Egypt — June 2010

Sociopolitical Situation

Economically, historically and politically, Egypt is one of the most important countries in the Middle East and Northeast Africa. Its ancient past, coupled with the fact that it was among the first countries in the area to embrace the West after Napoleon’s invasion in 1798, has resulted in it being seen by many as the region’s cultural and intellectual leader. Egypt is also one of the fastest emerging markets for land investments. The country’s largest population centers &mash as well as the center of agricultural activity — are concentrated on the banks of the Nile River and the rich farmland of the Nile Delta. Deserts occupy much of the remainder of the country. Egypt has historically wielded significant influence within the Islamic world, though in recent decades it has been eclipsed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. In addition to Israel, Egypt also borders Sudan and Libya, and has the potential to play a major role for good or ill.

The Egyptian government maintains strong relations with that of the United States. These have deepened over years, thanks to various issues of mutual interest, including efforts to reach a just and comprehensive settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict; preserving Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity; and the maintenance of overall regional and international peace and security. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel. Over the years, this funding has been employed in financing infrastructure projects, strengthening economic and social reform programs and enlisting U.S. technical expertise. Moreover, trade between both countries has increased enormously while U.S. investments have picked up recently after a slight regression.

Since the inception of the modern Egyptian state under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the political system has been subject to continuity and change. Since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, the country has been led by President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, whose stable and authoritarian government has resulted in increased political legitimacy, elite configuration, political institution building, and strong state-society relations.

At present, most decision-making authority is vested in the president. While several opposition parties exist, they pose little challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party. Harassment and intimidation of opposition members by state security forces ensures they remain weak and fragmented. Though technically illegal, the Muslim Brotherhood is the country’s main political opposition group. Its members must run for election as independent candidates.

Local extremists either affiliated with or inspired by Al Qaeda have carried out a string of relatively small attacks in Egypt over the past several years. Most have been directed at tourist infrastructure, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. Significant risks remain, however, as Egypt continues to maintain its pro-Western stance.

The Mubarak government is under some pressure from its neighbors for the way it is perceived to have handled the Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza in the winter of 2008-09. This tension is unlikely to threaten Egypt directly, but Egyptian interests and expatriates in other countries may be targeted for demonstration or symbolic vandalism. Further, as Egypt has positioned itself as a key negotiator for peace between Israel and Gaza, it may face more criticism depending on the long term results.

Modern Egypt, though overwhelmingly Muslim, is a secular state. Unlike Iran, Morocco, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for example, Egypt is not governed by al wali al faqih, religious jurisprudence. The current, overarching “Political Islam” currently taking Egypt by storm is fundamentally altering Egyptian society, particularly the youth of its lower and working classes. Political Islam alters not only Egypt’s position in the Arab (and non-Arab worlds), but also how its young people perceive the country.

Egypt has been grounded by so-called “Emergency Laws” that allow for indefinite detention of suspects and deny the right of appeal in certain cases. This has prompted fierce vocal criticism from activists, journalists and those in the political opposition. As a result, dozens of pro-democracy activists, Islamists and regime opponents have been arrested and imprisoned. Frequent reports of torture and intimidation of pro-democracy activists have been emanating from Egypt’s overcrowded jails.

The Egyptian economy is the second largest in the Arab world after Saudi Arabia. Until the late 1990’s, Egypt’s economy was highly centralized due to the economic policies of the former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, from 2004 to 2008, the country saw major economic reforms seeking foreign direct investment. However, in the fiscal year 2008-09, the global recession forced economic reforms to take a backseat. The country’s GDP, therefore, grew only at 4.56 percent in the year 2009. According to 2009 estimates, the country’s GDP stands at U.S. $470.4 billion and per capita GDP is U.S. $6,000.

Since 2008, the rising rate of inflation has become a severe threat for the Egyptian economy. According to estimates, inflation reached 18.3 percent in the fiscal year 2009-10. Though the government has focused on the privatization and modernization of industry and public services, the state involvement in the economy is still strong. Egypt’s subsidies are higher than ever, suggesting that the benefit of economic growth is not reaching the majority of the population. Subsidies on food and fuel are outstripping spending on health and education.

The rural-urban divide and growing population worries threaten progress against poverty. Cash incomes remain low (43 percent live on $2 or less per day) and unemployment threatens not just economic, but social stability with 1.2 million young job seekers entering the market each year.

