Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1199, (29 May - 4 June 2014)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1199, (29 May - 4 June 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Cross with the crescent

Mariz Tadros; Copts at the Crossroads: The Challenge of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt, AUC Press, 2013

Cross with the crescent
Cross with the crescent

The vast majority of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community cast their votes in favour of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and so did many more Muslims. This should not be surprising. Not just Copts, but the country itself, is at the crossroads. The Copts and many of their Muslim compatriots have kowtowed for decades to some of Egypt’s hoariest political shibboleths.

Most Copts are neither fierce Christian fundamentalists nor pacifist preachers of good works, submissive churchgoers. Any such tendencies would presumably be exacerbated on an occasion honouring a statesman who is very definitely there, a man of the people who knows what his goals are, or so a considerable number of the Coptic Christians believe.

As a landmark political year, most Copts understand that 2014 belongs to Al-Sisi. The reader can easily conceptualize the honeyed words the Coptic Christians might use to describe Al-Sisi. Nevertheless, the author has not ventured that far, for her study was published in 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood reigned over Egypt supreme.    

The author, Mariz Tadros, a dear friend and colleague of mine as we worked together at Al-Ahram Weekly, decided at some point in the distant past, that journalism was not really her calling.

She much preferred the world of academia instead. And, what an accomplished academician she metamorphosed into. And, this is an academic work of excellence, and certainly not a collage of theological reflections.

This seminal study was written as the author emphasizes in the aftermath of the 25 January 2011 Revolution, at a particularly dynamic moment of Egypt’s history. “It sounds alarm bells on the emergence of a non-inclusive political order premised on majoritarianism that threatens the very fabric of Egyptian society,” as Tadros ominously and perhaps aptly puts it in her preface.

Yet, even tough the study is essentially a well-referenced academic work based on her doctoral thesis, it is not devoid of humor. In her conclusion, Tadros quotes a scene from a highly acclaimed film of a friendship between two neighbours one Muslim and the other Coptic Christian, and featuring renowned actors Omar Sherif  and Adel Imam, the first playing Muslim Hassan and the latter Christian Morcos. In the movie, two priests bitterly complain about the persecution of Coptic Christians. “We can’t build a church ad we can’t fix a toilet in a church without getting a permission that takes a year to obtain, “ an embittered priest tells his fellow Christian cleric.

Next, in another scene, an infuriated Sheikh tells his fellow Muslim cleric: ‘What persecution are they talking about? We are the ones persecuted, Every time we build a mosque they build a church next to it,” he fumes.

The Muslim Brotherhood brand of nationalism, or rather the lack of it, had cast a pernicious spell over Egyptian political dynamics. The author focuses on the events leading up to such a crisis of confidence in the Egyptian political establishment by the Coptic laity. Yet, the Coptic Christians of Egypt were yearning for greater openness and full citizenship rights.

Feeling frustrated, even embittered, and no longer tethered to the authority of either the Coptic Orthodox Church or the state, the laity led the way, steering the direction of the country’s Christan community, and the Church took the back seat, without of course being bottom rung officially.

“The string of peaceful protests led by Copts dispelled the pervasive myths that Copts were no longer active citizens and that they had succumbed to the ‘creeping Islamization’ of society by taking refuge within Church walls and immersing themselves in religiosity. The fact that thousands occupied public and Church spaces to demand their rights as citizens pointed to a high degree of political engagement,” Tadros elucidates.

The message the author conveys is that the religion that Jesus Christ inaugurated and inspired will not breath its last in Egypt. At least, not anytime soon. And, she explains how and why.

“Against the backdrop of the burgeoning of a deeply active post-revolutionary political society in Egypt there appeared a number of Coptic movements, coalitions, and initiatives, most notably the Maspero Youh Movement, which has contested and defied both the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) [and that ruled the country for an interim period between the fall of the regime of ex-president Hosni Mubarak and the wrenching of power by the Muslim Brotherhood] and the Islamists and sought to hold them to account for their violation of citizens’ rights, in particular those of the Copts.”

Egypt can change its head, but not its heart. Coptic Christians instinctively fear that there are more testing times ahead. The crisis of Coptic Christians in Egypt may have passed its most acute phase, but Copts know that the underlying malaise that has poisoned millions of minds of their Muslim compatriots against them is still close to chronic.

And, then it is a numbers game as the author stresses. “The question of the percentage of the Coptic Christian population would be inconsequential were citizenship the framework through which rights and duties are mediated. In times of acute political transformation, when there was heightened debate surrounding Egypt’s identity. the numbers question has assumed center stage,” Tadros extrapolates.

