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A Coptic Renaissance — and a Riddle

In the Autumn edition of ONE, Sarah Topol reports on the ?Coptic Renaissance? in Egypt.

In the Autumn edition of ONE, Sarah Topol reports on the “Coptic Renaissance” in Egypt. Below, she offers an additional perspective from covering the story.

When I reported the story on the influence of Copts on Egyptian history, it was a heady time for the Christian minority that makes up roughly 10 percent of the population. After a year of increasing sectarian attacks on rural Christian communities and a government run by Islamists, many Coptic Christians saw the leader of Egypt’s military coup as their savior. For decades, the minority has felt disenfranchised in their own country, and with the removal of political Islam from public life, many thought their position in Egypt would improve — no matter that the previous three military-bred presidents of Egypt had not improved their lot.

But that winter, the population was still afraid. It seemed most people I spoke with did not want to be identified strictly as Coptic. This was the most striking and puzzling part of reporting this story. On one hand, it made perfect sense to not want to be considered a token minority — it is understandable to want to be an Egyptian, no matter where or how one worships.

Being termed Coptic risks being seen as one-dimensional. “They were using me as a decoration, like a flower on a jacket lapel,” Hanan Fekry, a journalist who ran in the Journalist Syndicate Board election told me of her campaign, where many referred to her as the Coptic female candidate.

But what was unexplainable to me was how people who were campaigning for the rights of their minority did not want to be identified as that minority — even at a time of marked optimism for their future.

I spoke to quite a few people to put together this story — academics, cultural icons and public figures like Fekry; Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Coptic weekly al-Watani newspaper; George Ishaq, a famous Coptic political activist who was a leader in the Kefeya movement, the first activist group to openly challenge Mubarak in the mid-2000s; Lotfy Labib, a famous Coptic actor; and Gerges Saber, a-33-year-old political activist. None of them wanted to be known as Copts. They felt it marginalized them, even though (as you’ll see in the story) Copts have been marginalized by pretty much everyone else in Egypt’s history. Why would they want to brush aside their identity? Is that not also marginalizing themselves?

The best answer I could get was from Ibrahim Ishak, the Christian researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights: it seemed to be, eh said, a vestige of the old fear. “In this part of the world, minority is a bad word,” Ishak said. “This is part of the culture here, minority means division, weakness. The Copts are speaking in this society, and the society doesn’t like this word [Coptic]. So if they use it, the society will dislike them more. It will look like you are trying to cut and divide the country.”

This, to me, was heartbreaking. Regardless of how you view the new Egyptian leadership, after so much turmoil since the 2011 revolution — and suddenly so much optimism — it felt like nothing was really all that different.

Read more on the “Coptic Renaissance” in the Autumn edition of ONE.

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