Egypt’s Copts, past and future
Mona Makram Ebeid is proud of her heritage as a Coptic Christian and her identity as a secular layperson who happens also to be a political activist. She is similarly proud that she hails from a family of Egyptian anti-colonialist nationalists. “My name is my social and national capital,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“So what’s in a name,” she asked rhetorically, when Egypt, like much of the Arab world, is passing through a particularly difficult phase, a metaphorical famine so to speak.
Given the giddy mood and the uncertain future as far as Christians in particular are concerned, it is natural to reflect on more unperturbed times.
Yet, the era of British colonialism in Egypt was also a time of agitation, and the name of her family was inextricably intertwined with the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. In the heyday of the Wafd Party, the first anti-colonialist nationalist party in modern Egypt, Coptic Christians and laypersons fully participated in the movement for independence from Britain, among them the family of Makram Ebeid.
Coptic Christians were an integral part of the 1919 Revolution that led to Britain’s recognition of Egypt’s independence in 1922, the promulgation of new national liberal-oriented laws, and a new constitution in 1923.
Mona Makram Ebeid’s father was Makram Ebeid, who was born in Qena in Upper Egypt in 1889 and died in Cairo in 1961. His full name was William Makram Ebeid, but he decided to drop his first name because of his resentment of the British occupation of Egypt in 1882.
In December 1914, the Khedivate of Egypt, a tributary autonomous state of the Ottoman Empire, was elevated to a separate sultanate, albeit under the suzerainty of Britain. For all intents and purposes, it became a British colony, though one that was called a protectorate.
Power was exercised by the British consul-general, the effective ruler of the country. Britain refused to recognise full Egyptian sovereignty over the Sudan, or to withdraw its forces from the Suez Canal Zone.
To begin with, nationalist agitation against this situation was limited to the educated elite, including Makram Ebeid. Later, dissatisfaction with the British occupation spread amongst all classes of the population, Christian and Muslim alike. Indeed, the emblem of the Wafd Party and the nationalist movement was a green flag with a white Muslim crescent and Christian cross at its centre.
Makram Ebeid was the Wafd Party’s secretary-general between 1936 and 1942 and one of the party’s founders. He was also finance minister of the country in the late 1930s. A mass movement agitating for the full independence of Egypt and the Sudan was in the making, even as the Egyptian monarchs of the time were officially named kings of Egypt and the Sudan.
Between 15 and 31 March 1919, at least 800 Egyptians, mostly poor peasants, were murdered in cold blood by British troops. Numerous villages were raised to the ground, and the properties of the landed aristocracy plundered and destroyed.
Makram Ebeid was a Coptic Christian secularist. Though a member of one of the wealthiest families in Egypt, he was famous for championing the cause of the humble and of the commoners of the country, Christian and Muslim alike, even though he maintained an aristocratic lifestyle and struggled to couple his championing of the rights of the poor with his relationship with the monarchy.
Cynics may dismiss the achievements of what is now termed the Egyptian “Liberal Age”, for the leading lights of the period were invariably members of the landed aristocracy. Makram Ebeid, the embodiment of the economic elite of Egypt at the time, was passionately involved in the 1919 Revolution with Wafd leader Saad Zaghloul, however. The British colonialists banished the latter into exile, but he returned to Egypt and became an iconic figure.
“Religion is for God, and the homeland is for all,” was Zaghloul’s famous slogan.
Egyptian nationalism was coming of age, and Coptic-Muslim solidarity was cemented in a powerful sense of national solidarity.
Makram Ebeid and the heads of his Coptic Christian clan insisted on attending the funeral of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, after his assassination in Cairo in 1949. Al-Banna’s father, sheikh Ahmed Abdel-Rahman Al-Banna Al-Saati, was a Muslim imam known for his work as a scholar, particularly his work on the traditions (hadith) of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal Al-Shaybani, the founder of the Hanbali School of Islamic jurisprudence.
New Year resolutions: January is the month when people often engage in both retrospection and introspection.
Janus, the Roman god after whom January is named, was according to legend capable of foreseeing the future and understanding the past. In January, people reflect on the highlights of the year that has departed, and, like Mona Makram Ebeid today, contemplate an uncertain new year ahead.
“I am not a regular churchgoer, but I usually attend the Coptic Christmas midnight mass at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo on 6 January. I celebrate Christmas like all Coptic Egyptians, Ethiopians and Russians on 7 January, as opposed to 25 December as western Christians do,” she said.
“This year I was particularly impressed by the reception President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received when he turned up for the Coptic Christian mass. In a gesture of solidarity between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, Al-Sisi, a devout Muslim, celebrated Coptic Orthodox Christmas mass and pledged to rebuild and restore all the churches that had been damaged or destroyed by Islamist terrorists,” Ebeid told the Weekly.
She makes a distinction between what she calls the “Liberal Age”, that of her father, and the sobering realities of today. “In the Liberal Age, particularly under Saad Zaghloul, the representatives of Coptic Christian laypersons had a voice,” she says. This voice has sometimes been lost today, she feels, even as violence against the Coptic Christian community has intensified in the backwaters and provincial towns of Upper Egypt.
Such violence prompted Al-Sisi to publicly apologise for the atrocities that had been committed against Coptic Christians, an unprecedented move that Ebeid appreciates. She believes that with this new atmosphere of magnanimity from no less a person than the president himself, it is high time that Coptic Christian laypersons grasped their duty and spoke their minds.
