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 form which this article proceeds is that the Copts are (or should be) genuine Egyptian citizens, that is, first – calls citizens. Egypt is their county; they are not living here by the grace of others but are full 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 Jizya (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 tying 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.
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 had 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 or worship, whether they are called mosques of 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 tens moment, not to say a crisis situation.
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 county 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 felling 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, more over, the spectre of communal violence, which can flare up at any time as it had done in the past, most notably in the Kosh [al-Kushh] incident.
With regards 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… the general climate fell prey to the forces of conservatism and regression which inevitably bred a situation of hostility towards the Copts. As a note 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.
The government 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 as 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 probe cannot possible support a culture of tolerance and acceptance of the right of others to differ, nor accept the notion of unity through diversity.
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 Adis Ababa incident and the perpetrators of many other crimes.
With regard to the widespread feeling among Copts that their representation in public life had shrunk considerable 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 marginalizes 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 problem and an insistence of claiming that all is best in the best of all possible words. 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 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… the political game in Egypt today is open only to those wiling 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 [al-Kushh] and, before that, in Khanka [al-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 is taken 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 signing our own praises. A failure to make use of the many worthwhile efforts made to study and analyze the root causes of such incidents.
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 had 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 tie of Saad Zaghloul [Sacd 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.