutor.
Criticism of the patriarch’s conservative authoritarianism and confiscation of the channels of representation was voiced increasingly loudly by lay Copts, however. This criticism was to be revived, with an unprecedented passion of protest, by the young people who placed themselves at the head of the Revolution in January 2011. Contrary to every expectation, the latter revealed that the Coptic community was run through with the same cleavages that were racking Egyptian society as a whole.
Some lay Copts who were receptive towards modernity’s aspirations then realized that they shared more values with the “liberal” Muslims than with the majority of their brothers docilely obedient to the injunctions and conservatism of a Church that saw submission to power as the price to be paid for its monopolization of community life.
Thus, although the Church had warned against an insurrectional movement that it rightly feared would rapidly become Islamicized, many Copts participated enthusiastically together with their Muslim fellow citizens in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square that, on 25 January 2011, brought about the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. After several long months of ever-increasing social and economic deterioration, it was the attack on the Two Saints Church in Alexandria during the night of 30 December 2010 (an explosion that, rightly or wrongly, some people significantly attributed to the Minister of the Interior) that gave the go-ahead, so to speak, for the unrest, by causing the Christians’ wrath to explode against a government incapable of maintaining civil order, if not actually having a vested interest in compromising it.
Sweeping away a regime that in their eyes was devoid of any legitimacy, as well as being liberticide, greedy and indifferent to the requirements of social and economic justice, the Tahrir activists waved placards and flags in which the Islamic crescent embraced the Christian cross, a symbol of inter-community conviviality that appeared for the first time during the constitutionalist “revolution” of 1919. Many observers appeared to be openly optimistic: the revolution under way gave cause to hope in the birth of an Egyptian citizenship finally capable of transcending religious affiliations.
Unfortunately, this climate of consensus was short-lived, being very quickly ruined by instances of serious violence that laid bare a chronic malaise in inter-community relations. At the beginning of March, a church in Soul, in the southern suburbs of Cairo, was set on fire, provoking bloody clashes between Muslims and Copts in the rubbish collectors’ district of Mokattam, during which the army’s “intervention” cost 13 Christians their lives.(3)
Similar clashes occurred at the beginning of May in Imbaba, another poor district to the west of the capital where Muslim-Christian co-existence is particularly difficult as a result of the Islamist influence: an attack on a church where, allegedly, a Christian woman desiring to convert to Islam was being held against her will ended in 12 deaths.
The long, peaceful-protest sit-in outside the state television headquarters (a building bearing the name of the French Egyptologist Maspero) organized by some militant secular Copts (now known as Shabab Maspero, “Maspero Youth”) provoked brutal military repression that ended in carnage on 9 October. Approximately 25 people died: mainly Christians, many of them were crushed by the armoured cars.
In many peoples’ eyes, the ecclesiastical hierarchy was discredited, having being compromised by its connection with the delegitimized regime and its silence in the face of the army’s brutality. On 6 January 2012, the Coptic Christmas Day, Shenouda III’s solemn mass was sensationally interrupted by the hooting – something totally unprecedented – of a few young people outraged by the reception reserved to the generals present there.
Totally unrestrained brothers
The Copts’ massive electoral mobilization mainly in favour of the new Free Egyptians Party founded by the millionaire Naguib Sawiris, a telecommunications magnate, did not succeed in influencing the outcome of the December-January Parliamentary elections, which ended in a landslide victory for the Islamists: the Muslim Brothers and Salafis together secured 72 percent of the seats. The Presidential elections in June 2012 provoked un upsurge in non-Islamist voters: the Muslim Brothers’ candidate, Muhammad Morsi, was admitted to the supreme office only on the basis of a very narrow majority (51.7 percent) and at the end of a vote count suspected of being irregular.
Aware how fragile this victory had been, Morsi sought to give signals of goodwill by appointing advisors from the social and political minority groups. One such advisor was a Copt, Samir Morcos, who by November had nevertheless already resigned from a post utterly lacking any substance. Indeed, it had very quickly become evident that the President could not and did not wish to be anything but the servile instrument of a power-grabbing strategy on the part of the Brothers.