Ebeid sounded optimistic about the immediate future of the Copts of Egypt. “This is the third year in a row that an Egyptian president unprecedentedly attended the Coptic Christmas Mass. He also pledged to build a church and a mosque in the new administrative capital currently under construction. These are genuine expressions of national unity and solidarity. Small wonder he received a standing ovation by the parishioners,” Ebeid extrapolated.
This is no time for defeatism, she insists. “It was the weakness of the civil society representatives, many of whom lack legitimacy within the community, that prompted them to turn to the Coptic Church for leadership,” she notes. “Whatever happened to the Al-Majlis Al-Melli, the secularist Congress of the Religious Minorities of the Liberal Age,” she asks.
“Lay Coptic Christian representatives then had a say in running the affairs of the country and the decision-making process.
“The exodus of professional Coptic Christians since has been heart-wrenching. Yet, I am also acutely aware that many Muslims also wish to emigrate due to the country’s economic situation. Feelings of grievance are heightened with each new incident of Christian-Muslim tensions, some due to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ type scenarios.”
“A Muslim woman falls in love with a Christian man and elopes, and when she is caught the couple are killed and sometimes this even extends to the respective families. The reconciliation courts do not resolve matters, and aggrieved Christians then return home even more angry and resentful,” she explains.
Ebeid feels that when she was an MP she was viewed as serving the interests of all communities. “The ones who took me to church when I was an MP were the Muslims of Shubra,” she said, referring to her Muslim constituents in Cairo when she was an MP.
“I was not viewed as a Christian politician, but as a politician who genuinely wanted to serve all the people of her constituency regardless of whether they were Muslim or Christian,” she added.
“We, the Coptic Christian laypersons, would prefer that the Coptic Church concentrate solely on spiritual matters and refrain from meddling in political affairs. The state also has an obligation to listen to the laypersons and not to assume that only the Church represents Christian interests in the country.”
“Many Coptic Christians, however, believe that the community needs the leadership which at present the Coptic Church provides, and which can only be delivered by Coptic Pope Tewadros II. Challenges to his authority are regarded with suspicion, and differences between the laypersons and the Church tend to be over strategies to uplift the community rather than to rivalry,” she feels.
“As a leading communal actor, the Coptic Church has the potential to fill a leadership vacuum. But the Church often usurps control at the expense of the laypersons liaising between the authorities and the Coptic Christian community.”
Referring to the overall situation of the Coptic Christian community in Egypt today, Ebeid says that “one of the most serious dangers we are witnessing is of the extremists who are pushing aside nationalism, the nationalism of the Liberal Age, as the central force that unites the country in the context of identity politics.”
And, she presents a poignant ideological distinction between the Coptic Church and the militant Islamist movements whose main aim is to establish an Islamic Caliphate ruled by Sharia laws. In sharp contrast, the Coptic Church’s purpose is to articulate the aspirations of the Coptic community and curtail the sense of alienation among Copts.
“The Bishop of the Youth, Anba Moussa, has devoted his life to uplifting the spirits of young Copts and to reduce joblessness and enhance poverty alleviation schemes. He has consecrated his calling to secular educational causes, literacy programmes, and job and vocational training courses as well as foreign language and Coptic language classes. We want an Egypt that works for all Egyptians,” Ebeid expounded.
“During the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Christian citizenship rights were respected. However, since the beginning of the [former president Anwar] Al-Sadat era, and even more so during the Mubarak decades, the situation of the Coptic Christian community deteriorated sharply. It is ironic today that many Muslim Arabs seem even to be shocked to discover that you can be both an Arab and a Christian,” Ebeid muses.
By almost every measure, the 25 January Revolution was a watershed in Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. “Lift your head up high, you are an Egyptian,” chanted the crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against the regime led by former president Hosni Mubarak, and among them were many Coptic Christians, the largest religious minority in the country.
Fear was set aside, and Christian young people protected Muslim demonstrators in Tahrir Square as Muslims performed Friday prayers. The Maspero Youth Movement of young Christians that began after the revolution was also a revelation.
COPTS AN EXCEPTION in the region: However, important historical developments and distinctions are sometimes lost on people today.
“The Christians of the Middle East, the Levant and Iraq to be precise, lived in a region that was about 20 per cent Christian at the turn of last century. Today, they constitute five per cent of the population, and the percentage of Christians is fast dropping due to discrimination, oppression, exclusion from decision-making processes and Islamist terrorism. The Christians in the Middle East have decided to emigrate to Europe, North America and Australia as a result,” Ebeid extrapolates.
“The decisions of many young Christians to emigrate will only bring in its wake a great cultural and spiritual impoverishment to the region, as several enlightened Muslim thinkers such as the Egyptian intellectual Gaber Asfour have asserted,” she added.
“Many Christians are therefore torn between ringing the alarm bells or keeping silent, fearing to speak openly about the atrocities committed against them. Christians in Egypt and elsewhere in the region are careful not to endanger the lives and the well-being of those who have decided to remain in their respective homelands,” she said.
“But we do not want the most evocative and historic Christian shrines in the region to become museum pieces with no connection to those who live in their vicinities,” Ebeid added.
“Fortunately, the situation in Egypt is different, as Christians comprise between 10 and 15 per cent of the population of 100 million. However, some dissident Diaspora Copts have complicated an already complex and sensitive reality,” she concluded.