Copts step out of Church's shadow
Mona Makram-Ebeid, as advisor to a frontrunner for the Egyptian presidency Amr Moussa, is placing her political experience at his disposal in an attempt to halt the Islamist tide, but still faces doubts that will be sufficient to protect Christians, secularists and liberals in Egypt from militant Islamists. She confides in Gamal Nkrumah
Pope Shenouda III's death could not have come at a worse moment for Egyptian Coptic Christians. The Coptic Christian community is more fragmented than ever. There are the secularists and there are the layperson-traditionalists as well as the Church as a venerable institution," Mona Makram-Ebeid shakes out the dark tresses of her hair.
The veteran politician was ushering me into her elegant Zamalek apartment overlooking the Marriott gardens.
She strode across her study, paused before we were seated. She reached out for some nuts placed in a chic lacquered bowl and then jerked it aside. She glanced significantly across her study. The room was cluttered with books and papers and memorabilia galore.
At first the photographs of uncles and aunts, grandfathers -- maternal and paternal -- perched on every niche, nook and cranny all over the study were merely a dim. We savoured the refreshingly sweet breeze blustering from her balcony, the curtains lapping as if dancing to memories from back in the mists of time.
The daughter of Coptic Christian politician Makram Ebeid Pasha, the secretary-general of the Wafd Party from 1936-42 and finance minister, Makram-Ebeid was raised in a political environment and as a seasoned politician is seen by many in Egypt as a natural-born politician. "My late husband was not a politician, he thought politics was my pastime, a hopeless hobby. He was only interested in making money,"
Away from the lost worlds of national heroes and personal quirks, Makram-Ebeid was invited by Stanford University California, the United States to deliver a series of lectures on the political situation in Egypt today, especially as it pertains to the Coptic Christian community of the country.
"I believe that for the first time in history, the Coptic Christian community of Egypt is stepping out of the Coptic Orthodox Church's shadow without necessarily losing the community's identity," Makram-Ebeid extrapolates.
She was right. The predominantly Coptic Christian protesters and demonstrators mainly of Coptic laypersons who brought the Maspero Corniche district in front of the National Television headquarters swiftly changed their chant from "Heads held up high. We are Copts" to "Heads held up high. We are one people".
Makram-Ebeid's eye was suddenly cold and her expression severe as she contemplated the political future of Egypt's Coptic Christian community. She is not entirely enamoured of the current People's Assembly of which she was once a prominent member.
"Coptic Christians should vote as a block because their voice carries," Makram-Ebeid expounds further. "Because the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis propose to introduce a theocratic state and erode citizenship rights. For the Muslim Brotherhood the drafting of the new constitution according to their whims represents a new blueprint that aims to turn a political project into an institutional reality," she said. She sighed as if feeling a sinking sense of dread as she confirmed how critical Egypt finds itself at this historical juncture. "Copts have to vote as a block," she repeated as if it was her mantra.
"But for real change to take place it has to start at the grassroots level," Makram-Ebeid extrapolated. "Beware of the bogus distinction between Coptic Christian and Muslim when it comes to participation in the 25 January Revolution, and in the 1919 Revolution. In both revolutions Muslims and Christians stood side by side defending the national interest. I personally spent eight days in Tahrir square and cannot forget the momentous scene when Christians defended Muslims from the police and state security agents when the Muslims were performing their prayers," she smiled remembering fondly those momentous days.
Makram-Ebeid resigned along with 10 other liberal and leftist members from the Constituent Assembly in protest over its Islamist majority. She, however, retains her position as a member of the Advisory Council of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). "Of the 100 drafters of the new constitution only six were Coptic Christians and only five were women. That is a reflection of the deplorable state of affairs and indicative of the under-representation of the Coptic Christians and of women in the decision-making process. Young and not so young Coptic Christian activists and women of all religious affiliations participated fully in the 25 January Revolution. They deserve to be better represented in the drafting of Egypt's new constitution," she stressed.
It was a perceptive comment. Having been raised in a political family, Makram-Ebeid is the embodiment of the highly politicised and dynamic Copt.
"My election as the honorary head of the Egyptian Coptic Christian Union soon after Pope Shenouda III's passing is a great personal honour. And, it is the very first time in my life, and long political career, that I have been asked to head a specifically Coptic Christian Group."
"This group is composed in the main of youngsters. The Christian youth of Egypt was an important component of the 25 January Revolution. The Church has been supportive, especially clerics such as Anba Moussa, the beloved bishop of the youth," she chortled. Makram-Ebeid believes that even though in many respects, social and political, the Coptic Christian and Muslim communities were never as alien from each other as they are now, they were never as ready to let bygones be bygones and to mend fences. "There will be pretty speeches among the leading Coptic laypersons once the president-elect is inaugurated, but success of the presidential poll depends on your point of view."
