Copts in a Revolutionary Age: Egypt’s Last Secularists?


Sunlight comes through the stained glass windows of Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo on February 10, 2014.
(Photo by Jared Malsin)

By Jared Malsin

On July 3, 2013, after three days of vast protests against Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s Republican Guard took the president and his aides into custody. Jubilant crowds gathered in Tahrir Square while thousands of Morsi’s supporters flooded another public square a few kilometers away. Military forces began to deploy in the streets of Cairo. Then, on state television, a dramatic press conference: the country’s armed forces chief, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, announcing the end of Morsi’s rule.

Appearing alongside Sisi was a set of leaders representing the broad coalition against Morsi: youth protest leaders, liberal politicians, Salafi leaders, Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, and finally, Tawadros II, the 118th Pope of Alexandria and leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The pope is also the spiritual leader of the Middle East’s largest Christian community, ten percent of Egypt’s population.

Copts joined the demonstrations against Morsi in large numbers. They were Copts who felt that the one-year-old Islamist regime had failed to protect them from attacks by extremists and had pursued a sectarian agenda. Much like the January 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, Copts’ participation in the June 30 protests had little to do with the institutional church. In fact, a recent, as yet unpublished study carried out by researcher Mariz Tadros of the UK-based Institute for Development Studies found that there was no evidence to support claims that the Church did anything to mobilize protesters.

But the pope’s appearance in the July 3 news conference marked a shift for Tawadros, who, after being elected in 2012, had preached the importance of separating religion from politics. “If religion enters politics, it [religion] becomes polluted,” the pope had said, shaking his head during a televised interview. “And this applies to any religion.”

After the coup, the military-led interim government launched a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamist groups, and later, on political dissent in general. In August, government security forces dispersed protest camps organized by Morsi supporters, killing hundreds and arresting more than 1,000 others in the deadliest incident of political violence in Egypt’s recent history. Islamist extremists, who in an outburst of sectarianism blamed Copts for the coup, responded by attacking police and also Coptic institutions, homes, and businesses, including dozens of Churches, particularly in Upper Egypt. At least 42 Orthodox, Coptic, and Protestant churches were attacked. Four Christians died in sectarian attacks.

Even if they were uneasy with the Church’s public role in backing the coup, most Copts supported Morsi’s removal. However, the Church’s more recent forays into politics have been a source of deep contention. In January, the church made the rare step of urging Christians to vote  “yes” in a referendum on a new constitution drafted under the military-backed government. Priests spoke of the new charter’s virtues. Pope Tawadros also appeared in a video stating that a “yes” vote would bring “blessings and welfare.” Egypt’s top state newspaper, Al-Ahram, also published a handwritten letter from the pope calling for an affirmative vote.

In the three years since Egypt’s 2011 revolution, nearly every Egyptian institution—governmental, religious, and otherwise—has faced an emboldened citizenry schooled in the art of protest and insisting on the need for reform. The Coptic Church, an ancient institution that traces its history to Saint Mark, is no different. Egyptian Copts, are more openly expressing discontent with church policies, including its historically close ties with the Egyptian state, and are demanding recognition as equal citizens whose identity is not defined by their religion.

“The new pope gave us the impression that he wanted to get out of the political equation,” said Mina Thabet, a founding member of the Maspero Youth Union, a leading Coptic activist group. “But when we got to the June 30 revolution. The church became part of the political equation again.”

“I am a citizen. I will defend the civility of the country because I will defend my own interests. But these people [the Church] will not defend my interests. They will defend their own interests,” he said.

In late January, military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the charismatic general who led the coup against Morsi, received an endorsement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s highest military body, for a potential presidential run. Though the church did not directly address the possibility of a Sisi candidacy, Pope Tawadros nodded approval, sending Sisi a telegram congratulating him on receiving the military’s political support.

The future of the church’s relations with the state is yet to be defined, but for some politically active Copts, the institution’s recent forays into the political realm raise the specter of the Mubarak-era collaboration between the church and the authoritarian state.

