Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Egypt’s Coptic community marked the passing in 2012 of two widely known and influential public figures. The first was the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, who died on March 17. Shenouda had celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his enthronement as patriarch the previous November. The second was Milad Hanna, professor of civil engineering at ‘Ayn Shams University and veteran writer on public affairs in the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper, who passed away on November 27. While Shenouda was the leader of the Orthodox Church hierarchy and thus of the clerical establishment, Hanna was one of the most prominent and outspoken members of the Coptic laity.

A century ago, the death of a member of the Coptic lay elite would have merited at least as much attention as the passing of the head of the Church. Yet while Pope Shenouda’s departure captured headlines and column-inches in every Egyptian newspaper, in stark contrast to the past the passing of Milad Hanna garnered only brief mention. And for observers of Egypt abroad, Shenouda was far and away the better-known figure; they may not have known of Hanna at all. The difference bespeaks a remarkable shift in the social and political dynamics of the Coptic community — a shift in influence away from the laity and toward the clergy.

The centrality given to Pope Shenouda as representative of the Coptic community, both in Egypt and abroad, tended to obscure the vitally important intra-communal dynamics of the Copts. Yet, without an understanding of those dynamics, it is impossible to grasp Egypt’s inter-communal relations, those between Christians and Muslims, as they have developed since the 2011 uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak. Indeed, the conflation of Church and community in both journalistic and scholarly analysis of Coptic affairs in Egypt has led to a framing of what is often labeled “the Coptic question” almost solely in terms of discrimination and persecution. The situation with which Copts are grappling in the post-revolution setting is considerably more complex, involving not simply threats from the ascendant Muslim Brothers and the wider Islamic trend, but also struggles within the community as to who is authorized to speak, for whom and under what circumstances.

The Multiple Meanings of Maspero

The touchstone for much of the concern about treatment of Copts in post-revolution Egypt remains the “Maspero massacre” of October 9–10, 2011. In this incident, nearly 30 Egyptians, almost all of them Coptic Christians, lost their lives at the hands of army and security personnel as they gathered at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union Building in downtown Cairo. One Egypt analyst ventured so far as to label what transpired a “pogrom,” [1] while much of the media coverage focused on an alleged atmosphere of menace that Copts had faced since the revolution, not least given the political rise of the Muslim Brothers. Indeed, so grim and pervasive was this climate, according to this coverage, that Copts were fleeing Egypt by the tens of thousands.

Prior to the massacre, though, references to Maspero, site of the Radio and Television Union Building, had acquired a starkly different connotation among Copts. In March 2011, less than a month after Egyptians’ triumph in toppling Mubarak, Copts had gathered at Maspero in an astonishing act of defiance of their clerical leadership. The sit-in they mounted was ostensibly targeted at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), then Egypt’s military rulers, for their failure to pursue and prosecute the perpetrators of attacks on churches. Yet in mounting the protests, the Copts at Maspero were explicitly flouting the admonitions of Pope Shenouda against such political action.

For significant numbers of the protesters, this act of rebellion against the patriarch was the second, following closely upon the first, their choice to participate in the original uprising against Shenouda’s wishes. Indeed, the Maspero protesters brought with them rhetorical devices they had embraced in Tahrir Square, adapting them to suit the concerns of the moment. Perhaps most notable was “Irfa‘ ra’sak faw’, anta Qibti” (Hold your head up high, you are a Copt), a version of “Irfa‘ ra’sak faw’, anta Masri” (Hold your head up high, you are an Egyptian), the slogan that circulated widely at the Tahrir sit-in as a mark of revolutionary pride in Egyptian-ness.

One might well trace this defiance of the patriarch back to the vigorous and arguably unprecedented response of Copts to the bombing of the Church of the Two Saints in Alexandria on New Year’s Day, scarcely a month before the revolution, which killed 23 and injured 97. Shortly after the bombing, thousands of Copts took to the streets in both Alexandria and Cairo to protest the failure of the security forces to protect the church. While the patriarch condemned the attack and demanded that the government punish those responsible, Shenouda was nonetheless closely identified with the regime by virtue of his strong, long-standing support for Mubarak.

