The Emergence of a “Coptic Question” in Egypt

by Issandr El Amrani | published April 28, 2006

For background on “the Coptic question,” see Vickie Langohr, “Frosty Reception for US Religious Freedom Commission in Egypt,” Middle East Report Online, March 29, 2001.

For background on Egypt’s tumultuous 2005, see Issandr El Amrani, “Controlled Reform in Egypt: Neither Reformist nor Controlled,” Middle East Report Online, December 15, 2005.

Also see Mona El-Ghobashy, “Egypt’s Paradoxical Elections,” in Middle East Report 238 (Spring 2006).

In the early morning of April 14, 2006, Mahmoud Salah al-Din Abd al-Raziq, a Muslim, entered the church of Mar Girgis (Saint George) in Alexandria’s al-Hadra district and stabbed three parishioners who had gathered for a service. Abd al-Raziq then proceeded to attack worshippers at two other churches, according to police accounts, before being arrested en route to a fourth. Nushi Atta Girgis, 78, died from his stab wounds, while several others were injured, some severely.

These regrettable events in Egypt’s second city were worrisome enough, but concerns were greatly amplified by the controversy sparked by the stabbings. On April 15, during the funeral procession for Girgis, clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians, prompting police to disperse the crowds by firing live ammunition into the air and using tear gas. One Muslim died, more than 40 people of both faiths were wounded and dozens more were arrested. The following day, street fighting erupted once again after Christians marched down one of Alexandria’s main thoroughfares bearing crosses and shouting Christian slogans such as, “With our blood, with our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Messiah.” The protest angered local Muslims, who apparently felt that the slogans insulted Islam. Many area stores were damaged in the commotion, and still more dozens of Alexandrians were wounded in battles with riot police.

Combined, the three days of violence lifted a taboo on public debate over the state of relations between Muslims and minority Coptic Christians in Egypt. Though sectarian clashes and acts of hostility toward Copts have occurred many times before, the government’s officials and media have previously brushed them off by repeating ad nauseam that these incidents were exceptions to a rule of “national unity” (wahda wataniyya) and inter-communal brotherhood. Cracks had already begun to appear in the consensus over “national unity” before the Alexandria events, not only because sectarian violence has become frequent, but also because of the uncertainty about Egypt’s political future that emerged over the course of 2005. Indeed, the events of that year—notable for unprecedented public dissent from the regime of President Husni Mubarak, widespread recognition of the need for political reform, the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary elections and mounting regional unrest—partly overshadowed the increasing willingness of Copts to voice their social and political concerns. For those who are part of the country’s political class, this has meant raising issues of political representation and equality under the law. In Upper Egypt, amidst proliferating clashes over the construction of churches, the complaints target the (mostly Muslim) local police, who take sides in disputes that often have as much to do with traditional kinship feuds as they do with religion. More generally, the ambient political uncertainty has forced Copts and members of Egypt’s smaller Christian sects to consider their future in a society where religion is becoming a social and political marker.

A Watershed Year

2005 began with an odd scandal. Wafa Konstantin, the wife of a disabled Coptic priest, took refuge in a police station in mid-December 2004 and announced that she had converted to Islam. She demanded to be protected from her co-religionists, who sought to convince her to return to her husband’s side. Though it is difficult to know what might have motivated her, the combination of an unhappy marriage and the church’s ban on divorce (which is all the more stringent for priests) is perhaps the most plausible explanation. In any case, the affair incensed Copts, who took to the streets in Cairo and the Delta to protest what they perceived as the state’s meddling in church affairs. Within a few weeks, Pope Shenouda III himself went into retreat and threatened to stay there until the matter was resolved, even if it meant skipping mass on the January 7 Coptic Christmas. Eventually, the security services came to an accommodation with the church: Shenouda would come out of his retreat and Konstantin’s conversion to Islam would be considered null and void (under Egyptian law, conversion from Islam is illegal, but not the reverse). Konstantin has since been sequestered in the monastery of Wadi Natroun and has not been heard from, to the alarm of human rights activists who believe she is being held against her will.