Nevertheless, the author concedes that this is all too Machiavellian. She stresses that “the banner of ‘Muslim, Christian, One Hand” raised during those eighteen days of the uprising would mark a new phase in Egypt’s history,” Tadros was referring specifically to the 25 January 2011 Revolution.

The author claims that the Coptic Orthodox Church deliberately attempted to keep these novel political stirrings among its congregations in check. She sigles out the late Pope Shenouda III for retribution. “The Church leadership, in particular Pope Shenouda, suffered a serious blow on 6 January 2012, on Coptic Christmas Eve. The Maspero Youth Movement and other Coptic movements held protests o express their objection to the idea that the very army generals responsible for the Maspero Massacre would be welcomed to the Christmas Eve mass, to be greeted by the Pope. During the mass, as the Pope took an interval to greet his visitors, the army generals, and to thank them and pay them compliments, the youth at the back of the Catherdral shouted at the top of their lungs, ‘Down, down with military rule’”.

Many Coptic Christian activists viewed Pope Shenouda as a righteous yet weak-willed man so overcome with an obsession to placate the powers that be. The Coptic activists were in no mood to compromise. “There was a firm hope that the revolution would represent a break with the past, one characterized by a buildup of sectarian tension over the previous forty years, which culminated in the bombing of a church in Alexandria on 1 January 2011 that left twenty-five dead and over two-hundred injured, an act allegedly attributed to the [Mubarak era] State Security Investigations apparatus “.   

The author elaborates with a litany of atrocities committed against Copts, climaxing with the tragically infamous incident in Maspero, Cairo, where peaceful mainly Christian protesters were deliberately crushed by military vehicles in a “systematic manner”.

It did not take Christians long to realize what they had in their midst. Yet, from the perspective of the author, what set these events apart from what the Coptic tradition upholds as a long history of persecution that predates the advent of the Muslim era and harks back to Byzantine times, was a new determination to participate in national politics fearlessly in face of growing uncertainties and the systematic undermining by successive governments of full Coptic Christian Christian citizenship rights.

That said, most politically active Copts consciously began to reject the very notion of a minority. The concept itself had extreme negative connotations. “The issue of the population of Copts as a percentage of the total population is one of those issues unsettled questions that has stirred intense political debate, because of the absence of adequate census data and because of questions regarding the credibility of data available,” Tadros notes.

And, she poses pertinent questions on this prickly topic. “On the question of availability, the last nationwide census, taken in 1987, indicated that Copts made up 5.6 per cent of the population.

Since then there has been no official census to establish their number today. The credibility of the data has been questioned by Coptic scholars and activists, who have raised concerns as to whether the data collectors’ officers sometimes show bias and, for example, mark Christians as Muslims to deflate the former’s number,” the authors delves into the statistics.

The discrepancy in the statistics is glaring, for the Coptic Church puts the percentage of Coptic Christians as no less than 20 per cent of the population, bearing in mind that Egypt is a country of some 90 million. “The government is to blame for a lack of transparency in releasing credible data on this question. If the national censuses are costly and their data-collecting process brought into question, there is a simple, straightforward  way to arrive at credible data: the civil registrar,” Tadros explicates.

Tadros goes one step further, pinpointing that the discrepancy in percentage figures is clearly political in nature. “All Egyptians generally do follow the officially required procedure of registering newborns at one of the health offices affiliated to the Ministry of Health. Deaths are also registered. Both documents bear the religion of the person. By deducing the number of deaths from the number of those whose births are registered, it should be possible to arrive at a fairly accurate representation of the number of Christians in the country. The failure to release such data simply adds fuel to the fire of rumor and suspicion,” the author insists.

One of the most illuminating chapters in this extraordinary work is “The Politics of Vendettas: The State Security Investigations Apparatus versus the Coptic Church Leadership”. The author fleshes out secific incidents, particularly those pertaining to Coptic women victims of sectarian strife and state indifference to their plight.

The case of Camillia Shehata and the Wafaa Constantine saga are typical. Both incidents highlighted the brewing tensions between the Mubarak regime and the Coptic Christian community, the security apparatus rebuff of Pope Shenouda III and the inability of the Coptic Orthodox Church to mediate effectively between the state, the security forces and the Coptic Christian community when it came to civil rights.

