Copts : Between Exit and Voice

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.

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