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Coptic Renaissance

After the revolution, a resurgence for Egypt’s laity

When Hanan Fekry ran for the board of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in October 2011, she did not expect to win. For decades, the authoritarian regime had suppressed the union. After the January 2011 revolution, many expected that would change; it seemed as though the country was on a path to reform and journalists were eager to champion press freedoms. Ms. Fekry, a bright-eyed columnist from Al Watani, Egypt’s Christian weekly newspaper, wanted to be a part of that change.

She announced her candidacy knowing she faced three challenges: she is young, a woman and a Christian. All of these were strikes against her in Egypt’s patriarchal, predominantly Muslim society, in which Christians make up roughly 10 percent of the population. (Ethnic Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, derived from the Greek “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian.)

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was ramping up its parliamentary election campaign and had made no secret of its hopes to also win control of unions. “It wasn’t specifically about being Coptic, but generally the atmosphere was not welcoming,” Ms. Fekry recounts from inside Al Watani’s bustling office in downtown Cairo.

“I was sure I couldn’t win the first time — a lot of people were calling me the dark horse.”

And indeed, she lost.

When the next cycle of elections came around in March 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the government, but discontent with the Islamist group was growing among the public. Feeling its popularity slipping, the Brotherhood doubled down on union elections.

When Ms. Fekry put in her name as a candidate, she expected fierce competition for the six open slots on the 12-seat governing board. Both candidates vying for the position as chair of the board endorsed her, hoping to garner the Coptic vote.

“They were using me as a decoration, like a flower on a jacket lapel,” she says.

This time, Ms. Fekry won. The first Coptic woman to sit on the journalist syndicate board in decades, she had competed with 46 other candidates. Of the 2,000 or so ballots cast, she had received 800 — a margin of victory far beyond mere political pandering.

“If I said this wave against the Muslim Brotherhood was the only reason I won, I would be unfair to myself,” she says. “I am a professional; that is why I won.”

Hanan Fekry’s success is symbolic of the greater struggle of Copts in Egypt’s recent history.

For decades, Coptic influence in Egypt has waned. Though Christians have been an integral part of Egyptian society for millennia, they have become token figures, whether in literature, television or politics. Governments have used Copts as a window-dressing for national unity, while discrimination and sectarian attacks against the group became the norm. But after the 2011 revolution and the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, Copts in Egypt are living through something of a renaissance.

“Now, with the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood, we have one of the most substantial moments of a Coptic resurgence in recent memory,” says Adel Iskandar, author of “Egypt in Flux” and a fellow at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “Copts are participating in Egyptian public life with unprecedented fervor.

“Before the revolution, Coptic politics were on life support. Afterward, they came to life.”

Modern Egypt’s relationship with Copts is complicated. Periods of nationalism and revolt have unified the country around a common enemy, but fragmentation and sectarianism have soon followed.

“When the nation has a dream or a target they will never have discrimination,” says Kamal Mogeth, an Egyptian historian and writer. When the target disappears, or is achieved, he says, “this is when it all starts.”

Analysts and historians see the heyday for the Copts as the period surrounding the 1919 revolt against the British, who had occupied Egypt since 1882. A national fervor gripped the population, unifying its many factions. The Muslim architect of the revolt, Saad Zaghloul, worked closely with Christian leaders, including Makram Ebeid, Wassef Boutros Ghali and Wissa Wassef. Copts became champions of Zaghloul’s Wafd party, which opened its doors and developed into a stalwart vehicle for Christian participation in politics for decades to come. Egyptian solidarity was such that, when a Coptic priest, the Rev. Qommus Sergius, preached from the pulpit of the Al Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s most important Muslim institution, he declared: “If the British insist on staying in Egypt under the pretense of protecting Copts, let all Copts die and Muslims live free.”

Yet after the military overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic in 1954, the situation for Copts in Egypt began to deteriorate. While under President Gamal Abdel Nasser attacks against Copts were unheard of, strains of radical Islamist political philosophy grew, despite state suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Sayyid Qutb, whose writing would later resound with fundamentalists such as Osama Bin Laden, penned some of his most influential works while in prison during this period.

After Nasser’s death in 1970, Anwar Sadat assumed power and took the country in a decidedly Islamic direction, in part to counteract the strong progressive opposition to his rule. He began to release radicals jailed by his predecessor and adopted a more religious mode of discourse himself.

This is when Egyptians began to hear messages of hatred coming from some radicalized mosques, rhetoric that “Christians are infidels not trustworthy [enough] to live or mix with,” explains Youssef Sidhom, editor in chief of the Coptic weekly Al Watani.

Attacks on Christians became a way for radical Islamists to test the tolerance of the state, which did nothing to protect the community. Simultaneously, some of those Egyptians who had migrated to the Arab Gulf for work brought back the radical Salafi ideology of the Gulf, their Islamic fundamentalism further alienating the Christians in Egypt.

As a response to the growing sectarian threat, Copts turned inward. The Coptic Orthodox Church provided the youth with social outlets in a safe environment, including sports, theater and summer camp activities, but also segregated the population further. The church — especially its powerful patriarchate — became the Copts’ main negotiator with the state, further reducing the role of laity in society and politics.

Under President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three-decade rule, Islamists were suppressed but the state maintained Sadat’s religious style of public discourse, leaving Christians still feeling isolated.

