Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 November 2005
Issue No. 768
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bridging the divide

Samir Morqos* examines the history of -- and ways of moving beyond -- sectarianism

The contemporary Coptic question dates back to the 1970s, a period characterised by sectarian tensions which erupted in the Akhmim incident of 1970 and in the Khanka incident two years later. Efforts to understand these incidents of sectarian violence extended beyond analyses of the political, legal and social dimensions of Muslim-Christian relations to attempts to trace their origins in earlier periods.

This study of the Coptic question proceeds on the basis of a number of crucial premises. Firstly, the Copts are part of the greater body of Egyptian society, and to ignore this larger socio- political environment is to open the way to skewed findings. For example, it is impossible to consider the question of political apathy among the Copts as though it is a distinct phenomenon divorced from political apathy among Egyptians as a whole.

Secondly, the Copts are not a closed, autonomous, homogeneous socio-political entity. They are extremely diverse in their social and political affiliations, and are spread vertically throughout Egypt's economic and occupational strata. There are Coptic farmers and labourers, craftsmen and merchants, and practitioners of all the liberal professions. The only common denominators between them are their Egyptian nationality, on the one hand, and their religious affiliation on the other. Apart from these their interests and opinions vary as widely as those of any other segment of the population.

Thirdly, the concept of citizenship transcends the notions of sect or religious community, as well as the notion of minority and its ramifications. Any study of the Coptic question should keep its sights squarely fixed on this overarching bond, the realisation of which is a prerequisite for the creation of a civil state.

With the foregoing in mind, I will attempt to broach the Coptic question with an eye on explaining and remedying current and, to a certain extent, chronic problems within the framework of the concept of the citizen-state. This, in turn, entails a study of the history of citizenship in Egypt, by which is meant the movement of the Egyptian people -- Copts included -- towards the realisation of everything this concept entails: common rights and duties, equality under the law, political participation, the division of resources; in short, a study of not only constitutional and legal frameworks but an entire way of life and thought operating across social, economic and cultural levels.

An understanding of this historic background is extremely important when dealing with contemporary issues. Not only does it spare us the trouble of having to re-invent the wheel at every new historical juncture but also, and more importantly, it averts recourse to ideas that have no foundations in the Egyptian experience, such as the milla (religious community) system, which has occasionally been mooted as the ideal solution to sectarian tensions.

Since the establishment of the modern Egyptian state the pursuit of the concept of citizenship has passed through five stages: the emergence of the idea and its endorsement by the ruling authority (Mohamed Ali), the concretisation of the concept of Egyptian citizenship as a rallying cry of the national independence movement (the 1919 Revolution), the "pasteurisation" of the concept through its reduction to the social dimension (the 1952 Revolution), the temporary eclipse of citizenship as a result of the sectarianisation of politics (1971-1981) and, finally, the drive to revive citizenship (1981 to present).

It should be noted that, although this quest for citizenship arose and gained momentum in the 19th century, it was foreshadowed by the sense of solidarity, or at least the awareness of a shared fate, prevailing among all Egyptians, Copts included. The cruelties inflicted by foreign overlords did not discriminate between one Egyptian and another. That Egyptian Muslims shared the same faith as the ruling elites did not confer any advantages; all Egyptians were compelled to obey the commands and pay their taxes to the triad of Ottoman rule: the Wali appointed from Istanbul, the Mamelukes and the Ottoman army regiments. Egyptians were excluded from the army, the conduit par excellence for fusing a national entity. It was Mohamed Ali who founded an Egyptian army, consisting first of Muslims and then of Copts as well.

It was not until the last quarter of the 19th century that the first stirrings of this melding process were felt and these culminated in the 1919 Revolution, which marked a qualitative turning point in the Egyptian national movement in two respects: the diversity of social and political forces involved and the unprecedented level of integration between Muslims and Copts.

The history of the emergence of modern nation states has shown that grassroots revolutionary movements are a powerful platform for welding society into a single national polity around a set of ideas or principles that promote and sustain the cohesion of that polity. It is not odd, therefore, that political scientists have described the 1919 Revolution as a "model revolution" in view of its ability to mobilise the full gamut of social forces and to produce the slogans that would bind these forces and channel their energies towards the realisation of goals that addressed commonly-held aspirations.

