American Copts, Egypt and the Next Pope

There are no reliable surveys of the size and reach of American Copts beyond an excellent but limited scope study by Jennifer Brinkerhoff of George Washington University

Copts estimate their numbers in the United States as between 500,000 and one Million. As with all Egyptian numbers, reliability is an issue. There are over 200 churches, and even a simple calculation will yield something comparable to 500,000, ranging from first to third generation Copts. Most came to the US in waves that started after the 1967 war. Scant, but reliable, parish records indicate that as many as 1 in 3 Copts have intermarried with the general American population, mostly Catholic and Protestant Americans. As a result there maybe more than 1 Million Copts and “Copt-tinged” Americans. This is not an inconsiderable number. The vast majority are solidly middle and upper middle class and disbursed across the country, with concentrations along the coasts, Midwest and southern states, such as the Carolinas.

The Coptic church in the US grew rapidly after 1970, and has been largely a creation of the local community but with a very strong support from Pope Shenouda. He took a personal interest in the US church. He had first hand knowledge of all its clergy, having vetted the vast majority of them personally. He was also instrumental, early in his papacy, in translating the Mass to English and making English the standard liturgical language in the US. The American Coptic clergy has been a strong supporter of Pope Shenouda and rarely, almost never, critical of him. In the last year, as he visited the Cleveland Clinic multiple times, many of the American Clergy trooped to visit him. As least a dozen priests rushed to Cairo to attend his funeral.

The attitudes of the American Coptic laity are different. Unfortunately their attitudes can not be easily documented, since the church controls access to much of the community. It can only be gauged through anecdotal evidence.  Few of the Copts are politically prominent. People such as Dina Powell, who was a senior figure the Bush State Department, are more the exception than the rule. Copts as a whole tend to reflect the political trends within their geographical locations and are mostly clustered around the American center. The year since the Egyptian revolution has heightened political awareness among American Copts, as well as increased the general visibility of Coptic issues among the American population in general. There is a nascent pro-Coptic feeling among Americans in general, and stronger support among certain groups, such as Evangelicals, which is surprisingly similar to the broad American support for Israel. The American vision of Copts is somewhat more quaint and romantic than the reality, but these feelings tend to be powerful. Copts have been reluctant to cultivate or exploit these feelings. Pope Shenouda was strongly against that. He felt it would endanger the position of Egyptian Copts with the state. The passing of Pope Shenouda could alter this picture considerably.  Something is brewing :

1- Most American Copts feel that they will have little voice in the selection of the next Pope. There is no mechanism to allow that.

2- Many American Copts have had a long simmering resentment against the Egyptian church for its shoddy handling of social services for poor Copts. A good many have opted to use personal and third parties to channel aid to poor Copts,  bypassing the church hierarchy.

3- Calls for stronger Coptic political involvement and activism have fallen on deaf ears during the last 40 years of Sadat and Mubarak. There was too much to risk and too much respect for “el Batrak”. This is changing. There is even talk of raising funds to support the nascent “Coptic Brotherhood” movement in Egypt. But such action is divisive even within families.

4- American Copts, like most immigrants, have a nostalgic vision of Egypt. They refuse to accept the Egypt of today, yearn for a gentler place with less visible religion and more liberal attitudes. As a result, they vehemently oppose any Islamist politics. Some have begun an outreach to American politicians, mostly in the House, to highlight the Coptic issues. We will see during this summer of American Presidential conventions whether there has been any traction.

To summarize, the picture from the US is still murky. There is indeed a likelihood that Coptic movements outside the church, such as “Coptic Brothers”, might receive strong moral and financial support from American Copts. The shape of this support and its effects will depend on whether Egypt takes a strong Islamist turn in all institutions, or remains a balance between Islamist and non-Islamist forces. It will also depend on the the personality and policies of the next Pope. What could emerge is something akin to the Islamist picture in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is a politicized body rival to the traditional Al-Azhar clerical establishment.