Acting as though the majority he had obtained through the ballot box gave him absolute freedom in the exercise of power, Morsi exceeded the limits of his mandate all too soon, launching a genuine bid on the part of the Muslim Brothers to take over the whole of society and appointing their representatives to strategic posts in many state institutions or para-statal organizations. As for the new Constitution, adopted after a referendum held in December 2012, this no longer referred to sharia generically and therefore in a manner that gave it little binding force (as the previous Constitution that preceded it had done) but, rather, used terms that smoothed the way for a heavy Islamicization of the legal system. To this were added incessant acts of violence carried out with impunity by militia groups affiliated with the Brothers (setting fire to churches, pillaging schools or the headquarters of associations, kidnappings for ransom….)
These abuses had already been the order of the day with Mubarak, but everything seems to indicate that, encouraged by the perception that the birth of an “Islamic state” was imminent, they grew steadily worse under Morsi’s presidency. Did not the Islamists go so far as to re-impose the jizya (the discriminatory tax abolished in the mid-19 Century) on Christians in some of the villages in Upper Egypt?
In April 2013, police passivity during the bloody clashes occurring near the Patriarchal cathedral in Cairo exasperated the Copts to the point of no return. En masse they joined the great popular opposition movement “Tamarrod” (“Rebellion”) that, uniting millions of Muslim and Christian citizens, was to bring about Morsi’s ouster from power. Elected on 4 November 2012 and appreciated for his theological and ecumenical openness (which broke with his predecessor’s ultra-conservative attitude), the new Pope Tawadros II had expressed his will, right from the start, to disengage the Church from the political field, leaving to the laymen the task of shouldering their own responsibilities.
However, faced with the threat of the total Islamicization that the Brothers were pursuing, he felt himself forced to enter the field and publicly support the army’s removal of the President from office on 3 July 2013: an event that some Western chancelleries and media likened, perhaps a little too readily, to a military coup d’état, when it is evident that Morsi had irremediably compromised not only his own legitimacy but also, according to some, the legality of his actions by virtue of his collusion with foreign jihadist groups active in Sinai, above all.(4)
The pope’s support led the Brothers to turn the Christians into scapegoats and accuse them of being the main promoters of the opposition to Morsi. The Coptic community immediately became the victim of savage reprisals which multiplied after 14 August 2013 when, with an excess of homicidal brutality, the army put down the last stronghold of Morsi’s supporters in Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya square. About 80 churches were set on fire, various community centres were laid waste, several Christians suffered physical violence and some were killed. For the first time in Egypt’s contemporary history, this abuse against Christians was recognised as such and exploited by the new power to justify the implacable repression of the Brothers.
Al-Sisi: the minorities’ saviour?
To the majority of Copts, as to many Egyptians, Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems like a saviour: the person who has prevented the Muslim Brothers cleaning out society, with all the dangers that that would have entailed for the Christians. Submitted to a referendum in January 2014 and supported by the Church, the new Constitution has taken significant steps forward, despite the fact that it has kept the old article 2, which refers to sharia as the principal source of legislation. Article 1 states that the system is “republican and democratic and is founded on citizenship and the rule of law.” Article 3 sanctions the autonomy of the Christian and Jewish minorities in matters of personal status and religion. In addition, it opens up new perspectives on the freedom to build places of worship (an extremely delicate subject).
There is no doubt that the lethal descent into lawlessness that has followed the fall of the Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan dictatorships has acted as a deterrent. Many people believe that the only way to avoid chaos or a seizure of power by the most radical Islamists is by returning to a strong state. The attention that al-Sisi has shown the Christian community after 21 Coptic workers were despicably decapitated by Libyan supporters of ISIS in February 2015 has evidently strengthened his image as the guardian of interreligious co-existence.
If the regime’s “muscular”, securitarian profile is giving rise to many reservations, it would be wrong to condemn it too hastily. Al-Sisi is, moreover, a complex man who is not to be deciphered all that easily. A devout Muslim whose wife wears the veil, he seemed to be offering his hand to the Copts in all sincerity. At least, this is how his presence at the Patriarchal Christmas liturgy in January 2015 – a first in the country’s history – was interpreted after some policemen had been killed in front of the church over which they were mounting guard in Middle Egypt only the day before.