Indeed, ever since his return to Cairo from 40 months of house arrest, originally imposed by Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 but carried forward by Mubarak, Shenouda had remained a steadfast ally of the president. In this stance he was maintaining a strategy of rule pioneered by his predecessor, Pope Kirollos VI, which I have described as a modern “millet partnership.” [2] Historically, the term “millet” refers to the Ottoman conception of Christian and Jewish communities under Islamic rule, which mandated autonomy and protection for these minorities as long as they met certain legal requirements. Under the terms of the modern millet partnership, the Coptic patriarch would back the Egyptian president in the political sphere in exchange for state recognition of the patriarch as the sole legitimate representative of the Coptic community.

The chief result of the arrangement was the utter marginalization of the Coptic lay elite, which had once exercised considerable influence over both Church and community, and the transfer of this clout into the hands of the clergy. Of course, one of the great ironies of Shenouda’s compact with Mubarak, and of the millet partnership framework generally, is that an avowedly secular state was effectively delegating to a church leader responsibility for not only spiritual, but indeed temporal, leadership of a population roughly 8 million strong.

Under such circumstances, in the heady days of March 2011, as the realization that mass mobilization had proved effective in toppling Mubarak spread throughout Egypt, the Maspero sit-in came to represent not simply an abstract rejection of discrimination and persecution, but indeed a specific rejection of the millet partnership — that is to say, a repudiation of the framework of rule that had, for so long, kept lay Copts away from both communal and national politics. The Maspero protests would persist through much of 2011, to the extent that they ultimately spawned an organization, the Maspero Youth Union.

With the October massacre at Maspero, however, the military sent the stark message that such activism was unwelcome in post-revolution Egypt. Over and above its intolerance of any and all dissent, which the SCAF had demonstrated time and time again, there was a further advisory linked to the millet partnership: Sectarianism had become a mainstay of political discourse in Egypt.

Despite the state’s insistence upon a rhetoric of national unity in all references to Copts and their relations with Muslims, the millet partnership effectively authorized the Coptic patriarch to build walls around the Coptic community. Indeed, making the Church central to Coptic social life was a strategy that patriarchs had long employed to strengthen their position. The average Copt was not only to abide by Church decisions in matters like marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, but also to be involved in a wide array of organizations developed and often controlled by the Church, ranging from study circles to professional networks to medical clinics.

Yet this growth in Church institutions and functions, concomitant with the growth of the Islamic trend in Egyptian society, has led to a significant shrinkage of the public spaces for dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. The unfortunate result is a rise in sectarian rhetoric and violence. That is to say, sect has become one of the principal idioms for the articulation of Egyptian politics. Nowhere was this fact in greater evidence than at Maspero on the evening of the massacre, when state television fabricated the claim that Copts were roaming the streets of downtown Cairo with weapons in hand.

Selecting a Successor

A scant five months after the Maspero massacre came the death of Pope Shenouda in March. The passing of so dominant and influential a personality left Copts asking difficult questions about the path forward for both the Church and the community. That this questioning should coincide with the rise to power of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and indeed, Egypt’s first Islamist president, Muhammad Mursi, has scarcely eased the pressure that Copts are feeling.

The approach that the interim leadership of the Coptic Church adopted to navigate this time of transition was, as one might expect, conservative. Patriarchal elections were organized with fairly strict reference to the 1957 church bylaws, despite hints in recent years that the Holy Synod might permit amendments that would broaden communal participation in the process. Indeed, perhaps the most insular provisions of the 1957 bylaws — restrictions on the participation of the Coptic laity in the “electoral college” according to socio-economic status — were left intact. The Church hierarchy demonstrated still further caution when the long list of candidates for the patriarchal seat was suddenly reduced on October 13 by an “elections committee” to five, after several of the most contentious candidates were eliminated.