“The church somehow supported Hosni Mubarak’s regime,” said Mina Fayek, a blogger who closely follows Coptic affairs. “The church was afraid of that change. ‘We know Hosni Mubarak. We don’t want a rapid change.’”

“The people in the church—I believe it’s a minority—who want to go back to the Mubarak situation. It’s impossible for them to do so,” said Fayek. “The barrier of fear has been broken, whether from the state or from religious authorities or the patronizing narrative of the elders.”


Collaboration and confrontation: Church and state since 1952

The history of church-state relations since the founding of the modern Egyptian republic in 1952 is generally a story of cooperation interrupted by moments of confrontation. President Gamal Abdel Nasser weakened Coptic elites (primarily through land reform) and strengthened the role of the pope as the main political representative of the Copts. Nasser granted Pope Kyrollos IV political concessions (for example Nasser submitted lists of nominees to his political party for the pope’s approval) in return for unwavering political support.

Church-state relations shifted following Nasser’s death in 1970 and, soon after, Kyrollos’ death in 1971. Nasser’s successor, President Sadat, angered Copts by pursuing a program of Islamization (for example, amending the constitution to cite Islamic law as “the principle source of legislation”), and gave Islamists a freer hand to operate as a counterweight to secular opposition groups. Moreover, the new pope, Shenouda III, engaged in a more confrontational style of politics. In March 1980, following a wave of sectarian attacks, Shenouda cancelled Easter celebrations and withdrew to his monastery to protest what the Church saw as a passive government response to the violence. In retaliation, the government placed the pope under house arrest.

President Hosni Mubarak only lifted Pope Shenouda’s house arrest in 1985, marking a new phase of cooperation between the church and the government. Shenouda shifted to a policy of non-confrontation with the government and a channel of communication between the pope and the president was restored. Shenouda also threw the institutional support of the church behind Mubarak, for example urging Christians to vote for Mubarak when he was campaigning for a fifth term in the 2005 election. When Mubarak was elected with more than 88 percent of the vote, the Holy Synod celebrated by having all churches across the country ring their bells.

The implicit agreement between the church and Mubarak’s state rested in part on the assumption that the state would protect Copts from sectarian violence. In fact, under Mubarak relations with the Copts were managed by the State Security Investigations Service, a powerful intelligence agency notorious for its record of torturing detainees.

On face, the Church and the Coptic community at large might appear to be natural allies of the state in the fight against a common enemy of Islamist militancy. But over the years the “securitization” of state relations with the Copts failed, sometimes disastrously, to prevent sectarian attacks and to arrest and try those for responsible for attacks after they took place. Meanwhile, the security state overseen by Mubarak was not exactly a diverse institution, with virtually no Coptic officials in the upper ranks of the military and security forces.

The entente between church and state began to fray in the last years of the Mubarak era, beginning with a crisis over the wife of a priest who attempted to convert to Islam in an apparent attempt to leave an unhappy marriage. Shenouda again confronted the state, withdrawing the church’s support for Mubarak’s party in the 2007 Shura Council election.

A rise in sectarian attacks in the late Mubarak era also added to the tensions between church and state, culminating with the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on January 1, 2011 which killed 23 people. For some, the attack disproved definitively the notion that cooperation between the church and the authoritarian state could provide security for Christians. The bombing marked a low point, not just for Copts but for Egyptian society as a whole. It was the darkest hour before the uprising that would end Mubarak’s government.


A man attends a religious service inside Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo on February 10, 2014.
(Photo by Jared Malsin)

Copts in a revolutionary age

January 27, 2011, was a night of fervent anticipation in Egypt. Two days earlier, the largest street protests in recent memory had completely overturned previous notions of what was politically possible in the country. Earlier that month, protesters in Tunisia had forced dictator Zine El Abedine Ben Ali to flee. Egyptian activists called for mass mobilization on January 28, a Friday of Rage. In households and cafes accross the country Egyptians argued with one another: Who would march the next day? Who would stay at home?