An unstable currency, unbalanced trade (Egypt imports the majority of its food and basic material needs) and the concentration of a few industries in the hands of a few groups creates high inflation. University leaders, union officials, artists and government bureaucrats no longer believe their needs are addressed and their sensibilities regarded.

The concentration of power in the hands of a select group of notables, mainly from the new guard at the ruling National Democratic Party, the prominence and influence of a small group of businessmen and financiers, and the absence of any grand national project or inspiring goal has left Egypt’s middle classes painfully aware of the hollowness and fragility of their traditional positions in society.

Religious Situation

The English word Copt is derived from the Arabic, “Gypt,” which literally means Egyptian and now refers only to Egyptian Christians.

Christianity in Egypt dates to the first century, when St. Mark preached in the great city of Alexandria. Christianity became the dominant religion in Egypt in the fourth century and remained so even well after the Islamic invasion in the seventh. Some authorities believe Islam only eclipsed Christianity in the Middle Ages.

Around 95 percent of Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which is the largest Christian community in the Middle East with approximately 7 million members in Egypt and as many as 2 million members elsewhere. The Coptic Orthodox Church belongs to the family of Oriental Orthodox churches and is in full communion with the Armenian Apostolic, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Malankara Syriac and Syriac Orthodox churches.

Today, Copts form almost 10 percent of Egypt’s population; they are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians and are fully integrated into the body of the modern Egyptian nation. Copts live in every province though they do not form a majority in any of the provinces.

Other native Egyptian Christians belong to the Coptic Catholic or Coptic Evangelical churches, as well as other smaller Coptic Protestant denominations. Non-Egyptian Christian communities are largely found in the urban regions of Alexandria and Cairo, and include members of the Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Melkite Greek Catholic, Latin Catholic, Syriac Catholic or Syriac Orthodox churches.

The early Christians of Egypt suffered considerably at the hands of the early Roman. After the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 A.D., Egypt’s Christians were split into two factions: those Greek-speakers living primarily in the cities who supported the emperor in Constantinople or those Coptic-speaking Christians of the countryside who preferred a more conservative understanding of Jesus. This split bitterly divided the universal church and opened it up to foreign invasion. When Muhammad’s Muslim armies invaded Egypt in the mid-seventh century, they met little resistance from the native Christian population.

Egypt’s Christians suffered a slow decline after the invasion of the Arab Muslims, but around the middle of the 20th century the Coptic Orthodox Church experienced an unprecedented revival. This spiritual renaissance had its start in the “Sunday School Movement” in Cairo, Giza and Assiut. Inspired by the challenges they experienced in Sunday school classes, young men consecrated their lives to God and followed in the footsteps of the ancient desert fathers. Many of today’s church leaders grew from that spirited revival. The Coptic Orthodox Church continues to sponsor active youth groups that emphasize religious education as well as providing social interaction. Though called Sunday schools, these gatherings are held usually on Fridays and are considered to be a very important to all the Coptic families, regardless of generation. They involve diverse activities, both spiritual and social.

As with many problems in the Middle East, tensions between Egyptian Copts and Muslims have long historical roots and extend to the seventh century. Islamist influence picked up in the 1930’s, after generations of quiet, with the inevitable costs for Copts.

Today, Egypt’s Copts are an endangered minority. Exposed to continuous and subtle pressures, their numbers are dwindling. Tens of thousands emigrate each year; no official figures are available, but reliable sources count 2 million living in Australia, Canada, Europe, Great Britain and the United States. Thousands of Copts who remain in Egypt convert to Islam every year to escape marginalization, discrimination or, in some regions, outright persecution. Those who stay faithful to their religion find themselves increasingly alienated in their own country.

The Egyptian constitution stipulates all Egyptians are equal under the law. But discrimination against Christians is widely practiced and is sanctioned by the state. Areas of discrimination include, but are not limited to, education, employment, freedom of religion, construction of churches and parliamentary representation. Many high ranking jobs are out of reach to Christians.

Year after year, the Christians of Egypt continue to endure violent attacks from Muslim radicals; government officials have repeatedly failed to protect them. While the government does not have a policy to persecute Christians, it discriminates against them and hampers their freedom of worship; government agencies sporadically persecute Muslim converts to Christianity. The government enforces restrictions on the construction or repair of churches, restrictions that do not apply to mosques. The rehabilitation of churches requires a permit from regional governors. The construction of new churches requires the approval of the president and a permit to build one can take as long as ten years — and may never be secured. However, even if the president approves such a request, security forces must investigate to see if the Muslim community does not object. If it does, the church may not be built. Thus, many new communities do not have churches.

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