Al-Sisi’s declared will to fight the gangrene of a rancorous and stick-in-the-mud ideological radicalism deserves encouragement, to say the least, whatever its underlying political motivations may be. The courageous speech he made to al-Azhar’s authorities on 1 January 2015, a few days before the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, must also be greeted with the same interest, even though it passed almost unobserved at the time. Al-Sisi acknowledged that the fear and rejection of Islam that are spreading worldwide have been caused by Islam itself and that this fear is well founded. Calling for a renewal in Muslim thinking, he echoed two declarations published by al-Azhar (in June 2011 and January 2012 respectively) in favour of freedom of religion, opinion, scientific research and artistic creativity, in addition to a democratic civic state.
Taking note of the trust that the Copts and many of their Muslim fellow citizens have in al-Sisi, ought we not, perhaps, to give him time, rather than judge him solely according to our “democratic” paradigms; paradigms that it is unrealistic to seek to impose on the Near East? It is this patience that the Egyptian Christians – when they have the opportunity – are inviting their Western friends to exercise, not without emphasising that it was the violence of the Muslim Brothers’ plan to swallow up everything that handed the new power a blank check on a silver salver for the re-organization of a securitarian state. But most people agree on the fact that the heavy-handed and even brutal manner in which al-Sisi is managing his counter-offensive can be justified only if it is provisional.
A re-opening of dialogue at a national level, based on the aspirations expressed by citizens in January 2011, is the only feasible way forward. It must be followed as a matter of urgency if a definitive crystallization of the resentment caused by the violence following the revolution of 3 July 2013 is to be avoided: this as much in the Islamist circles that have been subjected to repression and pushed by it into extreme radicalization as in the Coptic community, wounded by the devastation suffered as a result of being unjustly accused of having been the main cause of Morsi’s fall from power.
The Copts’ island
Having supported Marshal al-Sisi’s seizure of power and a partial return to the old authoritarian mechanisms, are the Copts perhaps now risking, as some fear, slipping back into the social and political seclusion of a minority “protected” by a state that, in fact, bolsters its segregation? Or have the culture of debate and the aspiration to citizenship generated by the events in 2011 left enough of an imprint on the dynamics of their identity to give them the drive to free themselves of this ambiguity to which other Christian communities in the Near East, starting with the Christians in Syria, have also fallen victim? In addition, despite the new Pope’s first declarations of intent, are we not, perhaps, witnessing the return of a Church that is arrogating to itself the exclusive right to represent Christians, despite increasingly insistent criticism from within?
The novelty is that, at this stage, the Copts no longer appear to be a homogenous whole but, rather, a highly variegated community that is therefore capable of responding to present-day challenges in different ways.
The recent documentary by the director-producer Ahmed Rashwane, L’île des Coptes (“Copts Island”) depicts this heterogeneousness very effectively. In all likelihood, the majority of Christians maintains an attitude of obedient and devoted loyalty to the Church, accepting the paralysing restrictions of its protective wings. But there are also many – including the young people enthusiastically in favour of modernity and civic democracy who are close to the Maspero movement or the Free Egyptians – who share in the criticism of an institution considered too rigid (particularly regarding the problem of divorce) and oppressive. Some, like the fringe group “Copts 38,” (5) have gone so far as to express their dissent by joining the ranks of the Salafi party, al-Nur. In particular, the film highlights the intensity of the debate that is dividing Copts precisely regarding what attitude to adopt vis-à-vis a new government too closely linked to the military, a military deemed responsible for the Mokattam and Maspero massacres.
If al-Sisi succeeds in restoring a satisfactory stability and getting economic and social improvements under way, will he have the intelligence and the will to distance himself from the old power structures and take the first steps in constructing a genuine state founded on the rule of law, in which the principles of citizenship prevail? In an Arab-Muslim world at the crossroads, it is on this evolution that the Copts’ exit from their community ghetto and their solid engagement in Egyptian social and political life depends, together with a Church at that point devoted above all to her essential mission of animating spiritual life and promoting solidarity.