Perhaps the best-known candidate on the long list was Bishop Bishoy, the secretary of the Holy Synod and bishop of Damietta, a Delta town. But Bishoy had courted controversy repeatedly in recent years, both within and beyond the precincts of the Church. In August 2010, he ventured to claim at a conference in Fayyoum that particular verses of the Qur’an were of questionable provenance — an assertion for which Pope Shenouda apologized on state television. Still further, in May, Bishoy called upon Coptic women to adhere to the example of modesty set by veiled Muslim women. On this latter occasion, Coptic women responded by mounting a protest at the Patriarchate in Cairo, demanding that the interim patriarch, Pachomius, discipline Bishoy.

While there were doubtless both Copts and Muslims who were accordingly pleased with Bishoy’s elimination from the candidate list, the decisions of the elections committee were scarcely explained and subject to no review. Much like the socio-economic restrictions in the 1957 bylaws, the lack of transparency in the elections angered Coptic laypeople, who argued that the church should embrace the spirit of the January 25 revolution and engage as much of the Coptic community as possible in a clear, open and public process. Suspicions arose that the Church hierarchy had simply advanced the candidates seen as least potentially offensive — men who were little known by virtue of having made few public statements.

On October 29, 2,400 electors gathered at the Patriarchate in Cairo to cast ballots for their preferred candidates. Through this election, the field of candidates was narrowed from five to three. Finally, in an elaborate mass on November 4, an altar boy drew the name of Pope Shenouda’s successor. Bishop Tawadros of the Delta province of Buhayra was formally enthroned as Pope Tawadros II on November 18.

Church and Community, Citizen and Nation

The expectations that Tawadros faces, both among Copts and among Egyptians generally, are enormous, not least given the expansive legacy of Church and communal development left by his predecessor. But there is a particular reform agenda to which lay Copts are expecting the patriarch to respond — one involving the reconstitution of the relationship between church and community, as well as that between citizen and nation. The success or failure of Shenouda’s successor will depend to a large extent on whether his response to this reform agenda is seen as rising to the challenge of the times. To see the contours of this agenda, however, one needs to chart the various constituencies within the Coptic lay community that are pressing for reform.

One such constituency has garnered a great deal of attention not simply in Egyptian, but indeed, international media of late — namely, diaspora Copts. Indeed, on September 11, diaspora Copts found themselves vilified by protesters who marched on the US Embassy in Cairo and ultimately succeeded in breaching the embassy’s walls. The root of the perceived offense was a film trailer mocking the Prophet Muhammad, crudely produced in California and dubbed The Innocence of Muslims. One of the scenes in the trailer depicts a violent attack apparently undertaken by salafis against a Coptic medical clinic in Egypt, and subsequent dialogue aims to suggest that Copts have had unrivaled experience of Islam’s purported violence. Among the chief promoters of the film was an extremist member of the Coptic diaspora community in Virginia, Morris Sadek, a lawyer who had spent several years as a self-appointed advocate for the human rights of Copts in Egypt. Further, as both the media and US authorities ultimately revealed, one of the filmmakers was a Coptic gas station owner living in California, who had pleaded guilty on drug and bank fraud charges.

In September, diaspora Copts were under attack not merely from the salafi protesters who charged the embassy but, indeed, from swaths of the Egyptian press, for purportedly having damaged Egypt’s international reputation through their activism condemning the persecution of Christians in their country of origin. So loud was the uproar in Egypt — and so great the perceived need to chasten diaspora activists — that an Egyptian court subsequently handed down death sentences to seven Copts living abroad, among them activists who had had no link to the offensive trailer at all. Egyptian blogger and professed atheist Alber Saber was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of blasphemy and contempt of religion for allegedly posting the trailer online. The Coptic bishop of southern California was so concerned about the possibility that he might face arrest in Egypt that he delayed plans to return to the country to participate in the patriarchal elections.

Although the diaspora Copts involved with The Innocence of Muslims are in no way representative of the community abroad, there is little question that allegations of Christian persecution are not uncommon within the diaspora, and far starker among Copts abroad than among Copts in Egypt. The discrepancy in perception is not surprising in light of the constraints upon discussion of Coptic discrimination in Egypt — constraints from which Copts are liberated upon emigration.

