Bi-National Egypt

If you Google the phrase “Egyptian sectarianism” or some variant thereof, you are likely to get over a million hits. The narrative of Egyptian sectarianism is as popular as it is misleading. Egypt’s sectarian tensions are a manifestation of a deeper identity crisis. The key to understanding Egypt today, and possibly any future salvation, is in understanding its evolving bi-nationalism. The first half of the 20th century is often called the “liberal era” in Egypt, and Egypt today is shaped by the failures of that era, which was hardly “liberal”. The era generated the two currents that dominate Egypt today. The first, best known and most studied, is political Islamism; the attempt to infuse political discourse with religion.  Yet there is a second, countervailing current of infusing religion with a national identity. This is a far less discussed current, yet as critical to Egypt as political Islamism. It is worth a slight detour to understand this current, one adopted largely, but not solely, by Copts.

A few months ago I watched a parish priest of an American Coptic church give a tour of the church building to some neighborhood leaders. He started with a summary common to most Copts, especially immigrants. His words, almost verbatim, were “ We American Copts are immigrants from Egypt. We follow the rites of the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church. We are modern people who never lost touch with our ancient roots, which go thousands of years back to the earliest history of the Nile valley”. These words are notable for what they emphasize and what they lightly skip over. Taken together they are a declaration of national identity as much as a religious one.

National identities are created and are constantly revised to reflect social and historical forces. What they provide is a mental template for each member of the nation to identify with others that will never be met; present, past and future. Any phrase that starts with “We [substitute any national identity here] are …” involves dearly held generalizations. How the Copts became a nation is a complex and winding story, linked closely with Egyptian history, their attempts to come to an uneasy peace with modernity, the tumultuous history of their Muslim brethrens in Egypt, the halting attempts to modernize Islam and the rejection of modernity by an influential fraction of Egyptian Muslims. To recognize this national identity is neither to praise it nor condemn it, but to attempt to come to terms with what exists. Identity is never exclusive as the many “hyphenated” people attest. And in a global world it is often possible to have multiple identities struggling to coexist within a single individual. But invariably in critical moments, when choices must be made, one identity will claim more loyalty than others.

In the 1850s the Copts were freed from the formal strictures of “dhimmitude” and let loose to face societal prejudice, both subtle and coarse, and the waves of Protestant missionaries who sought to convert them from their ancient ways. Some of these missionaries were well-meaning; others were the soft end of the colonial spear. Regardless, the Church saw them as a threat and made various attempts to change and modernize. The most powerful of these attempts, and the most successful, was the “Sunday School” movement. As its name indicates, it borrowed the Protestant concept of Sunday School instruction to reform the flock, purge the clergy of ignorance and venality and make the average Copt as literate as any Christian in his theology. Many of the leaders were remarkable men; well-educated, resourceful and dedicated. They joined monasteries and rose as Bishops until they finally took control of the Church. But the requirement of celibacy for Church leaders meant that many others worked on the periphery of the Church, contributing in other ways. These were men and women of varying skills and inclinations; some pious, some secular, and even a few non-believers. Yet they created the discipline of “Coptology” in the 20th Century along with many in the West. They researched languages, wrote histories, transcribed ancient hymns into modern musical notation, built museums and established institutes of learning. Consciously or otherwise they came to resemble the German intellectuals of the early 19th century who created German nationalism through literature, the arts and sciences. More than a few were educated abroad and had other “lives” before settling into their roles as Coptic intellectuals. They were driven by a combination of factors: the persistent discrimination against Copts by state and society, the rise of militant Islamism that saw no place for Copts in the body politic or even the nation, the rise and fall of Arabism which the Copts never bought into, and the failure of the Egyptian “liberal” nationalist movement of men such as Lutfi El Sayed, which, in spite of its emphasis on secularism, quickly adopted anti-Coptic views for electoral gains.

While the initial focus of the cultural renaissance was on a religious group, it quickly acquired a secular tinge. Some of that was simply the result of the long-standing tension between the clergy and laity within the Coptic community. But there were also other motivations. The secular intellectual Salama Moussa spoke in his autobiography of the shame he felt when he realized that he knows less about ancient Egyptian history than many Europeans. Similarly, many of these thinkers did not want the study of the Copts to be an entirely Western occupation. Others joined in the Western passion for studying and classifying cultures. Where Edward Said saw ill-intent in such efforts, calling them “Orientalism”, these intellectuals saw an opportunity and a way to hedge their cultural bets. This explains why the Copts’ attitude toward the West lacks the militancy of “Arabism” or “Islamism”, even when the British administrators of Egypt detested them or the West seemed indifferent to their concerns. Almost always these efforts made a common link with ancient Egyptian culture, entwining the Christian and Pagan strains in a single identity. Few Coptic demonstrations today fail to conjoin the Cross and the ancient Egyptian “Ankh”.

Any doubt that Copts are a “nation” today can be removed by a close observation of both the Church and the laity. The Coptic Church has a well-defined theology, which it guards jealously against syncretism. It is conservative, and as disapproving of agnosticism and atheism as any Church. Yet it does not make a point to force out those with less than firm faith, and lacks the desire, or perhaps the means, to enforce orthodoxy via coercive methods. Those who wear their faith lightly, or have none, can generally expect the Church to marry them, baptize their children in due course, and observe funeral services at the end of their lives, as long as decorum is observed. But beyond that, those lay people who have drifted from strict belief and observation of theology and practice still identify as Copts. Immigration, while trimming their numbers in Egypt, strengthened their national identity in the melting pots of North America and Australia.

Egypt has endured and enjoyed four elections in the last two years. A small cottage industry arose to interpret these results, almost always along the lines of “Islamists” vs. “non-Islamists” polarization. But there is simpler and more likely explanation. There are three basic blocks of Egyptian voters. The first block consists of those voters who adhere closely to the Egyptian identity, perhaps a quarter or a third of the voters, including all Copts. This block sees Egypt’s problems in a national sense and views religious harmony as both desirable and necessary. The second block is that of committed Islamists, also a quarter to a third of the vote. They view Egypt’s destiny in fulfilling the discourse of political Islam across national lines. They range from the mildly Islamists on the fringe of such movements as the Brotherhood to extreme Jihadists willing to join any fight anywhere where Islam is perceived to be under threat and parade in medieval garb in a willful act of self deracination.  The third block, somewhere between a third and half of the voters are the “swing Egyptians”. The elections for the Parliament had the swing voters going overwhelmingly to the Islamists block because they offered a coherent-sounding program of pious prosperity. In the presidential final round the swing voters split between the Islamists and Egyptian blocks. Ahmed Shafiq was perhaps the least understood phenomena of post-revolution Egypt. Many pundits bayed for a “liberal” Egyptian alternative, one which is able to organize and put forth a popular program, and is neither Islamists nor “Mubarak”. Yet Egypt is unlikely to produce a liberal in the Western mold. Shafiq was as authentic a liberal as Egypt could produce at the moment and still manage to win elections. He has a track record of favoring open markets and open religious atmosphere. He was also a capable political organizer, delegating to a young campaign staff, and displayed the aging open-shirt masculinity that many in Egypt thought would bring order back to the unruly streets. When pitted against Morsi, the generic Brotherhood man, the battle was nearly a draw. Shafiq maybe history, but his campaign and tactics could be the future in Egypt.

Egypt lacks the economic prosperity and political openness to become a bi-national state such as Canada or Belgium. Dictatorial rule, by military or other entities such as the Brotherhood, will only aggravate and inflame the national identity crisis. The only way out is to fight a long and determined battle for the loyalty of the swing voters. Future elections may be close, but the trend lines could be dramatically radical. A few close wins by the Egyptians versus a few close wins by the Islamists will yield vastly different historical outcomes.

Ever since Napoleon, world powers saw Egypt as critical to their interests. The current world power, the United States, is no different. Its policy leaves a lot to be desired, however. The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli once quipped that “Chemistry is too hard for chemists”. Similarly, the US Egypt policy is too subtle for American diplomats. The policy has two faulty assumptions. First that buddying up to Islamists will moderate their behavior and make them friendly to the West. That assumption fails the empirical test as well as underestimating the degree to which Islamists are faithful to their Manichean ideology. The second faulty assumption is the belief that openly favoring any faction will tarnish it. This is an odd form of self-loathing, charming in waifs with guitars, but unseemly for a world power with unrivaled economic, cultural and military dominance. It is really very simple. The security of the world and the West is best served with the defeat of the trans-national Islamists in Egypt. Ditching these two assumptions will clarify and strengthen policy. Compared to other areas of concern, such as Syria or Iran, Egypt is not very complicated, at least if you recognize the existence of two Egypts rather than a single one.

– Maged Atiya


2 Comments on “Bi-National Egypt”

  1. Very interesting take on identity politics in Egypt, Dr. Atiya. Personally, I am of the view that the third block of voters you identify– the “swing Egyptians”–are well in the majority. For the millions upon millions of Egyptians living below the poverty line, bread-and-butter issues (unemployment, poverty, food, housing, etc.) trump political ideology, be it Egyptian nationalism or political Islam. If they gravitated towards the Islamists during the presidential elections, it is precisely a result of the failures of the Mubarak regime and their willingness to give the FJP/MB a chance at remedying Egypt’s perennial economic/political problems. As you stated, they bought into the Islamists’ “coherent-sounding program of pious prosperity,” rather than their religious credentials or long-term aspirations for an Islamic state. And as you stated, the only way out is “to fight a long and determined battle for the loyalty of the swing voters.”

    Today, all Egyptians are dealing with the consequences of their political choices. The FJP/MB has failed to deliver on most of its promises, all-the-while employing the same (if not more egregious) autocratic tactics of the ancien régime. Day by day, the “swing Egyptian” is coming to the conclusion that he/she may have made a fatal–and possibly irreversible–mistake by voting in the Islamists. Sadly, my concern is that the “liberal” opposition is not taking full advantage of the Islamists’ decreasing popularity with swing voters–the former remains remarkably disunited and disorganized. Moreover, the opposition *still* has not learned that it will have to launch a sophisticated grassroots campaign in order to enlist the support of the disenchanted millions in Egypt’s rural provinces.

    I believe there are far more authentic liberals in Egypt than Shafiq (even if they do not necessarily conform to the Western mold, as you asserted). Shafiq may have been a capable political organizer and endorsed an open market economy, but I have no doubt he would have employed the same ruthless, anti-democratic, and anti-liberal measures of his predecessor. Regrettably, however, Egypt’s liberals (specifically those who have come to prominence in the wake of the 2011 uprising) have developed reputations for being remarkably uncharismatic and uninspiring. The absence of a charismatic leader(s) remains one of the opposition’s greatest weaknesses. It is arguably one of the Islamists’ greatest weaknesses as well.

    The long-held view in that Islamists would moderate their behavior/rhetoric/play by the rules once in office is being contested everyday news reports detail FJP/MB human rights abuses and autocratic actions. Policymakers and academics may soon, as you recommend, consider ditching this assumption, hopefully at least in Egypt’s case.

  2. […] Bi-National Egypt → […]


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