This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “Pathways to Transitional Justice in the Arab World — Reflections on the Asia Pacific Experience.” The series explores the pursuit of transitional justice in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, and how such efforts could be informed by past and ongoing justice processes in Asia-Pacific countries. See Resources …
 


“Through wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established.”[1] Pope Tawadros II, the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, tweeted this verse of scripture in December 2012. He wrote it as one of a series of daily reflections on the book of Proverbs. This phrase, however, also provides an entry point into the Coptic[2] Orthodox Church and its place in Egyptian civil society. Egypt is in the midst of rebuilding its government and society following an 18-day revolution in 2011, 18 months of military rule that ended with the election of Mohamed Morsi, and the removal of President Morsi one year later by the Egyptian military in July 2013. Egyptian Christians now have the opportunity and challenge to renegotiate their place in Egyptian civil society during this time of unrest and transition. What wisdom, understanding, and vision will Christian clergy and lay leaders put forth in order to co-labor with their neighbors, the state, and other stakeholders to build a new house for Egyptian society? This new vision must be rooted in Copts’ historical experience and include the possibility for new models of engagement and representation.

Civil society, a term that was popularized in the early 1990s, denotes the “web of social relations that exist in the space between the state, the market, and the private life of families and individuals.”[3] Basically, every institution and relationship that exists between the government and the nuclear family is a part of civil society. The relationships between the state and civil society can vary from mutually beneficial to hostile, and at times civil society can be co-opted or silenced by an authoritarian regime. The boundaries of these societal divisions are not static, and individuals and organizations can shift their relationships depending upon economic, relational, and cultural realities.[4] In the Egyptian context, both the state and civil society have evolved under the auspices of Islamic law. However, the state and civil society do not hold equal importance. Throughout the twentieth century, Egyptian civil society relied on state support for its legitimacy, and the Egyptian government unyieldingly controlled its parameters and boundaries.[5] Like other members of civil society, the Coptic Church had to negotiate its relationship with the government.

Jarring transitions in societal, cultural, and political contexts are nothing new to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Coptic identity is formed in part by these transitions and how the church has responded and adapted to each new situation. For example, the Coptic calendar, marking time since the beginning of Emperor Diocletian’s reign in 284 C.E., shapes Coptic identity by reminding Coptic Orthodox Christians of the church’s darkest period of persecution.[6] Another massive change followed the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 C.E. As Arabic gradually became the primary language of Egypt, the Christians of the country formerly known as Agyptos came to be known as Copts.[7] Over the next 1,300 years, the role and agency of Egypt’s Copts rose and fell along with the fortunes of Egypt. Feared as a potential “fifth column” by Egyptian Muslims during the Crusades, sometimes appointed to high governmental positions during times of trust or great need, or alternately ostracized and scapegoated for religious and political reasons, the Copts had to rely on their faith as a source of succor. Finally, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Copts received a measure of societal recognition after more than a millennium of struggle.

The mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries precipitated a number of shifts in Coptic societal participation. Said Pasha, Egypt’s viceroy from 1854 until 1863, repealed the jizya (a tax levied against all adult non-Muslims) and declared that Christians were permitted to join the Egyptian army.[8] As their position in Egyptian society moved from one of second-class citizens toward that of full citizens, the Copts’ economic status and relationship to church hierarchy also shifted. Created in 1874 by Coptic bishops and lay leaders with permission of the government, the Maglis al-Milli (religious council) sought to “supervise the Coptic [endowments], churches, schools, the press and the benevolences…and would be elected by general suffrage.”[9] This council of lay leadership was intended to lighten the workload of the pope and function as a bridge between the clergy and lay Christians. Instead, the council became a point of conflict for lay Copts, Coptic clergy, and the Egyptian government, and has been marginalized, nullified, and restarted numerous times since its creation.[10] Still, even as the Maglis al-Milli has often caused strife, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided these opportunities for Copts to claim even stronger societal participation.