While the Konstantin affair had been resolved, as far as the church and the state were concerned, it set the tone for Muslim-Coptic relations for the rest of the year. The media reported new “conversion scandals” with regularity, with many cases prompting sectarian clashes, though the “conversions” were most often fabricated or highly exaggerated. Copts accused Muslims of seducing or kidnapping young women—even raping them—turning real or imagined love affairs into excuses for violence. Muslims reacted in similar fashion, with the end result often being the brutal interference of security services to restore order.

Public sensitivity over the topic of religious conversion culminated in October 2005 with a media campaign against the Coptic Church that eventually set off riots in Alexandria. The focus of the controversy was a video recording of a Coptic play, I Was Blind, But Now I Can See, which features a young Copt who is persuaded by Muslim fundamentalists to convert to Islam. Once he converts, however, he sees the moral error of their ways and returns to the church. The play had been performed once before being banned by the church, but DVDs of the performance resurfaced in the midst of parliamentary elections in a district of Alexandria where a Copt had beaten out several Muslims to become the official candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Tabloid newspapers brought attention to the sudden appearance of the recordings in the neighborhood and challenged the church to issue an apology. Pope Shenouda refused to do so. On October 21, after Friday prayers, about 5,000 Muslim protesters descended on the church that had been accused of distributing the DVD. Three people died, 150 were wounded and 105 were arrested in the resulting melée, possibly leaving grudges that contributed to the April violence. The authorities promised an investigation—particularly into allegations that local security officers and politicians had fanned the flames—but it has yet to be completed.

At the time, human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO focusing on the right to privacy that has documented abuses of minorities, zeroed in on the role of the security services. “Bizarrely,” Bahgat wrote in an op-ed that appeared in the October 26 edition of al-Dustur, “they seem convinced that the best way to prevent sectarian clashes is to forcibly prevent people from converting to the religion of their choice. As a result, an increasing number of Christians who have gone to State Security with certificates of conversion from al-Azhar to register their new status have been denied official recognition as Muslims. Mature, intelligent adults are instead forcibly returned to their families or the Church.”

It is not only cases involving Copts that have attracted State Security’s notice: Egyptian rights activists have noted similar treatment of other minorities, such as Baha’is and Shiites (both of which communities have faced police persecution), as well as Muslims with an unorthodox interpretation of Islam. For the state, however, cases involving Copts seem to be particularly important, because they will bring the greatest external attention and pressure. Muslims complain that State Security always intervenes on the side of the church, as in the Konstantin case, and worry that the “Coptic question” could become a pretext for outside interference in Egyptian affairs. One corollary of this concern is that Muslims are often reluctant to concede to Coptic demands despite the reality of institutionalized discrimination against Christians—a phenomenon that is both created by and symptomatic of a larger problem of pervasive nepotism and the importance of wasta (connections) in Egypt’s public and private sectors. Copts, on the other hand, do not trust the police and the security services, in which they are under-represented—as they are in the armed forces and much of the civil service—and which have an interest in minimizing the importance of sectarian tension.

For instance, Copts who were present at the churches attacked in Alexandria quickly poked holes in the version of events presented by the Interior Ministry and state media, which had Abd al-Raziq—described as “mentally ill” and diagnosed with schizophrenia—following his grim itinerary unaided, using public transportation in Alexandria’s dense traffic to reach churches miles apart within a span of two hours. Angry Copts protested what they saw as a cover-up, casting doubt on the security services’ assertion that the attacks had been the work of a lone madman. Although the main state newspapers ran with the official story, the independent press and even one newer state-owned daily, Rose al-Youssef, were quick to denounce this version of events. In Sawt al-Umma, a feisty populist tabloid, editor Wa’il al-Ibrashi wrote that “a decaying regime is mocking Egyptians by telling them that a mentally ill person was behind these attacks,” explaining that the distance between the churches made the official scenario impossible. He ended his column facetiously warning against “the most powerful organization in Egypt—that of the mentally ill.” Coptic media personalities, including on state television, also cast aspersions on the Interior Ministry’s story.

