Monday, July 26, 2010

The Tragedy of Egypt's Copts

The Tragedy of Egypt's Copts ...

by Tarek Heggy.

   In Egypt, the Copts are being denied access to certain high positions, deprived from the freedom to build new churches, and suffering from increasing suffocating fanaticism from all directions.

   My special interest in the Coptic question, which is known to many people, led me to conduct an in-depth study of the history of Christianity in Egypt, in an attempt to acquaint myself with the source of the Coptic culture in all its dimensions and aspects.  This entailed establishing close relations with hundreds, not to say thousands, of Copts, including many prominent figures of the Egyptian church.  A number of Coptic friends believe that the Coptic question has reached a critical stage, and others dismiss this as an imaginary problem with no basis in reality.

   Before going into the subject, I would like to state that the basic premise from which my thought proceeds is that the Copts are (or should be) genuine Egyptian citizens, that is, first-class citizens.  Egypt is their country; they are not living here by the grace of others, but are fully entitled to enjoy the status and rights of nationhood, as full partners, not as charity cases.

   If this premise is disputed, there can be no dialogue. This essay is neither addressed to those who regard our fellow countrymen of the Coptic faith as second-class citizens allowed living amongst us thanks to our tolerance and magnanimity, nor, a fortiori, to those who call for the imposition of the jizya (the poll-tax payment required of non-Muslims) on members of the Coptic community.  To engage in a debate with anyone who rejects the basic premise of this essay is to embark on an exercise in vain. No purpose would be served in trying to initiate what would essentially be a dialogue of the deaf.  On the other hand, if the reader accepts the basic premise of this essay as an incontrovertible truth, then there is room for dialogue, provided, however, that no one presumes to speak in the name of the Copts, whether in expressing their grievances or in denying that these grievances exist.  Actually, not a single individual or entity in Egypt today, official or unofficial, can claim that the Copts have no problems or complaints.  In writing these lines, therefore, I do not presume to speak for the Copts but only to convey to the reader what I have heard over and over again from ordinary Egyptian Coptic citizens, who cannot possibly be classified as rebels or extremists. I am familiar with the allegations of the extremists, which I will not go into here.  I will only write what I have heard over the years – and believe to be true – from those who can only be described as moderate Copts. The basic issue is: "Do the Copts in Egypt suffer from serious problems in their own country?"  The only possible answer is: "Yes".

   Yes, Copts fear for themselves, their families, their property and their safety much more than Muslims do, though the latter, too, are not completely safe.

   Yes, Copts suffer from a public atmosphere of fanaticism characterized by severe animosity towards them.

   A major grievance over which there is complete consensus within the Coptic community is that the right to construct new churches or restore old ones has until recently been severely curtailed by legislative and bureaucratic constraints.  Although these constraints have been somewhat eased, most Copts believe the situation is still far from satisfactory.  I believe that the only way out of what is clearly an untenable situation is to unify the laws governing the construction and restoration of all houses of worship, whether they are called mosques or churches.  These laws should lay down a set of rational rules applicable to all Egyptians, regardless of creed.  For it is totally illogical that one segment of society should be subjected to arbitrary constraints, while another is allowed to enjoy unbridled freedom when it comes to constructing places of worship, or congregating to offer prayer when and where its members choose. Indeed, and it is often the case, even when, this leads to chaotic situations involving obvious violations of law, people are too intimidated to challenge the offenders, leaving them free to flout the law with impunity.

   But while this is a major grievance, it is far from being the only, or even the main reason for the widespread feeling among Egypt's Christians that they are living a tense moment, not to say a crisis situation.  They have a lot more to worry about than the need to obtain a license before they can build a new church, although this is a flagrant case of institutionalized discrimination that is totally unjustified. After all, what possible threat can the construction of a new church represent?  Churches are used either as houses of worship or as community centers where people congregate for weddings and funerals; banning or constraining their construction is an abridgement of a basic human right.  Still, the Coptic community has other more serious complaints that can be summed up as follows:

·       The existence of a general climate that allows for the resurgence of a spirit of religious intolerance at different times and in certain areas of the country.  Copts are finely attuned to this phenomenon, as sometimes the mere mention of their name is enough to trigger a hostile reaction.

·       There is a widespread feeling among Copts that their participation in public life has gradually dwindled over the last fifty years.  Their sense of marginalization is borne out by the facts like in 1995, when not a single Copt was elected to parliament.

·       There is, moreover, the specter of communal violence, which can flare up at any time as it has done in the past, most notably in the Koshh incident.[1]

   A few analytical remarks on the feelings of unease that these issues engender among the Copts may be useful here.

