Why Copts matter


A westerner watching the news in the week following the New Year’s Eve of 2010/2011 might have been surprised with what was happening in Egypt. A bomb exploded outside a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 21 and leaving 97 injured. Wait, go back. What are Copts? Isn’t Egypt a muslim country, how come there are churches in Egypt? Aren’t suicide bombers supposed to only target Israeli civilians and American troops? And then, less than a month later, a wave of massive protests rocked Egypt and toppled the government. Again the newsreader would be taken by surprise. But this time, the events would command much more interest. Will this democratic movement spread to other arab-speaking countries? Will democracy ease or intensify the tensions between these countries and Israel? And of course, will democracy lead to a secular or Islamic fundamentalist rule? Due to the far-reaching consequences of the 25 of January revolution, it would be understandable if our newsreader lost their original interest about the Copts as if they were yesterday’s news. On the contrary, I intend to show here that the Copts hold the key to the success or failure of the Egyptian revolution.

Why are there Copts in Egypt?

In many African countries, Christianity was introduced by European missionaries that came at the time of the European colonisation. This is not what happened in Egypt. There are Christians in Egypt since 42 AD, when St Mark moved to Alexandria. By the way, we owe 1/4 of the New Testament to him. Egypt was one of the most important centres of early Christianity. Monasticism was arguably an Egyptian invention. The most consequential heresy of the early Christianity, Arianism, was created by an Egyptian (Arius), and was also fought against by an Egyptian (Athanasius). In part due to the theological debate that ensued, both Copts, Greeks and Catholics recite the same formula, the Nicene Creed, during every Sunday mass.

Coptic icon representing Saint Antony the Great

Coptic icon of Saint Antony

The adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire in 380 AD did not ease matters for the Egyptians, though. In 451 AD, the majority of Egyptians refused to accept the doctrine that Jesus has two separate natures, one divine and one human. Due to that, they were the target of harsh religious persecution by the Roman state, and broke away from the main branch of the Christian Church. By that time, the centre of Roman political and economical activity had shifted from Italy to Greece. Italy was ravaged by invading Barbarian tribes, who incidentally were also Christian, but followed the Arian heresy. Already at odds with the Greeks, the Italian church would soon also break away and become what we know as Catholic Church.

The Egyptians continued to be oppressed by those who sided with the Roman Emperor until Arab Islamic armies invaded the country in 641 AD. By one of those twists of fate, after decades of civil strife, the Roman army decided to leave the rebelling country to the Arab invaders without much resistance. Still, many government officials chose to stay, continuing their business as before, as the Arabs did not have interest or skills in administration. Under Arab rule, enforced by a chiefly Roman administration, the Christians continued to be treated as fair game. This of course led to a slow but progressive conversion to Islam. Nevertheless, many chose to maintain their religion. At the time of the Arab invasion, all Egyptians were Christian. “Copt”, now a term used in reference to the Egyptian Christians, is a derivative of the Arab word for “Egyptian”.  They are now 10 to 15% of the population, which is the same percentage of African-Americans living in the USA.

What role do the Copts play in Egypt?

According to the Constitution of 1971, now suspended by the military, Egypt is an “Arab Republic”, Islam is the Religion of the State, and Islamic Law is a principal source of legislation. The religion of each citizen is displayed on their personal documents. Copts are allowed to become Muslim, but conversion from Islam to Christianity is illegal, and an informal, state-tolerated death sentence ensues. Building of new churches or refurbishment of old ones requires a special license signed by the President. No special license is required for mosques.

Cave cathedral of Simon the tanner, garbage city, Cairo

Despite this level of control, Copts are not actively persecuted by the government. Rather, historically there was an effort to create a “separate but equal” society. Copts and Muslims joined forces in the 1919 Revolution, and the nationalist movement always appealed to all Egyptians regardless of religion. Most barriers preventing Copts to compete in fair grounds with Muslims today come from their being an unprotected minority, in a country where corruption runs free. This is evident in that the proportion of Copts occupying managerial offices within government and industry is much smaller than their share of the population. The rise of Islamic extremism in the 1970s worsened this situation, as the government became more vocal in its support of Islam. The net result of this shift was that this already biased society became even more myopic towards attacks against Copts.

What interest would Copts have on the outcome of the Revolution?

Regardless of what some Islamic extremists claim, it would be impossible for Copts to transform Egypt into a Christian country. This is as fanciful as Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter profecy, in which he thought all white Americans would be killed by blacks. Copts can only hope that Egypt becomes a secular society. As long as Egypt enforces Islamic superiority through government, Copts will have some sort of disadvantage. Even if the majority of Muslims are tolerant towards Copts, political leaders who appeal to Muslim sentiments would be able draw from a larger demographic. This is true except in the case of a common enemy, such as a foreign invader or an internal dictator. In such circumstances where all help is needed, even the Copts are welcome friends.

There has been much talk about whether Egypt will emerge as an Islamic fundamentalist regime as was the case of Iran. Clearly, from the point of view of a political leader, the adoption of a Muslim line will bear both nationalist and religious appeal. If the elections are to be held shortly, one cannot count victory on the most ponderous party. The emerging victor will be the candidate which could attract a majority vote. A successful party line will be one that appeals to Egyptians on terms they understand today, not in a distant future after they had educated themselves on economy and politics.

