There can be no doubt now that Egyptian Copts have evolved into a nation. This is due to both circumstances foisted on them and their own agency. The commemorations of Maspero were a display of their adoption of an ancient Egyptian heritage as a defining feature of that nation. The Papal elections were yet another instance of their nationhood. The Copts were keen on showing transparency and organization that would place them closer to the developed West and farther apart from some of their atavistic Islamist neighbors.
At this critical moment the prayers of the faithful and the hopes of the skeptical may be conjoined toward common goals. The evolution of a nation into a state is a bloody and uncertain business, best avoided by the wise and compassionate. If the Copts extend a hand of patient understanding to their Muslim brethren, and if their Muslim brethren can recognize the advantages of the Egyptian identity, then all will be well. This is not so hard to do now. All one needs is to cast an unbiased eye on the region and see how the Arabs have turned their neighborhoods into slaughterhouses. A stubborn attachment to larger identities exclusively, and to the detriment of the Egyptian identity, is a call to chaos and a denouement of death.
Let us hope.
Albert O. Hirschman’s 1970 work “Exit, Voice and Loyalty” outlines the potential responses of people who feel under-served or marginalized. This classic work of political economics points to two available options : “Exit” or “Voice”. Disengage or try to alter the situation by voicing concerns or suggesting solutions. Loyalty is ultimately the product of an effective voice. Reality, of course, is not as neat or as easily defined as this theory, and people often alternate between these choices in response to conditions outside their control.
Since the 1940’s Egypt has steadily narrowed its horizons and bungled its potential. With the ascent to power by a narrow-minded cult, this spiral has reached its denouement. Copts are often comforted by the thought that the community withstood overwhelming odds and survived. Perhaps this time is no different. But more likely it is qualitatively different. “Exit” was never an option for Copts who wished to keep their faith before the modern age. Thus the community was not thinned by the departure of the most effective members among it. “Voice” was never an option either, at least until the establishment of the modern Egyptian state by Muhammad Ali. Today both “Exit” and “Voice” are options but with varying degrees of risk and potential for success. The social and political economy of Egyptian Copts look increasingly complicated. It is worth going through the details.
First of all an American needs to be very careful about offering advice to Egyptian Copts, as he has little skin in the game. Yet, that should not prevent an honest analysis of the situation. It is likely that Egypt will experience a decade or more of strong Islamist influence in governance. We do not yet know the shape and direction of that influence, but the variations are between reasonably mild and highly coercive. For Egyptian Copts the options are “Exit”, or basically giving up on the country and leaving, or “Voice”, participating in an effort to change and improve the current direction. The choice will be determined largely by the economy of the political situation and the politics of the economic situation. There are risks on both options, and their availability is limited by class and education. It is, in the end, a profit and loss analysis. It is useful to discuss the “P&L” of Coptic choices at this point in time.
“Exit” is an option for those with capital; either financial, educational or social. They can simply leave the country, or enter “internal exit” by becoming more insular, housing themselves in special enclaves and belonging to narrow elites. Both options have been occurring since the 1960’s. The Islamists will want to encourage the “Exit” option through various methods, including legal coercion, legal granting of sectarian laws, and economic or social marginalization. But “Exit” is not an easy option for the poorer Copts who have neither the financial means to leave nor the educational capital to receive immigration status in the most desirable countries. That could change radically however, if the situation becomes dire enough. An outcry about the status of Copts might motivate countries in the West to grant open immigration status to various economic strata, in much the same fashion as the US did for Cubans. “Exit” also carries with it a huge risk, both physical and psychological. Immigrants face uncertain futures in other homelands, and often social isolation. Even the most well-off immigrants can find themselves isolated by the vagaries of age and mobility common in Western countries. Immigrants often leave their countries with hope, a few possessions and a large baggage of guilt.