In Giza, across the Nile from Cairo’s city center, an engineering student named Mina Nageeb attended a meeting in a nondescript room at his local Coptic church. A well-known church official cautioned the parishioners against protesting: “Tomorrow will be a bad day,” he said. “You could be attacked. It’s better to stay home and pray for Egypt.”

Nageeb shot back at the church official. “You have no right to tell us what to do. The regime is corrupt and you’re protecting the regime!”

“I’m not protecting the regime, I’m trying to protect my children,” Nageeb remembers the official saying. “I don’t want to hold a funeral the next day for one of my children.”

The next day, massive demonstrations shook the country. By the time the sun set on the Friday of Rage, the police had retreated after long hours of fighting with protesters. Demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square and the headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was in flames. Nageeb himself was forced to stay home by his parents, but the following day, he left on the pretext of attending one of his classes at Cairo University and instead went to Tahrir.

In spite of the official discouragement of the Church, Copts participated in Egypt’s January 2011 revolution in large numbers. As any one of those Coptic protesters will tell you, they participated not as Christians but as Egyptian citizens. They participated, in fact in order to resist a state that deals with Copts not as ordinary citizens, but people whose citizenship is qualified by their religion and mediated through the institution of the church.  Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a top human rights group, says the state employed the church as a way of containing Coptic protest and keeping Coptic society bounded. Under Mubarak especially, he said, the state “dealt with the Copts not as citizens, but instead dealt with them through the church.”

The 2011 revolution produced an upsurge in political activism throughout Egyptian society, and Copts were no exception. Coptic activism outside the confines of the church reached an all time high, coalescing around groups like the Maspero Youth Union, which organized demonstrations outside the state TV and radio building (called Maspero) in Cairo demanding that the government do more to protect Copts from sectarian violence and treat Christians as equal citizens.

One such demonstration against sectarian violence, on October 9, 2011, became the most violent confrontation to date between Copts and the state. Soldiers fired on demonstrators and military vehicles careened into the crowds. In the end, some 27 demonstrators were shot or crushed to death. The massacre hardened many Coptic attitudes against the state, and for many also laid bare the intentions of the military vis-à-vis the Coptic community. Maspero, a building originally named after the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, soon became synonymous with a massacre.  The horrific scenes of protesters with bodies and skulls crushed by military vehicles also meant that Maspero was remembered as a turning point in Egypt’s long revolution: an outright massacre of civilian protesters by the military that, in the initial days of the uprising, had been seen as a protector of the revolution.

For newly emboldened Coptic activists, the January uprising and the Maspero massacre reinforced the importance of activism outside the auspices of the institutional church. “There were no front lines and a dignified fight,” says Sally Toma, quoted by the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr. “There was a march of women, children and those believing Egypt is theirs at last, and must fight even the church for their rights as citizens.”“The January 25 revolution gave people hope that if you stop and say ‘enough,’ you can make a change,” said Mina Thabet, a founding member of the Maspero Youth Union. “It encouraged people to not be silent about their rights again, if they are violated by anyone. If the church violates their rights, they’ll go against the church.”

Coptic Egyptians continued to mobilize under both the government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power from Mubarak and under Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president. Many Copts felt the Islamist-backed 2012 Constitution did not truly guarantee religious freedom. Meanwhile, sectarian attacks continued to escalate, culminating in an assault on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo in April 2013. As the violence worsened, Morsi did nothing to dismantle the sectarian-tinged policies of the old regime. “Part of the problem with Morsi,” says Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Was that he dealt with Copts in the same way as Mubarak,” reproducing a sectarian logic of rule.


Egypt’s last secularists

Mariz Tadros, a research fellow at the Institute for Development Studies and an expert on Coptic politics characterizes the relations between the church under Pope Shenouda and the Egyptian state under Mubarak as an “entente.” It was a tacit agreement in which the church cooperated with the security apparatus and lent political support to Mubarak’s government. In return, the state granted the church leeway to manage Copts’ social affairs (for example marriage and divorce) and also fought to protect Christians from Islamist militants. In the end the state failed to deliver security and the pope reduced his support for Mubarak, but the entente, as an overall structure, persisted until Mubarak’s downfall.

