Why Do Copts Leave?Posted: June 30, 2012
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.