Egypt is unlike any other country in the Near East experiencing political upheaval. And it is partly  because no other country has as large or as native a christian minority. Islamist politics in Egypt will always be affected by this simple fact, and by the Copts’  fierce attachment to the Egyptian national character, including those 2 or 3 generations away from having lived in Egypt. In that respect American Copts are similar to the American Irish, who have affected both American and Irish policies for over a century. Whether Copts will do so remains to be seen.

The Copts’ case for supporting Aboul Fotouh

There are reliable reports of several high level Coptic bishops who argued for supporting the presidential candidacy of Aboul Fotouh. On the face of it this seems a paradoxical position for those advocating a secular state.  He is hardly a paragon of secularism. On a closer look that might be a difficult yet responsible position. First we need to get over the belief that there are ideal candidates. There are none. We need to look for the least damaging option, especially for those Copts who are directly affected by the state,  public sector employees, small businessmen and farmers. Some Coptic hot heads argue that this is simply foolish, giving in to someone who is basically a more polished version of the run-of-the-mill Islamist. The problem with that argument is that the alternative might be a run-of-the-mill Islamist. There are multiple reasons to take the responsible position of supporting Aboul Fotouh:

1- He was ejected from the MB by the Khairat El-Shater and his crew. If elected president he will serve as a serious check on this very dangerous man.

2- He advocates no restrictions by gender or religion on all state positions. We do not know what is in his heart, and in any case Egypt is not about to elect a woman or a Copt, so what he actually believes is irrelevant. What he says is important because it sets a precedent for tolerance.

3- Egypt is a country where 25% of the people voted for a burlesque show of Salafis. If unchecked, a Salafi extremist could actually become president. Then what? What levels of coercion will be imposed on the Copts by such a president? What wacky adventures he might get into resulting in International opprobrium and resulting economic collapse might he cause? Would we be looking at a coup and more decades of dreary military rule?

4- Aboul Fotouh is openly Islamist, probably palatable to most Egyptians who have grown religious. Yet he might pave the way for a future condominium between a lightly coercive Islamism and true secularism. As a transitional figure, or one of many such figures, he is probably not a bad option.

5- He is both mature and young, in his late 50’s. Egypt needs vigor. No more old men.

6- He is a professional (a doctor), not from a military or a political background. Both establishments have failed Egypt badly.

7- He has never been accused of serious crimes (unlike El-Shater who was accused of trying to form a militia, perhaps falsely).

8- He might actually bring transparency to the Muslim Brotherhood, and may even lift the reign of fear under which its members have difficulty voicing criticism or demanding change.

9- He is internationally palatable. Just try to imagine the alternative of Abu Ismael shaking hands with Angela Merkel, for the sake of not so comic relief.

10- He is forthright and bold and will likely earn the trust of many middle level military officers, who will in the next decade or two take reigns of the military and will need to be kept firmly within the civilian oversight.

11- He articulates a message of social justice that does not come off as either alien or overly socialistic to Egyptian ears.

12- Those who personally know him attest to his personal probity. He had the courage as a young man to tell Sadat the obvious, that he was surrounded by sycophants.

13- He attracts a cadre of young professionals. These are the people Egypt needs to build an economically viable future.

14- He can win.

Earning Trust

The year since the Egyptian Revolution would have been an excellent change for the Muslim Brotherhood to earn the trust of many Egyptians reared to be suspicious of their motives through state and other propaganda. Sadly, they have failed to do so. One can list at least five reasons.

1- They never reciprocated the support of other parties. Many liberals defended the MB’s right to free expression over the last decade or two. Yet, the MB aligned itself closely with the Military’s campaign to discredit the liberal, leftist and revolutionary youth. As a result their reservoir of good will toward the MB is pretty low. The MB is seen as continually scheming for power at the expense of principle.

2- The MB never stood took a principled stand against attacks against women and Copts. The Maspero events earned the comment “this is not the right time to protest”. The attack on the blue-bra woman earned the comment “she brought it on herself by being there”. And so on. It is easy to conclude that tolerance and respect for others is still not ingrained in the Brothers (or Sisters for that matter). You can not run a democracy when one faction believes the other has no right to self expression. Again, the problem with the MB is not that they are conservative or fundamentalists, the problem is that they are coercive.