Copts and Politics

If the conversion controversy was one major issue in 2005, the other was politics—and the diminishing role of Copts therein. At the end of a year heralded by the regime as introducing a new era of reform, parliamentary elections returned fewer Coptic MPs than ever before. One victim of this trend was the Wafdist politician Munir Fakhri Abd al-Nur, the respected scion of one of Egypt’s leading Coptic political families, who lost his seat to a ruling party candidate who started a whispering campaign against him to rally Muslim voters. The NDP, despite its pretensions to being a party of national unity, presented only two Copts on its list of 444 candidates, and only one of them won a seat. Asked why so few of its candidates were Copts, a spokesman for the party added insult to injury by explaining that Coptic candidates were “less electable” than Muslim ones and that the NDP was focused on winning as many seats as possible.

“Copts received a slap in the face from the NDP,” fumes Yusuf Sidhum, a secular-minded Copt who edits Watani, Egypt’s only mainstream Coptic newspaper that is not an official church publication. Sidhum is worried by the way the regime presents itself as the protector of Copts. He was particularly disturbed by Pope Shenouda’s endorsement of Mubarak in the September 2005 presidential election, the first in Egypt’s history to feature multiple candidates. “The pope’s position damaged the image of Christians among Muslims, especially liberal Muslims,” he explains, noting that Shenouda exaggerated the president’s lackluster record on Coptic rights. Among Muslims, particularly the politically engaged, the pope’s statement seemed to confirm a Coptic preference for the status quo at a time of unprecedented calls for political change. For liberal Copts, many of whom publicly disagreed with the pope, the church should not have spoken in the name of Copts on non-spiritual matters. There were even rebellions among the clergy: one priest was temporarily suspended from presiding over mass in his parish because he was an active member of the anti-Mubarak movement, Kifaya.

The Coptic absence from the political stage was underlined, most importantly, by the success of the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls in December. Not only did the Brotherhood’s gains alarm many Copts—the distinguished Coptic intellectual Milad Hanna wrote that he would leave the country if the Brotherhood were ever to come to power—but a militantly Islamist organization was now a powerful ideological force with legitimate political representation despite its officially banned status. Coptic reaction to the Brotherhood’s control of a fifth of Parliament became the media’s topic of choice for weeks after the election, impelling the Brotherhood to launch a campaign framing its positions as moderate. In early 2006, the Brotherhood promised to present a new position paper on Copts. Liberal-minded Brothers such as Abd al-Mun`im Abu al-Futouh explained that the organization’s vision rests on the concept of citizenship and equal rights for all, stressing that it wants to restore the caliphate in the spiritual realm, and not the political one. The Brotherhood has also endorsed the right of Copts to build new churches without presidential permission, hardly surprising since it faces its own problems in building new mosques. Yet the Brotherhood has thus far been unable—or unwilling—to speak clearly on specific Coptic demands, such as the right of all citizens to run for the presidency, equal access to the state media, the inclusion of Coptic history in educational curricula, and, most controversially, the removal of Article 2 of the constitution, which enshrines Islam as “the religion of the state” and “the principles of Islamic law” as “the main source of legislation.”

It is also unclear if the Muslim Brotherhood’s more liberal voices, who tend have a higher profile, are really representative of the group. Just days before the events in Alexandria, Rose al-Youssef, a state-owned daily that seems to specialize in attacks on Islamists, published an interview with the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mahdi Akif, quoting him as saying “Tuz fi Misr” (“Screw Egypt”). Akif’s point was that the Egyptian nation-state paled in importance next to the idea of a multi-national Islamic caliphate, precisely the type of statement that Copts believe can only lead to the reinstatement of the dhimmi status abrogated by Said Pasha in 1856. It also brought to mind statements by former Supreme Guides suggesting that Copts could not be trusted to serve in the army and should have to pay the jizya, the head tax paid by non-Muslims in Egypt from the Muslim conquests until 1855.

