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Reflections on the Coptic Question 

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ByTarek Heggy

My special interest in the Coptic question, which is known to many people, led me to conduct an in-depth study of the  history of Christianity in Egypt in an attempt to acquaint myself with the source of Coptic culture in all its dimensions and  aspects. This entailed establishing close relations with hundreds, not to say thousands, of Copts, including many prominent  figures of the Egyptian church. A number of Coptic friends asked me to write my views on the so-called Coptic question,  which some believe has reached a critical stage and others dismiss as an imaginary problem with no basis in reality. Before going into the subject, I would like to state that the basic premise from which this article proceeds is that the Copts  are (or should be) genuine Egyptian citizens, that is, first-class citizens. Egypt is their country; they are not living here by  the grace of others but are fully entitled to enjoy the status and rights of nationhood, as full partners, not as charity cases.

If this premise is disputed, there can be no dialogue. This article is not addressed to those who regard our fellow  countrymen of the Coptic faith as second-class citizens, allowed to live among us thanks to our tolerance and magnanimity,  nor, a fortiori, to those who call for the imposition of the khezya (the poll-tax payment required of non-Muslims) on  members of the Coptic community. To engage in a debate with anyone who rejects the basic premise of this article is to  embark on an exercise in futility. No purpose would be served in trying to initiate what would essentially be a dialogue of  the deaf. On the other hand, if the reader accepts the basic premise of this article as an incontrovertible truth, then there is  room for dialogue, provided, however, that no one presumes to speak in the name of the Copts, whether in expressing their  grievances or in denying that such grievances exist. Actually, not a single individual or entity in Egypt today, official or  unofficial, can claim that the Copts have no problems or complaints. In writing these lines, therefore, I do not presume to  speak for the Copts but only to convey to the reader what I have heard over and over again from ordinary Egyptian Coptic  citizens who cannot possibly be classified as rebels or extremists. I am familiar with the allegations of the extremists, which  I will not go into here. I will only write what I have heard ' and believe to be true ' over the years from those who can only  be described as moderate Copts.

A major grievance over which there is complete consensus within the Coptic community is that the right to construct new  churches or restore old ones has until recently been severely curtailed by legislative and bureaucratic constraints. Although  these constraints have been somewhat eased, most Copts believe the situation is still far from satisfactory.  I believe the only way out of what is clearly an untenable situation is to unify the laws governing the construction and  restoration of all houses of worship, whether they are called mosques or churches. These laws should lay down a set of  rational rules applicable to all Egyptians regardless of creed. For it is totally illogical that one segment of society should be  subjected to arbitrary constraints while another is allowed to enjoy unbridled freedom when it comes to constructing places  of worship or congregating to offer prayer when and where its members choose. Indeed, even when, as is often the case,  this leads to chaotic situations involving obvious violations of law, people are too intimidated to challenge the offenders,  leaving them free to flout the law with impunity. 

But while this is a major grievance, it is far from being the only, or even the main, reason for the widespread feeling among  Egypt's Christians that they are living a tense moment, not to say a crisis situation. They have a lot more to worry about  than the need to obtain a license before they can build a new church. True, this is a flagrant case of institutionalized  discrimination that is totally unjustified. After all, what possible threat can the construction of a new church represent?  Churches are used either as houses of worship or as community centres where people congregate for weddings and  funerals and banning or constraining their construction is an abridgement of a basic human right. Still, the Coptic community  has other more serious complaints that can be summed up as follows:

-The existence of a general climate that allows for the resurgence at different times and in certain areas of the country of a  spirit of religious intolerance. Copts are finely attuned to this phenomenon, as sometimes the mere mention of their name is  enough to trigger a hostile reaction.

-There is a widespread feeling among Copts that their participation in public life has gradually dwindled over the last fifty  years. Their sense of marginalization is borne out by the facts: in 1995, not a single Copt was elected to parliament.

-There is, moreover, the spectre of communal violence, which can flare up at any time as it has done in the past, most  notably in the Koshh incident.

A few analytical remarks on the feelings of unease these issues engender among the Copts may be useful here.

-With regard to the general climate which breeds a spirit of hateful fanaticism, this did not come about by a governmental  decree or a political decision, but was a natural result of the defeat of the Egyptian revival project, especially after the June  1967 debacle. The vacuum was quickly filled up by a fundamentalist ideology and culture, which put itself forward as an  alternative to the movement for a new Egyptian awakening. With the spread of the cultural values of this trend [whose  members committed many crimes, most notably the assassination of Anwar Sadat], the general climate fell prey to the  forces of conservatism and regression which inevitably bred a situation of hostility towards the Copts. As a noted Egyptian  intellectual once put it, whenever the revival project is defeated in Egypt, this has negative repercussions on two groups of  Egyptians: women and Copts. The opposite is equally true: in a vital and dynamic cultural climate, the attitude towards  these two groups is enlightened and in keeping with the values of civilization and progress. It may be unfair to blame the  current regime for creating an environment which breeds fanaticism and allows the resurgence of religious intolerance, with  the attendant risk of communal violence. However, it is a fact that the government could, and still can, do much to limit the  dangerous polarization that has come to characterize the cultural climate in Egypt today. To that end, it must adopt a policy  aimed at the positive reinforcement of a culture of religious tolerance in place of the spirit of fanaticism threatening us all.  While educational curricula and information media are the right place to start, we must not forget the importance of religious  pulpits in shaping public perceptions. For there can be no hope of progress if Islamic religious institutions oppose a cultural  project aimed at eradicating the spirit of religious intolerance which has taken hold in our society. That is why Al-Azhar  must follow the vision of the regime, not the other way round. To leave matters to the men of religion is to accept the  spread of a theocratic culture which logic and experience prove cannot possibly support a culture of tolerance and  acceptance of the right of others to differ, nor accept the notion of unity through diversity.

