I have just finished reading Amira Nowaira’s latest column on The Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ website. As is so often the case with the writings of Egyptian liberals on issues of ‘sectarianism,’ the piece is well intentioned but lazily falls back on mischaracterizations of Copts and their concerns. I address a few of these below.
1. “Remaining on the sidelines is no longer a feasible or an advisable option for Egypt’s Christians.”
Nowaira echoes here the myth of Coptic apathy or passivity. But exactly when were Copts passive or apathetic? Not during the 2011 revolution, when Copts flooded into Tahrir Square alongside Egyptian Muslims to demand an end to the Mubarak regime. This was, keep in mind, in defiance of the Patriarch’s explicit admonition to Copts at the time, that they should support the regime and stay at home. Nor were Copts passive or apathetic when a church in the Hilwan governorate was destroyed shortly after the revolution: Again, in defiance of the church hierarchy, they staged a sit-in in front of the Radio and Television Building that lasted a week. Nor were Copts passive or apathetic during the past thirty years, when they suffered the privations all Egyptians faced under the Mubarak dictatorship, yet built a vibrant communal life within the framework of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
2. “The Coptic church, like al-Azhar, should remain a source of spiritual inspiration and moral guidance.”
The notion that the Church should not have a role in politics might have had a measure of credence until and shortly after the 1952 Revolution – but for the half century since that time, whether one approves or not, the Church has had an integral role in Egyptian politics that one cannot simply wish away. Nor would most Copts approve of such a shift. President Nasser and Patriarch Kirollos VI pioneered a relationship between church and state under which loyalty to the regime was exchanged for recognition of the Church hierarchy as the legitimate voice of the community, as well as the provision of resources. After a brief interruption of this relationship in the 1970s, the partnership was revived and, indeed, thrived throughout the tenures of Hosni Mubarak and Shenouda. The Church hierarchy has so skillfully seized upon this partnership with the state that there now exists practically no non-clerical leadership among the Copts. So to suggest that the Copts relegate their Church hierarchy to a status of moral guardian alone would be to disempower them profoundly and essentially negate the Copts as a political force within Egypt.
3. “They [Copts] must remember that many great Coptic personalities in the first half of the 20th century helped shape Egypt’s outlook and contributed to the political and cultural life of the country by engaging in mainstream politics.”
So contemporary Copts should look back to figures like Boutros Ghali and Makram Ebeid as their heroes? And yet Boutros Ghali and Makram Ebeid had about as much in common with the majority of Copts of their day as King Farouk had with the majority of Muslims. There existed no single, monolithic Coptic community then, and there exists no single, monolithic Coptic community now. Indeed, a critical part of the success of the clergy in wresting power away from lay Copts like Boutros Ghali and Makram Ebeid over the course of the twentieth century was the fact that the clerical forces were much, much closer in social origins to the majority of Copts than were the Coptic lay leaders of the liberal era. Nowaira’s suggestion that figures like Boutros Ghali and Makram Ebeid should be lionized because they were supposedly ‘mainstream’ only increases contemporary Copts’ sense of marginalization. They have nothing in common with such people, and why should they? Perhaps more to the point, why should Egyptian liberals expect them to?