Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Coptic question

The sectarian tensions of recent decades will only be resolved, writes Samir Morqos, by the emergence of a true, civic state

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THE COPTS AND CITIZENSHIP: This approach to the Coptic question is based on the premise that the Copts are, first and foremost, citizens and members of the Egyptian national community. The Copts are not a separate group or closed entity. Nor are they sociologically or politically homogenous. They are spread across the social scale, include labourers, peasants and craftsmen, practitioners of the liberal professions and businessmen. They are bound only by their affiliation to Egypt and their religious affiliation, with regard to both of which their interests, attitudes and opinions will vary. Citizenship is thus the prime governing factor for all Egyptians, regardless of the differences between them. Citizenship, here, can be defined as people's daily collective exercise and pursuit of their social, economic, cultural and political rights on the basis of equality, without discrimination of any sort. It also involves inclusion in the electoral processes that determine how public resources and national wealth are shared.

Four decades of religious tension have precipitated many problems. Their combined result has been to demote citizenship in favour of religious affiliation. Egyptian society has been re-categorised on a religious basis, and public and political spaces have become an almost entirely religious sphere. We should not, however, allow these protracted tensions to divert us from our approach to the Coptic question based on the definition of citizenship outlined above. We need to look at current trends as the product of socio-economic causes and as a deviation from the concrete achievements Egyptians have made together, proceeding from the notion that existing tensions oblige us to consider the Coptic question in a context that includes the problems of the Egyptian people as a whole. It is, after all, impossible to speak of the citizenship of one class of people without conditions of citizenship first being established for the people as a whole.

At the very start, of course, we must differentiate between two categories of Coptic issues. The first are institutional concerns, pertaining to the relationship between the church and the state and comprising such questions as religious trusts, the construction of churches, religious freedoms and religious scepticism. The second consists of issues pertaining to civic and daily life, in which category fall sectarian tensions, the encroachment of religion into the public/political space, violations of the principle of equal opportunity and the inhibited development of citizenship.

The advantage of such categorisation is that it affirms the civil aspect of Copts as individuals. Institutional concerns can be handled by the religious establishment through negotiations with the state and competent authorities. Civic and daily life concerns can be fought for by Coptic individuals alongside their fellow citizens who may or may not share their religious affiliation but who have a common bond of citizenship and shared sense of injustice. In this manner, citizenship -- the bond through which individuals transcend narrow group affiliations to reach a broader, public affiliation -- can be accomplished without contradictions. The more the public space expands to embrace all people, the closer we come to realising a meaningful concept of citizenship. Conversely, the more exclusive the public space, the more Egyptians will revert to narrower affiliations. The successive phases of Egyptian history, especially during the past two centuries, testify to this dynamic.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The July 1952 revolution failed to follow through on the national assimilation between Muslims and Copts that the 1919 revolution set into motion. It did not incorporate the Egyptian people into a single polity and create a suitable formula for promoting and sustaining cohesion. Scholars regard the 1919 revolution as a "model revolution" because of its success in incorporating diverse social forces into a single movement and mobilising the people behind national banners. On the ground, the surge in popular political participation by Egyptians in general, and Copts in particular, in the years between 1919 and 1952, resulted in political solutions to problems that had formerly acquired a religious or sectarian taint. It is enough, here, to note that in elections held between 1924 and 1952 -- in which, with the exception of 1950, the Wafd invariably won a majority, Copts occupied between eight and 10.5 per cent of parliamentary seats, testimony to the political, as opposed to religious, character of the campaigns.

The situation changed dramatically after the 1952 revolution. In an attempt to address the problems ensuing from low levels of Coptic representation, the Nasserist regime introduced closed constituencies in 1957. A set number of constituencies were reserved for Coptic candidates. Article 49 of the 1964 constitution replaced this system with one of appointments. The text -- "The President of the Republic shall appoint no more than ten members of parliament" -- was reincorporated into the 1971 constitution and is still in effect today. It does not specify any religious affiliation of presidential appointees though the provision has been used to compensate for the absence of Coptic representatives. Instead of addressing a lack of Coptic representation at a grassroots level, as the pre-revolutionary Wafd Party had done, the post-revolutionary regime attempted to resolve it bureaucratically. The danger of such an approach was always that it could easily create the impression that the Copts are a single, coherent, political interest group.

When, in the 1970s, the president declared that he was a Muslim president of an Islamic state, it immediately begged questions as to the status of non-Muslims. In the ensuing debate there was considerable discussion of the position of Copts in Islamic jurisprudence, and the term ahl al-zimma (non-Muslim subject peoples) was frequently used. It is from this point that we can date the increasing encroachment of religion into politics, the steady sanctification of the public space and a re- categorisation of society on the basis of religious affiliation. Subsequently, Egypt has experienced almost continuous sectarian tension, from the Akhmim incident in 1970 to the present day.

SECTARIAN TENSION -- FOUR DECADES, FOUR PHASES: Sectarian tension in Egypt has been characterised by four stages, each contributing to aggravate and complicate the problem.