   First, with regard to the general climate which breeds a spirit of hateful fanaticism, this did not come about by a governmental decree or a political decision, but was a natural result of the defeat of the Egyptian revival project, especially after the June 1967 debacle.  The vacuum was quickly filled up by a fundamentalist ideology and culture, which put itself forward as an alternative to the movement for a new Egyptian awakening.  With the spread of the cultural values of this trend (whose members committed many crimes, most notably the assassination of Anwar Sadat),[2] the general climate fell prey to the forces of conservatism and regression which inevitably bred a situation of hostility towards the Copts.  As a noted Egyptian intellectual once put it, whenever the revival project is defeated in Egypt, this has negative repercussions on two groups of Egyptians: women and Copts.  The opposite is equally true; in a vital and dynamic cultural climate, the attitude towards these two groups is enlightened and in keeping with the values of civilization and progress.  It may be unfair to blame the current regime for creating an environment which breeds fanaticism and allows the resurgence of religious intolerance, with the attendant risk of communal violence. However, it is a fact that the government could have done, and can still do much to limit the dangerous polarization that has come to characterize the cultural climate in Egypt today.  To that end, it must adopt a policy aimed at the positive reinforcement of a culture of religious tolerance to replace the spirit of fanaticism threatening us all.  While educational curricula and information media are the right place to start, we must not forget the importance of religious pulpits in shaping public perceptions. For there can be no hope of progress if Islamic religious institutions oppose a cultural project aimed at eradicating the spirit of religious intolerance which has taken hold in our society.  This is why Al-Azhar must follow the vision of the regime, not the other way round.  To leave matters to the men of religion is to accept the spread of a theocratic culture; logic and experience prove that theocracy cannot possibly support a culture of tolerance and acceptance of the right of others to differ; neither can it accept the notion of unity through diversity.

   I am well aware that what I propose is easier said than done, and that the Egyptian government faces a daunting challenge.  But I also know that the role of any "leadership" (in the broad sense of the word; that is, the executive leaders), is to formulate a vision, and work towards achieving it.  In order to succeed, they must lead, and not allow themselves to be led.  It would be wrong to claim that the regime is by its nature unwilling to face up to the challenge, or that it is responsible for creating the ugly spirit of fanaticism that has come to pervade our society. However, it has turned a blind eye to this aberration for a long time, only slowly coming to realize that the ideology behind the culture of fanaticism is the main enemy of the regime. It is this ideology which spawned the assassins of Anwar Sadat, the would-be assassins of the Addis Ababa incident, and the perpetrators of many other crimes.[3]

   Second, with regard to the widespread feeling among Copts that their representation in public life has shrunk considerably over the last few decades, this is borne out by official statistics.  However, this should not be seen as a deliberate attempt by the regime to keep Copts out of public office.  It should rather be seen as a negative phenomenon that grew insidiously over the years, unnoticed by successive governments and driven by its own dynamics, until it has reached its present unacceptable proportions.  But whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Copts are marginalized in Egyptian public life, and this is a situation that merits serious study.  I, for one, believe that the explanation of this phenomenon lies in the mentality our public officials have developed in recent years, which is characterized by a refusal to admit to the existence of problems, and an insistence on claiming that all is best in the best of all possible worlds.  This mentality is rooted in another cultural specificity, namely a refusal to accept criticism and an inability to engage in self-criticism.  To claim, as some do, that the situation is of the Copts' own making, that they have become marginalized because they are too passive and too taken up in financial activities, is to put the cart before the horse.  It is true that the Copts are passive and that they are involved in financial and economic activities, but that is a result not a cause - the result of having too many doors closed to them despite their undeniable abilities.

   Although I am deeply convinced of the truth of the above analysis, I am also aware that it is incomplete. The same doors that are slammed in the face of highly qualified members of the Coptic community remain closed to many highly qualified members of the Egyptian society in general.  The political game in Egypt today is open only to those willing to play by certain rules established over the last few decades; these rules are by their nature repellent to skilled professionals with any sense of pride, they are based on personal loyalty, nepotism and other mechanisms having nothing to do with professional abilities.

   Third, with regard to the violent communal clashes which flare up from time to time, most recently in Koshh and, before that, in Khanka[4]  - to mention just two of the many violent confrontations to which our recent history bears witness -, these are the result of a number of factors, the most important of which are:

·       An official line that seems determined to play down the gravity of the situation, in the mistaken belief that admitting to the existence of such problem would be detrimental to Egypt's reputation.  In fact, Egypt's reputation would be better served by confronting the problem head on, rather than pretending it doesn't exist.

·       The spread of a culture pattern characterized by ignoring problems, extolling achievements and singing our own praises.

·       A failure to make use of the many worthwhile efforts made to study and analyze the root causes of such incidents, such as the famous report put out by Dr. Gamal Oteify[5] on the spate of communal clashes which broke out in the nineteen seventies.  His findings and recommendations could have been put to good use, had it not been for a cultural propensity to dismiss the clashes as a minor problem instigated by external forces for the purpose of destabilizing Egypt.

   The purpose here is not to accuse or blame anyone, but to present an objective and neutral study which aims, like the late Dr. Oteify's report, at casting light on some elements of the problem.  To accuse the government of persecuting the Copts would be both illogical and unwise.  But it would equally be illogical and unwise to pretend that they have no legitimate grievances and that their situation is ideal.

   Therefore, to accuse anyone who speaks of these matters of being an agent of parties hostile to Egypt, or of being involved in a plot against Egypt is simply a bad joke, an insult to the truth and an affront to reason; the style of riffraff, and a reflection of the style of the security services' investigations department, which tends to abandon the heart of the matter and pursue marginal issues related to personalities, suspicions and conspiratorial thinking.

