The Coptic Question in the Egyptian Revolution

February 26, 2011 Uncategorized

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Among the most powerful images to come out of the protest encampment at Tahrir Square in the days between the January 25th uprising and Hosni Mubarak’s resignation were those of Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians protecting fellow Egyptians in prayer.  The sight of Copts encircling Muslims with a human chain while the latter performed their devotions, to shield them from distraction or harassment by the police – and vice versa – was an emotive signal of national solidarity that was not lost either on Egyptians or on Western observers of the protests.
The ‘national unity’ discourse that informs today’s ‘revolutionary spirit’ in Egypt has a long history.  For Egyptians in particular, the human chains at Tahrir could not but have called to mind the 1919 Revolution, during which Copts and Muslims stood together while Saad Zaghlul, the Wafd Party’s leader, unleashed his rallying cry: “Egypt belongs to Copts as well as Muslims.  All have a right to the same freedom and the same privileges.”
Yet, as I write these lines, there are images emerging from Egypt that are no less striking but a great deal more disturbing as far as relations between Copts and Muslims are concerned.  Today, there is YouTube video circulating of the violent removal by the Egyptian military of a wall erected at an Egyptian monastery in Wadi al-Natrun: While the military claims that the wall was built upon state land and without the necessary permission of the authorities, Copts point to the incident as an unnecessary provocation, not least given that six monastery staff were injured during the army’s demolition.  Further, Copts have voiced concern about the recent murder of a Coptic priest in the governorate of Asyut: Neighbors have alleged that Islamist slogans were chanted while the victim was killed.  Such incidents have prompted a divide among Egyptians that is now visible in the streets: Two thousand Copts gathered in Tahrir Square on February 23rd in protest, while the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces warned that there are sectarian ‘plots’ afoot to divide Copts and Muslims, and has called upon Egyptians to confront this threat to ‘national unity.’
While the military’s invocation of ‘plots’ is bound to generate skepticism among Western observers of Egypt, it is important to keep in mind that the military’s response is entirely in line with the prevailing ‘spirit’ of the revolution, as powerfully symbolized by the human chains I described above.  This is to say that, in the days since January 25th, sectarianism has taken on the guise of an aberrant distraction from the solidarity of the Egyptian people.  This sense of sectarianism as ‘foreign’ to Egypt has become strikingly apparent through allegations recently launched against Habib el Adly, the old regime’s Minister of the Interior.  El Adly stands accused, in particular quarters of the Egyptian press, of having collaborated in the New Year’s bombing of the Church of Saint Mark and Saint Peter in Alexandria, which took the lives of twenty-four Copts.
One would be hard-pressed to launch an accusation more loathsome than that the Egyptian Minister of the Interior, ostensibly responsible for protecting Egyptians from attacks like the Alexandria church bombing, actually participated therein.  The cynical logic attributed to el Adly and, by extension, the old regime as a whole, is that of ‘divide and rule’ – that the Mubarak regime could divert attention away from corruption, police brutality, and social injustice by inciting sectarian violence behind the scenes.
I would not, for a moment, doubt the capacity of the Mubarak regime to deploy so cynical and loathsome a strategy against Egyptians.  Nor would I seek to detract from the revolutionary spirit of national unity which made the overthrow of that cynical and loathsome regime possible.
Yet, to my mind, it is no less important to acknowledge that the ‘Coptic question’ Egypt faces is not a conspiracy against the country fomented by enemies at home and abroad.  Much as one would like to immerse oneself in the images of cross and crescent side by side, or of Copts and Muslims as Egyptians above all, ‘through and through,’ there must come a time when the Egyptian state begins to reckon, in a serious and sustained way, with the existence of Coptic and Muslim communal bonds that carry social and political weight for Egyptians.
What I am referring to here is the deeply rooted social transformation Egypt has experienced, particularly since the 1970s – a transformation in morals and mores often captured by the term ‘Islamic trend’ (at-tayyar al-islami), but which has a Coptic analogue centered around the Sunday school movement, social welfare projects, and community centers.  Holding the diverse members of these ‘trends’ together is the desire to transform Egypt not politically, but socially, in line with their interpretations of Islam and Christianity respectively.
Now that Egyptians are moving beyond the fervor of their revolutionary moment into the negotiation of their country’s future, I would suggest that it is time to set aside the tired national unity discourse of the past.  The ‘Coptic question’ is not a figment of a malevolent leader’s or a foreign power’s imagination.  It is a product of years of history that cannot be reversed overnight.  The sooner Egypt’s revolutionaries acknowledge that their country has not suddenly reverted back to 1919, the better prepared they will be to advocate for a liberal social and political order for all Egyptians.

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