“It’s a fact that we are marginalized,” says Abd al-Nur, the Wafdist politician who lost his parliamentary seat in December. “We have to try to understand why it is that way. Copts are less and less active not only on the political scene, but they have also retracted from a lot of public activities.” Sidhum, the editor, is more direct: “Christians are withdrawing into churches and mixing less with Muslims.” Both men blame what they call the “Wahhabization” of Egypt for having shunted Copts aside in society as a whole, as well as in politics. Not surprisingly, the rise of conservative Islam has also led to a radicalization of Copts, particularly among émigré groups that have grown rapidly in influence in Egypt and abroad.

Foreign Conspiracies

Egyptian media reaction to the Alexandria clashes bespoke a widespread fear of foreign, mainly US, manipulation of sectarian tensions to “divide” Egypt against itself. The opposition newspaper al-Ahrar, for instance, objected to the State Department’s condemnation of “these vicious attacks that seem timed to coincide with observance of the Palm Sunday weekend [which Copts observe a week later than in the West],” calling it “throwing oil on the fire.” Abbas Tarabili, editor of the popular opposition daily al-Wafd, wrote: “Egypt is the victim of a plot that will destroy the nation unless Muslims and Copts close ranks. Muslims and Copts have been always neighbors sharing in each others’ festivals. What has become of us? We admit that what is going on is painful, but we must realize that we are being targeted as part of a plan to redraw the map of the Middle East by fomenting sectarian strife. Only through honest dialogue can we resolve the outstanding issues between Muslims and Copts, no matter how sensitive, in order to thwart attempts to divide the nation.”

Meanwhile, Galal Duwaydar, a prominent columnist for the state-owned daily al-Akhbar (Egypt’s second biggest-selling newspaper) attacked Arab satellite stations such as al-Jazeera for showing graphic footage of the clashes (which were largely invisible on state television). “Sensationalism breeds panic and is unacceptable in view of the service that should be offered by the media,” he wrote. “Certain Arab satellite stations let loose their sick imaginations by describing the attacks as symptoms of sectarian strife…. Such fabrication is harmful to Egyptians, but we know that these stations wish to whip up public sentiment by implying that Egyptian society is unstable. In fact, the aim is to foment sectarian differences in favor of the nation’s enemies.” It was as if some commentators were more concerned about the portrayal of the events than the events themselves. At their worst, they insinuated that Copts were fifth columnists for bringing attention to their condition.

This paranoia is not new. For nearly a year, both state and independent media have been fulminating about a plot against “national unity” in the form of the first-ever conference on the Coptic question in the US, planned for mid-2005 and finally held in Washington on November 16-18. The conference, organized in part by associations of Coptic émigrés, was to be focused on the theme that “democracy in Egypt should benefit Christians as much as Islamists.” Its immediate context was the rise of Islamists in politics during the parliamentary elections, but it was also a testimony to the rising profile of US-based Coptic groups, which have found willing support in American neo-conservative and evangelical Christian circles. Publicity for the event was handled by Benador Associates, a firm known for its roster of neo-conservative clients. Representatives of other Middle Eastern minorities, such as Chaldean Christians from Iraq and Maronite Christians from Lebanon, were also present at the conference, as was Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the (Muslim) Egyptian-American sociologist and activist who has arguably become the best-known critic of the Mubarak regime in the US. Ibrahim had run afoul of the regime in 1994 when he tried to include discussion of the Copts in a conference on Arab minorities; the conference relocated to Cyprus. His Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies is one the rare Egyptian civil society institutions that has raised the Coptic question, trying to engage with moderate Islamists and Muslim thinkers like Gamal al-Banna, the youngest brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The main force behind the conference was the US Copts Association, whose president, Michael Mounir, is the public face of Copts in Washington. Shortly after the conference, Mounir made a trip to Cairo that received much attention. Officially, he was visiting his family. But, according to a source in the Coptic community, Mounir actually came for discussions with high-level officials, including the director of general intelligence, Omar Suleiman, and Mubarak, who wanted the meetings kept secret. Mubarak told Mounir the state would consent to some Coptic demands. In exchange, he wanted Mounir to help the regime improve its relations with the Bush administration. It was, the source said, “an offer to work together rather than against one another.”