   This security-service mentality is one of the factors that contributed to the collapse of objectivity and rationality in our thinking, and that made this kind of thinking so far removed from objective and civilized modes of analysis, which are one of the achievements of human civilization; its time has passed.

   Nonetheless, I was visited a few years ago by a person whose high-level position and job had direct bearing on the Coptic issue; he asked me why I was so enthusiastically involved in what I call in my writings "the Coptic issue". I told him at the time that as an Egyptian, it was my obligation to do so, and this was also what made me support women's issues in Egypt - because Egypt, which is sick today, will never get on the road to recovery so long as Copts and women do not take part in treating Egypt's problems from a position of full and unimpaired citizenship.  An oppressed person whose rights are denied cannot participate in pushing forward the broken wagon.  I was sure that this visitor did not understand what I told him, because he had been trained to treat the Copts as a threat to Egypt, despite the fact that they are the original Egyptians.

   At the time, I also told him: "If the Coptic issue is not discussed here, in Egypt, it will eventually be discussed abroad, and if we don't recognize all the aspects of the problem, then the Copts abroad will take their cause from the stage of merely crying out that they are being oppressed, to the stage of calling it a human rights issue; then, many will pay attention to them on an international level, including important decision-makers."

   When I was young, I heard the Arab adage: "Most fires start from tiny sparks that people overlooked." Today, we realize that most troubles result from their having been ignored when they were small.  We demand from the world that they believe our claim of being above reproach in our treatment of non-Muslims and women, and we relish repeating this, while the world looks at our deeds and finds them to be totally contrary to what we say.

   To return to the issue of the Copts in Egypt, I contend that the fact that most senior officials continue to ignore the Coptic issue will bring Egypt to crises which I can almost make out on the horizon.  They are similar to the crises of others in the region - others who were prey to the temptation of ignoring some problems, and especially of ignoring the realities of today's world, that is, the post-Cold War world.

   This is a world in which the idea of sovereignty in its old sense, which had been stable for the many decades preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, is no longer of any use to anyone.  There are those who understand this new world, and there are those who are unable to understand and take in all the dimensions of this change…

   I can think of no better way to conclude than with the following story: In the course of a debate on the Coptic question, someone asked me what the needs and demands of the Copts were. I began with their second demand, and then moved on to the third, fourth and fifth.  But what, he asked, is their first demand?  I replied that what they needed above all was a "social embrace", in the sense of being made to feel that there is a genuine desire to listen to them and hear their complaints and problems, in a spirit of brotherly love and sympathy based on the belief that they are equal partners in this land, not second-class citizens belonging to a minority that has to accept and bow to the will of the majority.

   For a real and comprehensive solution to the Coptic question, we only need to look back at the time of Sa'd Zaghloul,[6] who established an exemplary model of communal relations that can serve as a glorious point of departure for a contemporary project to lay this nagging problem to rest once and for all.

   There are good reasons making Sa'd Zaghloul the beloved of the Copts, and we would do well to emulate the example he set so many years ago.[7]




[1] Koshh is a village in Upper Egypt in which hostility from rigid and intolerant Muslims took place more than once and ended (in 1999) by a massacre in which more than 20 Copts were murdered.

[2] (1918-1981 AD) Egyptian President from 1970 to 1981 AD Graduated from the Military Academy in 1938. Expelled from the army and imprisoned in the 1940's subversive political activities and suspicion of participation in plots to assassinate senior political figures. When he was released he rejoined the armed forces in 1950. He took part in the 1952 Free Officers Revolution and was a close ally of Gamal Abd-Al Nasser, who appointed Sadat in 1969 as his vice-president. When Nasser died, in September 1970, Sadat succeeded him as president. During the first years of  his presidency Sadat quelled leftist opposition, surprised Israel in what was considered the victory of the 1973 war, reoriented Egyptian foreign policy towards the West (especially towards the USA), reversing its long pro-Soviet inclination. He introduced a series of economic and political reforms, promoting liberalization. In 1977, in a dramatic act and as a gesture demonstrating his will for peace, Sadat flew to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Knesset (parliament). The culmination of the process initiated by his visit was the signing of an Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement at Camp David. In his last years in power, Sadat's rule suffered from growing disillusionment and opposition (mainly from Islamic elements), manifested in the popular riots that broke out in 1977 and his assassination, during a victory parade, on 6 October 1981 by Islamic militants belonging to the Jihad group.

[3] Assassination of Egyptian President Sadat in 1981, attempt to the life of Egyptian President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June 1995 ....

[4] Name of a suburb of the greater Cairo area where the Copts were subjected to Savage and intolerant hostility in 1972.

[5] Egyptian Minister of Culture under President Sadat.

[7] These reasons were exhaustively addressed in an old article of mine which was published in Al-Akhbar newspaper on 19 February 1987 under the title "Sa'd Zaghloul and the Unity of the Two Elements of the Egyptian Nation" and re-   published later as a chapter in the author's book, "The Four Idols".  Also available at "".  


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