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Pol/Econ: The Copts and Egyptian Nationalism: Two concepts of Egypt
Sunday, 13 May 2007 Written by Henry Midgley
The Coptic Pope
Shenuda III
(Click for large image)
The events of the last weekend in Egypt have not been positive for the minority Christian Coptic Community. On Friday in a response to the construction of a new church in a village south of Cairo, Behma, around 300 Muslims rioted and 10 Coptic worshippers were injured. Today brought news that 59 Muslims had been arrested for taking part in the attacks. Most of the reports on the situation, have beyond noticing the fact that the attacks happened and that Copts in general have been tolerated in Egypt, said little else about the context for what has gone on.

What does violence against the Copts though say about Egyptian society- what can we glean from looking at this incident and others about Egypt and the political alternatives that it faces. I have to say that the reporting of this is not yet fully in- and parts of the picture may change as the evidence comes in- but there are some conclusions we can I think reach about the place of Copts within Egyptian society and the reasons for agitation against them.

Whatever caused the attacks on the Copts- we know who has attacked the Copts in the past- radical Islamist groups were responsible for a wave of attacks in the 1990s and nor should it go unnoticed that attacks against Copts have risen in the last couple of years as the vote for the Muslim brotherhood has also risen. There is a correlation here which is worth investigating- and which I think we can understand if we begin by trying to elucidate what membership of the Egyptian state means- because the issue of persecution of the Copts is a microcosm of a much bigger issue- what does it mean to be an Egyptian?

Two concepts of Egypt: An Egyptian is an inhabitant of Egypt?

Many liberals within Egyptian society would argue that every person in Egypt is ultimately as much an inhabitant of Egypt as any other person. Their model of nationality is that an Egyptian is ultimately an inhabitant of Egypt- going further they would state that an Egyptian is someone who traces an inheritance back to ancient Egyptians. Copts themselves are very keen to claim this kind of Egyptian heritage- the US Association of Copts for example argues that the Copts are the original Pharonic inhabitants of Egypt and Copts have warned the outside world not to intervene to protect them because it might seem that they were not Egyptian.

Such a national idea of Egyptianness is sustained by the regime which in theory is committed to the individual rights of its citizens and their religious liberty. Article 40 of the Egyptian Constitution grants freedom from discrimination on religious grounds- and the preamble to the constitution significantly cites Egyptian pre-Islamic history as a matter of pride to the Egyptian people. Despite references to the Islamic religion of Egypt, the tenor of the constitution, especially its preamble, is Egyptian and nationalistic- it sits squarely in the tradition that the Copts can be part of an Egyptian state. A tradition reinforced by the fact that the current Finance Minister is a Copt and that President Mubarak in 2005 when he appointed his discretionary MPs, out of the 10 appointed, appointed 5 Copts. A 2002 report from the US government noted that Egyptian efforts in this respect were making an impact

Two Concepts of Egypt: Egypt is a Muslim Nation?

That though isn't the view of many Egyptians. Said Qutb famously argued that the Egyptian government was pagan because it was not Islamic- he suggested and many of his followers later carried out his instructions complete opposition to the government in all its forms- the false God of nationalism threatened to lead people away from Allah and into the bosom of the atheistic delusion of Nasserism. Qutb and his followers argued that the regime needed to be resisted and that the only good regime was an Islamic one. Many Islamist thinkers are more moderate than Qutb but almost all would agree that the proper regime is a regime based upon Sharia and based upon Islam- in such a regime the status of Copts would not be as a persecuted remnant- but definitely would be as people of the book, subordinate and segregated from society.

Qutb's thought is obviously out on the extreme of Egyptian Islamism- but the Muslim Brotherhood have been accused of fomenting the same kind of views- talking about the Copts not as fellow citizens but as non-Muslims who should be tolerated as people of the book in a subordinate position. We should be careful though about the main target of this argument- the main target is not the Copts- but is the change that these groups wish to bring about in Egyptian society. Of course there are societies around the world which do manage to both define themselves religiously and treat minorities well- but if you define yourself by your religion and state that membership of your state is dependent on a religious view, toleration becomes increasingly difficult and absolute equality impossible- even if the only privileged position for your religion is in your rhetoric. Turning back to the Copts, despite claims from the Brotherhood, there is reason to worry about the rise of Islamism in Egypt. It is possible for the Brotherhood to claim that they are not explicitly anti-Christian but because their idea of a nation is defined by religion, their politics is implicitly anti-Coptic.

The Islamist interpretation of Egyptian society as something that can only be made up of Muslims receives influential backing from within the state. In 2006, the British House of Lords listened with concern to reports that the Egyptian government demanded its people carry their religious affiliation on ID cards- something that creates the opportunity for easy discrimination. Furthermore Copts have had difficulty in getting permission to build churches from state authorities. Education is another area of concern- according to the Egyptian constitution education is a duty of the state and religious education lies at the centre of that. As Lydia Adel Habib argued in 2005 to the UN Commission on Human Rights, schools and universities produce a system in which ordinary Egyptians are taught that Islam is the norm and that non-Muslims are not really members of society (her evidence is contained in this word document.) Such moves may well be feints towards the Islamists- as a consequence of their popularity the government ends up defining the state both as Islamic and as Egyptian.


It is probably too early to pontificate on the meaning of these attacks- we would need court records and other statements first- but it is interesting to analyse what the persecution of the Copts means in the context of Egyptian politics. I haven't dug deeply into it here- but essentially my argument is that an attitude to the Copts is really not so much about them but about your definition of Egypt as a nation. Is Egypt a national nation, based around a long history stretching back to Pharonic times, or is it a religious nation? The Copts can obviously and are obviously part of the first nation- the second nation though is one that they may be excluded from- they are in that sense a barometer of the kind of Egypt that is emerging under the pressures of economic and ideological change. Yussuf Sidham, editor of the Coptic newspaper Watani, fears that this increasing gap in the way that Egyptians see themselves is one that could open beneath the Copts- that liberal and Fundamentalist Egyptians are growing further and further apart and that that can only mean instability in the future and bad news for the Copts.

For us from outside- we should do all we can obviously to encourage the Egyptian government and people to tolerate the Copts- but also we can analyse the way that the Copts are treated as a useful sign as to what kind of nation Egypt is becoming- national and ethnic, or religious and sectarian.