Soon after the trip, in late December 2005, Mubarak announced that regulations on church repairs—which previously had to be approved by the Office of the President—would be devolved to the governorate level, with governors having to respond to demands within three months or have them considered approved. A few weeks later, he appointed the first Coptic governor in decades, in the Upper Egyptian province of Qina. The changes fell way short of Coptic demands for abrogation of the Ottoman-era Humayuni decrees, which put church repair and construction under the authority of the head of state, but more progress may be on the way: two drafts of a unified bill on places of worship are being considered in Parliament. Given the regime’s lack of transparency, it is difficult to tell what motivated these changes, but it is also hard to believe that the increased militancy of Copts, the links émigrés have forged in Washington and the mounting internal and external pressure on Mubarak had nothing to do with them.

Another Media Taboo Broken

In the past two years, with the appearance of independent dailies and the radicalization of partisan publications, Egypt’s media scene has changed considerably. Topics that were previously taboo are now out in the open: the president’s health and finances, corruption among high-level government officials, and other issues once considered beyond a “red line” are regularly broached. Although there had already been increasing comment on Coptic issues, particularly in reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral success, the response to the Alexandria clashes was to shatter the myth of “national unity.”

For years, the Egyptian media had covered incidents of sectarian strife by reasserting the principle of “national unity”—which dates from the anti-British nationalist movement of 1919 that united “cross and crescent”—and explaining away violence as the work of isolated individuals, extremists or madmen. Most of the media, state-owned, opposition or independent, rarely gave room to Coptic claims of discrimination. Now, while political leaders still speak of “national unity,” editorialists and other personalities are increasingly willing to speak of a problem in sectarian relations, the legitimacy of at least some Coptic demands, and the links between sectarian tensions and Egypt’s current economic and political malaise.

“What happened in Alexandria and in the weeks before indicates that anger and a sense of injustice result from the lack of respect for the rights of citizenship,” wrote Salama Ahmad Salama, one of Egypt’s most respected columnists, in the leading state-owned daily al-Ahram. “In the scenes relayed by the satellite channels of the funeral of the Christian victim, the gangs of thugs holding sticks and swords were obvious. These scenes evoke the parliamentary elections, and their recurrence in Alexandria implies that such gangs are not led by religious motivations, but by a herd instinct where frustration and anger find expression by being directed at another group.” Like many other commentators, Salama blamed the Alexandria violence on a general breakdown of social relations fueled by unemployment and political frustration.

As the storm over the violence continues, the redefinition of the Coptic question as a part of political reform, rather than an issue of national security, could engender a debate that moves beyond tired slogans. “No one wants to use ‘national unity’ anymore because it was used for years by the government to deny that there was a problem,” explains Hossam Bahgat. “They can’t use ‘secularism’ because it’s a dirty word. So they use ‘citizenship,’ but that means different things to different people.”

A debate on citizenship has already started, not only in Parliament where a commission has been formed to investigate the attacks and their cause, but, more importantly, in the media and among politicians of all stripes who link sectarian tensions to the political upheaval gripping the country. The issues at stake include the ongoing struggle for greater judicial independence, the abolition of emergency laws, the reduction of the presidency’s powers and what role Islamists should be allowed to have in the political arena. Reaching a national consensus on these questions—and restoring the ethos of citizenship eroded by the police state—is one precondition for answering the Coptic question.

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