3- They remained secretive and non-transparent. The claim, of course, is that they needed to be secretive since they were always oppressed by the state. That is a weak and slippery argument, inviting a “chicken and egg” issue. The Monarchy and Nasser suppressed the MB because they were secretive and had a military wing. No state can tolerate that and not risk falling into warlord-ism. The MB compiled weapons and volunteers to go to war in Palestine in 1948. That cast of mind never left them. Hence the next point.

4- The MB needed to demonstrate that it is primarily an Egyptian and not a trans-national organization. There is nothing wrong with MB wanting to be religiously minded, or pious, or conservative. That is the right of the members and it should be protected. However, the MB always gives off the whiff of being interested in global goals beyond Egypt’s many considerable problems. That does not make them ideal partners in a democracy  or effective governance. The historical analogy is with the European Communists and Social Democrats. The latter could be trusted with power in specific countries, while the former could never be trusted with power because their objectives were trans-national, and their motives were not grounded in specific solutions for the country in question, but in the larger aim of spreading communism. This was, by the way, Nasser’s problem, when he sapped Egypt’s energy with various pan-Arab schemes, such as the ill-fated Yemen expedition.  The MB behaved erratically in this regard in the last year. It took on itself a separate foreign policy with Hamas, got into an imbroglio with the Gulf countries over a tele-preacher, and attacked the Islamist Turkish Prime Minister as too secular.  Then there was also inflammatory talk (or Kalam Fadi) about restoring “the Calphiate”.  This does not bode well. Obviously the MB does not consider itself an organization in the service or Egypt, but an trans-national organization with Egypt as its base and source of power. This leads to the next point.

5- Does the MB want to be part of the state or to simply take over the state, becoming a supra-national entity. This is not a small theoretical point.  When they demand (unconfirmed but likely true) that the police have a minimum percentage of their members, they risk sectarianism and arouse fears about a desire to take over the state apparatus. Organizations that do that never leave power through the ballot box. Most perceptive Egyptians saw the last year as a choice between the uniform and the beard. The MB never addressed that concern. They simply tried to besmirch the reputation of any one who pointed this out.

There was a golden moment last year when it was possible to believe that Egypt could transition to a “normal democracy” where even a modest amount of tolerance can reign and power can alternate through the ballot box. But that moment is gone, a victim of the MB who have shown themselves to be in character and methods not significantly different from the communist parties that haunted Europe a century ago. The question is now what? Those who clearly care about Egypt need to accept that there are no good options at the moment. It is a difficult choice between least bad options, but responsible people need to, first and foremost, not make things worse, and then perhaps through patient effort make them better. A transition to an MB-Salafi regime is worse than the current conditions, and that must be avoided at all costs. The price might be to accept unpalatable choices such as a military-tinged regime or an Islamist-light government. In either case, the MB as it is currently constituted is inherently dangerous (to say nothing of the Salafis) and a military dictatorship is out of the question, as it has demonstrably failed and does not satisfy the needs or demands of the people.

This is a difficult moment for Egypt, and those of us in the West need to stand by the average Egyptians. All actions should be weighed not by academic or idealistic criteria, but by how they will affect the lot of the average man or woman. Will they be freer, will they be more prosperous and will they be able to look forward to a bright future.

Were they wrong to walk out?

The decision by most liberal and secular members of the Egyptian Constitutional Council to walk out as a protest against the strong-arm tactics of the Islamists is condemned by some as further evidence of the immaturity of the liberal forces and their unwilling to “work constructively” or “face reality”.  Quite the contrary, their walk out is a responsible and mature decision. It is hardly petulance to refuse to lend one’s name to a sham process. There are five essential reasons to step out of this process.

1- The liberals are unlikely to achieve anything of value in the areas of protection of individual rights or protection for women and minorities. You simply can not argue with those who feel divinely inspired and are ready to shout you down without listening. So leaving is in keeping with the Chinese proverb “if you are arguing with a fool make sure he is not doing the same thing”.

