Why Do Copts Leave?

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.


4 Comments on “Why Do Copts Leave?”

  1. Good text and good list of arguments but yet still some arguments can be made:

    On sectarian strife and migration:

    This text is obvious written by a Copt living in the West. One should not just look at the angle of international emigration. Sectarian strife does result in migration. Let me provide an example I have experienced from closeby. In the mid-nineties I have been in contact with a Coptic family from a village close to Abu Qurqas that had been asked to pay itawa, Arabic for protection money. The threat was that if they would not pay they would pay with their life(s). In order to escape from this ordeal they left for Cairo. They were running a small business in or near Abu Quras, abandoned their business and started a new one in Cairo; a small grocery store in Ezbet el-Nahl, Cairo. This was before I started in 1997 with the Religious News Service from the Arab-World that later turned into Arab-West Report. I then reported this to the Middle East Times who reported about this. Days ago I received an article of Doug May about tensions and sectarian strife in Abu Qurqas. He reported about friends of his who had moved from one area in Abu Qurqas to another area in Abu Qurqas which is predominantly Christian. This is migration related to sectarian strife but since people concerned do not qualify for the strict immigration criteria of immigration countries as the US and Canada this sectarian strife related migration probably has hardly any influence on numbers of Copts emigrating to western countries. Yet, this is a form of migration that should not be neglected. I would advocate the study the relation between sectarian strife and internal migration in Egypt.

    On political repression:
    the discussion on Copts withdrawing from political life in Egypt is often related to exaggerated claims about the number of Christians in Egypt. Copts would do well to try to provide more accurate figures and then base their arguments on (more) accurate figures. That also might show a withdrawal from political life but it is so much better to argue with facts in hand then let ideology determine what “facts” we are supposed to believe.

    On Increasing Islamization of public life:

    What studies of immigrants exist that cite this as a secondary cause? True but one should therefore distinguish between different periods. Coptic emigration started in the days of Nasser and are thus more likely to be related to his policies of nationalization of large businesses. Does a study exist as to why Copts migrated in the days of Nasser? In Sadat’s days Islamization of public life started to become important and thus I would accept such arguments from Coptic migrants in the period following Nasser.

    I am missing another major element in Salama Moussa’s otherwise good list of reasons: better economic opportunities. Coptic emigrants are mostly better educated and with better education one has better opportunities in Western countries. It is sad Egypt loses the better educated but I cannot blame young better educated Egyptians to see opportunities in countries that they feel are also culturally closer to them.

  2. […] recent post in this blog about why Copts leave Egypt (Why Do Copts Leave?  )  elicited many excellent comments. Many were along the line “the author is an American […]

  3. […] for the fear that it might no longer exist in its homeland. One blogger writing this year suggests that, if anything, the influences encouraging Coptic emigration are […]

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