Makram-Ebeid cited recent political trends as examples. Her involvement with Coptic Christian activists, mostly young idealists, doesn't preclude her work with Muslims. "These Christian youngsters have no qualms about working closely with the Shabab Al-Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood Youth wing. In fact most of the board of director members are Muslim public and literary figures. They include people like lawyer and political activist Tahani El-Gibali and novelist Gamal El-Ghitani," she notes.
"And, I was very privileged when they elected me as a member of the trustees of the 25 January Revolution," she proudly announced.
The lay claim to the universal rights that was denied them for so long.
Makram-Ebeid has no time for those who want to create a bogey out of the Muslim Brotherhood. "I lived with the young protesters for eight days," she repeats emphatically. "And, I saw for myself how closely Muslim and Christian activists worked together to make the 25 January Revolution a success".
She was often branded as an alien element in her own Coptic Christian community as well as in the political establishment at large. In part because of her outspoken criticism of the corruption that kept the kleptomaniac culture alive and kicking.
Dignity, justice, freedom and human rights were the issues she focussed on. She didn't particularly define herself as a Coptic politician, nor even as a feminist. Yes, women's issues were of concern to her, but first and foremost she was an Egyptian politician. She was sceptical of the inward-looking attitude of many Coptic Christians -- politicians and laypersons. She was troubled by the Copts' incomplete absorption into the Egyptian political establishment and refused to play the token Copt or woman.
Even when brutal violence was used against them the Copts held on tenaciously to their sense of indigenous Egyptian identity. After her trip to the US, Makram-Ebeid recognised something of the "First People" mentality ingrained in the collective Coptic Christian psyche of Egypt.
Her maternal grandfather Nakhla Pasha El-Moutei, one of the first Egyptian foreign ministers in Egypt, had inculcated in her a sense of being Egyptian first, and Coptic Christian second. Yes, she is a churchgoer of sorts, but she espouses the complete separation of Church and state, Church and political affairs.
Her father Makram Pasha Ebeid was friends with Mustafa Pasha El-Nahhas, one of Egypt's greatest historical figures. However, towards the end of his life, the close working relationship that characterised the Ebeid-Nahhas political partnership deteriorated sharply. "Religion is to God and the Homeland is to all," was the popular slogan of the national hero Saad Zaghloul of the 1919 Revolution.
But, back to her father. He suffered from a bout of malaria in Seychelles and it was El-Nahhas that came to the rescue. The incident strengthened their relationship further. "In those days, religious affiliation was no cause for political disagreement."
Makram-Ebeid has grave reservations about recent political trends in the country. "Look at us today. The Muslim Brothers monopolise everything. Yes, there are those who claim that there is a liberal, open-minded trend among them. However, it is critically important to keep in mind that what is at stake is the very identity of the Egyptian state. Egypt has been a secular state where religion and politics have been separated since the days of the founder of modern Egypt Mohamed Ali. This secularist trend was reinforced by Saad Zaghloul during the 1919 Revolution and again by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the July 1952 Revolution".
The combination of economic uncertainty and the exodus of many young, professional Coptic Christians because of fear of the future markedly changed matters. To compound the problems, the parallel mass departure of skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white collar workers to the Gulf Arab countries in the 1970s and 1980s introduced notions of Islam alien to the broad-minded traditional Egyptian strand of Islam.
"I am sorry to say that the late president Anwar El-Sadat re-introduced a religious rigour into the Egyptian political arena. He supported the Salafist strands of militant Islamists in order to contain what he saw as his communist and leftist adversaries. Ironically, in the end they plotted against him and assassinated him," Makram-Ebeid muses.
Political Islam is a militant Islamist ideology that inevitably alienates the secularists -- Christians and Muslims alike -- in the country. "The Salafis want a militant Islamist takeover of all segments of society and spheres of public life. They want to reduce the age of the father's custodianship of children to nine and even seven year olds," Makram-Ebeid shrugs in disgust.
Then she dwelt at some length on the question of semantics. "They continue to call them Suzanne Mubarak's laws. But they are not her laws. It was a collective effort," she explained. "The khul' law and bestowing the Egyptian nationality to children of Egyptian mothers were a step forward," she adds.