According to Mr. Sidhom, “Christians under Sadat and throughout the reign of Mubarak were persecuted. They were treated as second-class citizens, they were hit hard in their right to equality in all aspects of life — mainly [the right] to build churches and maintain them, as well as the right to occupy chief executive posts and high-ranking jobs in all state bodies, security services and the military.”

Those Coptic politicians appointed to ministerial posts by the Mubarak regime were generally seen as powerless puppets who had been co-opted. The Coptic Orthodox Church discouraged their members from engaging in political protest, instead preferring to negotiate with Mubarak with the hope of securing its flock. Civic participation among Copts dwindled.

On 25 January 2011, Egyptians of all stripes took to the streets to protest the moribund Mubarak regime. Cairo’s Tahrir Square reverberated with chants that “Muslims and Christians are one hand!” Coptic youth — despite the admonitions of some within the church — established a political voice for themselves outside the main religious institution for the first time in decades.

Nationalism and a common enemy had again created an atmosphere of perceived equality. After 18 days, Egyptians toppled Mubarak. It was a resurgent moment for Copts, who anticipated that long-denied rights of equality and tolerance would spring from the nation’s communal experience in the square. But in the aftermath of the uprising, Islamists came to dominate national politics, and after the first free elections in six decades, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the country. Attacks on Christians increased and many considered leaving Egypt. A palpable sense of fear of their future in their own country was widespread.

Yet, dissatisfaction with the Islamist government grew quickly within the general population. On 30 June, Egyptians once again took to the streets — Christians and Muslim alike — to call for newly elected President Morsi to resign.

On 3 July, the military intervened and deposed the president. The vast majority of Copts rejoiced and rallied behind the new military-appointed government and consequently backed the new constitution, which passed by 98 percent in January 2014.

“People came to life as a result of the revolution, then the window of opportunity closed. So they stood by the window and when it reopened they barged out,” says Adel Iskandar of Georgetown.

“For Coptic public life, the removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from the political reins of the state was important and transformative.”

The new government appointed Copts to take some 20 percent of the first interim cabinet. They appeared to have made their decisions based on the politicians’ experience. For example, Laila Rashed Iskandar, chosen as the environmental minister, built her reputation in part from her dedicated work with the Zabbaleen — a class of garbage collectors in Cairo, mostly Christian — which had earned her international accolades. Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, a Coptic politician from the Wafd party and the founder of the Egyptian Finance Company, was appointed minister of industry.

Meanwhile, Christian youth continue to demand a voice in the political scene, but there are still many battles to be fought.

“The culture was a culture of discrimination until now. We are fighting for human rights in the new constitution. We have tried, but the culture still exists. You have to change the media and the channels who say bad things, change the leaders of the mosques,” says George Ishaq, a leading Coptic political activist in the Kefaya movement, the first activist group to openly challenge Mubarak in the mid-2000’s.

“We must change this culture, the school curriculum, the media,” he adds, “and that will take time.”

For Copts to play an active role in Egyptian society, many say, their depiction in public culture — television and film, especially — must also change.

Lotfy Labib, a Coptic actor who has built his career playing a father or uncle figure in Egyptian cinema, says his fans had no idea he was Christian until after the revolution, when he began appearing on television to champion Coptic rights. When his fans learned of his Christian faith, Mr. Labib says he received nothing but support.

He began making Coptic films when he was in his 20’s. The church funded films depicting the saints for its parishes and communities around the world. Working in these films was something spiritual for Mr. Labib.

“It was more like a church atmosphere, acting was something like praying,” he explains.

“The topic itself was a religious topic, the places of shooting were religious places, and we worked for free, so we were giving our spirit for that. All that prepared the atmosphere to be spiritual.”

Yet in the 104 movies and 132 television episodes in which he has since appeared, Mr. Labib has never played a Christian character. Acting as a Muslim character, however, does not bother him.

“I’m a professional, that’s how I make money,” he says, “My culture is Egyptian, not Christian — that’s my religion.”

Mr. Labib explains that, in Egyptian cinema, most plot lines involving Copts focus on Christians converting to Islam or feature a secondary Christian best friend who appears as a bland, goody-two-shoes, without much depth. In his opinion, there are no shows on mainstream television focusing on Copts, because they would not be able to sell in the rest of the Arab market.

The depiction of Copts in literature is no better.

“Passive is the word that comes to mind,” says Mariam Ayad, an Egyptology and Coptic studies professor at the American University of Cairo.

“Law abiding out of fear, possibly; honest to a fault in terms of how they handle money — and in fact that’s the reputation Copts have had since the Mamluk period, when they were given oversight of finances.”

For younger Copts, such stereotypes are offensive.

“It makes us feel horrible,” says Gerges Saber, a 33-year-old political activist. “If you want to create something about the people, go and sit with the people, don’t use manipulation and falsities.”

Mr. Saber, a coordinator of the Social Democratic Party in Giza, expresses his desire not to be defined by his faith in his political or public life.

“I am Christian, but I want to be a citizen Christian, not part of an ethnic tribal group,” Saber says. “My name identifies my religion, but my religion is not my ideology.”

As Copts have grown more vocal in Egyptian politics, most see their contributions and participation as irreversible.

Ibrahim Ishak, a Christian researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, puts it succinctly.

Because Christians “have participated [in the events of] 30 June,” he says, “they have weight, because everybody saw that they played a role in ousting Morsi. The state institutions say they helped them a lot, so they have more respect from both sides. That will reflect on television and everywhere.”

A frequent contributor to ONE, Sarah Topol’s writing has been published in The Atlantic, Esquire and The New York Times.

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