In the wake of Morsi’s removal, with an interim military-led government ruling Egypt, the nature of church-state ties is less clear. “There is an open line of communication,” says Tadros, “But I wouldn’t call that an entente. An entente is the kind of deal where in return for church support the government will provide A, B, C, and D, and I don’t see that as emerging yet.”

Whatever the future shape of relations, the church will face a Coptic laity unafraid to openly criticize the church. Disputes over the church’s political role have sparked a furious debate on social media and at least one protest in front of the Coptic cathedral in Cairo’s Abaseyya district.

“Your father might be a priest and you still criticize the Church. That’s how deep it got,” said blogger Mina Fayek. “These people love the church, love the pope. They don’t want to see him in that situation. Therefore they’re expressing displeasure with these stances. This is one change the revolution made: it breaks taboos.”

Activist complaints about the Church’s political stances have recently focused on the pope’s pronouncements about the constitution and about Sisi, but there are other sources of controversy centering on the Church’s conservative stances on social issues such as marriage and divorce. Egyptian law permits divorce but the Church forbids it, meaning that a Christian can be divorced in the eyes of the law but unable to remarry. The issue has even been a source of friction between the church and state institutions like the judiciary.

Church officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the church’s political stances. In a brief phone conversation, Coptic bishop Anba Ermia, an assistant to the pope, said only that the church is “working to build our country, Egypt, to complete what we began on June 30.”

Both the constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated committee under Morsi and the recently adopted constitution drafted under the military-led government delegated significant power over matters of marriage, divorce, and family to religious institutions like the Church and Al Azhar, the most prestigious institution in Sunni Islam. In fact, some Coptic activists view their contention with the Church as part of a struggle to reduce the power of religious authorities in general.

“Al Azhar and the Church are religious institutions. They don’t want a civil country. They want a religious country because they want more power,” said Mina Thabet of the Maspero Youth Union.

Copts’ demands for a separation of religion from politics stem both from a longstanding suspicion of political Islam and concern about the dangers of the church’s political involvement. So adamant are Coptic activists about the need for total secularization of politics that their position can seem unrealistic. Such activists are, in a sense, Egypt’s most staunch secularists, demanding a total withdrawal of religious institutions from politics that has no precedent in any country, much less in Egypt, a country whose powerful religious institutions have long histories of political involvement.

Activists’ objections to the Church’s political involvement point to thorny and deeply complex questions about the blurry boundaries between religion and politics.  But even though their position may seem unrealistic, young Copts’ objections are both genuine and internally consistent. Many such activists are using the same discourse of secularism they employed in the struggle against Morsi to denounce the pope’s friendly gestures toward the new regime. “It’s not fair to tell the Brotherhood or Salafis or others not to be involved in politics and smile at the church when they interfere with politics,” said Mina Nageeb.

Though the future of church-state relations is far from certain, Coptic activists and analysts agree that any return to the collaboration that existed under Mubarak and Shenouda would be both harmful and unlikely to go without fierce protest from the highly politicized laity.

“Any future political order where, if we see any kind of reinstatement of the politics that we saw during pope Shenouda’s era, namely, collaborating with the state and eliminating any independent Coptic civil society will be detrimental for citizenship on two fronts,” says Tadros. “It will be detrimental for citizenship in terms of citizens demanding their entitlements directly, and it will be detrimental for the church as well in terms of being forced in a political position that is not always to the benefit of the Coptic laity.”

With the government pursuing its vast crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, sectarian rhetoric and violence is persisting, and with it a sense of fear anxiety among ordinary Copts. Large numbers of Copts are fleeing the country for the perceived safety of places Europe, North America, and Australia (although the exact scale of the exodus is unknown as the government has not released definitive figures). Though not s mya total elimination of the Christian population (as occurred with the flight of Iraq’s Christians in the carnage following the 2003 US invasion), the Coptic struggle for equal citizenship looks increasingly like a struggle for survival.


Jared Malsin is a journalist based in Cairo. He has contributed to TIME, VICE, The New Republic, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He tweets at @jmalsin.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *