An earlier post tried to come to terms with realistic figure for the number of Copts who emigrated from Egypt since the 2011 revolution. Demanding certitude in number should not distract from understanding the trend. Copts are leaving Egypt and have been doing so since the 1960’s. Understanding why Copts are leaving is more than an academic interest, it is critical to understand and chart Egypt’s path.
First it is important to examine closely the most frequently given reasons for the Copts’ migration.
1- Sectarian strife. This is often cited as reason for emigration, but that does not stand up to close scrutiny. Egypt has been experiencing increased sectarian strife. The strife is largely local, often in rural areas or poorer urban neighborhoods. Usually it is a social conflagration by hot heads that quickly takes on a religious tone. Egypt is not experiencing the kind of large scale pogroms that put entire populations on the move. Of even greater relevance is the fact that immigrants are not those with first hand experience of the strife. They are not the poorer Copts dwelling in rural areas or urban slums. They are typically educated professionals well-insulated by distance and class from strife.
2- Economic opportunity. While there is some truth to the promise of opportunity, many emigrate knowing full well that life ahead might have less economic certainty, greater isolation and difficulty in old age. An older woman described her experience when first arriving in the US in the early 1960’s as “crying daily at the thought that I have to shop for food and cook it, having never done that in my life.”
3- Political repression. Copts as a group have been withdrawing from political life in Egypt. As a result there is less of a chance of being dragged into the government’s net of political oppression. The last large scale oppression experienced more widely by Copts was Nasser’s suppression of Communists in the late 1950’s.
4- Increasing Islamization of public life. This is often cited by immigrants as a secondary cause, but rarely as the immediate cause. In any case, Coptic immigration started in the 1960’s, well before such trends began to appear.
Ultimately the reasons most immigrants give for their decision is that “we did it for our children”, or the more poetically vague “Egypt is gone” (Rahit Misr). It is not so much that they left Egypt as that Egypt has left them.
Immigration requires both a “pull” from the future homeland and a “push” from the current homeland. The “pull” started in the 1960’s when the US, Canada and Australia altered their immigration policies to lower the barriers to non-European immigrants. The “push” also started at the same time driven by a sense of unfairness,even despair. In that sense the Copts’ problem is also the problem of most Egyptians of both religions.
The Coptic church has been, since St Cyril in the 5th century, a national church. The fortunes of Copts generally declined under foreign rule, and rose only with nascent nationalist sentiments. The modern narrative of Egypt as uniquely different from its neighbors began in the 19th century with the deciphering of hieroglyphics and rise of Egyptology. It was in essence a romantic idea and reflected in many ways similar European romanticism about national cultures. But nations are often served well by their myths. The science of Egyptology linked Coptic language with ancient Egypt, giving rise to the romantic idea of Copts as “Original Egyptians”. As long as the narrative remained about Egypt, Copts felt that they were on an upward path.
But the narrative began to change with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (primarily as a reactionary force against top-down modernization) and its eagerness to seize power by any means, including an unfortunate tendency to ally with the military. The narrative of the MB, as well as of the military coup leaders who prevailed after a short period of confusion, was not an Egyptian narrative. They sought so define and subsume Egypt in larger identities. In the case of Nasser is was a pan-Arab identity, while the MB wanted a larger Muslim nation. In either case it was trouble for the Copts. Nasser’s pan-Arab idea seemed the lesser threat since many of those who espoused it were Christian Arabs. Yet those Christian Arabs were definitely not Copts, and often Copts felt more distant from them than their fellow Muslim Egyptians. The MB narrative was even more threatening, promising at best second class citizenship. Neither of these narrative held promise for the Copts, especially as the geopolitical realities meant that both embroiled Egypt in nasty foreign adventures.
In the last few months Copts have been accused of preferring an autocratic secular government over a democratic Islamist system. That is a misstatement of their sentiments. What they want is a democratic Egyptian system. Copts have irretrievably thrown their lot with the idea of Egypt. The rhetoric of the 2011 Egyptian revolution was deeply disturbing to the Copts. All the talk about “bringing down the Pharaoh” (to be compared with the cry of Sadat’s assassins “I killed the Pharaoh”), the Salafis’ bizarre obsession with ancient Egyptian idols, and the increasing public display of Saudi garb, black flags, etc. all pointed to further erosion of Egyptian identity. The funeral for the victims of Maspero was a chance to hit back with full ancient Egyptian regalia, ankhs carried high, and so on, to the point of seeming like a Hollywood production of ancient Egypt. That funeral procession was the primal scream of a threatened identity.
Finally we come back to the point of why Copts leave. All the practical reasons given are but a facade to hide an anguished sense of lost identity, of an “Egypt” slipping away, and of the heart-rending choice between being aliens in their land or natives in an alien land. The newly ascendant Islamists need to quickly decide if their narrative can be an Egyptian one. Their habits of slippery words and convenient evasions are no longer workable. Count the Copts leaving Egypt and that will be a measure of whether Egypt is being suffocated by the new identities.
Now that the Egyptian presidential race it is all over except for the shouting (and the outcome is still unknown), it is useful to reflect from a cold-eyed power-realist point of view on why Mursi is the best outcome for SCAF, meaning the outcome that allows them to preserve the most power:
1- Revolutionaries of all stripes will be either drained or focus their anger on the MB, relieving the pressure on the military.
2- Many of the secular and liberal elements will want to keep the military powerful as a check on the MB. The MB is bound to give them plenty of reasons to feel so.
3- The economic doldrums to come will be dumped squarely on the MB.
4- SCAF would remain the conduit for much of foreign contacts as countries such as the US will find it easier historically and culturally to deal with SCAF rather than the civilian government. Witness Pakistan. Will the potentates of the UAE deal with the MB or SCAF? Ignore Qatar in this, it is a stock worth shorting greatly.
5- They can run rings around Mursi personally, and in any case they will always deal with El-Shater. It is always better to have No. 2 appear in charge if you do not intend to be transparent in your dealings.
6- They can always come back to power with the West’s support. All you need is a few incidents against the Copts, a big cry abroad, and the nattering pundits in the West will be asking the military to end sectarian violence. The white horse is always in the stable while Mursi is in charge.
7- Shafiq can always pull a Nasser or a Sadat. Both were military men who kept the military brass fat and happy and out of power. He will have the support of the various capitalist forces. Mursi is unlikely to challenge the SCAF brass.
The Mursi scenario is a sophisticated version of Mubarak’s crude “me or the Brothers” strategy. Fear refined to a governing philosophy.
The best militaries promote leaders who are adaptable and quick learners. Egypt’s military is far from the best, but it seems that at least SCAF is adaptable and quick to learn. A seminal lesson for SCAF was the killing of Copts at Maspero last October. In hindsight it now seems that those events were very instructive for SCAF. Exactly what did they learn?
1- The army can kill its citizens. That was an open question since February, but Maspero settled that.
2- The state media is still effective. If they can convince the broad Egyptian public that Copts (Yes, the Cowardly Copts!) are shooting at the army, then they can convince them of anything.
3- The MB is still atavistic and not a force for national reconciliation. Their reaction to the killings indicated that they never made the jump from a narrow religious organization to a broad political force. They can be drawn out, shown to be narrow, and then marginalized or suppressed. No one will stick their neck out to defend them. Their hunger for power is stronger than any moral core they might have once had. That is a good opponent to have.
4- The revolutionaries are hollow. If they did not protest strongly, except for a few brave and decent souls, then their moral claim is vacuous and can be easily impugned.
5- The Copts are rational and fearful actors. Even when the army killed scores of them, the Pope took a moderate tone, fearing the Islamists as future killers more than the current killers. In the months between February and October the revolution ceased to be theirs, it lost their trust. The romantic Copts who kicked the Church for its support of Mubarak now became hard-edged realists. This will be useful in future campaigns.
6- The world does not care. No significant cry from the US or Europe. They have other fish to fry. SCAF has a free hand in Egypt.
Do these lessons seem applicable today, a few days away from the presidential elections?
While there is much to criticize in the ideology and behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is one remarkable aspect to their movement. They emphasize institutions over people. This is a critical component of their success and it is one that Egypt’s liberals, and in fact Egyptians in general, should consider emulating.
The Brothers do not wait for that one charismatic leader that will rescue every thing. Instead they plod ahead with the people at hand, building electoral and political machines that will survive the winters of oppression. The problem is that their institutions are tethered to an oppressive, supremacist and coercive ideology. Those who oppose that would do well to build an equivalent and equally powerful machinery to espouse more liberal and open-minded ideas. Were they to do so Egypt would be offered a clear choice, not the lesser of two evils.
Among the new forces in Egypt, and in remnants of the old cosmopolitan Egypt, there are enough green offshoots that give reason for hope. The mission is to give them enough time and shelter to mature.
Events of the past few days have highlighted the problem of violence in Egypt. The acquittal of police brass from charges that they ordered killing of protesters, the second anniversary of the brutal beating and death of the iconic Khalid Saeed and the twentieth anniversary of the gunning of Farag Fouda by Muslim extremists, as well as the sexual harassing of women in Tahrir square, are but a summary of the history of violence in Egypt in the past decades.
Aside from criminal and passionate violence common to all societies, Egypt suffers from both state-initiated violence against its citizens and religious inspired violence directed against a narrow segment of society. The first is a chronic and dull pain while the second is episodic and searing.
The current unhappiness with the presidential finalists has alot to do with the perception that neither offers a clear way to reduce either of these two forms of violence. Mr. Shafiq is a stalwart of the establishment who must know of the systemic abuses by the Egyptian state police. In the same breath he promises to reform the police he also assures that he will restore order in “24 hours”. Mr Mursi toes the MB line of renouncing violence, yet espouses views that have contributed immensely to the rise of free-lance enforcers of religious orthodoxy.