In 1919, after more than 30 years of occupation by Great Britain, the Egyptian people successfully unified under the banner of nationalism in opposition to British rule. Copts participated in this movement and many joined the Wafd Party and marched under the banner of a cross and crescent.[11] In doing so, the Copts staked a further claim to full citizenship and added political activism to the growing list of ways in which they engaged civil society. During this period, and up until the 1952 Revolution, it was the Coptic elite, not the clergy, who were “the audible voice of the Coptic community.”[12] However, the 1952 Free Officers Revolution decimated the power of the Coptic elite, mainly through land redistribution, and the church filled that gap by agreeing to a representative system in which the Coptic pope “operated as the main filter and representative for the interests of individual Christians.”[13] The early twentieth century, despite massive economic turmoil for the Coptic elite, remains a gilded era of Coptic participation in Egyptian society.

Since that time, Copts have struggled to maintain an active presence in Egyptian civil society. Many Christians feel that they were increasingly marginalized both by President Sadat’s encouragement of Islamist groups that had been suppressed and by the rise in Wahhabist interpretations of Islam within Egypt. They began to focus inward, creating safe, self-contained spaces for Christian societal engagement. Christian schools, clubs, and church social halls became the primary places of socialization and Christian activity. This action by Coptic clergy and laity, though justified by the realities of discrimination and sporadic persecution, has produced increasingly segmented communities and weakened communal relationships. Instead of vibrant Christian participation in civil society, the church was forced to unify behind one voice. Pope Shenouda III, patriarch from 1971 until his death in 2012, became the sole official voice for Coptic Christians on all political and societal discourse.[14] This segmentation and sidelining is what most defined Coptic participation in Egyptian civil society in the late twentieth century. This reality defined the leadership of Pope Shenouda III and shaped his public statements leading up to and during the early days of Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution. However, this church-state relationship, along with every civil society structure, was about to be shaken.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians—Muslims and Christians—actively participated in the 18 days of protests in early 2011 that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Pope Shenouda instructed Copts to stay home.[15] Many people, however, chose a different course than to accept his “couch” support for Mubarak.[16] They were shaping a new political reality for the Coptic Church.

Bound by the Coptic history of struggle and the limitations of an old narrative, the Pope encouraged his people to stick to the status quo. In the early days of the January 25 protests, he missed a chance to stake the Copts’ claim to full citizenship and encourage a new approach for engaging civil society. His unswerving support for Mubarak proved to be the last straw for many Copts who sought more freedom in political and social engagement. They wanted to open up a greater diversity of Coptic voices. Many Copts began to publicly raise their distinct opinions and join civil society organizations. Mubarak’s removal on February 11, 2011, opened public space for Egyptians to converse about topics that had often been restricted to private discussions, such as government policy and interreligious dynamics. One of the most well known groups focusing on interreligious dialogue is called Salafyo Costa. Strictly nonpartisan and made up of Salafi Muslims, Coptic Christians, and other slices of Egyptian society, Salafyo Costa focuses on raising awareness of important social issues, encouraging honest dialogue between members, and utilizing humor to share its message.[17]

New forms of Coptic interaction are also occurring outside of Cairo. Located about 70 miles south of Cairo, the city of Beni Suef is not known for its national significance. However, Beni Suef’s “Cultural Committee” is a group that is focusing on improving relations between local Christian and Muslim leaders. One leader from each religious community presents on topics such as education, health care, and conflict resolution. Then the gathered men and women discuss how to work on that topic in Beni Suef.[18] Although both Salafyo Costa and the Cultural Committee require risk and creativity, they build trust, empower individuals to work together, and create a stronger community.

How can Copts connect their 2,000-year history with a vision for engagement with civil society in the twenty-first century? First, every member of Egyptian civil society, of whatever religion, must accept that their work cannot replace the responsibilities of the state.[19] It is the state’s responsibility to govern well, ensure the rule of law, and rebuild trust with the Egyptian people. Civil society organizations cannot do this. Only the state can do this. A clear article ensuring Christians the right of “church building and renovation” in the new Egyptian constitution is a positive step.[20] Secondly, Pope Tawadros II must, with as much agency as he is able, both decide his vision for the church and realize that his is not the only voice.[21] Strong leadership, empathetic listening, and creativity are required when Christians and other members of Egyptian society are forced “against the wall” by economic, religious, and cultural forces.[22] In order to lead his people, Pope Tawadros II must listen to them. Thirdly, Coptic laity must step forward and claim their voice. Although the hierarchy of Coptic clergy is unlikely to change, lay women and men must exercise their agency in order to more fully engage with their neighborhoods, their country, and their church. Finally, this house, this new Egyptian civil society, must be dreamed and built together. Every Egyptian community exhibits some interreligious relationships, but these must be strengthened to further empower the dreaming of a new narrative. “Walking next to the wall,” an Arabic proverb that promises safety to those who stay out of the way, has no place in this new narrative. Copts’ legitimate call for justice must be accompanied by the willingness to listen, the patience to engage multiple narratives of hardship, and to recognize the need for shared laboring.[23] Building new visions, remaining steadfast in purpose, and reflecting on the stories of the past will provide Copts with the opportunity to claim their identity as both Christian and Egyptian while assuring that the same will be possible for future generations of Egyptians.