The 1919 Revolution was to a great extent the product of two social phenomena that coalesced during World War I. The enormous and inhuman strains that had been placed on the Egyptian people -- from the rural poor and middle classes to the urban proletariat, artisans and petty merchants, who were joined by the masses of students, civil servants and low ranking officers -- generated mounting antagonism between these forces and the forces of imperialism manifested in Egypt by the British occupation. The second phenomenon was that the Egyptian bourgeoisie had expanded and grown more prosperous and, in tandem, became increasingly aware of and sensitive to the domestic market. Put otherwise, post- war Egypt could no longer tolerate subjugation to imperialist systems because the needs of its nascent industrial base placed it in an adversarial relationship to existing colonialist trade agreements. The bourgeoisie thus had every motive to establish common cause with the other segments of the population mentioned above.

The 1919 Revolution also succeeded in stimulating a new dynamism in the relationship between the two religious components of society that would propel it towards the realisation of what has become a benchmark for national assimilation in Egypt. As the author of Copts and National Arabism Abu Seif Youssef said, the 1919 Revolution elevated integration between Copts and Muslims to an unprecedented level because of its ability to crystallise a concept of citizenship around which all Egyptians could rally, thereby giving the concept tangible grassroots substance. This reality was born out by the increasing political participation of Egyptians in general, and Copts in particular, during the period from 1919 to 1952 and, hence, the tendency to come up with political solutions to problems that would once have been infused with religious or sectarian tensions. In his valuable study on Copts and Muslims in the Framework of the National Entity Tareq El-Bishri observed that the parliamentary elections in which the Wafd Party swept the polls were the elections which brought the highest percentage of Coptic candidates into parliament. In other words, political rather than religious considerations determined the outcome of the elections.

As Mohamed Hassanein Heikal observed, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians welcomed the Revolution of July 1952. The Copts -- with the exception of large landowners and major capitalists -- shared in the jubilation. In The Copts and Arab Nationalism, Abu Seif Youssef explains that great swathes of lower middle class and middle class Copts believed their interests were linked to the aims of the national struggle against the tripartite alliance of the colonial authorities, the palace and Egypt's haute bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, several problems arose in the relationship between the Copts and the revolution as the result of the absence of Copts on the Revolutionary Command Council, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and certain members of the Free Officers and the abolition of religious courts and the milla councils.

Although the revolution aimed to address the concerns of the lower and middle classes, to which the majority of Copts belonged, the factors mentioned above generated a climate of anxiety within the Coptic community. Aggravating this climate was a political system that abandoned parliamentary democracy in favour of the one-party state headed by a charismatic leader with unlimited authority. In an attempt to remedy the absence of Copts from political life, the regime applied what can best be termed a bureaucratic mentality, and the solutions it produced are one of the causes of the problems we see today.

Its first major measure, introduced in 1957, was to reserve judicial posts within certain judicial districts for Coptic appointees. A similar solution was hit upon within the framework of the rubric of Article 49 of the 1964 constitution, which stated that the president had the right to appoint up to ten members to the People's Assembly. Although the provision did not specify the religious affiliation of the appointees it became the convention to use this provision to compensate for the under-representation of Copts. Thus, instead of remedying the problem of Coptic representation through grassroots political action, as the Wafd Party had done before the revolution, the revolutionary regime resorted to bureaucratic sticking plaster measures the result of which was to set Copts apart in the public imagination as a separate political grouping with its own interests.

This impression was reinforced by the regime's recruitment of Coptic technocrats and intellectuals as its intermediaries in handling Coptic affairs. Although this tactic was in keeping with the regime's strategy of relying upon certain individuals or organisations as its intermediaries in dealing with other categories of the population (such as workers, who were dealt with through the General Federation of Egyptian Labour), again it served to define Copts as a distinct and homogenous interest group.