Christian Cannuyer is a professor at the Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Lille. He is president of the Belgian Society of Oriental Studies.
(1) See the excellently documented article by Cornelis Hulsman, “Discrepancies between Coptic Statistics in the Egyptian Census and Estimates Provided by the Coptic Orthodox Church,” Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales, 29 (2012), pp. 419-482, which concludes that the official censuses are generally credible, despite a small margin of error caused by the odd tension or manipulation of data.
(2)The number of Copts in the diaspora is difficult to evaluate. The most common estimates put the figure at somewhere around one million, but some propose far greater numbers. Not without reason, this diaspora has often been accused of aggravating, from the outside, the community rift between the Muslims and Copts who have remained in Egypt.
(3) See the stimulating study by Gaétan du Roy, “La campagne d’al-Misriyyin al-Ahrâr chez les chiffonniers de Manchiyit Nâsir,” Égypte/Monde arabe, 10 (2013), which shows how, following these events and in the context born of the revolution, there has emerged a Coptic vote that seems to have responded to the Church’s political concerns and is at the same time expressing itself in a demand for transparency and democratisation inside the Church.
(4)The appointment of Adel Muhammed Al-Khayat as governor of Luxor says a lot about the murky connivance between the president and the most radical “takfirist” groups: Al-Khayat had been convicted in his capacity as leader of the group that killed 57 tourists near the archaeological site of Deir el-Bahari in 1997.
(5)This group owes its name to the confrontation that arose in 1938 between the Coptic lay community council (Majlis millī) and the Church’s Holy Synod regarding the possibility of extending the divorce beyond the sole case of adultery. This issue is still extremely delicate: indeed, every year, the impossibility of divorcing on grounds other than adultery pushes many Copts to convert to Islam in order to be able to divorce and remarry. In July 2015, another fringe group, al-Sarkha (“the Scream”), even asked for Pope Tawadros II to be deposed for his inflexibility on the issue. It is onto this problem that the incredible sagas of Wafaa Constantine and Camilia Shehata, the wives of two Coptic priests, were grafted in 2004 and 2010. According to some, these women would have wanted to convert to Islam in order to divorce: something that the Church would have prevented them from doing by force. These vicissitudes provoked violent reactions in Islamist circles and so much so that they were exploited by Al-Qaeda and ISIS to justify crimes against Christians (the massacre of Coptic workers in Libya in February 2015, in particular). They have revealed the extent of the communitarian entrenchment over the issue of religious freedom.
Christian Cannuyer, Les coptes : renouveau spirituel et repli communautaire, in Vincent Battesti and François Ireton (Eds), L’Égypte au présent. Inventaire d’une société avant révolution (Sindbad-Actes Sud, Arles, 2011), pp. 901-916.
Sebastian Elsässer, The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era (Oxford University Press, Oxford), 2014.
Antoine Fleyfel, L’Égypte, le combat pour la citoyenneté, in Id. Géopolitique des chrétiens d’Orient (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2013), pp. 151-180.
Laure Guirguis, Les coptes d’Égypte. Violences communautaires et transformations politiques (2005-2012) (Karthala, Paris, 2012).
Gaétan du Roy, “Les coptes et la révolution : l’identité chrétienne dans l’espace public,” in Bernard Rougier and Stephan Lacroix (Eds), L’Égypte en révolutions (PUF, Paris, 2011), pp. 253-268.
Fadel Sidarouss, “Le rôle des chrétiens dans la culture arabo-musulmane de l’Égypte contemporaine,” in Marie-Hélène Robert and Michel Younès (Eds), La vocation des chrétiens d’Orient. Défis actuels et enjeux d’avenir dans leurs rapports à l’islam, Actes du colloque international à l’Université catholique de Lyon (26-29 March 2014) (Karthala, Paris, 2015), pp. 88-111.
Mariz Tadros, Copts at the Crossroads. The Challenge of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press, Cairo-New York, 2013).