“There will never be a shortage of women to serve as pawns in the battle over what is often constructed as a threat to religion,” Tadros observes. “Certainly there have been fierce sectarian clashes over land, places of worship, and the commentary of religious leaders, but none has so fired the imagination of both Muslims and Christians like cases involving women in what is an intensely patriarchal society,” she makes abundantly clear.

“The stand of these women, side by side with staunchly anti-feminist Islamists demanding Camillia’s ‘release’, shows that the crisis of inter-communal relations is underpinned by highly dubious power games,” Tadros stresses. This period, the author notes, not surprisingly, saw the rise of Coptic civil activism and the demise of the Coptic Church’s hegemony. “The gap between the Coptic Church and the laity undermined the bargaining power of the Church with the state. The Church leadership had banked on its ability to mobilize parishioner in support of its political stances in its engagement with the [Mubarak] regime,” the author contends. 

“The hubbub over Camillia Shehata is a clear case of how sectarian sentiment can be fomented and directed by individuals sharing notions of imagined communities,” Tadros explains. But perhaps the most contentious issue was the controversial refusal on the part of the authorities to grant permission to construct new churches.

Charged with pacifying and administering an increasingly unruly and politically heterogeneous parishioners, Pope Sheonuda III, towards the closing decade of the Mubarak era at his wits end. And, “disillusionment with the Church hierarchy, added to distrust if the government’s willingness to protect Copts as citizens, weakened popular responsiveness to calls from the Pope or other Church officials to support the government,” the author points out.

Being Pope was a perilous and politically volatile job. This was a turning point and the laity charged the Church with turning a blind eye to police complicity in the rapidly rising sectarian incidents.

Chapter Eight, “The Beginning of the End of the Tahrir Spirit”, is yet another heart-wrenching read. First, the author notes that the ouster of Mubarak offered hope for many Muslims and Christians that sectarian relations would improve. However, as it soon transpired they did not.  Indeed, relations between the Muslim majority and their Christian compatriots plummeted to unprecedented depths. “Three interrelated factors have precipitated sectarian violence in pot-Mubarak Egypt.  The first is that the removal of the repressive shackles of authoritarianism uncovered the cumulative build-up of social polarization in Egyptian society. In other words, societal fault-lines were not an entirely new phenomenon but the outcome of years of beneath-the-surface deepening social hostility. The second important factor is the state-sponsored policy of religious discrimination pursued by SCAF. the third contributing factor to the increased strain on social cohesion is the Salafization of the management of sectarian violence, which substituted the earlier policy of its securitization at the hands of the SSI.,” Tadros elucidates.    

Then there was the tragic sectarian violence that struck Qena. The Coptic Christians constitute a considerable part of the population, a sizable minority so to speak. Qena is also one of the most impoverished and least developed provinces of Egypt stuck as it is in the backwaters of Upper Egypt.

“The crisis began on 14 April [2011], when the government announced announced that Imad Mikhail, a Copt and a general in Mubarak’s security apparatus, was appointed governor of Qena Province. Angry Qenawis demanded his immediate resignation, holding rallies and moving to halt railway transport from Qena north to Sohag and south to Aswan. The national press was sympathetic to the Qenawis’ stance. A Christian governor ad been appointed to Qena once before The first Christian governor Magdi Ayyub, was despised by Coptic Qenawis as being so keen to appear unbiased that he discriminated against Christians. It was during his tenure that  Egypt witnessed one of its bloodiest sectarian attacks, the shooting of Nag Hammadi parishioners leaving Christmas Eve mass in 2010,” the author recalls.

Yet their was an even more ominous twist to the tale. Tadros claims that Muslim Qenawis also reviled Ayyub as indecisive. “But there was another complaint  as well, namely that he could not participate in Friday prayers,” the author states categorically.

Tadros, currently a research fellow at the institute of Development Studies in Britain and a former professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, is a prolific writer whose most recent publication is The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy Redifined or Confined. The book was written before the ouster of the muslim Brother ex-president Mohamed Morsi. Chapter Eleven entitled Winning for God: Sectarianism in the Parliamentary and Presidential Election” that brought Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to power is an insightful eye-opener.

The analysis of Tadros in Copts at the Crossroads is not particularly optimistic. Yet, she is not pessimistic either. I personally, eagerly await a future Tadros publication on Copts in the era of Al-Sisi. And, the author insists that there are always imperative things that can be done to improve the lot of Egypt’s Christians. And, she does not shy away from spelling those things out. Full citizenship rights and civil liberties top her list of priorities.

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