Whether “Voice” remains an option involves a subtle interplay between various societal forces. First and foremost is the level of coercion various actors will experience when making their voices heard. Different segments will make their voices heard in different ways, and with predictably different levels of response and coercion from the authorities. Coercion also takes varied forms, some violent, others subtle. The vilification campaign against Copts when Shafiq garnered nearly half the vote is an early indications of how subtle coercion will work. Even with minimal coercion, the voices within the Coptic community are split, with the split primarily along the lines of how they view the Church’s involvement in politics. Many have principled concerns, others have practical concerns, especially as they hold grudges against the Church’s hard line position on divorce. Critical to “Voice” is whether a sizable segment of Muslims will feel that it is in their interest to retain significant Coptic participation in public life. The Copts in Egypt’s social machinery have always been either a feature or a bug, depending on how you view modernity and its role in Islamic culture. Also critical to “Voice” is whether the next few years will see a capitulation of liberal forces in Egyptian society. This capitulation can take many forms. One form is simply exiting the scene. Another is co-option by Islamist, leftist or other “revolutionary” forces. Liberals, and this specifically refers to economic liberals, have entered strange coalitions. Strange bed fellows rarely make decent marriage partners. Copts are socially conservative but economic liberalism is more critical to them. This is especially true if the Islamist forces squeeze them out further from government and other official positions. The health of Coptic culture will be directly related to market freedom and ability to prosper as actors in it. But the Islamist rulers have already indicated they are willing to use the power of the state, through the tax authority, to intimidate large business owned by Copts or liberal Muslims, both lumped together as “felool”, a most un-Egyptian term. And of course “Voice” is often met by violence, in hundreds of small encounters or in large and searing events, such as Maspero.
So if “Voice” is not an option, and “Exit” is possible only for a minority. What of the rest? What of the poor Copts, or the struggling middle classes working in state enterprises or services. Whither their future? A more severe form of internal isolation or exile, or something more radical? Such is Coptic skittishness and Egyptian paranoia that honest debates are almost impossible, especially when they are most needed.
The events of October 9 2011 were a micro-pogrom. A march of Egyptians, mostly Copts, was attacked by Army soldiers either under orders or under the influence of their prejudice. What followed was not a neat volley of disciplined fire, but a chaotic orgy of random violence, mauling, killing and mayhem. The soldiers were joined by gangs of roving Muslim fanatics whipped into a frenzy by the shameful mouthpieces of the state. No proper investigation was conducted, and none is likely to be. In a pogrom, non-accountability is an integral part of the terror.
Egyptians can be faulted for a habit of denial and undue attempts at face saving. Maspero has a sad historical symmetry, occurring exactly two centuries after the dawn of Muhammad Ali’s modernization program and exactly one century after the dueling Coptic and Muslim conferences of 1911. These two conferences offered Egypt two radically different visions of a future state, a modern tolerant and westernized state, or a return to a pre-modernization past but with some of the benefits of modernization painted on. Optimists will say that Egypt has yet to make that choice, while pessimists will note that since 1911 Copts have continuously whittled down their demands for full citizenship, while receiving even less. Beginning with the Islamist terrors of the 1980’s, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood patron saint Sayyd Qutb, the Copts have retreated into the fortress of the Church, their voice as citizens drowned in a cacophony of hate speech emanating from a variety of sources. Some will look at Maspero as the sad denouement of that retreat, while others will view it as the risk of rising up and ask for their rights as citizens.
Islamist thinkers often point out that across the arc of centuries Islam has been more tolerant than Christianity, and there is a certain truth to that. But that is of little comfort to those suffering today. The modern tolerant Western societies reached their current state by a violent road that started with a schism, traveled a path piled high with bodies until realization set in that only tolerance will guarantee prosperity and minimum level of dignity to its populations. Islamic societies need not retread this path. Those ascending to power in Egypt today are largely false prophets, having convinced a significant fraction of the population that it can reconcile the virtues of modern prosperity with the vices of ancient prejudices. It is an illusion likely to lead to grief. The current president is emblematic of that; a man schooled in the Western ways of technology but with little of the habits of open discourse.
In the struggle between human emotions and illusions, sagacity and experience frequently vanquish optimism, while hope on rare occasions will conquer fear. It is hope that tells you that if Egyptians learn the lessons of Maspero they might avoid a great deal of suffering. Otherwise the future might hold further impoverishment and violence, and perhaps partition.