2- All constitutions are compromises and are never perfect. The question is the nature and degree of compromise. the American constitution compromised on the issue of slavery, and it led to eight decades of division and turmoil followed by a bloody civil war. There was simply no way to “talk around” the compromise. It finally had to be settled one way or the other. Similarly, the likely outcome of this process will be a document so unfavorable to many elements of society, albeit a minority, that it will cause more turmoil. It is better not to bless it with any semblance of a consensus.  It would simply be dishonest to do so. Constitutions are not political decisions, where compromise is a mature and rational approach. They are statements of ideals. You can not write them without keeping an eye on what should be.

3- There is absolutely no reason Egypt needs a constitution now.  England lives without one. It can hardly be called a repressive society. What Egypt needs is decades of stability and economic progress to erase the trauma of the last decades of authoritarian rule and corruption. Better to spend these decades making ad-hoc compromises, with the various political forces learning to live together, than to pretend that an immediate transition to a full scale democracy is even possible.

4- The current assembly contains a significant fraction of political forces who do not believe in tolerance and true democracy, based on an open society and alterations at the ballot box. What is the point of engaging in a futile exercise. The difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis is one of degree. They both aim for a narrow illiberal society, with minimal tolerance for differing views. One group will turn up the heat immediately, the other will gradually turn up the heat, as “citizens are ready”. What we are looking at is a choice between drastic coercion and soft suave coercion. This is not much of a choice.

5- The Islamist forces need to take full responsibility for their actions. A token fig leaf included in every group, one weak enough to make no difference, but visible enough to support the claim that it was not the Islamist forces that made the decision, but a “national consensus”, serves no purpose other dilute accountability.

It is not responsible to ignore reality because it disagrees with the ideals we would like to espouse. Egyptians have shown in the last year that they are fed up with autocracy, that they yearn for a freer society and economic prosperity. Their political leaders have shown ineptness, self-dealing and dishonesty. These two facts must be accepted and reconciled. The path forward will demand a strong, but not imperial, presidency and transparent governance to improve the economic conditions and attract the needed foreign investment.

Opium of the Intellectuals

This is of course the title of a seminal work by Raymond Aron, decrying the western intellectuals infatuation with Communism, their weak excuses for its excesses, their fondness for its utopianism in spite of its obvious horrors, and general irresponsibility as to the consequences of their words.

Today many of the academic experts are mocking the walk out of the Liberals & Secular forces from Egypt’s Constitutional Assembly. These men and women refuse to be “useful idiots” or a window-dressing for a crude power grab by the forces of Political Islam. The western intellectuals want, from the safety of their offices, to see how this experiment will turn out, and are enamored of their fine-tuned understanding of the Islamist forces. They make distinctions without meaning between “moderate” and “hard-line” fundamentalists, pretend there are difference between the MB and the Salafis, and generally engage in reading tea leaves. But if you are an open-minded Muslim or a Copt in Egypt today, such talk is a luxury. There is a burden of responsibility. One can not afford to be soft-headed. In Khairat El-Shater, the MB found its Lenin. A responsible course of action is to see how to thwart the efforts of these people before the number of their victims pile up. Empty talk about “this is how politics is played”, “elections matter” or “that was the people’s choice” is fundamentally irresponsible. We need to see and identify the forces of coercion for what they are. There are no good options at the moment. And those of us comfortably in western countries need to rally to the support of the beleaguered Egyptians.  We may have to swallow some bitter pills in the interim, admit our errors, live with less than ideal choices, for the sake of decent Egyptians who will be ground up by the Islamist terror to come.

Warning signs

A recent New York Times article about the Muslim Brotherhood new strong man, Khairat el-Shater, was gushing to a fault. Yet embedded in the article are all the flashing yellow lights necessary to give a thinking person pause about the new clothes of the Brothers. The article portrays them as kith and kin to US Republicans. Conservative religious types who believe in the Free Market and party discipline. Somewhere towards the end of the article we are reminded that the deputy leader frowns on women talking to men other than their immediate relatives, even on the phone.

We now look back with amazement at all the European Socialists who ignored the warning signs of the Russian Communist party, insisting that time will moderate these tendencies, and even justifying them as necessary to create an effective movement and governance. It is not very different now. A man who controls his “women” in such a complete and total fashion is unlikely to brook any opposition ? Just ask Aboul Foutoh.