Copts are the only fraction of the population that, regardless of circumstances, will oppose political Islam. They are the only Egyptians who feel that the past regime was already an Islamic rule. The Muslim majority regards Mubarak’s regime as either secular or moderate. In this, they agree with the Americans, Europeans, and Israelis. Copts in the other hand cannot be made to believe that Muslim charity would improve the lives of the poor. Their poor were always, and will continue to be, outside of the scope of such policy.

How could the Copts contribute to the outcome?

A Coptic party could not aspire to rule the country. Copts could only further their goal of electing a government devoid of religious partisanship by lending their support to secularism. To assert their difference will only engage the interest of radical Islamists. If they want secularism, they will need to subscribe to a non-religions, or even anti-religious, line. The educated class in Egypt, which would support such line, is not numerous either. Copts could not afford to estrange them by conflicting with their disinterest in religious matters.

Revolution can be good for business

Copts will be hard-pressed by populist demands too. Of course everybody wants to help the poor. Unfortunately, the only people who pay taxes to support social schemes are the middle class. The poor cannot afford it; the rich can dodge it. Taxation of business can slow the economy or even break it. Businesses will find political allies who could protect their interests. Excessive taxation would weaken the alliance between the Copts and the middle class, who are exactly the ones who would be interested in a secular rule. A strong economy, on the other hand, could only help the middle class to grow. These constraints will direct the Copts to support reforms that increase opportunity based on merit, and oppose direct aid to the poor.

Now, how would the Copts derive support from business? The only Copt who made it big was Naguib Sawiris, the mobile telephony tycoon. But even he would not support a policy that went against his business. Here, Copts will have to ally with business interests that are at odds with fundamentalism. The tourism industry is one, the press and Internet are other examples. It is important to realise, though, that most businesses, these included, could still survive under Islamic rule. Business cares about business, and concessions will have to be made.

Who are the enemies of the Copts?

Targeting the Copts becomes handy every time there is a need to distract Egyptians from the government. Too busy discussing religious unrest, people forget to mention corruption, unemployment and police brutality. A document that emerged after the Revolution links the New Year’s Eve Coptic church bombing not to Islamic extremists, but to the State Security Intelligence, Mubarak’s secret police. Recent attacks on Coptic monasteries could be interpreted in the same light. Although some claim that the old regime protected Copts from the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it is also fair to say that it used fundamentalism to secure Coptic support to the government. This is dangerous. If Copts are seen to support the old regime, this would polarise the anti-Mubarak movement towards the opposite side of the religious spectrum, that is, towards Islamic fundamentalism.

Muslim and Christian in Tahrir square

Copts have nothing to gain with opposing Islamic radicals on religious grounds. This could only serve to push moderate Muslims away. It is clear that Islamic autocracies such as Saudi Arabia will have a vested interest in supporting the latter. Even more, they can easily draw support from the population by equating Copts with both present Western (Christian) Imperialism and with historical Crusader armies, even though Copts played no part in either. Hence, these potential adversaries should not be engaged with. Fighting would only give them an opportunity to extend even more their influence over Egyptian politics.

Why should you care?

We live in a globalised, interdependent world. This creates tensions between neighbouring families, for example, when one has to stand foreign music being played out loud across the wall. In contrast, it eases tensions between countries, as these end up with a similar mix of multiple cultural backgrounds. Moreover, economic interdependence means countries cannot hope to start conflict abroad without having to face impossible economic setbacks. To cater for diverse tastes both internally and externally, nations are pushed towards greater tolerance for difference and secularism. This is not uniformly good. Greater tolerance for differing views also means greater difficulty in seeing and preventing evil. To illustrate this, we can refer to the Internet. One can have access to free political debate there, but the free mix will include political extremism and pornography.

Islamic fundamentalism goes in the opposite direction. It appeals to supremacy of one belief over others. It aims to tackle the burden of a globalised world by imposing a clear set of values. At the same time it leaves less space for individual freedom, it creates an uniform rule where right and wrong is clear. This has advantages. One has just to remember the fate of drug dealers in some Islamic countries to understand that point.

There is a danger, though, in uniformity. We have all lived through the years of clear distinction between Capitalist and Communist countries, and know what it feels like. This danger is abundantly obvious in the Middle East. There we have an uniformly Jewish state surrounded by uniformly Arab-speaking countries. Globalisation, secularism and trade would certainly not harm the relations between these countries. Supremacy of one over another certainly would.

1919 revolution flag. This symbol surfaces every time Muslims and Copts unite for a common cause. Maybe it is about time they forget who is Muslim and who is Coptic, so that calls for unity could finally become superfluous.


About dmvianna

Past neuroscientist, now data analyst.
This entry was posted in Christian, Coptic, Egypt, History, Islamic fundamentalism, Politics, Revolution and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Why Copts matter

  1. Liz says:

    A great piece, Daniel, with an interesting perspective!

    Well done.

  2. jono says:

    Nice 🙂

  3. Raul Gottlieb says:

    Good article!

    There is a line in the Bible that roughly says, regarding the Jews, “through you the humankind will be blessed”. I understand that line as meaning that the societies who treat their minorities (the Jews are and always have been a small minority) well are blessed. The same occurs with the Copts in Egypt and with the minorities trough the Middle East. The countries that treat their minorities with respect and equality will strive, the others will stay where they are.

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