I am well aware that what I propose is easier said than done, and that the government faces a daunting challenge. But I  also know that the role of any 'leadership' [in the broad sense of the word; that is, the executive leaders], is to formulate a  vision and work towards achieving it. To succeed, they must lead, not allow themselves to be led. It would be wrong to  claim that the regime is by its nature unwilling to face up to the challenge or that it is responsible for creating the ugly spirit  of fanaticism that has come to pervade our society. However, it turned a blind eye to this aberration for a long time, only  slowly coming to realize that the ideology behind the culture of fanaticism is the main enemy of the regime. It is this  ideology which spawned the assassins of Anwar Sadat, the would-be assassins of the Addis Ababa incident and the  perpetrators of many other crimes.

-With regard to the widespread feeling among Copts that their representation in public life has shrunk considerably over the  last few decades, this is borne out by official statistics. However, this should not be seen as a deliberate attempt by the  regime to keep Copts out of public office. It should be seen, rather, as a negative phenomenon that grew insidiously over  the years, unnoticed by successive governments and driven by its own dynamics, until it reached its present unacceptable  proportions. But whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Copts are marginalized in Egyptian public life and this is a  situation that merits serious  study. I for one believe the explanation for the phenomenon lies in the mindset our public  officials have developed in recent years, which is characterized by a refusal to admit to the existence of problems and an  insistence on claiming that all is best in the best of all possible worlds. This mindset is rooted in another cultural specificity,  which is a refusal to accept criticism and an inability to engage in self-criticism. To claim, as some do, that the situation is  of the Copts' own making, that they have become marginalized because they are too passive and too taken up in financial  activities, is to put the cart before the horse. It is true that the Copts are passive and that they are involved in financial and economic activities but that is a result, not a cause: the result of having many doors closed to them despite their  undeniable abilities.

Although I am deeply convinced of the truth of the above analysis, I am also aware that it is incomplete. The same doors  that are slammed in the face of highly qualified members of the Coptic community remain closed to many highly qualified  members of Egyptian society in general. The political game in Egypt today is open only to those willing to play by certain  rules established over the last few decades, rules which by their nature are repellent to skilled professionals with any sense  of pride, being based on personal loyalty, nepotism and other mechanisms having nothing to do with professional abilities.

-As to the violent communal clashes which flare up from time to time, most recently in Koshh and, before that, in Khanka,  to mention just two of the many violent confrontations to which our recent history bears witness, these are the result of a  number of factors, the most important of which are:

' An official line that seems determined to play down the gravity of the situation in the mistaken belief that admitting  to the existence of the problem would be detrimental to Egypt's reputation. In fact, Egypt's reputation would be better  served by confronting the problem head on rather than pretending it doesn't exist. 

' The spread of a culture pattern characterized by ignoring problems, extolling achievements and singing our own praises.

' A failure to make use of the many worthwhile efforts made to study and analyze the root causes of such  incidents, such as the famous report put out by Dr. Gamal Oteify on the spate of communal clashes which broke out in the  nineteen seventies. His findings and recommendations could have been put to good use had it not been for a cultural  propensity to dismiss the clashes as a minor problem instigated by external forces for the purpose of destabilizing Egypt. 

The purpose of this article is not to accuse or blame anyone, but to present an objective and neutral study which aims, like  the late Dr. Oteify's report, to cast light on some elements of the problem. To accuse the government of persecuting the  Copts would be both illogical and unwise. But it would be equally illogical and unwise to pretend that they have no  legitimate grievances and that their situation is ideal.

I can think of no better way to conclude this article than with the following story: In the course of a debate on the Coptic  question, someone asked me what the needs and demands of the Copts were. I began with their second demand, then  moved on to the third, fourth and fifth. But what, he asked, is their first demand? I replied that what they needed above all  was a 'social embrace', in the sense of being made to feel that there is a genuine desire to listen to them and hear their  complaints and problems, in a spirit of brotherly love and sympathy based on the belief that they are equal partners in this  land, not second-class citizens belonging to a minority that has to accept and bow to the will of the majority.  For a real and comprehensive solution to the Coptic question, we need only look back to the time of Saad Zaghloul, who  established an exemplary model of communal relations that can serve as a glorious point of departure for a contemporary  project to lay this nagging problem to rest once and for all.

There are good reasons why Saad Zaghloul is beloved of the Copts, and we would do well to emulate the example he set  so many years ago. These reasons were exhaustively addressed in an old article of mine which was published in Al-Akhbar  on 19 February 1987 under the title 'Saad Zaghloul and the Unity of the Two Elements of the Egyptian Nation' and  republished later as a chapter in my book, 'The Four Idols'. 


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