[1] Proverbs 24:3.
 

[2] Although the etymology of the term “Coptic” is addressed in the paper, its meaning and scope are not agreed upon. In this paper, the term “Copt” refers to members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. In other settings, the term “Copt” may include Egyptian Protestant Christians or denote a national identity as an Egyptian.
 

[3] Catherine Barnes, “Weaving the Web: Civil-Society Roles in Working with Conflict and Building Peace,” People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society, ed. Paul van Tongeren et al. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005), 7.
 

[4] Christoph Spurk, “Understanding Civil Society,” Civil Society and Peacebuilding: A Critical Assessment, ed. Thania Paffenholz (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009), 12.
 

[5] Tareq Y. Ismael and Jacqueline S. Ismael, “Civil Society in the Arab World: Historical Traces, Contemporary Vestiges,” Arab Studies Quarterly 19, 1 (Winter 1997), http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/41858200?uid=3739808&uid=2&uid=4&….
 

[6] Otto F.A. Meinardus, Christian Egypt: Ancient and Modern (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1977), 2.
 

[7] “Egypt’s Coptic Christians-Bishop Thomas,” YouTube video, 1:09:43, posted by Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Church of East Brunswick, 29 July 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvcaL0n4KGA.
 

[8] Mariz Tadros, Copts at the Crossroads: The Challenges of Building Inclusive Democracy in Egypt (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2013), 28.
 

[9] Otto F.A. Meinardus, Christian Egypt: Faith and Life (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1970), 23.
 

[10] Otto F.A. Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2010), 74.
 

[11] Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, 81.
 

[12] Elizabeth Iskander, Sectarian Conflict in Egypt: Coptic Media, Identity and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2012), 73.
 

[13] Paul Rowe, “Building Coptic Civil Society: Christian Groups and the State in Mubarak’s Egypt,” Middle Eastern Studies 45, 1 (January 2009): 114.
 

[14] Iskander, Sectarian Conflict in Egypt, 82.
 

[15] Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani, “Egypt: Muslims and Christians Protest as One,” Inter Press Service, 9 February 2011, http://www.ipsnews.net/2011/02/egypt-muslims-and-christians-protest-as-one/.
 

[16] The so-called political party “Party of the Couch” consisted of Muslims and Christians who weren’t willing to leave the comfort of the status quo.
 

[17] Ahmed Abou Hussein, “The Thawra and Our Duty to Invest in Youth,” The Future We the People Need: Voices from New Social Movements in North Africa, Middle East, Europe & North America (New York: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2013), 15.
 

[18] Keith Miller, “First Person: Father Youssef Andrawas,” A Common Place 14, 6 (November/December 2008): 13.
 

[19] Catherine Barnes, “Weaving the Web,” 9.
 

[20] Jayson Casper, “Churches Gain, Islamists Lose in Latest Draft of Egypt’s Constitution,” Christianity Today, 10 December 2013, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2013/december/churches-gain-islamists-lose-draft-egypt-constitution-copts.html.
 

[21] Paul Sedra, “A New Pope, a New Approach?” Egypt Independent, 28 October 2012, http://www.egyptindependent.com/opinion/new-pope-new-approach.
 

[22] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 3.
 

[23] CBS News, “The Coptic Christians of Egypt,” 60 Minutes website, YouTube video, 13:27, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-coptic-christians-of-egypt/, televised 15 December 2013.