William Schomburg
Last updated: 9 March, 2012

Analysis: Engaging Egypt’s Copts

“Etymologically, the word Copt stems from the Greek word for Egyptian and as such, the very nucleus of Coptic identity lies firmly in the notion of an Egyptian motherland and the founding of its faith by Saint Mark in Alexandria, an event which predates the advent of Islam by several centuries”, writes William Schomburg.

Since Roman times, Copts have been persecuted and subjugated in various different ways. Indeed, critics often attribute the cultures of martyrdom and monasticism that lie at the heart of the Coptic tradition to massacres such as that of Emperor Diolectian in which thousands perished during 284 AD. More recently, intense sectarian tension has erupted amidst the angst of post-Mubarak Egypt. The demonstrations that started in Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square just over a year ago aimed at ending sixty years of military backed dictatorship. But while it took just eighteen days of protest to depose Hosni Mubarak, myriad conflicts between the different stakeholders in the political vacuum have engendered an uncertain atmosphere in this most influential and populous Arab country. The Copts, who make up approximately a tenth of Egypt’s eighty-million population, are amongst those most worried.

For decades secular strong men received at least passive support from a Christian community that had been led to believe that without them their fate would be at the mercy of Islamic extremists bent on their demise – a pattern long replicated in other countries regionally, most notably in Syria. Nonetheless, emerging evidence from Egypt now suggests that many past acts of terror committed against the minority were often orchestrated by an establishment that predicated its survival on the disunity of its citizenry and its implementation of emergency law.  Ambivalence from the military command towards Copts has become more visible in recent months, most notably in the attack by the security forces on the predominantly Christian Maspero Demonstrations last October that left 27 people dead and scores more injured.

This is but one of a string of well-documented incidents where military secularists as well as fundamentalists have regarded Copts as pawns in a power-play that has left the community open to manipulation and abuse. It is thus perhaps not surprising that data suggests their emigration has catalysed in recent months, enlarging the sizeable diaspora in the west. That said, Egypt’s Copts have played a more fundamental role relative to other regional minorities. Etymologically, the word Copt stems from the Greek word for Egyptian and as such, the very nucleus of Coptic identity lies firmly in the notion of an Egyptian motherland and the founding of its faith by Saint Mark in Alexandria, an event which predates the advent of Islam by several centuries. Copts have reaffirmed this namesake through their active engagement in modern Egypt, playing a significant role in its independence movement and political life – the most notable example perhaps being former UN General Secretary Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Today, the young Coptic blogger and activist, Maikel Nabil, who was detained by the interim military administration for much of last year, articulates his call for change as loudly as any of his other compatriots.

While the recent parliamentary election was a triumph for Islamists, their differing parties vary in political hue considerably. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s longstanding opposition, has notably changed its tone, positing progress and democracy above the Islamic dogma preached by resurgent ultraconservative Salafis, who gained roughly a third of the vote. The enshrinement of minority rights is a corner stone of any democracy and as such the treatment of Egypt’s Copts is a litmus test for the success of the revolution.

Facilitating Egypt’s transition to a healthy democracy and gaining the recognition that comes with this from the ‘international community’ is pragmatically in the interests of all mature political parties regardless where they lie on its spectrum. As such, proving that the new political order accommodates its Coptic population has three direct positive upshots on the world stage. Firstly, the aforementioned legitimacy that minority rights protection spurs will encourage an urgently needed flow of foreign aid and investment. The fact that untrusted (and untried) Islamists now dominate parliament not only makes military leaders ever more taciturn on the topic of power transferral but has also discouraged investors and donors who fear they might be filling the coffers of extremists. The Brotherhood, and others, can prove this viewpoint wrong through engagement with their Christian brethren. Equally, such positive steps will form the building blocks of a new social capital between ethno-religious communities and could foreseeably encourage the return of diaspora Copts, equipped with highly desirable technical and administrative know-how from the developed world. Finally, if Egypt, the cultural and political epicentre of the Arab world, can demonstrate that Islam and political pluralism are in no way incompatible, the ripples this will create in other Arab countries such as the homogeneous Gulf fiefdoms may well turn into waves of change.