Early in the 1970s the president of Egypt declared that he was a Muslim president of an Islamic state, which begged the question of the status of Copts in such a state. The declaration ushered in what I have referred to as the "sectarianisation" of political life. It was a period in which the regime tended towards the management of domestic affairs on the basis of religious rather than civic affiliations, in which an Islamist trend was set against a secularist trend and in which the regime relied on the Coptic religious establishment to voice the concerns of Copts rather than the Coptic intelligentsia and technocrats as had been the case. That the state began to withdraw from many of its social obligations -- in the fields of education and healthcare, for example, compelling people to turn to the mosque or church for medical treatment or inexpensive education -- reinforced the trend towards sectarianisation. As a consequence the bonds between the individual and the state weakened and society began to fragment on the basis of subsidiary affiliations. It began to revert to the pre-civic state.

This gave rise to numerous concerns, not least with regard to the institutional relations between the Coptic community and the state and the problems encountered by Copts, including discriminatory employment practices and the questioning of the strictures of their faith. These concerns were exacerbated by the bureaucratic handling of them, which bogged them down in red tape. Problems concerning the construction of Coptic churches, raised by the Khanka incident of 1971, have yet to be resolved. The sense of crisis was aggravated by assaults by radical Islamic groups against Copts and the inability of existing political entities, such as political parties and syndicates, to formulate innovative solutions capable of bringing Copts back on board as participants in the progress of Egypt's civic polity.

More alarmingly, the failure on the part of existing political forces left the field open to various Islamist factions. Although there have been progressive attempts to resolve the Coptic question in terms of Islamic jurisprudence -- by Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd and Mohamed Salim El-Awa, for example -- the input by the majority of the exponents of the Islamist trends has not been inspiring. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has produced vague and confusing slogans that exacerbate worry, particularly in view of the reluctance of the group to discuss their concept of Islamic rule as it applies to religious minorities. With all due respect to the value of the juristic revision undertaken by the Gamaa Islamiya, this effort fell far short of the contributions of Abul-Magd and El-Awa. Indicative of the Gamaa's outlook is its handling of the question of the jizya, or poll tax levied on non-Muslim communities. They approved the Khedive Said's abolition of the jizya ; however, they did so on the grounds that the decree was issued by Egypt's ruler, thus evading a juristic judgement on the concept of jizya itself and leaving the door open to the possibility of revoking that decree.

The sectarianisation of society has manifested itself in political and social life in several ways. In the current parliamentary elections Copts have been excluded from candidate lists on the grounds that they would be a liability at the polls. The NDP, for example, is fielding only two Copts out of a total of 444 candidates. Coptic candidates in these elections are also the victims of fatwas (religious decrees) issued by Islamist groups. In society at large many of the practical, religious-related concerns of Copts remain unaddressed even as sectarian tensions acquire new and dangerous dimensions, as epitomised in recent events in Alexandria where religious sensitivities were exploited to trigger large scale rioting. It should be added that this took place against a growing tendency to cast disputes involving Muslim and Christian parties as sectarian in origin and at a time when there is increasing tolerance of mutual recriminations between Muslims and Christians rather than a focus on concerns they share.

The only way to overcome these problems is to cling ever more tenaciously to what I have called the "national assimilation option". Only by stressing and promoting the civic bond, as an expression of the movement of an entire people to establish their existence within the framework of a national entity will it be possible to transcend the narrower affiliations of locale, kinship and religion and embrace a broader and more commodious affiliation to the civil state. Only by taking the common good as our criterion for action will it be possible to realise the assimilation of all sectors of the populace into a civil state. The common good must remain the primary determinant of society's collective drive to secure social, political, economic and cultural rights for its members without discrimination. In Egypt, focus on the common good will enable us to transcend the bane of sectarianism without excluding religious values as a fundamental component of our cultural identity and way of life. They, after all, are among the characteristics that distinguish Egypt's progress towards the civic state from its Western counterparts. Together with the testimony of our own historical experience they serve to refute claims that the concept of citizenship is a Western import.

* The writer is head of the Coptic Centre for Social Studies.

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