One of the most important developments during Pope Shenouda’s reign (1971-2012) was the creation of dioceses serving diaspora Copts in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. Through these now expansive diocesan networks, Copts abroad are able to exercise significant influence in Church affairs. Of perhaps greater importance in this regard, however, are the transnational media and charitable organizations that diaspora Copts have spearheaded. These organizations have established unprecedented connections between Copts abroad and their co-religionists in Egypt — ties that are, to a large extent, independent of the Church. Although diaspora Copts remain, for the most part, inclined to respect the decisions of the Church hierarchy, there can be little doubt that they are observing Pope Tawadros II carefully, particularly as regards the Church’s position on the relationship between citizen and nation in post-revolution Egypt. Diaspora Copts will be among those least willing to compromise on the issue of reaffirming — most notably, in the constitution — Copts’ equality with Muslims before Egyptian law.

On this particular front, Pope Tawadros and his colleagues in the Church hierarchy find themselves mired in a quandary of sorts. The Constituent Assembly project led by Husam al-Gharyani and supported by President Muhammad Mursi ultimately yielded a document that offered an unprecedented guarantee to the Coptic Church as an institution, to the effect that personal status matters are forever to remain under the exclusive dominion of the Church. Indeed, Article 3 of the document reads, “The canon principles of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs and the selection of their religious leaders.”

Pope Shenouda had explicitly advocated for this provision in 2007, when the issue of the role of shari‘a (Islamic law) in the constitution reemerged in public debate. That Shenouda, and the Church hierarchy generally, should support such language is entirely understandable, given the exclusive authority over such critical matters as marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody that it offers the Church. The provision had the further advantage, in the eyes of the Church hierarchy, of once again bolstering the power of the clergy vis-à-vis the Coptic laity, in line with the millet partnership framework.

The dilemma Tawadros faces is that supporting such a provision would be tantamount to supporting the millet partnership that has generated so much consternation among lay Copts — and, indeed, in this instance, not a millet partnership with the nominally secular regime of Husni Mubarak, but one with the Islamist regime of the (nominally) former Muslim Brother Muhammad Mursi. Such circumstances explain the soul searching that seemed to preoccupy the Patriarchate as the Church hierarchy considered the status of Coptic representation in Gharyani’s Constituent Assembly — as well as the ultimate decision at which the Church arrived, to withdraw.

This reference to personal status matters calls attention to a further, critically important constituency for reform within the lay community — namely, Coptic women. Indeed, Coptic women have played leading roles in the lay organizations that have emerged and grown in the post-revolution context. One of the most noteworthy is Coptic 38, a group that insists upon the expansion of grounds for divorce within the Coptic Orthodox Church, which are now extremely limited by virtue of a decision made by Pope Shenouda. For Coptic women, the persistence of the millet partnership and the concomitant marginalization of the Coptic laity would represent not simply a defeat for equality before the law but, perhaps more importantly in their eyes, the continued devaluation of their contributions to Church and community alike. For them, reconstituting the relationship between the Coptic Church and Coptic community in such a way as to allow laypeople a greater say in the institutions that dominate their lives is an urgent priority, and the only conceivable way forward, at the moment, to expanding their public roles.

In the short time since his enthronement as patriarch, Tawadros has paid considerable attention to the appearance of transparency in his administration. Indeed, he swiftly announced a commitment to alter the patriarchal elections bylaw in keeping with the times, and gave an extensive series of interviews to various Egyptian television channels — as well as the Coptic satellite stations upon which diaspora Copts rely so heavily. As he has yet to pronounce his position on the larger issues listed here, however, Coptic laypeople are left waiting — and watching.

Endnotes

[1] Steven Cook, “Egypt: The Maspero Pogrom and the Failure of Leadership,” From the Potomac to the Euphrates, October 11, 2011: http://blogs.cfr.org/cook/2011/10/11/egypt-themaspero-pogrom-and-the-failure-of-leadership-2/.
[2] Paul Sedra, “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 10/2 (1999), p. 227.

How to cite this article:

Paul Sedra "Reconstituting the Coptic Community Amidst Revolution," Middle East Report 265 (Winter 2012).
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