Between 1972 and 2000 there was sectarian violence, directed against Copts. Between 2000 and 2005, increased sectarian polarisation was characterised by mutual incrimination and invective across the religious divide. From 2005 we started to see increasing incidents of sectarian one-upmanship, as parties on either side attempted to establish the theological and ideological superiority of their religions, not least via satellite TV channels. The same period, almost inevitably, has witnessed sectarian entrenchment and clashes, with violent confrontations between Muslims and Christians over a range of issues, including church construction and religious conversions. Indeed, any dispute -- financial, commercial, personal -- involving a Muslim and a Christian can all too easily escalate into a sectarian incident.

Each side constructs its own memory of injustice. Christians maintain that they are victims of successive attacks by practitioners of sectarian violence, whether against their churches, their property or person. Some claim that violence is being used to drive them from their homes in Upper Egypt. Muslims are embittered by the incident of a Christian woman who converted to Islam only to reconvert to Christianity, claiming the incident was part of a wider campaign to belittle Islam.

The situation, in sum, has reached a state of intense friction, especially among the middle and lower classes, to the extent that the bonds of citizenship, the only guarantor of mutual cooperation between, and the national assimilation of, all Egyptians, is threatened. The state has aggravated the situation by withdrawing from many of the duties expected of it, such as providing employment and healthcare, compelling large numbers of Egyptians to turn to the mosque or church for medical treatment, cheap schooling and the like. Such phenomena are symptomatic of society's regression to a pre-citizenship state.

Despite relative civic and economic openness, the civil/daily life concerns of Copts persist, particularly among the middle and lower classes. That some Islamist groups have yet to resolve their positions on such questions as allegiance to the state polity, while others continue to speak of the jizya (head tax on non-Muslims under Muslim rule) despite the existence of definitive juristic opinions on the subject, acts to aggravate Coptic anxieties.

THE SECTARIAN STATE: Under normal circumstances, in civic states the individual acts together with others who might not necessarily share his/her subsidiary affiliations in the private, public and political spheres. Individuals organise themselves into groups, associations and syndicates which advocate their interests, defend their rights and invest their money in a production-based economy. Simultaneously, the individual is engaged in a relationship with the state governed by the logic of civic rights and duties. The three spheres are bound by a social contract which guarantees the assimilation of everyone into a national polity in which the private does not dominate the public, the state does not seek to control its citizens' movements in either the public or private spheres, and religion does not replace the public sphere.

The absence of mechanisms capable of assimilating people into the framework of the public sphere, a result of the sanctification of public space, combined with the lack of political and civic channels capable of embracing people as individual as individual citizens, has left Copts with no alternatives but to withdraw into their own communities or else establish a defensive, politicised counter identity, that requires them to behave as a religious or minority group.

FUTURE SCENARIOS: Egypt stands at a critical moment, on the threshold of three possible scenarios.

One approach to the Coptic question is to treat Copts as a discrete homogeneous class or sect and to grant them specific rights apart from other classes or sects. Such privileges, as history has always shown, are granted on the basis of calculations of balances of power, shifts in which could threaten revocation of the privileges. Such an approach moves the state towards an Ottoman model, made up of a ruling authority governing economic activity and a population organised into distinct bodies based on primary affiliations -- sects, families, and tribes -- all of which are separately subordinate to the state. Since the public sphere that theoretically embraces all citizens does not exist, the authority agrees to operate on an ad hoc basis, condescending to hear and perhaps respond to the petitions of each sect as presented to it by an intermediary who acts as a representative of that sect. Clearly, such a formula is the antithesis of the concept of the modern state. However, there are those who do not oppose it, thinking that even if true justice is delayed or overthrown in times of tension some gains and guarantees, in the form of privileges, will be won.

Then there is the sectarian state, its population treated in terms of religious affiliation, the majority made up of affiliates of one religion and minorities consisting of the affiliates of others, each living in a separate space. Such a scenario is not necessarily prefaced on the rise to power of a religious group that imposes theocratic rule. It can occur as a result of prevailing popular culture, especially at the lower end of the social spectrum, or of complex political calculations that see persons holding particular views being appointed to influential administrative posts.

There is, too, the civic state, based on equality for all its citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, race, ethnic origin, gender, status or wealth. Such a state facilitates a framework capable of uniting different people into a single, joint enterprise. As sectarian tension is at its most pronounced among the middle and lower echelons of society, this approach must encourage political and ideological revisionism vis-a-vis the presence of religious entities, whether Islamic, Christian or denominational, in the public sphere.

It is the kind of state towards which Egypt must strive, though to do so requires that we work collectively to confront all common threats, notably: demographic pressures and unregulated urban development which gives rise to poor social and residential conditions; economic and social inequality, whether on generational, gender, ethnic or class lines; corruption; mounting poverty rates; the deterioration in public services such as education, health and transportation; political apathy and an atrophied civic sphere and all other threats and obstacles to national assimilation and the realisation of a political system grounded in the concept of citizenship.

Only through such a collective approach will we be able to alleviate sectarian tension and achieve progress -- together -- within the framework of the modern state, founded upon equality and opportunity for all, the rule of law and allegiance to constitutional order.

* Head of the Coptic Centre for Social Studies.

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