At the core of this violence is a deficit of legitimacy. The current Egyptian state was created by Muhammad Ali two centuries ago and has been largely an elite business, with reform imposed from the top down. Perhaps that was necessary for a country beaten down by centuries of neglect and abuse. But it is no longer tolerable in current Egypt. The Islamist project is a minority undertaking, in many ways similar to the far-right European projects of the early 20th century. Its attitude toward violence has veered in different directions. When an MB cadre assassinated Prime Minister Nuqrashi in 1948, Al-Banna tried vigorously and vainly to disassociate himself from it. A decade later Islamist violence against Nasser was welcomed by Qutb as he strove to provide a theoretical underpinning for it. Qutb is for the deranged faithful what Marx was for the confused communist. Since the assassination of Sadat Egypt has lived under the knowledge that the faithful Islamists can perpetrate violence against any segment of society to coerce it into Godly correctness. The state responded with equal and less calibrated excess, and in the process undermined its legitimacy.
The next president will likely be elected by a bare majority. Will that give Shafiq, if he is the winner, the impetus to gain legitimacy by fixing the police, or will it urge him toward greater repression to support his limited mandate? If Mursi is the winner he will realize that the support for the current Qutbist MB is softer than imagined. Will that nudge the MB into greater tolerance and clamping down on the violent among them, or will it force them to use free-lancers to accomplish social coercion not possible through their weak control of the levers of power?
The question leaves those who care for Egypt with more foreboding than hope.
Democracy, like Motherhood, is praised in the general and panned in the particular. The elements of a functioning democracy are relatively simple to grasp and devilishly hard to manage. They include the expectation of certain and regular elections, the assurance of speaking one’s mind and the belief that polls are honestly managed. It can be argued that Egypt has had only one of these three elements, as elections occurred regularly. However, the polls were indelicately rigged and the losers, for their trouble, sometimes received a stint in jail as a consolation prize.
The Egyptian revolution has changed that for the better. The elections are back, the polls are more modestly rigged and the losers are free to speak their minds in words either rational or rash. Yet the revolutionaries who made it all happen are very unsatisfied. They argue for boycotting the elections with a logic that will split the head of any athletic coach, that perfection can be achieved prior to practice.
To be fair to the revolutionaries, the final candidates are not inspiring. Together they barely gathered half the votes in the first round, but that is less their fault than the doing of the rules of the game. Both candidates seem to have no native tongue, and they confuse inspirational speeches with loud hectoring. One candidate, Dr. Mursi, represents the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization of bien pensants that claims native credentials, but is in fact modeled heavily on the French Action Francaise. They do have some native touches, such as substituting an angry version of Islam for dyspeptic Catholicism and eschewing elegant goatees in favor of hirsute necks. But like their French cousins, their anti-cosmopolitan views lead them into dark corners of antisemitism, anti-Western liberalism, and for that extra native touch, anti-Copts. The other candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, is rumored to be a favorite of the Military, having been once a serving general. He has made interesting promises, maybe even radical in the current Egyptian environment, such as removing some anti-private property laws affecting farmers and teaching the Bible in Arabic classes. He should not be confused with a classic liberal yet, but he is evolving from his initial posture of open shirt pugilism. His campaign is intelligently managed, with an American style first perfected by Richard Nixon.
Those who made the sacrifices in 2011 may want to remember that practice makes perfect and the best way to have democracy is to behave like a democrat. Innovative ideas such as a “Presidential Council” made up of election losers will only make democracy an extraordinary measure rather than an ordinary reality.
Many revolutionaries have convinced themselves that they can make demands with the MB in exchange for their votes, and that this would be a better alternative to voting for Shafiq or not voting at all. It is a bit like asking elephants to fly. You have seen it on the Disney film “Dumbo”, but biology and experience tell you otherwise.
There are 6 reasons why these “negotiations” are futile:
1- The MB has no incentive to give an inch. They believe that the possible outcomes are a Mursi win, a Shafiq disqualification, or a Shafiq win followed by another revolution. The last revolution was very good to them indeed, so the next one might be even better.
2- This is not a democratic organization. It has not been so in 80 years and the idea that it will change now is contradicted by all evidence. The organization firmly believes in having a divinely inspired truth and that all there is to discuss is tactics as how to achieve that.
3- They had an effective power sharing agreement with Mubarak before and yet wanted more. Why would they agree to a new power sharing agreement now?
4- They, like the military regime, have a history of violence. Whereas the regime declared opponents enemies of the state, or country, the MB is likely to declare opponents enemies of God. Historically, can you name any regime with that attitude that gave an inch to those opposing it, even on minor issues?
5- The MB is an organization and therefore respects and fears only other organizations. Until the revolutionaries have a coherent organization, the negotiations will be nothing more than the MB picking off one potential leader at a time.
6- While power is in the forefront, money is always in the background. The MB would like to replace the network of state patronage and NDP businessmen with their own network, which is even more family-centric than the Mubarak regime. So interlinked by marriage and blood they are that a meeting of the MB grandees could easily double as a family reunion. Exactly what additional value do the revolutionaries bring to this family?
Those who insist that the “will not be forced to choose between a military dictatorship and theocratic dictatorship” are expressing a fervent hope. But what follows the refusal? History is replete with the examples of military dictatorships that evolved to democracy, but theocratic dictatorships never evolve. The vigil of soldiers will slacken well before the hand of the faithful lets loose.