"In 2010, I won a place in the quota for women. Photographs of myself even appeared in the papers. Then suddenly my name was removed arbitrarily from the quota. I remember that it was a Monday," Makram-Ebeid notes. "I have long been active in politics and men never regarded me as a woman politician, nor as a Coptic Christian politician. When I won a seat in parliament my supporters roared with loud applause. 'You have been vindicated,' they told me," she recollects.
The conversation veers towards the now defunct National Democratic Party of ex-president Hosni Mubarak. "I was too independent-minded, they wanted yes men and women. They want to be surrounded by imbeciles and the Mafiosi."
Women as d³©cor, token women were what they really wanted. The 25 January Revolution changed all that. Some 3,000 women marched on Tahrir Square. The police treated women protesters abominably.
Women were on the forefront. They pioneered the social networking. They nursed the injured in Tahrir Square. I do not say this because I pose as a champion of women's rights. I speak out now because I believe that there is a sinister conspiracy in the name of religion to erode the gains of Egyptian women over the past century ever since Hoda Shaarawi took to the streets to demand women's rights".
But Makram-Ebeid also sees unmistakable signs of hope. "We went to Sheikh Al-Azhar. He is a wonderful man. Look at the new role of Al-Azhar. The venerable institution is positioning itself as an arbitrary establishment. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb is a graduate of the Sorbonne and he is an enlightened and incisive scholar."
"He issued two declarations with other Al-Azhar ulemas, or religious scholars, in what I consider tantamount to a bill of rights," Makram-Ebeid wags a finger at me.
"Women are awra [forbidden to be heard or seen], the Salafis say," Makram-Ebeid shudders involuntary. "Are we seriously considering eroding all the gains Egyptian women won over the decades? These were hard-won gains," she asks rhetorically.
She cites an example of how she campaigned in a man's world. "It was in the popular district of Boulaq. No women were permitted onto the streets, but that was a plus as far as I was concerned. Because this tradition enabled me to get inside the homes and speak to the women about my political agenda and they listened intently to what I had to say. The podium was high and a big man just picked me up. I was no awra," she chuckles.
Makram-Ebeid notes that the Sufi Orders and their colossal traditional following are natural allies of the liberals and the leftists and the Coptic Christians in their ideological struggle against the Salafis and other militant Islamist groups in Egypt.
"Thus the highly charged political atmosphere in the country is not conducive to consensus-building and democratisation. This is why I am now a political advisor to one of the presidential candidates, former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa," she hesitates a little. "Is it wise to put this down?"
"My husband was apolitical," she now muses on a more personal note. "My students include Suleiman Gouda and Ayman Nour," she pauses as if to gauge my reaction.
The conversation switches involuntary to her latest trip to the US. There she met with prominent and influential members of the Egyptian American community from the East Coast to the West Coast.
"Countries like China and India would not have become members of the BRICS, without their utilisation of the skills of the ³©migr³© Chinese and Indian communities scattered around the globe," Makram-Ebeid arches an eyebrow. "We in Egypt need to harness the full potential of the 10 million Egyptians abroad. Did you know that there are some 15 million Lebanese? There are only five million Lebanese in Lebanon itself and the others are overseas." Egyptian Americans, who number some two million, are a dynamic community and have a higher than average educational standard and professional qualifications than the average American.
Makram-Ebeid convened meetings with various Egyptian American associations including the Coptic Lawyers Association in New York and Maged Riyad Lawyers also based in New York. However, she was keen to stress that her meetings were not exclusively with Christians, but included distinguished Muslims as well. Still, more than 75 per cent of Egyptian Americans are Coptic Christians and there are 185 Coptic Orthodox churches in the US, the largest number of Coptic Christian congregations outside Egypt itself. "This is a national treasure we in Egypt must capitalise upon."
From Hawaii's Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Honolulu to Saint Mark's Orthodox Church in Manhattan the Egyptian Coptic Christian community in the US is being galvanised by the fast moving developments in Egypt. "In Washington I met with Mark Morgan, advisor to the Minister for Egyptians Abroad, and with Michael Posner of the State Department as Hillary Clinton was on an official visit overseas".
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Michael Posner, with his background as a human rights activist and former founding executive director and later head of Human Rights First, was keen on listening to my personal take on the 25 January Revolution and its repercussions. The issue of the 43 non-governmental organisations charged with operating without licence and receiving illegitimate funds from abroad also cropped up.
Makram-Ebeid is not an angry woman. Her current struggle is to harness widespread frustration by Coptic Christians and secularist, liberals and broad-minded Muslims at the way militant Islamism has been cynically used for political ends. If that does not get people's juices flowing little else will, she reckons.